Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Swedish Noir Trilogy Concludes, SLOWLY WE DIE from Emelie Schepp

Special prosecutor Jana Berzelius tackles a traumatically gruesome set of serial killings in this third and final book in this noted Swedish crime fiction trilogy from Emelie Schepp. SLOWLY WE DIE pits Berzelius against what looks like a group of revenge murders. But who's doing them, and why? At first, all Berzelius knows is that the victims are people who usually get thanked, not murdered: they're first responders and other medically trained experts.

But then again, considering the murder weapon is a skillfully used scalpel, the murderer may also belong inside that world where life and death are negotiated daily.

The two earlier books in this series are Marked for Life  and Marked for Revenge. Although I read a lot of noir, this series gave me chills at a level that I didn't choose to put into detail in reviews, because of the underlying crime of child sexual abuse, graphically shown in the other two books, that drives Berzelius in her work. So yes, you'll get more of the haunting horror that Berzelius faces in this third book if you read the other two first.

Then again -- the situation this time is so terrifying ... Berzelius winds up sharing her home with a terrifying person from her past, who's blackmailing her into letting him stay:
When she'd left the apartment, Danilo had been standing in the hall, looking at her. His arms had been crossed and something resembling a sneer had been on his lips. But he hadn't said anything, and she hadn't, either. She had simply met his gaze and fantasized about putting her hands around his neck and squeezing until he was gasping for breath.

She would gladly break every bone in his body and would more than gladly erase him from the face of the earth. But killing him was not an option -- not yet.
Right, maybe you don't need to take it any darker than this third book already presents. And it gets more frightening -- although the finely tuned and paced writing may well drag you though this book at a very high speed. (It did, for me.)

Blurbs for the book, because it's "Scandinavian noir," compare it to Jo Nesbø's writing. But I'd pick Karin Fossum as the most comparable. Prepare to shudder.

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

YA Suspense Debut from Gia Cribbs, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN

Sometimes first books can be outrageously good -- because the author is brilliant, or grabbed a clever idea, or has been working on that debut novel for years, making it better with every revision.

Don't know which of those reasons applies to THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN by Gia Cribbs, a Maryland author. But with this YA crossover, she's definitely on target with finely tuned suspense, fast plot twists, and that special aspect that makes a "young adult" thriller so particularly haunting: a teenage protagonist whose knowledge of the situation, by definition, is incomplete -- she's just too inexperienced to seriously doubt the explanations of people close to her.

Sloane Sullivan is smart, though. Moving into a new school district just a few months before graduation, she's psyched to complete her senior year of high school and get on with college (depending, of course, on where she gets accepted). She's got an extra incentive to keep cool and make sure her friendships in this new location are responsible and calm: She's in witness protection, and the guy taking care of her says if she completes high school, she can actually NOT disappear for a change -- keep this latest "new name" and go out into the world without being controlled, monitored, watched over. At last!

Sloane's an expert in knowing when a situation might be closing in on her, putting her into danger. She's drilled for years in how to handle that, and she's used to needing to leave an identity behind at the drop of a hat (or textbook). And she's made a lot of sacrifices to stay safe:
Today was the start of a new week and my eighteenth birthday. ... I wanted to wear something to celebrate the occasion. The problem was my wardrobe, which consisted only of basics: jeans and T-shirts and hoodies in plain, solid colors. It made it easier every time we moved. Anything too distinctive wasn't allowed to travel with me, and I learned really quickly not to waste money on pretty things that got left behind.
She hides her cell phone, too, because it's only for emergencies. BIG emergencies.

So when the new school turns out to include her best friend from before she had to go into hiding, and she really ought to report that and brace for moving AGAIN (and changing names) -- Sloane decides to gamble on not being recognized. Her eye color hides under contacts; she's way older; she's got a new set of moves, from sports to music. Nobody will know, right?

When the scene goes wrong, Sloane needs to make fast choices on who to trust and how to survive. Count on some moments of intense danger, even deadly kinds -- and watch Sloane work out her next plan.

Great book for teens, and equally good for adults. It won't change your life -- but it will give you time off, wrapped up in adventure with a great teenager. What more could you want?

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Blood Lust and Crime Solving, in HANGMAN from Jack Heath

Jack Heath (a pen name) is an Australian writer of a lot of books for kids -- and HANGMAN is the exception to his routine, a most-definitely-for-adults thriller that steps onto the stage often occupied by dark, frightening criminals like Dexter, or Garry Disher's Wyatt.  Except --

Except that FBI consultant Timothy Blake, who's been slaking his peculiar thirst with a deal that keeps him solving crimes for the officials in his life, is struggling to deal with a crime-solving partner for the first time, a woman who works for the FBI as a professional. When he discovers how easily he connects with this other crime solver (who has no idea of his dirty deal, or his tastes), he's caught in the classic really-shouldn't-bite-that-pretty neck dilemma of many a vampire in far more romantic situations.

And with that thread, Jack Heath has formed the triangle of forces working on and in his protagonist: a hunger for human flesh, a mind well shaped to investigation and intuitive grasp of crime, and a heart that's unexpectedly pushing into his affairs.

There are many "ugh" moments in this crime novel -- made worthwhile by Blake's first-person narrative and his battles to both stay alive and in some way stay on the right side of his own blood-drawn lines:
An hour later the bones and tendons have dissolved. I pick up a twisted wire coathanger and dip the hook into the acid. After a bit of fumbling, I've found the plug and pulled it out. ...

As I watch the dead man disappear down the plughole in a grey-brown whirlpool, like the Ambulance Killer before him, I feel like I should say something. A brief eulogy. A few kind words.

But when I eventually get caught and executed, no one will say anything nice about me.
Obviously this book won't suit all tastes. But I found it compelling, found myself hoping Blake could redeem his life, or his ways, or at least his investigation. If you often read the dark side, try HANGMAN. Jack Heath is well worth reading.

And this quirky offering comes from Hanover Square Press, home of an astoundingly wide range of innovative crime fiction.

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

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Second Bianca St. Ives Thriller from Karen Robards, THE MOSCOW DECEPTION

Move over, James Bond and Jack Reacher. There's a woman racing around the world using her genetically modified strength and hard-earned analytical skills to fight for her freedom and a bit more justice overall, and she's fast, smart, and determined. Welcome to the practiced hands of author Karen Robards:

Bianca St. Ives, a DC-area entrepreneur with an amazing tech team, just wants a chance to live and earn her living -- without the presence of her often creepy father figure and the criminal masterminds constantly searching for him. And oh yes, the American government and other special teams hunting for her, too, under her earlier names. Her biotech background, revealed fully in the first book of this thriller series, The Ultimatum, and sketched again here in THE MOSCOW DECEPTION, makes her a target for total disappearance (yes, death and more).

But Bianca's always been willing to take risks, and in this case that means getting back in touch with Mason Thayer -- not actually her father after all, but still the man who knows the most about her past and about the target on her back. The book's title refers to the trade Thayer proposes if she wants his help in surviving: an expert jewel theft she'll need to commit in Moscow, with another hand-picked team eager to share the financial rewards of what she has in mind.
If she was being targeted, if she was being hunted, her best bet might be to shut down the company, put the condo on the market, and go.

Could anybody say, run for your life?

The thought was unutterably depressing.

So don't think about it. For now, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Bianca's reasoning and her allies can only take her so far -- and then she'll need a bit better luck than she'd had lately. The question is, would reconnecting with the mysterious but physically alluring Colin Rogan, a presumed MI6 agent who's tracking her, improve her luck -- or send her spiralling into prison or worse?

Great summer reading, adventurous, quickly paced, and just wild enough to suspend skepticism and take the wild ride that a Bianca St. Ives thriller from Karen Robards (and Mira, Harlequin's mystery and thriller imprint) demands.

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

Delightful and Unusual Western, TIMBERLINE, from Maine Athor Matthew P. Mayo

In the same way that the "two for a quarter" steamy romance novels at the yard sale can all seem alike after a while, "Westerns" can seem pretty similar -- horses, tough men, women in long dresses and bonnets, and an unfortunate past abusive angle that diminished Native Americans to painful stereotypes.

You'll have to say goodbye to those past impressions in order to pick up the newest release from Maine author (and Lyndon State College, VT, graduate) Matthew P. Mayo. Third in the series featuring Roamer, a homely (even scary-looking) frontiersman, TIMBERLINE offers a winter adventure in crime-solving, chasing across a blizzard-swept landscape, and reliance on friendship.

Let's start with Roamer, whose appearance keeps most people away from him and deceives others into thinking anyone who's obviously suffered so many attacks from nature and humankind must be weak-minded. Actually, Roamer reads the classics, treasures his books, and is hauling a sack of them along on a short train trip that should end in meeting up with his mountain-man friend Maple Jack -- a raconteur of the first order.

On the railroad platform, ready to board, Roamer catches sight of an amazingly lovely young woman:
Faint purple smudges rested beneath her bright, wide eyes, a blue nearly as rich as her cloak, and wreathed by long lashes. She looked to be a young woman getting over a sickness that had somehow enhanced her beauty. At least that's the fanciful line of though I caught myself trailing. I averted my gaze as she turned and made her way through the little crowd, which parted before her as if she were a magical being.
Absorbed in contemplating this wonder, Roamer neglects to turn aside in time, and the young woman catches a full view of his own face: "She looked into my eyes and her mirth was replaced with the inevitable fear and pity. Revulsion would be next."

Yet because the young woman doesn't completely ignore him on board the train, and because the obvious criminal types on board who laugh at Roamer's book passion also seem determined to humiliate the young woman, Roamer unthinkingly takes her side, and soon finds himself battling the worst of an early blizzard in an effort to rescue her from villains.

There are worse aspects in play, besides his homely appearance, and unless someone as skilled and loyal as Roamer's friend Maple Jack can make an unexpected appearance, things look grim for the oversized if courageous frontiersman.

Swift twists of plot in Mayo's experienced hands turn Roamer's assumptions inside out. And though the scenes are soon piled deep with murdered men and horses, what will shape Roamer's success or failure has more to do with his own skills and his ability to read both the Western landscape and the outrageous greed of many an arrival on the scene.

Almost 200 pages long, TIMBERLINE (from Five Star/Cengage) represents one branch of the "new" Western -- nurturing courage and determination as the land becomes better understood -- and provides a glance into the soul of the person struggling to survive there.

Oh, I'm not suggesting this is a mystery -- there's little doubt about the murders that take place, and while Roamer needs to figure out what's going on under the surface, he won't do it by any mystery genre route -- but it's from a New England author carving a wide swath of good writing, and I want to tip a hat to it. Tuck a copy into your summer reading stack for a bit of diversity; see what the teens in your life think of its approach, too (nothing in here that will harm them). And no, there is nothing racist in this book, perhaps marking the slow, steady turn of the Western genre to a more honest (if still romantic) appraisal of our nation's Westward expansion. Open to enjoyment across genders, too.

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

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Classic Thriller, Brilliant in Its Twists, WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT by Sandra Block

Take all the horror stories you've read in the "real news" about sexual molesting at frat houses and other university clubs. Add to it the humiliation and shock of a gang-rape victim who can't remember what happened, thanks to being drugged -- but who arrives at a hospital wounded and damaged in every part of her body, and who eventually finds her office mates watching a video of her assault.

That's the baseline of WHAT HAPPENED NEXT, one of the best classic thrillers I've read this year. But author Sandra Block goes way beyond the suspense and desperate desire for crime solving that this situation inspires when she provides for Dahlia, barely functioning as a paralegal, to find the support she needs from a shy "IT" guy (programmer) named James -- whose "differentness" is captured in the term "Asperger's syndrome." Except for the highly pertinent fact that the term misses out on both his persistence and his tender ability to care for Dahlia. Which is, of course, an astounding situation for both of them, but especially for Dahlia, whose effort to kill herself some time ago made complete sense.

The video's arrival online marks the moment Dahlia chooses to move from ultimate victim to a force for justice. Not necessarily legal justice -- but a fierce and furious balancing of the scales against at least four of the men who raped her and made fun of her painful abasement.

No wonder James seems like an amazing answer to her needs: On his body, unlike the tattoos on Dahlia's, is a string of Japanese characters spelling the word for "revenge."

I could not put this book down. The twists, the suspense, the emotional connections building against the odds between Dahlia and James -- it stunned me. There are also interludes of flashback to the year of the rape, like this one in Dahlia's voice:
It is a bit shocking, but I love my tattoo.

It's the one thing I've managed to accomplish over the last couple of months in Cambridge. Ink. It was like therapy. My tattoo artist, Claire, asked why I wanted a tattoo. I told her that I wanted to take my body back. And she said "Cool" quite simply, and that was that.

We talked. Well, I talked, and she listened. It hurt, sure, but I really didn't mind. It was my idea. My pain. And while she etched survivor on my arm and surrounded it with darkness turning into lightness, I felt better. Tattoo therapy, maybe. It was better than that Rae-Ann woman anyway, who just drank tea the whole time.

I don't try to explain any of this to my mom.
What intrigues me most about WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT is the way it shatters the genre conventions so successfully. Face it, a gang-rape victim turning to revenge -- that should be darkness all the way. But Block commands a rising and wakening from her plot and characters, and the ending is almost too tender to bear -- but not really. It fits, as inevitable as it is surprising.

Don't let the brutal crime involved keep you away from grabbing a copy of this book (new from Sourcebooks Landmark). It's a compelling read, a memorable one, and, dare I say, a lifesaver. Or so I mean light-saver? Yeah, like that. (By the way, it's blurbed by Lisa Scottoline, and deserves it.)

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

Bittersweet Humor, Taut Crime Pacing, in LONDON RULES from Mick Herron

Mick Herron's Slough House series has already drawn a pair of CWA (Crime Writers' Association, UK) silver daggers -- and with this fifth of the full-length "MI5/6" style crime novels in the series, he's hitting some of his best notes yet.

Any reader of John Le Carré already knows the term "Moscow Rules": the keep-safe guidelines for espionage on foreign turf, where every stranger can be ready to sabotage your effort or your life. In a brilliant an enteraining twist, Mick Herron provides "London Rules" -- the conventions of the dog-eat-dog tangle of British espionage agencies competing for government favor, funding, and job security along the Thames and in the adjacent terrain.

LONDON RULES opens (after a dramatic mass murder preface) with an artful discussion of the daylight's revelations in Slough House, home to failed domestic espionage agents who can't be fired -- but can be made supremely miserable and humiliated by repeated assignments to tasks involving phone bills, website listings, and such. In fact, the tiny pocket of underemployment would be an utter failure and disgrace, were it not for its leader, the bright but rather disgusting (verbally, in appearance, and through massive farting) Jackson Lamb. Because Lamb may have the Service's supreme screwballs. But when they get to Slough House, they become HIS screwballs, to torment and mock in conversation and duties ... and to align and operate under the radar when he so chooses, protected by his massive influence, connections, and, sigh, persistent blackmail.
[Lamb's office] is cramped and furtive, like a kennel, and its overpowering theme is neglect. Psychopaths are said to decorate their walls with crazy writing, the loops and whorls of their infinite equations an attempt at cracking the code their life is hostage to. Lamb prefers his walls to do their own talking, and they have cooperated to the extent that the cracks in their plasterwork, their mildew stains, have here and there conspired to produce something that might amount to an actual script ... a moving finger had write before deciding, contrary to the wisdom of the ages to rub out again.
Such pretentious teasing prose is quickly balanced by a sequence of disasters and threats that forces Jackson Lamb to place his "agents" back into play, even as he mocks the chances that they might succeed.

But it's necessary, because as Lamb's rather unpleasant agent Shirley Dander -- on her 62nd drug-free day -- discovers, someone is trying to murder her fellow agent Roderick ("Roddy") Ho. And the grotesque linkages in Slough House mean if one agent's at risk of sudden death, so are they all.

Soon Lamb and his able (if a lot crazy) assistant Catherine Standish take Shirley's side. They even confront one of the superiors trying to shut them down, Emma Flyte, as Flyte argues about that opening mass murder and its sequelae:
"So let's say he's right. Even if the Park [the active security force] don't listen, tell them about it and you've covered your back."

[Lamb responds] "Yeah, not really. Because if these guys are laying waste to the country using a script the Service wrote, there are few lengths the Park won't go to to cover it up. And anyone who knows about it will be in the firing line. Which includes you, if you'd lost count. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll be safe when they start playing London Rules. Because you're not a suit, Flyte. You're a joe [agent]. And joes are expendable." ... Lamb shrugged. "I'm in no hurry to be elsewhere. But what I'm appealing to are your survival instincts."
Lamb's right. The question is, with London Rules pushing the powerful to protect their own backsides and shove everyone else into the line of fire, how can the Slough House team -- the Slow Horses -- possibly get out of this, both alive and employed?

Series readers already know how quickly Herron can tie these burned-out and substance-abusing agents into knots that are somehow also hilarious, just the way one of Lamb's farts would be if it took place in certain higher offices. LONDON RULES pushes the stakes and the twisted hilarity higher than ever,

Oh sure, you can plunge into LONDON RULES without reading the earlier books first -- think of yourself as stepping through Alice's mirror or down the rabbit hole, and roll with it. Then grab all four preceding titles (reviews here) and have yourself a explosive week of head-shaking, food-spitting laughter.

And somehow or other, Herron always pulls the plot lines back into place in time for a highly satisfying denoument. This time -- well, it's explosive in terms of what's ahead for the series. But if this is your first Slough House book, you'll have to watch really closely to see what the hidden hand is up to as the book reaches its finale.

Herron's books usually reach publication in the United Kingdom first, and Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press) brings them across the "pond." Thank goodness.

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


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Intense Lowcountry Mystery from C. Hope Clark, NEWBERRY SIN

What a delight to sink into the fourth Carolina Slade mystery from award-winning author C. Hope Clark, NEWBERRY SIN. Well actually, this is the kind of sometimes chilling murder mystery that makes me jump up to check that the door is locked, on my way to put the kettle on. But that's all good, when suspense and risk are supposed to be lining up!

And with Carolina Slade, an amateur sleuth despite her job description that includes "investigation" on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture, suspense and risk are necessities -- they keep Slade happy, and they connect her to a pro investigator, her romantic partner Wayne Largo.

So when a radio host takes Slade along to witness a newly discovered corpse and pushes her to follow the trail of possible corruption within the USDA, that should be a happy moment, right?

Ooops. Not this time. Slade's seriously confused about her relationship with Wayne (and it's getting worse), her boss is determined to strip her of any investigatory possibilities, her co-workers are under threat because she can't handle all of this, and the crime field is widening with every moment that she's forced to spend detouring around those roadblocks.

I've been a fan of C. Hope Clark's mysteries since the start of her Carolina Slade mysteries, set in the coastal Lowcountry of South Carolina, where community has Kevlar-strong threads and knotted webs of connection, much like my home terrain of Vermont. For example, Slade's contacts tug her into a coffee gathering right away, to set her straight on what she needs to resolve (as well as the murder):
I then studied the women. "Hello, I'm Carolina Slade. Which one of you is Mrs. Cassie Abrams?"

The one who raised her hand held the coarsest stare. Gray-headed, hair up in a bun, the charcoal pants outfit hinted her new role as widow. "I am she. And you have some accounting to do."

"Pardon me?" This felt more like an ambush. Made me wonder how much Lottie had exacerbated her story to draw this crew.  ... [I turned my] attention to Cassie, who chose to continue speaking in lieu of letting me give the accounting she'd just demanded.

"That vamp y'all put in your office here. Despicable. Manipulative. You planted her, I say. Using her ways to entice our men to come in, sign on more debt, then y'all take all this credit for serving Newberry. Even confiscate our land."
And that's the least of the misstatements, accusations, and threats Slade's going to have to cope with. Meanwhile, she may mess up her personal life even further.

C. Hope Clark is a pro with lines of tension, twist of plot, and above all, a protagonist whose courage and pain are front and center. I couldn't put this one down.

No, you don't need to read the others in the series (or Clark's other series, the Edisto Island books) to enjoy this one. And they do keep getting better ... but I'm guessing after you savor this one, you'll want the set. Classic amateur sleuth work, with extra high suspense and personal challenges. What's not to like? (As long as it's in the book, not in the living room, right?)

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

Zingers and Twists, in TINY CRIMES: VERY SHORT TALES OF MYSTERY & MURDER

It's almost release day (which will be June 1), so I'm jumping in with another enthusiastic recommendation (if you read mystery reviews, you've seen some already!) for TINY CRIMES, a compact, neatly designed, and very, very enjoyable set of extra-short stories, aka flash fiction, that set out mysteries, suspense, crime, or astonishing darkness. It's as if editors Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Neito skimmed the best and strangest tales from all the strongest mystery magazines going, and packed them into this intense block of well-designed illustrated pages. Thirty-nine of them.

Many are written by specialists in the short story form -- which isn't my usual area of reading, so the names of the authors were new to me, although their credits at the back of the book are fierce and impressive. Two particularly thrilled me: a New England tale well spun by Elizabeth Hand, and an unforgettable surreal one from Japanese noir novelist Fuminori Nakamura. I also like the one from Paul La Farge, which begins "The next to last time I saw Polanski" (talk about classic!), and couldn't stop marveling (with dark chuckles) at "Hygge" by Dorthe Nors.

Treat yourself. As far as I can tell, there's only one drawback to buying this book: You won't want to pass it along to a friend ... because there's always going to be a moment when you think "That story I liked so much, I should read it again" -- and this one's going to have to stay on your shelf. Or even on the bedside table.

From Black Balloon, published by Catapult. Good stuff.

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

The Hangman's Daughter Series #7, THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE by Oliver Pötzsch

It's time for this year's Bavarian hangman mystery set in the 1600s, from mystery and thriller author Oliver Pötzsch -- and it's a wild ride!

As THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE opens in 1672, hangman Jacob Kuisl, a true specialist in a time that needs his skills, is preparing for a journey to Munich, with his family. That includes daughter Barbara, who needs to get engaged, and daughter Magdelena, a crime-solver of unusual courage and determination (highly motivated by the need to protect and survive for her child).

It will be Magdelena who eventually takes the greatest risks in trying to solve a rash of young women's deaths in Munich. But she comes by her investigative side directly from her father, who's working the crimes from another angle, the basic autopsy, before the term was well known:
"Then let's do it." Kuisl pulled the girl's dress up. He got out his knife, which he sharpened as frequently as his executioner's sword, and made the first insertion from the breastbone downward.

The hangman had cut open dozens of bodies in his life. Like Deibler, he was fascinated by the inside of humans, of which very little was known as yet. Kuisl believed he had more medical knowledge than most studied physicians from here to Schongau. He was the proud owner of a small Latin library at his house, hundreds of medicines, and countless surgical instruments, which he sometimes lent to his son-in-law.

Because he's the physician and I'm just a dishonorable hangman, Kuisl thought.
Yet Jacob Kuisl knows a belly full of deadly nightshade when he finds it (in fact, he'd already suspected it), and just like that, he's making progress on the case in front of him.

Too bad Magdelena doesn't have as easy a route to her part of the investigation. Yes, she learns a lot, very quickly, while being held captive at threat of life and other losses. But cut off from her husband and her father, what can she actually do to protect herself and prevent other deaths?

Pötzsch (with translator Lee Chadeayne) spins a fast-paced tale with abundant risk, suspense, and twists -- while smoothly carrying the 1600s into all possible details of setting and crime. And when a colleague complains about how the hangmen's association is being treated during the hunt for the criminal, saying, "In good old Bamberg, folks still appreciate a hangman and don't chop off his hands and feet," Jacob Kuisl quickly replies, "In good old Bamberg, folks were hunting for a werewolf only a few years ago." He's got quite a challenge in trying to persuade his colleagues that the serial killer who's been murdering young women might come after them, too, for what they may already know or guess.

At close to 500 pages, THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE is a long romp that transports summer reading into fresh terrain, with humor and clever detection. In addition, as I mentioned when reviewing last year's title in the series (The Play of Death), you may have extra reason to grab a copy if any of the following pertain to you:

1. You collect the reading experience of mysteries set in Bavaria.
2. You pursue fiction set in the 1600s.
3. You're planning to see the Bread & Puppet Theater in action in Vermont (or treasure having done so in the past, especially in the 1970s and 1980s).

And in addition, there's a dog at stake in this one. Talk about diverse! The series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE is available May 29.

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Very Different British Mystery from Judith Cutler, Teacher's Point of View, in HEAD COUNT

When's the last time you read a mystery that paid attention to the social needs of eight-year-olds, the career risks of head lice, and the criminal vulnerability of illegal immigrants?

Right -- I thought so. Welcome to HEAD COUNT, a series debut from highly experienced British author Judith Cutler. Brush up your cricket terms just in case (Cutler adores it), and jump into action with Jane Cowan. Not only is she the head of two schools instead of one this term -- she's also in high demand as an umpire for official league games of cricket in the region. Bottom line: She's got to hang tough, no matter what.

But that won't be easy, as her newly adopted small primary school is neighbor to an irritated and manipulative major landowner; unplanned students with language issues land in her classrooms; and one of the biggest guys in the cricket group has multiple grievances with her that may play out painfully, both on the field and in the school hallways.
And what could I do? Tell the governors, for one thing. But that didn't involve striding around, questioning people -- anything. It must have been some of that frustration that Hazel Roberts sensed. 'I'll alert everyone else on the board and start them searching too. Meanwhile, my dear, get off the phone. It's vital you keep the line open. You're the point of contact for everyone -- the still point of the turning world, as Eliot put it.

Where on earth could Zunaid be?
Cowan's roles may pin her into forced play or, regrettably, non-play. But that doesn't mean she can't make sure a missing student is safely found, and a set of major crimes brought to a halt. With a bit of danger along the way.

Cutler's written some 40 novels and knows how to spin the tale. This book came out in the UK in 2017 from Allison & Busby, and reached the US this month via Casemate/IPM. It's a pleasant read, and good to add to the summer reading stack, for a chance to relax and follow along in a traditional mystery with neat twists and satisfying (if somewhat predictable) finale.

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

Barbara Cleverly, British Mystery Author, Launches New Series, FALL OF ANGELS

Change has its challenges. If you've read your way through all 13 books of Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series, with its ex-military, ex-India investigator easing open the layers of British society between the two world wars, take a deep breath. Pretend you're reading a new author. And step into the 1923 world of Detective Inspector John Redfyre. There, it's not so terrible if you don't try to imagine a 14th Sandilands book, right?

And for the rest of you -- readers of British mysteries old and new, and investigators of that mysterious interlude after the Great War and before the bombings that will crush London -- welcome to the smooth, polished writing of one of the heirs of the Dorothy Sayers mystery tradition. Cleverly keeps a tight plot, never loses track of her red herrings, and plays fairly with the rules of the genre: Search for motive, means, and opportunity, and try to solve the case a page or two before the protagonist announces how it all went!

FALL OF ANGELS provides a wide cast of smart women to balance DI Redfyre's appearance. Pressing for equal representation in the vote, and also in the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, Cleverly's women range widely. There's the highly attractive and clever young trumpeter, Juno Proudfoot, making her academic debut at a Christmas concert that Redfyre's been manipulated into attending (way up front). And there's Redfyre's fiercely independent Aunt Henrietta, who seems to think she can gently nudge her nephew into a planned role in the battle for the fair sex. And, of course, Redfyre's own friends -- a circle rapidly growing.

His superiors and peers are not as well equipped to infiltrate England's conservative social scene, so Redfyre must tackle the case mostly alone. Fortunately, he's aware of Aunt Henrietta's proclivities, so when an emergency erupts, he's ready to take charge:
Redfyre firmly drew the doctor aside and spoke to him quietly. "I'd rather she didn't skip off. Miss Stretton will be staying with me for the moment. She's a witness to what may well turn out to be a crime."

"A crime?" The doctor looked back at Juno in some puzzlement. "Fallling down a dark staircase is hardly a crime, surely."

"Attempted murder is a crime in my book," said Redfyre. "This apparent accident will be investigated as such ... I would be most grateful if you could bear that in mind when you carry out your more detailed examination at the hospital."

"Indeed? Well, of course. A sort of 'ante-mortem' report? Understood."
That sort of military conspiring of the men on scene works out well for Redfyre. But to get to the truth of the case, he'll have to sort through the much more devious plans of the women instead. (I did mention Dorothy Sayers, didn't I?)

Once I stopped mourning the absence of Joe Sandilands, I enjoyed FALL OF ANGELS. I'm interested in seeing how Cleverly, one of the true professionals of the British "traditional mystery" genre, will draw us further into the complicated 1920s and the rather pleasant interior of her new detective, in the titles yet to come. From Soho Crime, a Soho Press imprint.

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


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Forensics and Detection, 1768 Style, in SAVAGE LIBERTY from Eliot Pattison

Available this week, the newest "Mystery of Revolutionary America" is the fifth in Eliot Pattison's series that was originally called the Bone Rattler books, after the first title in it. An international attorney (still practicing) and master of three vastly different series with three entirely separate cultures -- the other two are Chinese-occupied Tibet, and a post-apocalyptic version of a nuclear frontier -- Pattison crafts an immersion experience of hardships, crime, investigation, and dramatic changes. And SAVAGE LIBERTY perches at a fierce point in history, as colonists with diverse background and motives began to realize that rejecting the British king's power over them could be possible.

Most compelling in Pattison's books are his wounded heroes: here, the Scottish medically trained Duncan McCallum, bound under a punitive indenture contract that prevents him from committing to the love of his life, Sarah Ramsey. Ramsey is herself an outrageous figure for the time, trying to craft a peaceable community of Judeo-Christians, frontier folk, and Native Americans at the edge of the East Coast's strip of "civilization." But by binding McCallum for long-ago "criminality" and a few recent misjudgments, Ramsey's father effectively prevents the couple from a balanced and equal relationship.

This is part of McCallum's motive for taking off into the wilderness in search of a rogue collaboration of British and Abenaki warmongers -- they've pushed his bonding further and put a bounty on his head. But as always in Pattison's books, the emotional depth comes with McCallum's identification with members of a threatened culture: in this case, the Native Americans being brutally evicted from their lands. One of the most moving scenes in the book involves McCallum witnessing a heartbreaking farewell to the trees and forest, by his Nipmuc friend and ally, Conawago. Pattison's strongly drawn parallel of the outlawed Scottish Highland clans and the Native American tribes provides McCallum with some of his passion for the Nipmuc and his allies. Yet, as in Pattison's Tibet series, it's the underlying spiritual commitment that most deeply connects these men.

McCallum's usual care in decision making goes off track in SAVAGE LIBERTY. With the unsettling of his belief in the king's right to rule the colonies also comes an unsettling of some of his loyalties and convictions. And his beloved isn't pleased, telling him, "Stealing muskets from the king! Bribing army guards. This is how you will prove yourself innocent of treason! I beg you, Duncan, leave this behind before it is too late."

But Duncan McCallum is forming a new commitment, to the Sons of Liberty, a group that's clearly fomenting revolution. It's troubling him:
He lay on a comforter beside Sarah's bed, listening to the slow, quiet breathing of Sarah and Will, recalling prior conversations in Boston. The arguments with the king would never come to violence, Hancock and Sam Adams always insisted. King George would soon recognize that the inhabitants of his most valuable colonies had to be given the same respect as Englishmen in the home country, and all would then rally around the monarch. But the terrible visions of the innkeeper's dying wife now visited him, vivid images of ill-trained colonists being massacred by British regulars, the massed bullets of their. Brown Besses mowing down farmers and shopkeepers like the blade of a bloody scythe. Whenever a colonist fell, an Abenaki materialized to rip away his scalp.
Pattison's choice of Abenaki for the most dangerous criminal in this book (in a revenge motif based on the massacre of the St. Francis group of the tribe) disturbed me, as it seemed a choice that could tar an entire group of people with a label of irrational and uncontained violence. I kept pausing to check details, finding that small parts that rubbed me wrong -- scalping, displays of scalps -- had ample historical backup, but still ill at ease. I also missed the more deliberate investigative direction of earlier titles in the series.

That said, Pattison does a masterful job of keeping his red herrings afloat and his competing rationales for crime and violence well sorted out. Most vitally, he illustrates the slow and irreversible turn from an angry but heartfelt loyalty to the monarch, toward the possibility of independence. I look forward to how he'll carry Duncan McCallum into the very forces of liberty in the next book of the series. And, of course, to how this deep-probing author will illustrate the ongoing death of tribal occupation of the new America. "Savage" liberty, indeed.

Publication is by Counterpoint, and the book's release date is May 22.

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

Stunning Crime Novel with Intense Twists, DEAD GIRLS by Graeme Cameron

Sick of all the book titles that use "girl" or "girls" lately? Don't let that delay your reach for Graeme Cameron's second book, DEAD GIRLS. This British author spins a complex and highly gratifying suspense novel in the most unusual "police investigation" I've ever read. And it opens with the ultimate unreliable narrator: Detective Alisha ("Ali") Green, whose brain can't handle even the basics of daily memory as she struggles to recover from a brutal attack by a serial killer who'd left her for dead. Between the pain, the understandable alcohol abuse, and the broken transmissions in what used to be a fine mind, Ali can't even tell for sure what's in her thoughts and what she's shouting out in front of her former partner, Kevin. "My heart sank, though I made the best attempt I could at keeping the horror from my face. How much had I said out loud? And why did I not know the answer to that?"

Turns out that the psychopath who's more than ready to finish the job of killing her has been killing plenty of other women, and tormenting those he's left alive. Even his "friends" know he's dangerous. And in acute twists of action and emotion, Cameron makes clear their damage and risk, as at the moment when Annie, a presumed witness to the brutality, retreating to her safely locked up home, spots a still-wet mug next to her kitchen sink, one she never ever uses:
Annie took a breath and waited for her heart to start beating. And when it finally did, she slumped to the floor in the corner of the kitchen, and shuffled back into the crook of the wall, and drew her knees up to her chest, and listened to the kettle boil, and cried and cried and cried.
Making things more dangerous is the extreme lack of experience with which Ali and Kevin's superior officer tackles the multiple victims and the hunt for the killer. There are already two dead cops -- will Ali be the next? And you're not expecting good decisions from Ali and her broken brain, are you?

The special pleasure of DEAD GIRLS is Cameron's highly believable knotting of support ties among the damaged yet seriously angry women who tackle this case. I'd suggest putting this onto the summer reading stack, but really, if you get a copy now, dump all the dull chores of the next few days and just immerse. It's worth it, with rewards in every twist, including the finale.

From Park Row Books, a suspense imprint from Harlequin.

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

Memoir Worth Reading: The Girl Who Smiled Beads, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

There are so many interesting things to consider with THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS. The subtitle is "A Story of War and What Comes After," a good description. Author Clemantine Wamariya and her sister Claire survived six dangerous years mostly on their own in seven African countries, when their family of origin was shattered and dispersed by the Rwandan genocide. A refugee program finally brought them to the United States. And then their scraped-together survival was turned upside down by an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show Oprah, where the TV star gave the girl-turned-woman a stunning surprise: Oprah's team had located Clemantine's mother and surviving siblings and brought them to the show.

That's the center point of Wamariya's narrative in terms of time and change. But it's not the easy part and maybe not even the joyful part. Sorting out the horrors of the past, the damage of the present, and what to do within modern Western culture turn out to be both complicated and painful. PTSD? Sure. And more.

The narrative's management by distinguished co-author Elizabeth Weil -- a writer for the New York Times Magazine who's done this kind of co-authorship before -- turns what could have been a candy-sweet tale into a powerful exploration of culture, recovery, and determination. The book is an easy read in short chapters with abundant adventure, and solidly rewards the reader who follows the entire journey. It gave me a lot to think about, especially coupled with my spring plunge into Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and more. Hope you have a chance to add it to your stack.

And don't miss Wamariya's website, for a startling look at what she's now pursuing.