Monday, September 22, 2014

Lee Child, Rose Solari, Justin Kramon: Mysteries in Three Subgenres

It would be hard to deliberately find three books as different from each other as the three I'm presenting today -- and yet they are all clearly mysteries. And each can be recommended for the skills of its author, the vivid characters and lively action, and the twists that require resolution -- as well as the crime-solving involved.

Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel, PERSONAL, leaves behind the cross-country journeys that took Reacher at last to meet the woman in a secure office who seemed to understand him so well; I really enjoyed that sequence, so I wasn't sure of my footing as this new adventure opened. Then again, Reacher's not so sure of himself in this one, either -- a pair of military intelligence officers who've worked with him over the years summon him to international action, tracking down a sniper who threatens to destabilize an upcoming G8 meeting, where the leaders of the most developed economies plan to meet in Europe. Because there's good reason to think Reacher has already captured this sniper once before, he's the ideal tracker. More than that: The sniper has a personal grudge against him that might be useful in drawing the criminal out of hiding before the governmental meeting is scheduled.

If you're already a Lee Child/Jack Reacher fan, PERSONAL will strike you as classic: the high-tension and violent action, Reacher's own scruples, his ability to partner for the job with a strong woman and then to protect her, and his deep mistrust for all organizations, including his own military group. The writing is practiced, smooth, swift -- there are no distractions from the rapid pace, other than Reacher's questions and doubts that ripple among the scenes. And if you've never read one of these, you'll be a bit baffled from time to time in terms of why Reacher is this way, but it shouldn't interfere with enjoying the thriller. I'm a fan; I enjoyed this one at least as much as any of the preceding titles in the series, and I learned more than I'll ever use (I hope!) about snipers.

A SECRET WOMAN by Rose Solari was actually first released in 2012, but the author is also a poet and her newest collection of poems, The Last Girl, is scheduled for November release -- which may be why her publisher sent out some copies of the mystery this year for reviews. If you couldn't quite swallow the male tilt of some recent "mystical" mysteries, this secret-knowledge-journey mystery founded in women's quests could be the perfect antidote. Louise Terry's paintings are diverging from the woman-centered theme promoted by the arts co-op she helped to found -- and an unexpected inheritance from her mother, passed along to her by a Catholic priest at a retreat, sends her to England to rediscover why her mother abandoned her, and what mystic and historic threads may be replaying in her mind and her paintings. There's enough crime tucked in to keep the book well inside the mystery genre, and in many ways it's more believable than, say, a Dan Brown confection. I enjoyed the cross-generation discoveries and the very vivid tensions from artists manipulating each other. The ending wouldn't rank high on my favorites list, so I wish Solari had left off the final scene -- but even so, it's a good read and kept me engaged. If you love mystical mysteries, grab it.

Justin Kramon's creepy suspense novel THE PRESERVATIONIST fits the newest label on the shelves, "new adult" -- Julia Stilwell, a plucky but vulnerable college student, gets caught in a classic psycho twist between two men, one of whom is very, very dangerous. Will she figure it out in time to protect herself, body and soul and especially mind? The hardcover came out in 2013, and this month the softcover is on hand. Brace for plenty of suspense. Knowing what the stalker is thinking makes it extra hard to be patient with the intended victim ... fortunately, Kramon also has a deft touch with unexpected humor, and carries the twists and turns smoothly to an unexpected but satisfying wrap-up. Oh: Don't give this to a college student. They've got enough scary things to worry about already.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Classic Mystery Puzzle With Dash of Romance: HARBOR ISLAND, Carla Neggers

The new Sharpe and Donovan mystery from Carla Neggers, HARBOR ISLAND, came out just as the garden demanded harvesting and pickling, but I managed to stay up extra late and keep reading -- because Neggers is a storyteller who constantly nudges the next "and then ..." into place.

FBI Agent Emma Sharpe's new status as fiancée of another FBI agent, Colin Donovan, hasn't yet been announced to her family, and there's always a fresh conflict of interest for her on the job: Which is more her core, her agent status or her family's profession in solving art crimes? Added to that, Colin's still wondering how she'll handle the engagement, considering that her past includes a season in Maine as a postulant -- not quite a nun, but to Colin and his brothers, there's not much difference.

True to classic Neggers style, the author juggles Emma and Colin's uncertainties with the way each of them is called to step into danger to chase the art thief they've hunted for in Ireland in a preceding book. And now the thief seems to have followed them home to New England and may be turning violent -- a sudden death by gunshot of an informant can't be a coincidence, can it?

HARBOR ISLAND is also a traditional puzzle mystery, as it sets up a small cast of characters and moves the question around the group: Motive? Means? Opportunity? Will it be Emma or Colin who finally cracks the case?

A big part of the charm of this series is its settings, from Boston to Maine to Ireland and back again. Count on each clue holding some meaning, neat twist of plot, and tidbits about Irish whiskey tucked in often. This isn't quite a "cozy" mystery, as the sleuths are professionals, not amateurs, but between the romance and the landscapes, it's a gentle read, ideal for unwinding by an autumn woodstove with a cup of tea and a cat. Or something even sweeeter.

14th Peter Diamond Investigation: THE STONE WIFE, Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey's nicely paced British crime fiction takes the old-fashioned taste for classic Agatha Christie, and updates it with quirky humor and just enough staff friction to make Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond tear out a bit more hair. Lovesey begin his crime writing in 1969, winning a 1970 award for Wobble to Death, which combined his knowledge of Victorian athletics (who knew!?) with neat plot twists and likeable characters.

With this season's release, Lovesey steps onto the hallowed ground of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales -- the "stone wife" is a relief carving of the Wife of Bath, one of Chaucer's more ribald narrators, and the book opens with the massive stone at auction. Who's pushing the price beyond twenty thousand? How can the lightweight Professor Gildersleeve hang in with the bidding? And, strangest of all, why are three robbers in black face masks trying to hijack the auction? Ooops -- a fierce gesture of courage from the otherwise ignorable professor leads to a shot fired, and suddenly there's a death to investigate, as the would-be robbers panic and take off.

The investigation jams up quickly with problems: Chief Superintendent Diamond literally falls on the stone carving, damaging his office in his tumble; he has a plan for Sergeant Ingeborg Smith to dig into the crime, while the youngest member of his team "takes initiative" and turns Smith's careful work into a dangerous disaster; and motives abound for an ex-wife, another professor, an art hound, and more.

Awarded the 2000 Cartier Diamond Dagger from Britain's Crime Writers Association, Lovesey (born in 1938, author of more than 30 books; I also like his Victorian series with Sergeant Cribb, which was a TV hit) hasn't slowed down, although his characters are a bit less fractured and a bit sweeter in their old age. THE STONE WIFE will entertain a reader for several autumn evenings, or can go in the "to be read" stack to grace the shorter days ahead. Kudos to Soho Crime for sustaining this stylish series.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A New Glasgow Crime Fiction Voice: Malcolm Mackay

Denise Mina. Tana French. William McIlvanney. Stuart Neville. Whether the setting is Ireland or urban Scotland, these authors authors bring us dark crime fiction that confronts the "other side" of British dominion: the long shadow of war and domination, whether invited or not, that seems to justify a bitter and violent response from a conquered culture.

On a recent trip "across the border" to Canada, Dave and I prowled the shelves at Brome Lake Books, looking for authors we might not have come across here in the States. The book I brought home was THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay. It's "Glasgow noir," told from the point of view of the criminal underworld -- but it's also a wonderful sort of "Heart of Darkness," tugging at the results of one "necessary" murder. There's an insistent intimacy to the way the characters show their lives, even told in the third person; who'd have guessed that sociopaths could seem so honorable and likeable? Ooops, it's fiction, right? (But think Whitey Bulger and you won't be far off.)

Mackay's books are spinning across the Atlantic, and at least the three that make up his Glasgow Trilogy are pretty easy to order; his fourth, The Night the Rich Men Burned, is harder to find at this point. But that's okay -- I devoured THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER and I'm glad to take my time adding the others to my shelf. Check out the author's website if you have a moment.

MARY: THE SUMMONING, YA Horror from Hillary Monahan

Campfire season lingers here in Vermont, through the crisp fall evenings. But the summer is over, and most of the sleepovers are, too.

But aren't those great memories? I still relish the story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck, learned at an overnight with neighborhood kids. And there's the one with the voice that calls out, "Mary, I'm on the second step ..." Ooooh!

I wish I'd had a copy of MARY: THE SUMMONING at the start of the summer (or back in the days of those teen get-togethers). It took me a couple of days to shake off the shivers from this deftly written and quick-paced horror story featuring four teenage girls and a mirror -- and a malevolent spirit who won't leave them alone. And then, of course, I wanted to tell the story to anyone else who wanted to feel really scared.

This is Hillary Monahan's debut, but you wouldn't know from the writing, which is tight and exciting. It's based in part on the folklore of "Bloody Mary" -- which I looked up and found is every bit as shivery as this book (click here for the folklore). If you have a teen you'd like to impress or delight with a blood-curdling tale where determination and inner strength matter, pick up a copy.

Just make sure to leave time to read it yourself, first!


A glimpse of what Shauna discovers:
I wished Jess had known what could happen so she could have prepared us, so we would have known to run long and run far to get away from Bloody Mary.

Then it hit me. Maybe Jess had known. The pictures on the wall. She'd taken the pictures down. Why would she suspect Mary could be anywhere other than a proper mirror? She'd said safety, but that was a bizarre leap to make.

"Oh no. Come on," I whispered. "No."
And later:
Scree. Scree.


I shot up in bed, the cuts on my back screaming. My vanity trembled. My plastic bucket of makeup tumbled over ... There was no way I could sleep in this house if she was in the mirror. I counted down from three and jerked the robe aside. There was no face there, but written backward in sludgy black tar was a single word that sent me falling to the floor and sobbing.


New on This Week's Bookshelf: Neggers, Child, French, Turner, and Briefly, Penny

I purchased these and they came by mail this week, so count on reviews over the next few weeks -- I'm also working on a stack of advance review copies of other titles, and I'll probably interleave the two categories. But I wanted to let you know what I picked up most recently:

HARBOR ISLAND by Carla Neggers. Few realize this gifted author of romantic suspense is a Vermonter ... her multiple series span several police forces and take place on two continents. This one features Sharpe and Donovan. I always know a new Carla Neggers mystery means a deft plot twist, likeable sleuths, and a satisfying ending. I buy these "for me."

But I also can't resist Lee Child's Jack Reacher series -- where the pace drives me into staying up half the night, and Reacher has just enough honor and vulnerability to keep me wanting to know more. So I've picked up PERSONAL. Can hardly wait. (US cover on left, UK on right.)

The most depth and provocative ideas are sure to come in the Tana French book in my stack, THE SECRET PLACE. French rotates protagonists in her Dublin Murder Squad series and makes it clear how directly the crimes and sins of the past impact the present.

Which leads me to my fourth acquisiton: from poet and Iraq war veteran Brian Turner, the new memoir, MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Dave and I are already gently competing on who gets to read this one first -- we're passionate about Turner's writing, and the way he shows us both war and the human heart. No, it's not a mystery ... unless you count the enjoyable investigation of how Turner carries revelation and suspense and meaning into his pages.

Now, back to those other books I've already savored and want to mention -- oh yes, one more quick tidbit. I've changed my mind about something I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: I'm not going to review Louise Penny's new Armand Gamache mystery, THE LONG WAY HOME, in any detail. I think Penny dropped a lot of items in this one that should have been woven more effectively into the book, and I'm not happy with the way she tipped a crime into a book that otherwise reads as a series of personal investigations into art and creativity. Fans of the series -- and I am definitely a fan! -- will want this anyway for the sake of the Three Pines characters, but I think it's best viewed as a draft of a better book she could have written. Those who explore her website or follow her newsletters know she's had a hard year personally, and I tip my hat to her for completing her work within the yearly publishing schedule that her fame now demands. Everyone deserves a "pass" at least once in a writing career, and I'll let this book slide without further comment.

Monday, September 01, 2014

SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS, Lee Wait: Death, Deception, and Delightful Mystery

This is Lee Wait's seventh "Shadows" mystery featuring Maggie Summer, a dealer in antique prints whose New England escapades have included falling hard for another antique dealer -- but Will now lives in Maine, and Maggie in New Jersey, and both of them have reasons to think they won't be working the circuit of antique shows together in the future.

So Maggie's arrival in Waymouth, Maine, to join Will and his frail but indomitable Aunt Nettie, looks like trouble even before there's a hint of criminal activity creeping into the Christmas season. Maggie's implementing plans to adopt a daughter (maybe even two sisters!), and Will's made it clear he doesn't want any part of fatherhood. Despite the frictions the two had around personal secrets in the previous book (Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding), Maggie hasn't been candid with Will about how steadily she's moving toward being an adoptive mom.

And Will's surprise for Maggie is the oversized house he's considering buying, one where he can open an antiques mall of sorts, and which will tie him down even further. It only takes a few pages to prove there's no ready solution to the complications in front of the twosome.

Still, Aunt Nettie and her friends have the kind of hard-earned life wisdom that Maggie needs. And when one of the circle turns up dead on Christmas morning, Maggie's own stubbornness and determination to help the elderly friends turns out to be what the small-town residents need most.

The Maine descriptions in SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS are a delight, from the details of the holiday with Aunt Nettie, to the tourist-style trip Will creates in downtown Portland for Maggie. Lee Wait's own passion for her adopted state comes through beautifully, along with Will's intent to show Maggie a wonderful, magical time for her holiday.

But a death on Christmas day? Just as Maggie had declared to Aunt Nettie that the day had been perfect? It's Will who breaks the news of caregiver Carrie Folk's death to the two women after taking a phone call from his police officer friend:
"Was there an accident?" Aunt Nettie asked. "She seemed well last night."

"No. Worse than that. She was murdered. Nick's calling everyone who was [the friends'] party yesterday, in case someone noticed anything he should know about. Anything unusual."

Aunt Nettie nodded slowly. "Will, would you call Nicky back? I know it's Christmas Day, but I think he should come over here. I have something he needs to see."
When Aunt Nettie reveals that the victim, Carrie, attempted recently to blackmail her, and that the caregiver may have had other targets as well, Maggie's curiosity is quickly fired up -- even as the police take over. After all, one woman listening to another, well, that's a powerful exchange. Soon Maggie suspects that the blackmail story isn't quite the whole truth of what's in Aunt Nettie's past.

I loved discovering what Aunt Nettie and her friends were really hiding, along with Maggie as she persuades the ladies to reveal the twists of their past, involving even the Bath Iron Works and effects of the Second World War. And Maggie's thinking fast on her feet: "How would Carrie Folk have known what you did so long ago?"

Even as she starts to work with the circle of older ladies, Maggie's under pressure to "behave" as a proper out-of-town girlfriend on the scene, rather than the experienced amateur sleuth she has become, as Nick orders her, "And don't do anything dangerous. Anything which might be even remotely hazardous to anyone else's life. All right?"

Right. That's not going to solve the case very quickly, is it? Still, some undercover sleuthing may keep Maggie's mind of what she suspects is going to be a painful collapse of her tender romance with Will. Ouch.

And what she discovers -- well, I think it's one of the best and most intriguing plot twists that Wait has created for this plucky and outspoken newcomer to the fiercely protective community of Waymouth, Maine. In fact, I think I'll put my copy of Wait's book on the shelf near the holiday books, so I can read it a second time as December arrives. And of course I'll keep an eye on the author's website at, as there's a new Maine series coming from this author in January.

What a great way to fill the bookshelf! And let's see, who's on my holiday list to get a copy of this quick-paced and charming mystery ... naughty and nice, that's SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS, for sure!