Monday, May 09, 2022

New V.I. Warshawski Sleuthing from Sara Paretsky, OVERBOARD


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“One of Vic’s friends makes a comment near the end that sums up why this investigator finds her work worth the effort: Max comments, ‘If everyone sat at home watching Netflix, we’d never have any justice in this life.’”

No good deed goes unpunished. Detective V.I. (Vic, or Victoria) Warshawski may have only let her dogs out for a short run, but they take off by the waterfront and find a half-dead young woman lying among the rocks. Of course Vic calls for emergency services, and by the time the fragile teen is getting help at the hospital, the private investigator has got trouble with the police, the hospital, and, most importantly, someone from the Chicago underworld who thinks the immigrant teen was carrying a vital small item and must have slipped it to V.I. during the rescue. Not so—but is anyone going to believe Vic, or is her life going to be repeatedly in jeopardy at every move she makes?

Of course, her life is never simple enough to just have one crisis underway: She’s also trying to provide protection for some aging Jewish friends whose synagogue is under attack. Oddly, there’s a big-money real estate deal offered for the old building. Is the vandalism connected, as a form of pressure? As she gradually begins to also see parallels between the two ongoing crises, Vic also suspects someone on the police force is involved with the mob and its money.

That’s enough to concern her friends, especially after one particular officer with a reputation for torture and menace targets Vic maliciously, with both language and force.

Her trusted advisor Lotty puts it bluntly: “It’s shocking, and deplorable, that you and this young man were molested,” Lotty said. “But, Victoria, please be realistic. If the police really are covering up a major crime, you can get yourself seriously wounded physically, on top of the degradation of a strip search.” When Lotty asks Vic to back off, for the sake of the friends who love her, it seems important to do so.

Yet other forces are in action: The rescued teen vanishes from the hospital; when Vic tracks down the youth’s Hungarian grandmother, she finds collusion between a nursing home and the black-ops police officers. More assaults on the synagogue distress Vic’s elderly friends to almost the breaking point. She clearly can’t help being pulled back into this dangerous mess, can she?

One of the pleasures of reading Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski novels is that despite the threats and pressure, there’s relatively little gore spread around, so the focus can stay on the perpetrators and their motives. Even the bent police pressure on Vic amounts to little more than battering her (although, granted, much worse gets threatened). Series readers will recognize the steady build-up of Vic’s insistence on justice at any cost, a reliable characteristic of these books. New to V.I. Warshawski? Relax and enjoy the well-plotted story and don’t worry about earlier titles—Parestsky doesn’t embed anything that calls for reading the other books, and her highly professional narrative makes it easy to catch Warshawski’s motivations and maneuvers. The quirks of the Chicago waterfront add to the book’s drama, and to the factors stacked up against this lone detective. But don’t take the “lone” notion too seriously: Vic’s willingness to be a friend, with all her heart, gains an equal return, and she’s well supported.

One of Vic’s friends makes a comment near the end that sums up why this investigator finds her work worth the effort, despite its risks and her often wounded body: Max comments, “If everyone sat at home watching Netflix, we’d never have any justice in this life.”

For Vic, that’s not going to be a problem.

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

BAD ACTORS, Sardonic and Delightful Espionage from Mick Herron


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

 “Herron’s plot is packed with twists and delightfully sardonic conversations, and the book’s only major flaw is that at some point it ends, and one must resume normal life.”

It’s hard to miss the promotion on television and online for “Slow Horses,” as the earliest in Mick Herron’s Slough House spy novels jumps genre into an Apple TV+ show featuring Gary Oldman. But Bad Actors, eighth in the series, has no connection to performance, despite the title that might immediately pop a stage into the back of an American reader’s mind.

It turns out that the British term “bad actor” means a person who’s done things that are harmful, illegal, or immoral. Herron’s Slough House is a discard group for MI5 spies who’ve messed up and now get tedious assignments sorting through social media or phone books or worse. Every spy assigned there—dustbinned might be a good term to add—knows they’ve made a mess somewhere in their recent past, and they won’t be allowed back into the Park, the office of really performing agents, ever again.

Well, unless you count Ashley Khan. Quite young and still deluding herself that the infamous Diana Taverner will take her back into important operations, Ashley is also obsessed with the source of her demotion: Jackson Lamb, head of Slough House. On a recent assignment, Lamb caught her following one of his spies. They may be (they are) all failures, but still, they are his, and he doesn’t allow anyone to mess with them (much). So he’d broken Ashley’s arm and sent her back to Taverner, whose acid response was, “You broke her, you own her.” Back to Slough House she went.

Since Ashley is as paranoid as any other spy, and clueless as well, she’s baffled by the interactions around her in Slough House. While she obsesses on punishing Lamb, the team is actually in crisis mode. Cokehead Shirley Dander’s been send to a sanitarium to dry out; narcissist Roddy Ho is creating avatar girlfriends for himself as a distraction; River Cartwright, the most potentially sane of the Slough House discards, isn’t even around, presumed dead or permanently missing.

And like Ashley, most readers will rush a third of the way into the book, at least, before confirming that almost all the machinations taking place have Jackson Lamb behind them. One could certainly be excused for not looking at Lamb—between his predictably terrible farts, his smoking and spitting, and his disgustingly soiled clothing and office, he’s both camouflaged and repellent. But he’s also brilliant, and much sharper, it turns out, than Diana Taverner herself.

Thanks to adept storytelling, readers are aware before Lamb (or is that impossible?) that ex-spy Claude Whelan, a tool in use by Taverner, is muddying all possible waters with a notion of payback on Lamb, and he’s more effective than young Ashley:

Where did Whelan’s loyalties lie? Not with either side. Not with any bad actor, whether in the Service he’s led or the government he’d served. … It still rankled, his fall from grace, and why shouldn’t he take some matter of revenge? It wasn’t really him, he knew that. He was nobody’s idea of an avenging knight. But wasn’t it time for a change.

Soon dominoes are tumbling in various directions, only Lamb really knows their triggers, and as a savior of anyone or anything, Lamb’s even less likely than Claude Whelan. The fun (and poignant bonding) of Bad Actors lies in watching all the others, at Slough House and beyond, gradually realize that only Lamb’s irreverent demands and plans are likely to get them out of a mess that’s so absurd, so wracked with capers and collapses, then even Claude Whelan will say he can’t tear his eyes away.

Herron’s plot is packed with twists and delightfully sardonic conversations, and the book’s only major flaw is that at some point it ends, and one must resume normal life. But there may be a flavor of wicked humor remaining in what one does afterward—along with great satisfaction at what Lamb and the “Slow Horses” pull out of their grubby, out-of-fashion hats.

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

Monday, April 25, 2022

Traditional Sleuthing with Jewish Touches, from Andy Weinberger


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books

“This fine traditional LA crime novel with its Jewish tang and its quandaries of the elderly provides enjoyable entertainment.”

Amos Parisman is feeling his age—he needs naps, he misses his wife (she’s in a care home with dementia), he has to be careful about remembering his keys. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to quit the private eye work he’s done all his life. So when a “homeless lady” in is neighborhood is murdered and his police buddy Lieutenant Bill Malloy is open to his help, Andy’s eager to contribute. Anything that will dispel the fog of aimlessness and sorrow in his life is more than welcome.

The lieutenant half apologizes for the collaboration, and hopes Amos doesn’t mind. He’s blunt: “Mind? Are you kidding? This is exactly the kind of case I need.” He admits, “It’s a police matter. Only I happen to know a little bit about her. And besides, Bill—this retirement thing?—between you and me, I’d rather be dead.”

Although Amos is not religious, he’s 100 percent Jewish in heritage and outlook, and his thoughts and conversations are sprinkled with scraps of Yiddish and wry comments about his mixed neighborhood in Los Angeles.

And that’s the fun half of this old-fashioned PI tale, because the other half, getting acquainted with a lot of homeless people and the not always pure-minded folks who “help” them takes a lot of Amos’s energy. That energy drain is also part of why his gentle romance on the side with a wealthy Jewish woman is pretty low key, mostly holding hands, kissing, and sharing a bottle of wine (much more for her). Amos has a moral code and he’s still in love with his wife, absent though her mind has become—and yet this new “girlfriend,” Mara, wants him to move in with her, to save money and be less lonely.

This might not be great for Mara’s granddaughter, Amos considers: “She’s a smart girl and has figured out that I’m quietly shtupping her grandma. His effort to hold Mara back isn’t exactly working, since she can point to his efforts to assist the police as being unpaid, so somehow worth less. Amos, on the other hand, says “The pool old woman in the dumpster? The throwaway?” Mara is blunt: “She’s not going anywhere.”

Maybe his PI work soothes his conscience, which is not exactly happy with the situation. Or maybe he’s just stubborn and doesn’t want to let go, the way he hasn’t let go of his wife. But isn’t that a good think?

This fine traditional LA crime novel with its Jewish tang and its quandaries of the elderly provides enjoyable entertainment, and is the third in Andy Weinberger’s own late-life second career (he’s a bookseller first of all). By the time Amos figures out what’s actually going on in the crescendo of deaths of the homeless, he’s got himself into a risky situation that someone his age should have known better about.

Then again, who should be better at making moral choices than an old Jewish PI who wishes he could always figure out what’s right? When the case finally ends, Amos says, “It’s not a good thing. The only good thing is that it’s over."

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

Terrific Short Crime Fiction in July Anthology, JACKED, from Run Amok Books


If your crime fiction reading is dominated by the books that get advertising dollars, that's completely understandable -- because those are the ones you hear about often.

But where's the adventure in biting the hook when it's baited with those ad dollars?

Great news: Run Amok Books, a small "indie" press near Princeton, NJ, has a new crime fiction imprint. JACKED is part of that launch. Pulled together by author/editor Vern Smith, who's already had a finalist novella for Canada's Arthur Ellis Award, this new release includes 21 stories of murder, mayhem, and wry mystery that rise way above expectations. 

That's because the authors providing the stories are already seasoned in this field. Take the story "Killing in Periot," a short pithy tale of family disfunction. It's by Allison Whittenberg, who's racked up three Pushcart Prize nominations. A cross between a hard-boiled approach and a YA revenge tale, the story builds to the perfect finale in a single word: "Good." Unforgettable.

"Len Bias" turns crime fighting and the war against drugs inside out in completely unexpected ways. Setting it in Portland, Zephaniah Sole offers a cop with a bad back  (don't they all have that?) who proudly reports that "I'm the FBI guy embedded in the team." The team turns out to have a brilliant way of infiltrating the worst drug business, and I shook my head for quite a while after I figured it out. Sole gives a clean, clear, well-paced approach to the twist, and an astute reader may get it, just before the author pulls back the curtain.

And what about that creepy approach that made Edgar Allan Poe a trailblazer? Meagan Lucas, highly experienced as both author and editor, shapes "Picking the Carcass" into a women's updated version of "The Gold Bug." Shivers. More shivers. What a mom will do to get by, right?

My favorite might be Ricky Sprague's "The Gryfters," but then again, that might be because it takes root in some of the best of both hard-boiled and caper fiction. The first line is, "I handled by first carjacking with real sang-froid." Could that be you?

I could go on, crooning over this nest of snarky, crazy, neatly twisted stories until I've had a chance to find a reason to name each one of them "the best" in some aspect. But it makes a lot more sense to stop here, and let you look ito JACKED for yourself.  It's coming out July 1 (can be pre-ordered now!) and in the meantime you can check out the press website (https://runamokbooks.website) and some cool readings by the authors on the Run Amok Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/runamokbooks). Make sure to check out the very lively and intriguing blog attached to the website, too.

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

Solve the Murder, Cancel the Curse: PLEADING THE FISH from Bree Baker


The seventh in the Seaside Café Mystery series, PLEADING THE FISH, sends Everly Swan into a desperate dive for research that may prove it's safe for her to marry Detective Grady Hays (and become Mama to his adorable son Denver).  Everly's long-established family in the seaside town of Charm, North Carolina, has far too many widows in it, and family lore says that the men chosen by the Swan women die quickly, struck by a historic curse.

The curse, if it exists, dates back to the original owners of the house that's become Everly's sweet-tea and gourmet food café. The place comes with a protective seagull and a hauntingly clever cat that Everly suspects could be those original lovers, hanging around to comfort and warn her.

But the dangers she faces, as an amateur sleuth motivated by love and loyalty, are very real and very much in the present. Series readers will sympathize when they notice that Everly is going to have to "make nice" with her childhood enemy Mary Grace in order to dig into what's motivating the small town's latest crime wave. Whoever is responsible clearly realizes that Everly is on the hunt—because the criminal keeps dumping seaweed and fish all over her vehicles, as well as threatening her directly on the town's gossip website.

No need to read the other six books in the series first—Baker does a nice job of  bringing in the pertinent details. But it will be a lot more fun if you already have, plus if this is your first peek into a Bree Baker book, beware! You may find yourself buying all the rest of the series, for a good summer of relaxing romantic suspense. 

"Bree Baker" is a pen name of Julie Ann Lindsey, whose website shows her other series. Perfect for a very feminine stack of books to sweeten the evenings. And, of course, PLEADING THE FISH comes with recipes at the end, this time including the famous Swan lemon cake, "to bolster a hero's heart."

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

Monday, April 11, 2022

Compelling, Revealing, Fierce, and Agonizing: Eli Cranor's Debut Crime Novel, DON'T KNOW TOUGH


Dennis Lehane did it for Boston: gave us the gritty lives of people growing up impoverished not just in terms of money and power, but self-esteem and affection. And then Lehane turned each narrative on its ear to show us the love and courage that burn underneath—not like an unquenched flame, but like vinegar or whiskey poured into an open wound.

In his first published novel, Eli Cranor does the same for Arkansas—not in a city but in the dangerous fields of high school football. And the even more perilous crowds of spectators, whose rough cheers and rougher sneers suggest they're ardent bystanders ... but who have built and incited the violence playing out in front of them.

Desperate but still somehow idealistic, incoming coach Trent Powers intends to bring his unruly football players into enough collaboration to win games. He must, to regain his wife's respect and some measure of the control that his Caifornia father-in-law has stripped from him. Still convinced he can be a savior, he's willing to do anything to rescue a possible team star and capture the region's prized title.

But he hasn't ever met someone like Billy Lowe before—or principal Don Bradshaw, already immersed in the team's harsh masculinity and its local roots of abuse. Bluntly, Bradshaw tells Trent Powers, "What's up is a sh**-storm, and you're sitting in the eye of it."

Extraordinary football player that he is, Billy's at the core of the team's dark nightmarish actions. The principal claims it's because of the Blackness in Billy and his older (and also game-fierce) brothers—an unproven but widely asserted claim, and a pillar of the book's Southern Gothic framework. "You got to know how to handle a Lowe."

But Cranor strips his characters under blazing spotlights, letting them narrate in turn, and readers soon know more about Billy's desperation than anyone at the school guesses. Here's a sample of Billy's home life:

I heard Him flick his lighter.

Whole body go tight at the smell, feeling that burn all over again. ... The other night when he stuck me. I's sitting on the ground against the sofa, holding Little Brother, watching Wheel of Fortune, and then he stuck that red [cigarette] tip in my neck, like it was some kind of joke. I just squeezed Little Brother tight. Just took it. Been taking his sh** for years. Back when I's a kid and He's still bigger than me—I had to take it. Didn't have no choice. Don't know if that's what I's thinking when He stuck me, but I knew I couldn't let Him see me hurt. Little Brother started screaming, loud and crazy, like he could feel the fire in my blood.

That time, Billy's Little Brother got a vicious and humiliating punishment for witnessing Billy's pain. This time, Billy's past his own limit and lets loose one massive punch that knocks over his mother's "boyfriend." The man's still alive (though he doesn't deserve to be) when Billy takes off to wash himself clean at the river—and get drunk.

When "He" dies, Billy's the immediate and only suspect. Coach Powers struggles naively to rescue Billy from this mess, the only way this outsider coach can press the team to the title. Meanwhile, two women with very different motives get involved, and despite the pulse-pounding action and violence of the story, the truth of the death emerges slowly and indirectly. And maybe not in time for anyone, least of all the coach, to be saved.

Though DON'T KNOW TOUGH is packed with brutality and its consequences, Cranor metes it out in precise doses that punch to the gut yet keep the pages turning. Grim, bleak, even the hope that does arrive—and yes, it does—comes tainted with high costs and dark potential. So take a good soul-clearing walk after reading this. But it is, in its own powerful way, well worth the pain.

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.

Aimée Leduc Risks All, in MURDER AT THE PORTE DE VERSAILLES, by Cara Black


This 20th adventure of the style-conscious and cash-poor Parisian detective Aimée Leduc takes the single parent into a collision of dates and pressures, and Cara Black ramps the tension up with page-turning plotting that never relaxes.

It's November 2001—do you recall those first few months after 9/11, when the world had become (for Americans in particular) a much more frightening place? With bomb threats and danger "codes" and new forms of airline security? 

All that and more are resonating for Leduc, as she hosts a birthday celebration for her three-year-old daughter, mourns her father (he'd died on the same date), and begins to consider leaving Paris behind, to live more safely on a farm with her little daughter's father. But wait, that would also mean leaving behind her detective agency, and her close friends and colleagues, too.

Before the pressure has a chance to reach decision point, a crime shatters the family-and-friends gathering: Boris Viard, who left the party to go back to work and pick up his forgotten gift for the child, is desperately injured in a bomb explosion at his workplace, the Laboratoire Central de Police. Now it's a crime scene, for MURDER AT THE PORTE DE VERSAILLES.

Fans of the series and newcomers alike will guess quickly that by sending her little one away with papa to the farm in order to concentrate on clearing Boris of accusations that he set the bomb, Aimée makes an unexpected gap in her emotional life—one that another investigator may sense and be drawn toward.

Or is it just her detective skills that counterterrorism pro Loïc Bellan is recruiting?

"You owe me," Aimée said. "Plus, I'm your colleague now."

She put her hand on his arm. He turned, an intent look in his eyes. She inhaled the leather tang of his jacket, realized how warm his arm was through his sweater sleeve. The heat he generated just sitting there. She noticed the length of his eyelashes.

Idiot. Stop it. Heat flushed her neck.

Never get involved with a flic.

Especially a flic her father had a history with.

The effort to clear Boris will take all the investigatory skills and connections that Leduc and her detection partner René can muster. But it may also cost her more than she can afford.

Cara Black's narrative skills and suspense-laden pacing have never been better. The absence of that adored daughter frees up Leduc to push harder and absorb extra risks, and without details of little sticky hands, babysitters, and bedtimes, the action moves with power and authenticity. 

New to the series? Don't worry, there's no catch-up needed. Long-term fan? Enjoy Black's surge into her best writing yet.

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Emotional Thriller, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BENNETTS by Lisa Scottoline

 


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Scottoline’s flawless plot twists create a bond with this scrambling, desperate dad in his new-found courage and hastily recruited allies.”

Lisa Scottoline’s thrillers are always tight, taut page-turners, packed with action and risk and suspense. In What Happened to the Bennetts, she crafts fresh intensity because of the powerful emotions at stake, reassembling like kaleidoscope pieces with every fresh scene.

The opening chapter presents a parent’s nightmare: Jason Bennett, a court reporter with a specialty in lip reading, is headed home with his wife and two kids in the family car after his daughter Allison’s lacrosse game. When a truck begins to tailgate them, he’s ready to pull over and get out of the way. Instead, a couple of men attempt to carjack them, and of course Jason yields—anything to keep his family safe!

But instead, despite the family’s scramble out of the car, one of the criminals fires at them, a shot that will be fatal Jason’s daughter. Before the Bennetts even have a chance to face what’s just happen, FBI agents scoop them up, convinced that the criminals are part of a dangerous gang of drug traffickers. And for the rest of the Bennetts to survive, they’ve got to enter witness protection. Right. Now.

Special Agent Kingston pounds the urgency into them: “A carjacking usually occurs for one of three reasons. Number one, the car is stolen to flee the scene of a crime. Number two, the car is stolen because it’s a specific make, as part of an auto theft ring. Number three, the victim is in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In this case, the FBI concludes, is option number one. Except that since one of the criminals killed the other during the attempt, there’s going to be a lie circulated that Jason Bennett shot the second criminal, and in a gang like this one, revenge will already be in motion.

So that’s enough pressure to put the family into hiding in a rural back woods, with protection. But WITSEC doesn’t have what they need to process Allison’s death (they can’t even be at her funeral!) or deal with rumors circulating about them (Jason’s wife was having an affair, Jason is killing anyone involved). Let alone the emotional distress of Allison’s younger brother, who’s blaming himself and spiraling down rapidly.

It’s Jason’s point of view that carries the book, and his self-blame, as the dad who should have been able to protect his daughter, is enormous. He could spiral down, too—but he’s already shown his courage and devotion in many small ways, so when he takes things into his own hands, determined to confront the criminal gang and somehow get his remaining family members out of this nightmare purgatory, he’s acting from love and determination. And his suspicions soar sky high when he puts together his wife’s nearly accidental affair with the law team for the criminal consortium. She hadn’t even realized this … and now, Jason finds, “I couldn’t say another word. I couldn’t stay in the room with her.” Because it’s starting to look like there’s been nothing accidental in all of this, but the FBI isn’t “getting it,” and it’s up to Jason to find a way.

“I had to get back and tell Dom [an FBI agent] everything. My family wouldn’t be safe outside the program until the conspiracy had been exposed.”

Nothing’s really prepared Jason Bennett for this kind of mission. But he has the most powerful possible reasons for pursuing it. And Scottoline’s flawless plot twists create a bond with this scrambling, desperate dad in his new-found courage and hastily recruited allies.

Clear the calendar before you start reading; What Happened to the Bennetts is so good, you may not want to put it down until the hard-won and well-earned finale.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2022

DNA Matching Can Be Thrilling—THE MATCH by Harlan Coben Shows Why


The March 2022 release from Harlan Coben, THE MATCH, is a taut and fast-paced thriller charged with dangers and dark deeds -- and underlaid with honest affection and a craving for justice.

That makes it one of the best mysteries of the year so far, worth buying, reading, then waiting a bit and re-reading, because it holds up so well in terms of human value.

THE MATCH begins as a sequel to The Boy From the Woods. Wilde (his only name) survived as an abandoned small child in the woods north of the New Jersey suburbs. In the earlier title, his survival skills assist TV lawyer Heather Crimstein in finding, and finding justice for, a missing girl.

There's no need to read The Boy From the Woods before THE MATCH, though. Wilde's strong bond and interdependence with Heather come through clearly from the start, along with his loyalty and love toward others in Heather's family. And he is understandably determined, at this point in his adult life (post military service), to discover his own roots if he can.

Wilde's submission of his DNA to the online databases, however, opens a door to life-threatening danger. The man identified as his father by the database claims a long-forgotten one-night stand; the man pinpointed as Wilde's cousin may have committed suicide; his other presumed cousins cover a range of misleading to nasty. And in opening the gate toward what may have resulted in his being abandoned, Wilde crosses paths with a powerful faction that doesn't shrink from abuse and murder.

Threaded through the book are tech surprises ranging from password tricks to vicious vigilantes, classic material for Coben, whose thrillers skate along the edges of military secrets, surveillance, and stalking. But when real danger crowds up against Wilde and the people he cares about, it comes from a significant betrayal that could cost him ... everything.

Highly recommended. And if you are new to Coben, the surprises he provides about both New Jersey and cybercrime will add to the delight of discovery. 

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

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

THE LIGHTNING ROD, Fresh Light Suspense from Brad Meltzer

 


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

The Lightning Rod will suit readers of James Patterson, Stuart Woods, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and John Gilstrap. Don’t look for character growth or deep revelation about how government and military operate—stick with light thriller expectations, and The Lightning Rod will provide rapid-paced entertainment.”

The Lightning Rod is the second in Brad Meltzer’s new thriller series that features “Zig and Nola”—where Zig, Jim Zigarowski, is a mortician but no longer working for the government, and Nola is a government-contracted artist. And, incidentally, a dangerous and damaged person with limited interpersonal skills.

That would be enough on its own to establish peril and risk. Add in the slain Lieutenant Colonel Archie Mint and his colleagues, and the chase scenes feel like a packed party favor, aching to explode.

Mint’s family appears to have no idea the officer had a second military assignment, working at Dover Air Force Base, which for Zig has been home base also: “home of the mortuary for the U.S. government’s most high-profile and top secret cases.” It only takes Zig a few minutes of attempting to restore the corpse’s facial makeup to realize there are some very peculiar things going on. In fact, being called into the mortuary work for this funeral is peculiar in itself.

When Zig discovers that the unpredictable and ferocious Nola—who is also an orphan who’s suffered in the foster system—documented in her drawings this murdered officer and two others, one of whom is already dead, he realizes there are no coincidences here. Only deliberate hunting and shooting, not to mention cutting of throats, when the hired help of the dark net get involved.

Most difficult to manage is the entanglement one of Nola’s family members (and Zig is astounded to find that she had one), Roddy LaPointe. Roddy brings more potential explosions, but also some clarity:

“’From what I could find, all three were in the same unit,’ Roddy explained, swiping back to the painting [done by Nola] and enlarging the photo to enhance the logo on Mint’s jacket. A hand grabbing two lightning bolts. Semper Vigiles.

‘Army Security Agency,’ Roddy explained, again checking over his shoulder. This time the street was quiet. ‘Dates back to World War II, when they did high-end investigative work—top secret and above—stuff they didn’t even trust to the Army intel folks.’”

As Zig and his collaborators dig into what the investigators had uncovered, he finds many who are determined to keep the facts buried. If it weren’t for the way Nola is coming apart at the seams, and her dangerous brother, Zig might back out—especially because his ex-wife is tugging him toward a very different investigation.

The action and entangled threads make this a page-turner, with big doses of both military weaponry and tech complications. Meltzer’s habit of very short chapters and many points of view does chop the flow, and there are multiple flaws in “continuity” among the rapid scenes. Red herrings and McGuffins abound, too. So read this one as quickly as you can, surfing the classic thriller ambience and not asking too many deep questions.

The Lightning Rod will suit readers of James Patterson, Stuart Woods, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and John Gilstrap. Don’t look for character growth or deep revelation about how government and military operate—stick with light thriller expectations, and The Lightning Rod will provide rapid-paced entertainment.

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

Lively Contemporary Mystery from Amanda Flower, PUT OUT TO PASTURE


Spring's delights can also mean long days, adding gardening and strolling (maybe even without a mask, at last!) to the regular work week. So a really well-written cozy mystery is a gift to yourself -- and PUT OUT TO PASTURE by Amanda Flower (Poisoned Pen Press) fits perfectly.

This is Flower's second in her Farm to Table mysteries, and opens, of course, with a death. It's one of the significant community members attending the opening festival at Shiloh Bellamy's organic family farm. Despite the immediate disaster of a murder at a public event, Shiloh might have seen this one coming, since she'd only just commented to herself, "If anyone could make good on a promise to make another person's life miserable it was Minnie Devani."

When Minnie's death looks connected to a very public argument with Shiloh's best friend Kristy, and Shiloh's own family structure is threatened as well, it makes perfect sense for her to team up with the local investigation. Especially satisfying in this "cozy" are Shiloh's intelligence and sensible decisions -- a refreshing change from cozy protagonists who stumble from one mistake to the next. Shiloh's also good at speaking up for herself, and pushing past unpleasant people. When she can, she sorts things out with Kristy:

"I wonder who else knew Minnie well? There has to be someone in Cherry Glen who knew who Minnie was. If there wasn't ..."

"If there wasn't what?"

[Kristy] sighed. "If there wasn't, that's incredibly sad. Can you imagine living your whole adult life in a lie? I couldn't love like that. How can you go through life not being known for who you really are?"

I was far less the social butterfly than Kristy was, but I felt the same way. I wouldn't have been able to keep up the lie as well as Minnie had, or I didn't think I could. However, [...] not going to prison would be a pretty good motivation to keep my mouth shut. It clearly had been for Minnie.

Neatly plotted, smartly written, PUT OUT TO PASTURE is a great light mystery to relax with, whether your season includes digging a new vegetable bed or overhauling your wardrobe or saving the world (why not all three?). One small disappointment: no recipes at the end. But hey, you've got other books and websites for those, right? Although you don't need to read the first book in the series, Farm to Trouble, to enjoy this one, it might be nice to grab a copy for later in your own flowering season.

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


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

New Lynley Investigation from Elizabeth George, SOMETHING TO HIDE


 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Elizabeth George can really spin a great investigation when she’s not trying so hard to teach the shocking discoveries she has made in her own explorations.”

Elizabeth George’s mysteries featuring Scotland Yard investigators Barbara Havers and Thomas Lynley began with A Great Deliverance in 1988. Now her 21st book in the series, Something to Hide, probes life and death in the Nigerian community of North London, along with the custom of female genital mutilation (FGM).

For those new to George’s work, the 687-page book isn’t likely to carry them into loving the series, because the noted Scotland Yard investigators don’t come into the action until page 119. And for readers who treasure Lynsley and Havers, that’s also a problem—chapters cascading about people who are in emotional and physical pain, in the midst of a socioeconomic disaster.

George clearly has done massive amounts of research for this book. Unfortunately, that message keeps coming back, when instead it might have been far more effective to simplify the plot a bit, and let the research take a backstage role.

The meeting in which Lynsley comes onto the case sums up the positioning of his investigation, in a politically challenging time:

“In [Lynley’s] morning meeting with Assistant Commissioner Sir David Hiller and the head of the Press Office, Stephen Deacon, the political concerns of both men had been writ large enough and dark enough for a mole in sunlight to read them. … Teo Bontempi was not only a police detective, she was a Black police detective. The last thing the Metropolitan Police needed to have hurled at them was an accusation that not enough was being thrown into the investigation because the office in question was Black or female or both. Racism, sexism, misogyny … There could not be a whisper of any of this during the investigation and did the Acting Detective Chief Superintendent understand what was being said?”

Even after this, the book is plagued by too many points of view and not enough agency. Series readers, who’ll want to tackle this anyway, may do best to skip “Part I” in order to leap into the investigation. Newcomers to the Lynsley books should probably try an earlier title.

That said, if this weren’t a “genre” book – that is, a Scotland Yard investigation – it might stand as an imposing literary probe of Nigerian/North London culture. Perhaps that’s how it should instead be shelved. But then the author would need to take out the endless attempts at Black language, wouldn’t she?

There are better books to stack on the bedside table or take to a desert island. Which is a shame, because Elizabeth George can really spin a great investigation when she’s not trying so hard to teach the shocking discoveries she has made in her own explorations.

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

In the Mood for an American Dystopia Thriller from John Gilstrap?

 


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“This all adds up to why a John Gilstrap thriller, crammed with violence and testing of the soul, might be the perfect work of fiction to sink into, in a tough time for the real world.”

Global pandemic. Rising sea levels. Powerful nations making threats. When all that news of the moment seems too much to handle, it’s time to pick up the newest in the Victoria Emerson thriller series from John Gilstrap, Blue Fire.

Gilstrap’s most extensive series, with protagonist Jonathan Grave, took the action to both international escapades and American militia terrain, always featuring the explosive skills of Grave and his main sidekick, Boxers, aka the Big Guy. Connected unofficially with American government, Grave and his team applied skills that mirrored expertise Gilstrap acquired himself in explosives safety and hazardous waste.

In 2021, Gilstrap’s first Victoria Emerson thriller proposed an America on the brink of nuclear war. Emerson’s a U.S. congressional representative for the state of West Virginia, and when she’s ordered to enter a safety bunker without her three teenage sons (she’s a single mother), she refuses and finds other shelter.

As Blue Fire opens, Victoria Emerson’s running a survival-based town where she’s never without both a handgun and an M4 rifle. Her former government status isn’t well known, but her leadership skills have made her essential, and she’s maintaining the safety of a growing population there.

You know how it is: If you’re doing better than the folks around you, someone wants in. This time, for Emerson’s town of Ortho, West Virginia, invaders jealous of the community’s relative prosperity launch a coordinated attack. The process of holding them off demands that each of her sons become a leader, too—and face dangers that no mother wants near her family. But if they’re all going to make it, Emerson’s got to both let go, and teach skills like crazy.

Her oldest son, Adam, is out there on his own, probably headed toward the family’s home farm. But Emerson and her younger sons can’t get there until they’ve straightened out Ortho, and maybe some adjacent towns as well.

Check out Victoria Emerson as she endeavors to combine leading, acting as judge, and being true to herself, with Mr. and Mrs. Sable, called on the carpet for theft:

“Victoria felt heat rising in her ears. ‘Society may have collapsed, Mrs. Sable, but civilization has not. At least not here. Not on my watch. … We’re rebuilding from nothing here. Months from now, some of our residents will be thriving, and, alas, some of our residents will have a very long winter. Perhaps their last, but I certainly hope not.’”

Count on plenty of the firefights and explosions and team infiltrations that Gilstrap’s become noted for, a rapid pace of action, direct frontier justice, and hints that the ex-government hiding in a bunker could be a problem—but then again, there are clearly more books in this page-turning series, in which Victoria Emerson can continue to test her strengths against the grim aspects of dystopia, and seek a few minutes (or longer) to savor loyalty, friendship, and perhaps a bit more. If there’s time before her world ends.

This all adds up to why a John Gilstrap thriller, crammed with violence and testing of the soul, might be the perfect work of fiction to sink into, in a tough time for the real world.

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