Friday, December 14, 2012

Newest Scottish Noir: T. Frank Muir, HAND FOR A HAND

US cover
Scottish noir? Crime fiction fans know it's been around for a while; from William McIlvanney to Ian Rankin to Denise Mina to Quintin Jardine, this grim and often deeply satisfying group of authors and their books belongs on the shelves for savoring and re-reading. More established than Scandinavian noir, the tight geography and urban flavor of much of the group also means it's common to notice the connections among the authors, adding an extra level of intrigue to these books.

This year, 2012, is the first for a conference dedicated to Scottish noir: The BLOODY SCOTLAND conference was held in September, and I wish I'd been there -- what a range of authors and topics! Check it out here.

A few weeks ago, the first U.S. edition of HAND FOR A HAND by T. Frank Muir arrived, thank to Soho Crime bringing this author across the Atlantic. Muir already has three investigations in print in the United Kingdom, so we can expect to see the American versions arrive quickly.

UK cover
HAND FOR A HAND is Muir's debut crime novel, but well seasoned in writing style. How the author got there is hard to figure, as his website leaves his past well shrouded in mystery. That's fine with me, as long as the books keep coming! As this one opens, a frightening discovery on a golf course demands the attention of DCI Andy Gilchrist. There is, literally, an amputated hand in the sand bunker, clutching a note addressed to the investigator by name, and saying: Murder.

Against some views of protocol, Andy seems likely to become the senior investigating officer for this defacement of Scotland's golf-course reputation. But that slot turns out to stay with the Chief Superintendent after all. And what the Chief Superintendent decides, is not available for argument. That includes the infuriating, appalling assignment of Gilchrist's long-time enemy Ronnie Watts to the police team. "In this Division I don't want anyone to harbour past grievances," explains the Chief to Gilchrist. Bygones should be bygones.

But they really can't be, considering what's happened between the two men in the past. And as it turns out, most of Gilchrist's past and present life is at stake with a criminal who's determined to hurt him as much as possible -- over and over and over again.

With the intensity and pace of a Lee Child ticking-clock thriller, added to the insight and detailed police procedural style that Scottish noir so often features, Muir provides an action-packed investigation that will ruin your plans for the weekend. So change those plans -- it's urgent to read this one now, because there are at least two more lined up. Good reading ahead.

Alert for collectors: Muir's crime fiction covers include three forms of his name -- you can see see here, on the US and UK covers, both T. Frank Muir and Frank Muir; another UK one (see his website) reads T. F. Muir. As I said earlier: This is an author of mystery, in himself as well as his books.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2012 Mysteries to Give to People You Like/Love -- 1

Why isn't Barbara Cleverly more famous? She's a top-notch writer with meticulous pacing and a deep and likeable detective Joe Sandilands; each time I pick up a new one in this series (2012 brought us number 10), I make time as soon as possible to read it -- because I know I'll be engrossed in the story, intrigued with the details, determined to solve the mystery/crime, and step out the far end of the book more relaxed and pleased with life.

On the other hand, there are three things that weigh against the books climbing the charts, at least in the United States: (1) The author is a former British teacher. (2) The books are set in the 1920s and 1930s. (3) In this Internet-conscious time, Cleverly appears to have no "official" author website. (Her Wikipedia page, here, notes her awards but even so is pretty sparse.)

OK, fine. She's not going to get famous. But her 2012 book, NOT MY BLOOD, gave me a very good couple of days last summer, and I'm recommending it as a gift to mystery readers this season, whether those readers are your friends/family, or -- just you!

It's 1933 in England and mid-winter as NOT MY BLOOD opens. One of the boys at a Sussex boarding school, Jackie Drummond, is contemplating running away. He has a list of resources that his mother, back in India, gave him, and on it is the name of Joe Sandilands -- who has settled back into postwar English life as a Scotland Yard detective, and in chapter 2 gets one of the strangest calls in his life, to come rescue his "nephew." What the boy discloses involves, blood, probably a murder, and a complicated and sinister situation that reveals that the school has been "losing" boys -- they've been going missing -- for years. That means there are jurisdiction issues, of course. Here's Sandilands trying to enlist the local police:
Sensing that the inspector was beginning to flounder, Joe took over. "I agree, it's a possibility which we must consider. And I concede that, sadly, it is a perversion that plagues the capital. Children are harvested, Martin -- scooped up off the streets and railway platforms. Bought and sold like apples. Sometimes by their own families. Our Vice Squad closes down one of their ghastly scenes of operation one day, to find it's sprung up the next in a neighboring street. But I expect you see as clearly as I do the essential difference between these operations and the potential horrors we could have to deal with here?"

"Oh, yes. Class. Wealth. These aren't kids off the street."
The strength of character that's made Sandilands a compelling character ever since The Last Kashmiri Rose  introduced him in 2001 overlaps with revelations from Joe's private life, and the involvement of small boys makes the risks and costs escalate in this mystery. A stunning historical puzzle emerges, and the finale is deeply satisfying.

Soho Press brought this out under the Soho Crime label; you might want to order two copies, so you can keep one for your own holiday pleasure.

Friday, December 07, 2012

An Evening of 40 Authors, 2 Publishers, 1 Editor, 1 Agent -- and Dozens of Mystery Lovers

Gala Mystery Night, New England Mobile Book Fair
[all photos by Dave Kanell]

Last night (Thurs. Dec. 6), the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton Highlands, Mass., hosted its first Gala Mystery Night, featuring 40 mystery authors and all the great people who come along with them (publishing teammates, spouses, volunteer photographers, you name it) -- and dozens of people eager to talk about mysteries, meet the authors, and purchase books signed right there in front of them by the hands that wrote them. It was a resounding success, thanks to owner Tom Lyons (read his story here), organizer David Ambler, and all the happy readers and writers on hand. If you've ever attended one of the famous holiday parties held at (now sadly closed) Kate's Mysteries in Cambridge, Mass., you'd recognize this gathering as a direct descendant with some great changes: more space, hourly changes of featured authors, and the largest independent bookstore in New England to explore whenever you need a break from the merry crowd.

I was excited to be there with COLD MIDNIGHT -- I may have brought the only "young adult" mystery, unless you count the books Jennifer McMahon (also of Vermont) is spinning out, which often involve teen characters but aren't usually called YA (these are dark, fierce, wonderful books -- and I'll be talking about her January release in a couple of weeks).

Linda Barnes, James Benn, McMahon, Steve Ulfelder, and Katherine Hall Page all signed their books for us; Dave got a chance to visit with Dave Zeltserman, as well as talking for quite a while with Benn, and briefly with Michael Palmer, Hallie Ephron, and Hank Phillippi Ryan, whose blockbuster thriller THE OTHER WOMAN is doing so well. (See review here!) Dave also enjoyed time with William Landay and William Martin, and caught some great photos of Joan Parker, widow of mystery Grandmaster Robert B. Parker, receiving a special award from the bookstore and giving, in return, a wonderful reading of a letter from her late husband.

BIG NEWS! Ellen Larson, the editor of the new YA imprint of Poisoned Pen Press -- titled, with charm, the Poisoned Pencil -- chatted with a number of authors at the event, and (ta-DAH!) has finished her initial readings of submissions for the imprint, choosing three manuscripts to go forward as an initial publication round. Larson, a seasoned "substantive editor" and writer herself, is looking forward to this next stage of helping authors get their books ready for publication. I can hardly wait to find out whose work she's picked and what the mysteries are! For more about Poisoned Pencil, check out the press announcement here.
Yours truly, with COLD MIDNIGHT

Dave Zeltserman

James Benn

Joan Parker receives award from Tom Lyons

Joan Parker reading letter from her husband Robert B. Parker

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Reading the Recipes First? DEATH OF A COUNTRY-FRIED REDNECK by Lee Hollis

Joanne Fluke has neatly tied up the major market in "cozy" mysteries with a cooking twist -- her Hannah Swenson series includes a bakery in the plot, so cookie, cake, and other dessert recipes about in the volumes. I believe it's thanks to Fluke that I now thumb through the recipes first, when one of these mysteries arrives at Kingdom Books!

It's not a new approach -- Virginia  Rich (with eventual collaboration from not-yet-famous Nancy Pickard) gave us The Nantucket Diet Murders and The Baked-Bean Supper Murders. And in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series, although there aren't recipes in the actual books (they are given later in a cookbook), cooking and kitchen maneuvers make up a large part of the background to gourmand Nero Wolfe's part-time labor as a crime solver.

But there's always a new twist, and Lee Hollis -- actually the brother-and-sister team of Rick Copp and Holly Simason -- brings us the "Hayley Powell Food and Cocktails" mystery series, set in coastal Maine, where Hayley's job as food columnist at the Island Times gives her a chance to jump desks and join the hunt for a killer. In DEATH OF A COUNTRY-FRIED REDNECK, Hayley fits the classic role of an "amateur sleuth" (the best definition of what are often called cozy mysteries) by stumbling into a crime when she tags along after her favorite country music star, Southerner Wade Springer. Inspired to seek a catering slot in order to meet the legendary performer (who is comfortably single!), she brushes off her country-fried chicken recipe, among others. And each time the narrative pauses to give one of Hayley's columns, there are recipes -- not just for cooking but also for refreshingly different cocktails.

Hollis focuses on plot twists and recipes, and not much on depth of character -- Hayley's eventual solution of the murder mystery in her lap depends mostly on trying out every possible combination of blame and suspicion until she stumbles onto the actual killer and motive. But it's a cute ride, with an unusual combination of New England atmosphere and displaced dishes, as well as some entertaining friction between Holly and her teenaged daughter Gemma. For a light read, stack this one on the bedside table or even in the kitchen.

But -- no, no, no -- clipping out the recipes from a real book is absolutely not allowed. Either work on them directly from the book pages, or copy them out somehow. And if you need a few more, especially for the outrageous cocktails, check out the author's very relaxed blog at

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Australian Crime Fiction: Garry Disher, Again

Dave and I have both written about Australian author Garry Disher's books. There are two crime series to follow, among Disher's more than 40 books; both series have been available in Australia for quite a while. Here they are:

The Wyatt Series
Kickback 1991
Paydirt 1992
Deathdeal 1993
Crosskill 1994
Port Vila Blues 1996
The Fallout 1997
Wyatt 2010

The Detective Inspector Hal Challis Series
The Dragon Man 1999
Kitty Hawk Down 2003
Snapshot 2005
Chain of Evidence 2007
Blood Moon 2009
Whispering Death 2011

In some ways it's a bit strange that the books have taken so long to reach the US market, but there are two factors to note: the gaps of years in the series (especially the 13-year gap in the Wyatt books), and the relative youth of international crime fiction imprint Soho Crime. It's hard for a publisher to make good progress when releasing more than one book per year by a given author (although see the recent blog post on Timothy Hallinan's "Junior Bender" series -- NOT a young adult series in spite of the word "Junior"). When the Wyatt series took flame again in 2010, Soho Crime began bringing the rest of Disher's books here.

Most recently, in August 2012, Soho Crime brought us PORT VILA BLUES. It's a fascinating look into Wyatt's life, a life that's remained mostly mysterious through the series. And we don't get details of his childhood or any other normal "sheet" on a criminal. What we see, though, through the quiet consistent narrative from Wyatt's point of view, is how the world can make sense to a psychopath. Wyatt knows his emotions are not "normal" but they are normal for him and he has no choice -- he operates on a basis of well-planned criminal activities, spread apart by stretches of a mostly uninteresting and anonymous life. Without family, without close friends, he's almost safe from long-term identification, other than the scary rumors about him that circulate in the underworld.

At the opening of PORT VILA BLUES, Wyatt is neatly conducting a technologically savvy, methodically planned burglary, based on a tip from a  dying colleague. In an almost compassionate move, Wyatt's linked himself to Jardine, who still has the capacity to connect Wyatt with a good fence. Or so the two men think.
Wyatt watched Jardine carefully. Jardine's face had grown more elastic in the past few minutes, as if his mind worked well if he had something to stimulate it. Wyatt even recognized an old expression on Jardine's face, a mixture of alertness and absorption as he calculated the odds of a problem.

But the burglary wasn't as simple as it should have been, and the fence turns out to be a "sheila," Liz Redding, who's also not what she appears. Eventually, despite the opposition that will rise between Redding and Wyatt, there's also realization of a similarity: Redding's drive may oppose Wyatt's, but it comes from an interior that's nearly as emotionally stripped. When someone on the side of law enforcement verges on being a psychopath, do we name that tendency, or do we label it an asset instead?

I'll be reading this again. Disher's steady-fingered probing of Wyatt's psyche and of his reluctant connections to others creates a back-music to the books that stays fresh even during a second or third reading, and continues to raise questions about the criminals among us today.

There's a "new" book from Disher releasing in the US on December 18, in the other crime series, the one featuring Hal Challis and Ellen Destry. It's called Whispering Death and I'm about to order a couple of copies for Kingdom Books. I started out more deeply drawn to the Challis and Destry series -- it probes a warmer, more "human" part of the psyche -- but by now, after comparing Wyatt favorably with Donald Westlake's darker books and also Lee Child's Jack Reacher, I'd say I want both Disher crime series on my shelf. And my desert island.