Monday, May 19, 2014

Best Book of the Season: THE HOLLOW GIRL, Reed Farrel Coleman

Thanks to an early review copy, I read THE HOLLOW GIRL a couple of months ago. It's my custom to review when a book becomes available, for the sake of readers -- just my way of doing it -- but a quick tally of the days of waiting since then would probably show that I've only had one or two days when I did not think of THE HOLLOW GIRL at some point.

Yep, that's how good it is.

First, if you're a Coleman fan already, you probably know this is the ninth and last in the Moe Praeger series; the private investigator has turned 65, and the author is taking him off the job at last. Moe's been ill, he's had major personal losses, he's ready for something gentler. (Check out Coleman's earlier ruminations on this, at the "Type M for Murder" blog, here.) And if you're new to this skillful storyteller's work, yes, you can definitely read THE HOLLOW GIRL without having consumed the preceding eight books. In fact, you won't be as distracted that way by the appearance of Nancy Lustig, a figure from Moe's past, from his first case as a PI. Still, it makes a fine circle of tension right off the bat, knowing Moe is only agreeing to step away from his blossoming alcoholic routine, in order to commit to a situation where he has amends to make and leftover doubts to resolve, as Moe recognizes:
Siobhan's scalpel cut her mother deep, yet Nancy's distress was a portal through which I eagerly swam. I had a lifetime full of my own disasters, great and small. A life full of small victories and guilty defeats. Wounds, desperation, and sex make a potent, explosive cocktail. I hoped this one wouldn't blow up in our faces.
In addition, Coleman creates an entirely up-to-date "missing persons" situation -- one that includes web videos, a blog, a sense of Internet life for Nancy's missing daughter Siobhan that could be fraudulent as heck ... or could mean the rebellious young woman is still alive. But alive and free, or alive and captive? Torturing her mother, or being tortured by the videographer?

As Coleman becomes enmeshed in the Internet publicity on the case, and shackled by the crime's increasing horrors, there's as much suspense over whether he can survive this case as a healthy adult or a personal wreck, as there is suspense over whether he'll force a break in the case in time for the probable victims.

And about those other Coleman books in the Moe Praeger series? No sweat. After you've read this one, odds are, you'll be stocking up on the others. Moe Praeger's investigations were always worth reading; now, with the finale, they're all the way to classic. Move 'em onto the re-read shelf. I like Dennis Lehane's comment on the series: "These are soulful, beautifully written investigations into an American Dream that slipped through our fingers when no one was looking."

British Police Procedural: UNDER A SILENT MOON, Elizabeth Haynes

Often I like the design of a British-edition book cover better than the American version. For the newest suspenseful investigation from Elizabeth Haynes, however, I think the American one lost out by moving the book's Karin Slaughter blurb to the rear instead of the front of the jacket. Slaughter recommended that readers "surrender to this obsessive thriller." Any Slaughter fan will instantly know this is a title to pick up.

But if you're not yet a Karin Slaughter reader, here are some additional reasons to pick up UNDER A SILENT MOON:
* Female investigator protagonist with great layers of character and believable complications: DCI Louisa Smith, running her first major crime investigation.
* Insight into how a major crime team functions, including the British positions on the team.
* Insight in terms of how a team member can get pulled onto the "dark side" of the investigation, because of careless gaps in maturity and sloppy ethics ... and that turns out to embody the compelling and highly suspenseful twists of the book.
* Lively page-turning pace (although at times slightly choppy due to multiple points of view).
Here's a sample:
"Right, let's have some hush, please," Lou said, hoping her voice sounded more commanding than she felt. The briefing room was packed. Andy Hamilton was sitting right at the front; next to him was Barry Holloway. Her detective sergeant, Sam Hollands, was right at the back, her mouth set in a determined line. Lou knew she would probably never have so many people at a briefing again; by the time the first week was over, she would lose people to other duties and would have to beg, borrow, or steal to get them back. If, heaven forbid, the case was to drag on into months, she would end up with only a couple of the people here now.

She needed a quick arrest.
Haynes added another quirk to this, her fourth book (released last fall in the UK; April 2014 in the USA): She slips investigation documents into the text, letting them deliver some of the details and clues -- check out her explanation here:

I found the documents mostly distracting -- it's the people that pull me forward, even in a plot-driven investigation. But I'll put Haynes on my watch list from now on: She's so good, and the book held my interest so well, that I want to see how her crime fiction continues to grow.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

World War I Espionage from David Downing: JACK OF SPIES, Compelling New Series

David Downing's well-established espionage series set in Berlin during the Second World War wrapped up after six books, reaching the end of the war and a more settled situation for John Russell, reluctant spy finally able to settle with his family in a safe place. The series end didn't surprise readers, but it certainly brought a sense of loss.

Fortunately, Downing's opened a new series, this time opening in 1913, before the domino-game of catastrophes that would engage so many nations that it would become the first "world" war -- the Great War, the war to end all wars (ah, if only). In a sweep of geography and exhilaration that an elegant man of the time could encompass, Downing's quick-paced adventure for protagonist Jack McColl begins in a German-occupied section of China (did you know? I didn't!) and roars across the Pacific to San Francisco, then to Chicago, New York and New Jersey (the mills of Paterson!), and at last across another ocean to Ireland, that hotbed of rebellion and skilled revolutionaries.

Those who already know Downing's craft realize his deft hand with romantic passion and delicately portrayed merging of lust and love -- and like the "Station" series (his Berlin one), JACK OF SPIES includes a serious affair of the heart: Jack McColl's quick infatuation with an Irish-descent adventuress, Caitlin Hanley, turns out to be far deeper than a traveler's passion. But Caitlin has her own motives and powerful allies, and her motives don't align with John's; how long can the relationship survive their opposite loyalties and missions?

What I especially appreciate about Downing's writing is his willingness to admit that spies have feelings, often uncomfortable and distressing and even disabling, brought about both by the situations of hidden lives and danger, and their own adaptive rootlessness. Here's a bit from JACK OF SPIES as Jack McColl deals with the way deaths keep piling up around him, not just in war-poised China but even among the hills of San Francisco:
As he watched the hills of San Francisco draw ever closer from the bow of the ferry, McColl tried to shake off the numbness that seemed in danger of immobilizing him. Jatish was dead, and that was that -- he had no time to mourn a man he'd known for only an hour. ...

He'd been shown how ruthless the enemy was and he would have to be more vigilant. Disembarking, he scanned the waiting travelers with more concern than usual, double-checking several faces that instinct told him were innocent. In this job, he realized, paranoia could become second nature.
Although Downing is sometimes compared with that master of British spy fiction, John Le Carré, the literary link should be with Alan Furst, who also demonstrates the compelling process by which an ordinary person in an uneasy time can become a collaborator in the secret world of political maneuvers that demand nations and armies to follow. His mood isn't as pervasively dark as Furst's, yet the costs and deaths add up steadily, and by the end of JACK OF SPIES, a reader may be attentively waiting for more than the next book -- one waits for the inevitable conflict, whose roots are clearly exposed as McColl continues to accept his risky assignments.

Brought to us by Soho Crime ... wonder how many books the Great War will spin into, as Jack McColl is thrust into examining the loyalties and conflicts of the people and nations around him?

Local Fiction: THE STARLING GOD, Tanya Sousa

Not a mystery! But a local book that I'm glad to mention:

It's been a month or so since I finished reading THE STARLING GOD, by Coventry, Vermont, author (and sometimes publisher) Tanya Sousa. And I've read so many books since that one ... but every time I go outside, something from Sousa's novel comes to the foreground. I can't listen to a songbird, watch hawks and vultures hunt, or even see an empty bird's nest without realizing that my way of responding to all of these has shifted.

And that is an amazing effect for one novel.

Way back in 1972, Richard Adams brought out a similar novel, Watership Down, which became a huge hit. Here's the Wikipedia plot summary of that book from a generation ago:
In the Sandleford [rabbit] warren, Fiver, a young runt rabbit who is a seer, receives a frightening vision of his warren's imminent destruction. When he and his brother Hazel fail to convince their chief rabbit of the need to evacuate, they set out on their own with a small band of rabbits to search for a new home, barely eluding the Owsla, the warren's military caste.

The travelling group of rabbits finds itself following the leadership of Hazel, previously an unimportant member of the warren. They travel through dangerous territory, with Bigwig and Silver, both former Owsla, as the strongest rabbits among them. Eventually they meet a rabbit named Cowslip, who invites them to join his warren. However, when Bigwig is nearly killed in a snare, the rabbits realize the residents of the new warren are simply using them to increase their own odds of survival, and they continue on their journey.
Sousa's tale of starlings, doves, and even seagulls begins with a situation that has some parallels: A nestling is rescued by a kind woman whom most of the local birds revere as a god (she can rearrange plants, provide food, sometimes mend a broken wing, and lives in a way the birds can't comprehend). When she returns the bird to the yard, able to fly but clueless about seeking food or companions, the frightened little one meets ample assistance from a generous pair of doves -- who decide that this fledgeling is a "Chosen One" of the gods. Uplifted by such news, the new resident chooses the name SL'an for himself, a name that proclaims he will be both a Teller (i.e., news teller but also perhaps prophet) and a Seeker of knowledge.

But SL'an is a starling, not a dove, and when he attempts to join his own kind, the early persuasions of the doves (and his courteous nature) turn out to make him a poor fit for the local flock. Danger comes in several forms, and soon the bird is on his own quest to discover whether the "Gods" are truly all-knowing and wise, and whether there's a mission for his life.

Sousa's plotting and dialogue reveal a gifted storyteller who's embraced her own message of Seeking and Telling. The path of the Starling God -- if that's what he is! -- doesn't require quite as much terror as the Watership Down rabbits endure, but the sense of flock and community is strong and vibrant. The book comes through on all of its promises, and is a welcome addition to the parables of our time.

Available online from the usual marketers, and also directly from the publisher: