Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Locked-Room Mystery at Sea: THE LAMPLIGHTERS from Emma Stonex


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“With such dark and treacherous secrets, the men of The Lamplighters echo the force of the seas around them. The deepest mystery that Stonex then offers is: What use is the love each of them has known, if it can’t finally rescue them?”

Emma Stonex is not a debut author—she’s written nine other books under three pseudonyms—but with The Lamplighters she steps forth proudly with a novel she’d prepared for in all that time, the first under her own name. It opens as a locked-room mystery, with the added quirk of the room being a lighthouse, and all three victims, if victims they are, missing from the deserted scene. Clocks halted at 8:45, table set for two (not three), every surface clean and bright. But the three keepers of this isolated lighthouse, known as the Maiden, off the Cornish coast of Britain cannot be found.

It’s hard for the rescue team from Trident, the corporation in charge of the lighthouses, to grasp, since their orders suggest they are cleaning up some form of crime scene or at best isolation-induced madness: “Bring them off quietly, Trident said. Do it discreetly. Find a boatman who’ll keep it under his cap; don’t make a fuss; don’t make a scene; nobody needs to know. And make sure the light’s all right, for God’s sake somebody make sure about that.”

Then, exploring both 1972, when Arthur, Bill, and Vincent vanished without a clue to why or where, and 1992, when a persistent novelist insists on interviewing the three women involved—two wives and a fiancée—Stonex offers a boatload of possibilities. Yet the two that the rescue crew expected, murder and madness, consistently rise to the surface as the women slowly release details that they’ve hidden for two decades. The book rocks back and forth between those option like a ship rolling on waves, tilted now this way, now that.

Arthur’s wife, the oldest and most dominant of the three women (after all, her husband was the PK, the principal keeper of the light), refuses at first to coddle the investigating writer’s notions. “Lightkeepers aren’t romantic people; they don’t get nervous or look into things too much. … Arthur was never afraid of the sea, even when it was dangerous. He told me how, on a tower, the spray from the waves can come right up to the kitchen window during a storm—bear in mind that’s eighty or eighty-five feet above the water—and the rocks and boulders roll against the base, so it shudders and shakes. I’d have been scared, I think. But not Arthur; he felt the sea was on his side.”

Arthur’s inevitable secret turns out to be one he and his wife Helen bear together. But she has another source of guilt that she thinks he doesn’t know—although Bill, the second keeper does, and Bill’s wife Jenny may be more aware than you’d guess. As for Vince, it’s not a big secret that he’s spent time in prison, although only Michelle, his fiancée, will eventually know the worst of his criminal life.

So whose secret has tipped the ocean-isolated threesome into dangerous waters? What violence erupted from the frictions and faults trapped in the tower, so compactly that even the sleeping bunks require a man to curve his spine to fit against the outside wall? And assuming that someone finally cracked—then what happened to all three men afterward? The Maiden Rock is an impossible place for a casual passing boat to try to visit, and what about the locked door, the absence of evidence?

Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson, Stuart Neville, all come to mind as Stonex ramps up the tension and hauntings. The Lamplighters holds its secrets close, forcing the investigator and the reader to pry determinedly at those deep-driven slivers of loss, jealousy, anger, and yes, even the violence of the cold and powerful ocean, until the last layers of revelation finally are torn apart.

With such dark and treacherous secrets, the men of The Lamplighters echo the force of the seas around them. The deepest mystery that Stonex then offers is: What use is the love each of them has known, if it can’t finally rescue them?

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

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Espionage and Insight in Northern Ireland, in NORTHERN SPY from Flynn Berry


[Originally at New York Journal of Books]

“Author Flynn Berry landed major awards for her two earlier thrillers, and Northern Spy merits more of the same.”

Unashamedly focused on loving and savoring her six-month-old son Finn while also working as a news producer, Tessa Daly can’t believe it when the police claim her sister Marian has joined the IRA. Though the enduring aftermath of the Troubles marks every day for Tessa, her mother, her child, and yes, her sister, it’s impossible that their lives in Northern Ireland could become militarized and criminalized in this way.

Until, somehow, it isn’t. Whether her sister’s a sort of hero for fighting against the government forces, or somehow playing a “doubles” game to move both sides toward peace, Tessa needs to know which choices are right and necessary. And whatever her own position becomes, she’s got to protect her baby first, and Marian second.

Author Flynn Berry landed major awards for her two earlier thrillers, and Northern Spy merits more of the same. Taut and passionate, it’s a plot-driven and morally demanding narrative full of threat and heartbreak. The fiercely portrayed reality of life in a divided land and the costly choices everyone faces make this into a page-turner. Berry also excels at keeping her protagonists smart and even wise—so when things do go wrong, it’s not because of foolish mistakes.

Most importantly Tessa holds her focus:

“I wonder, would a good mother take Finn away from this place, or keep him close to his father? Would a good mother work for peace, or stay away from the conflict? Would a good mother be preoccupied with terrorism during every minute she has spent with her son this week?

I don’t want my son to have to forgive me for anything, but I can’t even tell what that might be, so how can I avoid it? … I want someone to tell me what to do. If we can stay or if we need to leave tonight, right away, the sooner the better.”

By staying in place, and maintaining loyalty to her family, Tessa’s soon a person of interest herself. The detective chasing the terrorists makes that clear: “He shakes his keys in his suit pocket, then fixes his gaze on me. ‘Tessa, what does nitrobenzene smell like?’ I blink at him. ‘I have no idea.’ Fenton considers me for a few long moments, the turns to go. He knows I’ve just lied. Nitrobenzene smells like marzipan.”

Northern Spy will be a hit for readers of Dublin noir and tartan noir, as well as those who’ve already discovered Stuart Neville’s Belfast noir with its grit and darkness. But because Berry opts to view the pain and violence through a young mother’s eyes, there’s less in-your-face blood and guts, and perhaps more agony in spite of that. Denise Mina and Tana French readers can also find familiar ground—but so in fact can any readers who treasure a well-plotted mystery with a powerful sense of how place and the near past can force a person to cross the lines they once felt were sacred.

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

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Outstanding New Thriller Launches New Series from Michael Sears, TOWER OF BABEL

Move over, Brooklyn—the newest New York City borough to get thriller setting status just became Queens, in the fast-paced and delightful launch of a new series from award-winning ex-Wall Street author Michael Sears.

Sears's expertise in financial surprises grounds the livelihood of fallen-from-grace lawyer Ted Molloy. With his not very charming research partner Richie Rubiano, Ted locates forgotten funds left over from real estate foreclosures and takes a finder's share as he helps the rightful owners grab hold. It's legal, but not necessarily attractive ... in fact, Ted's something of a bottom feeder.

But that's no reason for someone to kill his research assistant, is it? Detective Duran brings him the grim news, of course suspecting Ted has a role in the murder:

"Would you be willing to come down and give a statement?" Detective Duran managed to make the request sound casual.

Sirens and flashing lights went off in Ted's head. The shark was inviting him home for dinner. "Only with my lawyer present. And that would cost me money, and you would learn nothing that might be of use to you."

Ted noted the feeble attempt at inducing guilt and ignored it. Bitterness had long replaced guilt as a motivating factor in his life. But people he knew were not murdered. He felt himself being pulled in despite misgivings.

If there was any chance that Richie had stirred up some hornet's nest by looking into the old lady's surplus money, there was also a chance of that trouble leading back to Molloy Partners.

The first few chapters of TOWER OF BABEL read like classic noir: disgraced former law partner type, plenty of drinking, threats and darkness. But that's a feint, an East River tunnel sort of entry into a classic moral jeopardy and friends-at-risk kind of mystery. Besides the vivid portrait Sears provides of Queens, in its gritty multiethnic glory, the characters shape the force of the book:

There's Lester, the conveniently appearing new assistant, ready to pick up where Richie left off, for a share of the money. The Preacher, a street minister as poor as his flock, but with a magnetic appeal and willing to open doors when Ted needs to dodge through them. And Kenzie, fighting against developers to sustain the neighborhood and laying an indefatigable guilt trip on Ted when he tries to slip out of the net of obligations that Richie's widow enforces through death threats and more.

Adding extra layers of stress and motive is the presence of Ted's needy ex-wife, Jill, now married to cutthroat attorney Jacqueline, who hates Ted passionately. And of course there are Jill's family members, still willing to do Ted a bad turn after all this time. 

Ted imagined calling Jacqueline Clavette and begging to dig through her files. "Not gonna happen."

"So, what will you do?"

He weighed the question. He owned no one a thing. Not [Richie's widow] Cheryl, not the cop, and not Richie. He could walk away and feel no responsibility. That was the smart move. But someone had taken a big chance just to hide information. He had a strong urge to kick the hornet's nest.

"We follow the money."

This enjoyable thriller's only weak spot is the use of Russian mobsters as the ultimate threat, a trope that's a tad overused lately. Yet Sears can write a fight scene so vividly and precisely that the stereotypical bad guys are just as caught up in the detailed portrayals, and easy enough to accept (maybe with a wince on the side), as the layers of crime get peeled back.

Sardonic wit, quaint café; high-stakes conspiracy, neighborhood loyalties; TOWER OF BABEL speaks all those dialects, one after another, against an urban setting well worth the visit. Grab a copy, turn off the phone ringer, and settle in for a page-turner that promises lively sequels to follow. 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.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Berlin in 1933, Great Crime Fiction "Prequel" from David Downing in WEDDING STATION

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Wedding Station
is an ideal choice for both Downing fans and newcomers to his fast-paced and intense crime novels.”

DavidDowning’s novels of crime, suspense, and espionage have danced through both world wars. His “Station” series, with six titles before Wedding Station, evoke the relentless terror of life in Berlin during World War II. Now, in a fierce and daring prequel, Downing reveals the back story to the propulsive series.

A British citizen with a “German” son from his first marriage, John Russell has no desire to leave the complex and culturally rich city of Berlin. But Wedding Station opens with the burning of the Reichstag parliament building, a display of political malice that Hitler’s forces deftly blame on “Communists” and utilize as a reason to crack down on liberty. Russell’s a reporter for the Morgenspiegel—it’s his job to dig into any crime aspects to the fire, as well as other events around him.

Since the fire’s an obvious fake, with the expected political posturing—“The German people would be expecting a vigorous response from their government, and harsh new measures would be announced over the next twenty-four hours”—Russell’s free to investigate other ominous shifts in the city. Within limits: The newspaper’s editor is already under enormous pressure to toe the official line, if he wants to keep publishing.

“This was what the seasoned professional journalists lived for, Russell thought. Exciting times. Only this was the sort of excitement that might well prove fatal to some of them.”

Within hours, life in Berlin shifts from cultural glory to silently witnessing corpses and abuse. And at work, Russell chases scraps of crime stories, like the death of a teenaged male prostitute, that become entangled with the power and sadism of the various Nazi forces and leaders. When his other leads turn up parallel threads, from a genealogist’s death to a celebrity fortune-teller’s disappearance, Russell’s relentless digging puts his personal liberty and safety at risk. Soon a professional beating comes to seem routine, and his choices narrow to what will put his son and his ability to be a father under threat. Or cost him his integrity and self-respect.

“Russell liked fiction as much as the next man, but he couldn’t imagine agreeing to lie for a living. Better to sidestep the issue … He had thought the crime desk might provide a safe haven but most of the stories he’d covered so far had political hazards etched right through them, like the letters in a stick of seaside rock. Which shouldn’t have come as a shock when the forces of law and order were the people committing the crimes.”

As a “foreigner” in a dangerous city, Russell’s becoming a sort of criminal himself, conspiring with the occasional halfway-human police officer to get murderers captured, hiding out for days on end, desperately trying to protect his son while seeing the child inevitably seduced by Germany’s new politics. Downing manages the painful transformations in thoughtful passages that never detract from the threat and tension of the situations that Russell deliberately puts himself into, in the hunt for both honest journalism and a personal stance against Hitler’s imposed regime.

Wedding Station (the title refers to a location in Berlin, Wedding, pronounced with a V sound at the start) is an ideal choice for both Downing fans and newcomers to his fast-paced and intense crime novels. As a “prequel,” it won’t require catch-up time, except perhaps for the alphabet soup of the various German groups menacing Berlin. And as part of the series, it’s a marvelous exploration of how John Russell steps out of ordinary life into endless dangerous choices, and into how the Nazi regime will convince itself of a mission to subdue all of Europe.

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

Monday, March 01, 2021

Guilt Stalks the Sheriff, in NIGHTHAWK'S WING from Charles Fergus

In the second Gideon Stolz mystery, set in Pennsylvania Dutch terrain in 1836, the young sheriff is acutely aware of how different he is from many of the people he's supposed to protect and serve. There's his accent, of course, and his personal legacy of loss and violence, yet equally important are his beliefs about justice and worship, strands that are vital in a community still very much built as a set of frontier settlements.

But as NIGHTHAWK'S WING takes off, Gideon has far more to worry about than just feeling awkward among others. He hasn't recovered from striking his head in a fall from a horse, and the ongoing physical effects and memory loss threaten his job, his reputation, even his marriage and his liberty. As he realizes he's not even keeping up with routine tasks, his questions turn frightening:

Gideon asked himself why he hadn't remembered the horse as soon as he smelled the stench. Or before he went out for his walk. Or maybe he had remembered it and had gone out from the jail to check on whether the horse had been removed, and then forgotten why he'd ventured out in the first place.

Why couldn't he remember such things? ... Why couldn't he remember anything about his own accident, getting thrown off Maude or otherwise falling off her, striking his head on the ground, and (so he'd been told) lying insensible on the road?

He worried about the gap in his memory. He didn't know how far back it went.

Charles Fergus delicately draws out the differences in pioneer culture—the absence of medical knowledge, the fragmented communities from different European roots who knew just enough to be suspicious of each other, the fierce expectations of gender and age—as Gideon investigates a violent death on a farm some distance from the town where he lives. Has there been accidental poisoning? Are there implications of witchcraft, and of punishment for such deviation? Worst of all, he discovers incontrovertible evidence of having played a role in the tensions on the farm, before the death: With no reliable memories of what had taken him there at the time and of what had taken place, must he now suspect himself of abuse or violence?

Even Pastor Nolf in the farming community represents strangeness to Gideon. As sheriff, he needs to grasp how this German offshoot of religion functions here:

Nolf continued, "You asked earlier if I thought that Rebecca Kreidler had a disturbed mind. I told you yes, I did sense that. I also sensed in her a deep anger and a black despair. As Neigeboren, we work to purge from our lives that which would not be pleasing to the One we serve, including anger and despair. One thing I have been considering since her body was found: I think it's very possible that Frau Kreidler took her own life. That she purposely ate a plant she knew would kill her, and in a way that would inflict severe pain."

Meanwhile, Gideon's double distraction—over the dead woman's cause of death, and over his own possible enmeshment in the case—results in his effectively abandoning his gravely depressed young wife. Each of them, Gideon and True, is still in deep pain over the death, from illness, of their small child. And neither seems able to give the other what's needed. There's a chance that the marriage may be damaged beyond repair, despite Gideon's love for True. She reminds him: "You only believe in what's standing in front of you and nothing else. There's other ways of seeing, other ways of knowing. Maybe someday you'll figure that out."

Fergus's measured pace, rich with the feel of the raw, unsettled landscape and its fragile human bonds, provides a depth to the double mystery: the crime, and how to reinvent a marriage after a child's death. Not until the very end of the book will the answers become clear—and the pain and loss along the way are vivid and visceral. In the tradition of Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall, Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, and even Nathaniel Hawthorne's early American novels, NIGHTHAWK'S WING melds human frailty and strength into the very texture of the place and time, creating a mystery that will call for multiple readings that savor its layers and revelations.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

British Crime Fiction from Belinda Bauer, EXIT

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

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

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

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

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

But what if his truth was wrong?

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

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

It might just sound like murder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

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

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

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

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

Rutledge didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 14, 2021

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


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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