Saturday, October 10, 2020

Second Forensics Mystery from Sara E. Johnson, THE BONES REMEMBER (New Zealand)


Ready for some armchair travel with a hint of JAWS? Sara E. Johnson provides the ride in her second New Zealand-set Alexa Glock Forensics Mystery, THE BONES REMEMBER. Once you discover, with this dauntless forensic investigator, the wilds of Stewart Island, you'll want more pages. And the shark attacks and treachery along the way will keep the pages turning.

Never heard of Stewart Island? It's not fictional -- it's the third largest land mass making up New Zealand, and it's challenging to get to and very, very cold even in summer. On the wild ferry ride, Glock's already coming to grips with the local controversy over "cage diving," a way to see sharks close up. It's not just the presence of tourists -- the 300-plus full-time locals are dependent on their money, anyway -- but the sharks get teased onto coming to the cages, through baiting that's just enough to leave them hungry, and some of the locals feel the sharks then become more dangerous for local divers and anglers.

Alexa is on assignment, her first time being sent a substantial distance by the Forensic Service Center in Auckland where she's managed to find work. An expert in the forensics of teeth, she'll have a chance to extend her experience to shark bites and related murders, starting with a body some distance into the extensive Department of Conservation lands. Is the death hunting related? Animal caused? The body's on a pile of kelp, and at first glance looks like a mutilated seal. Alexa asks the question pertinent to her examination:

"How much time do we have with the tide?"

 "Fifteen, twenty minutes."

The examination would need to be quick. Cause and time of death were her main goals. Massive tissue and blood loss, from the looks of it, for cause, and time of death? She looked for a watch on the victim's wrist. There was only one wrist left, and no watch—rarely was TOD that simple. Body temperature may have been influenced by water temperature. She gently lifted the man's right arm, noting rigor mortis was presnt. The man had been dead anywhere from six to forty-eight hours. It was a start, but she wondered how much of that time he'd been immerse or beached. Cold water would delay rigor mortis, so she guessed he had been beached for at least six hours. Probably washed up during the night.

She backed up and looked around, at the beach, at the bystanders watching, at the expanse of Pacific hiding the monster responsible for this carnage. She photographed the body from different angles. "Sketch the scene, please," she told Constable Kopae, who had joined them. A sketch would provide depth of field that photos couldn't.

 Wallace interrupted. "Can you tell if the bloke was Maori?"


That's an important question, but the answer will have to wait—pretty rough on the families waiting in the village for word of who this is. Meanwhile, a shark expert with his own show has arrived on the island, with his own agenda. And a different way of seeing things.

Duffy came close. "Mother of God." Against the white sheet, the plundered eye socket gaped like violent art. "The shark clamped the head in his jaws," Duffy said his voice so close Alexa could feel warm puffs. "It's called the killing bite. Then comes the lateral head-shake, which ruptures the neck. It's broken, yeah?'

She reached her hands under the paper cover and gently manipulated the spinal cord. Rag doll snapped, the image of a shark with a man's head clamped in its jaws, body whipping back and forth, flashed in her mind. The floor undulated. She grabbed the exam bed to keep from crumpling.

Johnson's abundant details of forensics, crime investigation, and New Zealand itself make her crime writing authoritative and intriguing. She leavens this with quick twists of plot and suspects, and a minor thread of romance, as Alexa ponders whether she wants a romantic connection with Detective Inspector Bruce Horne (see the first book in this series, Molten Mud Murder). When Horne takes over her island investigation, it's just in time to keep her from seriously overreaching her position. And that too is a pleasure -- that the many mistakes of amateur sleuths are replaced in Johnson's crime novels by expertise, eagerness, and racing forward.

Johnson steps carefully around potential issues of cultural appropriation; it would take the expert eye, of course, of a Maori reader to say whether she has fully avoided it, but casual readers will probably be comfortable with the distance she has selected for this New Zealand exploration.

The series is published by Poisoned Pen Press, a Sourcebooks imprint; add it to the TBR stack for enjoyable reading with a less common setting and a mostly sensible sleuth.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

"Rachel Savernake Golden Age Mystery" MORTMAIN HALL, Martin Edwards


The "Golden Age" mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s elevate a sense of style, although which style depended on which continent the authors called home. A striking number of women's names are among the top writers of that period, a good reminder that feminism was neither new nor fragile at that point. Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham were among the British authors (along with Phillip MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Crofts, and more). The American authors included John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and Erle Stanley Gardner, and some like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain introduced what's still known as hard-boiled style.

So by placing his Rachel Savernake series of mysteries as "Golden Age," Martin Edwards gives himself a lot to live up to! Book 1 of the series, Gallows Court, was a bold start.

In MORTMAIN HALL, "nice guy" British news reporter Jacob Flint is still struggling to develop front-page stories for his London paper. What seems like an accidental connection with a spectator from the courtroom becomes ominous, though, when he learns that Mrs. Dobell has a serious chip on her shoulder about Judge Savernake, father of the woman Jacob most admires (and, truth be told, fears). Mrs. Dobell continues:

"I believe you are acquainted with the late judge's daughter." The woman's sharp chin lifted. "Rachel Savernake."

He stared. How did Mrs Dobell know of his connection with Rachel?

He cleared his throat. "That's right."

She relaxed into a mischievous smile. "Next time you speak to Miss Savernake, please tell her to get in touch with me at the Circe Club. I should like to talk to her about murder."

With Rachel's somewhat cryptic hints to propel his research, Jacob quickly discovers that the odd and rather threatening Mrs Dobell has re-created herself from a victim into an expert, an author on murder and murderers. "Her single-mindedness reminded him of Rachel. But what had inspired such devotion to the study of crime and the machinery of law and justice?"

Edwards weaves a clever mystery that reaches its peak in a country-house scene, classic for the Golden Age genre. His twists and red herrings are neatly placed. He provides a parallel story in the behind-the-scenes machinations of Rachel and her "servants," who are always at least a mile ahead of the often clueless (but kind) Jacob. Rachel Savernake's back-story in crucial to understanding her maneuvers, and is not completely revealed here, so readers will enjoy MORTMAIN HALL more if they've read Gallows Court; it would be wise to purchase the two books at once if you're new to this series.

It seems likely that Edwards will continue to rise as an author, and if his path includes more of the edgy nastiness of Rachel Savernake, the books will be worth savoring as an arc of development of both characters and author. [The Poisoned Pen Press imprint of Sourcebooks is the publisher.]

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

 

Hauntingly Delicious Irish Crime Fiction: THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES, Stuart Neville


Devouring and pondering the character-rich crime novels from Stuart Neville has been a delight since his debut in 2009 with The Ghosts of Belfast. Not only does he give us criminals and investigators torn by their loyalties and losses, but he evokes the abiding presence of The Troubles — Ireland's violent internal war — as a force that nurtures long-term resentment, revenge, and personal damage. When his characters brush up against an opposite force such as redemption, it's often with a raised shoulder or calloused fingers.

After interrupting this string of powerful novels with a couple of thrillers in a different direction (under the nom-de-plume Haylen Beck), Neville returns this season to his earlier characters and scenes in THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES. Of course, of course, this author must have written short fiction along the way, but it's been less visible. Now the stories are gathered for easy access, along with a hitherto-unpublished novella, The Traveller. In his introduction, Neville notes that it is 

a response to the messages I've received over the years asking what happened to Jack Lennon and his daughter, Ellen, after the events of The Final Silence. Although I've always known exactly where Jack wound up—the coastal village of Cushenden, working as a security guard—I'd put off writing about it for several years This collection  offered the opportunity to finally put that right, as well as tie up several loose ends, including the eponymous villain coming back to take his revenge.

Each of the dozen shorter tales offers insight into other characters, suspense and delight in the reading, and a sideways squint into the author's diverse interests. "The Last Dance," following up on the life of Gerry Fegan from The Ghosts of Belfast, is a great gift to Neville's regular readers.

If you want to give friends an unexpected and highly memorable trick-or-treat, get a couple of extra copies of this collection. Make sure to ink your name into your own copy, so it won't walk away lightly. It will be, indeed, haunted.

[Released this week from Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, with a fascinating foreword by the remarkable John Connolly.]

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Compelling Debut Mystery from Brian Selfon, THE NIGHTWORKERS, Set in Brooklyn


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Like the strongest authors in this genre, Selfon bares the effects of death on each of us. His dialogue is compelling, his plot actions and his images of Brooklyn’s underworld unforgettable.”

Crime fiction from the point of view of the criminal comes in varieties dark and deadly, or light and humorous. Stuart Neville uses Ireland’s “Troubles” for the dark version; Donald Westlake gave us lots of the “caper” kind.

Brian Selfon, in his debut The Nightworkers, steps into the lives of a family of Brooklyn money launderers and marks out new and risky terrain in varieties of love, affection, and loyalty. Consider this a working-class version of one little pocket of The Godfather.  Shecky Keenan, a bag man for the local prostitution and sex trafficking rings, has tenderly crafted a family that depends on him, and for whom he will do almost anything – get up early to make their special breakfast treats, for instance – while at the same time, almost innocently, involving them in his business affairs. Here’s his point of view:

“Family. Shecky Keenan once thought he’d never have one. But on the day before Emil’s murder, he walks into his home, wiping sweat from his face, and here they are, seated in his dining room. The cousins are both orphans, and though everyone in this room is mixed race, Henry and Shecky look white, and Kerasha, black. For Shecky this proved a point. The three of them are the family he glued together, and Shecky wouldn’t want any other.”

But good intentions aren’t enough to protect them, considering the vicious crime network depending on their services. And that part about Emil’s murder – that’s the death of a runner that Henry recruited, a starving artist who’ll do Henry’s errands in order to pay rent but who is an innocent with few self-preservation skills other than the ones Henry specifically teaches him.

At least, that’s what Henry believes, and it’s why he blames himself for Emil’s murder and digs into how and why it happened. In some ways it’s because Henry fell for Emil, a passionate love for the life that the artist represented. And then, because life is that way, Henry immediately brought Emil into the “night work” of the book’s title.

“Emil is tall and long-limbed, like Henry, but without the muscle, and his rounding stomach suggests a habit of late-night pizzas. He’s handsome, with his bold nose and his bedroom smile, but what catches Henry’s attention now are the paint stains. The yellow on the hands, the purple on his pants—this is a worker. A tickle in Henry tells him this is something he can use.” 

In a series of time jumps, back and forward, and insight from others, including Zera, a detective with very personal reasons for trying to pry open the trafficking rings through watching the money, Selfon deals from a mixed and powerful deck of intimacy and loyalty. The Nightworkers wipes off the stage makeup of these crime figures and reveals their humanity, their longings for care—giving it and receiving it.

What Henry can’t know is that every step he takes toward discovering how Emil died, and why, is a step that may jeopardize his own family. Only Shecky knows the truths. And Kerasha, who sees herself as a spider, understands the web and how Henry’s efforts are causing all the strands to tremble.

Like the strongest authors in this genre, Selfon bares the effects of death on each of us. His dialogue is compelling, his plot actions and his images of Brooklyn’s underworld unforgettable. Ditch the title, which is a poor fit for the broad expanse of this stirring crime novel. And clear the calendar. A few chapters in, there’s no chance of putting this book down until the highly satisfying yet unexpected finale.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Method Acting? Or Method Murder?? THE SICILIAN METHOD from Andrea Camilleri


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]


For Salvo Montalbano, the whole episode is as dramatic as a film. But it will get much more unreal when he tracks down a victim at last, the outrageous director Carmelo Catalanotti.

Although Andrea Camilleri died in 2019 at age 93, his biting yet entertaining police procedurals are still making their way, via translation, to America. The Sicilian Method is a clever title, suggesting at first a crime methodology, but better understood as a phrase from acting. Scattered across bedrooms and stages of the imagined town of Vigàta, Sicily, the crimes that Inspector Montalbano investigates here are also very clever, clearly the product of a twisted mind involved with stagecraft and performance.

 

Count on Camilleri for frequent bursts of satire, like twists of lemon juice, as the story spins forward: Mimi Augello, also a police detective, wakes Inspector Salvo Montalbano in the middle of the night, panicking and desperate. Montalbano’s annoyed enough to make things tough on his colleague, until he sees Mimi’s face and realizes something serious must have happened. Mimi begins to dump the tale of woe:

 

“ ‘I wanted to tell you …’ he began, but stopped, only then noticing that the inspector was naked.

 

And Montalbano, too, realized only then, and so he dashed into his bedroom and grabbed a pair of jeans.

 

As he was putting them on, he wondered whether it might be best to put on an undershirt as well, but decided that Mimi wasn’t worth it.”

 

It turns out that Mimi, escaping down some balconies from a lover’s tryst interrupted by a returning husband, has stumbled across a murder—and, unthinkingly, left evidence of his own visit there. For Salvo Montalbano, the whole episode is as dramatic as a film. But it will get much more unreal when he tracks down a victim at last, the outrageous director Carmelo Catalanotti.

 

 Catalanotti’s particularly outrageous aspect is what he pushes his performers through: He pries into their psychological wounds, then forces them back into situations that injure and humiliate them in the same way. His excuse: He’s the director, and he’s making powerful actors out of this. But of course, what he’s really making is maddened and bitter enemies, and before long, Inspector Montalbano has a wide set of possible suspects, some ridiculous means and opportunities, and a personal conflict of interest in a budding romance with the new head of forensics.

 

Anyone who’s subjected themselves to drama school at any level—or even to ordinary high school—will grasp the real level of malice and damage produced by the far-too-clever director. So it’s a relief to tag along with the mundane and sometimes stumbling efforts of police procedure, as Montalbano marvels at his discoveries and tries to find the right combination of person and scene to explain both the original murder and a second one.

 

Stephen Sartarelli’s translation allows Camilleri’s deft humor to come through vividly; his attempts to portray lower classes by giving them Cockney-style slang are less successful but tolerable for the sake of enjoying this lively crime novel.

 

There’s no need to read the other 25 Inspector Montalbano books before The Sicilian Method, but this enjoyable romp may send readers scurrying for them afterward, giving birth to a new generation of collectors of Camilleri’s dark humor and neatly twisted plots, along with the persistence of an inspector who can’t ever let himself be defeated by crime.

 PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here. 

Monday, October 05, 2020

How Peter Lovesey Launched His Crime Career: 50th Anniversary of WOBBLE TO DEATH


Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, releases on October 6 a remarkable new volume for Peter Lovesey's British police procedural series: a 50th anniversary collector's edition of WOBBLE TO DEATH, Lovesey's first crime novel, first published, obviously, in 1970.

The book introduces, eventually, the investigators Sergeant Cribb ("tall, spare in frame, too spry in his movements ever to put on much weight") and Constable Thackeray ("his assistant, a burly, middle-aged man with a fine grey beard"). But they appear almost halfway through the book. Instead of opening as a police procedural, the novel beings with the "Wobble" itself, a competitive British walking race drawing heavy betting in 1879, and held indoors in the Agricultural Hall. The levels of class antagonism as well as competitiveness and real need for the "purse" of prize money are deftly sketched out, and if the environment stinks of the farm animals who'd been there earlier in the month, it also presses a reek of nastiness and aggression among the racers.

Death, of course, is what brings in the constables. And there must be a solution to the case before the race ends at the end of the week, when all the participants—the obvious suspects—will depart.

This entertaining and snugly twisted crime investigation came as almost an accident in the author's life. His explanation, spilled at the end of the new edition, makes lively reading, too -- the book began as an entry for a "best first crime novel" competition held by Macmillan in London.

The thousand pounds [prize] amounted to more than my annual salary. My wife, Jax, pointed out that I'd already written one book already—a history of distance running—so why not another? And why not use my research into the sport to create a setting that would be wholly original? I couldn't at first see how running and crime could mix. Then I recalled the brutal "go-as-you-please" contests that had drawn huge crowed to the Agricultural Hall, Islington, in the late nineteenth century. The hardy competitors struggled around a small track for six days and the best of the survivors managed over 600 miles. Ideas took root and I decided to enter.

The deadline was only five months away.

There are many more delights in the author's note, including the legendary figures who reviewed his first book and his installation in the Detection Club, presided over by Agatha Christie. 

So this is a must-read for lovers of British crime, and of well-plotted, entertaining mysteries in general. After reading a very good story, you get dessert in the form of a highly intriguing first-person narrative. Well done, Soho Crime and Mr. Lovesey!

The release date is perfect also for holiday shopping -- get two copies, because you won't want to give yours away.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Cryptocurrency, Face Blindness, and Family: Siri Mitchell's Crime Novel EVERYWHERE TO HIDE


She's doing what she has to do to survive: Whitney Garrison's made it through law school, as well as her mother's death and the stress of student loans piling up, and her two jobs—one in a coffee shop, the other as a tutor to prep people for high-stakes testing—are paying her way near the DC area while she waits for her own high-stakes test into a legal career and a job that can cover her debts.

Meanwhile, her abusive ex-boyfriend living in DC continues to terrorize her, if only as traumatic memories, she's lying to her dad about how well she's holding together, and the final straw lands: She witnesses a murder outside the coffee shop where she works.

Now Whitney's a target for the murderer, who needs to kill any witnesses. But what the shooter doesn't know, and what the detective on the case has a hard time understanding, is that Whitney's not able to see faces at all. She suffers from a condition called "face blindness" and even in the coffee shop, she can only guess at which of her co-workers is standing next to her, or whether a customer is a repeat one or a newcomer.

And in this condition, the killer could walk up to her and order a soy latte, and she'd have no idea that a threat to her life had arrived.

EVERYWHERE TO HIDE spins this terrifying situation into a compelling thriller, as the detective on the case begins to bond with Whitney, while the force of threat around her escalates. Even Detective Baroni has doubts about her safety, as it appears that banking secrets among her friends may have erupted in the murder.

My scalp began to tingle. It all felt too much like my last weeks in DC. I didn't want to have to look behind every corner again, didn't want to have to wonder if someone was out there somewhere, waiting for me. I thought I'd left all of that behind. It felt like a vise was tightening around my lungs as I pointed out Mrs. Harper's house.

"Am I in danger?"

"I wouldn't have thought it, but your friend's message is making me wonder. If I knew what it was he wanted to talk to you about, then I might know for certain. But I would say that until we figure this out, you're safer if you stay in crowds. With groups of people. .... I'm just trying to let you know how serious this is. Rather, how serious it might be."


Turns out it's way more serious than even the detective could have guessed, and the multiplying threats and attacks on her soon tumble Whitney into homelessness, threaten her jobs, and put her life on the line.

Author Siri Mitchell provides an end note about the cryptocurrency issue that turns out to be the crime's focus, and about face blindness, formally known as prosopagnosia. Most importantly, she offers a compelling picture of how vulnerable each of us is, and how we find and nurture our support systems—while at the same time presenting a page-turner of steadily rising tension. 

Looking for a fast, intriguing crime novel? This is a good choice. It's Mitchell's second work of contemporary suspense, but she's had plenty of seasoning in earlier novels that pressed the romance side and is clearly an experienced storyteller, ready to spin the plot and the stakes toward a memorable conclusion. 

[The publisher is Thomas Nelson, and the release date is October 6.]

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here