Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Exciting Debut Mystery, Mormon (LDS): THE BISHOP'S WIFE, Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison is no newcomer as an author -- her children's books have charmed readers and garnered warm reviews over the years, and in 2013 her memoir of being both a dedicated mom and a nationally ranked triathlete, Ironmom, was her entry into the "books for adults" world.

But in THE BISHOP'S WIFE, she provides a well-told and suspenseful murder mystery, in traditional form with amateur sleuth, that's both a page-turner and far more revealing than most nonfiction can be.

In some places, like Utah and some of Illinois, being a member of the Mormon Church -- also known as LDS, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- is as common as being, say, a Protestant or Catholic is in northern New England or the MidAtlantic states. And it is the quintessential American faith, born here with Joseph Smith (in Vermont!) and forged in a fiercely difficult cross-country trek of pioneers looking for a land to nurture, where they could also nurture their religion.

Yet the historic Mormon tie to polygamy makes even the modern version of the religion vulnerable to casual attacks, and there are many other ways in which its differences -- temples, "sealing" family members to each other, the missionary years that many of its teens tackle -- stand out. Even the title Harrison chose for this work of suspense refers to something that's more Mormon (her choice of term; here in Vermont I'd use "LDS" but she explains her choice on her website) and less understood. So here is the book's first paragraph, which tackles both that difference and a familiarity that anyone who's been a deacon, a community leader, even a den mother, troop leader, or class dad or mom, can relate to:
Mormon bishop's wife isn't an official calling. "Bishop's wife" isn't a position listed on ward documents; there's no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings from on high. But if the bishop is the father of the ward, the bishop's wife is the mother, and that meant there were five hundred people who were under my care. I was used to the phone calls in the middle of the night, to the doorbell ringing far too late and far too early. I was used to being looked past, because I was never the person that they were there to see.
That's Linda Wallheim, and look how much you already know about her -- importantly, for a mystery, you can see that she feels responsible for the care of others, and also that she's used to fading back out of the center of things, letting someone else be "the person they were there to see." Those are two admirable characteristics for someone who'll decide to dig into a crime and stick with the investigation.

On this particular morning, at six-thirty (groan), the doorbell's pressed by Jared Helm, one of the newer members of the ward (the church fellowship), carrying his adorable five-year-old daughter.  And it's soon clear that the mom in the family is missing.

Linda's investigation is at first mostly secondhand -- the bits that her husband can reveal without breaking a confidence, the smaller bits that a five-year-old conveys in both words and reactions, and conversations with others.

But Linda has a pressing reason, beyond her usual sense of responsibility, to bond with the little girl in this damaged family: She's suffered the loss of her own daughter, stillborn, and although she has sons and a really good husband, she's wounded in ways she can barely describe -- and it's hurting her own marriage, whether she sees it or not.

So her hunt for the truth of what's happened around her is more than an effort to supplement her husband's role as bishop, more than a dare to herself to face the truth of some of the more manipulative men in her social group. It's her struggle to find a way to carry her loss.

Along the way, Harrison opens up some of the traditions, rules, and controversies with her church. (She is in face a member, after her own spiritual crisis, which she's still walking through. Yes, the loss of a daughter. Can God be good, when such terrible things happen?) Some, I already knew about from attending services and visiting in the homes of Mormon friends, years ago -- like Fast Sunday, a tradition of going without food in order to reflect on the experience and give the money saved to those who need it. And bearing testimony, something that also happens in many an evangelical Protestant congregation -- but in THE BISHOP'S WIFE also includes "small children whose 'testimonies' are whispered into their ears by older children. I disapprove of this practice." And bang, that quickly, we're in Linda's uncomfortable shoes: being smart, educated, committed to her church, and questioning it.

This is where, in some ways, the revelations of the book could have been easier for its author if done as nonfiction (which in some ways they have been, both on her website and in Ironmom). It's far too easy for readers to assume that the author "matches" the protagonist. I was aware of pulling away from the story at moments like this, questioning how close that identification really was -- and in some ways that's not so great for staying in the story, feeling the suspense build.

So it's a measure of how well-chosen Harrison's plot twists are, that in spite of those moments of pulling back, I kept reading, reading, reading -- deep into the night, in fact. As Linda discovers her own naive misconception of some of the marriages around her, and the limits of what her role allows her, she takes risks that graduate from emotional and marital to being threatened physically.

The writer of any "amateur sleuth" mystery needs to convince us that we too, in that person's shoes, would take risks and face danger. Harrison succeeds completely, so that Linda's reasoning makes sense, her actions become necessary, and the escalating situation resonates:
"I could come in and help you clean up, If you'd like," I offered. What was I doing? Going into a house alone with a man who might have killed his wife[,] to try to find evidence against him? But I had been drawn into this and I was going to use all the skills I had to resolve it.
Also at stake here, and deftly probed, is Linda's willingness to accept the form of marriage she's agreed to: one where her husband is expected to set limits on her actions, and where her sons question her choices, as well as the religion in which they were raised.

There's a lot going on here, and I was glad to notice that although the criminal investigation wraps up snugly at the end (terrific twists, I have to say!), many of the unraveled parts of Linda Wallheim's life remain to be worked with. It's clear this is the start of a series; I'm looking forward to more.

Grab this book right away if you are fascinated with interior Mormon life; if you're curious about how family and faith traditions come together and want the emotional insight that a work of fiction can allow; if you're brave enough to look at domestic abuse in both a mystery and the culture around us; and if you like well-twisted strands of investigation and discovery. Sure, there are a few patches of Linda's internal dialogue that run long and sometimes slow the pace -- but overall, I felt the balance was worth it. This is an impressive debut mystery for Harrison, and a great finale to the year of strong, diverse mysteries from Soho Crime.

Three cheers for the 2014 crime fiction -- and here's to the adventures of 2015 ahead!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Diversion: STATION ELEVEN, Emily St. John Mandel -- Not a Mystery, but Mysterious

Mysterious and wonderful. Deeply satisfying. A book to remember and share.

Emily St. John Mandel's much-promoted novel STATION ELEVEN begins in the middle -- not just in the middle of stage, in the middle of a performance of King Lear, where actor Arthur Leander is about to die. But in the middle of the timeline of this dystopian novel. And whether the dystopia is defined by the Hollywood of our century, or the survivalist mode that follows a dramatic plague outburst upon the earth, is open to question.

But there's never a moment in the entire adventure when there's any doubt about the integrity and passion of Kirsten Raymonde, once a child actor, later a performer on the edge of the known world. And for all the desperation and violence of her new world, Kirsten's one of several people well worth liking in this tapestry of rediscovery.

Renewed. Refreshed. Bathed in an unearthly light that sings. That's where my "take a holiday" plunge into this non-mystery landed me. I am so glad.

[PS -- like graphic novels? you may be amazed at how Mandel's fictionalized one takes life in the center of this book.]

THE CURSE OF THE HOUSE OF FOSKETT, M. R. C. Kasasian: Victorian Dark Humor and Crime

THE CURSE OF THE HOUSE OF FOSKETT is the second in the Victorian England crime-solving series of detective Sidney Grice and his ward -- and although reading the first book, Murder in Mangle Street, isn't actually necessary, it would save you from the errors that dogged my reading of the first few chapters. Grasping right away that the novel resembled a grim Sherlock Holmes reality show (dirt, spoiled food, discomfort), I assumed Grice's ward was male, like Watson. It wasn't until the third chapter that I realized this "March Middleton" narrator was female. As you can tell, it shook the universe my "reader's eye" had been constructing.

But I kept thinking I was in the midst of a Sherlock Holmes pastiche -- recognizing phrases like the "engineer's thumb" for example -- for a few more chapters. In fact, I felt as though I were on the far side of a train window, trying to make sense out of lip-reading half of a conversation. The stunningly nasty comments that detective Sidney Grice makes, his often-described infected eye socket with glass eye, the grotesque conditions and bluntly described dirt and stench of this "world," and March Middleton's unfortunate slowness to catch on to the plot twists (Grice isn't a lot faster) kept me dog-paddling in a lake of misunderstanding for a long time.

And yet ... I couldn't stop reading. A reviewer of the first book said it hadn't appealed much to the heart, and that's probably just as true for this one -- trust me, you don't want to identify with anyone in these pages! -- yet March Middleton has a stubborn persistent courage, even though she has little other choice, and I liked her gradual assertion of her own worth and her outreach for some kindness in her gray, grim life. She rarely pauses to feel sorry for herself -- there is too much going on. Grice is being paid to step into a "death club" where he cannot stop the deaths from taking place, and he quickly decides the whole disaster is actually all an attack on him -- which March can clearly see fits his vanity.

Kasasian's writing is fluid and his images and plot twists are vivid and surprising. Once I'd managed to let go of all Holmesian expectations, I found the rather shocking scenes to be freshly surprising:
The moment we appeared our visitor jumped up and grasped my guardian's hand.

"Mr Grice. It is such a thrill to meet you. I have read so much about you in the newspapers."

"You will have been hard pressed to find an accurate fact then," Sidney Grice told him.

"And you must be Miss Middleton." Mr. Green compressed my hand in his. "I believe you helped Mr. Grice solve the Ashby stabbing case."

My guardian adjusted his eye. "She may have accompanied me on that case," he said, "but I can assure you she was nothing but a hindrance. Ring for tea, Miss Middleton."

"I shall try my idiotic best." I pulled the bell rope twice as the two of them sat facing each other, then got myself an upright chair. ... "I can smell something," I said, but both men ignored me.
The further I read, the more parallels I found to having fallen down a rabbit hole, or having met a very dark version of Jasper Fforde -- literary allusions, outrageous metaphors, symbols and clues that mean something far different from first impression. If you've read the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you know it's far more vicious than the cartoon visions. So is the gruesome Victorian England in which Grice and March Middleton investigate.

And that, finally, makes this one of the more original and surprising mysteries I've read recently! Recommended for those who want to move beyond the Holmes we've known, to the brute necessities of his time and place -- but not for the faint of heart, and definitely not (despite the attractive cover) for any young impressionable readers who might carry the book's nightmare qualities into their sleep.

[No author website at present, but an insightful interview with the author here.]

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Diversion: Vermont Fiction, from Green Writers Press

Sometimes we really do read books that aren't mysteries ... and we were very excited this year to note the growth of Vermont's Green Writers Press and the arrival of its well-received anthology CONTEMPORARY VERMONT FICTION. Many thanks to press and anthology editor Robin MacArthur for taking part in an interview about the book!

1. It's great to see your newly published collection, *Contemporary Vermont
Fiction.  *Was there a special "Aha!" moment that triggered your desire to
pull this book together?

This idea of this book had been brewing in me for many years. I began obsessively reading and writing Vermont-based fiction when I was eighteen--when I left home for college--and I haven't quit since. I think stories are an amazing way to know a place in a deeper and more complex way. As for actually publishing it; Dede and I met up last summer and within 10 minutes had decided to make this dream happen. Green Writers Press and Contemporary Vermont Fiction are a match made in heaven!

2. I see you have a number of high-profile authors here, like Howard Frank
Mosher, Annie Proulx, and Wallace Stegner -- are there any debut authors
included, or authors you think should be better known?

Miciah Bay Gault is an amazing writer and the editor of the wonderful literary journal Hunger Mountain. She doesn't have a book out yet, but her stories have been published in great places, and I have no doubt her book will find a home soon. And there are quite a few authors in the book whose work I have admired for many years, but who may not be as well known: Ellen Lesser, Laurie Alberts, Peter Gould, Suzanne Kingsbury, Bill Schubart.  In a state like Vermont you don't have to look very far to find an amazing writer whose voice deserves to be heard. 

3. What characters in *Contemporary Vermont Fiction* might appeal
especially to readers of mystery and suspense? And are there any
suspenseful stories in here?

There aren't any stories that I would specifically call mystery, but Joseph Bruchac's story is full of suspense and intrigue. It has me perched on the edge of my chair every time. 

4. How about in the publication process -- any suspenseful moments as you
brought this collection together?

Oh, plenty of them! There were so many last minute changes by authors and ourselves that we wondered whether this book would ever make it to press. But we made it, and the collection, as is, feels just right.

5. Green Writers Press has a special mission -- how does this title fit
into the mission?
I'm a big believer in the role that art can and should and needs to play in the environmental movement. Green Writers Press's mission is to "make the world a better place" and I believe that if we know places better, and have a more empathetic understanding of our neighbors' lives, we will be both more compassionate residents of our communities and more reverent caretakers of our land (and rivers, and resources etc.). So call me a dreamer, but I believe that more books about places will, yes, make the world a better place. 

6. What's ahead for you? Will there be a volume 2 collection, or do you
have some other projects you'd like to tell us about?

Who knows, there may be a volume 2 someday! For now I'm going to sit down and work on my own collection of stories set in Vermont, and enjoy spending time with my two young children. How to juggle the creative and the parenting life is the big mystery in my that never fails to surprise and delight.

Thanks, Robin! This anthology is already a classic, and a treat for any bookshelf that especially features Vermont ... and any literary collection, too.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Paranormal, Mysterious, Romantic -- and Southern! Rose Pressey, IF YOU'VE GOT IT, HAUNT IT

The line of romantic mysteries that Kensington Books keeps expanding might have been designed exactly for this time of year: Lay down the to-do list, mix a cup of cocoa or spiced cider or tea, and curl up with a frivolous book that's easy to read, with a mystery to solve, and -- no changes or stress as a result! Well, except maybe in terms of potato chips (smile).

IF YOU'VE GOT IT, HAUNT IT was released at the start of December, and at least one retailer is out of stock already -- which I think is good evidence that other readers also are reaching for Rose Pressey's form of relaxation. The author of some 10 series before this new one -- which is "A Haunted Vintage Mystery" -- Pressey lives in Kentucky and enjoys tossing ghosts, vampires, and occult twists into her Southern-style page-turners. This newest one features Cookie Chanel, owner of a vintage clothing store, where elegant designer clothes from decades past are paired with classic bags and shoes, and there are also memorable "play clothes" like pedal pushers and mini skirts.

Cookie's sudden acquisition, as she's shopping an estate sale for stock items, is a ghost: the elegant and always classy ghost of Charlotte Meadows. Meadows has clearly been murdered -- the police and the paper both say so -- but in ghost form, she can't name her killer, only her determination to have Cookie track down the criminal. It's definitely not Cookie's style to go investigating! But it looks like the only way she'll unload this haunting (Charlotte even climbs onto Cookie's bed, and at other moments interferes with her new flirtation!) is to find the killer and solve the crime. It's downright embarrassing to be noticed talking to a ghost that nobody else can see!

Fashion and flair and stubbornness all help Cookie track the clues and sort out means and motive. The presence of a cute detective who keeps dropping by to visit is another thread of plot in this quick and clever mystery. And when all the strands finally come together, it looks like Cookie has a lot lined up for the future -- from the detective, to the psychic cat that's also joined her.

Will Charlotte the well-dressed ghost continue to haunt Cookie, once justice is measured out? Hard to tell -- I might have to check the next book in the series, just to be sure. If you're looking for frivolous fun, add this one to the nice side of your list. And make the most of the holidays with plenty of time curled up with another book!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Coming Soon: Strong Debut (and Mormon/LDS) Mystery from Mette Ivie Harrison

Just want to let you know -- the release date for THE BISHOP'S WIFE, a crime fiction debut that I'm recommending VERY highly, is December 30. Because we try to wait until very close to the date when a book is available before we review it here, I'm holding off until after Dec. 25. But it's hard to wait! This is a winner ...

Horror Suspense: THE VOICES, F. R. Tallis

Psychologist and long-time author Frank Tallis crafts suspense crime fiction in which the twists and power of the mind compel both the characters and the plots -- and he does it well. His list of award nominations overflows the space allocated. Because he is British, it's almost irresistible to compare his work with that other British expert in psychological suspense, Ruth Rendell, who writes this genre under her other name, Barbara Vine.

In the same way, Tallis sets his horror fiction, with its strong thread of the paranormal, under the nom de plume F. R. Tallis. Dark, frightening, and with maximum risk of life and sanity, his new book THE VOICES proposes a classic haunted house frame, this time for a young composer of film soundtracks, Christopher Norton, and his wife and toddler daughter. And the first sign of something "extra" in their newly rehabilitated Victorian home is the added sounds persisting on the baby monitor, as if something were in the bedroom with young Faye. And Christopher, being a sound engineer, records them on his studio equipment and, sensibly, shares his newly made tape with a friend:
 "What are you suggesting?" Christopher asked.

The engineer studied the smoke rising from his cigarette. "I don't think these voices are radio transmissions."

"Then what are they?"

"I don't know, but ..."

"But what?"

"You'll just say I smoke too much Mary Jane."

"If you think you know what's going on, say."

"I don't know what's going on. Not really. It's just a thought."

"Tell me."

"I don't think they're transmissions. I think they're communications."

The two men looked at each other and the quiet seemed to congeal around them.
Cleverly, Tallis sets this tale of increasing terror in 1975-1976, well before widespread digital technology can take on a role in the exploration of what's taking place. The changes that push the book's horror side are internal: Christopher's growing obsession with recording what he believes are spirit voices -- his wife Laura's crumbling personality -- and the reader's painful awareness that little Faye is increasingly unsafe in the house and with these parents.

I'm a mom and have a couple of wee grandsons who now occupy the "worry zone" of my mind and heart; this book terrified me. That said, Tallis is a master of his craft, and every twist, every drawn-out moment of risk and threat, every terrible unavoidable step toward disaster is immaculately scripted.

If you can't get enough Stephen King or Dave Zeltserman to feed your taste for psychological suspense, THE VOICES (and the two earlier F. R. Tallis titles) should zip onto your shelf this season. And if you're collecting Barbara Vine among your British crime fiction, THE VOICES should set right next to her books. We all have a sense of what's creepy; Tallis grabs it, pins it to the pages, and provides the dread and clenched stomach that mark a gifted work of crime horror.

FOR THE DEAD: Timothy Hallinan's 6th Poke Rafferty "Thriller"

As the mysteries world has gone global, it's also broadened in types of plots and subgenres. The newest book from Timothy Hallinan, FOR THE DEAD, is the sixth one featuring Poke Rafferty, an American living in Bangkok, probably forever by now. And certainly for good. I'd call it a traditional action-suspense crime novel, where groups of criminals struggle fiercely to silence people who are taking a stand against them. Poke, in his roles as dad and husband and writer-with-a-mission, steps up over and over, through increasing exhaustion, to figure out the source of maximum corruption in Bangkok's city government and police.

Soho Crime uses the cover to call the book a "thriller," and this time, I think the term isn't a good fit. To me, "thriller" usually means that feel you get on a really, really big roller-coaster -- the OMG of "I'm going to die here!" (even though there's a rational whisper of "not really, or this company couldn't keep selling tickets) and the racing plunge downhill that tortures your stomach and prevents you from putting the book down. I also think thrillers in general offer terror.

In FOR THE DEAD, the focus is on Poke and Rose's adopted daughter Miaow, once a street waif and now a successful schoolgirl going through those normal mood shifts of adolescence (body changes! a heavy crush! a play to try out for, and if the audition fails, so will her life!). To protect her one real friend Andrew from trouble over losing a cellphone, Miaow digs into her street smarts and helps him buy a used, probably stolen, replacement phone.

But the images on the phone turn out to relate to a pair of recent murders, and suddenly Miaow and Andrew are targets of the killing team.

At the same time, Poke is entering a family crisis -- I won't say what kind, because it's a wonderful surprise when it appears -- and a damaged young girl he'd known during her years of abuse comes back into his life with major needs for assistance and his attention. Last but not least, Miaow and Poke's wife Rose are having portentous dreams. You can feel the river of heat and history that wraps around Bangkok and and through Poke's struggles.
"My daughter," Rafferty says, "is not boneheaded enough to play amateur detective."

Arthit says, "Boneheaded?"

"I do not play amateur detective." [Rafferty] realizes he has leaned forward and uses his feet to push the chair back a few inches. "Or if I do, it's because I have to because the professional detetcives are either not disposed to help or are, umm, constrained --"

"That's a nice way to put it. Constrained, as opposed to corrupt or scared of running up against someone bigger than they are who might sympathize with -- or be on the payroll of -- the other side."

"It's hard to be a cop here," Rafferty says. "An honest one, anyway."

The two men look at each other across a few years of shared history, and the moment makes Rafferty ache.
There is indeed a "ticking clock" for the plot: The people who team up with Poke can't shelter him and his threatened family for long, and the criminals know where they are, where they've been, and way too much about Poke's own vulnerabilities. Things have to resolve within 48 hours or so ... including what to do about the dangerous street waif, Treasure.

But far more important -- and, I think, the reason the Poke Rafferty mysteries are so compelling -- is the struggle for Poke to figure out what he's doing in terms of the people he loves, and especially, how to loosen his protective grasp of his daughter Miaow far enough to let her grow up. Like the rest of us, he wrestles with that major issue while also coping with his own life, including his friendships and alliances in Bangkok.

I think FOR THE DEAD is way more than a thriller -- it's international crime fiction, and it's heartache. And the author, in an Afterword, promises us more of the same, at least until Miaow grows up. Assuming, that is, that Poke can keep enough criminals and hot-blooded classmates away so that she has the chance.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mark Sullivan, THIEF: Page-Turning Suspense with Revelations

Mark Sullivan used to be sort of a Vermont author; Dave and I lined up his early books, The Fall Line, Hard News -- and then reading The Purification Ceremony terrified me and almost stopped me from collecting his later titles. Almost ...

Then Sullivan's work with James Patterson began to add up: Private Games, Private Berlin, Private L.A. In hindsight, I wonder whether that kind of teamwork also shaped his plot and character work, pushing him toward choosing his own form of thriller featuring Robin Monarch, a hard-fighting, team-working, killing-when-necessary rogue and outlaw (and those are the first two titles in this series: Rogue, Outlaw.)

Now THIEF has pushed Robin Monarch and his team to new extremes, robbing the rich and supporting the poor in three vastly different terrains: high-money Greenwich, Connecticut, where Robin plans to relieve an unscrupulous bully of some ill-gotten wealth; cold and snowy enemy-hunting in Switzerland; and the hot, humid, parasite-riddled, but exotically gorgeous Amazon Basin, among indigenous peoples who've adapted to their environment effectively, without outside contact.

If you're already reading the Robin Monarch series, you know you can trust author Mark Sullivan to press the pace and keep Robin demonstrating his martial arts and the sniping and scoring skills of his teammates, like rapid researcher Gloria Barnett and battle-ready buddies Claudio and Chanel. What you might not expect, though -- and if you're new to Robin, this will guarantee you multilayered exploration in THIEF -- is backflashes to when this tough attacker was a kid, and Sister Rachel took him in, from a gang life in a Brazilian slum. Really? Can Robin Monarch's "Robin Hood" existence be explained by the backpack of rocks that Sister Rachel strapped to the child who'd already become a killer? You bet.

But you'll have to get the story "one rock at a time," as Robin's perils turn out to have more to do with those long-ago choices than anyone except Sister Rachel herself might guess:
[Monarch:] "Anything on Vargas?"

"He's dead."

"Then his ghost just tried to kill me and Claudio before the police showed up." ...

Why would he try to take them out now, after so many years? He could see the guy carrying a grudge. That was not hard to imagine. But why would he decide now, after more than twenty years, to exact his revenge?

Monarch had no easy answers. As he faded into unconsciousness, his mind sought out the last time he'd seen the man before today.
The expertise of Robin Monarch's team -- including major amounts of tech wizardry -- pushes his exploits to the level of "believable enough" as the plot races forward. The flashbacks make sense, the vulnerability of Sister Rachel and her orphanage and hospital come through clearly, and thanks to the scientific and personal courage of Dr. Estella Santos of Rio de Janeiro, Robin Monarch gets an extra dose of inspiration and stubbornness to carry him along.

Grab this one for the pure rush of escape into adventure and action and suspense -- with professional thief Robin Monarch and his crew of nontraditional allies, Mark Sullivan has found his own swift pace.

We sort of wish he still hung out in Vermont.*

[*Since you asked: Bozeman, Montana. Author's website here.]

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Professor Turns Sleuth: DEATH IN EDEN, Paul J. Heald

If you "google" the name of Paul Heald, with the word "author" pegged onto it, you'll come up with copyright law, and economics, and connections to the University of Illinois, as well as Oxford, Vanderbilt, and the University of Chicago.

So, what's the professor doing in a mysteries review? Simple. He's taken the maxim "write what you know" and written a mystery of a professor who turns sleuth, under the multiple pressures of the race for tenure, a wife who wants to be pregnant, and an old fraternity buddy in trouble.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Professor Heald has old friends in the "adult film" industry the way his sleuth, Stanley Hopkins, has! (Although I couldn't help noticing the absence of the usual list of thanks to those working in the field ... perhaps to protect the privacy of the guilty?) But Heald certainly knows the forces that operate in university culture, and he's crafted a perfect storm of reasons to press an academic into investigation.

DEATH IN EDEN begins with Prof. Stanley Hopkins's urgent need to find a group of working women who'll provide employment data as a balance for the final chapter of his highly researched book. And when it occurs to him to use his connection with porn producer Donald Johansson -- who wants to craft fine films out of what used to be just sex scenes -- Hopkins realizes he's got not just the right topic to fill out the book, but a hot one that will bring him attention. And oh yes, boost him over the wall into being tenured. It just so happens he has a law degree in his background, so when his buddy Donald is accused of murdering a sex star (and Hopkins is pretty sure the charge can't be right), he goes beyond his original plan for interviews, and digs more deeply into the California porn scene than his wife appreciates.

Soon Hopkins adds a motive of saving his marriage to the others pushing him along. There's really no choice: He's even getting grilled by the police:
"Do you have any idea why Mr. Johansson has been so insistent on seeing you today?"

"No, sire." [Hopkins] normally never called anyone 'sir,' but the detective's demeanor seemed to demand some kind of honorific. "Don's an old friend from college. We just renewed our acquaintance when my wife and I came out to Los Angeles to do an academic study of adult film stars."
Obviously the police aren't quite convinced by that one. Even Hopkins has trouble believing what he's stepped into. It's pretty far from the university office, after all!

This is a first mystery, with plenty of extra scenes and description that can be skimmed -- the pace isn't yet expert in terms of suspense and tension, although I had a lot of fun in several of the scenes. Hopkins is in some ways terribly naive! His wife, not so much ... There are quite a few moments when Heald turns the point of view to one of the women on hand, whether the academic wife or the "adult film" stars, and those are lively and entertaining. Plot twists make good sense, even when they take a while to unfold, and the final actions Hopkins takes to get to the crime's solution spin into a lively finale.

I appreciate the author sending the book for review, and I hope he'll keep writing -- mysteries, that is. If you're collecting Illinois-based mysteries, California film scenarios, or academic action, grab a copy of DEATH IN EDEN. It's fun, it raises great topics to argue (are porn stars really mostly that nice?), and I'm delighted to see the lure of suspense and intrigue, at work on an author of copyright documents and other legal chapters. Go for it, Professor Hopkins -- err, I mean, Professor Heald!

[Published by Yucca Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing; here's a link to the book, but it's also available through the usual other channels, including independent bookstores.]

Local Author: AN UNCERTAIN GRAVE, Cathy Strasser (New Hampshire)

Yes, Kingdom Books is in Vermont -- but New Hampshire is only seven miles from us. And we're happy fans of a New Hampshire traditional restaurant, Polly's Pancakes, in Sugar Hill, NH, about 25 miles away. Pulled together, that explains why I'll say that Cathy Strasser, who lives in Sugar Hill, NH, is "local" to Kingdom Books ... and it also explains why a copy of her 2014 mystery AN UNCERTAIN GRAVE reached me through a neighbor on the ridge here.

Strasser's first mystery (her "day job" is occupational therapy) is a good one, well plotted and paced. The first few chapters are the only ones that show up as "early writer" work -- and an attentive editor might have suggested trimming the last few pages. As the narrative swings around from a couple of directions, the story is both of police solving a crime and journalists pushing their way into it. Front and center in the book is Mt. Lafayette, for the ordinary hiker a pretty challenging mountain, visible from most of the town of Sugar Hill. When a first-time visitor literally stumbles over a decomposing body on the mountain, nearby NH State Troopers Cliff Codey and Mike Eldritch investigate. A couple of vacationing urban newspaper reporters on scene push into the investigation, looking for a hot story, or at least a way to memorialize what turns out to be a young woman's senseless death in the North Country.

I enjoyed Strasser's clever and entertaining storytelling style, and although her changes among points of view -- including that of the killer -- can be a bit distracting, she's a pro at demonstrating multiple levels in her characters, including the junk-collecting but educated hermit Bonwit Felton and an intriguing side character, Kurt, whose willingness to hire emotional misfits for his lodging and rescue business turns out to be central in both the crime and Trooper Codey's growing uneasiness with the situation. There's a haunting back-story to Codey, and Strasser uses it to add to the suspense.

Readers who prefer to avoid gore will find this traditional mystery a good fit -- and for those collecting New England crime fiction in particular, AN UNCERTAIN GRAVE is a must. I look forward to more from this author, and especially to more about the State Troopers she's conjured into position on her Investigative Services Bureau in one of the wilder sections of the Granite State.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Cozy in the Kitchen: New Mysteries-With-Recipes for Relaxing

Crossing off items on a holiday list? Baking and freezing for the upcoming party? Pick up a "cozy" mystery for relief, especially for that feeling of being burnt-out as the year wraps around its shortest days, and spring seems a loooong way off ... The "cozy killers" that Kensington Books brought out in the past few weeks are just plain fun to read: mysteries with amateur sleuths whose passion for life -- and for justice -- somehow entangles them in snooping, sleuthing, and solving.

Lee Hollis -- pen name of a brother and sister team -- started the "Hayley Powell Food and Cocktails Mystery" series with Death of a Kitchen Diva. And a couple of years ago, I enjoyed Hollis's Death of a Country Fried Redneck. DEATH OF A CHRISTMAS CATERER, this year's treat, is actually the fifth is this cheerful series. Hayley Powell has her own newspaper column, food-focused of course, a favorite part of the gutsy little publication in her Maine town, the Island Times. This year her editor boss is in a personal crisis, and dumps the office holiday party in Hayley's lap. She books a great caterer -- but when she and the caterer find out that the newspaper's party budget is miniscule, the caterer drops the job. And soon drops dead (not Hayley's fault!). Hayley makes some awful choices about her own private life while scrambling to solve the murder, and the suspense about finding the criminal is almost equaled by wondering whether she'll pull her life together in time, as well!

Tucked among the chapters are some of Hayley's flavorful columns, each one wrapping up with both a beverage and a food recipe ... like Crock-Pot Christmas Stew, and Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie. I wish Hayley lived next door! Meanwhile, after galloping through her adventures, I'm motivated to head to the kitchen. And while I'm cooking, I'll be mulling over the unusual and clever mode of death that Hollis's book involves. Somebody did some startling research for this one!

Equally enjoyable is Maya Corrigan's first "Five Ingredient Mystery," BY COOK OR BY CROOK, where Val Deniston is still adjusting to the drastic change in her life after a car accident -- no longer promoting chefs' cookbooks in New York City, she's come home to her grandfather and the family house near the Chesapeake Bay. Her new job isn't exactly high end: She's running the Cool Down Café at the local fitness club and taking part on a tennis team. But when her cousin Monique is the lead suspect in the death of one of the tennis players, Val becomes determined to find the real killer, and get her cousin out of trouble. Meanwhile two would-be suitors on hand are tangling with her grandfather, and the "cooking codger" himself is sneaking into Val's recipe collection, with ulterior motives.

Each book of Corrigan's series will include five suspects, five clues, and some five-ingredient recipes (Val's grandfather thinks anyone can handle five ingredients!). My choice from BY COOK OR BY CROOK is going to be the potato recipe, which looks terrific ... then again, so does the one for a strata ... and those macaroons ... The recipes all show up during Val's sleuthing, too. Mmm!

I have two more of these kitchen cozies to review in a couple of days. Meanwhile, next up: a college professor tackles employment research among California porn stars! And then some international titles. Come on back for more.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

IRÈNE, Pierre Lemaitre: Extraordinary French Crime Writing

[Note to readers of "traditional" or "amateur sleuth" or "cozy" mysteries: Stay with us this week. We have a lot to write about! But this one's probably not your cuppa tea.]

Consider yourself fortunate if you have NOT yet read Pierre Lemaitre's Alex, which is the second in the Vanderhoeven trilogy -- somehow the lines of translation from French to the English-reading market got royally twisted, and Alex, which is the second in this investigative threesome, came out earlier.

Today, however, is the release date for
--> IRÈNE -- the first in the series -- and if you like rich literary mystery writing, or dark European work, or are building a collection of French mysteries, this one is definitely for you.

Commandant Camille Vanderhoeven is a master interviewer of criminals and victims alike. It's a side effect of his artistic imagination and skills, handed down from his mother, a superb painter whose early death has left her studio silenced. As IRÈNE opens, Camille is making a deft sketch of the battered woman in his office who chooses not to reveal her batterer's whereabouts. Laying the lines onto the paper is background for his quick questions of the young woman -- and for his stagecraft, as he has already primed the interview with a planned interruption from a colleague, with a faked report that, in turn, will nudge the young woman into divulging the information that Camille needs.

This scene, in turn, is the author's sketch of the man whose shoes we inhabit for more than 400 pages, as Commandant Vanderhoeven heads up the search for a serial killer. The book's title is the name of Camille's pregnant wife -- the couple is happily expecting their first child. But Camille won't spend much time with his wife, as he chases the murderer across France and backtracks some earlier killings elsewhere. Soon two defining aspects of the series of killings emerge: (1) The murderer is replicating ghastly scenes from classic crime fiction (it takes a while for Camille to realize this and confirm it, but readers will notice the detail on the book cover), and (2) this serial killer is responding to Camille's connection to him, by getting personal. Way too personal.

I like this early description of the first crime scene the French Commandant confronts:
There is no strategy for dealing with atrocity. And yet this was why he was here, staring at the nameless horror.

Before it had clotted, someone had used the victims' blood to daub on the wall in huge letters: I AM BACK. ... Camille stepped over the mangled body of a woman and went to the wall. At the end of the sentence, a finger had been pressed against the wall with great care. Every ridge and whorl was distinct; it looked just like the old-style ID cards when a duty officer would press your finger against the yellowing cardboard, rolling it carefully from one side to the other.

Dark sprays of blood spattered the walls all the way to the ceiling.

It took several minutes for Camille to compose himself. It would be impossible for him to think rationally in this setting -- everything he could see defied reason.
The very slight stiltedness to the language here is maintained throughout the book, and I think it's partly a result of the literary style of translation (by Frank Wynne) and partly Lemaitre's voice -- he has already won both an International Dagger from the Crime Writers Association, and France's prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Thus, this one's not for impatient readers or those who like predictable pacing and plotting. 

But if you can make time to accept the author's pace, there's plenty of detail and tension to carry you along, and the blend of art and investigation is complex and memorable. When the book reaches its finale, keep in mind that there is a sequel to come -- I didn't know that when I first read this, and as a result I disliked the ending. But now that I know what's coming, I see the point of it, and the shape of the book makes sense (unlike the first crime scene!).

This is probably NOT going on holiday shopping lists. But if you have "time off" or a slowdown in December/January, it's a good one to put into your stack of to-be-read. Although the idea of crimes that copy books is not a new one, and although France is becoming a popular setting for translated crime fiction reaching the American market, Lemaitre's own blend of noir is haunting and memorable. Recommended, for sure. Keep an eye on future offerings from the publisher, Quercus, to track the rest of the series.

Monday, December 08, 2014

New Boston Crime Fiction Voice: THIRD RAIL, Rory Flynn

Some books are just too good to keep to yourself -- even while reading. THIRD RAIL is one of those. By the end of the first chapter, I was regularly interrupting my reading to comment to my husband, who is a long-time noir fan: "This one's for you." And by the third chapter, I was double checking the author's credits, because THIRD RAIL, featuring disgraced Boston cop Eddy Harkness, is way too good to be a debut crime novel.

And here's the fruit of my investigation: Rory Flynn is a pen name for Stona Fitch, erstwhile journalist and author of four dark and thought-provoking novels, spiked with dark humor and richly detailed characters and plots. In fact, Fitch was on his way into crime fiction before this change of name and announcement of the Eddy Harkness series. But I have to agree with the change: Rory Flynn actually "sounds" like the Boston he's summoning.

Boston might as well be one of the main characters in THIRD RAIL. Even though Eddy Harkness has been exiled from the downtown narcotics unit where he'd become a legend for his sense of where the goods are hidden (maybe even a "sixth sense"), and is supposed to be tending parking meters in a suburb, he can't resist following up on a fatal accident that swiftly pulls him into investigating distribution of a new "designer" drug ... and into the political dangers of the Boston crime world at the same time.

The fact that he's lost his service weapon (gun) and is crawling through Beantown's underworld armed with only a plastic toy gun isn't helping. Neither is his latest girlfriend, the notorious Thalia Havoc, barmaid extraordinaire in a shady watering hole.

Thalia's lack of sympathy for Eddy's loss of his gun is classic:
Thalia pulls the sheet up to cover her breasts. "Don't get all freaked out."

"This is serious, Thalia."

"Then go find it. Didn't you tell me you were really good at finding things?"
But it's the paragraphs right after this exchange that show how Flynn nails Boston over and over, in this place-bound narrative that "couldn't happen anywhere else":
Harkness retraces the straight route to the gas station with a kicking donkey on its sign, scanning the sidewalk and finding only cigarette butts, burger wrappers, beer bottles, receipts, losing scratch cards, crushed vodka nips, and a couple of mismatched gloves. He walks past tow lots with prowling Dobermans, a food bank with a line stretching around the block, and the low, hulking South Bay House of Correction, where Narco-Intel sent dozens of dealers. Harkness wonders if any of them are watching out the tiny square windows as he dives down and over, hands on cold cobblestones, to look beneath cars.

The Southeast Expressway roars with morning traffic and his head throbs like a slowcore band warming up. He's had rough nights out before, but nothing like this -- a lost night giving way to a cold reckoning.
Eddy Harkness is definitely the victim of this scam, and if his missing gun becomes known, he won't even be holding onto the parking meter route. Haunted by a death that he failed to prevent -- one that seems to have re-instituted the Curse of the Bambino on the Boston Red Sox, who haven't won a game since it happened -- Harkness is everyone's pick for kicking.

But he's stubborn. And his life hurts too much for him to give in to more abuse. And a career as a narcotics cop means he's got both experience and intelligence, if he can line them up in time and in the right way to beat this case and pull leverage against the criminals trying to frame him. Hey, it's much harder to do it solo than when you're part of a team. Eddy's got to try, anyway.

Occasional flickers of an Irish sort of sixth sense (haunting? really??) flit through but they don't distract from this dark, intense, and well-written investigation. I'm really, really glad to see all the traditional signs that this is the start of a series.

Best recommendation: If you like dark, and Boston, and torment balanced with smarts, pick up a copy of THIRD RAIL very soon, before it slips into later printings. The first printing's always best for collecting. Then line up for the next book. I listened to Rory Flynn at a recent crime fiction conference; he knows what he's doing, and this is likely to be a memorable series.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

ENTER PALE DEATH, Barbara Cleverly: Marvelous Addition to the Joe Sandilands Series

A quick count suggests that ENTER PALE DEATH is number 12 in the Joe Sandilands Investigations. I'm an enthusiastic reader of this series from Barbara Cleverly, which opened in colonial India with Joe turning to detection after the horrors of his World War I service, and soon moved "home" to England. ENTER PALE DEATH begins in spring of 1933 with the death of Lady Lavinia Truelove, presumably by horse-related accident, at her country estate. And that means that for Joe, any contact with investigating this death -- and others, some quite a while ago, in the neighborhood -- is fraught with career danger. For Lady Truelove's politically limber husband is moving toward becoming Joe's boss.

Which only goes to show that even as an Assistant Commissioner, Joe's police role is rarely secure. Nor is his romantic life, which involves a much younger woman determined to bring him into committed bliss. (He's only half averse.) And she too, as it happens, is connected with Sir James Truelove.

This is a scrumptious traditional mystery, involving country knowledge, local wisdom, Joe's ability to suss out who's naughty and nice, and a pervasive strand of long-term evil and manipulation in an otherwise charming locale.
"Someone in the village knows, evidently," said Adelaide. "The knowledge was passed to -- sold to -- Lady Truelove, with awful consequences. Lure swapped for bate? Now that's malice aforethought."

"I'd call it murder," Hunneyton said.

"But murder that's almost impossible to prove," Joe warned. "I hardly like to think why we're even bothering to attempt an inquiry."

He was shot down by two focussed glares.
Some of the best of English folklore and tradition is threaded through this lively mystery, with even an appearance of the powerful and dangerous Green Man of old. Satisfying sorting of a pleasantly complex plot and a set of side characters that come with layers of their own make this one of Cleverly's best. Highly recommended for enjoyable mystery reading -- and, considering the season, it's also a winner on a gift list. Great timing, from Soho Crime.

Brief Mention: Dave Zelterserman, THE BOY WHO KILLED DEMONS; Graham Masterton, BROKEN ANGELS

Dave Zeltserman is a master of dark fiction -- the "noir" -- and his mysteries have powerful ties to Boston's underworld of mobsters and contract killers. His horror fantasy novels, though, come in distinctly different forms. I still haven't shaken the mingled chill and pity that I felt as I finished reading his The Caretaker of Lorne Field in 2010; every time I tangle with an overgrown section of my garden, I feel the nightmare of that story all over again.

This season, Zeltserman's new offering, THE BOY WHO KILLED DEMONS, looks like it might become the first in a series, judging by few threads at the finale. Narrated by 13-year-old Henry Dudlow, it's an investigation of how demons have invaded the world, with ominous intent. And this struggling teen, half smothered by his thoroughly unlikeable parents but lifted out of the mess via friends and his first girlfriend, has a terrible gift and responsibility that have arrived with puberty: He alone, among the people he talks with, can see the demons in their real and menacing form. They're after him, of course. And when he realizes what their goals are, not to mention how they pursue them, he knows he has to stop them.

If you know a teen who's already read a lot of Stephen King, and laps up horror and funky sex as if these were breakfast cereal, you might want to share this book with that teen. Otherwise, keep it for yourself (provided you, too, are a horror fan!) and enjoy the journey back to your own teens, as you keep Henry company.

Because I'm intrigued by the stream of Irish noir flowing across the Atlantic, I tackled the newly released US paperback version of Graham Masterton's BROKEN ANGELS. [This is the second in the series that began with A Terrible Beauty, later retitled White Bones.] Here too, terror and the grotesque are lined up, as Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire in County Cork heads up an investigation into the murder of a priest. The mutilation of the corpse -- well, actually it happened before death -- convinces almost all the detectives that the killing is revenge for child abuse inflicted by the priest, who'd been a target of unpleasant accusations. But as the death count and mutilations mount, Katie becomes convinced there's a larger and even more unpleasant reason for the string of murders.

I won't go into more detail -- partly to avoid spoilers, and partly because there's a lot of mixing of sex and sadistic violence here, some of which is truly horrifying (but no surprise to readers who may already have tracked Masterton's powerful but frightening narratives; he's a well-established author in Europe). This one's not for traditional mystery fans, but only for those who don't suffer nightmares or PTSD or loss of appetite among such horrors. Count on a fast pace, believable twists, and an investigator worth admiring. But also, consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Debut Mysteries: Scott Graham, CANYON SACRIFICE; Victoria Griffith, AMAZON BURNING

One of my favorite parts of reading a wide range of mysteries is watching for the new authors and their "first books" -- at least, the first in this area. I enjoy speculating on who's going to craft a successful series based on that first public appearance. And when I'm right, it's extra interesting to continue collecting the rest of that author's work, knowing I spotted the first promising book!

Reading CANYON SACRIFICE by Scott Graham was an up-and-down ride. The pace and language do have a bit of that "first appearance" feel to them -- maybe a result of having reworked the story several times over a couple of years? -- and the book's a bit short, skating around some areas that could have had more depth and complexity. I also felt a couple of the plot twists were awkward. But Graham is no stranger to writing about the outdoor life in general (he's already won a National Outdoor Book Award in nonfiction), and this Grand Canyon mystery is a satisfying read. Chuck Bender, an archaeologist with a lot of experience in looking for signs of the earliest Native people in the region, has brought his new and quite impulsively married wife, as well as her two young daughters, to see the canyon and experience some camping as well. But almost immediately, his stepfathering role gets slammed with every parent's nightmare: a missing child. Is it his fault? Can the marriage work, the child be found in time, and can he stay out of legal trouble and deadly risk in the meantime?

Graham and his publisher, Torrey House, promise a series of these books -- "A National Park Mystery" -- and I'm looking forward to them! I'd say this first in the series is a great start, and blurbs from Margaret Coel and William Kent Krueger convince me that Graham's Western tribal knowledge is likely to be sound. Consider the series a cross between Nevada Barr and, ever so slightly, Tony Hillerman; dig in for an enjoyable read.

I'm less sure about the direction that Victoria Griffith is taking, now that I've read her entry into YA mystery-with-sexuality, AMAZON BURNING. This author -- also experienced in nonfiction, with 20-plus years as an international journalist, including in Brazil, where the book is set -- opted to shape a thriller around environmental issues that matter deeply to her. College student and would-be journalist Emma Cohen joins her dad in Brazil and tags along when he makes a trip into the Amazon basin. Leaning for protective backup on a hunky guy also tagging along (as photographer), she follows up on rumors about an animal smuggling ring and gets into serious trouble. In the midst of the jungle, she also tangles with the aforementioned hunk ...

Griffith knows what she's talking about in terms of the environmental and justice issues on her plate. I'm less convinced by her portrayal of steamy sex in the jungle, and I have a problem with her protagonist depending on others to rescue her repeatedly (I think it violates the best rule of today's mysteries, which is, watch the protagonist grow as both person and detective, with muscles if possible). It might still work well enough for inexperienced readers who'll enjoy the story, though. My other issue with the book is that there are so few Brazilian mysteries that comparing it with Leighton Gage's series is inevitable -- but Griffith doesn't provide the depth or the moral ambiguity that Gage did. Still, someone has to tackle the Brazilian mystery area, and it's a good try for a first mystery by this globally highly experienced author. Worth watching to see what comes next! (And check out this interview with the author.)

If you're making a gift list (December is SO conducive to that!), these books will fit best for the reader who's already interested in the location itself, the key to the story's charm for both Graham and Griffith.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Gift List, Dec. 1: SOUL OF THE FIRE, Eliot Pattison

Here we are, on the first day of America's big spending month. Would it be awful to get two of something -- one to give as a valued present, the other as a gift to yourself? While you think that over, here's why SOUL OF THE FIRE might be worth getting twice.

1. It's the eighth book in Pattison's Inspector Shan series, which began with the Edgar Award winner, The Skull Mantra. Shan Tao Yun is one of the most richly crafted characters in today's mystery series: a Chinese functionary who discovers his true self, and lifelong commitment, when he meets and studies with persecuted Tibetan monks in Chinese-occupied Tibet. Shan's dual existence -- recognizable as an ethnic Chinese (in exile) and pursuing a mission to preserve the religion and lives of the district -- give him exceptional access to resolving desperate situations, while also putting him into danger.

2. Shan's Tibetan Buddhism and, more importantly, his love for the monks, especially his good friend Lokeah, deepen over the course of the series. He has a son, for whom he also makes sacrifices (the son is almost peripheral in SOUL OF THE FIRE; Lokesh is front and center), but it's the way he chooses to take risks and make tough choices for the Tibetans overall that keep deepening him.

3. SOUL OF THE FIRE takes the detail of monks who set themselves aflame in deadly protest, and ramps it up to where Shan's full intelligence, passion, and physical stamina are necessary to prevent a powerful Chinese Public Security officer from destroying an entire region.

4. Pattison brings in a remarkable theme this time that focuses on the Dalai Lama and his continued leadership, as well as on a young woman and her own group of hard-fighting, hard-learning rebels hiding in the mountains. The tension ramps up to breathtaking, and Shan takes his place as part of a much larger picture of how committed people struggle to maintain their values.

5. SOUL OF THE FIRE not only puts Shan at risk and moves through complex stresses and a magnificent landscape of mountain and heart, but binds the plot threads into a tender and surprising finale that clearly opens up more directions for future books in the series.

So, if you're not quite convinced about getting two copies yet, go ahead and get your first one; then let me know whether you find yourself hanging onto that one, and getting another for someone you care about. It's the season.

Brief Note: DAMAGE, Felix Francis

You know how it is over a holiday weekend -- you grab a book that will be easy to pick up, easy to put down, because one way or another, people will interrupt. (Glad to have them around!)

So I grabbed the newest Felix Francis book, DAMAGE. The cover calls it "Dick Francis's DAMAGE" -- which I suppose is branding, but at this point, silly. Here, Felix Francis writes a solid, enjoyable, well-paced "novel of suspense" focused on the racetracks and their horses, where his father Dick's books took place. Jeff Hinkley, an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, has the best of professional reasons to solve an extortion situation that's holding the BHA and its races hostage. Francis also gives Jeff two major issues in his private life to juggle -- in his sister's family, and with his girlfriend -- and ramps the tension up swiftly.

I had a good time racing around England with this personable investigator. His moves made sense, and the plot twists were both credible and interesting. I'd read another Felix Francis on any holiday weekend ... and maybe even in between!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dark Detection in 1971: RIDERS ON THE STORM, Ed Gorman

Earlier today, I listened to a reader marvel over a first experience of Dashiel Hammett, author of some of the foundational American hard-boiled detective fiction. This reader was close to 70 years old and a newcomer to Hammett's work, and thrilled. "I understand it's the roots of noir," she added cheerfully.

Indeed. One of the nice parts about American detective fiction is that the roots keep nourishing today's many branches. Reading Ed Gorman's newest release, his 10th Sam McCain investigation, makes it clear that the style of tough men and well-garbed women continues, and Gorman's decision to place the novel in 1971 -- a year when the song "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors poured from every radio -- lets this savvy author frame a story of the grief and pain of Vietnam War veterans, returning to an America shocked by images of war's brutality.

In RIDERS ON THE STORM, McCain, barely functioning again after his own National Guard medical emergency, returns to his home in Black River Falls, Iowa -- someplace close, maybe, to Gorman's own Cedar Rapids -- and rises to a distress call from his buddy Will Cullen. Will's war-related injury and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are way worse that McCain. And he's got a marriage to try to fit back into. McCain takes on the burden of Will's wife's desperation, as Will gets fingered for a politically charged murder that fits into a local manipulator's election needs beautifully. But suspicious motives for others aren't enough to get Will out of the accusations, especially when he's made a confession of sorts, and motives abound.

As McCain tackles the murder victim's business partner, the Gorman classic noir voice comes into its own. McCain is blunt:
"Seems to me if Donovan was really our friend, you'd want to help me find out who really killed him."

"Right. And Lee Harvey Oswald didn't really kill President Kennedy."

"I wasn't a big fan of Donovan's," I said quietly. "But he deserved better friends than you."

The teeth again. He started to say something, then shook his head.

He said nothing more to me and neither did the sumptuous Annette as I walked out the front door.
Fans of the McCain series will find this a very satisfying round of plot and pursuit, with its own inner sense of justice. Those who feel the Vietnam War was "their war" -- like me -- will also get a sense of replay of the factors that made the time so confusing, and so sad.

Which, it must be admitted, is the perfect ambience for a hard-boiled detective novel, and Gorman works the terrain well. It's tempting to start looking for the earlier nine titles, which began publication in 1999, working from the 1950s forward. I think I might go searching them out. In a hard-boiled sort of way.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

SUBVERSION, J. P. Choquette: Terrific "Green Mountain Thriller" with Heart and Courage

Does the move to independent publishing made you happy or sad? Actually, it sometimes makes me want to bang my head against the wall -- specifically, when I find really, really good mysteries that have been independently published in small regional ways, when I think the books are masterful enough to delight a national audience through an established publisher.

Somehow it doesn't seem fair that there are TWO Vermont authors in this category just on my own reading desk! The first is R. A. (Robbie) Harold, who lives in the Montpelier area and whose Dade Wyatt series -- historicals set in the time of Teddy Roosevelt -- is now two books long and enjoyable enough that I always want to stretch out the reading time, relaxing in the hands of a terrific storyteller whose decades of dramatic performance feed into her immaculate pacing and scene-setting. Dade Wyatt is a sleuth I'd love to meet in person.

Now there's a second. With this month's release of her third "Green Mountain Thriller," author J. P. Choquette from northwestern Vermont -- way up in a rural corner of the state -- had me talking out loud to my husband all the way through: "This first chapter won't let me put the book down ... sorry, I'll fix some supper in a while ... if the rest of the chapters are this good ... this book is SO good ..." And so it went, all the way through. I love this self-critical, always-trying-harder investigator. Take the moment when Tayt and a friend in a boat get capsized maliciously out on the big lake:
While he reverses the truck to the launch, I huddle in the mothball scented blanket and continue shivering. The whole event feels surreal: could a simple stakeout go any more wrong? What are the chances that Miller would not only see us but pursue us? And if Sam is staying there, what are the chances I'm going to apprehend him on the property? I snort at this thought.

T. R. Waters, Security Expert. Maybe instead my office door should say, T. R. Waters, Bumbling Idiot. ... Curses form in my head, but negative thinking and self-condemnation, while tempting, aren't going to change my situation. 
I am SO going to buy more copies. This goes on my holiday gift list, for sure. And as a collector, and as advisor to other collectors, I say: Get this book now. Because when -- not if -- J. P. Choquette moves away from "indie" publishing to contracts with the national publishers, SUBVERSION will be a rarity and you'll have a copy that shows you recognized her skill even back then (that is, now).

Here's the gist of the book: Tayt Waters, providing security services in the hardscrabble town of St. Albans, Vermont, faces the drawback that whether the person she confronts is a police officer or a drug-peddling criminal, it's often enough someone who knew her in high school and who doesn't take her seriously enough. But Tayt is tough: working out nearly daily with a boxing bag, carrying a handgun, training assiduously with her mentor Judy, one of the state's licensed private investigators. And she's determined to make her security business a success, even though she has to raise some of her rent money by cleaning empty houses (foreclosed, or seasonal on nearby Lake Champlain).

Plus, even the handicap of her off-kilter family (and everyone knowing about her past) doesn't stop her from operating an off-the-books support service for abused women, one that taps into both her creativity and her self-defense skills ... and oh yes, her rage against the unfairness of abusive fathers and husbands. She's got her reasons.

From the start, Choquette whips Tayt into commitment to rescuing victims of injustice, in a totally understandable way that justifies the handful of errors in judgment that she makes -- not enough to be dumb, but just enough to remind us that Tayt's not yet experienced in the PI business and has a lot of distractions, including former boyfriends and odd neighbors. The pace is sharp and quick, the quandaries risky and tense, and the demands Tayt makes of herself kept me engrossed in the tightly plotted story. And if there was one twist that I didn't fully buy into, and one sentence that bothered me -- well, that's way fewer than most nationally published thrillers are likely to have.

An impressive Vermont thriller, from a skilled and just-dark-enough author. Highly recommended. And don't forget -- when Choquette hits the nationals, you found her first. Here in Vermont.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


November 4 was Election Day, and the birthday of one of my long-gone grandfathers, and ... release day for the third (and final) Mara Dyer thriller: THE RETRIBUTION OF MARA DYER.

When I reviewed the first of the trilogy, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, I wasn't sure whether I whether I wanted to get involved with the paranormal side of the character. But the character, ah, the character! Mara Dyer is one of the best ... tough, determined, sometimes so angry at what's been done to her and her friends and family that she's a menace, a danger, a disaster crashing into your reading room and your heart (or that's how it felt to me). The second book, The Evolution of Mara Dyer, filled the promises of the first and (I have to confess) induced me to place the earliest "pre-order" I've ever placed for a book ... I needed to know where author Michelle Hodkin would take this.

And it was worth the wait.

Mara Dyer and a few other teens find themselves part of a complicated medical and psychological experiment tied to a mutant gene that sometimes stays quiet, and sometimes "manifests." And when it does affect the person hosting it, the gene produces paranormal abilities: the ability to persuade near-hypnotically by voice, or to hear someone's thoughts, or, in Mara's case, to damage and even destroy one's enemies. Threads from the earlier books revealed that the effects of this mutant gene were present among people for generations -- creating some of the powerful dark myths of humanity.

What's not clear until the third book, though, is whether Mara must give up all the complex other parts of herself to fulfill where the gene leads (and whether she can ever rediscover her connection to Noah, another genetically influenced teen who's vanished) -- and, more urgently, whether the teens can hold their own against a sophisticated cabal of adults who variously want to treat them as experiments, manipulate them to change the world, or aim them like weapons without volition.

This is neither a Hunger Games trilogy nor a Harry Potter adventure. Mara's genetic burden isn't likely to add up to a happy ending, and she's carrying a burden of guilt for her own actions that's rapidly crippling her emotionally. I wasn't fully satisfied with the ending -- like many other readers, I felt there were plot threads that hadn't quite come clear -- but I wouldn't have missed this for anything. It's left me a bit confused, a little heartbroken, on edge, questioning ... and wow, any book that does that, well, that's a book I want to re-read. Later.

Buy the trilogy for yourself, or if you're giving it to a "young adult," follow up on your gift by getting some discussions going on the violence, malevolence, and yes, retribution in the compelling thriller. (The author's website is not up to date as I write this, but still: visit it here.)

We had one of those mysterious married-couple-miscommunications on CONVERSION, Katherine Howe's intriguing exploration of a prep school in Massachusetts where the girls under the most pressure in their college applications are becoming ill, one after another. I thought Dave said I needed to read it; he can't recall ever hearing about it! Never mind, it was well worth getting a copy. New Englanders may guess from the setting -- Danvers, Mass., which was the site of the Puritan-era Salem Witch Trials -- that wrapping the students in a modern-day media circus can't disguise the contagion of their disorders, or the suspicion that these are being orchestrated in some way. The author's parallel story, among the original group of "Salem" girls, probes the life of the one accuser historically known to have admitted her illness wasn't a result of witchcraft. But even realizing the narratives are intentionally parallel doesn't spoil the quick and emotionally powerful movement of Howe's binocular plot. I enjoyed this, and I already know which teenaged girl I'm giving it to. Author website here. 

The publisher of THE BORGIAS by Jean Plaidy sent a copy here, as part of a promotion recently. I'm not sure what the timing represents -- the two historical novels that make up this chunky paperback feature Lucrezia Borgia, famous for her 15th-century life of intrigue (Madonna of the Seven Hills; Light on Lucrezia). Betrothed and finally married as a teen at a time when, among powerful European leaders, such contracts were common, Lucrezia wielded immense power as part of Italy's most forceful -- and maybe least gentle! -- family. Today her name is associated with both intrigue and poison.

But when Jean Plaidy -- actually one of the many pen names of Eleanor Hibbert (you may know her better as Victoria Holt; check out her astounding literary life here) -- wrote this pair of novels in 1958, her research led her on a very different path. As a result, this pair of books is less in the mystery genre, and more along the line of a sweet and decent girl who became an assertive teen and then a victim of the sexism of her time. Plaidy's pacing and narrative hold up well, and the story still is fresh and surprising. But it's actually a bit tame compared to today's YA ficton! So if you're teasing a teen into history with the vicious side of the Borgias and similar nefarious figures of the past, consider adding this one to the stack for a surprising "other side" to the Borgia saga. I've set my copy aside for a playwright who may use it for reference.

Making a holiday shopping list? After you think about these, consider delving into the titles that were nominated this year for Edgar Awards, at the pinnacle of mystery writing:
All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry
(Penguin Young Readers Group – Viking Juvenile)
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
(Random House Children's Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)
Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy
(Simon & Schuster – Simon Pulse)
How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller
(Penguin Young Readers Group – Razorbill)
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
(Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

And I'll have a few more titles to mention before the holidays arrive.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Massachusetts Murder, Memorable Quaker Sleuth: Tace Baker's BLUFFING IS MURDER

Back in the 1990s I enjoyed a Quaker mystery series from Irene Allen, but it looks like the four books ended around 2001 and the author has retired -- including perhaps retiring from her "day job" as a geology professor and author in that field, under her "real" name, Dr. E. Kirsten Peters.

While looking back at those, I also ran across mention of another book that I'd never regarded as "Quaker" (that marvelous back-to-basics worship community formally known as the Society of Friends): The Witch of Blackbird Pond, one of my favorite "young adult" historical mysteries,

Now, with the November 11 release of BLUFFING IS MURDER from Tace Baker, we have the second in a fresh energetic series featuring amateur sleuth Lauren Rousseau. Like the author herself, Lauren is a linguist, and expects to be addressed as "Dr. Rousseau." But when the book opens, she's just headed into her first real summer break, the one that follows gaining tenure, when the career track makes some breathing space. And Lauren has extra flexibility because her habitual boyfriend Zac, who's been offering more commitment than she wanted, is flying out to Haiti for a family emergency. Lauren's on her own, and testing the he–she waters in her walkably cozy coastal Massachusetts town.

So it's tough luck that one of her first summer adventures leads to her discovering the body of Charles Heard, a Trustee of the local land trust. Lauren's been more involved with her college than her town (where she's a relatively recent transplant), but she quickly learns multiple reasons for bad feeling against Charles Heard -- including the way the land trust where he's so influential has been holding back money slated to improve the town's school, so the kids aren't getting their fair share of programs. Even the language program's being cut, a blow that especially hits hard for Lauren, with her fondness for many languages.

Author Tace Baker -- a pen name for Edith Maxwell, Massachusetts author of this series, a second one involving the "locavore" movement, and branching into an upcoming third under the pen name Maddie Day -- brings a good background to the book, with her own doctoral dissertation in linguistics, as well as many other writing hats. But what I enjoyed in particular is her sense of the emotional life of a smart, savvy, and single woman of a certain age -- mid thirties, here -- who's very, very work-capable but who's somewhat insecure about whether she is in or out of the dating game, and as a result, doesn't really check into or trust her own misgivings about some of the men who admire her. Because it's Lauren's casual acceptance of what her martial arts teacher Dan Talbot tells her, and the invitations he provides, that makes her vulnerable. And that's what takes her further into sleuthing than is wise ... and puts her under threat repeatedly.

Doubling the plot thread (and Lauren's emotional vulnerability) is the long-past death of this sleuth's father -- something she hasn't had time to look into until now. Is her hunt for that truth also putting her at risk?

Last but not least, what does Lauren bring to the sleuthing skills table as a result of being a lifelong Quaker, with a tradition of silent meditation and a search for divine guidance?

If, like me, you enjoyed that earlier series by Irene Allen, or you're curious about Quakers in fiction, or you enjoy a strong and vibrant amateur sleuth with an occasional but very human slip of judgment, check out this series. Book one is called Speaking of Murder (2012).  The series is from Barking Rain Press -- which offers the first four chapters of BLUFFING IS MURDER  free, in exchange for your contact info (click here) --  and the author will have a few touring events (see her website), as well as a number of online interviews. Thanks, Edith/Tace (and Maddie!) for this enjoyable traditional mystery!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Haunted Maine Town, Haunted Investigator: THE WOLF IN WINTER, John Connolly

Each new death in our lives echoes against the earlier ones, and sets them ringing in us like a string of bells, brushed by a passing hand. Sometimes it's gentle music -- and sometimes discordant. But I have never been to a funeral, or read an obituary, without thinking of some long-passed friend or relative, and feeling an amplified loss.

How much more so must it be for a private investigator like Charlie Parker of Maine, who's seen so many tragedies. As THE WOLF IN WINTER from John Connolly opens, he and his partners in, well, vengeance maybe, or crime protection, think they've finally cornered a criminal mastermind who's killed one of their friends. There will be many chapters to go before the impact of the scene comes back into the action -- and the next chapter, from the point of view of a wolf just arriving from Canada into Maine in bitter cold, will also seem obscure for a while. But if you're a series reader, you're already aware, in the echo with earlier Charlie Parker investigations, that the wolf could parallel either a psychopathic killer or, in the sense that it's alone with its wounds, Charlie himself.

Then the action takes over.

A homeless man in Portland, Maine, Jude, has been trying to track down his daughter. It looked like he was finally about to have "family" again -- and then his daughter disappeared, and the treatment center further north where she'd been recovering is baffled, too. Then Jude dies, in circumstances that Charlie quickly realizes are staged murder ... and in a way that leaves Charlie Parker the emotional legacy of taking Jude's "missing persons" case. Where did that young woman vanish?

All paths lead to the historic rural town of Prosperous, Maine, which appears to have struck a virtual deal with a devil to prosper for centuries, against the odds. The town's leadership is ingrown and odd; the minister of its gargoyle-decorated and peculiar church even more so. Charlie attempts to call Pastor Warraner into his own mission:
"I'm searching for a missing girl. If she's alive, she's in trouble. If she's dead, someone else is. As an individual who professes to be a man of god, I'd suggest that your compassion is currently misdirected."

Warraner plunged his  hands into the pockets of his jeans as though he feared the damage he might otherwise inflict on me. He was a big man, and strong as well. If he got his hands on me, he'd do some harm. Of course, I'd shatter one of his knees before he got that close, but it wouldn't look good on my résumé. Still, all of his weight was on his left leg, which was ramrod straight. If he moved, I'd take him.

Warraner breathed deeply to calm himself and recover his dignity. The moment passed.

"You know nothing of my god, Mr. Parker," he said solemnly.
But Charlie has already guessed a lot about what's wrong in the town, and if he still has a hope of finding the missing girl, it's small, and growing fainter.

Between the steady increase of suspense, the tension in Charlie himself, and the sense that Charlie and his own friends are going to have to tackle an entire town, this thriller kept me racing from one chapter to the next. Except there are also deep things here, and not just under the town's motivations. Here's the scrap from late in the book that convinced me I'll be reading this one again, and again:
He believed that men created gods as much, if not more, than gods created men. If this old god existed, it did so because there were men and women who permitted it to continue to exist through their beliefs. They fed it, and it, in turn, fed them.
It's necessary to accept that level of presence of the "paranormal" in this page-turner, and maybe a wee bit more, but ... I'm a hard-core, non-paranormal reader, and THE WOLF IN WINTER struck me as making complete sense. When the wolves of greed and pride are loose in the landscape, there's going to be an echo, a response.

Those bells are ringing again.