Monday, March 31, 2014

"Pet Noir" Has Claws and Teeth!: PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS, Clea Simon

Of the three mystery series that Clea Simon pens, my fave is the Pru Marlowe titles. Pru is an animal behaviorist and amateur sleuth with an uncomfortable ability that landed on her in the midst of dealing with a crime, a couple of titles ago: She can "hear" animals' comments in her mind. I know, it's a stretch -- yet Simon's tight plotting and the very believable conflicts that Pru gets into make it worth buying into the notion, and soon enough in the reading, it's just part of Pru's character. Which, I have to say, is that of someone I'd be honored to be friends with.

The trouble is, Pru's closest friend at this point is her sardonic cat Wallis, who rarely gives her a straight answer to anything (but clearly is a friend in spite of that). And her love interest, Detective Jim Creighton, apparently has finally taken no for an answer and is cuddling with a human shrink instead. That's especially a drawback because it reduces the chances that Creighton will support Pru as, once again, her animal-oriented career leads to discovery of a murder.

This time she's in the Berkshire (Mass.) woods, training a service dog, when the animal's reliable nose drags her to a corpse. And it's someone Pru has met: an immigrant working at the home where the service dog is destined to live, with a wealthy man who is going blind. As usual, she's way too connected to this crime. Too bad "her" detective isn't hers now.

Simon provides multiple motives and complications, and if PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS isn't exactly the whisky-soaked, gun-toting, despairing sort of mystery that the term "noir" suggests, it's fast-moving, tough-minded, and full of cynical comments and questions that make total sense for a woman who has to hide her inner talent from even her closest human friends, for fear she'll get labeled insane and locked up, instead of the criminals.

Readers of the series will recognize -- and newcomers enjoy meeting -- the tough little dog whose nasty owner calls him Bitsy but who has let Pru, who exercises him, know he's actually Growler, a gruff and angry fellow who nevertheless knows all the animal gossip in the region, as well as a lot of people stuff. He advises Pru:
"We all have our leashes and collars." I nodded in silent agreement. "What you've got to ask yourself is how much would be too much. And how far ... " He was panting. "How far could jealousy push you?"

Whether Pru's love life or the crime is the point, how far has jealousy pushed the murderer? And what's with the totally unreliable evidence indicating a panther being involved in the killing? Panthers don't live in Massachusetts -- do they?

Simon plies her twin threads of investigation and the crises and tensions of an independent (but wants to be loved!) career woman, adds a generous dash of black humor, and provides a lively mystery with enjoyable pace and twists. I bought into all of it -- and the presence of an outrageously public bobcat in our neighborhood this past winter makes PANTHERS PLAY FOR KEEPS even more memorable!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Constable Molly Smith Series: UNDER COLD STONE, Vicki Delany

Forget Italy, France, South Africa. Pick up a Vicki Delany mystery and rediscover what you might think was an ordinary sort of place: Canada. But in Delany's deft storytelling, this ever-wild nation comes alive in its particular places. Her much-loved Constable Molly Smith series is based in Trafalgar, British Columbia -- but in this seventh title, Smith and her mom Lucky (who is paired up with Smith's boss, an unlikely couple if ever there was one) dig into crime and crime-solving in the remarkable town of Banff, Alberta.

I have to confess, the official Banff/Lake Louise (Alberta) website has won my heart with such daring assertions as "They say Mother Nature loves all her children equally, but we're pretty sure we're her favorite." And then there's "You'll find relaxing can be wonderfully exhausting." That one might well apply to Lucky Smith, making her best effort to accept pampering at the "Banff Springs" luxury resort. Like the real luxury lodging in this prime resort (founded in 1885!), it's luxe, pricey, and an ideal location for her to savor a week away from her environmental activism lifestyle, with her partner, Chief Constable (of Trafalgar -- a mountain range distant) Paul Keller. While she's making the most of spa treatment and fine cuisine, her daughter -- a constable -- is trying to figure out how Mom made all those Canadian Thanksgiving dishes.

Yes, it's October, "shoulder season" for the resort, since the famous snow-pack isn't yet in place. That means the resort is almost affordable for Lucky and Paul. It also means there's a heavy dose of seasonal unemployment around the resort, as the ski trade isn't yet hiring.

Suddenly that's an issue in Lucky's lap, when she finds herself threatened in public by an out-of-work ski instructor, for the second time in two days. Except this time Paul is nearby, and in one of those coincidences that happen in real life even more often than in fiction, the scruffy menacing ski bum turns out to be Paul Keller's estranged ne'er-do-well son Matt. Not exactly a warm sense of family reunion, is it? Still, Lucky's willing to let father reconnect with son -- it just doesn't seem to be in the cards, though.

Until the wee hours of the next morning when Paul gets a phone call that ejects him from bed, while Lucky feels that familiar echo of panic for her constable daughter -- who isn't the one in trouble just now.
"Paul, please, tell me."

"That was Matthew. His roommate's dead."

"Why? How?"

"Matt says he got home, found the fellow dead."

"How awful." Lucky thrust her arms through her sweater.

"I'm going over there. You don't need to come." ...

Lucky looked Paul in the eye. "Then all the more reason for me to come. You're not going because you're a police officer. You're going because you're his father. You need me, Paul, even if your son doesn't."
When they arrive at the scene of what's clearly a murder, though, Matt has fled and is soon the main suspect for the crime. Under the circumstances, his dad isn't able to run the investigation, of course -- and Lucky's sensible first call is to summon her daughter, Constable Molly Smith.

So Delany sets up a fast-paced and complex interaction among three couples -- the missing Matt and his "white trash" diner-worker girlfriend, Lucky and Paul, and Paul's soon-arriving ex-wife and her wealthy new lover -- plus Molly herself, barely allowed to interact in her own Constable role.

Swiftly, the force of the plot lands among the women on hand: Molly, Lucky, ex-wife and Matt's mom Karen, and poignantly, the confused but devoted waitress Tracey, who's willing to help Matt at any cost, whether the murder is his fault or not. Add in a criminal network in town, and the uneasy alliance of investigators and victims, and the pace continues to accelerate, with threats coming from both likely and surprising quarters.

Although Constable Molly Smith's role is one of a handful of points of view here, Delany proves that it's both Smith''s insight and her willingness to push the boundaries of the investigation that ultimately lead toward the truth -- no matter how hard it may be to handle.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Well Worth Reading: THE BONES OF PARIS, Laurie R. King

Laurie R. King's latest book came out in 2013 (she has another coming out this May, though -- author website here); it's THE BONES OF PARIS and I didn't rush to read it, knowing that her many fans would carry the book along, and at her level of the mysteries field, there are only a few publications whose word really matters in terms of how readers rush to purchase copies.

But I enjoy both strands of King's work -- her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, and her California police procedurals. So I made sure that my winter reading did include this one ... and it  belongs to neither of those series, but instead is a sequel to Touchstone, which I fear I somehow missed reading (I'll catch up with it soon).

THE BONES OF PARIS fits into the era King's explored from so many directions in her Russell/Holmes books, thought, as it opens in the fall of 1929 with a missive that reaches Bennett Grey in England. Readers of the earlier book will know immediately why the letter and enclosed photos have been sent to Grey -- the rest of us will catch up slowly, as we begin to understand the strange catastrophes and losses that tie together the man in England and a missing-persons investigator, Harris Stuyvesant, whom we meet in the next chapter in the heat of Paris's end-of-summer season, struggling with consequences of his ratty lifestyle and emotional sloppiness, while also trying to earn a living among the "beautiful people" of the expatriate community in Europe. A lot of what's wrong for him, and what goes wrong as he investigates, can easily be blamed on his own choices.

Yet a lot of the twisted nature of the arts community he finds himself investigating is a consequence of two very large factors: the damage done in France by the Great War, and the rebellious efforts of artists at the time to shake up reality, confront death and disaster, refuse to settle for comfort or attachment. The Surrealists make up the characters as well as the setting for King's exploration and Stuyvesant's investigation. King's interweaving of art and despair, loyalty and fractured love, make this "crime novel" simultaneously a deep and layered novel of that extended hold-your-breath season between the two major European wars. And she is generous with hints of the oncoming hostilities, even as her characters insist on heavy drinking and partying in their slice of "peace."

If you've been reading Charles Todd, or Jacqueline Winspear, or Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy, pick up THE BONES OF PARIS. It may also be a good fit for you if you're an Alan Furst fan. And if you stop now and then to think about madness and art, about how new ideas emerge from darkness, about how evil overtakes good and how death fascinates, and how poets become murderers ... Don't come for tea, please. But all of this is in King's crime novel, and it's a darned good read.

Diversion: Poets Discussed with Insight and Barbed Tongue

Tuesday April 1, in addition to being a guaranteed "weather" day here in Vermont (we have SO many "April Fools" snowstorms and rain items and more), is the start of National Poetry Month. I promise not to overdo this, but a little poetry is good for the soul and I think can enrich the life and words of mystery writers ... maybe even a few readers.

At any rate, if there were suddenly a murder case in the poetry world to solve, it could well involve Peter Stitt, whose collection of critical essays in THE PERFECT LIFE emerged last fall in a solid little book (166 pages) from Tupelo Press. I think I've read the first essay three times now -- called "In Love Begins Responsibility," it starts with poet James Wright and Professor Stitt (who is the founding and ongoing editor of The Gettyburg Review), moves on to John Berryman, and provides the ground for Stitt to talk about what it means for him to be a survivor of his own (long-ago) suicidal longing. The images and ideas are so strong that -- truly -- I used them a few days ago in a set of high school presentations. Know how highly the praise is, when a work of literary criticism engages a 16-year-old, or several peers of said teen? Yes, the essay is that good.

But there's more to come in this startling packet of tight and intriguing critiques. Whether it's disclosing the (probably immoral) editorial "making pretty" done to Emily Dickinson's poems, the similar messing around with Robert Frost's lines, or the justification -- or not! -- for fictionalizing fact and playing with dialogue instead of reporting it, Stitt keeps piling up edgy insights, remarks, and questions. I would love to have been a student in his classrooms -- and would also hate it, because you can't tell, at least from his printed pages, which parts are his opinions, which are meant as barbed dinner-table conversation, and which are "truths" that could be kept and nurtured.

As I read and re-read, I felt as though I was part of the table gathering on one of those edgy late-night shows, scrambling for something possibly witty to add to the discussion ... and although that's not necessarily comfy, it's exhilarating, exciting, and memorable. If you've wondered how to convince someone that poetry and poets are far from boring, giving them a copy of THE PERFECT LIFE would be a great start.

And it sets up a wry, delightful way to enter National Poetry Month: skeptical, eager, and hungry for more. And oh yes, suspicious that some literary bloodletting might follow!

Ghana Crime Fiction: Kwei Quartey Succeeds with Third Darko Dawson Investigation

Spring is emphatically arriving on the East Coast, even here in Vermont, where the snowpack is melting noisily, water pouring downhill, birds calling, deer tentatively coming out of the woods to see what plant life around the house and shop might sustain them a bit longer. We have Weather in wild variety and landscape that's "American classic" -- mountains, rivers, fields.

So it's a powerful contrast to step into MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, the newest Darko Dawson investigation from Kwei Quartey, and migrate to the oceanfront, the hot sand-swept cities, the land of tribal tradition, omens, and malicious magic.

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson isn't quite ready for what he's suddenly responsible for solving: the murder of a wealthy married couple of significance, a case that's lingered for months without solution and that "belongs" to the police in Takoradi, on the coast. Dawson is part of a federal police force headquartered in Ghana's capital city, Accra -- and his boss says firmly that with the socially important family member of the victims, requesting federal intervention on the case, Dawson must leave immediately to tackle the cold case.

Few situations could show so quickly how little choice Dawson has: His young son Hosiah's cardiac surgery is barely a day into recovery, and Dawson and his family expect him on hand. But there is no way to decline the case without losing his job, and soon Dawson's on a State Transport bus to Takoradi, where -- without travel stipend or other support --  he's persuaded a relative to let him stay in an unfinished building. It's basic but workable; still, when his superintendent sends along an assistant (who happens to be the superintendent's nephew), the plush hotel lodgings that the assistant investigator receives throw into further perspective Dawson's perilous position. He's got to solve this case to maintain his own forward progress.

But what a case! Is there traditional magic involved? And is there significance to the location of the victims' bodies, in a canoe near an oil rig? Dawson juggles the facts as they emerge -- and for some of them, he has to handle the region's ladder of prestige and power, just to get the details:
His mind flitted over the events of the past two days like an undecided humming bird. Instinctively, he felt that the Smith-Aidoo murder had greater breadth and depth than any of his previous cases. Two corpses in a canoe adrift around a deep-sea oil rig, a severed head with an excavated eye socket, a nineteenth-century pocket watch with a scrawled inscription invoking blood ties. What did it all mean?
Kwei Quartey left Ghana after spending time in jail there for political protest, and became an American physician, still in practice in Southern California (more info here). Returning to visit Ghana as a prosperous adult, in 2008, he resumed connections with the west African nation. This is his third book featuring Detective Inspector Dawson -- the others are Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street. Reading MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS without the other two isn't a problem, as Quartey deftly brushes in the needed details ... but his protagonist is such a thoughtful and hard-working investigator that I think many readers will want to fill in the rest of the series for themselves. I'm not likely to have a chance to see Ghana in person, so I particularly appreciate being able to travel there in this way, through the eyes of an author who experiences multiple cultures, and a police officer who has reason to challenge his environment. I'm looking forward to more.

Crime Family Morality: Naples Crime Fiction from Jan Merete Weiss

When Jan Merete Weiss's debut crime novel, THESE DARK THINGS, emerged in 2011, it opened up a remarkable new area for Italian mystery, beyond the tender Venetian investigations of Donna Leon and Magdelen Nabb's classic Florentine series. Not only does Weiss's Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabiniere need to wrestle daily with the anti-women attitudes around her, inside her workplace and out on the street. But she also must find her way in an astoundingly immoral city, a location where the crime families of the Camorra control almost everything.

And in the remarkable second in Weiss's series, A FEW DROPS OF BLOOD, Natalia discovers the adult perspective on why the Camorra has risen to this strength, and why Naples accepts it: The deprivations of World War II and the long-lasting poverty of the region caused its people to embrace the paternal attentions of the wealthy criminals, whose code of morality included supporting widows, making sure churches had enough funds, even providing critical injections of cash for art museums.

Ah, art museums ... this is Natalia's forte. Before she found her way into the Carabiniere, she'd been an art history major, and her first crime-solving efforts dealt with art theft. But a quick mind, good choices, and well-solved cases have taken her much higher, now working with major crimes and regularly confronting murder. As A FEW CROPS OF BLOOD opens, Natalia receives her first female partner on the job, a Sicilian (surely that's a mark of survival, to have entered law enforcement in Sicily?), Carabiniere Angelina Cavatelli. Sure enough, Angelina is ready for investigations that call for probing organized crime and the histories of major families -- and, as Natalia quickly discovers, Angelina's brought on the job move, to her new home, her significant other ... a woman.

Since the first crime the pair tackle is a flashy and "artistically arranged" double murder of a pair of gay men (the bodies are found posed naked on a statue in a Contessa's garden), the new investigator has reason to worry that she's moved to a city where homophobia is even more dangerous than in Sicily. But Captain Natalia Monte -- familiar with the organizations involved, including an art museum -- can see more deeply into the situation.

And the fascination of this book is, Natalia's insight comes from growing up in Naples, with strong woman friends who straddle both sides of the law -- two in particular are so significant in the Camorra that Natalia's arch-enemy within her department scores points by surveilling Natalia and catching her at one of her regular get-togethers with crime wife Lola Nuovaletta and two other childhood friends.

But Weiss swiftly reveals that it's not the espionage within the department that Natalia has to worry about: It's her own divided sense of morality, as her loyalty to the strong, vivid, wonderful women in her life -- as well as an immature boyfriend -- carries her into doubting her ability to choose the "right" thing to do. And although she has a couple of strong mentors, she can't reveal all the details of her situation to either of them. It's going to be her shoulders that carry this weight.

I found the first couple of chapters awkward, but the plot is well twisted and compelling, and Captain Natalia Monte's actions and situations kept me eagerly turning the pages. We've seen (especially in war settings) plenty of crime fiction where men's friendships make the difference in survival of body and soul -- this is a rare new opportunity to women's bonds, both old-style and challenged, and to consider how they're adding richness to the landscape of investigation and values.

Way to go, Jan Merete Weiss!

The book won't be released until April 22, but considering how good this series already has become, I'd suggest pre-ordering a copy. I don't see an easy way to check on Weiss's planned author events, but she teaches in New York City and I'm hoping Soho Crime will boost her onto a tour, so we can all connect with her. I want to know more about this author; and definitely, I want to go explore "her" Naples, Italy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Laura McHugh, THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD: Ozark Mountains Murder Mystery

THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD is a debut novel -- but you'll only know that from the outside of the book, where it says so. Inside it, between the covers, this is expert storytelling from a librarian, software developer, mom, and above all, prime novelist. Laura McHugh's emotionally wrenching suspense gives us two memorable women: Lucy Dane, just finishing high school, and her vanished mother, Lila. Each unfolds her experiences from first-person vantage -- and yet in McHugh's hands, this clarity still hides from us the darkness of some souls nearby. Take your cue from short-term high school art teacher Mr. Gerardi, who returned to Chicago without completing a semester of teaching in the town of Henbane. Obsessed with the many references to the devil in local place names, the teacher even focused on the town itself:  "Henbane. Another name for nightshade -- the devil's weed. He's everywhere. He's all around you."

And indeed, the book opens with a death -- the death of Lucy's once best friend Cheri Stoddard, whose body has just been discovered. Lucy knows she wasn't the kind of BFF she should have been to Cheri. By not standing up for her friend, and not somehow preventing her death, Lucy's already failed her own self-standards.

But she's been handed a stacked deck and doesn't yet know it, as her dad never gave her the reak details of her mother's disappearance. Only as the counternarrative from Lila wraps around her daughters does the town's truly hellish characteristic appear: the power allowed to one twisted man who takes what he wants, including the innocence and freedom of whatever is lovely in this place.

And when Lucy's father warns her that there's evil nearby, he does it far too vaguely:
He stumbled around whatever he was trying to say. "Crete'll be looking out for you ... but you need to use your best judgment. You don't know what kind of folks you might run into up there, and ... you just need to mind your business and do your work and stay out of anything that don't concern you. And if anything makes you uncomfortable, let me know. I can give him some reason you gotta quit."

"What're you talking about?" I asked. I could tell he wasn't joking around, but I couldn't imagine what had him worried. "I'll be renting canoes and selling worms. It's not exactly dangerous."
But that's not true. And the danger is not the job itself, or even "stranger danger" -- it's as close as family and neighbors, and Lucy's father's decision to keep the details to himself leaves it up to Lucy to discover them. As did her mother before her.

Creepy, suspenseful, deeply human, and sustained by strands of loyalty, love, and friendship, the summer in front of Lucy is McHugh's many-layered portrait of a place, a community, a time, and the dangerous edge that some people continue to hone between men and beautiful women. In turn, it's Lucy's task to discover what happened to her mother -- and perhaps to save herself from repeating the same tragedy. But how will she know for sure, if nobody will tell her?

She'll find out. And so does the reader. McHugh sets it up so that every added scrap of the past revealed becomes another reason to follow Lucy, to whatever she can salvage for her life.

Lucy Burdette, MURDER WITH GANACHE, a Key West Food Critic Mystery

Things I loved about reading Lucy Burdette's fourth Key West Food Critic Mystery:

1. The Key West setting (it's snowing here! and I am determined to go visit Burdette's almost mythical location).

2. Newspaper writer, restaurant critic, and recipe tester Hayley Snow, an amateur sleuth who makes decisions that are smart and sometimes inspired -- and has the right kind of stubbornness to sit down with the somewhat out-of-balance kids at the local teen shelter to track a missing girl.

3. Visiting (on the pages) Ernest Hemingway's house and its feline residents -- more than once!

4. Deft handling of politics and persuasion within a local police force. It's not easy to be the amateur sleuth who keeps pushing for more investigations!

5. The recipes. Yes, it's true: the chocolate ganache recipe is in the back (that's cream + chocolate, mmm). But so is the one for the lime cupcakes that Hayley is making as the book opens, for the friend's wedding that's vulnerable to "issues" as crime steps in, and ... Nope, not going to spoil the plot. Get your own copy -- mine's acquiring some chocolate fragrance as I settle in to re-read certain choice pages (smile).

Thanks, "Lucy" -- a.k.a. Roberta Isleib. This was fun!

Monday, March 10, 2014

English Mystery Series by Elly Griffiths: THE OUTCAST DEAD

This is the sixth Ruth Galloway mystery from Elly Griffiths, who earned a blurb from Louise Penny ("gripping"!) and won the 2010 Mary Higgins Clark Award. And THE OUTCAST DEAD just goes to show that there are always more good mysteries ahead to read, because ... this is the first time I've heard of the author and the series, but I definitely want to collect all the earlier books and go on reading these!

In some ways, Griffiths provides us with a bit of a replacement for Elizabeth Peters, because Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist. But Griffiths takes us into modern archaeology instead, opening with a ceremony at Norwich Castle to bless the bodies in the paupers' graves, the "outcast dead," that Galloway witnesses because of her curiosity and general sadness about those long-forgotten people on the edge of society. Not far away from them is Ruth's own exciting discovery, probably the body of the long-lost Mother Hook, a criminal whose exploits are part of local child-frightening lore. Hanged in 1867 for the murder of five children, Mother Hook (she has a primitive hook prosthetic replacing one hand) is an entirely unexpected discovery, a body outside the usual burial ground, undisturbed in all these years of maneuverings at the castle.

As the discoverer, Ruth, a relatively reserved and shy person (nerd might be accurate), has fallen into the toils of her boss, who is engineering a visit from a TV crew. And it looks like Ruth will have to take a major role in front of the camera. But at the same time, she's distracted when her close friend DCI Harry Nelson tackles the death of a child nearby, followed almost immediately by two child abductions where the criminal seems to be targeting women who use day care -- that is, who allow a "Childminder" into their lives.

Griffiths has a complex community to draw us into, where children are not just delivered to a "childminder" when parents work, but parenting itself is also shared among Ruth and her friends, whose children range from infants to teens. If I'd read the previous five books, I would have followed this a bit better, but it wasn't all that hard to catch up. Griffiths is expert in revealing the depth of character -- and the ready access she provides to Galloway's emotions and impulses makes the quick plot with its unexpected twists especially intriguing.

I'm also hooked on the terrain of this one -- flat lands near the beaches of eastern England. In Ruth Galloway's eyes, her landscape is layered with the history and stories of the people who've lived there centuries ago. And as she probes the evidence around her Mother Hook discovery and the added information coming from an attractive American professor visiting the scene, she looks in new ways at the complex relationship of parent, child, babysitter, and ... baby snatcher.

A good solid mystery with a lot of character. It hits American markets tomorrow (came out in January in the UK), and deserves a warm welcome.

Not Just French, but Parisian: New Aimée Leduc Investigation, MURDER IN PIGALLE

Cara Black takes us to one neighborhood of Paris after another, each the focus of one book in her Aimée Leduc investigations. This is the fourteenth, and the action involves the district of Pigalle -- nightclubs, bars, the kind of entertainment you don't want your kids knowing about (and maybe not your mom either, if you're not French!). So there's a double irony that Leduc's sleuthing keeps taking her back to this sketchy neighborhood, after dark, in the search for Zazie, the 13-year-old daughter of one of Leduc's friends. It's an investigation with urgency, because Zazie (what a kid!) has been following Aimée Leduc's example, trying to investigate a serial rapist who's terrorizing the neighborhood and a genuine threat Zazie's own peers. Has her "snooping" (complete with taking photos) made her a threat to a seasoned criminal? As the hours tick past, Aimée is increasingly sick at heart, knowing that kidnappers and molesters who hold a child longer are much less likely to release that child.

Complicating Leduc's trademark pavement-trotting in kitten heels and stylish clothing is her own condition: pregnant. She's got the world's longest lasting case of morning sickness, an obvious bulge on her belly, medical appointments to keep (with her assistant sleuth René backing her up, making suggestions about food and baby names and childbirth), and her emotions about "the Bump" are calling up new reactions to a missing child and danger to other girls. And then there's the matter of the baby's father. But that's too complicated to handle during this investigation, yes? No?

Black's Paris is full of energy and enthusiasm, as well as crime and love, and with Aimée Leduc, the most obvious choices are often half thought through, in the rush to uncover evidence, find a trail, do something, now! The combination of threats in MURDER IN PIGALLE drives the plot at breakneck speed -- for me, this is the best Aimée Leduc investigation yet!

Of course, there are a few threads left dangling for the next book (smile). But all in all: a lively and highly satisfying (and very Parisian!) mystery!

PS -- It's from Soho Crime. Of course!

Diversion: Leland Kinsey, WINTER READY (Vermont Poet)

Every now and then, I review some poetry -- and as we race toward April, which is National Poetry Month, I'm reading and thinking about poems in between crime novels. (I'll write about those this evening, too, but separately.)

You know about the "localvore" movement in food, yes? Green Writers Press in Brattleboro, Vermont, is applying the same ideas to books: gathering regional authors, "giving voice to writers who will make the world a better place," and designing, printing, and marketing their books "at home" -- in Vermont. Dede Cummings, designer and publisher, sent me an advance copy of her newest offering, being released on March 20, and it's a gem: WINTER READY, a 96-page book of poems from Vermont poet Leland Kinsey.

I grew into my Vermont boots just up the road from Lee, and his retired-teacher mom hosted a playgroup where my children learned to love Rice Krispie bars, and to take turns with other kids. But I didn't really know Lee, other than to say hello, and even though we cross paths in the poetry world, I still don't know him well -- he's a private person, and I'm not one to push.

Which makes it especially pleasing that in WINTER READY, Leland Kinsey opens both the natural world and an interior landscape of exploring, testing, and sometimes grieving. He presents forms that have the wind-urged "give" of barn walls: lined up straight along the beams, but slowly swaying a bit, and with spaces where a board's been pulled for a view, now that the cows don't need care. Swallows fly past your face; owls speak; oldtimers give half a story, expecting you to work out the rest.

There are rhythms in here, the quiet rhythms of spoken speech, of narrative -- the lines break the light into emphasis on small details, but there's nothing forced. I found in here a sense of empty nesting: of examining who we are once the kids are grown and gone, once the barn is empty, once the older relatives who needed us have slipped away. I clipped the obituary from the local paper when Lee's father passed on, last year, but that's not at the heart of this book -- in spite of a clever poem at the end that salutes him. Instead, there are gardens -- the ones at the end of a harvest season -- and trees that outlive their time, and woods that overtake open spaces, teasing you into thinking you've remembered the wrong place, when actually the foundation or cabin is in front of you, just overgrown.

"Double Digging the Garden" catches a lot of this, contemplating the process of putting the garden to bed by digging in nutrients and turning the soil, where so much has grown:
My wife and I now have way too much
of all of this. Our children are gone.
Pets, large and small, which used to consume the extra
have long since died.
But the work remains, and the seasons pull the work into place again, again. The poet comments at the end,
Each summer I bring friends out
to note and share the display and produce.
Here is life's habit on grand exhibit
and the hard work hidden.
Many of the poems name birds or plants in exquisite detail, and I felt the urge to read the lines aloud to a group of grade-school kids who might not know the species but would hang on the sounds of the species. "Naming without revealing," I jotted down for myself, thinking about the way Lee allows the creatures to pass by, whether on the page or in the cranberry bog.

Some phrases caught my inner ear and lodged there, ringing: "ended his lovely trouble," "when I glass them," "I damp soil for" -- and as I grew into the phrasing, I found some marvelous endings, to "Horseshoeing" ("But any path to or through / the past is an icy road, / whatever the pace, / distorted by speed") and to "Quebec City Boardwalk" ("the unmeasured plainchant / of these ordinary wonders / plays on").

The poem I know I'll be most looking forward to re-reading each time I pick up this collection again will be "Deer Camp," a war poem of sorts that begins, "The drive in is long / over bad logging roads gone worse." I hope to read this one aloud to a friend soon -- and I shall let my "older self" keep reading it, for the layers hidden in a long story of family and change.

Leland Kinsey's WINTER READY is available on March 20 directly from Green Writers Press (click here), but also ready for preorder online at the big online distributor, if that's how you roll. If you give yourself a copy, you'll be better fitted to make the most of April.