Friday, October 31, 2014

LEAVING TIME: Jodi Picoult Wraps Family, Grief, and Love in a Mystery, with Elephants

The teaser stories released ahead of the publication of Jodi Picoult's newest novel, LEAVING TIME, are small polished gems: "Where There's Smoke" enters the world of the has-been fortune teller Serenity Jones, who'll come to teen Jenna Metcalf's assistance in the novel; and "Larger Than Life" steps inside the scientific life of Jenna's missing (presumed dead) mom, Alice, in her work with elephants in Botswana. It's tempting to see the stories as exercises along the way to the overall "big book" -- character studies, where action reveals an interior landscape. I expect to read them over again, with as much pleasure.

LEAVING TIME is in many ways a traditional mystery: Jenna turns 13 and decides to hire the only private investigator she can afford, Virgil Stanhope, whose connection with Alice's disappearance a decade ago means he's easy to recruit to rescue the failed case. And Jenna struggles to believe her mom may still be alive somewhere, even though she can't believe her loving mother could have voluntarily left her at the family's elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire.

Picoult's active author tour and rich author website ( reveal much of the emotional ground of this novel: the love between elephants, which she explored herself in her research, and the time for letting go of her own teenage daughter to college. The book is sure to resonate with those who are already caught by those two themes -- it's a love story across generations and across species, written with her usual swift-paced storytelling. As a mystery, it has the scent of an early private investigator (PI) narrative, mingling with that incense of the mysteriously correct fortune teller tagging along on the case.

There's a major twist near the end of the book, which of course I won't reveal -- except to say that if you're looking for a traditional mystery that follows all the rules, you'll just have to loosen up and go with the flow on this one. And, heads up to you Picoult traditionalists, it's not a medicolegal thriller this time. It's a pleasure to read. But for re-reading, I'm going back to those two stunning stories. Better download them (at a token price) while they're still available, if you'd like the added insight into the craft of this bestselling author.

Reading a "First Book" by an Established Author: THE COLD DISH, Craig Johnson

I review a lot of "first books" by mystery and thriller authors, and usually I mention this either by saying (1) it's got some small flaws (like most first books) but it's so good that I want to read the next one or (2) this is so good that the author must have written some other books first (that maybe didn't get to publication) -- incredibly good with no sign of being a first book!

Last week I took time away from the incoming stacks to read Craig Johnson's first, which is also the first Walt Longmire mystery, set in northern Wyoming -- it dates back to December 2004, but just became widely known because a TV network turned Johnson's series into the rave-reviewed LONGMIRE series (incomprehesively canceled recently in someone's short-sighted business decision, but so good that it's sure to rise again).

I enjoyed every page. I didn't skim any of it. And it definitely did not feel like a first book (but hold that thought).

All the heart-ache elements of Walt Longmire ring true: his understandable alcohol problem (his wife died unexpectedly, he's living in the unfinished house that was going to be their home together, his job has a certain built-in instability); his deep friendship across ethnic boundaries with Henry Laughing Bear, cemented by the war experiences they have in common; his wordless longing for comfort that become obvious when a woman looks at him kindly, but on which he's powerless to act. The plot elements and twists are polished and smooth; the tension and pace -- as Longmire tries to figure out who is taking revenge on a group of casual and ugly-hearted rapists -- steadily ramp upward, and an intense early-season snowstorm and a set of powerful firearms in the wrong hands drive the threat to page-turner level.

In fact, the only thing that bothered me was, when Longmire finally figured out the killer, he was still struggling with the motive, even when he knew who it must have been. I didn't feel like I'd had enough hints along the way to be able to urge him to the right conclusion (haven't you done that as you've seen what the sleuth has overlooked?). And when I mentioned this to Dave, who has read ALL of the 11 books Johnson's provided, Dave tipped his head to the side and commented mildly, "Well, it is his first book, you know."

Yes, it is. Thank goodness there's that tiny, tiny weak spot, where I can reassure myself, "This author wasn't born into the life of mystery writing with all connections already at professional level."

But so close, so close. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of Johnson's Longmire series.

PS: The title, in case you haven't guessed, is from the translated French expression, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Pierre Ambroise François Cholderlos de la Clos.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Diversion: The War Memoir That Tells It All -- MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY, Brian Turner

Can we make it a military rule from now on, that every large group of soldiers include an embedded poet? Incognito, of course -- Brian Turner kept his poetry writing to himself while he led missions. It wouldn't have fit the persona that he needed to convey as a leader under fire.

But now, 11 years after "Sergeant T" departed with his men for the Iraqui desert, this highly trained observer and wordsmith gives us the reality of war. The exhilaration of enlisting into a (mostly) male experience that your older, battle-experienced relatives will now share with you. The joy of feeling competent, and the goofiness of being "boys" with girlie magazines, guns to shoot, silly secrets. And the horror of death -- including potentially your own.

Turner gives us the men as they prepare to invade a presumed insurgent's family home:
The drivers will fire up their engines and check their gauges. Across town, a small child kisses her father on his cheek. The soldiers inhale the harsh smoke, lean their heads back and exhale up toward the dead surface of the moon. And -- though they darken into silhouettes as the night draws on -- the soldiers brighten inside. They crackle in nerve and flame. The gas stations and Laundromats and unemployment lines and hardware stores of America disappear. For now, they are soldiers. They are giants standing over the model of someone else's life. Humming with adrenaline, they stand in the great sweep of history -- past, passing and yet to come -- and take it all in.
That's right, MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY is written in prose. The stories follow each other, rooted in daily life on base, in trucks, behind guns ... and even when Turner stacks the segments on top of each other, pushing the despair and craziness into a ladder to that darkening dead moon, he's telling stories.

Except every now and then, just the way he does right after this passage, he turns the words into something like a pounding drum, when he writes: "The soldiers enter the house, the soldiers enter the house."

There's immense love in here, as well as carefully chosen words and images that bring hard choices to life. In a way that only the return from, and processing of, Vietnam could allow, Turner also opens up the view of what it's like to "come home" -- carrying indelible memories of pain and risk and loss and fear, endless fear, from a battleground where a child or a gift can disguise a deadly threat.

I'm not, in general, a fan of war stories. But this potent braid of necessity, excitement, and guilt and grief -- this is worth reading more than once. This is what a poem that learns to be a long, long story becomes, and lingers. Grandfather, father, and soldier son -- and more.

If only it were a real rule: Tell the truth, the way a really fine poet must always strive for.

Oh yes, you can read this without knowing Brian Turner's war poetry. But I've been a fan of all his work -- poems, New York Times blog, more poems, and now this memoir. For some perspective, click here for more discussion of Brian Turner's writing.

Most of all, after reading MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: What story would you share if someone asked you what your war was like?

The book, the movie, the book: THE GERMAN DOCTOR, Lucía Puenzo

Sometimes the whole book process gets very complicated. Established Argentinian scriptwriter Lucía Puenzo wrote The German Doctor,  which has been published in 10 languages -- then she directed and produced it as a dramatic thriller film. Now IPG (Independent Publishers Group, in its Trafalgar Square Publishing imprint) is releasing the translation in America in November.

The thriller fits into that narrow subgenre of material rooted in history, but taking place in what may be "the present." At first, all we know is that the doctor is hiding in Argentina, and is obsessed with racial purity and his experiments; he has brought his notebooks and even some samples with him, and he has a particular fondness for examples of how racial interbreeding causes genetic disasters (to his mind). And, oh yes, he's also obsessed with twins.

If you've delved into the dark horrors of the Holocaust, you already know who "José" resembles: the notorious Josef Mengele, a physician whose experiments in the concentration camps ignored scientific method and truth, and instead caused maximum distortion and pain. He's known to have fled Germany in 1945, arrived in Argentina in 1949, and when hunted by those seeking justice, he relocated first to Paraguay and then to Brazil.

In Puenzo's dark and very creepy narrative (Mengele is seducing Lilith, a 12-year-old girl who suffers from dwarfism, and he and she both are thrilled by the process), we meet José at his departure from Buenos Aires, about to cross the desert to a more welcoming and protective community of Nazi German refugees in Paraguay. The rigors of the journey provide entry for him into the not-so-innocent Lilith's family, just in time to assist with the survival of prematurely born twins.

At stake: whether Lilith will resist or encourage the final seduction, which turns out not to be sex but science; what's being perpetrated on the twin babies; how the community will react to recognizing the wicked doctor in its midst; and even a hint of suspense around whether the German doctor has any humanity in him (a Native resident sees his hollowness).

David William Foster's translation is smooth and quirky at the same time, conveying the formality and awkwardness of German into Spanish, upper class to lower, and more. Here's a sample, from the doctor's point of view as he starts to cross the desert:
When he was advised to leave Buenos Aires immediately, they had promised him at the same time that the south of Argentina was as close as he could get to German Switzerland. They spoke to him of trees, lakes, snow-covered mountains. You people were not the only ones who did a good job of cleansing, they said. They told him stories of Indian attacks that had dominated the same arid lands he was now crossing at a snail's pace, with his eyes glued to the three small blonde heads examining him out of the corner of their eyes ... He felt anguish crawling up his legs like spiders.
Whether José's sadism will be recognized, along with his unmodified facial features, continues to raise the ante; so does the arrival in the area of a Nazi hunter who knows this doctor all too well.

It's a grim book, admirably paced, and steps into one of the nastiest aspects of Argentine and world history adeptly -- we know how the doctor's story will end (he died in 1979 and was buried under a false name; his remains were verified in 1985), but this crime novel lingers within the potent years of his life in the New World. Puenzo creates Ultimate Creepy effectively, complete with dolls (see the book cover?), and tells a powerful story that, unfortunately, I will probably never forget.

And oh yes -- coming to a theatre near you. Watch for its Spanish name, too: Wakolda.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Really? A Very Good "Jane Austen Mystery"? Author Stephanie Barron - Former CIA Intelligence Analyst

No, I didn't realize Stephanie Barron's background before I read her new book (released today!), JANE AND THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. To be blunt, I wouldn't have touched a "Jane Austen mystery" even if I were snowed in for a weekend, except ... well, gosh-darn it, I've learned to count on Soho Crime for tight, well-plotted crime fiction with unforgettable characters. So when an advance copy of this book arrived along with the new Stuart Neville "Belfast Noir" volume (also released today), I gritted my teeth and started the first chapter.

About fifteen chapters later, I was still reading.

Barron's actually written 15 books since her stint at the CIA, and this one is intelligent, entertaining, and a classic puzzle mystery in the best English tradition. Way back in my past are a couple of years spent re-reading Georgette Heyer's best English Regency fiction, and Barron has the same knack for a clever protagonist with an irrepressible sense of humor and conviction under her constrictive clothing. This may not be the Jane Eyre you've pictured, but why not -- a spunky author who's defied her conventional brother in order to write her sharp-tongued and observant social-criticism-disguised-as-fiction, with an eccentric mother, and a passle of neighbors determined to enjoy the holiday season in spite of a heavy snowstorm. In face, in the first chapter, Jane, her mother, her sister, and her niece are victims of a carriage-and-wagon accident in the snowy night, and hence meet the elegant Raphael West, son of the noted artist Benjamin West (I looked them up; they were as real as Jane).

Despite her sense of reserve and a well-learned lesson in not trusting, Jane is drawn to West as a partner investigator, as deaths accumulate around them at a snow-struck country country manor:
"The ice on the lake is not yet thick enough to cut and stack in blocks in this room," Raphael West observed, "or we should not have found space to enter."

"You were here when [XX] met his death?" I said stupidly. "Then you must have seen his murderer! Or --"

"--Or killed him myself." His gaze was satiric. "Pray believe, Miss Austen, that I did not." ...

I frowned in perplexity. "From the frank disclosures of your narrative, I am convinced you were sent here -- not solely by your father, but by the Admiralty. You were told to search The Vyne for a bolt-hole. What, then, is the object of your intrigues?"
Raphael West's response to Jane Austen begins a steady cascade of motives, to add to the means and opportunities she's analyzing. If her tiresome brother would just stop trying to clip her wings ... if society allowed her to wield her quick intelligence without female harness ... if her thoughts and creative work in her fiction could be applied to the situation at hand ...

In Barron's skilled storytelling, there's a way for all those possibilities to come to fruition, provided that Jane can protect herself and her family members, and of course her host, from further murders. And with a plot that dances briskly over the twelve days of traditional English celebration at year's end, both official and pagan, and a lively pace, this turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable romp of a mystery. I'm so glad I moved past my own initial reluctance, and discovered this author's strengths.

Of course, now I've got to go find some of Stephanie Barron's other mysteries! Who would have guessed a CIA analyst could turn English history into such a delightful adventure?!

Release Day: THE FINAL SILENCE, Belfast Very Very Noir, from Stuart Neville

The fifth book in Stuart Neville's Belfast, Northern Ireland, series reached publication today. That's a very good thing. THE FINAL SILENCE continues the harsh, difficult saga of (now former) police inspector Jack Lennon, as he fights for a medical pension, for a chance to raise his own daughter, and for his self-respect.

But all his battles happen on the killing ground of murderers and perverts, and this one opens in the home of a recently dead man, Raymond Drew. His niece Rea Carlyle -- herself the daughter of an up-and-coming politician, Graham Carlyle, who's so close to what he wants that he can't afford to let anyone stand in the way -- sees her own chances improving when her parents offer to give her the newly vacant house where Raymond lived in solitude for so many years. It's easy enough to clear out the few impersonal items her uncle lived with. But a locked door to one more room commands Rea's attention, and when, solo, she manages to pry the door open, the journal of perversion and murder that she discovers turns loose the forces of darkness around her.

A recent roundup of "Nordic noir" by New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio pointed out that the crush of dark Scandinavian mysteries and thrillers that recently raced to translation into English (following the path of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) build their power from the force of politics in those wintry nations. It's not just their national entanglements with Germany during the two "World Wars" that pounds through these books, but also mass murders, ethnic prejudice, torn social fabric in the transformation of rural peoples into crowded urban lifestyles. (I recommend it: here.)

Similarly, Neville's Belfast series has taken the pain and horror of Northern Ireland's history and used it to construct malicious gangsters, potent sociopaths, family networks of poisonous loyalties. Through Inspector Jack Lennon and his intermittently psychic daughter Ellen, and a few other "sensitive" if dangerous acquaintances, Neville has poured the horrors of the Irish past into both killers and hauntings. He's made it clear that the ghosts that threaten us are the guilty crimes of our pasts -- and he's done it with adept storytelling.

Now, in THE FINAL SILENCE, Neville lets the force of history slip backstage as he focuses on Jack Lennon and the crushed and disgraced career that Jack's dragging behind him like a deadened limb. Somewhere in the discovered journal and the devastated family that's linked to it, Jack Lennon sees the "one more crime" that demands his skills, whether or not he's officially on the case. But how successful can a man be whose life is such a train wreck? One of the few retired officers who still believes in Jack Lennon is his old colleague Chief Inspector Uprichard -- but even he turns blunt with Jack, despite sharing a shard of personal loss with him. What does it matter if such a sorry wreck as Jack Lennon says he's sorry for Uprichard?
"I don't need your pity," Uprichard said. "I just need you to understand that I won't help you if you won't help yourself. You've been digging yourself into this hole for how long now? When are you going to reach the bottom? You've all but lost your career. Your daughter's gone. You've got a cop after you for murder. How much worse does it have to get for you, Jack, before you stop digging?"
And yet with all that -- and all the blood and threat around Jack -- there is, as it has been before in Neville's work, a question of the dogged human capacity for loyalty and love that might, just might, put an end to a series of deaths.

But really -- what will it take for Jack Lennon to give up self-medicating and forge a new partnership with a real investigator? And what else does he have to lose?

Neville's pace and relentless pressure on his characters create a book that can't be put down (at least, if you're willing to read your way into such darkness to start with). A police manhunt by broken people who can't help fighting for justice ... yes, that's well worth reading, in this latest Belfast neo-noir. And no, you won't need to read the other four first. But each of them is different, and powerful, and I recommend them all. From Soho Crime, once again.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Best Yet from Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad: THE SECRET PLACE

Readers and writers alike know about the state called "flow" (named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi): when you're doing something that's so "right" for you that you lose track of time. It's the ultimate reward for people who become really good at what they love.

My guess from reading the newest Tana French "Dublin Murder Squad" crime novel is that French goes beyond "flow" to "glow" -- that red-hot powerful form of writing that speaks powerful truths inside a compelling story.

But I wasn't ready for THE SECRET PLACE in any sense. First of all, I'm already accustomed to French's established pattern of moving from one investigator to another in her Dublin Murder Squad as she moves to each new novel. And her previous titles have often delved into the depression and sense of guilt that police work can bring, along with the pervasive disorder of Irish life that lingers from the long war years of "the Troubles."

This time, though, she's alternating two points of view as she works this double narrative toward a climax of revelation at a girls' boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. One strand is a braid of experiences of two foursomes of girls in the school -- more or less, a nice group of long-time loyal friends, and a truly nasty group led by a near-psychotic manipulator who loves punishing others. Best of the nice group is Holly Mackey, a teen already known to Cold Case detective Stephen Moran -- she'd been a witness when a small child, and he'd helped her to testify and provided some support for her recovery back then. Now he's stuck in Cold Cases, unable to enter the highly desirable Murder Squad, thanks to a twist from that earlier case. And Holly's at his desk, carrying evidence related to a year-old death discovered at the girls' school. Could it be his chance to work with Murder after all?

Almost immediately, Moran realizes he's in a bad bind: The detective on the death of wealthy Chris Harper, a boy from another boarding school, is a woman, Antoinette Conway, tough and acerbic and not willing to give Moran much room to enter the tiny fragment of the squad that she's claimed for her own -- in the face of a group of Murder detectives who despise her and effectively wall her out of the team where she's supposed to work.

Let me add right away that the title, THE SECRET PLACE, is itself an example of the twists within this case. It's not a place that's hidden -- it's a message board in plain sight at Holly's boarding school, where the girls are welcome to post anonymous messages ... that is, to air their secrets, whether of fact or emotion or, inevitably, of fictional troublemaking. And to which of these does the evidence belong that Holly's brought to Moran?

Rich with insight into the barriers and markers of class, as well as the painful frictions of women officers in rough packs of men, and the longings and misunderstandings of teenaged girls (hint: think Salem Witch Trials, as well as Jennifer McMahon), THE SECRET PLACE is tight, compelling, and boldly twisted to prevent guessing ahead at the actual criminal and motive, any further than Moran and Conway can see. And that's not far ahead at all, as the head of school does her best to wall them out, the girls manipulate and mislead, and danger scents the very air of what should have been a safe retreat for students.

I'm shelving my Tana French books with those by Stuart Neville, Åsa Larsson, Vidar Sundstøl, Mary Kubica, and the best of Louise Penny and John Le Carré and Charles McCarry -- authors who know where they want to take us, and will invent whatever framework is necessary to pull us, heart and soul, into the pressing story that they need to tell.

Caitlin Strong Rides Tough in STRONG DARKNESS (Jon Land)

The sixth in the Caitlin Strong thriller series from Jon Land came out two weeks ago, and it's a fast ride through both the Texas Rangers in action in 1883, and today's tech-centered espionage and infiltration in American communication. STRONG DARKNESS pits Caitlin in the present against a Chinese businessman with a major chip on his shoulder, and her team -- her beloved Cort Wesley Masters, her massive and forceful protector Guillermo Paz, and her boss, D.W. Tepper -- has so much to handle in this one that the final assault on crime has to come from Caitlin herself. Good!

If you're new to the Strong series, here's some quick background: Jon Land writes these as combinations of 19th-century real Texas Rangers history, and a narrative "now" in which Strong, carrying on her family's Ranger tradition, wrestles for full participation in a policing group that's enduringly skeptical of whether women can meet the demands of the job. Caitlin's boss, D.W. Tepper, know she can press through dangers that beset any Texas Ranger; he even knows a lot of her family's escapades and successes, and from time to time he allows her more of the information that she craves.

But Caitlin's created some powerful messes, even across state lines, as she's rarely tactful and always willing to shoot when necessary. Most recently (see Strong Rain Falling), she killed a team of murderers in Providence, Rhode Island, where Cort Wesley's son Dylan is currently in the hospital in a medically induced coma, following a massive concussion. Somehow her behavior in the recent past has the Providence investigators skeptical about allowing her back into the state, for Dylan's sake.

Quickly, Land unfolds double trouble among Chinese nationals in the United States -- those who were kidnapped and forced into slavery on the transcontinental railroads in the 1800s, and those today using high-tech espionage and invention-related piracy. While the tale of Texas Ranger William Ray Strong makes up an alternating narrative thread, young Dylan appears captivated by a high-end Chinese sex-film star who needs his help, Caitlin's trying to counter threats in both Texas and New England, and her boss might as well resign himself to more political spill-back from Caitlin's brash approach to seeking justice:
Tepper dropped the recorder into the drawer and leaned back in his chair, the springs creaking as it tilted toward the open office window. "You know how many times your daddy and granddaddy got their names in the paper?"

"No, I don't."

"Neither do I, Ranger, because it wasn't often enough for anybody to pay attention. If it's their tradition you're trying to love up to, you've got an awful peculiar way of doing it."

"Old Earl rode with you back when dinosaurs roamed the prairie, and I don't believe Jim ever owned a cell phone. It's the age that's different, D.W., not me."

"No, Caitlin," Tepper corrected, "it's both."
This one's especially of interest for me because I'm passionate about the shameful episode of U.S. history that resulted in the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (see my website and related Pinterest board). But it's also a must because it's a classic Caitlin Strong thriller, half Western, half current crises, and all action with a hefty dash of friendship and loyalty. This Jon Land series stays on my list of "must read the newest book, and let's go back and re-read the others." And don't mess with Texas, right?

Well-Told Historical Mystery: MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE, Alyssa Maxwell

A well-written historical mystery tilts the world and gives us a look at ourselves from a distance, with fresh insight and often delight -- and that's exactly what MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE provides. The second in Alyssa Maxwell's "Gilded Newport" series, it opens in August 1895 in the upscale resort of Newport, Rhode Island, where the powerful East Coast families of the day enjoyed a life comparable to royalty: grand mansions, flocks of servants, elegant gatherings. Maxwell's cleverly created amateur sleuth, Emma Cross, is a less fortunate member of the wealthy Vanderbilts, but her entrée into their gilded society is still the sort that comes from being "born" into social power. Maxwell positions Emma for her sleuthing by giving her a less-than-simple career as a society-page reporter for the city news -- so that Emma must balance her nose for news against her compassion for her relatives and the people she's grown up with. Good!

MURDER AT MARBLE HOUSE opens with Emma saying a fierce farewell to her most recent love interest, whose shady and deceptive side is now clear to her -- and being invited (or commanded) at the same time by her "aunt" Alva Vanderbilt to persuade a young cousin, Consuelo, to accept an arranged marriage to an English peer. Consuelo, her heart already attached elsewhere, wants nothing to do with the plan. As Emma reluctantly tackles this assignment (which she understands well from both sides), Aunt Alva recruits a performing fortune teller/medium as another way to assure Consuelo of a happy future ahead. But unfortunately the medium is sometimes caught up in what appears to be "real" prediction, including warning Consuelo of possible disaster. And in short order, the medium is murdered and Consuelo vanishes. Emma Cross's investigative skills and discretion are instantly essential!

I enjoyed particularly Emma's careful working relationship with her friends on the police force, like Detective Jesse Whyte, who arrives on scene well aware of the clout of the Vanderbilts:
... the expression on Detective Jesse Whyte's face make my stomach sink. ... The moment our gazes met, his ironic expression proclaimed he'd not only realized I was once again caught up in a murder investigation, but that he wasn't the least happy about it. ... Jesse's first words to me dismissed any doubt I might have had about his sentiments. "Really, Emma? So soon after last time? Is this something you particularly enjoy?"
An essential of a well-told amateur sleuth mystery is a compelling reason for the protagonist to dabble in such risky business. Emma's motive comes from her attachments to both sides of the "Gilded Newport" society: old friends from school who work in blue-collar jobs, whether as police or maids to the wealthy, and relatives who exert control over the money and power in the town. It's a good strategy, and Maxwell's clever plot twists interact smoothly with Emma's conflicts of personal interest. (A hint of romance now and then sweetens the mix, too!)

Pick this one up for a nice traditional read from Kensington, which keeps expanding its list of enjoyable mysteries. There's a wealth of insight into the social structure of the women in particular in this era and situation, as well as plenty of romping through risk, some danger, and much puzzling out of what could have led to murder. Don't look for fully authentic-to-the-time dialogue, though, as Maxwell's pace soon trims away the frills in order to move her personable and smart sleuth into the investigation.

I'll look for Maxwell's earlier book in the series, Murder at the Breakers, and will also look forward to the sequels in the series!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Intriguing Traditional Mysteries: CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF (Mike Resnick) and THE BUTTON MAN (Mark Pryor)

I've been taking time off from those complex, thought-provoking global mysteries and thrillers flooding the market, to sink into two really good traditional mysteries that turn entirely different settings and sleuths into well-plotted, well-paced, satisfying books. And when I'd finished both CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF from Mike Resnick (yes, the same Mike Resnick famous for his science fiction) and THE BUTTON MAN from Mark Pryor (a prequel!), I suddenly realized they were from the same publisher, Seventh Street Books. I think that's a great sign for this mystery-focused imprint of Prometheus Books.

Eli Paxton in CAT ON A COLD TIN ROOF is the kind of detective I hope I might be if I'd gone that route: able to use his network of friends and acquaintances (including the best fences in Cincinnati, Ohio) to probe into the case that he's just landed through a police officer buddy. The police are at a murder scene, and officer Jim Simmons wants Eli right away to look into a side aspect of the scene, a missing cat. Sounds pretty trivial, until Eli soaks up several facts: the cat's owner, now dead, was a hugely wealthy reformed criminal ("organized" crime); the widow, who's hiring him, is throwing cash on the table right away; and, as he soon realizes, this cat was worth a fortune, for a very unusual reason.

Author Mike Resnick keeps the progress on the case both risky and entertaining, with a steady series of humorous moments (Eli's obnoxious dog and his overly curious landlady have leading roles). By the end of the second chapter, I was chuckling and saying "Replaces Westlake for goofy caper type crime fiction" -- and soon after, I was ignoring phone calls and work assignments to discover how Eli would juggle partnering with a "fixer" from the Chicago mob, and being chased by Bolivian killers. Plus there's a steady patter of "foodie" chat, as Eli and his contacts migrate around Cincinnati restaurants and comment on the specials.

Here are two more pieces of good news: This is the third in an established series (Dog in the Manger, originally published 2001 but reprinted by Seventh Street in 2012; and The Trojan Colt, also from Seventh Street, 2013), so there's some fun to catch up on. And Resnick is an even more established author of sci fi, much of it linked to Africa and the Kikuyu people -- so I'll be watching for his other titles over the winter.

THE BUTTON MAN also adds to an established series, but in this case Mark Pryor provides a prequel to his three Hugo Marston crime novels, all set in France: The Bookseller, The Crypt Thief, The Blood Promise. Neatly labeled "2008," the opening chapter takes place in a cemetery in London, where Marston -- a newly minted head of security for the U.S. embassy in London, after retiring from FBI profiling -- literally walks into a body. Almost immediately, he discovers it's one of the two visiting American performers he's been asked to protect as they film a movie in rural England.

And that's just the start of a quick series of startling connections among the visitors, the local politicos, and a kinky up-scale sex club out in the countryside. Soon Marston is depending on a secretive young hotel employee named Merlyn, whose surprising ties to both the actors and the club keep him racing to cope with one "situation" after another, trying to meet the demands of his job and his own sense of moral fairness.

When the rising body count betrays a possible serial killer entangled with the same individuals and institutions, Marston's job requires that he race to avert further violence. But without the final missing pieces, he's not catching up with the criminal, and time's running out.

Although the pace is much quicker and the circumstances obviously up-to-date, Pryor's mysteries remind me of the neatly twisted British work of Dame Agatha Christie: puzzles that we readers have a hair of a chance of solving before the sleuth, with memorable characters and scenes that make the most of London fog, back roads without road signs, old money and new. Traditional, professional, refreshingly suspenseful without horror -- I'd pick up (and keep) a Mark Pryor/Hugo Marston mystery any day!

Monday, October 06, 2014

Brief Mention: FOUND, Harlan Coben, Third "Mickey Bolitar" Mystery

Harlan Coben's "young adult" series featuring high school basketball player Mickey Bolitar now has three titles: Shelter and Seconds Away and the newly released Found.

Mickey's refusal to resign himself to the death of his dad, his mother's drug addiction, and being walled out of a child rescue operation that involves a survivor from the Holocaust takes him into danger and a lot of heartache, for him and his eccentric friends Ema and Spoon. Good thing the book is a swift and tightly-paced read, because I couldn't put it down, and the work schedule was at risk.

Get all three titles -- it's an ongoing and very good set of adventures, good against evil, highly satisfying. Pretend you're buying them for a friend in his or her early teens; my husband Dave pointed out that even the austere New York Times is now putting books like these into a "Young Adult Crossover" genre. The plot for Found is solid, the characters unforgettable, and I do believe I've spotted a few loose ends that promise another book in the series.

Swedish Crime Fiction: THE SECOND DEADLY SIN, Fifth from Åsa Larsson

Åsa Larsson's crime novels repeatedly win major prizes in Sweden; at last the five titles in her Rebecka Martinsson series are all available in English, with this year's release of THE SECOND DEADLY SIN. And this is one of the rare series in which it's really way, way better to start with the first book -- the four earlier titles are The Savage Altar, The Blood Spilt, The Black Path, and Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Reading them in sequence conveys the painful, steady, and yes, heroic path Rebecka Martinsson has taken from posh urban tax attorney to, as we reconnect in THE SECOND SIN, a rural district prosecutor in northern Sweden, where the country's most "backward" and land-loving families live like American "mountain" folk: trusting only each other, and alternately embracing the challenging winter and struggling to survive it.

Rebecka Martinsson's choices in the earlier titles have made her a controversial attorney, one whose hands are stained with blood -- justly or not, well, you'll have to read the others. Let's just say that she's unevenly accepted in her new role up north. A wealthy attorney from the city still comes to see her when she lets him, as her lover, but the relationship makes less sense by the month, as Martinsson's loyalties to her new community intensify.

When multiple "accidental" deaths in a family nearby accrue, Martinsson knows there can't be coincidence at play -- it's malice, wickedness, but what is the motive under the killings of such an impoverished and powerless family? When she and a local cadaver dog wrangler find themselves repeatedly saving the life of a boy who's one of the last to survive from that family, Martinsson decides to root out the criminal force behind the killings. To do it, she'll have to disobey her boss, take a leave of absence, put her job and her new sense of self at risk.

Those who've read others in the series will rejoice to find Police Inspector Ann-Maria Mella, local force for justice in spite of a misogynistic career choice and a family of her own, coming to Martinsson's assistance. The teamwork of the two determined women keeps the investigation in progress. Which is a lifesaving component when you're up against someone like the stunningly lovely but mysterious Maja Larsson, who has reasons of her own for misleading the investigation as the team tries to track down who has killed the boy Marcus's grandmother -- and why:
Larsson stared hard at Martinsson. Like a fox standing motionless in the trees at the edge of the forest, trying to decide if the approaching stranger is friend or foe. In the end she responded. Her voice was low and soft. The silver snakes were wriggling on top of her head.

"I know who you are; you're Rebecka Martinsson. Mikkio's and Virpi's daughter. You've moved back here. I didn't know what you look like nowadays -- I only met you once when you were a little girl. Well, Rebecka, you know what it's like here in the village."

"No, I don't."

"Perhaps you don't. ... People in this village are a lot of bastards but they wouldn't murder her. If I spill the beans and you then go around asking questions, they'll know I've snitched on them. And I'll have stones thrown through my windows."
But it's Rebecka Martinsson who seems likely to become, yet again, a target of the "stone throwers" as she presses against the village's darkest secrets, all to protect a child -- and a dog.

This is not "noir" writing -- it's well-paced traditional crime fiction with a very unusual investigator and dangerous circumstances. Martinsson is one of the best legal sleuths to come along, and I hope the author keeps the series going for years to come.

Meanwhile, considering the pace of translation, I'm willing to return to the first of the series and read all five of them again. (Yes, they are really are THAT good.)

PS -- Can't recall what the second deadly sin was supposed to be? Go ahead, look it up. It's worth remembering it again.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Hunting Season: Revealing the Threat in ONLY THE DEAD, Vidar Sunstøl

Maybe you have to live in a place like Vermont -- or Minnesota, or Wyoming, or even Oregon or Alaska, maybe Maine ... a few more -- to grasp the powerful mix of emotions and motives in play during hunting season. Because I live among hunters and the hunted, I found Vidar Sundstøl's newest translated title, ONLY THE DEAD, entirely compelling, engrossing, and so grimly effective that it silenced me for hours afterward (not counting sleep time). It may be the most powerful work of suspense I've ever read. And oddly, strangely, marvelously, it's published by the University of Minnesota Press.

This is the second volume of an intense and amazing trilogy that translator extraordinaire Tiina Nunnally and the press are making available to American readers, one per year. Last December I savored all of the first volume, The Land of Dreams. (Review here.) The "Minnesota Trilogy" is dark, lush Scandinavian mystery writing (by a celebrated Norwegian author) but set in Minnesota, where so many Scandinavians settled. U.S. Forest Service officer Lance Hansen's probing of his own Norwegian genealogy turned disturbing in the first book of the trilogy as he uncovered family ties to local Native Americans -- the tribal people of deep dreams, to which he'd thought only his ex-wife and their child (and of course his ex-wife's parents) were directly connected. Layering evidence from the past and present, Hansen then finds himself bound to a possible murder from the settlers' times, and simultaneously to frightening dishonesty among people he cares about in his community and family.

It's hard to say more without giving away too many of the sharp and necessary twists of The Land of Dreams here -- so I'll say it this way: In the second book, ONLY THE DEAD, Hansen enters a frightening dance of intent and secrets with his own brother, during an ice storm, during hunting season. The guns are real; so are the threats.

This volume is only 156 pages long -- far more slim than the first volume -- and I have to say it is as meticulously trimmed of unnecessary detail as a fine poem would be. Or a well-butchered and lean-muscled animal, captured for winter sustenance. There are few comparable books out there; maybe The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was one of them, or some of Alan Furst's painful and tender revelations of espionage in Eastern Europe. To compress the action and exalt the tension the way Sundstøl does here creates a haunted interlude in a very particular setting.

Here in Vermont, we do suffer an occasional "ice storm" -- a weather event when rain freezes as it lands, coating trees, houses, and roads with glistening and deadly ice. In ONLY THE DEAD, that menace is framed around firearms and mistrust and danger.

Highly recommended. Don't compare the price to the page count; compare it instead to the years this book will linger, and the way it will displace every other noir novel as it brings to life Cain and Abel, and reveals the presence of violence -- and how we can neglect to escape while we have a chance -- in our landscape and our minds.

And speaking of that landscape, actually, I take back what I said at the start. Having walked home in the dark on quite a few city streets ... the hunt will translate effectively from the Minnesota forests, to wherever you're living now.