Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Terrific Sniper Thriller from Cara Black, NIGHT FLIGHT TO PARIS

[Originally posted at New York Journal of Books

“Black's work is leaping ahead in power and energy, and Night Flight to Paris is one of the notable thrillers of the season.”

Cara Black
, well known for her long Parisian series featuring PI Aimée Leduc, has come into her own. Her new series features a woman sniper who, in last year’s first book of the series, Three Hours in Paris, faced nightmares of capture and death as she works undercover for the British, on multiple assassination targets.

In the second book in this dramatic and fast-paced new approach, Night Flight to Paris, American Kate Rees thinks her failed mission (as she sees it) from 1940 will keep her in Britain as a sharpshooting instructor for the rest of the war. But in 1942 her former handler, Colonel Stepney, has pressing reasons to send her back to the occupied City of Light on a triple mission: a delivery, an assassination, and the exfiltration of one of her close friends, Margo, who's specifically demanded Kate's assistance.

But nothing's very clear in the rushed briefing to the mission, as Colonel Stepney seems to be more than a bit obscure, telling Kate: "‘A good undercover legend is like a diamond. Crafted to meet the four Cs—the carat, cut, clarity, and color. They sparkle so brightly you can't look past them.’ Diamonds were hard. Was Stepney saying something else here? ‘Much of your mission depends on what happens on the ground after you land, and how Margo plays it. We can't know anything for sure.’ Plan. Pivot. And re-plan. Hadn't Wilkes drilled that into the trainees? Or as her pa would say, ya gotta be ready to turn on a dime, Katie.”

When Stepney issues Kate a cyanide suicide pill, that confirms how risky this mission will be. And it's complicated by the mess Kate left behind two years earlier since there is a warrant out for her arrest in Paris, and she'll have to be in heavy disguise as a result.

Black ramps up the tension in every plot twist, and offers an unforgettable experience of both wartime Paris and the sheer guts and creativity needed for undercover work. 

“She'd walked into a setup. Her own damn fault. ... Under her Red Cross Cape, she slid her 9mm Welrod's 12-inch cylinder, containing its bolt, barrel and baffle, down her sleeve. It took seconds, during which she never broke eye contact with the Nazi.”

In contrast to Black’s Leduc books, this new series avoids swaddling the action in romantic questions, which in turn leaves Kate Rees clearer about her own capacity, able to plan swiftly, and incisive in questioning what’s coming at her and responding from strength, despite some obvious flaws in her preparation:

“In the garage, Kate opened her bag in the creaking cabinet, ready to change into the Wehrmachthelferinnen uniform. Sickening Nazi symbols decorated the sleeves. Would it fit her big-boned frame? With this uniform and the stolen ID, she’d have credentials and blend in unnoticed. But the few phrases of German she’d picked up left a lot to be desired. Face it: the moment she opened her mouth she’d be dead.”

Overall, Black shows that her transition from the Leduc detective series to this thriller format is an excellent choice. Although there are a few inconsistencies at chapter jumps—maybe from all the adrenaline in crafting this high-suspense, high-threat adventure—Black's work is leaping ahead in power and energy, and Night Flight to Paris is one of the notable thrillers of the season.

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

Friday, February 24, 2023

Short Story Collection from James R. Benn, THE REFUSAL CAMP

Crime and war. Unfortunately, they go well together. Especially in the hands of James R. Benn, whose 17 Billy Boyle mysteries place an Irish-American cop at various sites and trenches of World War II, investigating the dark side of moneyed warfare on behalf of his distant cousin General Dwight Eisenhower.

THE REFUSAL CAMP gives Benn the space to air tales of other wars, other time periods, and of course other motivated protagonists (although there is a gem of a Billy Boyle story tucked among these). The collection opens during the years when Connecticut settlers still enslaved Africans, and unfolds from the point of view of an enslaved teen. It swiftly becomes a crime story, one where the most disadvantaged person on the scene must summon both courage and insight, as well as a clever riposte, if he's to escape hanging.

There are eight more stories—one published in an earlier Soho Crime Collection, The Usual Santas. Billy Boyle fans will especially enjoy the Boston investigation "Irish Tommy," featuring police lieutenant Daniel Boyle, as well as "Billy Boyle: The Lost Prologue," a tale removed from the first Billy Boyle mystery before publication. The cleverest may well be "The Secret of Hemlock Hill," a haunted Civil War tale brought into the present. "The Refusal Camp" offers a concentration-camp possibility that reminds us that "victims" often found effective ways to hold their own.

Seasoned Benn/Boyle fans need this collection for their shelves featuring the youthful, loyal, and often rash wartime detective; those new to Benn's work may find the character-focused and neatly plotted and twisted stories so satisfying that they'll wish to dip into the full Boyle series.

Best of all, this nicely balanced collection can temper the rest of the Northern Hemisphere winter season, providing good reading for the last of the fireside evenings and lazy weekends before the yard, gardens, and outdoor sports reassert their siren calls.

Soho Crime/Soho Press will release the collection on March 14; this is a good time to place a pre-order to be sure to get a copy "hot off the press," as Billy Boyle would have said.

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

TINA, MAFIA SOLDIER, Striking New Sicilian Crime Fiction from Maria Rosa Cutrufelli

The opening chapters of TINA, MAFIA SOLDIER go very slowly, as the narrator—would-be author of a biography of Cettina, now Tina, a Mafia youth—renews her acquaintance with Gela, a city in Sicily. This harsh frontier-like city, once a coveted location in ancient history, is now a battered orphan of the petrochemical industry. Its historic face has vanished; instead, the narrator sees it as "Young and cruel. It's a cruel landscape that I find hard to recognize and doesn't correspond to the map of my memory anymore."

The city itself reeks of masculine violence and brutality. But embedded in it today is Tina, a' masculidda, Tina the little tomboy, documented in a folder the narrator carries with her. Recently imprisoned, Tina isn't yet 20 years old, but her leadership of her small teen gang within the Mafia culture has brought her strength and notoriety.

The quest for Tina herself begins with interview upon interview of relatives and friends of this "Mafia soldier" in hopes of gaining a visit with the prisoner, who can choose whether or not to admit someone, almost a bizarre form of royalty. And in fact, Tina is a figure worth admiring, even worshiping, with her motorbike, her weapons, the loyalty she's demanded and inspired.

Bear with this narrator and the translation (by Robin Pickering-Jazzi), because the discomfort of the chapters builds toward an awkward yet compelling understanding of Tina herself and the "cruel" city that has brought her into being. A sexual intermediate, neither muscled male nor seductive female, Tina is a quintessential "other," trans in every aspect of her being.

Here is a taste of Tina, struggling to outwait the customers at the beauty salon operated by her cousin Giovanna:

The roots of her bad mood sank down into embedded realities that were different and deeper than dissatisfaction or unfulfilled needs. She would have liked to make a spectacular entrance that day. She dreamed of the splendor of an entrance worthy of her. The Alfa 164 and black leather jacket. ... "Did you all see her? Rambo." Constraining her to give tough answers, always poised on a razor's edge.

Then there's Tina's friend Graziella, who works for a production company and represents another side of the muddled sexuality and violence of the place:

Graziella is a nervous brunette who's going back and forth between a printer and a video, extricating herself from snarls of wires that are hanging down and getting entangled between stools and tables, obviously hindering her movements. But more than her exuberant nature, I think it's her still very young age that makes her easily confront a job whose dangers she doesn't see, even though she knows perfectly well what they are, and complain about the job just being temporary.

Though men are interviewed too, it's the women who love Tina for herself and would do anything for her. Giovanna, for instance, "raises the cigarette to her mouth, a darting little snake with a pointed tip, and says as she exhales the smoke, 'She's a warrior.' A reverential fear that gradually dissolves in veiled disapproval."

By the time our narrator finally forms a connection with Tina herself, the grim, assaultive, and sexually confusing journey into the teenager's life, into the Cosa Nostra, into Sicily and its asphyxiative presence, has changed her irretrievably. What she will facilitate at last for Tina will tear apart the fabric she has spent so much time and effort crafting, as she calls Tina out of the cell and into compelling pages.

TINA, MAFIA SOLDIER is complex, with seductive metaphors and a grimly poisonous atmosphere that daunts the emergence of any necessary self-love. Once it picks up speed, it's compelling and potent. There can be no return to any mythic Sicily after this fictive immersion in reality provided by Sicilian-born Maria Rosa Cutrufelli.

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

Brief Mention: LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ, by Kwei Quartey

Collecting international crime fiction? Ghana-born physician and author Kwei Quartey's Darko Dawson series, set mostly in Ghana, has been a pleasure; Quartey's current series is a spinoff that features Emma Djan, a private detective always alert to gender discrimination as she works her way up in a local agency (the police force dumped her, early in the series).

LAST SEE IN LAPAZ opens with the disappearance of a young Nigerian woman, daughter of a friend of the agency owner. (Lapaz is a town in the Accra Metropolitan District -- not related at all to La Paz, New Mexico.)  The attractive and hard-working Ngozi seems to have run away from home, across the national border, and might be in Accra. If, that is, she's alive.

Emma Djan isn't yet authorized to do a lot of investigation on her own, but she has an advantage here, because she can perform a flirtatious role with the greedy (in every sense) hotel owners who seem linked to the disappearance. When one hotel turns out to be supplying female companions, perhaps forced into this upscale prostitution, Emma's both horrified and fascinated. Anything to avoid the boredom of routine PI work!

Her insight into women's lives also gives her an advantage as she investigates with Boateng, the local DI (inspector on the police force):

Boateng grunted. "You seem to be studying this room closely, Djan. What do you see?"

"No disorder, no chaos. It has a controlled feeling. Someone who has been in this room was trying to gain control over the other, but couldn't quite do it. ... This entire house is a clue."

Despite his California location, Quartey's writing continues to have the choppy feel of translated material, possibly an intentional effect to suggest the movement among local languages and dialects. The book suffers somewhat from quick changes in point of view, among investigators and criminals. But it's still a revelatory experience of urban life in Ghana, and neatly plotted, with caste and related attitudes deftly portrayed. 

Collect it for your African mystery shelf, as well as for the diverse spread of Soho Crime's continued global outreach.

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Third Crime Novel for Sheriff Gideon Stoltz, LAY THIS BODY DOWN, by Charles Fergus

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Fergus’s writing lays out both the struggles of a new nation, and the pains of growing into determined manhood with its allegiances, regrets, and consolations. If murder and kidnapping can be halted, why not enslavement, also?”


The lines of good and evil are firm in this third antebellum mystery from Charles Fergus: Enslavement is brutal, and deprives the 1837 American nation of honor. Immediate emancipation could restore that honor—but in Sheriff Gideon Stoltz’s industrial Pennsylvanian town of Adamant, a rough crowd jeers at a visiting speaker advancing such an argument, and Gideon’s role as lawman is keeping the peace. Not advancing abolition.


However, Fergus positions Gideon as an outsider himself, with a strong “Pennyslvania Dutch” German accent that marks his difference in the hardscrabble Scotch-Irish town. Young and inexperienced for his job and without training, supported by his wife and a few friends, Gideon identifies with runaways and victims. It’s a dangerous position when there’s a national law requiring that he enforce “property ownership” toward Black fugitives. Although his state backs away from that position, the town is just 80 miles from Maryland, and his neighbors, a mostly rough crew, could inform on a runaway and expect Gideon to jail that person.


“What if the right thing—whatever it is—and what the law requires turn out to be two different things?” Gideon asks his wife True. Her answer: “I hope you would do the right thing.”


Chapters of Lay This Body Down open with excerpts from historically real reward notices seeking fugitives. When slave hunters turn up in Adamant, seeking a Black youth who’s helped Gideon in the past, what he’ll choose is never in doubt: He owes a debt, and servicing it fits with his growing belief that enslavement is cruel and wrong. Instead, the rapidly ramped-up tension in the book comes from the prevalence of malice among those hunting fugitives and those who already despise Gideon as not one of them, neither by heritage nor by attitude. As he struggles to find and protect this and other runaways, he plunges into personal danger.


In that sense, this is an intimate novel of connection among working men with opposing worldviews. Gideon will only succeed and survive if he can find enough allies to defend his choices and actions. It’s soon clear he’s even being betrayed within his own office. His own superior in law enforcement doesn’t even have his back. But his wife does.


Readers of the earlier two titles in this series (A Stranger Here Below; Nighthawk’s Wing) will not find much of the mystical and supernatural that appeared in those books, although True Burn Stoltz, finding her way out of her long depression over the loss of the couple’s child to illness, clearly relies on a related set of beliefs. Instead, the conflict in this novel foreshadows what was already erupting across the nation’s frontier at the time: ardent beliefs in independence and the sanctity of property, playing against philosophical and humanist efforts to impose a better form of civilization.

Gideon’s weaknesses, part psychological from his own mother’s murder, part physical as a residue of concussion (alas for the results of horse accidents and human beatings!), hold potential to transform into powerful incentives to action. As he prunes away the rot around him, he finds himself able to say to a stranger, “Maybe you can help me.”


Fergus’s writing lays out both the struggles of a new nation, and the pains of growing into determined manhood with its allegiances, regrets, and consolations. If murder and kidnapping can be halted, why not enslavement, also? The author’s meticulous historical portrayal offers a potent integrity, to ground the growth of Gideon Stoltz into a man who’s certain of the right thing to do, after all.


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

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Engaging Mystery from J. D. Robb, ENCORE IN DEATH


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“It’s unusual to find a crime page-turner that’s this compelling while also probing affection and loyalty, without gore or grotesque maneuvers. Motive, means, opportunity—Encore in Death is classic crime fiction at its best.”


Setting the Eve Dallas crime thrillers ahead in time, with a few more technological advances, doesn’t really give this homicide detective any more of an edge than today’s savvy sleuths. After all, even if test results come more quickly and communication is fine-tuned, solving a crime still comes down to getting inside the minds and emotions of potential suspects.


So when theatrical stars Eliza Lane and her husband Brant Fitzhugh throw an A-lister gala for patrons of their work, just as Eliza’s new Broadway show is about to open in the year 2036, it turns out that Brant’s sudden death is from cyanide, that well-known almond-scented poison. And the roster of suspects is no different than today’s would be: friends true or false, family, lovers, and competitors for the spotlight and awards.


But really, who could want to hurt Brant? His wife, a much edgier and sharp-tongued person, can’t imagine any reason. “Brant didn’t like conflict, and found ways to avoid it,” Eliza sums him up. Generous as an actor, a friend, a spouse, and even philanthropist, his death comes from toasting his wife with a sip from her specially prepared champagne cocktail. So who was the intended victim—husband or wife?


J. D. Robb’s polished and well-paced writing, honed in more than 200 novels so far, keeps the narrative on the move. Its second line of action takes place between Eve and her own husband, the wealthy Irish entrepreneur Roarke—who, whether by contagion or interest, is starting to “think like a cop” and lending a hand to Eve and her investigation. Eve spots this even before Roarke’s willing to admit he’s caught up in puzzle and how to solve it, as she outlines the need to follow the money here, and says she’ll take a look. Roarke steps right into her trap:


“I could do that for you while you dig down on the cast and crew. You may find it’s not the person who didn’t get the part, but a friend—as you were looking at Sylvie—a relative, a lover. Someone who’d do the deed for someone else.”


Roarke’s ability to quickly deep-dive into financials adds power to the investigation; his deft and determined efforts to support Eve’s work and the couple’s gentle jockeying in support of each other add charm and passion (and some lovely teasing) to the story, too.


As Robb lays out the plot with her quick professional skills, she paints solid marriages just as effectively. It’s unusual to find a crime page-turner that’s this compelling while also probing affection and loyalty, without gore or grotesque maneuvers. Motive, means, opportunity—Encore in Death is classic crime fiction at its best.


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

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Carrie Doyle Spins Another Quirky, Fun Mystery: THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGONFRUIT TATTOO

The third Plum Lockhart mystery in the Trouble in Paradise series is at least as much fun as its predecessors, It Takes Two to Mango and Something's Guava Give. At first glance, Plum's plunge into entrepreneurship with her own villa rental company on the tropical island of Paraiso looks rash and foolish -- and could anyone really be such a murder magnet as this scrappy yet star-struck amateur sleuth?

But Plum can grow on a person! A refugee from corporate marketing and the now outdated world of New York City magazines, Plum is determined to salvage her self-esteem by out-competing the very nasty Damian Rodriguez in representing the best villa rentals on the island. If that means making nice with the glitterati on a luxury yacht in the neighborhood, Plum has the guts to do it.

When one of the staffers from the yacht wants to consult her about a deadly threat, Plum has trouble clearing time for this distraction. So when the girl with the dragonfruit tattoo gets attacked, is it Plum's fault? She'll clear some emotional space by dressing down one of the sleazy men on board:

"I don't like your behavior, Joel," said Plum, who crossed her arms angrily for effect. "You are humiliating your wife. Everyone on the boat watches you flirt outrageously with an actress young enough to be your daughter. It's pathetic. I hate what you are doing to my friend, and you should remember you're a married man in a position of power and not exploit it."

The left vein on Joel's temple started to throb, and Plum thought it might explode.

Doyle's plotting, as usual, is tight, and the action sparkling; if Plum's combination of courage and naivety stilts some of her trilled or whispered conversation and moves the plot twists to the quirky side, it's a fair trade for the fun of discovering how she'll handle the next intensely awkward situation. Not to mention whether she'll ever have a functioning romance with Juan Kevin, the security guard who's been trying to date her!

Don't take anything seriously in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGONFRUIT TATTOO. All the fun and frivolity may not give you the feel of a tropical vacation ... but a few hours away from real life might be almost as good as one of the many fruity cocktails that Plum keeps swigging.

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

Monday, January 02, 2023

Dark Longings and Dork Disasters, in THE MOTION PICTURE TELLER from Colin Cotterill

 Is it crime fiction or is it magical realism? Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun forensic tales, set in the collapsed corruption and congenial community of working Laos, have already shown this author must blend the two. 

In THE MOTION PICTURE TELLER, Cotterill leaps to 1996 Bangkok and the run-down but almost cute -- in a very dorky way -- lives of two unambitious men running a video rental store. Pay attention to Supot, who delivers mail for the Royal Thai Postal Service. (Cut to a view of his uniform, shabby perhaps but worn with some muddled pride as he dodges unpleasant dogs with his pack of letters and parcels.) Supot's "real life" begins after work each day, assisting in a video shop and watching films with Ali, the official owner. (Ali can be quite mischievous to his customers, but he makes ends meet.)

When these two nerdy, film-obsessed guys discover a film called "Bangkok 2010" that could be the greatest ever -- the kind that makes Supot's almost girlfriend consider, for a moment, actually fooling around with him, before opting to watch the film again -- they tumble into a bottomless mystery: The actors are unknown. The production company has vanished. How could they be holding a copy of the greatest film ever, and be unable to find out anything about who made it and when it's going to be released? Wait -- is this the only copy ever made?

When Supot finally reaches someone connected with the mysterious film, mystery readers will know the tale has just taken on danger (beyond that posed by dogs to mail carriers), as the letter offers a strong of urgent questions:

Where did you find 2010? Is it a copy, or is it the original film? Has anyone else seen it apart from you? If your answer is yes, how many people have seen it? ... I want you to promise me that nobody else will watch it, and that no copies are made of it.

From here, the story threads get wilder and Supot is soon way out of his comfort zone. The charm of Cotterill's writing is that this video fanatic, in love with a vision of an actress, is so believable, so close to the dork in each of us, that the pages must keep turning. 

THE MOTION PICTURE TELLER could be the strangest mystery you read this year, or even this decade. And you absolutely won't forget it.

Releasing January 17 from Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

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

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Outrageous Alaska Adventure from John Straley, BLOWN BY THE SAME WIND

The town of Cold Storage, Alaska, is John Straley's best invention: a place where almost any sort of humane criminal activity can and does happen, with a steady twang of Alaskan country music in the background and a slew of strong women enjoying cash-poor life as much as the men around them. The minute you aim for this locale, you give up control of what makes sense -- and ride with a mix of wild characters for the duration. Earlier Cold Storage novels began with The Big Both Ways, then Cold Storage, Alaska, and What Is Time to a Pig? 

It's crime fiction ... sorta. Remember the scene in The Godfather with the horse's head? That could happen in Cold Storage, on the chilly and salty coast. Except it could be a grizzly head. Still attached. And the person who held the door for the bear to come in would still be standing nearby, tipping back a beer (not the "craft" kind).

There was still no road into or out of Cold Storage, but somehow, in 1968, the world had arrived. In March, Lyndon Johnson announced that he had decided not to rub for president. Some said it was because of the Tet Offensive in the first part of the year. Boys from Cold Storage had gone to the war and three of them had died ... All of the boys had fished with their families and were memorialized on a hill off the road to the dump.

But the tale gets into gear with one of the boys who made it home, Glen Andre, with long hair, a tendency to not speak much, and an army jacket "with a bronze star pinned on the front." Because this is, after all, Cold Storage, you should simply nod hello with the rest of the crowd when the Kentucky anti-war monk Thomas Merton also arrives in town ... followed by a couple of obviously nasty criminals, and a probable FBI agent.

Still, even in Cold Storage, if a person wants privacy he can sort of get it, and if Thomas Merton wants to call himself Brother Louis, and teach something about God, that's up to him. The trouble is, he's explaining it to a striking young woman named Venus, who never met a boundary she didn't want to cross. Or a man who wasn't fascinated by her.

[The brother] began to see Venus not as an American teenager, but as a sprite from A Midsummer Night's Dream. On that night he followed Venus and the lights on her helmet up the hill, where at the summit he would try to reveal the mystery of both God's omniscience and His absence as Louis's heart beat like a steam engine in his chest.

By this point, either you devoutly want to read this novel, or you wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot bookmark. If you've embraced Donald Westlake, Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, or the Junior Bender books from Timothy Hallinan, I hope you're already ordering a copy of BLOWN BY THE SAME WIND. You're going to have a lot of fun and an occasional moment of thinking maybe you just figured out something you care about, a lot. 

Published, of course, by the boundary-challenging Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

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