Tuesday, February 16, 2021

British Crime Fiction from Belinda Bauer, EXIT


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Pick up Exit if you’d like to sample a very new way of building a crime novel, with an unusual pace. It has something of Jasper Fforde in the compiled coincidences.”

The crimes embedded in Exit begin with an elderly man, missing his deceased wife and son and making do with a relatively unpleasant dog, in an English setting where nothing much looks like improving. However, Felix Pink has at least found a volunteer task in his retirement that gives some meaning and emotion to his days: As an “Exiteer,” he assists terminally ill people who’ve become ready to commit suicide, in a neat and anonymous fashion that allows the relatives of the deceased to assume that a natural death has taken place.

When Felix’s usual partner in this kindly and quiet labor pulls out of the group and a young woman arrives instead, he’s willing to show her how things should go. Except that nothing goes as expected in the death they’ve been called to facilitate, and the wrong person seems to have died. Although Felix, in a panic, leaves the scene, his quietly conventional morality insists that he should turn himself in, make a confession of his role, and see it all tidied up. However, this too turns out to be an unreliable expectation:

“Until now Felix had been quite sure of one thing—that when he was arrested the police would believe his version of events, because the evidence would support it. That he’d only have to tell them the trust to make them understand how the tragedy had unfolded.

But what if his truth was wrong?

What if some bit of evidence he’d missed or forgotten supported another truth entirely?

Then, killing the wrong man and fleeing the scene of the crime might not sound understandable at all.

It might just sound like murder.”

Both the British notes and the baffled protagonist develop something of the feel of Mole in Wind and the Willows: Felix has a very hard time developing insight, caution, and imagination, as the pieces of a crime frame assemble around him. Belinda Bauer forces a methodical pace of events matched to Felix’s expectations of his hitherto ordinary life, while the buildup of complications among a handful of characters (including the police investigators) pushed the pieces closer and closer to revelation.

“The young woman [constable] was crouched down in front of Felix now, looking anxiously into his face. She reached up and gently touched the lump on his head. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘What happened here?’

‘You should see the other guy,’ Felix whispered, and then he started to cry.”

Pick up Exit if you’d like to sample a very new way of building a crime novel, with an unusual pace. It has something of Jasper Fforde in the compiled coincidences, and more of the relentless yet methodical pace of, say, Mario Giordano or Oliver Potzsch. There’s humor here, but it is very, very dry, alternating with tender—with the kind of protagonist who may eventually have to “blow his nose with happiness.”

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

A FATAL LIE, New Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery from Charles Todd


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Those who value similar portrayals of place as character—as in Louise Penny’s Three Pines, for instance—will treasure A Fatal Lie and its Welsh backdrop.”

Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge can never be quite sure whether his own employment will endure through the investigation of his next case; Chief Superintendent Markham can’t stand him, and only Rutledge’s quick success on behalf of powerful political connections has ever been enough to guarantee his job from one day to the next.

In A Fatal Lie, Markham takes advantage of a help request from a northern Welsh county to send Rutledge out into a raw, bleak location—which, come to think of it, isn’t much worse than sitting in the office exposed to his superior’s malicious dislike of him. Moreover, Rutledge is by nature determined to find criminals and see justice done. In his private life, he is still struggling to make amends for events in his Great War service, which have resulted in his mind being haunted by the voice of Corporal Hamish MacLeod.

“Hamish was saying, ‘Ye ken, the Yard doubts ye. Else, they’d not send ye to Wales for a drowning.’

Rutledge didn’t answer.

‘Aye, ye can try to ignore the signs. But ye’ve seen them for yersel’.’

Hamish was trying to goad him into a quarrel, but it was only a reflection of his own troubled mind.

Setting his teeth, he concentrated on the road ahead.”

Though the drowned man has no easy identification, and the community around the drowning refuses to assist Rutledge’s investigation, he’s quick to realize that the body is that of a member of the Bantams, a wartime service unit of very short men, like the Welsh with their poverty. And it turns out easy enough to be sure the victim is Sam Milford.

But then it’s as if Rutledge has tumbled down a rabbit hole of people’s mixed motivations: a solicitor who deliberately steers him wrong, a new widow misleading him, dangerous individuals willing to extend their self-protection to threatening Rutledge himself.

The new widow, Mrs. Milford, may be the most difficult to understand.

“She closed her eyes. ‘I can’t go on,’ she said in a strained voice. ‘I can’t endure any more. … I’ve lost everything now,’ she said finally. ‘There’s nothing left, I can’t go on. It’s my fault. And I can’t bear it.’

He wondered if she’d even heard his questions.”

Some of the plot here turns on what different people mean by “lost,” as well as on what Rutledge can find, as he dodges the malice aimed toward him from London. Even more of it swirls through the disturbing waters of twisted love and dark motives that in some ways, Rutledge is too kind a person to grasp.

And when he does begin to understand the complicated motives in place, he’s already in danger himself – being hunted by the killer.

Ardent readers of this Charles Todd series (one of a pair by the mother-and-son author team) may regret that Hamish’s abrupt and caustic voice, so quick to warn Rutledge of danger, is not especially present in A Fatal Lie. Nor are the other aspects of this investigator’s own grief-stricken life: the betrayals in love, the desperate need for honest friendship, the sense of being forever lost in a peacetime that doesn’t grasp and won’t admit what he’s endured and how the war has broken him.

Yet for that very reason, A Fatal Lie provides an excellent book with which to walk into Rutledge’s pursuit of crime and determination to make things right. It also gives a haunting introduction to the perils and fierce protectiveness of Welsh culture, a setting in which long-term vindictiveness can flourish and persist, if Rutledge fails to grasp the forces in play and the motives that may stem as much from love as from malice.

Those who value similar portrayals of place as character—as in Louise Penny’s Three Pines, for instance—will treasure A Fatal Lie and its Welsh backdrop. As a police procedural, also, the book’s persistent untangling of motive, means, and opportunity provides an instant classic for this mystery genre, along with an intriguing exploration of the heart’s effects on the mind. 

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

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Freshly Spying Out the Cold War, in Tense New Espionage from Paul Vidich, THE MERCENARY

 


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Vidich carries the wintry mood of Soviet menace and danger powerfully, and his plot twists are tight and all too believable. “

The third espionage novel from Paul Vidich, The Mercenary, slides back to six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Moscow provided a frightening standoff of Soviets and Americans, and the notion of an American president being a “friend” of a Soviet leader couldn’t even be considered as a political move. With George Mueller, a CIA agent rolling out of the embassy and into a late-in-life mission to meet a new Russian spy, the moment is all about rational fear and determination.

But Mueller’s nighttime adventure hits a swift end in police hands, betrayed somehow, and when the Soviet source comes back into contact with the “Agency,” that person has one unconditional demand: that the new American case officer drawn in to connect with him in the future be Aleksander Garin.

Garin is the “mercenary” of the book’s title. Burned by a betrayed operation of his own on Soviet ground, when he’d lost the life of the general he was trying to assist out to freedom, he’s retreated to a New York City life of increasing despair and loss, taking short assignments that he can’t explain to his wife, with little continuity or satisfaction. The call to the new assignment arrives when he has nothing else to hold him. So he lands back in a nation he’d never expected to see again.

“Garin didn’t talk on the drive in. … There was something illusory about time and space that in the moment made him feel as if he’d never left the Soviet Union. The low visibility darkened his mood and reminded him of the morning he’d been forced to flee. It haunted him that he hadn’t seen, or chose to ignore, the obvious dangers. … Nothing has changed, he thought. But things were different. He was older, with a scar on his neck, another name, and a new assignment.”

Garin’s return to the Soviet Union is by definition perilous, with all the odds against him. His own identity as some sort of Russian himself will slowly unfold over the course of his mission—but there’s no question that somewhere in the Soviet files, his image and story are well documented, and he’s in danger from this moment on, in Moscow.

Vidich carries the wintry mood of Soviet menace and danger powerfully, and his plot twists are tight and all too believable. Garin’s forced progress from one crisis to the next reveals much more than his Russian self and his past failure, however: The new “source” has asked for Garin not by name, but as the person who’d failed to get the general out. The forced play is intended to dig into Garin’s own self-image and presumed longing to redeem himself, after such a colossal failure. His new contact, “Gambit,” is counting on Garin to get things right this time. Redemption.

But espionage is a landscape where nothing’s likely to be or go right. Everyone involved knows this. George Mueller himself struggles to protect Garin from the self-serving manipulations of his own “side,” while the KGB maneuvers to find out who’s now leaking secrets to the Americans, and to make sure there are no long-term rewards for such actions.

For readers new to espionage and to the climate of the dangerous Cold War, Vidich’s book provides a fast-moving and emotionally powerful ride into the darkness of both spying and the battered soul. The book’s effect on seasoned readers in this genre may be very different, however, since two questions insist on being addressed: Why title the book The Mercenary when, even from Aleksander Garin’s first step on Soviet soil, it’s clear he’s engaged for far different motives than money? (Is there a true mercenary anywhere in this book?) And second, inescapably, why has Vidich named his protagonist “Alek” when the book’s closest parallel is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the John Le Carré classic that lures Alec Leamas into tragedy?

Ultimately, the deepest and most painful conflict in The Mercenary becomes whether Alek Garin must meet the same ending as Alec Leamas. Vidich holds the issue in fierce suspense all the way through this standalone thriller. 

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

SLOUGH HOUSE: Mick Herron's 7th Tongue-in-Cheek London Spy Novel


If you live with other people, or have members of your pod stopping by while you're reading, you might want to warn them that you'll be reading the next Mick Herron "slow horses" espionage delight — the people in my living space kept showing up with the bewildered question, "You're reading a spy novel and you're laughing out loud??"

SLOUGH HOUSE builds on the escapades and character revelations of the previous books, and it's even funnier and, ironically, more heart-breaking if you've read the other titles (Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers, Spook Street, London Rules, and Joe Country). But it's still an excellent and compelling read if you plunge into it as your first visit to "Slough House," the building and department where MI5 dumps its staff failures. An alcoholic, a dance-crazy coke addict, a brilliant hacker with an ardent fantasy life involving how "hot" he is, a despairing staffer who'd been framed for pedophilia (guess how fast his fiancée left him), and the espionage-born-and-bred River Cartwright himself, in some ways the straight man among these various delightful nut cases. Most of all, the department circles around its head of operations, Jackson Lamb, a deceptively fat and farting slob whose skills in espionage, sorting out international intrigue, and even attacking the opposition physically are far better than those of his treacherous superior, Diana Taverner.

Here's a classic moment as the team waits for Lamb to show at a planned meeting:

A door banged, not the one from the yard, but the toilet on the floor below. So Lamb had floated in and up several flights of stairs without fluttering a cobweb on the way. It was unnerving to picture him doing this, like imagining a tapir playing hopscotch. The smell of stale cigarettes entered the room a moment before him, and the slow horses made way for it, then Lamb, by shuffling to either side. He arrived among them shaking his head in wonderment. "What a dump."

... He threw himself into his chair, which, one happy day, was going to respond by disintegrating into a hundred pieces. "Sorry to keep you waiting. I was up late comforting a gay American dwarf."

It's quickly evident that only Lamb, despite his crude language and behavior, would have noticed and listened to the story of that American, who had showed up unexpectedly in a room full of ex-spies who were saying goodbye to an old-time espionage meeting place being closed down.

That attentiveness to small details that in fact reveal Russian operations in Britain is half of what Lamb excels at; the other important half is the way he shepherds his group of failed spies, people who can't be easily fired because they know too much, but can be corralled where they may not hurt serious business. Lamb's robust verbal abuse and bluntness feel humiliating, but also give the staff a focus beyond their own misery. 

Besides, Diana Taverner, head of MI5, has already done something far more humiliating to the "slow horses" department: set them up as targets for her own spies-in-training. Her mistake here is underestimating how far Lamb will go in response, to defend his bizarre team. But she's got problems, and would be the first to admit it: For Diana, "it turned out that the actual cost of having someone whacked remained one of those subjects too embarrassing to discuss in public, so that wasn't subjected to intense scrutiny either." And having set this up, funded by political forces she's misunderstood, Diana is in a serious mess ... and trying to pass the dirt downhill to Jackson Lamb's department. As she soon discovers, "that was the thing about shit, real or fake: once you'd begun spreading it about, it never ended up precisely where you wanted it."

Herron's espionage is highly realistic and well salted with views of the ridiculous — expect sudden guffaws or long laughs. (Good treatment for pandemic-induced depression.) Ironically or inevitably, it's also strung around some bizarre forms of love and loyalty in action. Plus Herron provides a crystal-clear view of modern British politics and even the American disaster. All of this makes SLOUGH HOUSE far more than a good read. It's worth reading twice, shelving, and pulling out again a few months later. Where else are you going to have so much fun while isolated and waiting for your vaccine? (Don't answer that. Listen to Jackson Lamb instead.)

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


Saturday, February 06, 2021

Treasures from Alexander McCall Smith, in PIANOS AND FLOWERS, a Book of Stories


Perhaps your high school teacher gave you the assignment: Here's a photo—write a short story based on it. Poets do it often, and even have a name for when the image is actually artwork. The resulting poem is described as ekphrastic.

But when Alexander McCall Smith tackled a similar assignment a year or so ago, he accepted a selection of photos from the archives of The Sunday Times and created a world of affection and often loss around each of them. The result, including some that were published in the newspaper, became his newest stand-alone book: PIANOS AND FLOWERS, BRIEF ENCOUNTERS OF THE ROMANTIC KIND.

Some meander from one person in the photo to the next, tracing the odd connections of our lives; some tell love stories; and my favorite of the 14 of them is "I'd Cry Buckets," which opens with a photo of two young men waking with a pack horse that in turn is carrying a dead deer (or, as it's called in England, a stag). The opening is evocative:

The sweep of the hills. The burn tumbling joyously across the rock. The pony sure-footed but scared of moving water, picking his way gingerly under the burden of the dead stag. And the two boys, who were sixteen, and who were tired from being up on the hill since six that morning when it was still chill and misty and not quite yet light. They had two uncomfortable house to go before they would be back at the lodge.

Bruce, the boy in front, checks that David is all right, in a conversation that stays determinedly on the mundane at first -- until David asks, "Do animals ever think they're going to die?"

The teens continue this pattern of surface discussion with abrupt deep moments, and it gradually becomes clear that they share some secret knowledge of each other, in a protective fashion. Of course they grow up and take divergent paths, only to meet during wartime, aware again of each other's interiors in ways they choose to silence. In tiny details, Smith allows a slow recognition that the bond between the two is deeper than friendship. And trembles under the weight of knowing that death comes to everyone, not just the stag on the ridge.

The wide variety of images, and hence of characters that Smith breathes life into, takes him far deeper than his usual mystery series have time to probe, with a lush descriptive narrative that depends on and interacts with the small photos provided. PIANOS AND FLOWERS evokes a tenderness founded in shared human pain and delight, and demonstrates that the big things in life are grown from the small one, treasured and gathered and finally, in meticulous description, known and loved.

Order two copies: one for your own shelf of Pandemic Relief, and one for a person you care about.

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

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Dangers of Investigative Journalism, in THE PROJECT from Courtney Summers


Canadian author Courtney Summers leaves behind her young adult track record to launch into a nail-biting thriller in THE PROJECT, laying out terrain that at the same time feels deeply familiar. As
"Lo"—Gloria Denham—insists that her office position for a revelatory news magazine should give her a chance to try her own hand at exposing something (would a religious cult do?), the levels of internal and external threat pile up in this hotly paced and frightening thriller.

This might be what it would be like if Stephen King were a woman, and unwilling to fully commit to a paranormal effect. Just to what evil looks like, in human and cult-centered form.

But how can The Unity Project be a cult, when Lo and her missing sister Bea were involved in the first back-to-life miracle performed by its leader, Lev Warren? Not that Lo realizes that. Despite a preface that lets readers briefly behind the scenes of the miraculous recovery from a car accident, Lo's search for success and meaning only drives her toward The Unity Project because her older sister Bea seems to have disappeared into the upstate cultic community.

At first her attack on the boundaries of the charitable group's meetings and settlements has one main goal: to make her sister come forward and speak to her. When that never happens, she absorbs a new challenge: she'll force her employer to call her a writer instead of a schedule manager, by writing her own exposé of The Unity Project, using her relationship with the vanished Bea as leverage.

But belief can be contagious, especially to a young woman with an accident-scarred face and a loss-seared soul. And when Lo finds the charismatic Lev Warren himself tending to her next injury, she pushes away from his gentleness, then tugs it back toward her:

"I take care of myself," I said again.

But I've reached for him.

He hesitates, then sits down beside me.

"I am so sorry," he says, "that no one has taken care of you."

And just like that, Lo receives the sense of family that has so long eluded her. 

But is Lev working miracles? If so, is there a cost? By the time Lo figures out her share of the quandary, she's knee deep in danger and headed for fresh damages.

Summers explores human need and those who, at first unthinkingly, manipulate the forces of love and loyalty. Brace for a dramatic and costly ending to Lo's courageous search into what The Unity Project really means, and a highly satisfying end to a page-turner of a crime novel at its best. From Wednesday Books, releasing February 2.

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

Magic and Mystery from Clea Simon, in A CAT ON THE CASE


Boston-area author Clea Simon has always excelled at world building.

Some of this in her previous books has evoked the passionate underworld of Boston's music scene, with its drugs, sex, rock and roll, but above all, deeply needed relationships. At other times she's woven complex relationships between humans and their pets, often understood better by the four-footed companions. Her hauntings and witchery have delved into human longing, as well as desperation.

Now, in A CAT ON THE CASE, Simon evokes a layered set of mysteries: a crime that involves a mostly helpless immigrant music student (make that two crimes, as one uses her as a front and the other threatens to sink her into hopeless debt and danger). And the longing of pet owner Becca Colwin to exert magical abilities,which enfolds a mystical confusion of its own, as Becca is sure she's already been able to make something magical take place—which her three cats, savvy and powerful, know darn well was something they achieved, not Becca.

Readers of Simon's "Witch Cats of Cambridge" series (Polis Books) will already know that the cats Clara (the youngest and assigned to protection detail), Laurel, and Harriet have a long and powerful past and are rather arrogantly aware of their own power. Simon's world building includes lives of felines dating back to the awesome Egyptian deity Bast, and the first couple of chapters of A CAT ON THE CASE require close attention to what's going on.

But after that, the book becomes a classic mystery involving a possibly valuable antique violin, thieves at the crystals-and-magic shop Charm and Cherish where Becca works, and a murder next door. Becca's determination, and her sense that the vulnerable Ruby is worth caring about, quickly propel her into chasing down danger and sniffing out the double entrapment that Ruby is too naive to notice.

Becca's old friend (and magic circle member) Maddy isn't convinced.  

"So tell me everything you know. I mean for real, Becca. Not just that you have a feeling about this girl."

"I do, though." Becca paused before continuing. "There's something going on with her, but I don't get any sense of danger from her. More than that, my cats are very calm — they were fine with her and they're fine with the violin."

That's the violin that seems to be the target of international thieves willing to murder in order to possess it. But why?

Good thing Becca has three savvy cats to watch over her and work out the means, motive, and perpetrators, whether in person or in spirit!

Yes, this is a feline-filled cozy, but it's also an intricate work of speculative fiction. Shelve with Boston mysteries, cat tales, female protagonists, and intricate fantasy, all wrapped into an unusual crime-solving exploration of friendship and the paranormal.

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

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Top-Notch New "Wounded Sleuth" from Lisa Gardner, BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

Before She Disappeared introduces what may be the most powerful sleuth of the decade, an “ordinary” woman driven to uncover the truth at any personal cost. There’s only one thing to ask for by the time the book ends: please, please, a sequel and a series.

The new thriller from Lisa Gardner, Before She Disappeared, cuts remarkable new ground. An intense and fast-paced investigative novel—practically a police procedural—it features the compelling presence of Frankie Elkin. Sober more than nine years, Frankie’s on a hunt for the only thing that eases her personal cravings: finding the lost.

Her arrival in the Mattapan section of Boston comes hard. White and female, she might as well wear a target or a sign that says “hurt me” in the rough district. But she’s there to find Angelique, a vanished high school student. Whatever search there’d been for “Angel” ended months ago, as far as Frankie can tell. Drugs, prostitution, or just leaving town, those are the common assumptions made about a kid on the wrong side of life.

But not by Frankie. Looking straight at the situation, she sees no reason that a high-achieving Haitian immigrant determined to save her family from deportation would just vanish and not even reassure her mom or brother. And Frankie’s got a plan for investigating and trying to find Angelique, as she’s done with fourteen earlier missing persons. Only this time she hopes, as she hopes every time, to find the person alive.

Taking up a job as a bartender may sound risky for her sobriety, but although booze hasn’t lost its appeal, she’s committed to something more powerful, the surge of adrenaline from finding the lost. Her first task: persuade the local bar owner to give her the job, as well as the empty upstairs living quarters. In spite of her white skin.

“He shakes his head. With more glasses to dry, he crosses his arms over his chest and looks at me straight on. He still doesn’t say a word.

‘I work hard.’ I tick off a finger. ‘I’m on time, especially because I’m going to be living upstairs, and I won’t siphon your booze. I pour fast, I know how to change out a keg, and I’m an excellent listener. Everyone likes a good listener.’

‘They won’t like you.’

‘Neither did you, but you’re coming around. Give me a month. By then no one will notice my white skin or superior gender. I’ll just be another fixture behind the bar.’”

Why here? Because this is where Angelique and her relatives belong. And in a very short time, Frankie figures out why the hunt for this teen started late, ended early, and isn’t going anywhere. Partnering with a police detective who’s frustrated at the lack of progress, Frankie earns her way past his reluctance to trust her, and proves that her ability to listen—especially to teens and women—can reopen the case.

When Frankie discovers proof that the teen is still alive, and seeking help, that partnership with the local detective becomes essential. But it stays charged with anger and territory, and the hunger Frankie carries with her: consuming, propulsive, and perhaps entirely destructive. That’s similar to what drives the “kids” around her, including another missing teen, revealed as “the missing girl no one even knew was missing,” yet who sets a criminal enterprise into focus and ramps up the danger to all involved.

Gardner’s fierce and skillful blending of rage and despair and unhealable wounds makes Frankie an unforgettable protagonist. She can’t be called an amateur sleuth, because her impassioned searches have shown solid results. She has families that speak for her, because she cared enough to work for discovery of what happened to their loved ones. Yet she’s not paid by any of those. And she walks a knife edge of internal haunting.

Before She Disappeared introduces what may be the most powerful sleuth of the decade, an “ordinary” woman driven to uncover the truth at any personal cost. There’s only one thing to ask for by the time the book ends: please, please, a sequel and a series.

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

Keeping Up With Faye Kellerman: THE LOST BOYS, a Decker/Lazarus Mystery

 



[Originally appeared in the New York Journal of Books]

“Kellerman’s writing frames deep tenderness among her characters very well. The dropped plot threads can be irritating, but series readers will have faith that there’s a point to some of them, and that next year’s title will build on this year’s hints.”

The Lost Boys is the 26th in Faye Kellerman’s Decker/Lazarus series, and a warm and dense novel of investigative support, people who care about each other, and a good marriage—but also the tragedies that can erupt from well-meant friendships and small adventures.

Series readers will be able to slipstream along with the main characters, upstate New York detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina. New to the series? It helps to know that the name “Lazarus” on the cover and in the series title refers to the last name of Decker’s wife before she married him – and the teasing nickname “rabbi” that  Decker’s much younger investigative partner Tyler McAdams uses for him reflects Decker’s religious practice; he’s not a rabbi, but with his wife, he practices the traditions and food customs of observant Jews. All of which has little to do with the plot, but will help in following the narrative.

It will also be helpful to drop the customary attentiveness of mystery readers determined to solve the crime just before the detective gets there. The book’s early chapters in particular are full of mild errors in the text (people start in one direction, then go in another; someone is invited for one meal that gets skipped and you’re in the next day). Paying too close attention will be frustrating. Just go with the flow, and with Decker and McCabe, who’ll traipse through woods and across the north country, trying to catch up with a pair of missing persons and, at the same time, three more missing ones from a decade earlier.

Kellerman’s plot takes a really interesting idea and plays it into intriguing characters: If people are emancipated adults but have learning disabilities, what happens when they leave their assisted living locales? Should they be considered “missing” in the sense of police interest, or are they entitled to make their own life choices?

Decker’s team first hunts for Bertram Lanz, a “developmentally disabled” man who has either walked away from a field trip or been kidnapped. Since his parents are very wealthy, kidnap has to be on the table. Yet the parents mysteriously won’t return phone calls. When Lanz’s sweetheart also vanishes, plus a facility staff member who’d been close to Bertam, doubts about chasing after the missing adults cascade.

The young lady’s parents raise the first serious questions about this:

“‘She seemed to be doing better lately.’ He turned to his wife. ‘Am I right about that?’

‘Yes, I thought so.’ Alison looked up at the ceiling. ‘Maybe she was happy because she was planning her escape.’”

Similar questions arise in terms of three missing college students who vanished a decade earlier. Decker and McCabe enter the case, which began well before their time on the local police force, because a body turns up that appears to be one of the trio.

Turning around the scant facts on hand, along with more sets of uncommunicative parents of missing “adults,” the detectives start wondering what roles sex and drugs might have played in the distant past.

The third thread of suspense rises from concern over Peter and Rina’s foster son Gabe, whose disturbed birth mother has surfaced, along with a successfully criminal father and a man in India who could both pose threats to Gabe’s mother and thus to Gabe. Or at least to his heart. Again, what are the right choices in terms of the struggles of an adult who needs support but not a takeover? Which boys are lost, and which are just seeking independence?

Kellerman’s writing frames deep tenderness among her characters very well. The dropped plot threads can be irritating, but series readers will have faith that there’s a point to some of them, and that next year’s title will build on this year’s hints.

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Deadly Envy in a Science Lab, in Cara Putman's LETHAL INTENT


What happens when you blend a legal issue with a cancer lab, terribly ill children, and faith-based romance? Answer: a suspense novel with intriguing layers of complexity, from long-time "romantic legal thriller" author Cara Putman, published by Thomas Nelson.

When attorney Caroline Bragg steps into a high-pressure job at a biotechnology firm developing cells that may fight children's cancer, she's got two huge things going for her: experience in the patent process and government regulations, and an abiding inner joy that has a lot to do with how Brandon Lancaster is telling her he wants her in his life always.

Her first challenge in the new job is to assert herself: Petite and not grounded in the science itself, she could be easily mistaken for a beginner. When the scientists try to rush into treatment without the proper protocols, though, she puts on the brakes -- and suddenly she's not as welcome as five minutes before, since the people around her really want to save children, not wait for the approved channels.

Making things more complicated in LETHAL INTENT, there's more going on under the surface of the biotech company, and the author slowly gives a reveal of a malicious but unidentified person willing to sacrifice those very children, for revenge on the company. Caroline's so busy trying to keep her ambitious boss on the legal straight and narrow that she's late in realizing there's more than accidental mischief happening.

Strikingly, she's also pinned by nondisclosure requirements, once she realizes her boyfriend is an investor in the company she's working for. Here's a sample of Putman's romantic writing from Caroline's point of view about Brandon:

Caroline pulled up the pictures and scrolled through several shots. She'd have a closer look later, but she liked what she saw: a man who looked at her with adoration. She could get used to it and wanted to bottle the moment so she could pull it out when she felt alone.

When te nights were dark and she couldn't sleep.

She wanted to remember what it felt like to have his hand covering hers.

Remember the feeling of security and lent strength.

Remember that he found her worth loving.

LETHAL INTENT will suit romance readers more than standard mystery fans, since although Caroline is strong and makes great decisions, she really has little chance to figure out what's going wrong in the treatment trials and the company's action, because Putman frames the book with a secret villain's voice and little in the way of outright clues. Still, it's a good read for a winter evening, sweet and strong at once, and very smoothly written.

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

Monday, December 28, 2020

Chicago Culinary Mystery: SMOTHERED, A WHIPPED AND SIPPED MYSTERY, G. P. Gottlieb


 G. P. (Galit) Gottlieb's first culinary mystery, Battered, won fans for both its Chicago neighborhood setting and its punchy, relentless amateur sleuth, Alene Baron. Owner of a café with a specialty in vegan, "cruelty-free" pastries, Alene has an unusual crew working for her: the sister and daughter of the previous owner, as well as some talented young people and her own old friend Ruthie. She knows her customers mostly by name, and otherwise by what they order or how they hang out (and most of them do hang out for a while). 

But nothing's exactly simple for her as the sequel, SMOTHERED, opens. Yes, she's started to date detective Frank Shaw, a nice by-product of his intervention in the earlier book. Yet her employees can be quirky and moody at a level that interferes with business; she's got three kids at home (and a nanny); and her father usually lives with her but at the moment is ill in a hospital.

On top of all this, her business neighbor, a scuzzy guy with a womanizing habit, is running a health gym that serves up smoothies and prepackaged snacks that are starting to rival her own food business. When the neighbor is found murdered, Alene has every incentive to solve the crime, so she won't be blamed.

Brace for roadblocks in her love life, of course, if Alene's involved with the detective on the case: "It felt weird to talk about plans for the evening while Frank was dealing with Stanley's death. Were their dates always going to be last-minute? And his partner Lee was with him."

Culinary mystery collectors will want this book (published in softcover by D. X. Varos) on their shelves (no recipes, though); so will Chicago-area crime fiction collectors, for the fun of local landmarks and neighborhoods. It does have two marked flaws -- an overabundance of unnecessary characters (to the extent that the book provides a character list before the story starts), and a number of genre-style hints of action or complication to follow that in fact are dropped abruptly, without explanation (even a romantic date that never takes place). Some focused editing would have helped a lot.

That said, the book is a good entry from an author whose professional training was actually in piano and voice; I hope she may bring in some of her expertise in those fields in future books, and I'll watch for those with interest. Publication for this one is scheduled for February 16, 2021.

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



Oceanfront Cozy with Romance, CLOSELY HARBORED SECRETS by Bree Baker


Bree Baker's "Seaside Café Mystery" series from Poisoned Pen Press just reached book 5 with CLOSELY HARBORED SECRETS. This author's writing keeps getting smoother, and her plots, entangled with strands of romance, offer a strong amateur sleuth in action.

This time, Everly Swan's involvement in a murder begins at her seaside island town's annual ghost walk, when she discovers the dying body of an avid map collector and possible opponent of her great aunts -- who has scraped Everly's name into the sand with her final strength. Is it an accusation, or a call for Everly to solve the crime?

Of course, she's not gaining popularity by stepping into such trouble, and this time she has more at stake than ever, since her beloved great aunt Fran is running for mayor of the town of Charm. Any bad press for Everly could cost Aunt Fran the election.

Top that off with the huge complications she's facing in her romantic life with Detective Grady Hays and his family, and Everly's got tension in every direction. But also a lot of friendship and affection, sweetening the mystery in Baker's accustomed style.

Dixie's murder had shaken me. I'd already seen too many deaths since my return to the island, and Dixie had carved my name into the ground with her final breaths. I had no idea how I'd heard the scratching over the sound of the wind, but the whole night had felt somehow surreal. Right down to the doppelganger flapper who'd let me to Dixie's office and pointed me to the book of island families on her desk. All in all, I was freaked out, feeling a tornado of emotions and wholly exhausted.

Baker delicately hints at possible ghostly involvement, and gives Everly's 170-year-old house a spooky role in the increasing level of threat targeting this entrepreneur. And what about that curse on all the romances in her family—does that mean she should walk away from Grady ... if he doesn't walk away from her first?

This charming Southern cozy wraps up with three of Everly's recipes, in the tradition of the genre. Series readers will likely turn to those pages first! But this is an easy book to step into without reading the other four titles first, and makes a delightful break from the stresses of ordinary life.

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