Monday, November 21, 2022

HUNTING TIME from Jeffery Deaver: The New Colter Shaw Thriller Is Well Worth Reading!

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Diversions like this add the layers of human interest that make a Jeffery Deaver novel so much more than a page-turner. The final twists of Hunting Time turn it into a masterful adventure.”


Cracking open a new mystery from Jeffery Deaver means relaxing into the hands of a master thriller author—relaxing, that is, until the tension of the chase ramps up. Hunting Time is a compelling thriller, with astonishing twists, landing the “reward seeker” and combat-skilled security consultant Colter Shaw in a cascade of demanding adventures.


Start with a trap that Shaw triggers, “accidentally on purpose.” Add a Russian espionage agent looking for the same stolen invention theft that Shaw’s been hired to foil. Complicate it more with a couple of quick switchbacks in who’s really doing what to whom.


Meanwhile, there are two alternating points of view: that of star inventor Allison Parker, who’s under threat from an ex-husband … and that of the ex-husband as he emerges early from prison and heads immediately for Allison’s place. When she takes immediate escape action, with her teen daughter, Shaw receives an added assignment: Catch up with Allison and protect her and the teen.


Deaver, of course, jacks up the action (and chases!) in Hunting Time when more hunters add themselves to the race, some looking for Allison, some for her ex. And some, of course, for the technology.


But there’s still time for this expert author to spill insight into Colter Shaw, in this fourth in the suspenseful series: for example, the rule Shaw learned from his father: Never break the law. But of course, there are laws and laws, “and occasionally survival required you to redefine the concept of legal prohibitions.” So, for instance, if Allison Parker’s house door isn’t locked, why shouldn’t he open it? On the other hand, he’s not going to make himself a target of Parker’s ex, is he?


What none of these three know is that the most deadly hunters of all haven’t been identified yet. Deaver gives enough clues for an alert observer to guess at some other players, which constitutes “playing fair with the reader,” but the best and most surprising twists in Hunting Time come with almost no warning. Could her parents have guessed the teenager was so much smarter than she seems? Well, Deaver plays fair on that one, too. Her mother Allison, for all her brilliance, is still working out what her daughter Hannah means with a sleepy reply of “Love you too”:


“For the next fifteen minutes, until sleep unspooled within her, she tried to analyze the meaning—not of the words themselves … but of the tone in which her daughter had spoken them: sincere, a space filler, an obligation, an attempt to keep an enemy at bay, sardonic? Allison Parker, the engineer mother, approached this question as if she were facing a mathematical problem that was aggressively difficult, involving limits and sine waves and integrals and differentials and sequences and variables … But her analytical skills failed her, and the only conclusion she could draw was that the calculus of the heart was both infinitely complex and absurdly simple and, therefore, wholly insoluble.”


Diversions like this add the layers of human interest that make a Jeffery Deaver novel so much more than a page-turner. The final twists of Hunting Time turn it into a masterful adventure that will repay both quick reading and relaxed (at least, as much as the pace allows) re-exploration of the clues, red herrings, and insights so precisely laid out, and the trail that Colter Shaw must both follow and comprehend.


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

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Terrific Welsh Thriller from Clare Mackintosh, THE LAST PARTY

British author Clare Mackintosh exceeds high thriller expectations in THE LAST PARTY, a pulse-pounding investigation of the harsh effects of class and abuse that whips up an emotional storm of strong women and conflicting loyalties.

When a New Year's eve swimming event involving "everyone" from a small Welsh town results in the death of a local real estate developer, Detective Constable Ffion Morgan of the North Wales Police leaps into the investigation. But the death, soon likely to be called murder, took place in a lake that straddles the border between Wales and England, which means she'll have to work the case with Detective Constable Leo Brady of Cheshire Constabulary. And that's a huge problem: not so much because of the rivalry and resentments of that border area, but because the two DC's have met before ... for no-strings sex, both under assumed names. That's the trouble with online dating, isn't it?

But there's worse to come, because Ffion Morgan's small town is so very small that she knows almost everyone involved in the swim event, and as she and her unwanted partner begin to select suspects, some of them include people she know well ... very well. Family, even, whether by blood or by choice.

Mackintosh spins an expert high-risk investigation, with spicy inserts of lively humor. As the DCs struggle to place new names on each other, they're still spilling the earlier false names, to the confusion of the pathologist:

"Who the hell is Marcus?" the pathologist says. "I was told there were only the two of you coming—it's a morgue, not a séance."

"Sorry," Leo says on behalf of both of them, although Ffion doesn't look remotely sorry. Her expression is amused—a little quizzical—as though waiting for Leo to expand.

As Izzy Weaver ushers them into the depths of the mortuary, Leo feels a sense of misgiving come over him. He hopes to hell this turns out to be an accidental drowning, because Ffion Morgan looks like trouble.

The dead man is easily recognized as Rhys Lloyd, who owns the high-end resort on the English side of the lake and has made a fortune already in his maneuvers to bring in posh property owners. When Ffion and Leo split up the witness interviews, Leo finds Clemmie Northcote, an anomaly in the owners crowd: She and her son share a one-bedroom apartment in London where she sleeps on the couch, and she's financed her resort property through a private mortgage. "Although the others don't know I didn't buy it outright, so I'd be grateful if you'd keep that to yourself."

Leo's sympathy leads to Clemmie spilling more about the victim: "He looked down on us," she admits. "Me and Caleb. Because I don't wear the right clothes or drink the right wine. I didn't fit with his vision of The Shore." Leo notes the bitterness under her calm explanation. He hasn't yet said publicly that the death is actually murder, but Clemmie is already making a guess:

"If it were, I think you'd have your hands full."

"Why's that?"

Clemmie looks at him, her expression unguarded and resigned. "Because I've been at The Shore for six months, and I've yet to meet a single person who liked him."

Ffion too is finding disturbing currents in her part of the investigation. But the darkest of them are her own, and when the hunt for the murderer turns out to threaten her sister and even her mother, Ffion takes actions that she won't be able to admit to Leo, no matter how much she finds herself liking him. Envy and lust and abuse have flourished here—prying open the crime will reveal things that Ffion may not be able to withstand.

At a chunky 400 pages, this British crime novel takes time to unpack class, loyalty, and the desperate choices that desperate people make. Packed with a perfect balance of twists and layered revelation, it's a powerful novel well worth adding to the winter reading stack—and keeping on hand for later re-reading. Mackintosh already has five best-sellers under her belt (including last year's air highjacking drama HOSTAGE); THE LAST PARTY certainly deserves to be number six.

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

Thursday, November 17, 2022

"Cursed Mansion" Mystery with Great Legal Updates, in MURDER AT BLACK OAKS by Phillip Margolin

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“This skillfully written and well-polished ‘new classic’ mystery is a perfect winter read, ideal for an armchair journey that’s a page-turner without forcing you to check the locks on the windows and doors.”


It’s not likely that you’ll find a new Agatha Christie mystery to read—but Phillip Margolin makes up for that with his sixth Robin Lockwood novel, Murder at Black Oaks. In fact, the author declares at the opening that this highly enjoyable and suspenseful tale is an homage to the Golden Age of mysteries, with “an impossible murder, a haunted mansion, secret passages, a werewolf curse.” And all this comes with the adroit and intelligent Robin Lockwood, a prominent defense attorney with finely honed skills that apply to accused murderers.


Called to Black Oaks, a monstrous rural manor that’s become a memorial to both death and English history, Robin’s warned by her staff that a werewolf curse could be involved. She’s a natural skeptic. But what crimes could be entangled with the dark myth? 


The man summoning her out of her urban comfort zone of Portland, OR, to the isolation of Solitude Mountain, has also been a district attorney. But for 30 years, Frank Melville’s suffered under the knowledge that his skills placed an innocent man onto Death Row. Burdened with the actual murderer’s confession but unable to act on it because of client confidentiality, he’s retreated from public life and suffered both the death of his wife and debilitating injuries that keep him in a wheelchair.


His request to Robin Lockwood comes from learning that the actual criminal is now dead. Can Robin find a legal way for Melville to finally reveal the truth, and perhaps get Jose Alvarez—no longer a promising young man, but a bitter one trapped in prison—justice at last? Even this question roots in tragedy and suspicion, as the fragile and aging man explains:


“There is a curse on anyone who lives in Black Oaks, and God visited that curse on me when he took my Katherine away and left me like this. To atone for letting Jose Alvarez rot in prison while I knew he was innocent. I’ve tried to save other innocent defendants, but even my few victories haven’t brought me peace. … I want you to do what I can’t. I want you to save Jose’s life.”


Lockwood and her team may be up to that part of the assignment. But when murder and added threats arrive at the mansion, in the midst of a storm that traps Robin there without phone or drivable road, surrounded by people whose motives and opportunities mesh with the new death, Robin’s in personal danger.


The moment the storm cuts off the roadway, of course, Agatha Christie’s country-house murder mysteries echo into this one. Margolin’s also aiming to honor Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr in his plot, and fans of these early mysteries can ease contentedly into harness, knowing the kinds of twists that must like ahead and confident that Robin will find the right allies to bring her—and any other “good guys” on the scene—to a relieved resolution of crime past and present.


This skillfully written and well-polished “new classic” mystery is a perfect winter read, ideal for an armchair journey that’s a page-turner without forcing you to check the locks on the windows and doors. No need to have read others in this series beforehand—Margolin’s neat brushing in of details gives plenty of grounding. But of course, you may want to collect the entire series, to get you through the rest of the darker season ahead.


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

Nantucket at Christmas? Terrific Setting for Francine Mathews, DEATH ON A WINTER STROLL

Maybe you read about the way Nantucket, the island enclave off the coast of Massachusetts, protected its residents (seasonal and year-round) from COVID. But Nantucket Police Chief Meredith (Merry) Folger can't use the same strategies to keep out death.

Actually she's still reeling from the death of her grandfather Ralph, who'd held the post before her and whose love and guidance always surrounded her. Under the stresses of the job, she's more bereft than ever, missing his mentoring. Thanksgiving week included all the extra challenges of working with the federal teams that protected the President of the United States, too, with three generations of his family, snuggling into that island and historic ambience.

She gave way to wistfulness.

"Why didn't the Pres just go to Martha's Vineyard this year?" she moaned. "It was good enough for the Clinton and Obamas."

"He's not a Vineyard guy," [her husband] Peter said simply. Which was, of course, unanswerable. It was accepted fact that you were either a Vineyard person or a Nantucket one. The loyalties were fierce, utterly distinct, cultivated over generations, and immune to criticism. No one could be both.

Which made it a little easier to put up with the security craziness, Merry reflected. It was kind of cool to know that the President cherished exactly the same place she did.

What she couldn't know, in that brief unwinding once the Turkey Day festivities ended, was the stresses building within a film production enterprise at another part of the large island. And the political maneuvers aren't over, either — the Secretary of State brings her family for Christmas and Nantucket's famously colorful and playful "Christmas Stroll," with its festival atmosphere that enables two teens to connect across the social and political gaps, and hides the maneuvers of "persons unknown" toward murder. When two bodies burden Merry's holiday, it's no vacation at all. Not that she expected one.

Francine Mathews is a smooth and expert crafter of murder investigations that honor the warmth of affection, love, and friendship, even as they showcase tight plots with well-built twists. DEATH ON A WINTER STROLL continues her excellent series. Mystery readers will value the careful revelations of means, motives, and opportunities, with a fair chance to finger the criminal(s) just before or as Merry does. 

Best of all, despite the harsh reality of crime and especially murder, Mathews highlights the warmth of community and family, as well as the awkwardly won joys of creative arts and growing into one's own best hopes. 

So this book from Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press) does multiple duty for the season: Get a copy for yourself, to sink into for stress relief (your holiday is never going to be as stressful as Merry's!); get another for credit as the "best holiday gift giver" when you hand it to a good friend or family member; and know that you'll get great value from your own copy, because this is one to read and savor multiple times. As Merry's grandfather used to remind her, when "her" song played: "Have yourself a Merry (Folger) little Christmas."

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

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Brief Mention: Volume Two of LADY JOKER from Kaoru Takamura Has Released

Were you (are you still?) a Godfather fan as all the books came out? Do you love long novels that probe history, culture, and crime? Have a special interest in Japan, with its sharp differences from Western life?

Great! LADY JOKER by Kaoru Takamura is meant for you ... and will keep your bedside table occupied for months ahead.

The first volume of this sprawling epic, which Takamura builds from a real unsolved kidnapping case that took over Japanese news for two years, was released in the US by Soho Press in May 2021 under its Soho Crime imprint. At 576 pages, in small type with narrow page margins, it marked a return to "long publishing" intended for committed readers. The characters and plot twists are compelling -- so Volume 2, which came out a couple of weeks ago (588 pages!), provides the delight and relief of bringing the story to its cynical and thrilling conclusion.

Here's a sample from Goda's investigation in Volume 2:

He didn't feel like hearing Hirase's voice, so Goda jotted down on a blank report—Attn: Sergeant Hirase. Anonymous tip-off call to my residence at 11:50 p.m. Male caller. "I'm giving you the telephone number being used for contact between Hinode and LJ." The number reported is as follows: 3751-921 ... Signed, Goda—and faxed it to Special Investigation Headquarters.

Only after he looked back at the page that he had just sent did Goda realize that he recognized the 3751 exchange because it fell within his precinct's jurisdiction.

Or this, from the viewpoint of Monoi:

He gazed at the girl's peaceful face muscles relaxed in sleep. The fiend was still murmuring inside his belly, but even that gradually came to sound more like the meaningless chant of a sutra, and Monoi tried convincing himself at last—I no longer need an escape. Now I would rather stay a fiend until I die. I must remain a fiend.

As you can see, translators Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell do a masterful job of bringing the novel into English, without losing the flavor of Japan. Mark off time to read this pair ... or spend your entire winter walking with the crime and investigation in all their haunting flavor.

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

Brief Mention: A DOOMFUL OF SUGAR, Vermont Mystery from Catherine Bruns

The best part about this season's Catherine Bruns "cozy" mystery A DOOMFUL OF SUGAR is the plot -- Leila Khoury's family farm in Sugar Ridge, Vermont, offers a prosperous business that she returns to, when the unexpected death of her father draws her home. Sorting through threats, risks, and characters interested in taking over the action shows Bruns at her clever best.

Sadly, she makes a number of gaffes in describing sugaring (harvesting maple sap for syrup and sugar), and these can be very distracting for seasoned New England readers. Her first may be the most shocking: describing the existence of "several syrup producers in Vermont." Umm, it's hundreds ... more, if you count the smaller family setups. There is also no such thing as "sap making" (except inside the tree). And so on.

So, New Englanders and upstate New Yorkers, skip this one. The sugaring issues made me dubious about the way Bruns describes the Lebanese characters and cultures, but she has some family connections, it seems, and those may after all be on target. If you're good at passing over these pebbles in the path, then Bruns as usual spins a mystery laced with affection, effort, and a taste of young romance.

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


Monday, October 24, 2022

New Crime Fiction (Paranormal Threads, Of Course!) from John Connolly, THE FURIES

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“The story of the story—the remarkable production and author–reader loyalty during a global pandemic—makes the book a must-have for Connolly readers and fans of New England paranormal twists.”


The cover of The Furies announces a thriller—and the title page presents “Two Charlie Parker Novels.” To find the reality of this pair of short novels, turn to the Acknowledgments: John Connolly wrote The Furies out in public, five days a week, as the Covid pandemic gripped the lives of his readers. Starting with a notion of vengeance and a pair of sisters (it’s called The Sisters Strange, and for Connolly, “strange” is a keyword for dark and dangerous), this writer of the macabre and historically haunted added a mystic rune. And then, like a gambler dealt a hand she can’t discard, Connolly resolutely attached one short chapter after another in devotion to entertaining and distracting his readers.


The author explains: Whatever plot items he’d quickly inserted on one day (and these chapters circulated in five languages!), he had to live with and build from. No going back for changes, when each chapter launched as soon as it had been written. Fortunately, this is Connolly’s 22nd Charlie Parker novel or novella, so in that sense, the deepest ground work already existed.  


Focused in the classic Parker locale of Portland, Maine, The Sisters Strange offers a returned-to-town criminal, the sisters he’s romanced, and a hoard of valuable old coins that at one point all belonged to a single aging collector. The menace and evil of that collector, named Kepler, should have prevented anyone from stealing his goods. But some thieves don’t know what’s good for them.


Parker get called into the hunt for the thieves: A man he likes and respects is in love with one of those sisters, and can’t bear to see her threatened. Seeing women as victims needing rescue, Charlie Parker is as likely as anyone else to fall for the call.


By the time the strands are painfully untwisted, Parker’s recognition of who’s masterminding both the crimes and the brutality is running a bit too late to prevent damage.


The second novella in this package, The Furies, invites Charlie Parker to rescue another damsel in distress. He’s overloaded; he tells his buddy Dave, the local bar owner, to tell the woman to leave a number and he’ll get back to her.


“I heard a woman’s voice in the background. Dave spoke again, repeating what had been said. ‘She asked me to tell you that it’s urgent,’ he said. ‘Also, she says her name is Sarah Abelli, but she used to be Sarah Sawyer. She’s Nate Sawyer’s widow.’”


When Dave asks Parker about that name, Nate Sawyer, Parker warns him away from the Mob connection. But for the sake of both Dave and that mythical woman in distress, Charlie Parker will take the case.


This time, as in many other Connolly tales, there’s a dead child involved, and perhaps a ghost, not a very nice one. That should be an opening for Charlie Parker’s dead daughter, who haunts him, to make an appearance. But she doesn’t. And although Parker’s fascinating and complex friends Angel and Louis, well known to series readers, do appear, they’re not essential and they don’t reveal more about themselves—niggling disappointments for those who always hope for more from these “familiar faces.”


Neither novella on its own would compel re-reading: Go once through and head toward a deeper Connolly novel in other covers. But the story of the story—the remarkable production and author–reader loyalty during a global pandemic—makes the book a must-have for Connolly readers and fans of New England paranormal twists.


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

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Powerful New Cold Case Investigation from Michael Connelly, DESERT STAR

On November 8, the newest Michael Connelly crime novel will be released, and it features both Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch. Deftly plotted, neatly twisted, and with sharp stakes and risks, DESERT STAR proves again that Connelly's crime fiction goes much farther than "just" a crime and the hunt for the criminal—it investigates the human heart.

As the book opens, Harry's lining up pills next to a glass of water, and it's not for a good reason. In classic cop shorthand, he's thinking he's ready to "let it go." But Renée Ballard, his one-time partner who couldn't stop his job from collapsing, is at the door demanding that he open up.

Unexpectedly, after a year of her own collapse, Ballard has risen to head a new form of cold case department, one that (oh, what we learned from the pandemic) is using all volunteers and contract players to confront the monstrous backlog. She's got the ultimate lure for Harry Bosch: a stack of "murder books" all related to a family homicide that haunts him, and carte blanche to work the case properly.

"Do I get a badge?"

"No badge, no gun," Ballard said. "But you do get that desk with the six books. When can you start?"

Despite his well-fueled angers and resentments about both Ballard and the Los Angeles police, Bosch can't resist. And when he shows up at the unit the next day, there's his own mantra, painted over the entrance: "Open-Unsolved Unit. Everybody Counts or Nobody Counts."

Bosch shook his head. Everybody counts or nobody counts was the philosophy he always brought to homicide work, but it was his personal philosophy. It wasn't a slogan and especially not one he liked seeing painted on a wall. It was something you felt and knew inside. Not something advertised, not something that could even be taught.

Whether he likes it on the wall or not, it's still driving him. Nobody in the new unit recalls his cases solved, his commitment to the job—they're all new in some way—except Renée. And she's trying to manage the unmanageable and bring Harry back for the sake of what he does so well.

To Harry Bosch's disappointment and frustration, there's another case he and Renée need to solve, in full view of the rest of the team: the murder of the daughter of a city councilman. That unsolved crime is what put the councilman behind re-starting the cold case unit. So as Bosch scrambles for traction on the crime that's dogged him, he's also got to cuddle up to the new tools available, like DNA connections, and wrap up the simpler case as well.

The plot's great, a classic Connelly spinning of how police work tangles and wrestles and sometimes succeeds. But at the heart of DESERT STAR is the mentor relationship Harry has with Renée, along with his adjustment to her fully capable investigative skills now in place. So, scrap any father–daughter images, if he had them. In fact, one of his first actions in the new "team" environment undercuts Ballard badly, as he takes off out of the office like a lone dog on the trail.

Renée Ballard's quick realization is, "Putting him on a team did not make him a team player. That was not in his DNA." She intends to patch the gaps he's creating.

But her own insecurities surface in wrestling for control with Bosch and making clear that he's got to do the councilman investigation at higher priority. When he concedes, he tells her, "By the way, you're not a shrew, whatever a shrew is. Okay? More like a desert star." "Whatever that is." "It's a flower that's undaunted by heat and cold. By anything. Even an old guy set in his ways."

While Ballard accepts this half of an apology and tugs gently at the leash to get Bosch on track again, it's still clear that he's exactly what he's said: an old guy set in his ways. And that may jeopardize the cases underway, the renewed existence of the investigative unit, and his life.

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

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Mystery from Vermont Author Ann Dávila Cardinal, Puerto Rican Coming of Age: THE STORYTELLER'S DEATH

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“A good gift for readers over a wide spectrum, especially those who like their exploration laced with a hint of mystique, mystery, and the mystic in a tropical locale.”


Earlier novels by Vermont author Ann Dávila Cardinal have aimed for young adult readers, and the first few chapters of The Storyteller’s Death offer a child and then adolescent’s point of view: Isla Sanchez surfs a confusing childhood in which her alcohol-abusing mother regularly sends her to Puerto Rico each summer to live with maternal relatives there, in modest comfort and with cousins to play with—but most importantly, a stern grandmother who’s also a gifted storyteller (cuentista) and a great-aunt who loves and comforts the very lonely girl.


When the grandmother dies, Isla is 18 years old and begins to have powerful visions of the stories she’d been told—yet with frightening new details added. Experiment teaches her that to write the story down in complete detail can halt the invasion of the related vision. One family death after another, Isla struggles to master this unwanted gift of stories from the dying.


At the same time, adulthood even in her ultra-protective and conservative Puerto Rican family mean that Isla feels a powerful attraction for a young man she’s been prevented from socializing with, because of his dark skin color and lower status on the island. His kindness and tenderness have drawn her since childhood, but now those characteristics stir a new response. While she’s trying to handle this, and to keep up with her more sophisticated and elegant Puerto Rican cousins, the visions feel invasive. They can take over when she’s with others, regardless of her willingness.


Her mother finally learns about these storyteller visions, and at first offers sympathy, but it doesn’t last:


“When my mother’s eyes finally swung my way, just a glance into their glassy surfaces told me I wouldn’t be finding help there. But I had to try; there was no. one else to turn to. Not anymore. .. ‘That thing we talked about yesterday? What if it happens again?’”


From this point, about halfway through, The Storyteller’s Death becomes a mystery, with Isla seeking the truth of her family’s past and struggling to right their connections with others on the island. And, of course, the thread of romance continues. After the slow pace of the first half of the book, the second half feels lively and intriguing and is laced with Puerto Rican customs and phrases, offering a delightful visit to what will be a fresh new setting for most readers.


The book’s promotion as an adult novel may not be well chosen; it is, at heart, a coming of age piece, often sweet and touching. And this will make it a good gift for readers over a wide spectrum, especially those who like their exploration laced with a hint of mystique, mystery, and the mystic in a tropical locale.

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