Sunday, September 15, 2019

Guest Reviews by MADonnelly: MYSTERIES by Isabella Maldonado, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Becky Clark. A. J. Mackenzie, Kirsten Weiss, Antti Tuomainen

MADonnelly is a published poet, a Vermonter, a good friend. As guest reviewer on this blog, she brings a hint of Irish delight to the space. And you know what the Irish say: May your home always be too small to hold all your friends. The same applies to a good review blog. Thanks for these pithy takes on six mysteries, Friend!

DEATH BLOW by Isabella Maldonado (A Veranda Cruz mystery, Midnight Ink)

If you like tough cop heroines and  chilling, gruesome hit jobs, this one’s for you.  Add a savagely cruel Mexican drug smuggling cartel, a violent family history, and fast paced, tense police work and you’re in for a wild ride.  The author, with over 20 years in law enforcement, joins intimate knowledge of criminality and  police procedures with considerable writing skills and  a gift for  creating some psychologically complex characters.   Occasionally some tender heartedness, devotion  or cop loyalty shine through rough exteriors to relieve the horrors and appear at the right time.


TRAP by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, trans. Quentin Bates (Orenda Books)

As if trying to get custody of her son away from an abusive and criminal husband weren’t enough, Sonja herself is part of an international drug smuggling operation and in an on-again off-again lesbian relationship with a money laundering cocaine addict.  As she realizes the connections between the  banking and  drug plots, she finds herself being drawn in deeper and deeper. The more she desperately wants to get out and live a normal life with her son, the more she finds herself with a target on her back and unable to extricate herself from the increasing corruption, danger and threats. (Note the translator, who's an Icelandic noir author himself.)

FOUL PLAY ON WORDS by Becky Clark (Midnight Ink)
Witty, self deprecating  and somewhat neurotic mystery writer Charlemagne Russo arrives in Portland  for a mystery writer’s conference thinking all she has to do is give a keynote speech, catch up with her best friend and fly home to her boyfriend.  Instead  she immediately discovers that she is in charge of the conference with no help, her friend’s daughter has been kidnapped and the conference hotel has  been double booked with a dog show. Her friend has told her to focus on the conference  but Charlee can’t let the kidnapping go.  She must find the daughter. Motive? Financial insolvency? drug addiction? family secrets? illicit romance?  Everything’s possible  with lots of barking dogs,  rendezvous in dark passageways under the hotel, suspicious looks and cryptic remarks by staff and attendees.  The  ransom, possible multiple murders and conference deadlines  are all looming.  A  frantic, comic tale.


THE BODY IN THE BOAT by A. J. Mackenzie (Hardcastle & Chaytor Mystery, Zaffre)

There are a number and variety of strong female characters in this mystery. Particularly astute and principled is Mrs. Chaytor, who with her close friend Reverend Hardcastle  have  not only multiple murders to solve  but  troubled parishioners and refugees to tend to.  They do so with fierce intelligence and relentlessness, while struggling with their own personal sorrows and demons..     
    Romney Marsh in Georgian England during a war with the French,  is the rough, gloomy setting for this story and   its smuggling and banking worlds — and the sinister ways they are connected. Mrs. Chaytor and the Reverend, with the help of a couple of the smugglers (there are both”good” and “ very bad” smugglers) keep going over  every angle and all take pretty daring risks to uncover the chain of complicated events, the slippery perpetrators, the mysterious contrabands.

CHOCOLATE À LA MURDER by Kirsten Weiss (Midnight Ink)

  A Ghost Detecting resident cat  (named G.D.) and  a haunted Mexican molilnolo ( a stick for stirring chocolate) are just what you might expect in a “Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum”.  But a  dead chocolatier, found covered in chocolate,  is probably not your  typical murder victim.  Museum owner Maddie Kosloski, a self appointed amateur detective wants desperately to solve the crime. She goes about it steadfastly and with wacky humor, much to the annoyance of friends, family, and the local police. There’s not as much assistance or interference from the paranormal as the name of the museum suggests, but Maddie does well without it.
  And maybe the chocolate shop, billing itself as  producing the most high end best chocolate ever, (“ hand crafted, ethically sourced, organically grown ingredients”) is not all it’s cracked up to be.

PALM BEACH FINLAND by Antti Tuomainen (Orenda Books)

Here’s a mystery that starts with a murder and the reader knows right away who did it, how and why. The real entertainment , sustained, deepened and embellished beautifully and sometimes hysterically, is in how the assortment of characters figure it out, react, compromise, diabolically pursue, bungle, cover up. There are big themes too: Life’s dreams and plans, failure, greed, friendship, revenge, brutality, love - and the ridiculous.  The author focuses masterfully on the characters’ eccentricities and inner lives.  Psychological complexity, wild humor, romance-  it’s a rich mix in the new, garish, plastic-palm-trees-and -all   Palm Beach Finland resort, “the hottest beach in Finland.”

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Doubling Up on Edith Maxwell's Quaker Midwife Mysteries

Well-written historical mysteries offer the benefits of time travel, first class: With a trustworthy author who does plenty of research, diving into a "history mystery" reveals the nuances of a particular time and culture, through the eyes of a compelling character tackling risk, danger, and injustice.

That's one of the great pleasures of reading the Quaker Midwife Mystery series from Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell. Set in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in the 1880s, the books have probed class and gender, liberty for Black Americans and for women across the board, and the customs of the politically active worship units of the Quakers.

Maxwell's most recent book in this series was CHARITY'S BURDEN, released in April 2019. Protagonist Rose Carroll is a midwife who takes her religious customs with her to to family homes she visits -- addressing people by their first names, for instance, something that Quakers of her time did to indicate that all were of equal standing. As an activist on behalf of her clients, Rose confronts the inequities in their lives: poverty, abusive spouses, terribly long work hours.

In CHARITY'S BURDEN, Rose discovers, to her horror, that one of her clients may have experienced a botched abortion and died from the results. Rose certainly understands the need for family planning, and can sympathize with a woman's desire to end a pregnancy when conditions will make another birth dangerous or cruel. But she has no patience for people who knowingly injure women (pregnant or not).

So the hunt begins for who in Amesbury is quietly putting lives at risk. At the same time, while Rose collaborates with police detective Kevin Donovan (despite Donovan's new boss banning such teamwork), she longs for the chance to finally marry her own beloved David, a doctor who in fact may be of assistance in her search for justice:
It occurred to me that David might know of doctors who provided abortion services, as illegal as they were. "And I might need a bit of help from thee."

"Whatever I can do."

"We had a happy announcement here last night. Faith and Zeb are also to be wed, and it will be this First Day."

"My, so soon. You're correct, that's very happy news." He fell silent for a moment. "Did this make you wistful for our own vows, darling?"

"I confess it did."
However, since David's mother is adamantly opposed to her son marrying Rose -- her career, her values, even her clothing are not what's expected for such a marriage -- Rose's efforts to take care of her clients and stop the illegal procedures costing them health and even life may cost her dearly.

Series readers get an extra treat with the Quaker Midwife series this year: Mystery publisher Midnight Ink, which brought CHARITY'S BURDEN and the three earlier books of this series to print, has closed its doors. So the next in the Quaker Midwife series, JUDGE THEE NOT (involving a false accusation, class bias, a pregnant woman who's blind, and more) is coming out from Beyond the Page Publishing ... not next year, but next week!

So order both books through your local store or online retailer, and enjoy the double treat. Not much "on-stage violence" in these books, but wonderful information (instilled the way Barbara Cleverly brings us England between the wars, or Sujata Massey offers India of the 1920s) and a capable and loving sleuth -- well worth adding to the TBR stack and then the "read it again soon" shelves.

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

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Crimesolving in the Trenches: WHEN HELL STRUCK TWELVE, James R. Benn

What do you value in a good mystery book? Pace? Character? Clues? A certain level of darkness but some restraint on gory moments?

I want all of those -- and a recognition that someone's got to take action against that darkness -- but I also want to respect the sleuth, feel challenged by watching for clues with the protagonist, and earn my satisfaction with the book's resolution. I may not "solve the crime" before the book's main character does (and I surely don't want to solve it in chapter 1 and then wait impatiently for him or her to catch up!), but I want to feel like I was somehow on the right track. I could have done it, if I'd had the good friend, or the moment of stress, or that head-knocking sudden new view of the people and their actions that have crowded around me in the book, right?

That sense of working toward satisfaction, coupled with the value of friendship and some good moral choices: Those are the components that make me a fan of the Billy Boyle mysteries. Or, as the covers now say, "A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery."

James R. Benn works with a well-defined stage of action and timeline. After all, World War II ended some 74 years ago, and we "know the ending." We won. So to speak.

But the details of the war years include many surprising twists and tales, and Benn's two most constant characters in this series, Lieutenant Billy Boyle (of the Boston cop Boyles) and his Polish military intelligence buddy, "Kaz," have already trudged through Spanish battlegrounds, across North African terrain, and among Roma Gypsies, while working for SHAEF, a special operations wing under General Eisenhower's personal direction.

Now in the 14th book of the series, WHEN HELL STRUCK TWELVE, Billy and Kaz undertake operations in northern France in August 1944. Back on the Allied line of action, they're caught at the opening of the book with a group of Free Poles stranded on a hill under vicious bombardment. "Every Polish soldier knew what surrender to the SS meant. Execution... There was only one choice—to fight to the death." For the Poles are all aware of the valiant Warsaw Uprising, crushed and massacred by Nazi SS troops. In Billy's grasp of the Polish situation, readers too bond with the valiant effort and with the exhilaration as the tide of battle turns: "In the midst of all the yelling, I heard a familiar voice, and saw Kaz join us. He chanted Warszawa with the rest of them, tears streaming through the dirt and dust on his cheeks."

So this isn't a "war book" -- it's an emotionally charged journey of friends under fire. And to this, Billy and Kaz's boss, Colonel Harding, adds a crime-solving mission: The team must find and isolate a traitor among the leaders of the French resistance groups, before General Patton moves into his final fierce maneuvers to retake Paris from the Nazi forces. Some of those resistance leaders aren't exactly nice people, even when gathered at an all-allies confab for final plans:
One of the bodyguards delivered a cup of coffee to Jarnac, who gave a slight nod, indicating they could relax and take their turn at the sugar bowl.

"It seems you may still be in danger," Kaz said, watching as the two hulks waited at the coffee urn.

"Simply a precaution," Jarnac said. "Old habits are hard to break. Look, even Louvet comes with his guard of honor!" ... Louvet had his own beefy men behind him, eyeing the crowded room with suspicion. No one had entered with rifles or machine guns, but there were enough revolvers and automatics in holsters, waistbands, and pockets to kick off our own gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
By the time the coffee-and-conference is over, murder's been committed, and since a coverup of the suspected traitor seems the likely motive, Billy and Kaz launch a risky and clock-racing investigation.

Fans of the series can expect other stars from earlier volumes to appear as the team gets closer to re-taking the City of Lights. Benn also hurls startling twists into the book's finale, promising an intense next book in the series.

If you're curious about the book title, here's the epigraph at the front: "O childhood, the grass, the rain, the lake water on stones, / oh moonlight when the hell struck twelve. ... / The devil's in the tower right now." From Hellish Night, by Arthur Rimbaud.

That's right. Every fiercely good mystery takes part in the battle of good and evil. Part of the suspense is in wondering how the good guys (whether at the O.K. Corral or in 1944 France) will muddle through, when (by choice) they're not using the nastiest weapons in the fight. And the other part -- which James Benn evokes so well -- is wondering ... at what cost??

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

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Anne Perry Addict? Good Choice! Here's Her 2019 Title ... TRIPLE JEOPARDY

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Triple Jeopardy shows emphatically that Perry’s best writing exhumes the motives of the human heart.”

Last year Anne Perry introduced her third crime fiction series set in England, and Triple Jeopardy is its second title, set in 1910. The book features Daniel Pitt, the son of investigators Charlotte and Thomas Pitt from one of her earlier series. Acting as what Americans would call a defense attorney, Daniel’s caught up in an international scandal that involves his sister Jemima and her husband Patrick.

One of Jemima’s friends from her years in America suffered an attempted sexual assault there, and the theft of a personally important necklace. The blame falls on British diplomat Philip Sidney and migrates with all of the group to England. Daniel’s original plan, to yield to his sister’s wishes and defend Sidney only far enough to force revelation of the assault, goes out the window when one of the witnesses is murdered and an underlayer of profit and loss begins to be revealed.

Soon Daniel is compelled to seek direction from his direct superior, the estimable Mr. Kitteridge:

“‘The murder must be part of the whole business, but if Thorwood framed Sidney, and he’s innocent of the assault and the embezzlement, how does the murder of Morley Cross fit in with that?’

‘God, you’ve got a devious mind, and you want to understand everyone!’ Kitteridge said, but it was awe he expressed, not denial. ‘I see why you’re going all shades of pale,’ he went on. ‘What is Patrick Flannery’s part in this? … Could Morley Cross have attacked Rebecca?’ Kitteridge said with disbelief. ‘Then he set up Sidney with the embezzlement change?’

‘I hadn’t even thought of that,’ Daniel admitted, a wave of nausea coming over him.”

Perry’s adroit handling of matters of law and crime creates an intriguing skein of tangled motives and court case potential in this fast-paced and likeable novel. In addition, she spikes the action with a slowly growing attraction and daring whiff of romance between Pitt and his other boss’s brilliant daughter, forensic expert Miriam fforde Croft. When Pitt and fforde Croft follow a hint of evidence out to the Channel Islands, the entire set of available motives shifts in a heartbeat. All Daniel Pitt will have to do is maneuver the progress of the legal case to force the unlikely admission of the crimes involved.

“The judge looked exasperated. ‘Mr. Pitt, my patience is not endless, and you have tried it further than most. I hope you know what you are doing?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Daniel replied. He hoped more than anyone else that, indeed, he did. They all seemed to be here. His parents, Patrick and Jemima, Miriam, all those he cared about. This was going to be a triumph … or a disaster. He could feel his heart beating, as if it were trying to break out of his chest.”

Anne Perry’s long career has labeled her as an “English author of historical detective fiction.” But Triple Jeopardy shows emphatically that her best writing exhumes the motives of the human heart. This is, in the long run, the finest characteristic of well-written fiction, and sets readers looking for more from this promising new series.

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

Espionage Thriller With Bioengineered Female Lead: Karen Robards Pulls It Off in THE FIFTH DOCTRINE

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

"The trouble with being a sort of Wonder Woman is, once people know you exist, they either want to force you to do their jobs, or kill you. Or both."

Wonder Woman. Nancy Pelosi. Michelle Obama. Although Americans haven’t yet elected a woman as President, there’s a clear cultural curiosity about what a strong and powerful yet honest and enjoyable woman leader might be like.

Into this vacuum has stepped Karen Robards, taking the espionage thriller into the terrain of a bioengineered super-strong female lead: the determined and yet oddly vulnerable Bianca St. Ives. Aware that she’s a genetically modified creation of a government researc lab, and well past her due date for termination and destruction, Bianca’s hiding out in The Fifth Doctrine as a private security entrepreneur in Savannah, Georgia, assisted by just a couple of people she trusts—but who don’t know her dark secret. Robards ramps the threat level to red as Bianca confronts the only international spy who’s come close to penetrating her defenses (in every sense). And to escape the pressures that Colin Rogan’s immediately applying, Bianca may lose her business, her friends … and her privacy.

Because the trouble with being a sort of Wonder Woman is, once people know you exist, they either want to force you to do their jobs, or kill you. Or both.

Bianca’s determination to protect her allies leads her to contemplate just disappearing. But (as revealed in the two previous books in this series, The Ultimatum and The Moscow Deception) Bianca already knows that “they found her in Macau, they’d found her Moscow, and now they’d found her in Savannah.” While she works to revamp her own defenses, she’ll have to tackle Rogan’s mission for her, one that requires her to transform into another woman who’s already an international operative.

Rogan directs her, “By the time we leave for the airport in the morning, you will be Lynette Holbrook and Operation Fifth Doctrine will be up and running.” What’s the name stand for? Rogan explains that the US military has five domains of war, and this one, the fifth, is information. “Kind of gives that whole ‘war of words’ thing a brand new meaning,” Rogan cracks.

Hot topics from today’s news cycle hiss and crackle in The Fifth Doctrine: Korean treachery. The spread of atomic weapons. Terrorist attacks and traitors motivated by money or bizarre loyalties.

Robards writes with fast scenes and the equivalent of a car chase every couple of chapters. Her special seasoning is a pulse-racing tide of attraction between Bianca St. Ives and Colin—balanced with logical mistrust, physical assertiveness, and a strand of growing respect between two people who would have liked to be colleagues instead of enemies. But could that ever happen in their world?

Series readers be warned, Bianca’s past includes more threats than Colin, and some of them are even closer to her heart. Brace for an exhilarating ride, and a finale that assures the series is far from over.

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

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Victim or Murderer? A Tango of Turmoil in THE THIRD MRS. DURST, Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre leaves behind her twists of speculative fiction to craft a more straightforward "marriage to murder" plot in her new crime novel THE THIRD MRS. DURST, released today from Midnight Ink. A twisty and satisfying plot of teen model Marlena Altizer's rise to become the latest wife of a fabulously rich and powerful man, the book turns the classic "abused spouse" narrative upside down -- because Marlena is no wimp, and her intimate friendships on the side (carefully hidden from Michael Durst!) give her the strength and courage to take drastic steps and make a daring plan.

The book's opening is slow and not at all suspenseful. But when chapter 4 opens, Marlena warns readers clearly that, as in the best thrillers, all is not as it seems:
Maybe I'd end up doing real runway shows and get my face in Vogue. If anyone in Barrettville saw, they'd be so surprised. In retrospect, I can see now that was the turning point. If I'd said no, if I hadn't gone to Germany, my life would've been so different.

I chose the road that looked prettiest from a distance, but I didn't know then—sometimes the horizon is bright because it's on fire.
Marlena's rebellion starts its own fire, as soon as the bonds of spousal control begin to tighten around her. And the beating she suffers, the old life brutally severed, the cruelties of her new marriage only serve to enflame her determination further.

Aguirre tells the tale in first person, which shows off the book's two problems: Marlena doesn't actually change much, despite her circumstances, and the prices she pays along her way to crime don't wound her deeply. Although "Mr. Durst" commands her obedience and recovery, there's no leash on her spirit, so her actions don't pull her into growth. Yet this is a quickly spun and lively thriller after the opening chapters, and has the feel of a "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" in a slinky dress. Your kind of read? Enjoy!

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

David Downing's Stand-Alone Thriller, in 1938 Germany

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Retelling wartime history as spy fiction is Downing’s deeply grounded path; pointing out the power of love and family within it, however, is his aria.

The Cold War? History. The Red Menace? A comic-book phrase tossed around in period films. World-makers struggling to turn the globe into a folllw-up from the Russian revolution of 1917? Ridiculous.

Except, as the “Mueller Report” reveals, there is an ongoing and powerful effort of the Great Powers of the world to exert political will on each other, even if it’s just to distract leaders and hamper economies. David Downing’s series of haunting mysteries set in Berlin (the John Russell series) led to the Jack McColl series, thrillers positioned at the start of the First World War. With his 2019 “stand-alone” espionage adventure, Diary of a Dead Man on Leave, Downing puffs on what now seem like the long-dormant embers of the Communist Party—but they were far from dormant as Germany positioned itself to invade its neighbors in 1938.

Unlike his two earlier series, Downing does not center the emotion of Diary of a Dead Man on Leave on a couple falling in love or struggling to maintain a relationship through political upheaval. Instead, he fingers the tenderness that can grow unexpectedly between an isolated worker for a better world, and a child who needs his counsel and support.

To Josef Hoffman, struggling on behalf of Russia’s Kremlin to recruit a Communist cell within Nazi Germany five years after Adolf Hitler has seized control, the dream of a worker-led world with fairness and justice is worth every sacrifice. He’s already handled a hidden life in distant Argentina, among displaced Germans there. Now, infiltrating cautiously among the railroad men in Hamm, he knows his chances of a misstep are high … and his death unpredictably close. To quote a 1919 leader from the Soviet Union, “we Communists are all dead men on leave”—that is, only (at best) experiencing a brief respite from self-sacrifice at every level. Downing applies the quotation as a meme for the Communist agents working outside the Soviet Union.

But for a dead man, Josef has a lot of heart. Hiding out in a boardinghouse where the landlady struggles to raise her son safely amid men who want to take over her life and her child’s, Josef’s first intention is to do no harm: Be kind toward young Walter but insulate him from politics.

Yet he fails at this, repeatedly, as when the youngster asks his help on an assignment to provide proof of racial superiority of Nordic people in terms of speech and singing. “ ‘It can’t be true, can it?’ Walter asked doubtfully after he’d finished reading the passage. No, it couldn’t, I thought, but that’s what they rely on—that smidgen of doubt. Anyone who’d listened to a Negro gospel choir or an Italian opera diva would know such ideas for the rubbish they were, but few had been so lucky, especially in a place like Hamm.”

Can Josef answer Walter honestly, while at the same time teaching the youngster enough to protect him in a brutally propagandistic school system and devouring army? What about the rest of Walter’s family—the mother, the brother, the grandfather?

The dangers and sacrifices of Josef’s live create a dramatic and piercing counterpoint to the usual story of espionage. In Downing’s hands, they also create a call to action for our time. But set that aside and absorb the story instead. Retelling wartime history as spy fiction is Downing’s deeply grounded path; pointing out the power of love and family within it, however, is his aria.

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

Provocative and Entertaining Dystopian Novel: EARLY RISER from Jasper Fforde

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Taking Early Riser into the summer reading stack will be surprisingly refreshing. Even though it arrives with both love, and a shiver of foreboding.

Dystopian fiction has become a necessary aspect to our politically unsettled and climate-challenged lives, and there’s a new longing for Joseph Campbell’s heroic figures to show us how to survive with honor and preserve a thriving planet.

As Jaspar Fforde leaps into the genre, an adult level of frustration and chaos appears: Early Riser, unlike Fforde’s long series of literary spoofs, lifts its curtain on despair and death, moderated by the equivalent of Big Pharma. Charlie Worthing, a novice “winter consul” allowed to stay awake for the frigid months of the new form of winter—while most people lie in a drug-induced sleep to save energy—seeks the source of viral dreams that are infecting sleepers and the awake. For Charlie, the dreams overlap the strange things going on around him: manipulations by two sides of the culture clash, and provoked disappearances of those who might be able to object.

What makes Early Riser unforgettable, though, is not the particular form of dystopia Fforde displays, but the affection and loyalty that Charlie and some of his new acquaintances turn into effective action against pharmaceutical giant HiberTech. Even as Charlie tackles his first assignment, taking a “soul-dead” individual named Mrs Tiffen to be parted out and recycled, the small details of humanity catch at him like “stick-tights” caught walking across a field of seeding plants: “Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki,” he notes at the opening of the book. “Not well, and only one tune: ‘Help Yourself’ by Tom Jones.  … She and I had not exchanged an intelligent word since we met five hours before, and the reason was readily explained: Mrs Tiffen was dead, and had been for several years.”

As Charlie confronts his first wakeful winter—where a mild day is around minus forty degrees—he also notes how hard he finds it to believe that a person who can play the bouzouki is no longer a person. Alive. Loving.

Affection becomes Charlie’s own melted area. His Morphenox-twisted dreams and the viral psychopathy infusing the people he meets mingle with an artifical affair he’s been dragged into—the highly attractive (but crazy?) Birgitta needs him to pretend to adore her. “‘The best relationships always begin like a bad rom-com in my experience. I’ll find a tartan travel rug and a picnic set for the Sno-Trac,’ she added, now quite enthused by the whole idea.”

Fforde sweeps the action forward briskly, unafraid of mythologizing as he goes along, complete with Villains with a capital V. He conflates Winter with the possibility of global evil, so that Charlie admits, “The citizenry didn’t know or care what the Consuls did during the cold to keep them safe, they just wanted to wake alive in the Spring, same as always. For many people, the Winter didn’t really exist except in an abstract sort of way, and by consequence, neither did we.”

The book couldn’t be further from a “beach book” in its details, yet the cover catches a bit of the viral dreaming from the story and offers a beach scene (sprinkled with snow). It’s a good hint for this season: Taking Early Riser into the summer reading stack will be surprisingly refreshing. Even though it arrives with both love, and a shiver of foreboding.

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

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fresh Espionage Fiction Set in 1992 Warsaw: Timothy Jay Smith, THE FOURTH COURIER

Suddenly 1992 and the end of the Soviet bloc and Communist era are practically historical fiction -- more than 25 years ago. In Timothy Jay Smith's fast-moving spy novel THE FOURTH COURIER, that's a moment fresh with possibilities: not just for nations but for an aging Russian who can't give up his dreams of ruling his own pocket of the world, even if it takes an atomic bomb to do so.

Brace for hot sex in surprising detail in this one, as FBI agent Jay Porter links up with a hot Polish airport worker with criminal connections, and Porter's CIA colleague Kurt Crawford turns the tables on the Russian general in a time when some sexual twists could mean far more danger and public shame than they do now.

The writing's sharp and quick, the plot laced with unusual twists. And the portrait of cash-starved, impoverished Poland at that point is poignant and salted with very human affection.

One of Jay's hosts reacts to provocation about the lack of freedom in Poland at that point:
"You cannot imagine the end of the war. The Germans were very thorough. Freedom. What good is freedom in this place at such a time? More than ninety percent of Warsaw was destroyed. We needed food, houses, protection—but not too much of any of them. If they thought we had enough of something, they took some of it away. They always wanted us to work harder. Their five-year plan was to have another five-year plan. It was enough to keep alive. I suppose it is different in America."

"It is different in America because we have freedom." ...

"Hopefully the women make more sense in America."
With flips of point of view, the reader soon knows far more than Jay about the flaws and cravings of the women on hand and the half-crazed Russian -- which ramps the tension effectively and leads to a book that's excellent summer reading. Smith's writing experience includes screenplays as well as novels, and his chapters are vibrant scenes with quick dialogue and swishes of the curtain. This won't quite reach the classics-of-espionage shelf, but it's definitely lively and surprising, a good addition to the genre. From Arcade, a division of Skyhorse Publishing.

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