Friday, December 30, 2011

In the New Year: For Peace, Find Justice; For Justice, Find Truth

I want to mention one more set of three poetry books, before I head back to the landscape of mysteries that Dave and I share. The set, together, forms the outline of hope for 2012: the longing for peace, made possible by justice, which in turn depends on truth.

A powerful work of mystery or crime fiction may present deep truths within the movement of the plot. The book I mentioned earlier today, Cold Comfort by Quentin Bates, presents the strength that Sergeant Gunnhildur in Reykjavík generates through her consistent efforts to unearth truth, while being kind when she can, firm when she must, and as tough as the job demands. The same aspects apply to the parenting she's handling as the narrative unfurls. Her character makes the book worth reading.

In the same sense, Michael Dickman's 2011 collection FLIES (Copper Canyon Press), which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, begins with the poem "Dead Brother Superhero," and captures some of the agony of witnessing death, especially as a child. By arranging a form of "Stations of the Cross" to hold the forms of loss, he connects caregiving, the longing to be beautiful, symbols of decomposing flesh (yes, flies), even friendship: "The lives of my friends spend all of their time dying and coming back ... I fell in love with the sister of my friends ... They lick their fingers / to wipe my face / clean // of everything // And I am glad / I am glad / I am / so glad." This is reality, truth, formed in a mosaic of fragments of emotion and experience.

Marc Gaba in HAVE (Tupelo Press, 2011) spins the "line" in so many ways that the collection is almost a moving kaleidoscope of form -- and within the words are reflections on both beauty and forgiveness. The many-page poem "Within Justice" extends a single long line over each page, making me wish I could see it written across the walls of a room. "It's not that happiness isn't terminal but that / witness is radical, fantasy its proof." I'm not sure how much of this I understand, but flashes of faith and questions writhe past in the pages. I think Gaba is posing questions to live with. That's one way to seek justice.

Most accessible of these three is Carl Adamshick's CURSES AND WISHES (winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets; Louisiana State University Press, 2011). I smiled through much of the first poem, which summons blessings -- including "May happiness be a wheel, a lit throne, spinning / in the vast pinprick of darkness," and as its finale, "May the dice have no eyes / and may you keep throwing them on the table's / green velvet. // May you have night, / with its dark branches, every night." Most of the poems here are compact nuggets, one about realizing that a woman in the neighborhood is being beaten, one called "Hope" and another "Benevolence" and then there's "Night," which involves a movie theater and ends, "You feel if it came close, / and asked, you would give / the world whatever it needed." I realize I'm not forming a narrative, a story, out of all this -- but there are reassurances in some of these, and warnings of underlying darkness, mysteries. "I see her staring at her arms, / astonished at how loss / can have the same weight as an infant."

Somehow in the year ahead, these mysteries of how war begins, of who feeds the monsters among us, of how to make sure all are nourished in the ways that work for them, these are in our hands. Struggling with these fiercely demanding poems may teach us something of how to paint truth, give justice, and create a wide and lasting peace in 2012.

Diversion: Poetry that Says Both Hello and Goodbye -- (a) Shara McCallum, (b) Megan Snyder-Camp

A 2011 collection of poems that continues to echo for me, both on the page and via its enclosed marvelous CD, is Shara McCallum's book THIS STRANGE LAND (Alice James Books). McCallum, originally from Jamaica, embeds her poems with multiple tongues -- fragments of Spanish, Creole, and more. Her two earlier books are Song of Thieves and The Water Between Us, and her poems have been widely translated. Their gentle forms, just loose enough for one's own thoughts to permeate, but snug enough for precisely expressed sentences and dialogue, embrace the emotions of love for life and for one's daughter, one's mother, one's lover. I like this stanza from the opening poem, "Psalm for Kingston":

City where Marley sang, Jah would never give the power to a baldhead
   while the baldheads reigned, where my parents chanted
      down Babylon -- Fire! Burn! Jah! Rastafari! Selassie I! --
   where they paid weekly dues, saving for our passages back to Africa,
while in their beds my grandparents slept fitfully, dreaming of America.
And here's the opening from "The Shore":
Then, you turned from me in failing light,
trees startling into sleep,
snow rearranging itself in slender branches.
It is snowing as I re-read those lines, and the rest of the poem grows the way that lines of frost do on a chilled window, revealing a delicate pattern of affection and vision.

McCallum also gives us an exquisite nine-page poem "From the Book of Mothers," a bright lacy network of short fragments that convey the fabric of enduring love, as well as its shadows: "Daughter, is it your aging / or my own I fear most?"

There are some fascinating interviews with McCallum on YouTube, one in her role as director of the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell College, and another as part of Dennis Miller's "Conversations" via Mansfield University.

* * *

Sometimes a book of poems can hit so hard that it takes time before I'm willing to talk about it. I've picked up THE FOREST OF SURE THINGS by Megan Snyder-Camp and let it carve its way into my thoughts, then let it go, then picked it up, again and again. It's the kind of book that both wounds and binds. The first section is called "Borrowed Memory" and the narratives in it can make a person weep, as they unveil loss in precise short tales. Phrases from the poems here embed themselves like glass slivers: "The marriage ran under their skin, a rash," or "In this land the children tear their hearts in half."

The second section, "Tether," pulls the losses in closely toward what we cherish most tenderly, and offers some blessings on the bleeding: "May this slipping away protect us, / may the loss of days ease the ones I love / from their anger, that sturdy chair / circled all day by its shadow, without which / a dim sea would come to level our yard, level / as in make right."

The collection won the Tupelo Press/Carzyhorse award for an outstanding first book. I shivered when I noticed that one of its back-cover blurbs was from Lia Purpura, author of King Baby, another collection that has amazed and moved me. Hello, life and love; goodbye, love and life. A new year begins.

Scandinavian Noir: COLD COMFORT, Quentin Bates

When 2012 begins, will the global recession be over with? Probably not ... but some things are improving in the United States, it appears, as holiday shopping figures show gains, and a fragile breath of encouragement in the jobs area continues to feed the slow movement toward a better economy.

But if that's the case for one of the most resource-wealthy nations, how much slower will the recovery be in smaller, less well endowed countries? Quentin Bates built his first police procedural, Frozen Assets (Frozen Out is the UK title), on the grounds of the enduring bank crisis in Iceland, where Sergeant Gunnhildur (known to most as Gunna) showed us the reality of a woman's career in a tough field. Bates's second "Gunna" book releases in early January 2012. In COLD COMFORT,  Gunna has been recently promoted from her post in rural Iceland to Reykjavík’s Serious Crime Unit. And wouldn't you know it, one of her first challenges in the new unit involves hunting down escaped convict Long Ommi, who has embarked on a spree of violent score-settling in and around the city. At the same time, an old acquaintance of hers from her hometown has fallen into the convict's circle. And the murder of sexy Svana Geirs, a TV-familiar "personal trainer," is turning out to be embedded in a complex network of sleazy old-boy networks, adultery, and "too hot to touch" political personalities. Gunna's investigator Helgi, on the scene of the murder, asks, "How do you want to organize this, Gunna?"
For a moment she wondered why he was asking her. Being in charge of a new investigation unit was a change that would take some getting used to after the years running the police station in rural Hvalvík, where weeks could pass with nothing more serious than a stolen bicycle. The offer of promotion and the shift to the Reykjavík city force had come as a surprise, and working as part of a larger set-up was already taking some getting used to. Although she had lived there in the past and knew the city intimately, Gunna felt vaguely uncomfortable in Reykjavík. Much had changed during the years she had taken it easy in her rural backwater. The city's pace of life had accelerated steadily for years until the crisis that saw the banks nationalized and the country plunged into a recession stopped progress dead in its tracks. ...

"Gunna?" Helgi asked again.

"Aei, sorry. Thinking hard for a moment. If you try and figure out what the lady's movements were over the last couple of days, I'll tackle the next of kin."
Gunna goes on to speculate that to end up killed by blunt trauma to the head in her own apartment, Svana Geirs "must have pissed someone off, or else she'd ripped someone off." The investigation turns up a much sadder situation in the long run, though. And the continued financial crisis globally is pushing part of it along.

Gunna's connections with both police and criminals serve her well, and scenes of her questioning of the often thick-skulled suspects show both skill and compassion, as well as an insistent pressure to get the job done. Much of Bates's storytelling is through dialogue, and it makes his substantial crime novels into very good reading indeed.

There are also moments of insight, like this one that emerges in discussion between Gunna and her teenage daughter:
"What makes people kill other people?"

Gunna looked up at Laufey, who still had her attention on the screen. "Why do you ask?"

"I'm just interested. Psychology. There must be a reason for it."

"The theory is that there are a very small minority of people who are capable of committing violent acts just like that," Gunna said, snapping her fingers. "Nobody really knows how many of these people there are, maybe only one percent of the population, maybe less. The rest of us are fairly law-abiding. But when these supposedly normal people commit a serious crime, there are all sorts of reasons for it."

"Are they sick?"

"Sometimes they are. Often they are desperate, and normally there are narcotics or addiction problems somewhere behind it all."
The pace of the pages in COLD ASSETS is brisk in terms of action, but the narration, as in these two segments, has something of the flattened tone of a Henning Mankell crime novel, or one by Arnaldur Indridason. In fact, there's an interesting Quentin Bates interview on the very wonderful Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog, in which Bates describes his own admiration for other Scandinavian novelists' work -- and his particular fondness for Simenon's classic detective Maigret.

But unlike many of the other "ice" crime authors, Bates doesn't require a translator to English -- he was born in the United Kingdom and, after a 10-year stay in Iceland, returned home to continue his reporting for a commercial fishing magazine. (Gunna's son, rarely on scene in these books, is a commercial fishing employee, so maybe we'll learn more about that in a future book from Bates, like his third one, already titled Chilled to the Bone.) I note the absence of translation to emphasize that the relatively flat, unemotional tone of the Bates books isn't going to be affected by some change of interpreter. Instead, it appears to be a quality of both this author and Gunna, whose quiet strengths come from her determination to do her job and meet the demands on her life fairly, with everything she's got.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

PKP FOR PRESIDENT: New Hampshire Politics from Beth Hilgartner

I am SO looking forward to 2012. Soho Crime is bringing out top-notch international mysteries from Quentin Bates, Graeme Kent, and Helene Tursten as the year opens; St. Martin's/Minotaur just sent an advance copy of a crime novel by Joseph Olshan, set in Vermont; and the Big Names of mysteries are all hard at work on sequels (part of my psyche is on hold, waiting for the new Armand Gamache detective novel from Canadian Louise Penny). And I have to say, 2011 is ending with a great flourish, too, from the books I've covered this week (Leslie Meier, Leighton Gage) to the one I plan to read this evening: The Innocent, the second book from Taylor Stevens (I really enjoyed her first, The Informationist).

And then, of course, there's that reality show of suspense, competition, and killer tactics, known as the Presidential Race. The Iowa caucuses are a few days off; 10 days from today, our neighboring state, New Hampshire, turns into a front-page political arena, and in 12 days its residents will vote for their candidates in the Republican primary. One of our friends living on the "Granite State" side of the river has already met Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huntsman ...

But he hasn't met PKP. For that matter, very few people in PKP FOR PRESIDENT get acquainted with the candidate that New Hampshire author Beth Hilgartner profiles. With a back cover that says the book is "the best political satire since Tina Fey met Sarah Palin!" (The Hollywood Hisser) and "the purrrfect literary companion for the political season" (says The Kitten Kaboodle), this lively techno-novel provides a candidate who can set her claws into every debate, take a bite out of the issues, and leap forward into intelligent mastery of even the retreat from two wars. If only the Democratic incumbent "Moab Brock" had listened to PKP a couple of years sooner!

Here's a sample from PKP's "virtual debate" with Senator Prodge:
SEN. PRODGE: If you're implying that I'm unduly influenced by corporate interests, you are doing me a disservice.

PKP: I never said anything about undue influence, Senator, but it does make me wonder what your constituents think they're paying for. ... Could it be that you don't really care if people near Yucca Mountain glow in the dark, as long as you keep nuclear waste out of your backyard?
And all this erupted because PKP got interrupted during some e-trades, by the arrival of a snooping Two-Feet intruder -- at a critical moment. By the time PKP made it back into cyberspace to continue aligning profits, the disaster had started: "Dog guts and hairballs! Fluffy, look at this: look at this! The bottom has completely fallen out of the ringgit and even the Tokyo banks look  a bit shaky."

Trading, shmading, you say? What's the big deal? Well, PKP's sister Fluffy is well aware that if PKP has to stay out of the market while it stabilizes, somebody's going to have to soak up the consequences of stifling PKP's aggressive intelligence. So saving her own furr is paramount, and it's Fluffy who aims PKP toward becoming a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire primary. No, nobody thinks PKP should actually take over the White House. But a vote for the virtual (and nearly invisible) candidate is a vote demanding electoral reform -- a chance for American voters to directly choose their leader.

Beth Hilgartner's earlier books include Cats in Cyberspace, which will soon be reissued by the Vermont publisher bringing us PKP, Voyage (an imprint of Brigantine Media). That's the publisher of my own latest novel (The Secret Room), and I referred Hilgartner to Voyage, so I'm far from unbiased on this one. But it's fun, and it's pertinent, and gosh, those virtual debates make a lot of sense to me.

Wonder who'll be writing in votes for PKP, 12 days from now, across the Connecticut River? Watch for the candidate's bumper stickers, the ones that say: "Let's Put the GUTS Back in Politics!" Pick up the book now from the publisher, or on Amazon or B&N, in either softcover or e-book form -- and in a couple of weeks, there should be ample stacks at the great independent bookstores of northern New England, too. Watch for PKP's pithy political comments on Facebook. Just don't expect this reclusive candidate to step out to the store to place a pawprint on the title page.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Leslie Meier, CHOCOLATE COVERED MURDER - A Lucy Stone Mystery

What's more dangerous than one prize-winning chocolate shop in a little town in Maine? Answer: Two. That is, two in competition, with the ragged edges of their owners' past and present lives. Reporter Lucy Stone needs to cook up a Valentine's romance feature for her job, at the weekly newspaper called the Tinker's Cove Pennysaver -- but when "Best Candy on the Coast" is awarded to the newer shop in town, Chanticleer Chocolate, with its sexy (possibly promiscuous) candy manager Tamzin Graves and good-looking owner Trey Meacham, Lucy's boss tells her to find a way to cover the award tactfully. After all, everyone knows the family that runs the established chocolate shop, Fern's Famous; it won't do to upset sharp-eyed Fern, her daughter Flora, and granddaughter Dora.

In fact, Dora is a good enough friend of Lucy's to give the journalist a lot of mixed feelings about Dora's recent divorce from the smiling, bearded man who's just helped Lucy and her car out of a snowbank: Max Fraser. Even knowing that a body is sure to turn up in a Lucy Stone mystery isn't enough to cushion the blow when the body at the end of the first chapter turns out to be Max -- all tangled up in fishing line, with a hook lodged in his face, and toppled through the ice of the nearby Blueberry Pond.

If you're already a fan of Leslie Meier's traditional amateur-sleuth mysteries set in fictional Tinker's Cove, Maine, you'll guess that Lucy's suspicious about Max's death. And the next death that takes place -- one where melted chocolate plays a role, like a practical version of "Goldfinger" -- forces Lucy to dedicate herself to digging through the town scandals and working out who's got motive, means, and opportunity. No need to read the previous Lucy Stone books before enjoying this one. (But you may want to read them in backward order!)

Kensington Books had this scheduled for a January release (a luscious warmup for February 14!), but the hardcover became available yesterday, well ahead of schedule. (Maybe Meier's web maven was also caught unaware, because as of today, her website,, doesn't yet display the new book.) That's handy for a bit of end-of-year collecting! After all, this is the 20th in the series ... and a nicely plotted, tight, enjoyable detective tale that shows off the winter side of Maine in sweet chocolate style.

[PS - For those of you who assume any book title involving chocolate must have a recipe in it: The only dish described in detail is Lucy's own spur-of-the-moment maple-blueberry-topped cheesecake. A nice thought!]

Diversion: Poetry for Our Survival -- Anne Marie Macari, SHE HEADS INTO THE WILDERNESS

As the year 2011 reaches its finale (which will be marked by fireworks and other celebrations, here on the ridge, no matter how much snow is falling), I'm enjoying a reflection on strong books that have added determination, warmth, beauty, satisfied curiosity, exhilaration, and other good aspects to my own year. And I place Anne Marie Macari's 2008 poetry collection, SHE HEADS INTO THE WILDERNESS, among these.

The book's dedication is to Joan Larkin and Jean Valentine, which situates the work well. "Earth Elegy," the first section, follows the shiver-filled deaths and lives of trees, insects, birds, all the creatures whose lives we savor as we try to make sense of our own. Resonant with sensory detail, these light-filled poems -- often stacked with unrhymed couplets -- tie death so firmly onto life that an elegy can become a salute to the day's possibilities. I like particularly "Mozart's Requiem" with its opening dream during a night in Prague: "a chorus bearing him / even as he wanted //  to stay, dying and composing / as the untongue licked him // toward oblivion and the tenors sang promisisti." The poem moves at just the right speed, no hurry yet no unseemly lingering, toward its own finale: "the story of him // still composing when he died -- as if without / agony -- music all over // the bed, last contractions, timpani, cellos, / his ink-stained hands." If only we could be sure death would arrive this way in our own stories. Even our lives, before death, rarely rise to such music; in "Certain Sparrow," Macari offers a return to "the calcium / of loneliness, the fine shell spotted and cracked, / and the delicate thing ticking inside." Later, in "Praying Mantis," she paints the gawky insect as "Christ child. Your six legs / a cradle: inside / your long thorax, / your abdomen, rocking." And in each of these poems it is as much "our" selves rocking as "theirs."

So much tender and fresh language compiles a shivering prelude to the heart of the book, a 36-sonnet sequence, "She Heads Into the Wilderness." How can we resist its narrative opening, "We always ate from that tree" -- a calling forth of Eve, whose "outlaw breasts" are bound in half rape, half punitive "teaching," in the moment of expulsion from the Garden. Figures of worship, tastes of childbirth and the greater pain of raising the children we love, the holy invasion of our lovers who enter our bodies and hearts -- one after another, the incisive sonnets stack "life today" upon the dusty revelations of the mythic journey. I love especially number XXX, an elegy for a friend and for more: "Octave to octave she passes through the hole / in the world, gathering our weeping into // her voice, as if the cantata were cancer / made song, the beauty of loss swarming us." And in the finale of the sequence, XXXVI (She Heads into the Wilderness), the first lines twisting my heart: "She heads into the wilderness, weeping / and stunned by shame, her eyes open. Into // another country, bent and becoming / fibrous and heavy in her body, feeling // that she is the tree, or that she is the fruit / that ripens and falls, that falls and will keep // falling her whole life." I want to be there, to join this woman as Ruth joined Naomi, as friends answer each other's phone calls and text messages, as we comfort and accompany.

A wonderful "Epilogue" of half a dozen bright poems binds the last edge of the book, full of color and craft and neat yet free stitches. There is much hope here -- watered with salt tears, yes, but growing nonetheless, and promising us that the journey will be itself a blossoming.

From the Alice James Books website:
Anne Marie Macari is the author of three books of poetry, most recently She Heads Into the Wilderness (Autumn House, 2008), and Gloryland (Alice James Books, 2005). Her book Ivory Cradle, won the APR/Honickman first book prize in 2000, chosen by Robert Creeley. Macari is the recipient of the James Dickey prize for poetry from Five Point Magazine and she has been nominated for ten Pushcart Prizes.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Overlook Press, THE PARIS CORRESPONDENT by Alan S. Cowell: Not a Mystery, But ...

Somehow the review copy that Overlook Press sent of THE PARIS CORRESPONDENT by Alan S. Cowell sank into the wrong stack of books a few months ago. I even almost recall how it happened -- the book arrived with something by "modern master of noir" Dave Zeltserman that I'd been waiting for months to get my hands on, and I didn't know anything about Cowell or his books.

But thanks to a spate of holiday "move those piles" activity, "my" Dave rediscovered the Cowell book (released in October), and I settled down to read it, assuming it was a work of espionage fiction -- for two reasons: (1) the dark cover with its suspicious night scene, and (2) an echo effect in my brain from that well-liked Alan Furst book from 2006, The Foreign Correspondent  -- also set in Paris, by the way.

Well, THE PARIS CORRESPONDENT is not an espionage novel. I could perhaps make an argument for saying it's a murder mystery of sorts -- there are deaths and suspicious gaps in life stories and illegal escapades among journalists, ranging from simple adultery to fraudulent news to malice and mischief. But when I reached the halfway point in the book, I sighed, realizing it wasn't going to turn out to be what I'd expected.

And then I skipped the things I ought to have been doing, and read until 2 a.m. in order to enjoy all the rest of it.

Editor Ed Clancy has spent nearly a lifetime handling the news copy sent in by Pulitzer prize-winning war reporter Joe Shelby. But having an aging, even dying, Shelby arrive in the Paris office of the Star during Ed's efforts to get his newsroom up to speed as an Internet news source -- all stories immediate, bylines fugitive, editing under pressure -- is sure to embroil Clancy in exactly the kind of trouble he doesn't want to endure personally. His wife Marie-Claire is bound to suspect him of getting into trouble with Joe, too, considering all the tall tales Ed has already told his beloved about the hard-loving, unmanageable journalist. Complicating things further, Shelby's lifelong romantic interest, photojournalist Faria Duclos, is also in Paris, dying; and Shelby's rival for Faria's heart (and other body parts) is due to arrive also at the Star office, determined to cut its staff.

It's a classic setup for crime, murder, even arson. Not to mention drugs, fast cars, big money. Am I sure this isn't a mystery? Yep, I'm sure. It's more of a modern-day quest, a search for the fitting endgame to lives spent making the most of global adventuring and the power of the press.

And I'll stop there and just add: If you like Paris, love Paris, like journalism, feel compelled to buy newspapers and/or listen to public radio ... this is a good read for you. Really.

But it's not a mystery. It figures. About the only thing I'm sure of for the Overlook Press "list" is that every one of their books will be quirky, unusual, and hard to categorize. Oh yes, and worth opening.

PS -- Cowell is a journalist. His work has been nominated for a Pulitzer. This is his first novel. Why did he wait so long??

Leighton Gage, A VINE IN THE BLOOD: A Strange Synchrony

The e-book cover, designed by Peter Ratcliffe
In 1979 the film The China Syndrome, a fictional drama featuring the melt-down of a nuclear plant, was released just 12 days before the catastrophic U.S. nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Although the "actual" nuclear event was kept mostly controlled, and certainly didn't cause a spill of nuclear materials that could cut into the earth's surface, the coincidence of the event coming so close to the film's release caused unease, dismay, and even raised American doubts about whether nuclear power could ever be "safe enough."

Cut to 2011 -- when, by midsummer, the e-version of Leighton Gage's fifth Chief Inspector Mario Silva investigation set in Brazil, A VINE IN THE BLOOD, had entered worldwide distribution. The author kindly sent me a copy, with the rueful warning that the hardcover wouldn't reach American readers until December 27 (today!). I burrowed into the e-galley, ignored all phone calls and e-mails until I'd finished reading -- yes, the plot and characters are that compelling -- and set the galley aside, waiting for the post-Christmas release date.

BUT! On November 11, still six weeks before the book's release, police in Valencia, Venezuela, reported the kidnapping at gunpoint of Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos, of the Washington Nationals. And as the news reporters scurried to fill in the details, and to predict what the crime's effects could be on the team and the baseball season, I sat clutching my head and wondering: How often does fiction precede reality so closely?

Because here's what happens at the opening of A VINE IN THE BLOOD: The mother of Brazil's premier soccer (futebol in Brazil) player, Tico "The Artist" Santos, has just been kidnapped. And Santos is cruceial to the upcoming FIFA World Cup tournament, due to start in just 13 days. "With Tico depressed and worried about the fate of his mother, Brazil ran a grave risk of suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the country's most bitter rival, Argentina."

Still, this is, after all, a Leighton Gage detective novel -- so while it's partly "about" the kidnapping and how the Federal police can best solve it and recapture The Artist's mother, preferably alive and well, and as soon as possible, it's also rich with character interplay among Chief Inspector Mario Silva, his notorious Director Nelson Sampaio (about as venal and covetous as a man in power can be), and Silva's nephew Hector, an inspector himself (Delegado is the Brazilian term).  This time, they're wrestling with the clever and lovely romantic partner of The Artist, a self-centered woman named Cintia whose desires and passions rapidly show themselves entangled in the solving of the crime ... and with the oppression grown of tropical climate and vast gulf between the rich and poor that Gage demonstrates so skillfully.  This time, Agent "Babyface" Gonçalves has a huge role in the investigation, which rapidly spreads to include the drug trade, organized crime, and threats of murder.

The violence that Gage always weaves into his police investigations -- unfortunately, reflecting all too well conditions in Brazil's cities -- dips back and forth with wildly funny moments that keep popping up in A VINE IN THE BLOOD. One of my favorite bits of dialogue in the book, not relevant to the eventual solution of the crime but in a sense foreshadowing the technique's Mario and Hector's team will have to use, takes place after screams from a warehouse convince the team that they've found where The Artist's mother is being held captive, and they capture the man who's been seen going in and out of the warehouse with supplies:
Silva kicked off the interrogation. "What's your name?"

"Tulio Santiago, Senhor."

Santiago was scared, short, and hunger thin. His brown eyes, big behind steel-rimmed glasses, kept oscillating from the MP5 in Gloria's hands to the Glock on Arnaldo's belt.

"Who else is in that warehouse, Tulio?"

The prisoner squirmed. "Just my companheiro, Elvis, Senhor."

"Elvis, is it? Elvis what?"

"Pinheiro, Senhor."

"You weren't armed. Is Elvis?"

"Armed, Senhor?"

"Is he carrying a gun? Or a knife?"

"Oh, no, Senhor. We never carry those kinds of things." ... Santiago hung his head and sighed. He was ready to cooperate.

"Did you torture her?"

Santiago's head snapped up. "Torture her? Of course not. What kind of people do you think we are?"

"If you didn't torture her, why did she scream?"

"They all scream, Senhor. That's just the way they are. We try to keep them quiet, but it doesn't always work."

"Keep them quiet? Really? And what do you do to keep them quiet?"
"We give them nuts, Senhor, and sometimes a piece of fruit."
Hunh?? Well, I leave it to you to guess who was being held hostage in that warehouse. And probably you can also guess how the Director feels about Silva having told him that The Artist's mother had been found -- when, after all, she hadn't been.  Some of the Federal Police are at least as scary as the criminals, it appears!

By the time A VINE IN THE BLOOD wraps up, there have been diamond, animal smuggling, a numbers racket, and major family issues, all tangled together. Gage keeps the pace rapid, the plot unexpected, the characters intriguing and smart, in spite of the twists that baffle them from time to time.  Incidentally, I happened to read the Ann Patchett novel State of Wonder around the same time last summer that I first read A VINE IN THE BLOOD. While the two books couldn't be more different, the Brazil they describe is a perfect match -- lush, fervid, richly endowed, and disturbing. Like the Venice of Donna Leon, and the Korean DMZ of Martin Limón, the Brazil of Leighton Gage demands more, more, more attention. May Chief Inspector Mario Silva keep his investigations going for a good long time, giving us armchair travelers a location to embrace even as we shudder at its criminal landscape, so clear at a distance, and yet so strangely similar to our own hidden darkness.

Oh yes, about Wilson Ramos? He was rescued after two days. His story is worth reading, too. Or watching -- here's a link. Truth and fiction, they're both pretty strange when they happen like this, aren't they?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Martin Limón Mysteries: Worth Reading All of Them ...

The 20th anniversary edition

Dave is in the middle of reading Martin Limón's book MR. KILL, and it inspired him to add this to our discussion of mysteries that deserve to be better known -- something that applies to the seven books Limón has provided so far. Here's his take on the series:

Martin Limón: Under-Appreciated Author:

Martin Limón is one of our favorite authors at Kingdom Books and we have a number of his mysteries in our shop that are signed. Limón’s series takes place in the mid-1970s in Korea and the detectives are military policemen, sergeants George Sueño and Ernie Bascom. Limón, who resides with his family in Seattle, Washington, is himself retired from the military after 22 years of service. We recommend this series to our Kingdom Books clients.   

The most difficult Limón book to obtain in fine condition is the first book in the series, Jade Lady Burning, which was published almost 20 years ago. (Soho Crime has a special edition for the 20th anniversary!) Limón’s books are filled with the gritty texture of life in Korea in the 1970s and its population and also the complicated lives of military detectives. Limón has recently toured with his new book Mr. Kill but only on the West Coast. We wish he would make his way to the New York/New England area, as we would love to meet him.

Also, we credit Soho Press in New York for publishing this fascinating and rewarding series. Here is Beth’s recent review of Mr. Kill.

The George Sueño and Ernie Bascom books are:
1. Jade Lady Burning (1992)
2. Slicky Boys (1997)
3. Buddha's Money (1998)
4. The Door to Bitterness (2005)
5.The Wandering Ghost (2007)
6. G.I. Bones (2009)
7. Mr. Kill (2011)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Noir for Librarians? A Quirky Addition to the Shelves

Dave gave me a gift a couple of days ago -- he'd ordered a copy for himself and one for me of this unusual book. Now that's the definition of booklovers in love! Here's his explanation:
I ordered a couple copies of this small book from Ken Sanders Rare Books because we all need a quirky read for the holidays. Over the years we all have heard of the many characters who hang around in libraries and can make the librarian's jobs a misery. As economic times become more difficult, libraries are often used as an outpost for the homeless and for people with mental health and other assorted problems.

When I was a college student many years ago, it appeared that in the college library many students created their own social community and the library workers had a very difficult time in maintaining an atmosphere of silence. This was in an era before the universal usage of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices that every college student owns that have created different sorts of electronic communities.

Joel J. Rane's little book Scream At The Librarian: Sketches of Our Patrons in Downtown Los Angeles (2007), is a 2nd printing from ABC [Another Booklyn Chapbook; The BOOKLYN Arts Alliance, Brooklyn, NY, and is limited to 525 copies. This book has been called an instant cult classic and contains narrative sketches and art with the following headings: The Screamer [Female], Miss Information, Lester, Mr. Question, The Actress, The Singer, Mr. Brain Damage, Cornelius, The Dictionary Woman, Mrs. Yount, Mrs. Phoebus, Dr. Baker, The  Ghoul, The Racist, Grandma, Pat, The Screenwriter, Tourette Syndrome, David, Tammy, The Starer, The Sailor, Down Jacket, The Encyclopedia Man, The Wildcatter, Mr. Smelly, The Groupie, The Cougher, The Groaner, The Tweaker, Mr. Edgeman, Mr. Ware, The Change Man, The Conspiracy Artist, The Devil, The Screamer [Male]. 

If you are interested in libraries, quirky people, and stories, find a copy of this book. -- DK

Monday, December 19, 2011

Another Underappreciated Mystery Author: DAVID GOODIS

Dave's choice of an underappreciated mystery author today takes us back to the glory days of Hollywood:
David Goodis (1917-1967) with friends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall graced the cover of Paperback Forum from 1985 issue #2. There is an article in this issue by Geoffrey O'Brien titled "David Goodis: Tough Guy As Walter Mitty."

Many of devoted readers of noir have read books by David Goodis, whose titles include the following:
Somebody's Done For (1967)
Night Squad (1961)
Fire in the Flesh (1957)
Down There (1956) aka Shoot the Piano Player
The Wounded and the Slain (1955)
The Blonde on the Street Corner (1954)
Street of No Return (1954)
Black Friday (1954)
The Moon in the Gutter (1953)
The Burglar (1953)
Street of the Lost (1952)
Of Tender Sin (1952)
Cassidy's Girl (1951)
Of Missing Persons (1950)
Behold This Woman (1947)
Nightfall (1947) aka Convicted, The Dark Chase
Dark Passage (1946)
Retreat from Oblivion (1939)

I first read books by David Goodis in the paperbacks published by the original Black Lizard/Creative Arts imprint that was edited by Barry Gifford. Goodis wrote for many pulp magazines and wrote for radio serials and lived in Hollywood for six years writing screenplays. If you like noir, find a David Goodis title to read.
* * *
PS from Beth: Nice material on David Goodis in The Big Book of Noir edited by Ed Gorman et al., and a story by Goodis, "It's a Wise Cadaver," in Pulp Fictions, edited by Peter Haining.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

RED MIST, a Kay Scarpetta Forensics Novel, by Patricia Cornwell

This is the nineteenth in the forensics detection novels that feature Dr. Kay Scarpetta, and it brings her back to the South, where readers first met her -- this time, visiting the Georgia Prison for Women. It's a strange thing for Kay to do. She's been invited to meet a prisoner there, the psychologically bizarre mother of Dawn Kincaid, who attacked Kay during a criminal investigation near Boston. The attack took place in the home that Kay and her husband, FBI agent Benton Wesley, share. And in a powerful sweep of plot, author Patricia Cornwell takes Kay Scarpetta back into the horrors of the attack and the triggers that led to it: factors that include a complete breakdown of Jack Fielding, the forensic examiner's second-in-command for so many years that their relationship has embraced two entire careers, one after another.

But all that is mere detail in what Cornwell provides with the disturbing opening of RED MIST: an ominous, frightening, horror-haunted entry into a "heart of darkness" of Kay's own, throbbing with Southern heat, jungle-like plant growth, and layers of threat from people who think they know her -- and believe an entirely different version of the attack sequence, one that makes Scarpetta herself into a cruel, malicious stereotype of a power-drunk woman.

It's hard to say that one Scarpetta book evokes more horror than another; each one finds a different way to do so. But this one, in which the unhealed psyche that the forensic examiner carried inside her falls victim to hints and allegations, gets creepy very quickly. And as a reader, what horrified me the most was the steady patter of pieces of verbal evidence falling on and around Kay, without her paying attention to them. Narrated by Kay herself in the first-person present, the novel shakes with Kay's uncertainty, collapsing ego, and lack of attention to the dark forces and twisted people around her.

For example, in the visit to the Georgia Prison for Women, the warden herself begins almost immediately to threaten Scarpetta, using as grounds for her verbal attacks a version of Kay that's distorted like a carnival mirror's effect. Curious comments from the warden insist that Kay's visit come after previous kindnesses to the prisoner -- someone Kay's never responded to in any way. And somehow, word of the prisoner's sexual advances to Kay's colleague is open news at this prison, even though it's never been made public. The warden hints that there are already threats to Kay as well, saying, "Seems like you might not be inclined to seek out anything unsafe after what you've been through." The implication is clear: Even this warden, Tara Grimm, is unsafe for Kay.

And soon the imprisoned woman, Kathleen Lawler, is scaring Kay as well, although it's hard to know how she could follow through on her delusions. Again echoing the tropical disorientation of "Heart of Darkness," or of George Smiley in a prison in India, questioning the man who would become his arch-enemy Karla, Scarpetta observes the incongruities around her, yet fails to seize on them and question them. Perhaps the most frightening moment in this lengthy prelude to the book's eventual action comes when the prisoner unthinkingly uses the term "them" in reference to what was, as far as Kay Scarpetta knows, one baby born while Lawler was in prison. Kay repeats the phrase, questioning it, but the moment floods past in a rush of other narration from the prisoner, and it appears Kay has missed a critical clue -- for many pages, and many attacks and deaths, yet to follow in the book.

Readers of the series will shudder with Kay at threats to her marriage to Benton Wesley; at implications that Pete Marino may have betrayed her; at an intrusion into Kay's life from a forceful woman whose connection to Scarpetta is through her beloved niece Lucy.

Right before reading RED MIST, I re-read book four in the series, Cruel and Unusual, which uses a very different narrative structure and a much less intense set of metaphors and moods. But it reminded me of why I've bought and read every Scarpetta novel at some point, in recognition of the force and emotional connection with which Cornwell endows her characters. In some ways it made it hard for me to give way to the author's insistent path in this newest book. And in others, it convinced me that no matter how uncomfortable I became, I had to push on, to discover what Patricia Cornwell had created this time.

Worth every moment, I think, and as the book settles in me, I feel even more strongly about it. An extra plus of this publication is that Cornwell is front-and-center lately in a more public persona than she's shown in years. It's been good to see her and listen to her on TV  and radio this month. And for an intriguing interview online, check this one with Janice Kaplan at The Daily Beast.

This book stays on my "re-read these" shelf. It's a keeper.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Food Writing Class with Randall Kenan!! Deadline Dec. 23

OMG, Pine Manor College is offering a class in food writing -- with Randall Kenan! If you live within commuting distance of Boston, how can you pass this up? (And if you decide to enroll, I want to hear all about it!!)

First, in case you don't know who Randall Kenan is: Here are his photo and the cover of one of his books. His speaking agent has a good website description of his work and his radio appearances and more. You'll also find his work in The Nation and he has given a stunning number of prestigious lectures recently.

And here's your invitation from Pine Manor College, just outside Boston:


[Chestnut Hill, MA] Pine Manor College is pleased to announce that a select number of graduate-level creative writing courses will be open to the public for auditing during the winter residency of its Solstice MFA Program, scheduled from December 30, 2011 to January 8, 2012. Classes are open to serious writers working at all levels; auditors are encouraged to complete the advance preparation requirements for any MFA class they wish to attend. The registration fee is $30 per course for Solstice graduates/$40 per course for the general public; the deadline for enrolling as an auditor for winter 2011 Residency is Friday, December 23, 2011.

For course descriptions, our audit policy, and a downloadable registration form, go to:

Winter 2012 MFA classes that are open to the public include:

Prose (fiction and nonfiction):
·        Looking Back In Fiction
·        Seeing Anew: What Prose Writers Can Discover From Graphic Novelists About Crafting Stories
·        Everything Matters: The Sentence

Creative Nonfiction:
·        The Fundamentals Of Food Writing: An Introduction
·        Sentimentality In Memoir

Writing for Young People:
·        Inspiring Young Readers & Writers
·        Picture Book Techniques

·        Talking Back, Taking Back: Moments Of Re-appropriation In Native Poetry
·        Saying The Poem: Bringing The Fictionist’s Art Of Dialogue Into Poetry

Inspiration, Outreach, and Social Media:
·        Higher Ground: How To Enrich Your Community And Make A Difference Through Your Art
·        The Demons That Keep You From Writing
·       Best Practices For Writers Using Social Media

As an undergraduate institution consistently ranked among the most diverse in the country, Pine Manor College emphasizes an inclusive, community-building approach to liberal arts education. The Solstice MFA in Creative Writing reflects the College’s overall mission by creating a supportive, welcoming environment in which writers of all backgrounds are encouraged to take creative risks. We strive to instill in our students an appreciation for the value of community-building and community service, and see engagement with the literary arts not only as a means to personal fulfillment but also as an instrument for real cultural change.

For more information, visit

Diversion: Poets for Winter Reading: Larissa Szporluk, Janine Oshiro

The shortest day of the year is almost upon us -- and the long nights mean extra time for deep reading. I'm savoring Mark Twain's autobiography and some long-deferred and powerful books of poetry.

TRAFFIC WITH MACBETH (Tupelo, 2011) is the best book of poems I've read this year, hands down. The epigraph from the Shakespeare play is, "Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day." And Larissa Szporluk's poems seize that roughness, that painful sandpaper side, that edged blade of dislike, even hatred, and touch it all to the tongue and cheek. From a gargoyle to the Russian witch Baba Yaga to the flailing power of an octopus, Szporluk pulls the powers of the night into our living spaces and pushed the friction to light an inner fire.

Enough of this babble of metaphors -- let me show you some of her lines. Here's the opening of "Sunflower," the first poem in the collection:
Wind takes your hair
like a hooligan owl
and leaves a deep pocket
of dusk in your scalp.
What follows this includes "mutinous dust" and a comment on love.

"Traffic with Macbeth" (the poem) brings us "afraid of, afraid of / the heft / of nothing to love." And "Rogue's March" declares, "We are tied to love and hate— / same track, same train." Later, I shivered at the image of the nihilistic shepherd about to kill a lamb in "The Face That Promised Joy"; in "Rainmaker" I found "one raised brow, so chalked with loss // that it could be the bastard / of an answered prayer."

Szporluck's language springs so fresh that it has to be the product of much life, living, and wrestling. Most of the forms are simple: one-page columns of medium-length lines, sometimes in stanzas, sometimes not, but always driven by comment and conclusion, to the point of having their own miniaturized plots in place. The poem "Dunce" with its book-reading, corner-caught commentator entranced me. And knowing that this poet who is a mother of three, I inhaled with much delight "Baba Yaga," which opens with "I cooked my little children in the sun. / I threw grass on them and then they died. / I sit here and wonder what I've done."  The poem is visited by the "wise man / who tries to teach the wicked to be kind," and shivers to its end with "I was witch but still your mother."

Forget the desert island backpack; this book goes into my "next to the armchair when snowed in" stack!

I promised myself I'd introduce two books of poems here today, so the only way I can add a second is to present one as different as grass is from ocean, in writing about Janine Oshiro's PIER (Alice James Books, 2011; winner of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize). The forms are complex, often straddling multiple pages; their pathways refuse the alignment of direct narrative; and yet there's a hard, fully shaped reaction to life, standing behind the flicker of each. I'm hopelessly enamored of a ten-page poem here called "Next, Dust" -- if I've sorted the impacts in anything like what the poet intended, the death of one's mother or grandmother is standing within the lines, although I also thought I heard rape or perhaps just sex. The ending haunts me:
Everywhere is a potential
exit, except the door.

I drew a high wall at the skin;
at the bottom I drew a gutter.

I was eleven.
These are the words I have for it.
In the rambling shaped-prose stanzas of "Duck Hunting," I found "Come backache, come rapture, come reconfigure / sky. Come watch the show of her knees in the grass." And in "Mountain Vision," what wonder there is in the declaration, "I know what the mountain is called. His head rests in one place, his feet in another, his face a sudden cliff where birds might land and never wonder about the landscape's correspondence to a chin,"

Oshiro's poems take me far away from my own landscape, to a habitat of dance, an amputated leg, a relic ... I choose this collection for intentionally savoring the sharp discomfort of displacement and uncertainty. And I recommend it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Noir Collections, Old and New

From Dave, this morning:
This pulp/noir 1946 magazine has survived for about 66 years and we have just listed it on ABE Books. One of the authors in Short Stories Magazine is Frank Gruber, a pulp author who passed away in 1969. I was a collector of the books in his Simon Lash series. We love the pulp/noir cover of the magazine. You never know what treasure you will find at Kingdom Books. Great items for the holidays!
Thanks, Chief!
Here are some others that I see on the shelf at the moment:
James Ellroy, L. A. Noir
George Pelecanos, D. C. Noir
Ed Gorman, ed., The Big Book of Noir
Anthony Neil Smith, ed., Plots with Guns: A Noir Anthology

Sunday, December 11, 2011

K. C. Constantine: Reclusive Mystery Author Revealed at Last!

Dave offers today's take on under-appreciated mystery authors, and he picked K. C. Constantine. We credit our client J. C. for getting us enthused about the Pennsylvania author's long-running police procedural series. And by a coincidence, 2011 is the year this highly reclusive author chose to break the barriers he's kept around himself! Read on:

My vote for one of the most under appreciated authors is K.C. Constantine (a pseudonym for Carl Constantine Kozak: born in 1934 in Mckees Rocks, PA). He is the author of 16 books in the Mario Balzic mystery series and one stand-alone mystery novel.

There is little public definitive information about Constantine and for many years he proved to be a mysterious person in the mystery world. His last novel was published ten years ago, in 2002.

His best known creation, Mario Balzic, is the police chief in the fictional town of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, and for me his books portray both the benefits of residing in a small town and at the same time the negatives of living in a small community where your life is an open book and pettiness and rivalries are an every day occurrence. The police chief is always walking a very fine line.
A list of Constantine’s books:

Mario Balzic series
The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972)
The Man Who Liked To Look at Himself (1973)
The Blank Page (1974)
A Fix Like This (1975)
The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes (1982)
Always a Body To Trade (1983)
Upon Some Midnights Clear (1985)
Joey's Case (1988)
Sunshine Enemies (1990)
Bottom Liner Blues (1993)
Cranks and Shadows (1995)
Good Sons (1996)
Family Values (1997)
Brushback (novel) (1998)
Blood Mud (1999)
Grievance (novel) (2000)

Stand-Alone Novel
Saving Room for Dessert (2002)
In May 2011 Kosak appeared in public as K. C. Constantine for the first time, at the 16th annual Festival Of Mystery in Oakmont, PA, which is facilitated by the Mystery Lovers Bookshop located in the same town.

The Kingdom Books inventory has ten K.C. Constantine books for sale and we even have a couple of books that are signed.


Congrats to Louise Penny -- Again!

Lovely news for Louise Penny's 2011 book A Trick of the Light, in the continuing Inspector Armand Gamache series, as announced on her website:
We have had more great news for A TRICK OF THE LIGHT it has been named by the New York Times as one of the Best Crime Novels of 2011. Both and have named it among the Best Books of 2011 – and in the top 10 Crime Fiction books of the year! It has also made Publisher’s Weekly list of Best Mysteries of 2011, Toronto Globe and Mail has named A Trick of the Light as one of the best crime novels of 2011! and BookPage voted A Trick of the Light the sixth best book published in the United States all year. Of any kind.
Once again, readers affect authors, as much as authors affect readers. Way to go!

Kingdom Books also is very excited to join the list of independent mystery bookstores on this author's website. We try to keep signed copies of Louise Penny's books on hand, and have some unusual printings on the shelf right now. See them here.

'Tis the season to celebrate independent bookstores, indeed, so when you get a chance, take a look also at the website for the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA). Happy holiday shopping and reading.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Caper Mystery, Set in Vermont: David Carkeet, FROM AWAY

David Carkeet at Kingdom Books, among the mysteries.

"My" Dave asked me to put some posts up this month on "under-appreciated authors" -- the ones that are writing great stuff but whose publishers can't necessarily afford to toss up full-page ads or buy them seats on late-night TV shows. High on my list is David Carkeet, who moved to Vermont in 2003, just in time to set his sixth novel here. FROM AWAY is a classic caper novel, full of laughter and "you won't believe this scene" exhilaration. If you've lived in a rural location, you'll recognize the title phrase as the casual description for someone who comes from "someplace other than here." And that's the situation when Denny Braintree, con artist extraordinaire, arrives in Vermont's pretty little capital city of Montpelier and tumbles into a look-alike situation. Rather than recap the book here, let me just provide the link to the review we offered when it first came out.

If you think you'd have fun collecting this author's books, click here to see what we've got in stock. I think they're all signed, and I know they are in gorgeous condition.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Helene Tursten, THE GLASS DEVIL, A Detective Inspector Irene Huss Investigation Set in Sweden and England

This third translated crime novel from Swede Helene Tursten -- made available in the US in 2007 from Soho Crime -- is a nice place to start in getting acquainted with a new detective. It's easy to find copies in good condition (we have two lovely ones), and there's some agreement among readers that THE GLASS DEVIL, whether by translation quality or author experience, is a stronger read than its predecessors (Detective Inspector Huss and The Torso). I wanted to catch up a bit, before next February's release of the new Tursten.

And glory be, here's a Scandinavian detection novel that's not all shadows and violence! Yes, there are deaths -- in fact, they take place at the start of the book -- but police detective Irene Huss is entirely involved with the living: her not-very-healthy boss, her overscheduled co-workers, the many people in the Kullahult Church Association affected by the murders of their pastor and his wife and son, and, most compelling of all, the last living member of that family, the pastor's daughter, living in England and unwilling to talk about her family or the circumstances that could have led to the three deaths. But there are hints that a Satanist might have been involved.

Huss is alert and attentive, and her observations bring out possibilities in plot and characters. Consider this, from the interviews she holds with the Church Association leaders:
Irene nodded and was about to ask her next question when a new thought suddenly struck her. "Do you know if Rebecka had helped her father to trace the Satanists over the Internet?" she asked.

Bengt Måårdh looked at Irene in surprise. "I really don't know! Certainly Sten had a lot of ideas about how he was going to find those responsible, but I've never heard him talk about tracking them via the Internet."

But others have, thought Irene. If Rebecka was involved in her father's investigation in some way, maybe she would have some information to give them. Was she threatened as well? That couldn't be ruled out. Thankfully, the English police had promised to keep an eye on her.
As hinted by the book's long subtitle, the investigation takes Huss to England herself, to interview Rebecka in person, twice. Sane, friendly, only mildly wounded by controversies and confrontations from her own past, Irene Huss is a persistent and determined detective, a "Sherlock Holmes" with neither a drug habit nor a violin but a willingness to assemble enough evidence to eventually make clear the underlying causes and entangled people for the crimes.

I noticed that police technology is changing so rapidly that some of the actions Irene undertakes are already a bit dated, in terms of computers and the Internet. But the story holds up well, and I'm glad I dove into it. If you've been wondering whether all Scandinavian crime fiction was desperate and dark, here's the answer: Not all of it. This one's a charmer, leaving the dire aspects at the side of the corpses, and letting the investigator -- and her family -- show an active, mostly cheerful life.

Oh -- there's no website for Tursten at this point, although there's a fan site and I found a good review at Detectives Beyond Borders (love that blog!). Let's hope Soho Crime makes more info available on this native Swede, whose work has already been adapted to films and television in Europe.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Snow Returns to Kingdom Books ... and Helene Tursten's Swedish Mysteries

Last night the weather changed, moving into December at last, a bit late. First sleet arrived, laying down a treacherous wet layer of ice fragments and water; then snow built up, and by morning we had about three inches. I hurried out to shovel and salt the path and steps, as a collector was due to arrive at mid morning.

The snow fit completely with what I'm reading. Helene Tursten has a new book, NIGHT ROUNDS coming out in February, after a five-year drought in translations of her work arriving here. It happens that we have a couple of copies of the preceding title, THE GLASS DEVIL, so I figured I'd start there, to get some perspective on Detective Inspector Irene Huss. (So far, I haven't found a lot of info on the author, but I'm printing off what there is, to study.) Then I'll be ready for the new book.

I also have been admiring the cover for Leighton Gage's latest Brazilian detective novel featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva, so I'm tucking it into here. It's beautifully moody; I read an early galley of this one and will re-read it before providing a review later this month. (The release date is Dec. 27.)

Also I rashly (and eagerly) said I'd fit in reading a new political spoof, PKP FOR PRESIDENT. How could I resist, once I had a copy in my hand? (Cat lovers in particular, check this one out!) So I've got to leave the desk and curl up with a cup of tea and a good book -- or three. Nice work if you can get it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

What's in a Name? Change "Cozy" to "Amateur Sleuth" and Then ...

A lot of emotional attachment to mystery genres seems to begin with the books that first turn us into "readers." Those who teethed on Nancy Drew have an itch for adventurous detection; dare I guess that readers of the Hardy Boys were primed for espionage? And if you start with Sherlock Holmes, or with Father Brown ... Well, to be honest, I'm attached to all of those. And Agatha Christie and John D. McDonald and and John Creasey and "The Saint" and more. Some I read on my own; some were books my mother took out of the library and I gobbled up after she'd finished them, before they were due back.

But the childhood mystery series and teenage discoveries can't fully be what forms our adult tastes. I don't think there's a children's or young adult sequence that clearly pushes a person into devouring James Patterson's books, or Lee Child's (although I have a theory that people who respect steady, affectionate marriages make up a large part of Donna Leon's readers, along with those who adore Venice). Sometimes it's recognition of protagonists who resemble us; sometimes it's wishing we could be doing the same investigation, even though we know we never will (how many crushed archaeology dropouts delved into Elizabeth Peterson's books with relief and exhilaration?).

Mysteries that feature amateur sleuths may be the most direct in appealing to us to put ourselves into the shoes of the would-be detective. The amateur sleuth relies on cooking skills, or a good memory for flowers, or kindly curiosity (and friends in the police force). She or he could be -- us.

Kaitlyn Dunnett's November 2011 release, SCOTCHED, is a great example. Liss MacCrimmon owns the Scottish Emporium in the small Maine tourist town of Moosetookalook. Her friend Angie owns the bookshop down the road. Nola Ventress, giving back to the town with great energy, has just organized a mystery authors' convention at its sole hotel. And as authors local and regional (many with the names of real Maine authors!) check in, friction among them rises -- particularly in every person spoken to by journalist Jane Nedlinger. When the needling, meddlesome, cruel reporter turns up dead at the foot of a cliff, routine police work reveals the death to be homicide. And soon Liss and her fiancé Dan and her friends in local law enforcement are digging through a compost heap of rotten reasons that Nedlinger deserved to ... well, maybe not die, but at least get out of town. Too bad, too sad, and only the accused people with motives (lots of them!) are unhappy with Liss's efforts.

There's plenty to identify with: the excitement of meeting the Big Authors, the fun of seeing a small town pull itself together, the gentle romance between Liss and Dan. You don't need to know the difference between various firearms, as you might in a Patricia Cornwell suspense novel -- you just need to follow along with Liss and you may even guess the murderer a few pages before she's clear about it herself. That's it: You've identified, been a careful reader alert for clues, and enjoyed realizing you're just as smart as the person solving the crime! It's charming, entertaining, and -- that's the point of an "amateur sleuth" mystery, right?

(PS to those checking on authors -- Kaitlyn Dunnett is a pen name for Kathy Lynn Emerson, a Maine writer herself, who has four different series in action, two of them historical. Her website is unfortunately not helpful, but here's a nice Wikipedia entry on her.)

Jeffrey Allen (a pen name for Jeff Shelby) is bringing out his first mystery in a new series, available in January 2012. STAY AT HOME DEAD features Deuce Winters, dad to precocious three-year-old Carly, living in the town where he grew up and where his old high school buddies turn up connected to a dead body left in Deuce's car ("Daddy, who's the man in my car?" his daughter demands to know. She's already smart enough to disagree with the suggestion that the man is sleeping in there.) Equally an amateur in tracking down a criminal, Deuce wouldn't get into any of this if it weren't for those high school chums trying to blame him. "So I'm gonna need a lawyer," he concludes, and his wife Julianne responds, "Good thing you married one." But Deuce needs more than just his wife's backing -- it's one thing when people try to hurt him, but when they do things that can hurt his three-year-old ... wait a moment, did I just notice you "identifying"? I know I did at that point. My kids are long grown, but I'd still do a LOT to protect them if I saw the hurt coming at them. And tag, there we go: Amateur sleuths make it easy for us to see ourselves in the investigative shoes. No need for an extra passport or a stash of Dutch currency. We have, we are, what we need to solve the mystery. And it's a fun read!

Note that I'm not the same gender as the protagonist, but I enjoyed the story and connected with Deuce's problems. NOTE to all "amateur sleuth" readers and writers: Gender doesn't frame us into particular books. Let's stop talking about "cozies" as chick lit. In fact, let's talk about them as "amateur sleuth" mysteries. That's always been their central characteristic!

Here's one more example, a book I'm delighted to have purchased a month or so ago -- NIGHT OF THE LIVING DANDELIONS. This is from the prolific author Kate Collins (a pen name for Linda Tsoutsouris) and is the 11th in the series featuring Abby Knight, now a flower-shop owner in a Midwestern college town and engaged to Marco, who's being called back to active duty in the Army Rangers. Marco's former foxhole buddy Vlad is in town, and Abby may be one of the last to realize that Vlad's Romanian heritage, pale face and dark hair, and black attire have caused a flock of townsfolk to assume he's a vampire. Women are swooning, their boyfriends are furious, and when a nurse turns up dead with a pair of neat puncture wounds at her throat, the case against Vlad as a bloodsucking killer turns furious and violent. Abby and her support crew -- a handful of sensible women and a few sweet nuts -- dig like crazy for the strands connecting people in town, until they unearth the real motive for the killing.

You won't be checking the door locks while reading this -- again, it's light reading, and poses a set of puzzles that the reader is challenged to solve, perhaps a little ahead of Abby herself, or else right next to her as she struggles to stick up for Marco's buddy and for justice. By the end of the book, you'll know a bit extra about vampires (how clever to toss in this "hot fad" term!) and more about some flowers and unusual plants (wolfsbane? strangleweed??). And you may have had a few hours of relaxing, imagining how you'd solve the situation yourself, and enjoying watching Abby tackle it.

By the way, Collins is more than prolific, actually -- NIGHT OF THE LIVING DANDELIONS came out this spring, and the sequel, To Catch a Leaf, followed in autumn. Wow!

Three amateur sleuths -- three casually enjoyable mysteries. I hope you'll be inspired to read one or more of them!

PS to COLLECTORS: Are you feeling like all these pen names must mean something?? Consider this: Donald Westlake, one of the greatest American mystery writers of the 20th century, used 22 of them ... at least! (He told us he might have forgotten one or two.) And John Banville, a compelling literary force of the 21st century, uses at least one.

Discussion? Comments? Revelations of pen names to come??

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Would You Say a Louise Penny Book Is a "Cozy" Mystery? I Say It's NOT!

Louise Penny's 2011 title, A Trick of the Light, showed up on crime fiction reviewer Marilyn Stasio's list of best crime novels of the year last Sunday. That's great -- no question that Penny is a powerful writer and the titles keep amassing awards for her. What shocked me, though, was Stasio pronouncing the book to be her Favorite Cozy for the year.

It's not that I want to argue for another title -- rather, I disagree vehemently about classifying A Trick of the Light, or any other Louise Penny book, as a cozy.

Yes, Penny's series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache was initially nicknamed the "Three Pines" series, after the apocryphal Eastern Townships (rural Quebec) village that anchors many of the continued characters in the books. Maybe that conditioned some readers to think of the novels as "cozy." It's a subgenre label, and I checked in with to get one authoritative version of how the subgenre is described:
Cozy mysteries have become a booming business. Many cozy mystery readers are intelligent women looking for a “fun read” that engages the mind, as well as provides entertainment… something to “look forward to getting back to.” This is not to say that intelligent men don’t read cozies…they do!
The crime-solver in a cozy mystery is usually a woman who is an amateur sleuth. Almost always, she has a college degree, whether she is using it or not. Her education and life’s experiences have provided her with certain skills that she will utilize in order to solve all the crimes that are “thrown her way.” The cozy mystery heroine is usually a very intuitive, bright woman. The occupations of the amateur sleuths are very diverse: caterer, bed and breakfast owner, quilter, cat fancier/owner, nun, gardener, librarian, book store owner, herbalist, florist, dog trainer, homemaker, teacher, needlepoint store owner, etc. These are just a few examples of what the amateur sleuth does…. When she’s not solving crimes, that is!
The cozy mystery usually takes place in a small town or village . The small size of the setting makes it believable that all the suspects know each other. The amateur sleuth is usually a very likeable person who is able to get the community members to talk freely (i.e. gossip) about each other. There is usually at least one very knowledgeable and nosy (and of course, very reliable!) character in the book who is able to fill in all of the blanks, thus enabling the amateur sleuth to solve the case.
Okay, there's that village hook I mentioned -- and the website author has even written an extra piece about the role of the village in the "cozy." Particularly in terms of the scope of plot and characters, the village setting creates a boundary: The villain/murderer must be part of the village, to satsify the "cozy" conventions. The village also allows the amateur sleuth to apply her (or his) understanding of the frailties and resentments within a small group of people. (I'm probably least concerned with the "niceness" of the subgenre -- many of its devoted readers say that they like it because there won't be material that makes them uncomfortable.)

But Penny and her publisher made a decision quite a few "titles" ago to change the name of the series, and thus the books' subtitles, away from "Three Pines," to "A Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Novel." And it's my contention that it was done for two reasons: (1) so Penny could alternate settings, which she now does regularly, putting one book in the village, the next well outside it (Montreal, say, or Quebec City), and (2) to escape the subgenre implications of the village name.

In fact, the later name of the series says quite clearly that it's a police detective series. And I maintain that A Trick of the Light is not just a police detective novel, but a segment of the ongoing dark underplot that links all of these books: Something is seriously rotten in the Sureté, the Quebec police force -- Armand Gamache has discovered the rot, attempted to expose it, been wounded both physically and emotionally by the forces of evil that thrive on that rot.  Even when he's in Three Pines, urging his detectives to pursue the trail of a criminal, Gamache is dogged by the knowledge that he hasn't actually rooted it out of the very organization he works for.

In fact, if my nose for plot is accurate, I'd make a guess that the arc of the series will position Three Pines as the (somewhat poisoned) pole of strength that pulls against the darkness ahead. Of course, because Penny creates complex plots and characters, it will run deeper than that; there have already been frightening hints that significant local resident Clara and her husband (their viewpoints are often narrated) are headed for disaster and that their quandary will drag others along. In fact, the reason Gamache and his team keep returning to the otherwise idyllic Three Pines (a sort of Brigadoon village that people discover when they "need" it) is revealed, over and over, to be related to a mirror-version rot in the pretty little town. Why else would it have such a terrible murder rate and such dreadful twists in the people living there?

I could go on with more reasons that this isn't a cozy -- the sleuth is not an amateur but a professional, the violence may not be gory but it's still horrible, the betrayals are not confined to one or two characters, Gamache is likeable on the outside but clearly a dangerous man when you know him better, and there have already been quite a variety of "uncomfortable"  scenes in the book. Plus, if you look further on, you'll find the site author admitting that in cozies, "The victim is usually a character who had terrible vices or who treated others very badly. Dare I say…. the victim 'deserved to die'?”

And that's my final discussion point: Penny's crime fiction portrays what we readers already know from our daily news -- that many of the people who die violent deaths, especially when they live in places where we may actually know them, are not people who "deserve to die." They are innocent victims (like one whose death literally haunts Gamache) or potentially retrievable idiots whose stupidity has led them to bad choices.

So: I maintain that the Louise Penny series is absolutely not a cozy series. I understand the urge people have to apply the "village" rule and classify some of her titles that way. But I feel it's a serious mistake in reading the books and their very savvy, sophisticated, and determined author.

Discussion, anyone??