Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mid-Feb. Release: Henning Mankell, THE MAN FROM BEIJING

We live in a global world.

It's not just an awareness of where our sneakers were made or who is (or isn't) buying the timber cut in our forests. Nor is it the increasing number of families whose grown children are marrying or partnering with people from cultures far beyond what our televisions have taught us.

Rather, now we affect each other across miles, oceans, and continents.

Perhaps we always have. But now we know about it -- we notice it. And to this global world, where many nations assist recovery from the Katrina floods and the Haiti earthquakes, where we eat raw fish (after growing up hearing people say they never would!) or soy cubes or organic milk products, to this increasing awareness of being present in each other's lives, Henning Mankell brings his 2010 thriller, THE MAN FROM BEIJING.

The action opens with a lone wolf, crossing national boundaries without a passport or anyone noticing its passage, entering Sweden on a hunt for fresh meat. When the male wolf finally finds something to eat, it's already dead, but just barely. A horrifying mass murder, unique in a peaceful country, is being discovered -- nineteen people have been slaughtered in a small, winter-wrapped village.
What the three police officers discovered was unprecedented in the annals of Swedish crime and would become a part of Swedish legal history. There were bodies in every house. Dogs and cats had been stabbed to deal, even a parrot with its head cut off. They found a total of 19 dead people, all of them elderly except for a boy who must have been about twelve. Some had been killed while asleep in bed, others were lying on the floor or sitting on chairs at the kitchen table. An old woman had died with a comb in her hand, a man by a stove with an overturned coffee pot by his side. In one house they found two people locked in an embrace and tied together. All had been subjected to frenzied violence.
[This time, Mankell doesn't get much more graphic in his descriptions of violence than this early scene. So if you haven't tried one of his books yet for fear of the blood and guts, this may be the one where you can safely plunge. Beware, though -- the tension and terror can rise without blood.]

As multiple levels of police investigations arrive, so does a judge from the city of Helsingbord: Birgitta Roslin. A woman who labors for justice within a challenging legal system, and whose personal roots include fighting for a better world, Roslin is startled to discover that her background links her to the massacre being reported. Simultaneously, her mid-life crisis hits at freight-train speed and power. When she plunges abruptly into the crime investigation, she does so without friends or support, other than the frayed edges of her professional role. And in a Chinese restaurant near the massacre scene, she insists on pulling together pieces of information that clearly belong together, but seem senseless: a matching massacre in another place, a piece of ribbon, a family tree.
It struck her that neither she nor the police had the slightest idea what had happened. It was all much bigger, deeper, and more mysterious than any of them could have imagined.

They knew absolutely nothing.
In an unexpected lunge, Mankell abruptly takes the novel to another continent and a time a hundred and fifty years earlier. Crime, it appears, has long roots, and the more personal it is, the longer the roots seem to grow. Brutality, cruelty, and murder produce results that don't just descend for generations of Swedes and those who have traveled and worked with them; they also can spread and magnify over time, increasing the injustice and violence invoked.

This is a dark and relentless tale, tightly paced, persistent. In his reach across nations and time periods, Mankell echoes what John Le Carré did with The Constant Gardener -- with some of the same effects. The demand for a reckoning is there; so is the determined witnessing to injustice that includes the damage done by colonialism. Mankell adds the bleak side of communism and popular movements as well. And his choice of Birgitta Roslin, and of several other strong women in the narrative, captures a similarity between China and today's Sweden in expecting women to manage their share of power.

There's no doubt that plowing through this fierce and all too realistic international thriller will make clear many of Mankell's passions and beliefs about evil and about justice. A look at his web site, with its columns and calls to action, confirms that this novel offers a very personal statement.

Whether it is a satisfying read, however, will depend on each reader's weighing of how Mankell has played darkness against light, terror against hope. The isolation of Birgitta Roslin barely cracks open throughout the nightmare of her months of chasing the truth and being haunted by violence. 

As Roslin repeats, in frightening circumstances in a distant land: What has happened is big, too big for me alone.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Looking for Angels in Paradise: Chris Bohjalian's Intimate Murder Mystery, SECRETS OF EDEN

At a guess, next week we'll see Chris Bohjalian on TV and hear him on the radio -- because Tuesday February 2 is the release date for his amazing new novel, SECRETS OF EDEN. And I can hardly wait to hear how he'll protect the secrets and twists of the plot in this remarkable mystery.

Told in massive chunks of first-person narrative from vastly different points of view -- minister Stepehn Drew, deputy state's attorney Catherine Benincasa ("with those lovely blue eyes and the name of a saint"), bestselling author Heather Laurent (her noted book is "Angels and Aurascapes"), and finally a person who may know the most hidden facts of the murder -- this is a compelling page-turner with characters who bleed into our hearts. We know them, we've known them. Some live in a mountain community in Vermont, and some visit or work there. Their narratives allow us an intense intimacy that in real life doesn't happen often.

Take Stephen Drew, the unmarried and charismatic minister who's blaming himself for not somehow saving a battered woman in the congregation. He aches for her, even as he fathers her in the act of baptism in front of the congregation, at a chilly outdoor pond:
"Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" I asked her.

"I do."

"Do you intend to follow him all the days of your life?"

"I do," she said again.

I cradled the back of her head with my left hand and held her clasped fingers like the handles of a shopping bag with my right, and then leaned her backward beneath the surface of the cold, mountain-fed waters, baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Like Christ, she had been buried and reborn. She had risen, been resurrected. The symbolism is unmistakable, as clear as any metaphor in the Bible. I wondered when I baptized Alice why so few members of the congregation chose immersion. The wetness means more than the words.
Bohjalian's details nail the scenes: fingers like handles of a shopping bag, and later, the pastor's blue jeans (rather than a weighted-down robe) soaked with water and heavy on his hips. It will be Stephen Drew's words that haunt us, also, with the abuse that Alice Hayward had sustained: He is haunted by the medical examiner's report that "Alice's rear end and her back were flecked with fresh contusions, which meant that [her husband] Geroge had beaten her the Friday or Saturday night before she was baptized and none of us knew."

Although pain and grief haunt the story, angels also bless it -- especially in the person of angel-aware Heather Laurent, who weaves comfort for others, out of the strands of her own haunted past. The end of her book tour brings her to town just as Stephen Drew faces his parishioner's brutal murder. Death is a constant companion for Heather, whose book reads:
My father shot my mother on the night of the day that he learned she had taken a lease on another house, one that would be large enough for my sister and me when we were home from school. That was as clear a signal as he needed that this time she really was going to leave him. And so, late that night, he shot her and then killed himself.
Although Heather and her book are comforts to many, deputy state's attorney (investigating prosecutor) Catherine Benincasa suspects the author. Heather's visit to the medical examiner's office creates reactions that Benincasa worries about, as the medical examiner tells her:
"She said we'd fear dying much less if we allowed ourselves to feel the presence of the angels among us."

"And you said?"

"I said absolutely nothing. It was a straight line with far too many responses. And she was completely sincere. But you know what expression did cross my mind after she left?"

I waited.

And he said, his voice at once troubled and bemused, "Angel of death. I'm telling you: That woman is as stable as a three-legged chair."
Stephen Drew's hunt for absolution, Catherine Benincasa's hunt for the legal reality of the murder-suicide, and Heather Laurent's shattering loss of confidence in what her angels have shown her resonate in the heart. There is so much to identify with among these vibrant speakers that when the truth does begin to creep forward in this powerful story, it has a voice that's hard to recognize at first. Bohjalian holds the cards and the suspense until the final page, when the last secrets are washed and held up to the light.

National Book Awards: Poetry!

It wasn't a big day for mysteries on Saturday when the National Book Awards were announced, but here are the poetry winners:
Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan)
Louise Glück, A Village Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
D.A. Powell, Chronic (Graywolf Press)
Eleanor Ross Taylor, Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2008 (Louisiana State University Press)
Rachel Zucker, Museum of Accidents (Wave Books)
For details on ALL the others, here is a link to the blog for the National Book Critics Circle. There's a lot of excitement in here!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Time to Grab a Copy: Paul Tremblay's Second "Narcoleptic Detective" Book, NO SLEEP TILL WONDERLAND

It's easy to remember the scheduled release date for the new book by Paul Tremblay: February 2, Groundhog Day. If there's any detective who deserves to get associated with that day of ridiculous weather traditions and a film that turns life inside out, it's Tremblay's Mark Genevitch, appearing for a second time, in NO SLEEP TILL WONDERLAND (Holt).

Dave and I heard from a very established mystery author that book two in any series is often the toughest: The first book has been in the author's hands for years, being massaged and coaxed into its finest possible condition, and often revised to rise up over the barriers to publication. The second book, though, is often written under intense time pressure to meet a contract or other expectation, and sometimes that hurry-hurry shows in the pages.

But not this time. NO SLEEP TILL WONDERLAND is smoothly written, layered with dark humor and fresh situations, and loaded with wonderful language. Genevitch, a Boston-area investigator, became narcoleptic as a result of a horrific car accident that shattered his body and mind. Consequences include falling asleep uncontrollably, suffering hypnagogic hallucinations, going into overload that either erupts in twitches or paralyzes him completely. Earning a living as a detective looks impossible for Mark, and mostly that's true. As NO SLEEP opens, he's stuck in a group therapy session, part of the deal he's struck with his anxious and angry mother, so he can continue to live on his own in an apartment. And there's nothing the group, or the pushy shrink, can do to help him.

Except, of course, the members of the therapy group are in the know about Mark's handicaps now. And when the guy sitting next to him, Gus, suddenly offers a warm friendship, complete with caregiving, food, booze, and even potential work, Genevitch finds the situation overwhelming. Maybe that's why he's having such a tough time with the narcolepsy, too:
I wake up on the couch, Again.

I had a crazy ass dream about two FBI agents busting in and knocking my ass around the apartment, asking me about aliens, like green men. I had one living under my couch apparently. It said we tasted like chicken.

My heart beats hard enough to alter my chest's concavity. The sun is out, spewing its radiation through the windows. I sit up, blink, mash my hands around the mess of my face, and I might need to shave my tongue.

Where the hell did that nightmare come from? My dreams and hypnagogic hallucinations are always so vivid and real, like snippets and disjointed scenes belonging to my incredibly detailed secret life, a life usually more inhabitable than my real one.

When I look up from my computer, four hours have disappeared. I'm not doing well today.
Gus and his friends and their friends are taking over Mark Genevitch's life. Unlike his usual clients, they know the cracks in him to seize with sharp fingernails, and even as he tries to solve an arson case, a murder that is being blamed on him, and dodge the interested police officer, life is melting around him like green frosting.

There's an amazing sex scene in here featuring rubber bands. There are menacing attacks on Mark that get way too personal. Only desperation can press through the narcolepsy as well as ordinary numbness of his life to reassemble the pieces into a puzzle different from the one being forced on him.

Deliciously unexpected in its twists, turns, collapses, and above all descriptions ("She has a small silver ball stud that pokes out just below her bottom lip, not centered, but on the left side. A robo-dimple. The stud is too small and is being swallowed by her skin."), this book follows through on all promises and wraps up its hardboiled plot with panache and a hard-earned grin. I have four friends I'd like to give it to, right away, but -- I'm not willing to give away my copy.

Which takes me back to where I started in the "headline" of this review: Go get a copy of your own. Get two copies while you're at it. This is a keeper, but it's also a book you're going to want to talk about with the other person in your life who shares the best laughter, as well as the saddest moments.

[P.S.: Tremblay's first in this series was THE LITTLE SLEEP. See our review, and Tremblay's own web site and blog.]

Calendar Alert: Poetry at Dartmouth, Jan. 28

On Thursday, January 28, at 4 o'clock in the Sanborn Library, Sanborn House, Dartmouth  College,  poets Nomi Stone (Dartmouth '03) and Michael Leong ('00) will read from their work. Nomi Stone has a Master's in Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University,  and was a Fulbright Scholar in creative writing in Tunisia. She is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University. Her first book of poems, "Stranger's Notebook" (TriQuarterly Books, 2008) chronicles her time living in one of the last cohesive Jewish communities in North Africa. Michael Leong's poetry career began in the sixth grade, when he won his first and only poetry prize — for a haiku about a snake. Since then, he has received degrees from Dartmouth College, Sarah Lawrence College, and Rutgers University, and has published poems in journals such as "Bird Dog," "jubilat," "Marginalia," "Opium Magazine," "Pindeldyboz," and "Tin House." He is the author of "I, the Worst of All" (blazeVOX Books, 2009), a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat; and "e.s.p." (Silenced Press, 2009), a collection of his own poetry. He currently lives in New York City. All are invited to this reading, which is sponsored by the English Department/Creative Writing's Poetry and Prose series and which will be followed by light refreshments. Directions here.

Wonderful Salute to Robert Parker, by Kate Mattes

Do take a look at what Kate (of Raven Award-winning Kate's Mystery Books) has written in farewell to  Robert Parker as a Boston op-ed.  And I'm borrowing a photo from Hank Phillipi Ryan's web site, of Ryan and Parker at Kate's Mystery Books. Those were the days, friends.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

Political Thriller: HOUSE SECRETS by Mike Lawson

Those "10 best books" lists are always a challenge to me, as I realize that no matter how diligently I read, I can't keep up! Seattle author Mike Lawson e-mailed Kingdom Books after we posted a list that included his fourth political thriller, HOUSE SECRETS (2009). So I grabbed a copy and dug in.

Joe DeMarco has an office in the Capital Building, but his job is ever shifting; he works for the Speaker of the House, cleaning up messes and checking into constituents' personal issues, to keep them off the Speaker's to-do list. It's frequently an uncomfortable job, and even his situation with his boss is uneasy: Mahoney is Boston Irish by heritage, and DeMarco works from the Italian side -- both drenched in Catholic guilt maybe, but otherwise as different as, well, as handsome talented politician and ordinary slob. And being an ordinary working guy, DeMarco's going to follow up a question from an old fellow who's asked Mahoney to look into his son's untimely death by drowning:
Mahoney snorted in response to DeMarco's question. "If he needed a lawyer, Joe, I wouldn't have given him your name."
DeMarco was offended although he knew he had no right to be. He had a law degree -- had even passed the Virginia bar -- but he had never practiced law. He was too busy doing other unsavory things on Mahoney's behalf.
"It sounds like what he needs," Mahoney said, "is somebody to turn over a few rocks and see what crawls out."
There you go, DeMarco thought. That was his job description: rock flipper and bug crusher. Not very flattering but accurate enough.
DeMarco is no James Bond. His car doesn't transform, he doesn't have electronic gadgets handy, even for computer searches he's clumsy. Lucky for him, he has friends and collaborators. Sure, each one needs motivation, but a very sharp former espionage professional named Emma has reason to help DeMarco flip those rocks, crush those bugs.

Which turns out to be a good thing, or DeMarco might not have survived even half the situations he keeps squeezing into.

This is a suspense-filled page turner, a great read for a snowy weekend or business trip. I resisted the quick character switches and scene changes in the first half, but the intense plot got me wound up in it, and by the quirky ending, I was telling my husband that this thriller is also going to appeal to some readers of noir, who'll recognize the twists and may get the same deep, wry chuckle that I did at the conclusion. Lawson doesn't appear to have entirely given up on all U.S. politicians just yet -- but HOUSE SECRETS will have you questioning whether the motives of the talking faces on cable TV might be more personal than political after all.

"Love Made Me Do It": Murder and Detection in THE RED DOOR, Charles Todd, 2010

The Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries by Charles Todd are haunted -- by the losses of World War I, by England's image of what it might have been, by a sense of being too late to prevent death. If that sounds close to today's state of the world (think Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti), well, maybe that's part of why this historical mystery series has such ardent fans. It's good to take our own evils and displace them into another time, as the Great War -- the war to end all wars, people believed -- ended. And while Ian Rutledge tackles his next assignment from his bitter and nasty superior, Superintendent Bowles, he too is haunted, more literally, by the voice of his dead fellow soldier, Hamish. Hamish hates Rutledge, but his warnings often flare just in time to keep the inspector alive in the face of sudden violence. After all, if Rutledge were to die, so would Hamish ... a second time.

In THE RED DOOR, Rutledge grimly acknowledges the words of his doctor: that enduring Hamish's voice may be the price of his own survival. Threats surround him, but this time most of them are focused within the Teller family, whose war wounds are far less obvious. Sorted into loving couples and attentive maiden sisters, the Tellers close ranks against Scotland Yard when Rutledge tries to enlist their cooperation:
"I won't listen to any more of this. It's a hodgepodge of wishful thinking and make-believe. There's not a grain of truth in it!" It was more a cry of pain than of denial.
Rutledge nodded and walked back to his motorcar. He turned it and then drove back up the drive. When he was nearly out of sight of the rose bed, he glanced in his rearview mirror.
Walter Teller was bent over, his arms wrapped around his body, as if he were in pain, his head down. Rutledge was too far away to see his face, but he carried with him the image of a man in agony.
Secrets and costly alliances are all too familiar to the inspector. But death by death, he realizes that this family's motives are more often love than, say, greed or anger. Who are they protecting?

Readers of the series will find Hamish a bit less violent toward Rutledge in this volume; is the vicious bile of his voice waning, or is he merely protecting his own survival? Todd's ending leaves me suspecting that the harsh Scotsman's judgments and pain will erupt with new fury in the sequel.

Poetry for the next holiday -- hint: think sweet [Longhouse Poetry]

Don't try to explain it to the under-30 set, but you do recall what cigarette cards were, right?? Here's a gem of poetry from Longhouse, issued at the end of 2009:

Guy Birchard. Cigarette Cards. 2009
Eighteen new poems by Guy in this accordion fold-out, three color chaplet with wrap around band. Signed and unsigned editions. $10.00 / signed $15
See more titles from Bob and Susan Arnold at Longhouse (Guilford, Vermont) at their web site,, or get your daily refresher from their blog.

Calendar Alert: Getting Poetry Published, Feb. 4

Yes, Kingdom Books is all about mysteries -- but we have a not-so-secret love for good poetry, too, that connects us with poets and their books and reading events. Every month, someone asks us how to break into print with poetry. So we're excited to pass along word of this lecture from established poet and publisher and coach April Ossmann:

April Ossmann: Q & A on Getting Your Poetry Published
Date: February 4, 2010
Time: 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
Location: Mayer Room, Howe Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

April Ossmann will discuss the nuts and bolts of getting poems published in literary journals, magazines, and e-zines, and of getting a book manuscript published. She will discuss submission do’s and don’ts, cover letters, contests, manuscript ordering, common reasons for rejection, and how to know when a poem or manuscript is publication-ready.

April Ossmann has over twelve years’ experience in book publishing. She was executive director of Alice James Books from 2000 – 2008, and left to launch a consulting business (, helping poets to get published. She edits book manuscripts for and offers publishing advice to poets hoping to find a publisher, and also teaches private tutorials, and poetry workshops at The Writer’s Center in White River Junction, Vermont using a nontraditional workshop method she developed intended to teach poets to revise their work more objectively (as an editor would). She has taught creative writing and literature courses at Lebanon College and at the University of Maine at Farmington.

She is the author of Anxious Music: Poems (Four Way Books, 2007), and has published poetry in numerous journals including Colorado Review and Harvard Review, and in anthologies including From the Fishouse, and is the recipient of several awards for her poetry, including the 2000 Prairie Schooner Readers' Choice Award.

The program is free and open to the public.

American Library Association Award Winners (Kid Lit)

I'm posting this press release of this weekend's winners because I'm becoming convinced that we need to provide strong mysteries for kids to read, to nurture their curiosity, sense of independence, and capacity to thrive in an adventurous world. Comments encouraged!

By Diane Roback -- Publishers Weekly, 1/18/2010 7:20:00 AM

Rebecca Stead has won the 2010 Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me (Random/Wendy Lamb). Jerry Pinkney has won the 2010 Randolph Caldecott Medal for The Lion & the Mouse (Little, Brown). And Libba Bray has won the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award for Going Bovine (Delacorte). The awards were announced this morning at the American Library Association’s midwinter conference in Boston.

Four Newbery Honor Books were named: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (FSG/Kroupa); The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly(Henry Holt); Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown); and The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic/Blue Sky).

There were two Caldecott Honor Books: All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee, written by Liz Garton Scanlon (S&S/Beach Lane); and Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Joyce Sidman (Houghton).

Four Printz Honors were given: Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt); The Monstrumlogist by Rick Yancey (S&S); Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (Candlewick); and Tales from the Madman Underground: An Historical Romance, 1973 by John Barnes (Viking).

The Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime contribution in writing for young adults was given to Jim Murphy, and Lois Lowry was chosen to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture.

The Robert F. Sibert Award for the most distinguished informational book went to Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick). There were TK Sibert Honors: The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani (Charlesbridge); Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 written and illustrated by Brian Floca (Atheneum/Jackson); and Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (FSG/Kroupa).

A brand-new award, the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, went to Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman (Henry Holt).

The Mildred L. Batchelder Award for best work of translation went to A Faraway Island by Annika Thor, translated from the Swedish by Linda Schenck (Delacorte). There were three Batchelder Honors: Big Wolf and Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme, illustrated by Olivier Tallec translated by Claudia Bedrick (Enchanted Lion); Eidi by Bodil Bredsdorff, translated by Kathryn Mahaffy (FSG); and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, translated by Cathy Hirano (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine).

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for beginning reader books went to Benny and Penny in the Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes (RAW/Toon Books). There were four Geisel Honor books: I Spy Fly Guy! by Tedd Arnold (Scholastic); Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith (RAW/Toon Books); Mouse and Mole: Fine Feathered Friends by Wong Herbert Yee (Houghton); and Pearl and Wagner: One Funny Day by Kate McMullan, illustrated by R.W. Alley (Dial).

The Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production went to Live Oak Media, producer of Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Harry Bliss, narrated by Barbara Rosenblat.

There were three Odyssey Honor titles: In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber by L.A. Meyer, narrated by Katherine Kellgren (Listen & Live); Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, narrated by Dion Graham (Brilliance Audio); and We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson, narrated by Dion Graham (Brilliance Audio).

Three Schneider Family Book Awards were announced: Django by Bonnie Christensen (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter) won for best children’s book; Anything by Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin (S&S) won for best middle school book; and Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine) won for best teen book.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

When the Isolated Countryside Turns Treacherous: John H. Vibber, SHADOW ON CANT-DOG HILL

I remember moving 30 miles south, settling into a village near the small town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont (pop. 7000 or so if you count the outlying areas). The snow was a bit less persistent, mostly due to a change in altitude, and the gardening season stretched two weeks longer, quite a blessing. There was only one supermarket in town then, but two movie theaters, and a police force. The regional high school and the hospital hired about as many people as the two biggest local manufacturing plants. Compared to my northern village, though, I'd moved into a far more modern and accessible world, and my former neighbors said bluntly that I'd left the region called the Northeast Kingdom, going urban.

And there's something to be said for that: The farther north you are in Vermont, the more the mountains and weather tend to isolate you. On the surface, that might just mean that at the post office they know your name, and grocery shopping might happen only once every two weeks, instead of every couple of days. But underneath, the distance is measured in independence and interdependence -- you've got to know your neighbor, because the next time you slide off the road on ice, that's who will either help you get the car back onto the sanded stretch, or loan you a phone, or take you to the garage where the tow truck rests. And also help you figure how to take care of your kids while you're solving your problems. And later, equally important, stop in for a celebratory hot beverage and a taste of your best apple pie.

Head northeast from here, up into the region of Vermont that's an hour or two from any interstate highway, and that interdependence is even more essential. With it comes the sense of everyone knowing a bit about everyone else's business. Heck, the party line -- the kind of phone line that had different numbers of rings for different houses, but four or eight or more could pick up and listen in if they chose to -- well, that's only been gone for about 30 years in Vermont's most rural region.

In this vastly different world, John Vibber's new mystery plays out its threats, suspense, and rescues. The book opens with a quick glimpse of psychopathic murderous behavior, then blinks and lands in the midst of any parent's nightmare: Your child is away with friends, and you walk up your own hill, and find the bloody body of your spouse. Except it's worse for teacher Reilly Bostwick, because everyone knows he had to go all the way to England to bring back his daughter Amy, after Amy's mother snatched her. And now Amy's mother Klarissa is lying there, dead -- who on earth will believe that Reilly had nothing to do with this? And how can he tell his daughter what he's found?

One after another, though, Reilly's friends, as well as his new girlfriend, gather around his situation. As he sits in jail, frantic and frightened (but marginally safer, since he's out of reach of the killer!), the best people of the small town where he lives dig into the details and fight for justice, for freedom, and for young Amy. The answers to the crime must lie within the isolation of the town, yes? Oh, but wait a minute -- Klarissa came from England. Could there be connections that stretch across the mountains and over the ocean? How much range does evil have, anyway? In his jail cell, Reilly has so little chance of fixing anything:

The cell light blinked out as Reilly heard hollow footsteps at the end of the hallway. A moan rose from the next cell as the drunk rolled in his bunk. Caught in mid-reverie, Reilly had been abruptly forced back to the perils of his cage. The second jolt hit hi as his thoughts returned to Amy. While Reilly lay in the hollow silence of shadows, panic again welled up in him. His mind returned to the same horrible thought as the remaining hall lights went black. He lay considering how much time was left before Amy would learn some errant version of events presented as the truth: the screaming lie ... your father murdered your mother.
Vibber's book has sold well in the border towns of Canaan, West Stewartstown, and Colebrook, where the detailed landscape of SHADOW ON CANT-DOG HILL is a close match to the towns and their surroundings. A retired teacher from Rutland, Vermont, this stalwart Yankee has worked his way into a new career and his audience up north is enjoying it highly.

If you love a rugged landscape and its families and their stories, you'll enjoy adding Vibber's book to your shelf of place-centered mysteries that literally couldn't take place anywhere else -- and yet at the same time, that tap into the nature of friendship, determination, and belief in what justice ought to be. Purchase a copy from an independent Vermont bookstore or directly from the author, at -- and if you're in Vermont, you'll have a good chance to meet him as he travels around the state.

PS - Just in case the title keeps nudging at you: "Cant dog" is a term for a log-moving tool, a hooked variant of the peavy.  And logging is the root endeavor of the northern hills.

When Snowstorms Become Scary -- And Dangerous ...

Today's weather in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is "standard January thaw": a soft 42 degrees hovering over a snowpack that isn't going to melt, even if the driveway softens for an hour or so at mid-day. And there's a storm forecast for tonight and tomorrow. We never know how hard it will hit until it gets here. The winds are the toughest part: If they knock out the electricity, we find ourselves on an intense countdown until we'll have to take action, and meanwhile, of course, no computers to write on, no lights for reading.

But I've meet the storms on more risky ground, out on the mountains. And with their danger comes enormous beauty. I like this related passage from Eliot Pattison's newest book, EYE OF THE RAVEN:
... I find myself thinking more and more of my father. Once in a winter when I was young, he came and stole me away against my mother's wishes, took me to a high cave shere he was living, just as a terrible snowstorm arrived. The morning after the storm he took me to the mouth of the cave, where we could see for many miles. The world was white, everywhere, except for a single creature perched on an old dead tree nearby, a raven. My father said he always sat there after snowstorms, because it was a different world then, because in that world nothing moved for as far as a man could see but the eye of that raven.
When the fierce landscape of cold is entangled with human activity, it takes on more emotional possibilities. At the opening of Stan Jones's most recent book, THE VILLAGE OF THE GHOST BEARS, the unfrozen start of winter, in Alaska's late autumn, presents a clean, uncomplicated landscape for Nathan Active, landing at One-Way Lake with his much-loved friend, Grace Palmer. At first, the couple hope for a fresh start to a level of intimacy that both wish they could reach. But all too soon, distraction forces them to call back the pilot and end their interlude:
She was pointing at a dark object a few yards downstream. He had caught it from the corner of his eye before, but in his hurry had passed it off as rocks or a log. Now he saw what she had seen -- a pack frame strapped to a figure lying face-down in the stream.
They splashed through the creek, their Sorels taking on water, and rolled the corpse over. The head flopped forward with the current, as if the neck were without bones, and they both recoiled.
"Oh God," she said. "Where's his face? ... "
The moment marks the start of another Nathan Active investigation, but it also marks the need to look into the faces around him, always trying to gauge which culture a person speaks from: that of the naluaqmiu (white person) or naluaqmiiyaaq (almost white; an Inupiaq who tries to act white), or the rich traditions and closely webbed community of the Inupiat, the Eskimos of northern Alaska. Because Nathan is caught among these groups himself, he's endlessly at a disadvantage when death and crime emerge from the conflicts among them. He can't even grasp names readily, much less the stresses and strains that crack the community apart.

A dead deer hunter. A set of secrets among the bush pilots whose services are essential to policing the northern lands. The onset of winter. And arson, killing people who begin to add up as the ones whose stories Nathan needs to know.

Jones takes Office Nathan Long through tough choices, hard risks, losses that both shame and penalize. His investigation brings more stress to his uncertain relationship with Grace, too. Resolving any of the situations demands speed and sharp thinking, because the oncoming snow and long frozen season ahead will obliterate both the clues and the possibilities.

This is the fourth Nathan Active mystery, and it's a perfect read for winter, with pacing that's crisp, characters whose needs are clear but never mawkish, and a strong, satisfying set of outcomes. Highly recommended -- let me know what you think when you've read it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dark Afternoons, Dark Fiction -- and Fireworks: Dave Zeltserman's PARIAH

We're in the season when northern New Englanders mutter grimly about "cabin fever" -- in spite of the calendar's insistence, afternoons still turn dim after 3 p.m., and it's fully dark at 5. Some January months have abundant sunshine (usually in the years when January breaks records for subzero cold); this one hasn't had enough to cheer anyone, the roads are messy, the snowbanks have grayed with sand, and although it's warm inside, there's a grim awareness of the mounting oil bills. People begin to root into their couches with novel after novel. The walls close in.

When Dave Zeltserman's PARIAH opens, Kyle Nevin is past all that. The June sunshine on his face feels great after eight years in prison. He's looking forward to riding back into Boston as a free man, catching a ride with his brother Danny. And he's got plans, smart ones, honed by a jailhouse education and a sharp sense of what the world owes him.

But life isn't fair: Danny's living straight, in grubby circumstances, with a woman who doesn't even start to move the scales on Kyle's notion of sex and lust. And even as Kyle starts carving his rightful place again in the old neighborhoods, violent and relentless, it's clear the tang and savor of the old years aren't there. Disappointment burns, and soon Kyle's plans ripen early, to take off the depressing edge that's trying to slide into his sudden midlife.

Zeltserman's gift in painting the bitterness of the soul when life hasn't come out "right" adapts readily to the sociopathic personality -- in his hands, Kyle's first post-prison bar fight is inevitable, even glorious, for the adrenaline, the underlying lust, and the power, even if it starts out quiet, almost introspective for this dangerous man:
I looked around and saw smiles stretching on most of the other patrons' faces. A few, though, turned away, their expressions becoming grim as they stared down at their drinks. I noted who they were, and their reactions didn't surprise me.
Clear the room now if you're not ready for the explosions.

As a follow-up to SMALL CRIMES (Dave Zeltserman calls these two volumes the first pair in his post-prison trilogy), this book's edgy, racy, coked up, and violent. And painfully believable. Geez, I could start feeling really grateful after all for the safe walls around me, and the distance from the Boston underworld that's so real in these pages.

Winter's definitely my season for tackling dark crime fiction, and I charged ahead with PARIAH, ready for the blackest plot and grimmest outcomes. But -- holy cow! -- there's a Moebius twist to this book that happens near the halfway point, and turns it inside out, into a wildly humorous adventure. In person, the author chuckles and calls the book "subversive" and it sure turns things upside down. Fair warning: What happened to OJ after his killings became known? What happened to Michael Jackson when people started naming what he might have done to the kids? Oh gosh, let's not be sexist: What's up with Martha these days?

That's enough hinting. Grab the book and clear your calendar. Don't let other obligations get in the way until you race into the consequences of Kyle's nasty plans. If you make it through the gruesome results, to the final surge of Kyle's discovery of how crime might pay in spite of it all, you'll need to cruise the rest of this crazy, funny, amazing book at high speed. What Donald Westlake started with his caper novels, Zeltserman has dragged kicking and screaming -- and laughing -- into the 21st century. Boston is never going to look the same again.

Come to think of it, neither is summer!

[PS -- for another look at kudos for PARIAH, check out this list from the Washington Post. No kidding, this is a book to bookmark.]

[PS again -- If you're not a fan of "noir" crime fiction, check in here tomorrow. I read all sorts ...]

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

An Intriguing "Best Mysteries" List from Seattle ...

Congrats to Michelle Gagnon, one of the crime writers we've been excited to discover hiding in the MIRA publishing network -- her new book GATEKEEPER showed up over the holidays on this list from the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. I haven't posted many of The Lists this season, but this one is fun to run through, and we're already looking into how many of the titles are here at Kingdom Books -- in first edition of course, and mostly signed.

Fran’s Lists of Best Books of 2009

Best of local:
Robert Dugoni, Wrongful Death
Robert Ferrigno, Heart of the Assassin
Yasmine Galenorn, Bone Magic
Caitlin Kittredge, Street Magic
Mike Lawson, House Secrets
Kat Richardson, Vanished
Jess Walter, The Financial Lives of Poets
Best paperbacks:
Kelley Armstrong, Made to be Broken
Kathryn Fox, Bloodborn
Michelle Gagnon, Gatekeeper
Andi Marquette, all three
Joan Opyr, From Hell to Breakfast
Best new authors:
Brett Battles – all three
Josh Bazell, Beat the Reaper
Alan Bradley, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Derek Haas, both of ‘em
Steig Larsson – everything. Wow.
Amy McKinnon, tethered
Christi Phillps, Devlin Diary
Spencer Quinn, Dog On It
Best of the Usual Suspects:
John Connelly, The Gates
Barry Eisler, Fault Line
Gillian Flynn, Dark Places
David Hewson, Dante’s Numbers
Susan Hill, Vows of Silence
Alex Kava, Black Friday
William Kent Krueger, Heaven’s Keep
David Morrell, Shimmer
Louise Ure, Liar’s Anonymou

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Exile, Apprentice, Crime Investigator: Duncan McCallum Returns in EYE OF THE RAVEN, by Eliot Pattison

It's the plaint of the child isolated on the playground, the adult alone and ashamed about it: Nobody else is like me. Nobody understands.

For the exile, it can be reality. I think of the first "Lost Boy of the Sudan" taking refuge in snowy Vermont, and the first Nepalese to travel here at the invitation of an American climbing buddy. I think of Chinese exile Shan Tao Yun in Tibet, struggling to protect the remaining lamas in the mountains while accepting abuse for being obvious Chinese -- and a number-tattooed prisoner of the local gulag system, liable to be returned to his cell whenever the occupying powers aren't getting enough satisfaction from watching him squirm.

Inspector Shan's story began with THE SKULL MANTRA, for which Eliot Pattison won an Edgar award. The exiled police investigator has continued to struggle in further books, most recently THE LORD OF DEATH (2009). Pattison, as author of such an anti-occupation series, can no longer visit friends in Tibet; if seen with him, people find themselves arrested.

Two years ago, Pattison started another series, set in pre-Colonial America: BONE RATTLER. Duncan McCallum, last survivor of a Scottish Highlands clan, emerged from English imprisonment via a ship to the colonies. Grief for his lost family and home shadow his life; peril stalks him in the form of a sadistic overlord who claims to own him via indenture; and yet his medical training in Edinburgh drives him to seek answers as if every twist of action in front of him had its roots in a specific failure of the flesh, and a remedy could be sought.

In Pattison's newly released sequel to BONE RATTLER, the year is 1760 -- and the most powerful art within the colonies is that of the surveyor, whose pins and lines mark off wealth for landholders and claimants. Although Duncan McCallum is following, studying with, and attempting to protect his friend Conawago (a shaman caught in the New World equivalent of a clan war), his ignorance of the powers and histories around him make him helpless. Conawago survives threats from another tribal clan, but in an act of mercy toward a dying European, is captured and labeled a killer. McCallum's protests are based in being able to see many "Natives" as wise and honorable people. Unfortunately, many settlers choose not to look that way at the people whose homes they are taking, with violence and craft.

Although Major Latchford would prefer to kill or imprison McCallum with Conawago, the medical skills being offered win the Highlander a limited freedom -- to treat wounded soldiers. McCallum desperately argues for negotiations that maintain "relations" with the tribes, but the major can make better progress by holding to the accusation of murder. Who was the dying man over whom Conawago had stooped near a significant trail?
"The captain? Winston Burke? Commander of the militia? Second son of the greatest landowner in the valley of the Shenandoah. His father is a member of the House of Burgesses. We will have a hanging a get on with the work of war," Latchford declared in a matter-of-fact tone. He aimed the pistol at Duncan and pulled the trigger, sneering as Duncan flinched at the spark of the empty weapon.
Duncan's investigation begins as an effort to free his friend. It soon tangles in ritualistic murders that seem obviously connected to the shamanistic beliefs of the Iroquois natives. Although Duncan has absorbed enough from Conawago to be sure this is a fraudulent pattern, he lacks power and allies. Soon he perceives that it's the treaty status, the land lines, the power network around him that's trembling with threat from the murders. Yet all this is nearly meaningless to the shaman, who might otherwise call together allies in some way. Duncan, last of his kind, wants to lead but can't communicate across the cultural barrier; Conawago, driven by commitment to an obscure quest, declines to take a leadership role. It's the kind of situation where sadists and murderers thrive, in the crevices of lust and desire.

The darkness and despair that enfold McCallum repeatedly turn this tale into a form of pre-Colonial "noir," much as the favorite American Thanksgiving myth is now being turned inside out to reveal the losses and threats that Native Americans suffered from the 1500s onward. Pattison isn't riding a cause here -- no revisionist mantle over his shoulders -- but he paints the dark determined Calvinist spirituality side by side with the Iroqois, so that Duncan recalls word that his grandfather would repeat from the Ninetieth Psalm: "We spend our years as a tale that is told."

Repeatedly, the Highlander terms of survival overlap those of the tribes of the Colonies. At one point, Conawago sends Duncan into the darkness to play on the Highland pipes, ragged though they've become:
Conawago knew well the solitary communion Duncan now needed as he unpacked the bundle wrapped in tattered muslin. With slow, reverent motions he laid the intricately crafted pieces in a pool of moonlight before assembling them. The first test of a reed brought a reply from a whippoorwill. ... "Never mind that we will never see the Highlands again," an exiled countryman had said to him the year before. "Your clan is all those under the boot of the world."
There are deep questions at stake here, and McCallum's detective work will stumble against many of them. Is it right to "save" the Natives through Christianity, or does this simply transplant Hell from the Old World to the New? What is the price of wealth? How can an exile intervene in what the people of power are doing to those who fail to grasp the evil designs forming around them?

Pattison spins and weaves a dense and intricate fabric of imagination, history, loss, grief, loyalty, and survival. McCallum's investigations may yet provide hope for Conawago and for Duncan himself. But what about the others whose lives are being risked without their knowledge?

Examining a rarely portrayed period through magnifying lenses and the language of belief and ritual, Pattison provides a compelling tale worth reading slowly. But the plot is so tight, the characters so emotionally at risk, that it's hard to slow down. I've read it twice now, and I still get carried away in the intensity. Here's a new form of historical mystery -- as irresistible as a thunderstorm.