Thursday, December 19, 2013

Still Mailing Holiday Gifts ... Signed and Unsigned, Cozy and Chilling

Open 24/7 on ABE Books ... and whether you have a long list or are just figuring out a last-minute choice, feel free to talk with Dave at 802-751-8374 for both the latest mysteries and crime fiction and the classics of the field.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Collecting "International"? Short Note

Vidar Sundstøl's newly translated crime novel The Land of Dreams is set in Minnesota, but its connections with Norway may persuade you to shelve it with the Scandinavians -- Sundstøl won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime novel of the year with his first in this "Minnesota Trilogy." Review here:

Because I haven't seen other mysteries set in American Samoa -- and there are some significant Pacific islands crime novels coming out in 2014 -- I want to mention the "Jungle Beat" series by John Enright. I'm not reviewing them here because they are Amazon published, and Kingdom Books hasn't quite decided what to do about such books ... but I've given Enright's Pago Pago Tango some support with a short piece on the online retailer's review slot, and wanted to flag this for collectors.

More armchair travel with detectives coming soon.

Scandinavian Mystery Set in Minnesota -- Yes, Really!

When did university presses start publishing impressive Scandinavian authors? Or is it just the University of Minnesota Press that's doing it? Don't answer that -- just grab a copy of Vidar Sundstøl's newly translated crime novel THE LAND OF DREAMS. Detectives don't come much more interesting than Lance Hansen, U.S. Forest Service investigative officer who stumbles into his first murder case on the north shore of Lake Superior, within the bounds of national forestland.

Grandson of Norwegian immigrants with one French Canadian ancestor in the mix, Lance is a self-taught local historian and genealogist, and connects immediately with Norwegian detective Eirik Nyland, sent to the US to help track down the killer of the 20-year-old canoeing tourist whose naked body Lance has discovered. Even as he struggles to sort out why his own brother was near the murder scene and what role his divorced wife, an Ojibwe, is going to let him have in raising his young son, Lance finds himself digging into both the current crime and a long-ago disappearance that may also have been murder -- and somehow seems to connect to the present.

Make time for this one, as it's hard to put down. One caution: This is the first book (just released this fall in America but published in 2008 in Norway) of Sundstøl's "Minnesota Trilogy." Some significant threads won't resolve; there will be a wait for books two and three (which I hope are also being translated by the skilled award winner Tiina Nunnally; I could have sworn the book had been written in English from the start).

But THE LAND OF DREAMS has so many vivid moments, and invites such a bond with its characters, that I believe it will stay with me very nicely until the next volume of the trilogy arrives. Only the Dead is scheduled for fall 2014 release, and The Ravens for a year after that.

Here is one of my favorite passages from the book -- not related to the crime, but a great taste of why I want to read more by Sundstøl, who won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime novel of the year. Lance has just collected the Norwegian detective from the airport and is driving through a storm, and the Norwegian's point of view is here:
Everything was so different from what he'd imagined. He'd expected to have an efficient introductory meeting with the well-oiled machinery of the FBI. Instead, he was sitting here in this old Jeep with Lance Hansen in one of the worst rainstorms he'd experienced.

A bluish, shimmering light filled the car, giving Lance's hands on the steering wheel a cadaverous appearance. Then the moment was shattered by what sounded like the boom of cannons in the surrounding darkness. Another flash of light, and this time he saw the actual lightning bolt, a trembling spear of energy that pierced the rain-pelted surface of the suddenly illuminated lake.

"Would you still call this just light entertainment?" asked Nyland.

At that instant lightning struck again, and an electrically lit interlaced pattern, like the map of a complex river delta, spread across the sky in front of them before collapsing with a deafening boom.

Nyland laughed. He heard Lance laughing too. He didn't know why; he just couldn't help it.
That may be the last "light" moment the two investigators experience -- but it sets the tone for their partnership, in terms of being willing to tackle a dangerous darkness, while clinging to the fragile threads of human love around them.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Brief Reflection: Alan Furst, MISSION TO PARIS

It was a pleasure at this year's Bouchercon (the biggest mystery fan conference nationally -- held close enough so Dave and I could attend!) to receive a special "complimentary copy" of Alan Furst's 2012 title, MISSION TO PARIS. Random House used this to prepare for his upcoming 2014 book, although they don't reveal its title ... just that, as Furst comments at the end of this handout, it's linked to the Spanish Civil War. Count me in. I want to know more about that, and reading one of Furst's moody espionage novels with such a delicate balance between great change in the world and small but vital change in human lives is my favorite way to learn "history" through immersion.

Having this softcover version meant I could take my copy of MISSION TO PARIS with me on my walks, and while on the road. (You can't do that with a treasured signed hardcover.) I enjoyed it a lot. Most of all, for me, Furst nailed the way an ordinary person caught at a world-shaking moment can choose to do the extraordinary. Here, actor Fredric Stahl, sent from Hollywood in September 1938 to make a film based in Paris, unexpectedly discovers that he is willing to make a sacrifice for his adopted nation, America, by carrying some messages that amount to spying.

But the human risk and cost are enormous. The quiet way in which Stahl falls into agreeing to take on such tasks contrasts with what will happen if he is caught -- and what will happen to his friends, one way or another.

My father was a teen in Europe in 1938, and I could picture him in almost every scene of the book. It moved me deeply.

The book's had some challenging reviews, particularly in terms of its very strange ending. I presume Furst intended it to feel uncomfortable in terms of an espionage novel's ending. Yet it is, in some ways, exactly what happened to my dad. Once again, I find the opportunity to learn about history through a novel -- this time, my family's roots.

Today has been a time for remembering the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, a year ago today. "Let us never forget" remains also the best response I know to World War II and its predecessor, the Great War, now known as World War I. Next year (almost here!) will be 100 years since that war began. A lot to remember, a lot to learn ... and we too have the chance to make small differences that may, in the long run, help to protect the people and values we care about. Deep thoughts for a gray winter afternoon; ah well, a good book sometimes will do that.

Cooking Up Christmas in Cozy Mysteries: Leslie Meier, Isis Crawford

It's the Holiday season, and America's cultural connection with Christmas drives the calendar right now. Here's a to-do list that frankly terrifies me, courtesy of and brought to my attention in the Facebook posts of a new Vermont thriller author, J.P. Choquette:

I love J.P.'s idea that getting more organized will be satisfying. But what I want to get done before the big C celebration day is -- review more mysteries! And sample more cookies.

Here's a pair of cozy treats from two steady writers whose public personas are modest (they clearly prefer to stick to writing their mysteries instead!).

Isis Crawford is the pen name of Syracuse, NY, Barbara Block, and she offers a different series under each name. The Isis Crawford series has titles that all start with "A Catered" -- reflecting the author's life experience, ongoing, as a caterer specializing in desserts. A CATERED CHRISTMAS COOKIE EXCHANGE features sisters Bernie and Libby, owners of the bakery A Little Taste of Heaven. When their friend Amber's Aunt Millie winds up in a coma at the hospital as a result of a car accident, Bernie and Libby of course are worried for Millie; Aunt Millie was about to take part in a cookie competition that would be televised, as part of a reality TV series. What a shame she won't be able to be on camera! But her niece Amber could be, right? With Millie's cookies that she'd just baked before the accident?

Except ... the cookies are missing. And when Bernie and Libby investigate the scene of the accident, they're quickly convinced it was intentional, and their father, a retired police detective, backs up their theory. Who sets up an accident over cookies? And was it meant to be murder??

The plot twists here fly fast and furious. What I particularly enjoyed was the wry relationship of the sister bakers-turned-investigators -- if my sis and I were checking out a possible crime, we'd have a lot of the same frictions that these two have. I had a lot of fun reading this. And if the final chapter comes off a bit hasty in tying all the threads together, well, I still plan to indulge by reading the earlier eight Isis Crawford catering mysteries, and giving them with love to my sister.

Plus there are recipes at the end of the book, including "Italian Christmas Cookies." So, does reading this one count as crossing off an item on my holiday preparations list??

Leslie Meier is a little less "hidden" as an author than Isis Crawford (Crawford has no website, makes no Facebook posts to speak of), but Meier still rarely updates her website and makes few book-related appearances. I always enjoy her books -- she lives in Harwich, Mass., but sets the Lucy Stone series in "Tinker's Cove," Maine, a town so small that the local newspaper is a weekly instead of a daily. Lucy Stone is the news reporter for the tiny paper (her boss is the editor, and there's one more person on staff, to run the office). Her investigations always tangle family issues -- her kids are pretty much grown now, in CHRISTMAS CAROL MURDER -- and community quirks, as well as crime.  I can vouch for the accuracy of the small-town news life that Lucy Stone lives!

This 2013 title is full of delicious puns and coincidences related to the Dickens holiday tale, as the first page opens with miserly "Jake Marlowe" planning to evict more out-of-work homeowners, regardless of their family pain and the holiday season, and make a killing on the real estate market for Maine seacoast properties.

But Marlowe's soon to be a ghost, and Lucy, fuming at what Marlowe's been doing and his current partner's continuing business practices, tackles the details of a news story that rapidly turns into an investigation. Meier twists the fun even higher by putting Lucy into the cast of an amateur theatrical performance of "A Christmas Carol" and adding to the list of possible suspects with costumes and slippery alibis.

No recipes in this one (sigh) but plenty of cheery community spirit, clever reflection on how the American economy lately echoes the Scrooge tale, and the brisk pace of a seasoned storyteller: Meier knows how to place her "amateur sleuth" in just the right degree of trouble to ramp up the tension, but still leave room for that friendly warmth that a traditional cozy mystery carried with it. Recommended for a relaxing holiday read, with a couple of messages that linger afterward like a good holiday feast.

No need to have the earlier Lucy Stone mysteries under your belt to enjoy this one -- each is a good stand-alone. And CHRISTMAS CAROL MURDER will make a dandy last-minute gift, too, especially for anyone who tends to quote either Scrooge or Tiny Tim!

PS -- Both of these are from Kensington Books (thanks for the review copies!) and add proof to what I mentioned earlier this season: Kensington is skillfully investing in a wide range of mysteries, from cozy to dark, and the rapidly expanding list of their books is a delight.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Newest Mallory Crime Novel Cuts New Ground

Carol O'Connell is one of the more mysterious of mystery authors: no website, appearances very rare, hard to trace online. In a time when people insist authors "must" do social media, she's declined.

But her Mallory series reaches title 11 with IT HAPPENS IN THE DARK and if you're a Mallory fan -- and I am -- it's a must-read.

Mallory is an NYC police detective, known by her surname (only her adopted parents were allowed to call her Kathy; they are dead and she is SO over that part). Once a nearly voiceless, totally homeless, feral street child, she landed in the home of a determined career police officer who made her welfare his life's work and even provided for his own friends to keep an eye on her after his own death. She's not friendly, she's not sweet, and she's not into negotiating. Except this this time around, the psychologist friend of her dad's, Charles, and Mallory's gruff partner on the police force, Riker, keep noticing small things that Mallory's doing during her investigation that reveal that she ... well, she doesn't exactly have a heart, as they faintly hope, but she's getting a handle on how to get people to work with her when she needs their skills.

IT HAPPENS IN THE DARK refers to a moment when a Broadway play cuts the lights. And to a murder, or murders perhaps. And even to Mallory's work.

More than that, the title could be a name for what O'Connell is doing with narrative for this complicated and often grim investigation. Although the Lisbeth Salander books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) came out after O'Connell's series was well underway, as a prototype for either an emotionless investigator or a woman with Asperger's or a crime victim who's chosen not to feel anymore, Salander is now well known, and Mallory, ironically, gets compared to her.

But O'Connell this time goes well beyond what Steig Larsson did -- she narrates around Mallory from the points of view of the people who alternately are awed and terrified by her. She literally keeps the reader in the dark as far as Mallory's interior shots go. Instead, we get stage lighting on other characters, in swift jumps of the footlights and the overhead spots. There's no time to relax -- the play is the thing, and people are dying faster than Mallory can work.

Hence, the "ice queen" of the police force recruits a team.

It's a strange and haunting book, and probably a lot closer to "real" detection than most CSI and other TV shows. There's enough light and grace in it to sweep IT HAPPENS IN THE DARK well away from the gray chill of Scandinavian crime fiction. But it does indeed remind me of a cold twilight on the wrong side of the city. I want more Mallory -- but I'll be pretty careful about who I choose to give copies to, as it might not be taken as a friendly offering unless the recipient is already a fan.

Which brings me to two final points: (1) I strongly recommend reading the Mallory books in sequence. You can jump into this one without doing so, but you might regret not having taken the time to form an attachment to Mallory that carries you willingly into such dark places. (2) Reviews of the book are powerfully mixed, and some mention that the ending suggests this might be the final Mallory crime novel. Well, that's been said before -- take a look at this Janet Maslin/New York Times review from 2007. I'm hoping O'Connell will find Mallory pushing her way forward into another book, sooner or later. Sooner would be better.

West Virginia Crime Novels: Julia Keller Writes Another Winner

Last year I read Julia Keller's first police detection novel, A Killing in the Hills -- and I loved it. In working on the review, I found that Keller might have been a novice in crime fiction (although you can't tell that, from her taut and compelling story), but she's a writing pro: winner of a Pulitzer in journalism (author website Her news stories must have been fascinating, because her grip on character melds with a slow certainty of rising tension as Bell Elkins, prosecuting attorney, tackles the gritty reality of law enforcement in a small, coal-burnt town in West Virginia.

A few weeks ago someone purchased our copy of A Killing in the Hills, which made me realize Keller probably had a second book out -- and here it is indeed, BITTER RIVER. The book opens as Bell is headed home from one of her bittersweet visits with her teenaged daughter (now living with the ex), only to learn that 16-year-old Lucinda Trimble (whom her own daughter knew, of course) has been found murdered in a car in the Bitter River ... and pregnant.

Bell is the one who'll have to take the news to Lucinda's mom. She and the local sheriff, Nick Fogelsong, each commit themselves to taking this crime very, very personally, and finding who's done it. But how much of the town's inner life will get rubbed raw in the process? And why is Nick acting so strangely?

Keller's first book took Bell up the road of daring to confront the drug trade in her hometown; now she's got to confront family matters, as well as a veteran newly returned from Afghanistan who's turning out to be pretty scary himself. And then there's her carefully private and valued new relationship with a somewhat younger man -- which is about to get into the local word of mouth, as Bell scrabbles for a bit of reassurance and comfort in between more and more pain and loss.

Keller could have written John Donne's lines, "Any man's death diminishes me / Because I am involved in mankind" -- to live in a small town, as Bell Elkins does, is to be bound to the lives around you, and to feel all the pain doubly.

So when Bell and Nick finally get to the bottom of what's happening in Acker's Gap, West Virginia, there's a costly balance to be reckoned.

I couldn't put the book down. Yes, it's that good. Again. Thanks, Julia Keller.