Monday, March 26, 2012

When Thrillers Go "YA": THE HUNGER GAMES

Genre talk: "Mysteries and crime fiction" includes subgenres like thrillers and espionage, as well as the classic detection, investigation, police procedurals, and of course historical mysteries and village or traditional mysteries, a.k.a. "cozies." The Nancy Drew series is the classic example of what happens when these percolate to the "young adult" (YA) level (yes, I know these are "children's" fiction now, but they used to work for teens in earlier years).

This year's prime example of a thriller series aimed at young adults is, of course, THE HUNGER GAMES -- publication of the trilogy began in 2008. I'm a shameless fan (have read the series three times, am likely to do it again soon), and I couldn't resist heading to the box-office hit film of the first book, this weekend. Please note the "Team Katniss" sweatshirt, purchases well in advance. Being a committed reader has its quirky side at such moments, I confess! Dressing for the occasion ... oh well. It was a good film, skillfully crafted from the much longer novel.

South African Crime Fiction: James McClure, via Soho Crime

Excellent news: Soho Crime is just a few weeks away from releasing number seven of the eight James McClure "Kramer and Zondi" investigations, originally published from 1971 to 1991. Embedded in the years of apartheid, the series features the Afrikaans officer Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and his partner in detection, Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi. While the restrictions of color line and racism fence the pair's actions on a daily basis, their clever and accepting working relationship and mutual respect (as close to friendship as such a pair can come, considering the one-way direction of their social structure) allows McClure's neatly plotted crime fiction to include warmth and affection.

THE BLOOD OF AN ENGLISHMAN contrasts the poverty and filth of bottom-tier criminals with the hard-working poverty of the Bantu detective and his family. At the same time, it pits Lieutenant Kramer's genial womanizing against the cruelties that many of the wealthy exert. Opening with the shooting of one former RAF pilot and the killing of another, with the same weapon, the novel also portrays the women in the detectives' lives as insightful and supportive. That's quite a contrast to, say, Mrs. Digby-Smith, whose car "boot" turns out to have her own brother's body in it. Or Mrs. Bradshaw, carefully ignoring the criminal bent of her husband and grown son.

McClure's best skill is adding small details that bring scenes into perspective, painting both the South African social structure and the stresses of human life that can lead to crime. I especially like this revealing bit from the end of an interview Lieutenant Kramer's been holding with "Jonty," English owner of a beauty salon, about the life of Mrs. Digby-Smith's brother, affectionately nicknamed "Bonzo":
"If your lads are staying on, I don't mind," agreed Jonty. "But I think in return you might let me in on a few of the details, pal. What was Bonzo robbed of, for instance?"

"His life," said Kramer.

The beer can crumpled in the Englishman's hand like a plastic cup. "You're pulling my leg," he said slowly.

"Not really. He was found shot through the head about an hour ago, trussed up like a fowl in the boot of his sister's car."

Jonty dropped the crumpled can into his waste-paper bin. Then he opened a desk drawer, took out a perfume atomiser, gave a puff into his mouth, making himself cough, and sprayed a lot more of the stuff over his chest and shoulders, smothering the smell of hops. "I must be getting back," he said, holding open the door. "You really are a right bastard, aren't you?"

"Tip of the iceberg," said Kramer, and winked at the red-head on his way out.
This is the second James McClure re-publication from Soho Crime this year -- the earlier one, in February, was The Sunday Hangman -- and this one releases April 17. So there's time to pre-order a copy and catch up on at least one of the earlier titles in the meantime; McClure's Wikipedia listing puts them nicely into perspective.  We're glad to have a growing collection of McClure here at Kingdom Books (click here to see the listings and order). What a pity that McClure died in 2006 -- so we'll never have more than the eight Kramer and Zondi investigations to enjoy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Collector's Corner: Louise Penny Ephemera

A Louise Penny Novella That Was Only Published In Canada
When The Hangman was published we were able to purchase about 14 copies of this novella and all the copies had been  signed in Canada by crime fiction author Louise Penny. If you are a Louise Penny collector and a Louise Penny "completist" this is a must for your collection. We only have two copies left in the shop, and generally few copies have been available in the United States.
Louise Penny's earliest titles have been escalating in value, and first edition, first printing hardcover editions of Still Life, the first book in the Chief Inspector Arman Gamache (Three Pines) series, are difficult to find. The British editions are beyond scarce here and have been priced at  about $600.00.
Here is description of The Hangman:
Signed by the author Louise Penny on the half title page. Soft Cover, first edition, first printing of this issue in fine & unread condition. A paperback original. 87 pages. A Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novella with a setting in Three Pines, Quebec. Louise Penny wrote this novella for Good Reads Canada and it takes place between her books The Brutal Telling and Bury Your Dead. A jogger finds a dead man hanging from a tree and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is brought in to determine whether there was a suicide or a murder. A must for all of the readers and collectors of Louise Penny's books. Signed in Canada by Louise Penny. Scarce signed.
For our listings of Louise Penny's books, click here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Olen Steinhauer: The TOURIST Trilogy, Completed ... And Next?

Good things often do come in threes. There are the three classics of The Lord of the Rings. Three books in the Hunger Games series. And now there are three books in Olen Steinhauer's "Tourist" series: The Tourist (2009), The Nearest Exit (2010), and An American Spy (2012).

Three turns out to be just perfect to create a time gap of an entire week of a reader's life. Yes, I decided I needed to go back and re-read the first two books before opening my just-arrived copy of the third one. It was worth it -- the details do build. For maximum impact and enjoyment, I strongly recommend reading these in sequence. It's not just the details of espionage and the recurring characters that add up. What matters most is the sequence of changes in Milo Weaver, heavily burdened black-ops spy working for the American government -- or at least, for what the Central Intelligence Agency thinks that means.

At the opening of the first book (whose film rights now belong to George Clooney), Milo's been on desk duty for a while, as a safety move for his unexpected and wonderful family: a wife and stepdaughter with whom he bonded permanently during one of his "Tourist" assignments. The "Department of Tourism" is the cover name for the black ops group, and Milo's work has included many a morally challenging assignment, ranging from theft and bribery to deliberate deaths. Not to mention a lot of "frequent flyer" miles ... heavily affected by stimulant drugs to keep going. That's not exactly the ideal framework for the husband and stepfather that Milo's ready to be.

The trouble is, Milo Weaver, like George Smiley, is one of those people who feels "responsible." In spite of having done some terrible things, he's mostly done them when directly ordered to do so, and he's the sort of spy who'd somehow try to make things right for people he's hurt by accident. So when people he cares about are threatened, and he's the only one who can take action, he's got little choice in his moral calculus: He's got to go back undercover.

What his family expects of him, what his secret extended family need (and what they want to give him!), and what the valued mentors of his life desire from and for him drag Milo to Europe. Even as he struggles with tangled assignment goals, he mentors other "Tourists," even to the extent of creating a sort of Bible of survival and morality for other screwed-up paid killers to lean on: "To the Tourist, success and failure are handed out in equal measure. To the Tourist, success and failure are the same things -- job completed." It's a boot that will make "the life" easier to take. But not, unfortunately, for Milo.

By the opening of The Nearest Exit, Milo's actions from the first book, balanced through his complex set of moral equations, have capsized the more direct calculus of morality that his six-year-old stepdaughter deserves to have him act from. He's on the run, and trying to convince the Department of Tourism to give him back the privileges of direct action and collaboration. But from Germany to Russia to the United Nations, people who know Milo's past aren't just setting up expectations around him -- they are trying their hardest to use him within their own plans for control and information. More to the point, they treat him as a spy and demand that he behave accordingly.

Each time that Milo straightens out a pocket of his life, people return to drag him back into danger and cruel choices. In An American Spy, Steinhauer offers a bold change in narrative: the first 89 pages are spent on in China, from the viewpoints of spies and manipulative bureaucrats there. That's right, Milo's voice doesn't speak until page 93 -- and when it's finally his turn to speak, he's clearly not recovered in most ways from the losses, complications, and violence that have dogged his past. But he's trying. Heck, he's drinking tonic water and paying more attention to his marriage -- and the forms of honesty it's demanding from him -- than to the machinations of his former comrades and bosses.

But when you've carried as many secrets as Milo, and when your extended family (of birth and of choice) is still entangled with global political information gathering in the shady sense, that "nearest exit" has really only led off one airplane and onto another. But this time, Milo has no well-funded organization behind him; has few colleagues left; and has to function without any real assurance that his wife and stepdaughter are safe. If they've been taken hostage for his actions, where are they, who's holding them, and will Milo's assignments, even if completed, ever add up to enough to get his family back? He's agonizingly aware that no "Tourist" should have a family he cares about -- it turns his morality into an adversary for his necessities.

Steinhauer's series is already a classic, a suspenseful set of page-turners in which nearly every choice facing Milo requires sacrifice and complex thinking. I'd love to say something about why I felt so exultant at the end of the third book, but ... some things should be saved for rewards for readers.

What are you waiting for? If you don't get started on the first two books, you won't earn your way to the satisfactions of the third!

A quick bit of background: Steinhauer is NOT a retired spy or spook or "Tourist." But he knows how to do good research and how to extend his imagination. Most important of all, he knows what espionage can do to the soul. And how it might be redeemed ... if things don't go too far off plan. There are some earlier Steinhauer books, but they're not connected to this series, and in the best of ways, can be considered the warm-up, the training ground, for what this American-born author has now achieved. He has a website, but it's a hodgepodge of material without a good way to sort it just now -- hmm, reminds me a bit of Milo at his most lost. Right, there's no time now to mess with the website if you haven't yet read the books. Priorities! Even Milo couldn't be conflicted about this one.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Collector's Corner: Ephemera in Mystery Collecting -- Elmore Leonard

Dave is providing a series on items of "ephemera" -- meant to last a short time and vanish -- that may appeal to mystery collectors. Today's selection isn't the common single sheet of paper; instead, it's a "vintage" paperback.

Elmore Leonard's First Book Was ...

Clients of Kingdom Books are always on the prowl for their favorite author's first appearance in print. Recently a customer asked me to find her a copy of Elmore Leonard's first book, and she was curious about the title of the book, The Bounty Hunters, which was printed in paperback in 1954. The customer was surprised that Elmore Leonard early in his career wrote a number of Westerns. Now, 58 years after this was published, Elmore Leonard is still writing and producing some of the best crime fiction, and he will reach the age of 87 in October.

[PS from Beth: Collecting Elmore Leonard? Check out this oddball item that includes a recipe of his!]

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Coming Soon: Olen Steinhauer Three-Books Survey, and Collecting Ephemera

Olen Steinhauer (photo by Nancy Crampton)
What we've been up to this week: Dave's preparing a blog series on collecting ephemera -- those "transitory" scraps of paper, photos, maps, etc. -- connected with mystery authors (say, Robert B. Parker, Laurie King, George Pelecanos, and some much earlier authors). He'll start showing photos and commenting, probably tomorrow (Sunday).

And me, I'm re-reading the entire "Tourist" series by Olen Steinhauer, to get the most out of his new release. The sequence is The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, and, released last week, An American Spy. Like David Downing's Berlin series, this is espionage blended skillfully with human desire and the struggle for survival -- although it's set "today." And like John LeCarré's George Smiley sequence, the books probe an increasing visceral distaste for the necessities of global politics.

I'll start the commentary on Monday.

Last but not least, it's almost spring here in Vermont: Most of the snow around us has melted, although the ground is still frozen for at least a foot of depth, maybe more; caretakers for the nearby Moore Reservoir (part of the story in my own novel The Darkness Under the Water) have dropped its water level by at least a foot, to prepare for the meltwater runoff from the most northern mountains; and I'm taking down the back-deck birdfeeder, so we don't accidentally lure winter-starved bears into close proximity as they emerge from their dens. Another sign of the season: Polly's Pancake Parlor, high on the ridge in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, opened for 2012 today, and we drove the 28 miles over, to savor a classic breakfast. I photographed mine, which includes amazing smoky bacon, as well as a stack of gingerbread pancakes and a couple of eggs. You can spot maple sugaring operations along the forested slopes, by the roiling clouds of steam rising from them; here's to a long and sweet season, with spring's first farm product of the north.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Howard Frank Mosher's New Classic: THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS

HFM's map of his "Great American Bookshop Tour," eastern half - including Kingdom Books, in small green letters.
In the spirit of Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher's newest book, both a road trip and a beacon of appreciation for "independent" bookstores, we traveled to Montpelier yesterday -- to visit Bear Pond Books, one of the most welcoming and well-filled bookshops we know. Owned by Claire Benedict (and her husband Rob), it's resolutely independent and avidly reader-oriented.

And it was a wonderful place to settle into our seats and enjoy the annual slide show that Howard offers to accompany his book touring. I was glad to see that he's still including among the slides the noted one that shows him firing a shotgun at a "negative review" pinned to his garage wall. At least, he's still showing it in Vermont -- he says his wife Phillis advised him not to show it in places that don't understand that there can be such a thing as firearms-related humor. (Come on, if he'd really shot the sheet of paper in the way the slide illustrates, he'd have a huge hole in his garage wall. Vermonters understand that. They know it's all in fun. Apparently one viewer in San Francisco, at City Lights Books, didn't catch on.)

The book introduced this way, THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS, is a warm and entertaining travel memoir. Mosher took off cross-country by car on the day after his 65th birthday -- also the day after his final treatment for prostate cancer -- and focused on visits to many of the surviving independent bookstores. Are they dwindling? Sure! In a culture where lack of time is celebrated, it's only natural that a lot of readers turn to online sources for their books, and rarely visit the comfortable shops that used to be their regular spots for examining trends, reading first pages, discovering new treats and rediscovering old ones, and so on.

But we're still here, those of us too stubborn or too much in love with the book trade to close the doors. Yay! Kingdom Books is having a great time marketing (mostly) mysteries, and we continue to dedicate a shelf to Howard Frank Mosher's classic Vermont novels and occasional memoirs (this is his second). And to make it easy for you to find them, even without driving to Vermont, here's a link to the Mosher books we have today; we'll add a few more from time to time (I know Dave's adding another one later today). It's a great way to honor Mosher for his generous, gifted, and gently haunted storytelling.

I bet you can tell we're fans.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jess Lourey, NOVEMBER HUNT: Quirky and Humorous Crime Fiction

Reading Jess Lourey's Battle Lakes, Minnesota, mysteries -- "by the month," starting in May, so this is her seventh -- is a lot like going to a movie theater after mostly watching videos at home. There's all that wide-screen drama ahead, with full sound and bright color and two hours of not being interrupted by the phone or work. But even before you get into the screening room, there's the candy counter: stocked with those old familiar chewy, brightly colored, funky old candies that say childhood and vacation, and you buy a packet even though you know they're way more fake than the high-cocoa dark chocolate that everyone now says is actually good for you ... and you bite down, on one of the orange or red ones, and it's just plain fun.

And that's a Jess Lourey book in a mouthful: fun. NOVEMBER HUNT opens with a snowy, bitter-cold scene set during "muzzleloader" hunting season, as two old friends anticipate the chance to shoot a deer. But when the scene turns deadly, there are no antlers involved. In some ways, the "killer" and "victim" are nearly spelled out right here, in the first few pages.

But is the shooting intentional? If so, why? What's at stake? Soon the victim's daughter Hallie asks for help -- via the notorious Mrs. Berns -- from substitute librarian and private-eye-in-training Mira, hinting that the death is definitely murder, not accident. Mira's reluctant at first. After all, she hasn't exactly finished reading Private Investigating for Morons. She doesn't have a PI license or even a gun. She does, at last, have a boyfriend, although the side effects of a hair growth supplement she's taking may put that into doubt. Most important, she's got curiosity, kindness, and a Minnesota giant helping of spunk.

Besides, Mrs. Berns -- one of Mira's deliciously outrageous older women friends -- won't let her off the hook:
"Now, now. You're a real dick deep down, even if you don't yet have your license." Mrs. Berns' eyes glistened. "Take your future by the reins." 
Plus, a collection letter for Mira's student loans arrives like a sign demanding that she tackle the work. Last but not least, someone leaves a threatening message on her phone. The only way out of the situation is to get through it, find the motives, the murders ... and survive.

If you enjoy Janet Evanovich, or a good Donald Westlake caper, you're in for a treat at Lourey's hand, giggling in recognition and groaning with Mira at life's bizarre twists. You might even want to go get a package of Chuckles or Jujubes to chew on as you read. After all, Mira's munching those Minnesota junnk-food masterpieces called Nut Goodies.
Needing to self-medicate, I stopped at the Apothecary to purchase a fistful of Nut Goodies and a Chia pet herb pig. Sugar and gardening, I though. I'll get through this with sugar and gardening.  I went home and got ugly.

Monday found me three pounds heavier and no wiser.
In the long run, Mira and her friends figure things out, almost in time to prevent more mayhem. But it's going to take a pair of high heels, a few misleading actions, and a lot of risk to get there. No matter how many goofy slips happen along the way, Lourey still delivers motive, means, opportunity, and a plot that -- despite the snowy sidetracks -- leads to an "aha!" solution.

The Battle Lakes, Minnesota, mysteries so far:
May Day
June Bug
Knee High by the Fourth of July
August Moon
September Fair
October Fest
Coming next: December Dread, later this year.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sisters in Crime, Vermont -- March 11, 2012

Jim DeFilippi read from his "work in progress," a new "Speedo" crime novel, this afternoon in Montpelier, VT, at the first (annual) gathering of Vermont mystery writers via Sisters in Crime, New England. Great reading, Jim! Seven other authors also read new work -- fabulous gathering! 28 people on hand. Major thanks to Nancy Means Wright for taking the initiative to pull this together.

In fact, as you can see here, Nancy (left) and I had a great time -- Nancy read from her new Mary Wollstonecraft novel, and I aired the second chapter of the adventures of Montpelier, Vermont's, own Nancy Drew: Felicity "Lucky" Franklin

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

New Releases: From Berlin to Japan to Paris to South Africa, and More

Time to catch up and look a few weeks ahead, for new books of crime fiction and detection.

I'm delighted that Soho Crime has brought out David Downing's Potsdam Station in softcover, just in time for readers to catch up with this crossover series that merges espionage and suspense in Berlin during and immediately after World War II. Postdam Station covers the risks and dangers for British journalist John Russell as he negotiates for safety for his family members -- and maybe himself -- during the final brutal days of the war. Gripping in the portrayal of the human costs of loyalty, betrayal, and starvation, it includes segments from the point of view of Russell's fiercely surviving German actress girlfriend Effie. And it's the perfect intro for Downing's next book, Lehrter Station, due out in June.

Now is also the time to catch up with the Jade De Jong investigations written by South African Jassy Mackenzie. Random Violence, My Brother's Keeper (audiobook; print book coming later), and Stolen Lives (audiobook; print book coming later) propel Henning Mankell's African landscape toward modern urban crime fiction, gritty, dark, and rewarding to read. Mackenzie's new title, The Fallen (titled Worst Case in Europe), comes out in the United States in April.

Another April release will be Viral by James Lilliefors, an award-winning journalist who lives in Florida. The action in Viral develops simultaneously in Uganda and in Washington, DC, building a political thriller with a medical subplot that's all too believable. Consider me already a fan of this series-in-the-making.

Last for today, I'm excited that the next novel from Alan Furst, Mission to Paris, is coming in mid June. It's been too long since I've mentally roamed the cities and mountains of Eastern Europe with this master of between-the-wars espionage and manipulation. I can hardly wait.

Reminder: Today is the release date for The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura, and for the new Cara Black adventure featuring Aimée Leduc, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. Aren't we lucky?

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Leighton Gage, Chief Inspector Silva Series: Wall Street Journal Review

It's great to see a crime fiction series getting significant national publicity, without bribing anyone! Leighton Gage is sharing his happiness this weekend with Friday's series-length review from the Wall Street Journal, where ace reviewer Tom Nolan started writing about the newest Chief Inspector Mario Silva book, A Vine in the Blood -- and then praised the entire set of contemporary Brazilian police novels, right back to book number one, Blood of the Wicked. Congratulations, Leighton! And here's to more of your books.

Dave asked me to remind collectors: We still have some signed first edition copies of Blood of the Wicked available.