Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Delicious French Mystery Series: Bruno #5, THE DEVIL'S CAVE by Martin Walker

A delightful French mystery series came my way this summer, and I'm only sorry that I discovered it so late -- the "Bruno, Chief of Police" books by Martin Walker are already in the fifth title in the U.S., as THE DEVIL'S CAVE was released here in July. Title number 6, The Resistance Man, is already published in Europe and will reach the States in February 2014.

Bruno Courrèges may reside in rural France, but his passions are as sophisticated as any in Paris -- he cooks (the descriptions make my mouth water), enjoys the company of intelligent women (and makes love with them), and also savors building his own house, as well as hunting. Bruno's "St. Denis" is located in the Dordogne in southwestern France, and both tourism and sport center on its river. 

But in THE DEVIL'S CAVE, the two significant features of the region are its potential for upscale lodgings, and its potential for increased tourism at the local attraction known at the Devil's Cave, where pedal boats, a café, and a souvenir shop await visitors. "Smaller chambers led off from the main space, and the eerie formations of stalagmites and stalactites had been carefully lit to justify the rather-fanciful names thay had been given, such as Our Lady's Chapel ... or Napoléon's Bedchamber."

Now, unfortunately, a dead woman found floating down the river in the heart of town -- naked -- appears to be linked to Satanism in the town, perhaps in a chamber of the cavern. As Chief of Police, Bruno investigates the possibilities, while simultaneously coping with an apparent case of spouse and child battering; a possible entry of prostitution in an element of the new tourism; emerging aspects of the murder that may have links to the past (this is France; the German occupation and the mistresses of past kings seem to have equal significance in affecting the present).

I enjoyed Bruno's steady and determined investigation, but equally enjoyed the diversions of his life: at least two women who want to spend time with him, and his tendency to cook for any guest, male or female, in his home. (They also prepare feasts for him.) Even the smallest menu item attracts a culinary complexity that American mysteries -- other than those featuring the great Nero Wolfe -- seldom indulge.  As the case begins to crack open and the charges in front of the procureur are prepared, Bruno juggles phone calls and replicates a black-market-prepared dish from the war years:
Bruno rang J-J's mobile to alert him but had to leave a message. He'd wait for Fabiola's next call before informing the procureur. He finished the potatoes, peeled some shallots, set the table for two and lit the fire. Back in the kitchen, he opened a can of beer, drank half of it and then used an opener to punch some more holes in the top of the beer can. He took a large chunk of butter and began working it with a knife and mixing in the chopped garlic. He added some fresh rosemary from the garden and then began pushing the buttery mixture under the skin of the chicken as far as he could reach ... Gilles would arrive soon.
Martin Walker, himself a half-time resident of the Dordogne and a think-tank senior director, vacillates a bit in how intimate he allows the reader to become with this police investigator, whose kitchen-friendly ways are coupled with athleticism and a strong attraction for and attractiveness to women. While I found myself very familiar with Bruno's cuisine, I was less certain of how he'd respond to the stresses of the investigation, including to what extent he'd resist the political pressure. After all, a murder case isn't good for tourism! Nor is it politically wise to threaten to shut down a new architectural project that includes a sports hall for the region.

I haven't read any of the others in this series, and I will soon do so, to get a better feel for Bruno. Meanwhile, the website of this unusual author provides both a personal blog and insight into both the kitchen and the (wine) cellar of the Chief of Police:

Fans of Donna Leon's Venice mysteries will find similarities here. I recommend adding Martin Walker's mysteries to the shelf of internationals that may be growing into a full--size bookcase or even a wall, depending on how you're pursuing them. When the power of dark Scandinavian crime fiction makes you yearn afterward for a hint of fresh sunlight and easy loving mixed into your crime reading, Bruno, Chief of Police, will fit the bill.

NOTE: Interested in more insight about the author? I like the interview with Martin Walker provided here.

BLIND GODDESS: New Billy Boyle WW II Mystery from James Benn

I marvel at each new Billy Boyle World War II mystery from James R. Benn: We all know how the war ends, and we recall some of the prominent moments along the way -- yet Benn provides enormous suspense within each of his mysteries, by delving into the details of life at the front and behind the scenes.

A BLIND GODDESS opens in March 1944, with an estranged friend of Billy's, Tree (nicknamed for his height), uneasily asking for a hand in England as the troops gather for the promised upcoming invasion of France. Sergeant Eugene "Tree" Jackson doesn't want to ask Billy Boyle for anything; their friendship, back in Boston, ended very badly, tilted by Tree's black skin and Billy's Irish connections. But there's been a dire miscarriage of justice in the rural town where the Black forces are waiting for their part in the invasion, and the victim is the gunner for Tree's Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the unit needs him back right away, before the orders for Europe arrive.

This eighth in the series digs into race relations at mid century, plainly and boldly. Negro units in the American forces experienced the bite of segregation, name-calling, and abuse even as they prepared to give their lives with their White compatriots. In fact, at the opening of A BLIND GODDESS, White Americans have just smashed every barroom drinking glass in the town, as they prepare to take over where the Black ones have recently been served -- "So they wouldn't have to drink from the same glasses as Negros had," Billy immediately perceives.

Billy's close partner in his investigations -- which he does for his vaguely related "uncle" General Eisenhower -- is Kaz, a Polish officer, Lieutenant Kazimierz, and as the Americans explain the particulars, Kaz is moved to comment (just in time to keep the "frenemies" from more friction):
"It is interesting, you know," Kaz said, in a casual conversational tone. "The Germans have the same rule in Poland. Poles have to stand aside when any German walks by, upon pain of death."

"Yeah, but there's one big difference," Tree said. "I'm going over there to kill those god-damn Nazis who make you step off the sidewalk. But when I go home, white men will still want me in the gutter."
Because Tree's request is an unofficial one, Billy can't put official time into looking for the real criminal to replace Tree's gunner in prison. Moreover, Billy's direct superior, Major Cosgrove, wants him to tackle a new case of murder where an American soldier is involved, and where there's some hidden reason to treat all investigation very carefully. Soon he's enmeshed in what looks like a German/English politically charged tangle of possible espionage, murder, and threats -- while trying to clear up the racist coverup that's snagged Tree and his men.

A side track that will interest those already following the series involves Billy's long-time girlfriend, Diana Seaton, in her struggle to get British politicians to acknowledge the factory-style killings in the concentration camps in Germany, so that urgent action can be taken. But there's no need to have read any of the preceding seven books -- this one stands well for itself, and I'm looking forward to a second reading, still marveling at how clearly Benn has used his mystery plot to point to the largest miscarriage of justice Americans have experienced: that of the color line.

A BLIND GODDESS moves at intense pace to a highly satisfying ending -- with one thread still dangling, and a strong suggestion that the next book in the series will be back on the European continent, in the action of the trenches and the invasion. I can hardly wait!

NOTE: Publication release of A BLIND GODDESS is scheduled for Sept. 3.

YA Mysteries Worth Reading from Michelle Gagnon and Jacqueline Mitchard

With a stack of standard mysteries here to review over the next week, I'm moving the two compelling "young adult" (YA) titles to one of my other blogs -- -- because I want to probe their relationship to teen readers, and it fits better "over there." Watch for them this evening: STRANGELETS from Michelle Gagnon, and WHAT WE SAW AT NIGHT from Jacquelyn Mitchard.

TAMARACK COUNTY: Minnesota Mystery from William Kent Krueger

One of his grown children finds the Ojibwe spiritual path most important; another is committed to becoming a nun. Or is she? Investigator Cork O'Connor walks the uncomfortable parental line of accepting and letting go, trusting his kids, but it's not easy.

And it's even harder when, in TAMARACK COUNTY, the attacks of a serial murderer keep coming close to his family. In the northern Minnesota community where Cork is now officially not a cop, but still tied in with them, everyone has connections. The first presumed killing is of a judge's wife -- at least, she's been missing too long in this severe winter region to be alive. The second, a dramatic horror, strikes a friend's beloved dog. Cork's son Stephen may even need to seek a vision, to grasp the evil erupting in the close network of friends. Stephen's girlfriend and her mother are among those targeted, and Cork's getting drawn into all of it.

This taut and polished traditional investigative mystery keeps the pace intense, the emotions trembling, and there are fierce questions of love and loyalty throughout. Could love itself be what's compelling the killer? Snowmobile chases, Search and Rescue teams, and threats abound. Stephen's wise Ojibwe mentor, Henry Meloux, comes home to help -- because it's clear there's a majimanidoo, an evil spirit, involved. And Cork is tracking two possible connections to earlier crimes, as well.

Twelve earlier Cork O'Connor mysteries have created loyal fans of this series, but William Kent Krueger makes it easy to step directly into this one -- no previous reading needed. Cork's search for why this person, and why now, extends to his family and his own heart. The book is a darned good read, a deeply satisfying chase to stop a criminal while honoring the ties that matter most.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Total Opposite of John Le Carré: Mick Herron Delivers Gritty Espionage With Heart

Yes, I know, saying Mick Herron's British MI5 series that's now two books long -- the first was Slow Horses, reviewed here, and the second is this year's DEAD LIONS -- is "gritty espionage with heart" doesn't sound as though it's the opposite of John Le Carré. But I can't fit the rest of the description into the title bar: funny, clever, ironic, poignant, twisted, and populated by a crew of espionage "failures" whose ability to succeed seems almost accidental. Or, more to the point, they succeed as a by-product of their misplaced loyalty toward each other.

The denizens of "Slough House" -- by the way, "slough" is pronounced to rhyme with wow, leading to the nickname "slow horses" -- are disgraced MI5 spies who know they've been shunted out of the real effort as punishment for their mistakes. Tedious tasks like making lists and building Internet-style archives get assigned to them, in hopes they'll quit on their own and save management the cost of providing for their retirement. Slow Horses introduced them, and it's hard to say that there's a single main protagonist among them. But publisher Soho Crime is calling this the River Cartwright series, so River -- the only one of the team to actually get to the field in this go-round -- might as well be the center. Yet the other characters are at least as memorable, especially Catherine Standish, not-quite-recovered alcoholic, and Jackson Lamb, filling his top-floor shambles of an office with farts. (Now do you see why it's the opposite of Le Carré? I don't think his spies even "belch." Or use the "water closet.")

River has few illusions about the losers he's trapped with at Slough House. But he's already had some surprises in the Slow Horses and keeps them in mind in DEAD LIONS:
River studied [Catherine], an old-fashioned creature whose pale colouring spoke of an indoor life. Her clothes covered her wrist to ankle. She wore hats, for god's sake. He guessed she was fifty-ish, and until the business last year he hadn't paid her much attention; there was little in a wall-hugging woman her age to interest an uptight man of his. But when things had turned nasty she hadn't panicked. She'd even pointed a gun at Spider Webb -- as had River. This shared experience made them fellow-members of a select club.
But is this new awareness enough to get the Slough Horse crew working together? In fact, if the "real" MI5 finds out that the "Slow Horses" are tracking a potential sleeper cell of former Russians n Britain, they won't be allowed to work at all. Who could expect any success?

Well, Jackson Lamb expects it. So, oddly enough, does River, even if he's no longer expert at dealing with things that go right.

From the inside-the-group extortionate moments, to the dangers of messing around behind official channels, Herron sets up a dry and wry chuckle every few pages. And sure, farts are juvenile, but Jackson Lamb may, after all, be using them effectively.

For a book that opens with a cat, ends with a mouse, and serves up what Spider Webb most deserves, this is also a weirdly realistic espionage romp. I'd read another Mick Herron in this series any time.  I'm hoping they'll keep on coming. This one already made a nomination list for the 2013 Golden Dagger ... So, while I wait for the next in the series, I plan to check out Herron's other work, the Sarah Tucker/Zoë Boehm books. But I suspect they won't have the same bittersweet humor and tenderness of Slow Horses and Dead Lions ... hmm, I think Herron's approach has me hooked.

Tightly Spun Traditional Mystery, British, 1933: Barbara Cleverly, A SPIDER IN THE CUP

This week the new Barbara Cleverly title in the Joe Sandilands Investigation series reached publication via Soho Crime -- good news indeed! A SPIDER IN THE CUP is the 11th in the series, and the steady, sane, compassionate character of this inspector, by now Assistant Commissioner, anchors this fast-moving and suspenseful crime novel.

It's 1933 in England: a time of recovery from the Great War, and of enthusiastic embrace of the playfulness coming across the Atlantic: madcap dancing, women with short hair and short skirts, and the amazing movie King Kong -- even Joe can quote the movie's famous line spoken over King Kong's dead body: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes ... it was Beauty killed the Beast."

Joe adds lightly to the line, "A lesson we beasts should take to heart, Bill," as his irritation with former a former colleague rises. Bill Armitage had another name when Joe knew him last, but the man's peculiar mix of capability and betrayal has Joe on edge just as much now as before.

And this time, they're supposed to be working together, protecting an American senator attending political talks in England. But Senator Kingstone is a risk taker, as well as a passionate man, and when it appears that his lover has been kidnapped, perhaps tortured, Kingstone and Joe Sandilands struggle to name the perpetrator. An Englishman, probably, from the Shakespearean quote that arrives as a threat -- one to which the senator adds another part of a speech from that political suspense classic, Julius Caesar: "Then I, and you, and all of us fell down, / Whilst bloody treason flourished over us."

Significantly, the conference Kingstone is attending, where he's struggling to grasp and affect relationships among European leaders, is also starting to confront the possibility of a second German power rising from the ashes of the previous war. This ominous shadow is as present as the evil that's sparking the crimes Sandilands confronts. Cleverly, as in her other 10 books in this series, adroitly paints the temper of the times as backdrop to her detection drama. Treason seems all too likely.

You don't need to read any of the other books in the series before this one -- it has few connections to the preceding volume. But readers who are already fond of Joe's loyal family members and their "very English" lives can expect some delights, as Joe takes steps to keep Kingstone safe, then lays an old-fashioned trap of his own for the international criminals on his track. Agatha Christie fans, Jacqueline Winspear readers, and those following one or both of the Charles Todd series may also find A SPIDER IN THE CUP deeply satisfying.

Cleverly's books are among the ones I look forward to each year, knowing I'll get a good read with believable twists and suspense, and an investigator whose character inspires me to be a bit braver, more committed, and more effective. If you can't fit this one into your summer reading, I hope you add it to the stack by the reading chair, for intrigue and adventure in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Preparation for a December Release: Ellen Larson, IN RETROSPECT

One of the biggest topics among authors is suddenly Promotion -- a task that the fortunate used to delegate to their publishers. Now everyone is expected to work at this, and even create the plans for it. I've read some agonized author rants recently where people have talked about how uncomfortable they are with the effort and the public face that's needed. Some are even threatening to stop writing!

Taking a different and quite lovely path this year has been Ellen Larson, author of the sci-fi mystery crossover IN RETROSPECT, which will be released in December. With a long-term plan, Ellen started work early this year to develop and have created a work-of-art book trailer. In the process, she learned how to "crowdsource" via Kickstarter. I think her postmortem of the Kickstarter experience is fascinating: click here for her Kickstarter story.

If you'd rather skip her words and just  see the elegant and haunting trailer, check it out on YouTube.

And finally, here's a link to preorder the book from FiveStar, via that notorious online retailer that makes it so easy for all of us to instantly get gratification. I hope there will be many an independent bookstore carrying the book as the release date approaches!

Last but not least, a reminder of why mystery readers and writers may have an extra incentive to follow Larson's writing career: Her other "hat" is as editor of Poisoned Pen Press's new "young adult" mystery imprint, The Poisoned Pencil.