Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mystery Publisher to Keep an Eye On: Encircle Publications

At  the New England Crime Bake this weekend, the two (married to each other) people who "are" Encircle Publications, Eddie Vincent and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent, shared perceptive insight on today's mystery publishing business. Just as much in flux as any other market segment, it's also providing healthy new forms, and Encircle captures one of the most intriguing: a small to mid-sized publishing house where authors are significant, strong writing matters, and this much-loved genre thrives.

In a season when several small-ish mystery publishers have either folded or been gobbled up by the big franchises, here's a chance to pay attention -- and pay some support -- to a rising star.

Currently the mystery author list at Encircle includes:

Thursday, November 07, 2019

For the Gift List: Cara Black, MURDER IN BEL-AIR

It's time to shop for holiday gifts. One book for me, one book for you. Isn't that fair enough, from one book lover to another?

Cara Black's MURDER IN BEL-AIR, number 19 in her astonishing series featuring single-mom Parisian detective Aimée Leduc, may be her best yet. With a robustly complex plot that involves the disappearance of Aimée's own mother, as well as others, this crime novel plunges into both the Leduc family complications and the criminal enterprises of the City of Lights. And it's full of moments that capture this stylish detective at her most determined an active, like this:
She'd struck a chord. Thrown him off-balance.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Arles." His answer came too quick. And she'd never heard a Provençal accent like his. Not even close to that musical patois.

She saw him tense, and his lips moved—he was whispering something.

Merde. Was he wired?

With no more of a plan than to get the hell out, she accelerated, veering left as she kicked straight out with her right foot. Counted on the element of surprise. Her stiletto heel got him in the thigh. Wobbling over the cobblestones in the rain, the scooter shot forward and out of the courtyard.

Right into traffic. Her handlebars scraped a van, and she almost lost her balance. But somehow she kept going, weaving in the downpour with a cacophony of horns blaring behind her.
Black's author note at the start connects the plot to her own mother, and her lithe depictions of strong vibrant women in MURDER IN BEL-AIR contributes to the story's swift action and bright undercurrents. No need to read the other 18 titles first ... get this one for yourself for holiday-season relaxing, and give a copy to one of your best friends as well.

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

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Strong Stand-Alone from Garry Disher, UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS (Australia)

Australian author Garry Disher now has more than 50 books to his credit, but is not yet well known in America. Thanks to Soho Crime, his two crime series—the gritty yet often tender Hal Challis books and very very dark "noir" of the Wyatt series—have mostly traveled to the United States. In July, Soho Crime (the crime fiction imprint of Soho Press) brought out a stand-alone from this author: UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS.

The book's closer in tone to the Hal Challis series than to the Wyatt books. Detective Alan Auhl, now an acting sergeant, is much older than most of the force and has been pulled back into action to tackle the cold cases. He is clearly wounded, himself. His former wife sometimes visits, but not always to share affection with him; in addition, Auhl owns a boarding house that caters to people with hard-luck stories yet decent hearts, among them an abused woman named Neve and her young daughter Pia, still being emotionally strangled by their ties to Pia's father. While Auhl struggles to help Neve and Pia find a position of strength, he's also tangled up in the cold case of John Elphick, whose daughters insist he was murdered, and with a newly discovered body that clearly dates back to a much earlier death, as well as a murderous doctor—and maybe it's just as well he's so busy. Otherwise he'd drown in the grief and angst of his boarders.

The delight of Disher's investigation novels is the depth he unfolds in his investigators, and UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS is a great example -- and also, for that reason, a good starter if you haven't yet read any of this Down-Under author. Here's a sample:
As the evening deepened, Auhl brooded. Men like Kelso, Fanning—Alec Neill. Their assumptions,  cronyism, power, sense of entitlement. Pre-emptive strike kinds of men: they seized the advantage while the rest of the world was thinking things through. Like Neill with his accusations against his wife,  thought Auhl. And as soon as we move against him he'll surround himself with lawyers and colleagues. ... Quite suddenly, a deeper unease settled into Auhl. Saturday morning. Janine Neill, pale, dizzy, uncoordinated. She had speculated blithely that Neill might shoot her or push her off a rock, but what if he'd poisoned her? Surely he couldn't be that arrogant? But he'd succeeded three times before Maybe he thought he was untouchable. ... [Auhl] dressed in dark clothing, backed his elderly Saab out of the garage and headed across to East Melbourne, heart jumpy and mouth dry.
Like Karen Slaughter, Tucker Coe (a Westlake nom de plume), or Louise Penny, Disher gives us an investigator whose sense of his own belonging to the world depends on taking action against the cruel, malicious, and criminal. Thanks to his deep experience and careful craft, UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS is one of the most satisfying mysteries of 2019.

[More Disher reviews here.]

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

Friday, November 01, 2019

New from Lee Child, BLUE MOON (Jack Reacher)

At a rough count, this is number 25 from Lee Child, of which 23 involve Jack Reacher. Count on BLUE MOON for rattling good adventure, casual violence, and those moments of thoughtful appraisal and deep kindness that make a Jack Reacher thriller so different from the average shoot-'em-up. I confess, I pre-order each one and look forward to a couple of evenings of true relaxation.

In BLUE MOON, Reacher's riding on a long-distance bus when he realizes an elderly man on the bus has become a crime target. And you know Reacher, right? He gets off the bus when the almost-victim does, tries to intervene ... and gets caught up in a city-wide crime wave.

It's hard to avoid spoilers, so let's just say there are Albanians and Ukrainians, and some effect of Russians -- and a remarkable woman, and some great brothers-in-arms moments.

What I do want to specifically mention is part of the brothers-in-arms conversation on pages 182-183, when Reacher outlines his approach to the potentially violent confrontation he's headed into:
"First I need to understand what they're saying in the texts, and then I need to use what I learn, in order to figure out what to do next. No combat readiness yet. No warnings necessary."

"Suppose what you learn is that it's hopeless?"

"Not an acceptable outcome. Can only be a failure of planning."
Now that I've noticed this, I'll be re-reading earlier Reacher titles, looking for the same sort of wry comment on military prep and thinking. It comes up again later in BLUE MOON, when the very interesting woman (yes, Reacher seems to only connect deeply with strong women) asks Reacher whether he actually believes -- as he told someone earlier -- than some day he will fail:
"It's something they teach you in the army. The only thing under your direct control is how hard you work. In other words, if you really, really buckle down today, and you get the intelligence, the planning, and the execution each a hundred percent exactly correct, then you are bound to prevail."
And in some ways, of course, Reacher does. Readers of the series know that won't make him immune from pain and loss, but ... it makes a heck of a good story.

If you've never read one of these -- go back as far as you can in the series (see, and read your way forward, for the most enjoyment.

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

One of the Deepest Reads of the Season: SARAH JANE from James Sallis

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“Lit with insight, affection, and the deep tenderness that can accompany long-term grief, Sallis’s Sarah Jane is that most unusual of mysteries: one that investigates the soul, walking.”

Author James Sallis (Drive; The Killer Is Dying) is often called a master of noir, so it’s no surprise that Sarah Jane is a crime novel. But tenderness? Intense personal loss as felt by a vulnerable woman? By the fourth page, Sarah Jane’s revealing the hole in her heart, on the pages of a journal meant only for herself, as she recalls her one and only, very private experience of childbearing:

“Six hours after I had her, two or three in the morning, they told me they’d done all they could but my baby had died. They brought her for me to hold, wrapped in a pink blanket. Her face was ghostly white. Had she ever really lived? An hour after they left, I was gone.”

Sarah Jane’s got a military past as well as a hardscrabble youth, but most importantly she’s had firsthand experience of how a “good man at heart” can become abusive of a woman. For instance, there’s “R.H.,” who believed in what he was doing, and in himself, but couldn’t handle when things didn’t go the way he wanted to. “He felt his world unraveling, loose ends flying every whidch way That grinds on year after year, you see the worst of people day by day, you change.”

This kind of insight works in Sarah Jane’s favor when she becomes a small-town sheriff, the kind who both understand the criminals on her turf and knows how to catch them. Tough and private, she keeps most of her past secret from even her closest colleagues. And as her story unwinds, there’s also her loyalty to the people that, against her will, she comes to love – and that’s what drives her. In a rough little rural town like Farr, where she settles almost against her will, any vulnerability in your heart can threaten your life, one night or another.

Sarah Jane’s narrative of her past and her confrontation with the present are interrupted by flashbacks to her childhood on a chicken farm, and by reflections like this: “All stories are ghost stories, about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted, by the living.” Does she count herself as ghost or living? How can anyone walk forward with such sorrow and loss?

Little by little, one sideways reference or clue after another, the crime at the heart of the book emerges. And a silence builds, as large as the loss that Sarah Jane’s still carrying. Is it Sarah Jane’s own, or does it belong to one of the dead men she’s seen?

Lit with insight, affection, and the deep tenderness that can accompany long-term grief, Sallis’s Sarah Jane is that most unusual of mysteries: one that investigates the soul, walking.

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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Brief Recaps: Eliot Pattison's BONES OF THE EARTH, Ang Pompano's WHEN IT'S TIME FOR LEAVING, Michael Stanley with SHOOT THE BASTARDS

"Life on life's terms" meant missing out on some reviewing earlier this year. So here are some brief recaps of books you may want to stock in for the cold weather!

BONES OF THE EARTH (Minotaur) is the tenth and final Inpector Shan Tao Yun mystery from Eliot Pattison. Pattison's first in this series, Skull Mantra, won an Edgar. Both of those, plus the locale in what was once the Hidden Kingdom and remains a controversial region taken over politically by China, are great reasons to read this finale.

Shan's position as a former Chinese official who's become a determined Buddhist places him at a spiritual sweet spot for the investigation of ancient shrines underlying the criminal efforts that soon threaten him and his son. It's fascinating to watch the threads drawn together, and there's hardly a moment without suspense, as Shan navigates a series of traps and investigates on both the mundance and the spiritual level. Pattison's deft twisting of the plot strands to reach a fitting resolution of the series makes for an excellent read.

Ang Pompano is a long-time active member of Sisters in Crime, nationally and in the New England chapter. Yes, there are "brothers" in the organization! His stories have been anthologized, and he's developed academic themes, too, including on detective fiction. WHEN IT'S TIME FOR LEAVING (Encircle Publications) is his debut mystery novel. And what an exhilarating, well-paced adventure it provides! Disgruntled police detective Al DeSantis, leaving behind multiple discouragements in New Haven, CT, plans to relocate to sunny Los Angeles. But a phone call from Mrs. Greenleaf at the Blue Palmetto Detectie Agency in Georgia topples his assumptions of life by letting him know his long-gone father is still alive, and entering a nursing home. "You own a detective agency and a home on Ava Island," Mrs. Greenleaf says. Oddly, though, even though he now owns it ... it seems like she's in charge.

While Al tries to work out what's going on, murder moves into his life, along with Max, an attractive and very sharp female detective who seems to be his official boss. Meanwhile his father, with rapidly increasing dementia, repeatedly goes AWOL from the nursing home. In a series of side-splitting scenes reminiscent of Donald Westlake at his best, Al and his dad become partners in trying to stay alive. Grab a copy of this (hopefully) first of many more to come, and enjoy the sense of being ahead of the crowd in spotting a strong new talent.

Michael Stanley (pen name for a writing duo) already has an award-winning series featuring Detective Kubu. With SHOOT THE BASTARDS (Poisoned Pen/Sourcebooks), Stanley launches a new protagonist: investigative journalist Crystal ("Crys") Nguyen, of Vietnamese heritage but raised and based in Minnesota. In a classic "Livingston searches for Stanley" move, she persuades National Geographic to assign her to complete the rhino poaching story of her missing colleague, Michael Davidson -- and, if possible, to locate Davidson (dead or alive) as a sidebar to the main investigation.

Crys is soon hopelessly muddled about who's a good guy and who's not, and in a chase for information that takes her into the South African bush, north to Geneva, Switzerland, off to Vietnam, and finally back to African landscape that's already become part of her. She's strong and skilled with a light bolt-action rifle, from training at home in winter biathlons -- but how will that stack up against organized criminals with automatic weapons and a huge cash incentive?

Great to see this lively new series, and to know in advance that Michael Stanley's seasoned mystery writing will carry Crys into high risk and tension, challenging all her thinking and action.

Watch for a few more of these, before reviews of the November releases ahead!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.
The newest South Korea mystery from Martin Limón, G.I. CONFIDENTIAL, is at once a tight and fast-paced crime investigation—military police Sueño and Bascom are under fierce pressure to ID and halt the serial bank robberies that are painting US occupying forces as murderous criminals, thanks to an out-of-control GI contingent—and a hilarious tangle for three, as the two men find themselves repeatedly bested by tabloid reporter Katie Byrd Washington.

Before the reporter engages action, though, catch up with the stresses of the 1970s as the investigators walk the challenging line of respecting the local Korean National Police, and the demands of their own officers. George Sueño, who's achieved speaking fluency in Korean (a very unusual asset for an American then!), partners with the more impulsive Ernie Bascom. They add up as an effective team, but sometimes the requirements are odd ones:
As the GI and injured Korean policeman stood awkwardly in front of one another, I translated ... But I translated his words into Korean with quite a bit of diplomatic license. It came out as something like, I'm sorry I hit you, I shouldn't have done it, and I'll be sure to show more respect for Korea and Korean law in the future. Both [Korean police commander] Mr. Kill and Officer Oh realized that my translation was less than exact but kept their faces impassive.

The wounded Korean officer paused for a moment, making sure that everyone absorbed this abject apology from an obnoxious foreigner. Finally, he nodded his head and barked an order. ... Quickly, the two GIs, mumbling to themselves, climbed back into their truck ... and sped away.

Mr. Kill told me, "You should be in the State Department."

"Every American soldier is an ambassador for their country," I said.
One situation defused for the moment -- but a lot worse ahead, as the tabloid reporter drags the investigators into a situation that could seriously tarnish the reputation of several US officers. Or, come to think of it, ignite a big war.

Limón crafts an exploration of corruption and sex scandals, while creating a highly entertaining snap-trap for Sueño and Bascom, as slippery journalist Katie Washington sets them up to take the fall. When the story began to threaten armed conflict, I jumped for some Korean history and confirmed that what seems like wild exaggeration in Limón's timeline is actually reflects the chaos and risk of that time. It's a lot of fun to surf the action through the down-to-earth assessments and effective counterstrikes of Limón's characters.

This is the 14th in the series, and one of the best—shelve it with historical fiction, or with (military) police procedurals, or with Good Crime Fiction to Read Again. As long as the plot's tight and the clues are sensible, the heart of a good mystery is in the characters and the action. G.I. CONFIDENTIAL is a winner on both counts.

Like Lee Child? James R. Benn? Barbara Cleverly? Jacqueline Winspear? This series shows the same fine storytelling, with an excellent sense of pace and satisfaction.

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

Saturday, October 19, 2019

One of Today's Best British Traditional Mystery Series, from Elly Griffiths

[originally published by the New York Journal of Books]

“A well-turned-out, exciting, and at times downright nail-biting traditional mystery, with satisfying emotional resonance.”

Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series enters its 11th title with The Stone Circle, featuring the single-parent archaeological specialist and DCI Harry Nelson, who’s been gradually revealed to his family and his community as the father of Ruth’s child. The pair met and had a brief passionate connection that resonated into deeper emotions, but DCI Nelson was, and is, very married, and the chances of him leaving his wife were always slim.

Now, an anonymous letter threatens to bring back the violence that once brought Ruth and Nelson together. It looks like it’s written by the criminal they battled—a man who’s quite dead. But if that’s the case, who’s writing the letters that continue to arrive?

While the crime-solving team struggles with what the threats mean, Ruth gets looped into the tension too, since the letter writer refers to a “stone circle,” one of the prehistoric religious sites in her region. Distracting her from actually tackling the clues is a new factor: Nelson’s wife Michele is about to add a new baby to his life, and Ruth is realistic enough to see that the baby will crush any remaining chance that Nelson would come to her and her daughter. Not that she wants him to. Well, not really. But it would be nice to have him desire to do so, wouldn’t it?

Griffiths spins a complex crime tale that invades multiple levels of time, historic and otherwise. Her greatest strength is the way she sketches, then delicately shade in, the very human nature of investigators and the way their ability to see the relevant strands of clues, motives, and opportunities is shaped by their personal lives. In the long run, one of the crime officers who persists in following her hunches will be the one to turn the case. But with enough warning to actuallu stop the perpetrator from a new murder? It’s doubtful.

Series fans will appreciate the strong presence in The Stone Circle of Cathbad, a druid and dad, along with his daughter Madeleine, now a journalist with dreams of investigative work herself. But of course the tension ramps up most when the threatening letters begin to rope DCI Nelson and Ruth back together around their daughter Kate and more:

“Nelson’s phone buzzes as he goes up the stairs. He sees ‘Ruth’ on the screen and so waits until he’s in his office to call back.

“’Ruth? What is it? Is it Katie?’

“A deep sigh. ‘No, it’s not Kate. It’s me. I’ve had a letter.’ …

“As Ruth reads, Nelson can almost feel his blood pressure rising. He remembers the letters arriving when Lucy went missing and then later with Scarlet. The same mocking, erudite, menacing tone. She called from the depths and you answered. It’s the same person, he’s sure of it.”

Because The Stone Circle loops back to Ruth and Nelson’s past, Griffiths provides plenty of back-story for new readers of the series. And the combination of an amateur sleuth who’s a professional investigator of graves, Ruth, with a trained police investigator, Nelson, keeps the pace sharp and quick, the insights clever, and the plot twists highly enjoyable.

Trust Elly Griffiths for a well-turned-out, exciting, and at times downright nail-biting traditional mystery, with satisfying emotional resonance and smart current issues raised.

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