Friday, November 30, 2012

Carla Neggers, THE WATERFALL: Vermont Suspense With a Glimmer of Romance

Life gets complicated. And tough. And challenging.

So, thank goodness for Carla Neggers. In her three or four active suspense series, I can depend on an adventurous, savvy protagonist who'll make smart choices in her world, take risks but not for the sake of risk alone, and see the community around her as worthwhile, for its friendships, beauty, creativity, and intelligence. (I'm thinking particularly of Heron's Cove and Saint's Gate among her recent titles.)

This season, Neggers and Harlequin have collaborated to bring back into print THE WATERFALL, her 2000 title set mostly in Vermont, featuring young widow Lucy Blacker Swift and her two children, as well as international security expert Sebastian Redwing. In explaining the decision to re-issue the book, Neggers mentioned earlier this year that it was, for many of her readers, the book that first drew them into the special form of suspense novel that she crafts.

Lucy's situation is complicated, of course: In the three years since her young husband's unexpected death, she's left behind the political rush of Washington, DC; established her own adventure travel company; and now is trying to help her restless daughter adjust to rural life, when her father-in-law keeps offering to host a return for the teen to the posh world of the city. Her son is younger, and more willing to enjoy country pleasures. Things are almost going well for all of them, though, when a string of violent attacks on their home banishes the sense of security Lucy has worked so hard to craft. That's what takes her in search of Sebastian, a man her late husband had told her to consult if danger ever arose. But -- sigh -- Sebastian is complicated, too, enmeshed in something from his past that's dark and unforgiven and, oddly, seems to be connecting to whoever is attacking Lucy and her family.

Sorting out the threats and dealing with them will take forms of courage that Lucy and her family don't expect to have -- but, when challenged, prove able to summon. And when the best people work together in the best ways, it's not surprising that Carla Neggers shows how their actions lead to a highly satisfying conclusion.

Highly satisfying after such complicated, tough, and challenging plot moments -- and a huge relief from those same real-life stresses. Count on Neggers for an ending that puts life back into proportion, even as winter arrives, the holidays are steaming toward us, and everyone's expectations tangle up with the slow recovery from the Great Recession.

Oh, yes -- thank goodness for Carla Neggers. And THE WATERFALL.

Steve Liskow, CHERRY BOMB: Detection and Danger in Urban Connecticut

Steve Liskow's 2012 thriller CHERRY BOMB gave me some uneasy moments in a nice little motel in Virginia in October, as I devoured the book, unable to leave it behind in my room. Thanks to its provocative cover -- suggesting sex with teenaged girls (or younger) -- I kept hiding the book against my sweater or under my newspaper. And as I read, I leaned forward over the pages, not wanting to suggest what this "Yankee grandmother" found so compelling in its pages.

Private investigator Zach Barnes is understandable skeptical when an insurance-company CEO with a broken marriage shows up in his office, insisting his daughter's missing. Michael Kendall might drive any daughter into running to the other parent -- domineering, unfriendly, even callous. His idea of asking for help for his daughter Stacy sounds more like a command to clean the yard: "She's disappeared. I want her back."

When Barnes finds out the 15-year-old has been missing for three days and her boarding school has ignored her absence, he has even more reason to dread what he'll find. Neither of her separated parents has tuned in on this girl; even her roommate at school isn't close to her. And three days ... if she's been abducted, three days means there's little hope of finding her alive. And all the signs do indeed point to abduction, including the girl's unused cellphone and abandoned life.

Despite his reluctance, Barnes has a personal reason to take the case: Stacy Kimball looks like Barnes's dead wife, enough so to be scary. That's a loss he's nowhere near over. He's got to take the case, even knowing it will burn and damage him.

Liskow brings to uncomfortable but very real life the scummy district on the edge of every urban region where the "pussy palaces" stand and twisted adult men go looking for cruel satisfactions from women trapped in terror and pain. This district really exists near Hartford, Connecticut, but it's recognizable in other places, too (I'm thinking New Jersey near the Lincoln Tunnel, for instance, and just outside Camden and Philadelphia.) The near-porn cover turns out to tag the situation that Stacy, if she's still alive, has fallen into.

But the truly creepy part of this well-spun thriller is: Why Stacy? It turns out there's a reason, and it's far from accidental.

Liskow is turning out more thrillers rapidly, having reached a "sweet spot" in his writing, and Run Straight Down is already on hand as a second 2012 offering. Before you go to that one, snag a copy of CHERRY BOMB. This writer keeps getting better, and it's a shame that his books are being self-published -- some savvy mainstream publisher should already have snagged him. Maybe one of them soon will.

Coming in January: Stuart Neville, RATLINES

UK cover on left; US cover on right.
The first three Irish crime novels from Stuart Neville -- The Ghost of Belfast, Collusion, and Stolen Souls -- drew me into the dark compulsions of Irish history. Liberally threaded with belief in the paranormal, these three make up the "Belfast  Trilogy" and convinced me that escaping the presence and pressures of history is rare, unusual, and maybe even impossible. The darker that history has been, the more the souls of its descendants have been scorched and warped by it. It's hard to picture a form of reparation that can atone for the horrors of oppression and poverty that Irish generations have sustained.

In Neville's newest thriller, RATLINES (Soho Crime, Jan. 2013), a different darkness emerges to drench the Irish in guilt and terror: that of Nazi collaborators and even Nazi leaders, welcomed into the island nation after the war, if they'll leave their past behind and contribute generously to the wealth of the communities around them. The book opens in 1963, with the Emerald Isle planning to welcome U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the land of his roots. Thus, when the third murder of a foreign national occurs within a short time in Ireland, just as it's vital to present the country as civilized and safe, Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the Directorate of Intelligence gets the call to investigate and quickly put to rest the crimes.

But there is no simple route for Ryan as he uncovers an intense, even incestuous, network of collaborators, still living the personal habits forged by Nazism  and Fascism in pre-war Germany. Ryan's obligations to his superiors and his assignment force him to protect German Colonel Otto Skorzeny, a task that turns his stomach. More pointedly, Ryan's personal life, from his aging parents to his wartime record to his accidentally acquired girlfriend, become hostages to his performance of his duty. Skorzeny is a terrible enemy, and even a treacherous and dangerous ally, as one informant tells Ryan:
Papers scattered as she slapped the tabletop with her palm. "If Otto Skorzeny desires a man's death, or a woman's, then death will come. Don't you know this? He plucked Mussolini from a mountaintop. He f**ed Evita right under PerĂ³n's nose. Then he robbed the fascist bastard blind and was thanked for it. This is his power. Not an office, not a title. No law will stop him."
But when duty leads to the preservation of evil people and works, and the repression of justice -- where does personal loyalty lie?

I highly recommend this book, to the point of suggesting a pre-order for it, so you'll have an early copy when January arrives.  I found myself arguing with only one page out of 352 -- and even so, I realize that page may be intended to launch a sequel, a thought so exciting that I can forgive one soft page after all. The rest of this book is tense, taut, and terribly insistent: Evil exists. What can we do but make our choices and strive to protect our lives and loves?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Hank Phillippi Ryan, THE OTHER WOMAN: Great Suspense for a Political Year!

I was a bit late getting around to reading THE OTHER WOMAN, which came out at the start of September. But what a great read this book is! Ryan's sense of pace and plot is clearly carefully tuned, and I enjoyed the riveting suspense of following Jane Ryland's career twist, as she tackles newspaper journalism instead of the TV stardom she's accustomed to. She's lost her camera face thanks to not revealing a source and thus getting blamed for a "wrong" story that she knows, really knows, wasn't wrong at all ... so a second-rate newspaper is the best she can find for a new employer.

Still, Jane's sense of news is right on target, and the hunt for a politician's possible playboy lifestyle takes her into the middle of a threatening and confusing tangle of sinister intentions, not to mention situations that test the courage and integrity of the women around her (as well as her own).

Hank  Phillippi Ryan's own career is a double one: an award-winning investigative TV reporter herself, but also a suspense author who's crafted the start of a strong new series. Here's a bit from her bio:
Agatha, Anthony and Macavity award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution.

Along with her 28 EMMYs, Hank's won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a radio reporter, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson.
And here's an example of the speedy insight and action that make Jane Ryland an exciting new protagonist:
Floor four. Jane thought back. "Hardly. I mean, who knows. It was pitch dark. He was in the middle of the ballroom floor, doing his meet and greet thing, rent-a-cops around him, people pushing to get close and -- damn." Kenna Wilkes. Gone again.

"What?" Alex said. "Jane, you sure you're okay? You'll be able to get us info and file a story, right? There's no one else there to cover it."

"Yeah, yeah, of course," Jane said. Kenna Wilkes is still in this hotel. She can't just disappear. "I'm fine. Thanks. I'm -- listen. Do me a favor. Look up the name Kenna Wilkes, okay? K-e-n-n-a. Wilkes with an e. There can't be many people with that name. She'd be like, age twenty-five-ish. Curly hair, blue eyes. Just see." ...

Third floor. As Jane swung around the corner to the concrete landing, the stairwell door flew open. She jumped back, barely missed getting slammed by the metal door and run over by the man racing through.
Now that the Presidential election is over, there's time to indulge in some good political suspense. I've already been suggesting to a lot of Kingdom Books that THE OTHER WOMAN may be one of their pleasures for the wintry reading season in front of us all.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Congrats to Archer Mayor, Reviewed in Today's New York Times

It's a delight to see New York Times crime fiction reviewer Marilyn Stasio select Archer Mayor's newest book -- again! -- to be among the very small number she can fit into her every-second-Sunday column in the Book Review section of the paper. Tackling PARADISE CITY lets Stasio describe Mayor's protagonist Joe Gunther as "raw-boned," which gave me a chuckle and is probably right on target.

This is Joe Gunther #23, and it's a Vermont detection series well worth collecting.

Photos here are from Archer Mayor's most recent visit to Kingdom Books last month; we have plenty of signed copies of PARADISE CITY available at cover price, as well as most of the earlier Joe Gunthers, signed. Click here to browse the list.

Timothy Hallinan, CRASHED: So Good, It's Worth Pre-Ordering

We had a moment of confusion here at Kingdom Books the other evening, as I made ecstatic sounds on the couch while reading CRASHED, the new book from Timothy Hallinan (of Poke Rafferty fame) and told Dave he was going to love it -- and he looked up in puzzlement from his iPad grazing in the armchair across the room and said, "But isn't it a young adult book?"

No, it's not -- emphatically not, since much of the plot turns on the making of a Hollywood "adult movie"! Turns out the reason Dave thought it was for the teen crowd was the name of the book's burglar-protagonist, Junior Bender. The cover design subtitles the book "A Junior Bender Mystery" and Dave, reading it as a tad old-fashioned, assumed "Junior" must be a kid detective.

That said, this is one of those books you long for, wait for, and find once or twice a year -- with an innovative plot (one of those fictional situations where the reader like me says "OMG, of course there had to be a mystery based on this"), an action-packed pace (lots of short chapters, seven or eight pages; if this bugs you, steer clear -- I was surprised at how quickly I adapted, though, and loved the wry chapter titles); and best of all, a burglar protagonist (stand back, Lawrence Block and the late Donald E. Westlake) whose occasional bunglings don't take away from his overall skills and smarts, and whose people-wisdom and inner tenderness drive the action and the solution.

Gotta love it.

Short summary: Junior Bender is a pro burglar, and accepts contract work for others. While attempting (successfully) to steal a Paul Klee painting, he lingers too long and gets trapped by very nasty Rottweiler guard dogs. Through a clever twist of plot, this results in Bender becoming the advocate for a child-actor-grown-up who's about to earn her way into her next round of drug use by acting in a porn flick, under organized crime pressure.

Here's a taste of the writing, from the moment when Bender's buddy Louie (the Lost) shows him an old TV show where the child actor performed (Bender is not a TV watcher himself, despite hiding out in crummy motel rooms where the TV is the "second largest" item of furniture):
She came in, but walking as though she was heading into a ninety-mile an hour wind. It seemed to take every muscle in her body to travel four steps. I could almost see her hair blowing behind her.

"How does she do that?" I asked.

"She did that or better every week," Louise said, without taking his eyes from the screen, "for eight years."

... "What happened?"

Louise got up and went to the window, using one finger to part the curtain. "They're still out there." He turned back to me. "She grew up, I guess. And no show lasts forever ... She was worth it. She'd been working since she was little, carrying the thole thing, and she probably got fed up." He looked with some longing at the dark screen. "She was something, though."
I've already decided I'll re-read this book at least once a year for the rest of my reading life, for the sake of trying to figure out how Hallinan packs so much human hope into a crime novel packed with violent episodes, betrayal, crashes, and more. I hope mobs of people pre-order this book (due out Nov. 13), whether at bookstores or online. Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series was/is terrific -- and this is even better.

Oh yeah, it's going to have a sequel. Two! The second book, Little Elvises, will come out in January, and the third, The Fame Thief, in June 2013. (Who knows why?) (NOTE: Paul Oliver at Soho tells why, in the first comment that follows this post -- do read onward!) One more quick item of very good news: Hallinan gives credit to Soho Crime editor Juliet Grames for helping bring out the best of CRASHED. Grames is rapidly creating a room (much more than a shelf!) of some of today's best crime fiction. Count on more to come.