Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The BIG Questions of Our Lives: SUMMER OF THE DEAD, Julia Keller

It's publication day for Julia Keller's newest West Virginia mystery featuring scrappy county prosecutor Bell Elkins and her team -- especially Sheriff Nick Fogelsong. And I have two copies arriving in today's mail, because another Bell Elkins book means another hard look at the tragic forms that love and passion can take, the ones that lead to crime.

Keller, who was born in West Virginia, offers us the hardscrabble town of Akers Gap and its surrounding mountains, where coal is not just a resource but a lifeline and also crippling. In this third in the series (after A Killing in the Hills and Bitter River), Bell Elkins is faced with what looks like a serial killer in her territory, someone making the nights terminally unsafe. That's high pressure on her and the sheriff. And as the public pressure rises to find the killer and stop the murders, Bell's badly handicapped by her commitment to house her sister Shirley, still on probation after release from a prison term for the death of the sisters' father many years ago.

And Shirley's making things really tough on Bell's professional standing: Swept up in an investigation of a low-life bar knifing, Shirley makes a point of having a "get out of jail free" card in her relationship to Bell. Cut the tie? No -- there are reasons Bell feels like she owes more than she can pay, to her dodgy, emotionally broken, and unpleasant sis.

So in addition to investigating the murders -- yes, of course there will be connections to the drug trade in the region, which Keller has already painted so vividly during Bell's two previous investigations -- Bell is chasing her sister and reliving the early trauma of her own life. And she's got to do it without her usual anchor of taking care of her teenaged daughter.

Keller spins the risks and dangers at a ferocious pace. We're inside some other characters too, including Lindy Crabree, a coal miner's daughter doing the best she can to keep her failing father comfortable in a very bizarre way. As clues and twists pull Bell back toward Lindy and this outwardly different father-daughter relationship, personal risk to Bell rises drastically.

But Keller also pulls the reader firmly onto Lindy's side. And her descriptions of mountain life braid a love for the region with an understanding of what we all sacrifice for the people and places we love -- even when those people and places may kill us. Keller's deft touch allows her to insert startlingly vivid chunks of description, even while Bell races toward a confrontation with the killer or killers involved:
Freddie's long white Silverado truck was still parked in front of the house. He always parked it there, leaving the driveway free as a a workspace for his loving labors on the Thunderbird, which he kept at the upper end of the concrete slab, next to the house. The high polish on the Thunderbird's tubular flanks gave it a sleek, missile-like look. You could tell how much Freddie Arnett loved this car, how much he'd fussed over it, gushed over it, pampered it; it had been unconditionally adored. Same was true for his grandson, Bell guessed. She knew how tempting it was to give everything to a beloved child, to make any sacrifice. It wasn't always the right thing to do -- it was almost never the right thing to do -- but you did it, anyway. Couldn't help yourself.

"Okay, old man," Bell murmured. Even if someone had been standing right next to her, they couldn't have made out the words; her voice was soft and filled with grim wonder. "What happened here? Who the hell did this to you -- and why?"

It took her a moment to realize that she was talking to the dead. And another moment to realize that it didn't bother her one bit.
Keller's mysteries earn high praise from crime fiction pro Michael Connelly, and it's well deserved. Deeply conflicted characters that are worth caring about; hard lives that lead some to crime, and some (like Lindy) to powerful self-sacrifice; a region of West Virginia that's been left behind in many ways but that suffers from the same pressures of our cities and suburbs; all of this, Keller puts on the table.

And she reminds us that whether in crime or in our own lives, scars are rarely a sign of a closed door on our past. Sometimes they cover shrapnel that has to emerge in its own time, as painful and dangerous in its removal as in the original explosions that lodge it within us.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Intriguing Radio Interviews with Louise Penny: "There Is No Peace Without Courage"

If you'd like to hear Louise Penny discussing her new August 26 release, The Long Way Home, here are two links:

-- The NPR interview that aired this morning: click here.

-- The CBC interview that aired Saturday morning: click here. (My favorite quote from Louise: "There is no peace without courage.")

And of course, we hope you'll enjoy our notes from Saturday afternoon's pre-release launch party in Brome Lake, Quebec: here.

Brava, Louise!

Louise Penny and Brome Lake Books, A Rare Partnership

Yesterday Dave and I drove eagerly north, across the border into Canada, for the pre-release book party for Louise Penny's new Armand Gamache investigation, A LONG WAY HOME. I'll write about the book later -- today I'll share some of the event instead, hosted in Louise Penny's home neighborhood by Danny McAuley and Lucy Hoblyn of Brome Lake Books.

There can't be many partnerships of author and local bookshop as close as the one that Louise and Danny and Lucy share. Louise tucks bits of description of the shop into her Three Pines books; Danny and Lucy provide a special section of their shop in honor of this author, complete with a pair of comfortable reading chairs and an inscribed book table, as well as the cozy wall decor shown here.

And the respect and intelligent understanding between Louise Penny and Danny McAuley was especially evident in yesterday's on-stage conversation, where Danny asked the questions and Louise provided thoughtful responses that kept us riveted. Here are some examples:

[Danny recalled listening on the radio on the day when Louise announced her departure from a 20-year career at CBC, the Canadian national radio broadcasting firm.] Louise, smiling: "I don't think it's a complete coincidence that I spent 20 years at CBC and went on to write about murder. I also think the more screwed up you are, the better writer you are -- again, the CBC came in handy." She then turned serious and spoke of the "amazing acts of forgiveness" that she also witnessed in that job.

[Danny probed her time and efforts with research.] "A lot of it is good luck, I have to say, or grace." But it also involves following chains of interesting information. For example, the mention of the "Balm in Gilead" in Penny's new book was originally based on her visceral reaction to a long prayer expressed by a father in Marilynne Robinson's literary novel Gilead. But then she heard the hymn "There Is a Balm in Gilead" chanted, and it moved her in a new way. "I heard it when I needed to hear it, and I made note of it." The results are in the pages.

[Danny noted the use of a Canadian artist's work for the book jacket and asked about her connections to art and her research in that area.] Penny immediately confessed that her own upbringing focused on books, not art -- which instead comes into her life through her husband Michael, who is both an artist and a well-educated art appreciator. She watches her husband look at art, and listens hard to how he speaks of what he sees. "And that's what I write about -- I write about the emotions that art invokes, not about art itself."

[Likewise, Penny borrows her cooking expertise through both book research and the people around her.] "I don't cook -- at all, as Michael will tell you -- but I love eating, and I love food." So she writes with cookbooks around her, as well as poetry. "I want the books to be sensuous."

[What about the wonderful way in which significant bits of earlier books in her series come up in later titles and turn out to be related to the underlying plot?] "There are bits in Still Life [the first Armand Gamache investigation] and others that don't come to fruition until much later." But it isn't always because Penny planned it that way -- she also goes back to earlier books looking for details that she notes with "Oh, I could use this!"

[Danny's pursuit of what lies under this newest book led to Louise's reflections:] "The Long Way Home is really inspired initially by Homer's The Odyssey." She went back to re-read it, contemplating "the hero's journey" in it, as well as in her own high school love for Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In the newest book, Clara the artist persuades Gamache to help her try to find her missing husband Peter, and, says Penny, "the search for Peter is most of all the search for ourselves."

Many thanks to Danny, Lucy, and their team, as well as author Louise Penny, for an amazing afternoon. (Looking for a signed copy of the new book? Watch our ABE listings (link in right-hand column); Dave will be adding some this evening, and more on Monday and Tuesday, with the book's official release on August 26. Or, of course, you could treat yourself to a trip to Canada to visit Brome Lake Books -- where, Danny admits, lost wanderers sometimes arrive, looking for Penny's fictional town of Three Pines. They are pretty close together!)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Espionage in Turkey: A COLDER WAR by Charles Cumming

Charles Cumming brings back Thomas Kell for a second time in A COLDER WAR, the sequel to A Foreign Country  -- and it's a solid work of espionage suspense, playing off the secret forces of Britain, the United States, and Russia, in an irresistible setting, modern Turkey, especially Istanbul.

The death of Paul Wallinger, head of the MI6 operation in Turkey, opens a puzzle that begins to focus on a possible double agent (mole) in the British secret service. Under the micromanaging aegis of the agency's head, Amelia -- code-named C, and unfortunately, one of Wallinger's lovers -- Tom Kell gets a chance to resume his duties by investigating Wallinger's death. It's a dodgy assignment: If he succeeds, he may also topple a number of operations and individuals. And anything that goes wrong will be hung on his badly tarnished reputation, which has held him out of active service for too long already.

Cumming's work is often compared with that of John Le Carré, but other than sharing the same Service, MI6, there are few parallels. Tom Kell is much younger and less wounded, as well as less skilled, than George Smiley. Cumming offers him not just a chance to re-enter his career, but also a jump-start of the heart, as Kell fears his work has hardened him and has mixed feelings about the recent end of his marriage. Cumming also weaves in far more male-female interaction, from lust to love, than the older fictional spymasters have done. Meanwhile the work has none of the despair underlying Alan Furst's approach to the European conflicts, for example, or the sense of history's burden that Furst and similarly dark authors like Stuart Neville connect so potently to their plots.

Still, A COLDER WAR is a good read, with a plausible villain, several surprising twists, and a protagonist who is more likable than many a fictional spy and mole-chaser has been in the past. This won't linger on my read-it-again shelf, but I enjoyed it -- and perhaps most of all, the unexpectedly ominous foreshadowing of its ending.

Amateur Sleuth with Synesthesia: MURDER WITH A TWIST, Allyson K. Abbott

The second book in Allyson Abbott's "Mack's Bar" series is out! And there's still a chunk of summer left for reading it. That's double-good news, because MURDER WITH A TWIST is a well-written, neatly plotted, and thoroughly enjoyable addition to the hammock-or-chaise-lounge reading list. Abbott is a pseudonym of Wisconsin emergency-room nurse Beth Amos, a confessed adrenaline junkie who brings the quick pace and logical consequences of her double careers into spinning a tale.

Gender clarification first: Mack's Bar is owned by Mackenzie Dalton, whose father brought her into the business in downtown Milwaukee. Since her dad's death, she's sole owner, and doing well enough to expand her floor space, making room for a crowd of local crimesolvers who gather to solve test cases, pose crimes for each other to consider, and incidentally help out the local police force. Mack herself is a "secret weapon" for Detective Duncan Albright, who -- as detailed in the previous title, Murder on the Rocks -- has come to believe in Mack's special abilities, and wants to try using them to sort out criminals and their crimes. Mack can be, he proposes, a sort of human lie detector.

And she'll do this with her special perceptions formed by synesthesia. It's a neurological condition that makes a person's senses get tangled up: Sounds become colors, people become music and smells, and more. Because Mack picks up different sounds when someone's lying, for instance, she could be helpful on the latest case -- if she can handle the gruesome death of a mom, and the residual sense of pain and fear of her kidnapped toddler. Mack lays out the problem when Duncan takes her on a test case before that one, a possible suicide ... or not:
I had thought our little crime games, along with all the preparations I'd been making with Duncan over the past six weeks, would make a real crime scene easier to take. But that wasn't the case ... the hanging man before me that morning was real, frightening, and all too dead. 
While Mack focuses on narrowing the cascade of sounds and smells coming at her, the corpse overwhelms other evidence:
The sight of that bloated, purple face kept triggering a veritable locust plague of reactions. I shook my head, sighed, and looked down at the floor.
Eventually she sorts out impressions and turns out highly valuable to the investigation -- which ought to make the next case simpler, right? Except between the gruesome bloody killing and the child at risk, nothing's simple. Neither is the chemistry between Mack and the detective. And there are perils ahead, neatly layered with action at Mack's Bar.

This is the second synesthesia-based sleuth I've run into this year, so I paused to check on whether synesthesia is more common than I realized. From the Boston-based Synesthia Project, I found this:
How common is synesthesia? The short answer is that no one really knows. The long answer is anywhere from one in every 100,000 people to one in every 5,000 people, but it's difficult to get a good count because of the nature of synesthesia.
Well, that's good enough for me -- I may never have (knowingly) met a synesthete, but I'm willing to have them among the sleuths and especially to buy into the confusing and sometimes debilitating version of it that Abbott, aka Nurse Amos, portrays.

It turns out that a bar full of amateur sleuths is a great device, too, and I'm looking forward to reading more in this series. Amos also writes under a second pseudonym, Annelise Ryan, a forensics pro; I'll be watching for those also. Just goes to show what Dave and I rediscover every month: You think you know a lot of mystery authors and titles, right? But there's always a new good one to discover. Or, in the case of Beth Amos, two of them!

Friday, August 08, 2014

"Slasher Film" Plus Courage = WELCOME TO THE DARK HOUSE

Okay, 'fess up: Don't you sometimes feel just a little nervous when you get home alone to a dark house and something feels "funny" about the door, or the streetlight being out, or the light you thought you'd left on for yourself that isn't ... Or maybe for you it's when thieves hit the neighbor's house and you see it in the paper the next day and realize it was the same night you thought something was scratching outside your downstairs window but you couldn't wake up enough to check. Or -- you in the suburbs, maybe that 2 a.m. walk back home on a street you know well, but that suddenly has an eerie side to it?

Now go back 15 years (or 30, or 45), to when you were a teen and had your own particular nightmare, one that lingered maybe from when you'd been little. Something involving the closet, or your parents disappearing? I hope you don't have the real-life horror that Ivy Jensen has lived through as WELCOME TO THE DARK HOUSE (by Laurie Faria Stolarz) opens: the murder of her parents, in which she actually met the murderer, who called her "Princess" and who could be searching for her or even watching her now.

Ivy's stepping into a reality-show-in-the-making, hosted by horror film director Justin Blake and his creepy Nightmare Elf. Her motive for taking part: She thinks the e-mails she received about the adventure out in the country have promised she'll finally be free of her nightmares. But it turns out all seven of the teens called to the very creepy film set have earned themselves a place through their graphic descriptions of their own nightmares, and ... they are each about to face what they fear most. Alone.

WELCOME TO THE DARK HOUSE is the first book in a horror series for teens, one that repeatedly refers to slasher films (yep, gratuitous violence, from knife to ax to flesh-eating creatures) and that tilts from one character's point of view to the next, including screenplay segments from would-be filmmaker Parker Bradley, and lustful cheer from Shayla Belmont, not to mention the goofy but dangerous exploits of Garth Vader (care to guess what his dad liked?). And more.

I'm no fan of slasher films, but ... hey, I like this book! Every voice is distinct, every teen suffers from both a "nightmare" and a deep misunderstanding of what the world is going to do for her or him, and there are as many kinds of courage and folly as there are characters. The only down side is, this is the start of a series, and the ending is absolutely a hanging one ... How long do I have to wait for the next book from the amazing Laurie Faria Stolarz? (If you're a teen or purchasing books for teens, check out her website here: http://www.lauriestolarz.com.)

The adventures in this book are NOT what you want in your "how I spent my summer vacation" essay. On the other hand, reading this lively and fast-paced horror mystery is sure to give you fresh perspective on what really happened (or might have)!

Timothy Hallinan's Junior Bender Series: A Thief Who Solves Crimes

I ran across Timothy Hallinan's mysteries in his Poke Rafferty series, set in Thailand -- a series that includes all the best of international crime fiction, from exotic setting to eccentric characters to humor and affection. And it's a great series to collect, read, and enjoy.

But if I could take only one Hallinan series to a desert island, it's the Junior Bender series that I'd pack.

In this era of "everybody is writing some YA if they can," the series name and covers spark some confusion -- this is NOT a series for "young adults." "Junior" happens to be the name (and his real first name, thanks to his long-gone father) of Bender himself, initiated into the world of elegantly committed theft at the age of 17, by legendary southern California burglar Herbie Mott. Bender's immaculately conceived crimes involve careful scoping of a high-end Los Angeles-area home, meticulous timing (never staying too long inside), and following Herbie's advice: Never take something away that the owner can't afford, emotionally, to give up.

As an expert thief of fine items, Junior Bender also cultivates knowledge of the art world and its values, and of course a very specialized set of fences where he's known for bringing top material and being a savvy negotiator.

But Junior's career has two peculiar quirks to it. First, he has an ex-wife and a teenage daughter, both of whom he loves and respects, and he takes care to not embarrass them with his work. And second, he's burdened with a second career: Private investigator on behalf of crooks in his area.

It's in some ways an accidental second career. His friends need his help, is what it boils down to. But when Irwin Dressler, most powerful and wealthy criminal leader in California, takes an interest in Junior's (nonexistent) business plan, this "help out the criminals" line threatens to take over Junior's life, no matter his own disagreement with the notion. Dressler is not one of those people you can safely say "no" to. "
"Junior, I'm disappointed in you."

If Dressler had said that to me the first time I'd been hauled up to his Bel Air estate for a command appearance, I'd have dropped to my knees and begged for a painless death. He is, after all, the Dark Lord in the flesh. But now I'd survived him once ...
That's the start of the third in the series, THE FAME THIEF. And Irwin Dressler's point is, Junior is the only person in this line of work -- he has a solo franchise: "That whole thing you go going? Solving crimes for crooks? And living through it?" Dressler is sure Junior should capitalize on this monopoly, and expand.

Of course, it's inevitable that Dressler himself has a task he wants Junior to tackle: restoring the reputation of a once-glamourous Hollywood actress who lost her own career in a sting operation during decades ago. Why is Dressler so concerned about Dolores La Marr? Don't ask. By the time you realize Dressler's motive, it's way too late for Junior to get out of this complicated situation where it seems like a lot of people want to kill him. Such a "nice burglar boy" -- how come he's in so much trouble (again)?

Soho Crime cast aside all current publishing expectations, to pull all four of the books in this series into the market within a mere 18 months -- so when you finish devouring the fun and cleverness of THE FAME THIEF, you can backtrack to Crashed  and Little Elvises. Or just jet straight ahead to book 4, which hit the shelves a couple of weeks ago: HERBIE'S GAME.

You know how John Le Carré captured the longing of British spies to respect themselves and have a country worth being loyal to? (It's okay, not everyone's mystery reading ranges into espionage ... mine does, though.) How Tony Hillerman wove his Western Indian detectives in a blanket of hungry friendships, loyalties, and spiritual search? Or Michael Connelly put onto the pages the detective whose roots involve self-sacrifice but who can't bend enough to stay on good terms with his employer? How about Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache, who insists that there's goodness worth honoring and fighting for, even as his own police force and his retreat in the almost perfect village of Three Pines are repeatedly undermined by the forces of evil, in ways we recognize from our own efforts to make something good from our lives?

Heavens, don't assume from that long paragraph that Hallinan is writing "literary stuff." He's definitely not -- his mysteries focus on crime capers in the spirit of Donald Westlake and even Janet Evanovich (although there's more love than lust in Hallinan's books, actually).

But here's the startling part. HERBIE'S GAME, the fourth (and for the moment final) in the Junior Bender series, takes the best darned path I've read in years into struggling with what our fathers want for us, how we sometimes lose the connection with them on the surface, how we almost never lose the important ties to them, and why it's all worthwhile in the long run.

Of course, it's not his dad that Junior's having to exhume and explore here -- it's Herbie Mott, the man to brought him into his life of crime, nurtured his skills, taught him his values, and who ... oddly ... seems to have done that with a number of other fatherless young men. He taught Junior to be like Robin Hood. Sort of. Showed him why it's important to wear booties while burglarizing ("they have that DNA now"). And helped him to deal with his own past:
"Let me tell you something. ... Don't think you know everything about your father. You loved him at one point, I can tell, because you wouldn't be so angry now if you hadn't. Well, the father you hate now is the same person as the one you loved. Just don't -- put people in boxes like that. You have know idea whether you really know someone."
Turns out, Herbie himself is one of the people that Junior didn't know as well as he thought he did. And suddenly, Junior Bender is tangled up with a team of professional killers for hire, female and male, as he struggles to discover what Herbie's final scheme had been, and how it got the master of the trade murdered. There's some time pressure, too: If Junior can't solve this really quickly, it seems likely he'll either be killed himself or end up in jail. Or both.

I know I'll be re-reading the series. But most of all, HERBIE'S GAME is the book I'll be going back to. It's a great ride as crime fiction, as entertaining capers in Los Angeles, as insight into professional theft (I am definitely upgrading the house locks!). And it's one level more. Thanks, Tim Hallinan (and Soho Crime). Good one.