Monday, March 23, 2015

Romp Among the Comic Strips, 1953: Max Allan Collins, STRIP FOR MURDER

Dover Publications just brought out a reprint in Mystery Classic form of a 2008 Max Allan Collins book, STRIP FOR MURDER -- and it's a light-hearted and entertaining mystery that brings back the '50s, celebrates the old Broadway's glory and adventures, and pays homage to two of the great comic strips of all time, L'il Abner and Joe Palooka. Fans of the strips will also recognize their feuding authors, Al Capp and Ham Fisher, lightly re-arranged and fictionalized into Hal Rapp and Sam Fizer.

But that's not where this (enjoyable!) story starts. Open instead with Jack Starr, a private investigator doing desk duty for his glamorous stepmother, Maggie Starr (once a striptease artist, now owner of her late husband's newspaper syndicate). Maggie's acting in a Broadway version of one of the comic strips, and Jack's supposed to keep her desk clean but make no big decisions.

Of course, that was before both Jack and Maggie saw the dead body downstairs from where the rest of the show cast was partying. Enemies of the corpse when he was alive? Lots of them ... and at least one is ready to bribe Jack in the most intimate of ways.

I'm delighted that Dover's brought back this deliciously entertaining novel from a master of the field -- Max Allan Collins writes nostalgia, humor, and wordplay with flair (yes, he has another side to his craft, political suspense, but we'll go there some other time). The cover is a gem, and the chapters include opening frames of comic art, as well as closing gestures. This one's purely a fun adventure, where even the crime is almost an illusion, and handsome Jack Starr is sure to solve it.

Looking for extra enjoyment? Visit the author's blog, here -- and have fun.

Policing With "The Troubles": Adrian McKinty's 4th in Series, GUN STREET GIRL

It's Belfast, Ireland, in 1985 -- and any de facto truce between the religious parties on hand is about to blow up. Meanwhile, Inspector Sean Duffy hasn't had enough sleep to investigate a crime scene, but there's little choice when his new young boss calls him to sort out a violent scene at the local upscale brothel. McArthur's eager for Duffy's help resolving a scene that involves a public relations catastrophe. Within a few more paragraphs, we know a lot more about Duffy himself, as he interviews the "working girl" facing him:
"All right. What happened, love?" I asked her.

"The gentleman and I were about to get down to business. And he said I should have some ... rocket fuel, he called it. I said no. He said come on and try it, it would make us go all night. I said no. He gets all eggy and starts screaming and yelling and I says, right, I'm calling security. He goes bonkers and tries to bloody choke me and I pick up the lampshade and clock him with it."

"Good for you," I replied.

"And I immediately called Carrickfergus RUC. I'll have no nonsense like this in my establishment," the woman in the red wig said. Obviously the lady of the house. ...

"Where is this rocket fuel?" I asked.

Chief Inspector McArthur handed me a large bag of white powder. Enough to power an army. I tasted it. High-quality coke cut with nothing. Probably pharma cocaine manufactured in Germany, worth a bloody fortune. I sealed up the bag and put it in my jacket pocket.

"Have you weighed the cocaine?" I asked the Chief Inspector.


Excellent. "I'll do it at the station and enter it into evidence."
Clever Inspector Duffy, right? But the real problem in the scene is the identity of the brothel customer, which the Chief Inspector already knows -- so after a bit more clarification, Duffy arranges for the players to pressure each other into a solution, just the way he's used to doing in his own neighborhood, where he's the lone Catholic on a block of Protestant roughnecks. And for that matter, at the station, where again he's the only Catholic in a team that's in danger daily.

Duffy's quick wit and smart actions serve him well, but in the next case about to drop on his shoulders, a double murder followed by a pair of apparent suicides, it's the other part of his nature that's going to hang him up: always a significant detail just out of reach. And although he has a steady habit of checking under his car for bombs each time he returns to it, there are other dangers he isn't noticing in time to stop the damage.

Like McKinty's earlier three books in the Detective Sean Duffy series (one of them reviewed here), the plot's tight in GUN STREET GIRL, the action fast, and Duffy -- despite his self-medicating lifestyle -- is an achingly likeable cop who's been pushed out of any chance of promotion. That is, until an agent from MI5 steps back into his life, in the most confusing of ways.

Count on dark situations, crimes stacking up, not all that much direct gore actually but a lot of emotional pain, and a poignant share of Duffy's enduring confusion about the women who entrap him. Add a very human version of the Irish protests and violence of that year, with the flavor of the month being loss ... and grief ... and soon Duffy's lifestyle is making way too much sense.

I was sorry the book ended. I could have gone on for a lot longer, looking over this detective's shoulder and noting the way his heart, like the heart of Ireland, was breaking over and over.

Highly recommended. And very, very satisfying.
UK cover.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

From Espionage to Literature (or Vice Versa): Olen Steinhauer, ALL THE OLD KNIVES

Olen Steinhauer's espionage books have made him one of my favorite writers, as his "Tourist" series forges a significant exploration of what it is to feel deeply human emotions (i.e., not be a sociopath) while tackling a job that requires lies, performance, and edgy loyalties. I recommend his books to all who've enjoyed books by John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, Charles McCarry, and more.

The newest Steinhauer is more of a novella, and closer to Graham Greene than to these others. And the author provides warning of this direction in his front-of-the-book acknowledgments, which explain its genesis: The author watched a gripping dramatization of a Christopher Reid poem turned play (see the poem here:, about two once-were-lovers meeting for lunch, carrying with them their pasts and the division that has made them "old flames." Steinhauer then challenged himself to "write an espionage tale that took place entirely around a restaurant table."

The result does diverge from the tabletop a bit -- to the height of Henry and Celia's romance when they both worked for the CIA in Vienna, Austria, and the dramatic hostage event that each relives daily (or at least in dreams, nightmares). But the heart of ALL THE OLD KNIVES is this: They are about to meet, after five years of not seeing each other, and their conversation is to take place at a California seaside restaurant. (I'm not sure whether there's a traditional expression about old knives for the title -- I don't know one and didn't find one -- but the New York Times review of the book refers to Celia sticking verbal "needles" into Henry, and surely there's a sense of a thousand cuts here.)  Each agent arrives on scene with a different version of that hostage event in mind, and with different motives and deceptions.

If you're looking for the usual espionage plot (secrets hunted, secrets revealed, lives at stake, dark-and-stormy-night chases, some success and some bitterness), pass over this one and go back to the series. But to probe the agony and costs of being a field agent and government operative, as well as the inhumanity of government manipulations, ALL THE OLD KNIVES can be your book of the week -- or year.

At the heart of the conflict: Celia fails to grasp Henry's depths as an agent runner. And Henry never understood Celia-the-person or the relationship they almost carried forward. Layers of revelation peel away with each turn of the pages. John Le Carré has shown us how, as individuals, we are chewed up by international power struggles and forced to confront their inherent corruption while we struggle for integrity. Olen Steinhauer shows instead how the global can be decomposed, such that even the "big events" turn out to be formed by individuals and their passions, their attempts to love, and their points of fracture.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

THE CONNICLE CURSE, Gregory Harris (Colin Pendragon Mystery #3)

When a "noted detective" in a Victorian setting arrives with a sidekick who is male and admiring, it's easy to assume a Sherlock Holmes and Watson pastiche is underway. Whether that's what Gregory Harris intended with The Arnafour Affair and The Bellingham Bloodbath, I'll have to leave up to him -- but the third in the series, THE CONNICLE CURSE, is much too enjoyable and unusual to be pigeonholed so simply.

Athletic and determined Colin Pendragon and his more fragile partner, Ethan Pruitt, have made the English news with their crime-solving, so that Annabelle Connicle swiftly hires their services to solve the presumed murder of her missing husband. Colin's connections through his politically powerful father -- who doesn't appear in this book but whose effect is impressive -- enable him to challenge a handful of sneering Scotland Yard officers to investigate the case. And soon a body is indeed identified as Mr. Connicle's, and there are more to follow.

But Scotland Yard may have been a bit hasty, and although Colin points out the mistakes that the "professionals" and their coroner keep accumulating, Sergeant Evans and Inspector Varcoe aren't happy to accept corrections. What a pity ... because the case keeps getting more tangled, as the Yard men continue to misinterpret and to accept "common knowledge," quickly blaming the crimes on the strangers in the scene: an African couple hired by the Connicles and fully scorned by the wealthy and rather immoral neighbors on scene.

The plot thickens, and incorporating a street youngster willing to follow villains for a living adds a dash of diversity and delight to the investigations -- in fact, since Colin and Ethan are suddenly involved in two cases at once, it's handy to have a helper who doesn't mind dirty work or evading the law, as long as he gets paid for information achieved. "Our Paul is turning out to be quite an entrepreneur," Colin Pendragon gloats cheerfully. But Ethan, our narrator, is not sure that's a good thing. He's identified far more closely with the orphan, and the shadows of his own past keep getting called up, in spite of Pendragon's efforts to protect him.

And here is where this enjoyable traditional mystery (follow the money and cherchez la femme) crosses into fresh terrain: Colin once rescued Ethan from dire straits, involving mental illness, drugs, and more. And the two are, in the most tender and domestic way, lovers as well as crime-solving partners, unsuccessfully trying to avoid having their relationship noticed by the Yard's tough men. Harris spins the story deftly around this unusual focal point, and when it's time to resolve the tragedies that Mrs. Connicle is enduring, Colin's persistence on the case is strongly influenced by the pain he's seen Ethan face.

I enjoyed THE CONNICLE CURSE very much -- take two bundles of Agatha Christie and update with a shake of very British humor and a sauce of affection, and you've got the feel of it quite well. Moreover, I was delighted to find in the final chapter that there's another Colin Pendragon investigation in the wings via Kensington Books: The Dalwich Desecration. Shelve these with mysteries that are friendly, warm, and cleverly twisted in plot, while avoiding gore or dramatic abuse -- in other words, put them on the "read it now and read it again later to relax" shelf. That's what I'll do with mine.

Monday, March 09, 2015

THE HOUSE OF WOLFE, James Carlos Blake (March 3 Pub Date)

There is a special shiver of delight and suspense when the protagonists of a crime thriller are the criminals themselves -- and James Carlos Blake nails that delicate edge where it feels completely right to want the bad boys to win.

Even better, in THE HOUSE OF WOLFE -- his third in this sequence -- Blake pulls in a pistol-packing and athletic young cousin, Rayo Luna Wolfe, part of the Mexican side of the arms-running clan. When kidnappers seize her pretty-but-tough American cousin Jessica Juliet Wolfe after a luxe and lovely family wedding in Mexico City, Rayo provides the information that her dangerous Texas family members need for chasing down "El Galán" and his ransom-demanding crew. And then, of course, jumps into the chase herself.

Blake is a consummate storyteller, pushing the pace, the suspense, and the risks in fast short chapters that leap among the points of view of the very determined Jessie, family problem solver Charlie, and even the kidnappers. Jessie's decision to figure out -- and somehow do -- what her great-aunt Catalina would have done turns her into a kidnapper's worst nightmare.

Prepare for high body counts; it's easy to compare Blake's "border noir" to Lee Child's cross-country adventures with Jack Reacher, but I actually find the Mexican scene and the wonderfully mixed motives of the Wolfe clan calling to mind John Gilstrap's fierce rescues and chases. Not for the squeamish ... but probably all too true to some situations of lawlessness South of the Border, and a rattling good adventure. I'll be looking for the two earlier books (The Rules of Wolfe; Country of the Bad Wolfes), as well as future crime fiction from James Carlos Blake, who "was born in Mexico, raised in Texas, and now lives in Arizona." Grove Atlantic, now bringing out the Mysterious Press imprint, carries the relevant website.

Billy Boyle #9, THE REST IS SILENCE, James R. Benn (World War II)

The ninth "Billy Boyle World War II Mystery" from James R. Benn came out last fall -- and, knowing it would be an exceptional read, I tucked away a copy of THE REST IS SILENCE for later enjoyment. The reviews that came out at publication were terrific, and I now can add my "yes!" to the others.

Benn's series began with Billy Boyle in 2006, as Soho Press brought the first book out within its Soho Crime label. On his author website, Benn describes the books as a historical mystery series set within the Allied High Command during World War II. That means the first book opens in 1942, as Billy Boyle, a young police detective in a Boston Irish family, discovers that his parents' attempt to keep him home for the war has failed -- "Uncle Ike," General Eisenhower, is headed out to the battlefields, and Boyle, an investigator for the general's most private quandaries, is also on his way to war.

Each volume has moved the war along to another locale, another crisis point, and at the start of THE REST IS SILENCE, it's April 1944 and Billy's assignment takes him to the southwest coast of England, where Allied Forces are preparing to invade Europe -- preparing, that is, for D-Day. The discovery of a murdered man in a very sensitive location means Boyle and his investigating partner Kaz (Lieutenant and Baron Piotr Kazimierz) need to nail the crime and criminal swiftly, to make sure nothing in the D-Day plans has been compromised.

But the family in the gracious home they visit nearby, where a wounded colleague who's been Kaz's friend is recovering, turns out to be much stranger than the first assignment, and soon Billy and Kaz are probing cautiously in an explosive mix of British antagonisms that range from class prejudice to sibling rivalry. When another death takes place, among a much larger disaster nearby, the Allied High Command detective unit expands in number, focus -- and risk.

In spite of its setting and timing, THE REST IS SILENCE is a classic police procedural, in which Billy Boyle's well-nurtured habits of appraisal and inquiry are explored deftly in Benn's polished and often evocative storytelling. I'm sure I should have put the book down more often, to tackle other tasks ... but I didn't want to, and eventually I fixed a final massive mug of tea (in sympathy with the Brits on scene) and charged through the final and engrossing chapters. I found just the right number of plot twists, and the hardest part about finishing the book was keeping them quiet -- because my husband (and partner in crime fiction) is reading this next.

No pressing need to read the earlier books in the series before this one, but if you do, some small comments  that Billy makes, as well as the book's final scene, will have extra resonance. And besides, why would you want to miss out on such good (and historically well-tuned) entertainment?

(PS: The next Billy Boyle mystery comes out in Sept 2015; start now and you have time to read, or re-read, the entire series before then.)

Saturday, March 07, 2015

THE KILLING SEASON, Mason Cross: Deadly Sniper Escapes and Starts Killing Again

I'm a devoted fan of Lee Child's Jack Reacher series -- there's something about the honor code that Reacher carries into his work that gives these fast-paced thrillers an odd satisfaction, despite their high body counts and strongly gendered character roles.

So it's interesting to see how Mason Cross changes the pattern. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, and living and writing in England, Cross's debut, THE KILLING SEASON, is set squarely in the American heartland. The premise is all too believable: A mentally very nasty sniper, sentenced to die and being transported toward his final cell, somehow ends up released as a side effect of a mob move. Or at least, that's what it first looks like to specialist Carter Blake, hired by the FBI for quick action, and the single-mom FBI special agent working with him, Elaine Banner.

Carter Blake is good -- everyone on the short list of people who know him and his work agree. But it's quickly clear that he and Banner are being used, not just by the agency but also by the Chicago sniper, as they race across the country, trying to prevent more spree killings.

Banner's colleague Steve Castle running the operation doesn't think much of her, or of the specialist tagging along. That's a problem that Carter Blake needs to manage, too, as well as chasing the killer:
"This is a warm-up," I said. "He'll move on to specific hits soon. His enemies. People who he thinks have wronged him."

Banner was still crouched next to the body. Her eyes flicked up to me, and for the first time I heard irritation in her voice. "Were you paying attention to the file? That's completely inconsistent with the established MO."

"It's not inconsistent at all," I said. "And the conditions on the ground have changed. He's a soldier. Soldiers adapt."

"Wardell's an indiscriminate killer," Castle said. ... "Maybe you need a little more time to catch up, Blake. I'm sure we can find you someplace quiet to study."

I glanced at the body again. "The last thing Wardell is," I said, "is indiscriminate. You believe that, you're making a big mistake."
See? Jack Reacher probably wouldn't have explained that much. Carter Blake has reasons to do so, including keeping his reputation and trying to get the agency to work with him, not against him. But the escaped sniper Wardell has a plan that even Carter Blake can't see for quite a while, and the clock is ticking toward the next killing spree, not far ahead.

There's a lot to enjoy in this thriller (and little sexual perversion, something of a relief lately, I have to admit) -- plus Cross provides plot twists that raise the ante, as well as the suspense. Hard to believe this one's a debut; I'll be watching for more of his books. This one was brought across from the UK by Pegasus Crime, which is releasing a nice line of mystery and crime fiction in 2015. Another from Mason Cross, The Samaritan, is scheduled for UK release this May.

Gothic Thriller: THE SEEKER, R. B. Chesterton (Carolyn Haines)

R. B. Chesterton is one of many pen names for Carolyn Haines -- and the author says she uses this one to probe the dark side of crime. THE SEEKER came out in 2014, and the softcover became available from Pegasus Crime a couple of weeks ago. So if you haven't tried this author under her noir-ish nom de plume yet, here's a good opportunity.

THE SEEKER is not just dark -- it's creepy. Aine Cahill's graduate studies at Boston's Brandeis University have taken her in two deliberately opposite directions: away from her Irish immigrant family and its "curse" that's migrated with the family to the South, erupting in Kentucky whiskey-running followed by a modern specialty in OxyContin ("hillbilly heroin"); and toward her great-great-great-great aunt Bonnie Cahill, who may have been Henry David Thoreau's lover during his retreat at Walden Pond.

But the further Aine reaches in on-site research in Massachusetts, the more strongly she finds her stay by Thoreau's pond haunted, by terrifying shreds of a past that she never dreamed of when she figured she'd track an unknown literary love affair. Two suitors also pursue her -- and even as she yields to the promised attention, a particularly nasty haunting occupies the same space and time:
No matter that Mischa was not in the cabin. She was in my head, and I had no clue how to exorcise her. Tomorrow, though, I would explore that option. There were plenty of Catholic churches in Concord, and through I'd left the pomp and ritual of the church far behind me, I knew where to find a priest.

I drifted into sleep, and found myself floating ... Struggle as I might, I couldn't break the thrall of the whale.

When no land was visible on the horizon, the whale surfaced. One blurry eye pinned me, and a rush of red blood shot from its blowhole. "You've met your destiny, Aine Cahill."
Think Nathaniel Hawthorne crossed with Steven King, and you're close to what R. B. Chesterton provides here. Keep the lights on, and the doors locked, while you read.