Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Suspense and Southern Warmth, SCRAPBOOK OF THE DEAD, by Mollie Cox Bryan

There's a special pleasure in traveling to a new place (or time) through a work of fiction -- think of all the British novels (and Sherlock Holmes stories) that have given readers a feel for London fogs and the dark menace of the Tower of London and the civilized veneer of tea parties. And of course, all the Europeans and Asians who've been convinced, on the basis of certain American films and books, that this is a land of gunfire and feasting, in roughly equal proportions.

Sometimes the traveling and the taste of a different culture are a bit more subtle, though. The Cumberland Creek mysteries from Mollie Cox Bryan propose small-town life rich with women's friendships. Women who have enough time to get together regularly on Saturday (!) evenings for scrapbook work parties -- that is, to hold "a crop." And on top of that, women who completely accept each other's diversity (from Christian to Jewish to Wiccan) because they value each other's support so fully.

It's a lovely world that this author has created, and her fifth mystery set in "Cumberland Creek," Virginia, SCRAPBOOK OF THE DEAD, provides a long tender visit with about-to-be-ex investigative journalist Annie, bakery owner DeeAnn, elderly Beatrice (and her new French husband), and others who keep each other going. It's October, and the group's saluting autumn in scrapbook images and colors, when the warm comfort of their group is interrupted by murder ... by two murders, in fact, of sisters who were immigrants working in their town. To their shock, they haven't even realized the area's famous pie restaurant takes advantage of new immigrants, paying well below the going wage through an international "agency." Equally shocking to Annie, DeeAnn, and Beatrice is realizing they didn't even notice the new row of low-end housing where these workers live.

Annie's journalism job keeps her motivated to dig into the murders, while her friends move into action out of compassion and a sort of embarrassment at how they've ignored the most unfortunate women in their community, including the first murdered woman, Marina. That murder has another connection to this group, which Annie reveals:
Annie just smiled and fingered through her stack of cardstock. "You know, I almost forgot about the scrapbook page."

"What?" DeeAnn said.

"Marina was holding a scrapbook page when they found her," Annie said.

The room silenced.

"Disturbing," DeeAnn finally said.
It's even more disturbing when the women realize that Marina's sister, also murdered, was also holding a scrapbook page at the time she was killed.

Cox weaves multiple investigations through the gentle probing by each of her main characters. Motive? Means? Opportunity? The fragments they uncover, like bits of a scrapbook page, won't make sense until the final faces are added, as the book reaches a crescendo during the week of Halloween.

This is a classic "cozy" mystery with plenty of family, friendship, and desserts involved, and gentle pressure toward solving the case. Read it for entertainment and the pleasure of page-turning without effort -- a mystery meant for fun and to honor the warmth of friendships in the author's own life. No need to have read the four books before this one, but some details will mean more (like Cookie's amnesia and Annie's family issues) if you have.

No recipes in this one, but an intriguing glossary of "terms for the modern scrapbooker" and some tips for the craft. From Kensington Books, where the art of the cozy series is being perfected.

Charlie Parker Thriller, A SONG OF SHADOWS by John Connolly

US cover
With the 14th in his series of Charlie Parker suspenseful thrillers, A SONG OF SHADOWS, John Connolly has another winner: a work of crime fiction so intense and so character-driven that the strands of paranormal occurrences woven into the plot make perfect sense and effectively ramp the tension higher.

And from me, that's saying a lot, because I prefer my paranormal (I re-read Harry Potter) and my crime fiction (most of the rest of my shelves) unblended.

Connolly's Charlie Parker draws darkness toward him. We've all known someone like that. But in Parker's case, the forces of evil, enflamed by a malicious pervert with a powerful position in organized crime, have actually been hunting Parker for years. He gets in their way. Often. So do his teammates, Louis and Angel, who make the local real estate agent in the small Maine town of Boreas very nervous. Still, they manage to rent an ideal house in which Parker can recuperate, if that's possible, from the attacks that came close to ending his life and career in The Wolf in Winter (also set in Maine). It's isolated and readily defended.

Just as Parker moves into this house, where he can make his own slow rehab system to force his broken body back into action, the nearest -- but also very isolated -- house down the road also gains a tenant. Two, actually: a mother and daughter, Amanda.

Parker's casual assurance to young Amanda that she can meet and play with Parker's own daughter soon brings another potent strand of influence into the plot. Parker actually has two daughters, one dead, the other very much alive and living nearly a day's drive away with her mom on the far side of Vermont. What Parker doesn't at first realize is, Amanda's making connections with both of those daughters. And there's something else about the girls that Parker is actually scared to look at directly.
He was certain that tonight, after all he had endured, he must surely die.

A cool hand was laid on his forehead, the skin so chill as to be spangled with frost. Through his tears he saw it gleaming in the moonlight, sparkling like the light of dead stars. A voice spoke


and he felt the coldness of her breath, and smelled the scent of a world beyond this one. ... He lay on the floor in a fever dream as his dead daughter comforted him.
Despite this aspect to the book and characters, A SONG OF SHADOWS is very much traditional crime fiction: As the American cover hints, and Connolly's chapter describing Boreas's founding and enduring "German-ness," one aspect of American crime has roots in covering up for Nazi sadists who've escaped begin caught since World War II. Parker starts to realize that his neighbors have some tie to a cover-up, and he needs to sort out which side they are actually on, a challenge made tougher by the resolute silence of Amanda's mom, and repeated attacks in the region.

I couldn't put it down. Part of the reason, obviously, is Connolly's powerful writing and finely tuned pace and suspense. The other is that the face of evil, and the linked hands of the good, as Connolly depicts them -- well, there's some truth in all that. And a really good book is one that makes it all a little clearer, and proves that the successes of the good are, well, ... worth their sacrifices.
UK cover

PS -- Connolly's website is a good resource and includes Chapter 1 of the book.

The Lure of Chocolate, in DANGEROUSLY DARK, by Colette London

The second in the "Chocolate Whisperer" series by Collete London releases today, and it's another lively mystery at the "unsweetened" edge of the cozies field. Despite the foodie orientation and abundant chocolate puns, DANGEROUSLY DARK piles up the risks and threats, until it's close to a traditional mystery, with recipes added at the end.

Hayley Mundy Moore is a professional "chocolate whisperer" -- that is, she helps chocolate manufacturers, especially the upscale ones, work out the kinks in their processes and even their marketing. She gets paid well for her expertise, as introduced in the first title, Criminal Confections, and has two assistants: hunky Danny, her bodyguard (who knew you needed that in kitchen-related work?!), and mysterious Travis, managing her trust fund and giving her financial guidance, as well as making her plane reservations and keeping her calendar up to date.

Which is why it's Travis's delicious voice that sends Hayley up the West Coast to Portland, Oregon, for her college friend Carissa's engagement party. Unfortunately, Carissa's fiancé is the first casualty of the trip, and although Hayley doesn't quite grasp why her college buddy, long out of touch, wanted her on hand for the party, she quickly realizes that it's going to be impossible to turn down Carissa's immediate request: that Hayley take on the leadership of the dead fiancé's "Chocolate After Dark" tour. It's also not long before Hayley realizes that Carissa isn't really the simple cuddly sweetheart that she projects so well, as needed.

I enjoyed London's fast-paced mystery, but got frustrated with Hayley's crime-solving style after a while: Think out loud to the reader (and anyone else nearby) about who's got motives and who could have opportunity, take some risks in trying to catch that person, decide it's the wrong candidate as murderer, switch to the next one ... But it's a style that works well with page-turning, and with Hayley's repeated assurance that it's chocolate where her expertise lies, not sleuthing.

The series continues next fall with The Semisweet Hereafter -- a publishing schedule that allows London (a pseudonym for a very busy author) to tackle some other writing projects. I'll let you do the sleuthing to track who this "really" is behind the writing desk! Meanwhile, the tasty chocolate recipes from this series are stacking up nicely. I think I need to try out "Chocolate Un-Cinnamon Rolls" from DANGEROUSLY DARK. Very soon!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Magic and Murder, in THE ZIG ZAG GIRL, Elly Griffiths

I've become a devoted reader of the Ruth Galloway series from British author Elly Griffiths. Just released in the US this month is the start of her newest Magic Men series, THE ZIG ZAG GIRL -- and while I missed the abrasive and oddly vulnerable Galloway at first, the premise of this new series is fiercely exciting, and I enjoyed the book very much.

Consider the British seaside town of Brighton in 1950, a mere five years or so after the end of World War II -- bombed-out buildings, struggling economy, and a bare-bones police force, in which Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is trying to ignore his wartime losses and move forward. But when the body of a young woman is sent in three pieces, to his specific attention -- under the rank he had during the war -- he's got to take this one personally.

Edgar's war wasn't something he took pride in afterward. Recruited (after the Norway disaster) into a small corps of specialists in magic, sleight of hand, and psychology, swiftly labeled the Magic Men, he'd helped create false armaments along the English coast to trick the German pilots overhead. But things happened that cost lives, and he's ashamed and in an odd sort of mourning, as well.

Now it's all got to be exhumed, so to speak, along with his connection with the clever stage magician Max Mephisto. Yet Edgar and his friends appear to be reliably one or two steps behind the murderous person stalking them. What's it about? Who's to blame? How can he protect his friends (and incidentally not lose his job)? It's clear almost immediately that the mutilated body is meant to suggest a faulty magic trick called "the zig zag girl," and when the victim is identified, the links to the wartime crew are inescapable.

Soon Edgar's having to show a murdered Magic Men friend, Tony, to the man's aging parents:
"Anthony had a very important job in the war," said Mrs Mulholland. "He was with the Secret Service."

"I know," said Edgar, thinking, as he had thought at the time, that the Magic Men was the least secret secret mission that he had ever encountered. Everyone in Inverness knew all about them. Tony kept himself in free drinks -- and worse -- by telling the locals that he was part of a crack commando team.
The nimble way that Griffiths paints the war, the resulting friends-with-friction, and the challenges of chasing a killer without knowing the motive -- well, it adds up to a rattling good story and plenty of genial jests among the crimes.

I didn't bond quite as tightly here as I did with the earlier Griffiths series; there's so much going on, and there are so many red herrings and twists of plot, that I think the characters aren't shown as deeply in THE ZIG ZAG GIRL. But I trust Griffiths as an author, and I'll ride along with the series, hoping that this enjoyable but fairly light introductory title will lead me into emotionally more complex and compelling waters.

In fact, since Griffiths admits her own family connection to the characters, I'm positive this is going to be a very good direction for her, and I am eager for the next book. This is one of those moments when the book in hand isn't quite as powerful as the ones that have already flown ... but there's good reason to trust that it's an opening act for an upcoming winner.
PS -- The author's website is not up to date, but still gives a good look at the earlier series: http://ellygriffiths.co.uk

Lively Victorian Mystery, A CURIOUS BEGINNING, Deanna Raybourn

For regular readers of historical mysteries, Deanna Raybourn is a familiar name, author of the Lady Julia Grey series. A CURIOUS BEGINNING is the start of a new series, featuring Victoria Speedwell -- and it's great fun.

Victoria's been an orphan "all her life" pretty much -- adopted (after her mother's death) as a small child by two spinster aunts, and moving often from one location in England to another. As an adult, she's already a much-traveled adventurer and lepidopterist whose butterfly-collecting adventures include travel overseas, exploration of volcanoes and jungles, and a generous amount of romantic yet unfettered exploration along the way. (But never with anyone from "home," from England.)

At the modest funeral in 1887 for her remaining aunt, whom she tended at the end, Victoria realizes that while she may not have many riches beyond her butterfly net and her adroitly fashioned clothing (and modest protective gear, from hatpins to blades), she's free to make her own way. "Aunt Nell had been the final knotted obligation tying me to England, and I was unfettered once and for all, able to make my way in the world as I chose."

After bluntly declining plans made by the local vicar and his wife for her future, her return to her aunts' home to collect her carpetbag and leave the key is abruptly knocked off kilter by an invasion and attempted kidnapping. The Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach arrives in the nick of time to assist her, and escorts her to London (a very festive city, preparing for the Golden Jubilee of the Queen) -- where he leaves her for safekeeping in the fascinating home-and-workshop of a clever if grouchy taxidermist, Mr. Stoker. But the Baron's murder quickly puts an end to any safety in this location, as well as to Victoria's hopes of learning about her dead mother from the Baron, who seemed somehow connected. Soon she's in flight with Stoker, toward refuge with a gypsy circus, and more threats, risks, and adventures.

The change is just what she needed:
I was not meant for sickrooms and poultices; I was fashioned of the stern stuff of adventurers. ... I felt in this new adventure I was rousing to life again. I was a butterfly, newly emerged from the chrysalis, damp winged and trembling with anticipation. ... There would be time enough for my own flight, I decided.
Yet even circus travel isn't safe enough, as murderers and other violent sorts pick up her trail. Soon Victoria's showing her courage and skills, and rather regretting, in terms of her companion, Stoker, that she's made a practice of not romancing Englishmen.

I enjoyed this lively romp with a heroine who surely would have scandalized her Victorian contemporaries -- although of course there were similar adventurous women in that time who simply left their stodgy homeland and arrived in, say, Arabia. Victoria Speedwell is clearly their sort. Her escapades and escapes are a delight. And if the final untwisting of the mystery is a wee bit over the top, well, it's all in fun anyway, just as every day with this staunch scientific romantic is bound to be. I look forward to more in the series! And since this is a new series, there's no need to go looking for preceding titles.

Victoria Speedwell isn't quite as firmly in charge as, say, Georgette Heyer's "Grand Sophy," but she's much more aware and skilled than Marguerite St. Just in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Her scientific knowledge, of course, brings to mind Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce. And as a whole, the book has the merriment of a good Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Recommended for pure entertainment!

Depths of Evil, Roots of Crime, in THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville is the master of "Belfast Noir," gritty crime fiction set in and around Belfast, Northern Ireland. The port city is a living memorial to "The Troubles" -- the political and religious fever that drove Neville's earlier series, where violence kept emerging in successive family generations, responding to the horrors and repression of the 20th century (which, let's face it, were rooted in turn in the "Potato Famine" oppression).

In THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, Neville forsakes his series and its close ties to recent history. Instead, through two powerful women in law enforcement and a pair of very damaged brothers, he probes the nature of evil and the way it spreads. The contagion of the murder committed by 12-year-old Ciaran Devine and his older brother Thomas has infected DCI Serena Flanagan, who received Ciaran's confession eight years earlier.

Flanagan's never quite believed the confession, though. Maternal instincts, perhaps? The young foster child seemed too vulnerable, too much manipulated by his darker brother. And it's clear to Flanagan that Ciaran's insistence on being the only killer of the boys' foster father -- leaving Thomas as accomplice -- has saved Thomas from a lengthy prison sentence and made sure that Ciaran's own was "just" the eight years assigned to a child.

Flanagan's kept her doubts close to her chest. But that, in turn, has festered: Her return to police work at the same time of Ciaran's release from prison is a return from radiation treatment for breast cancer. Although she's not especially introspective, Neville leaves little doubt that Flanagan's urge to pull young Ciaran -- now a hormonally confused young man -- to her breast may be a toxic mistake.

Then there's Paula Cunningham, the dedicated Probation Service officer who'll escort Ciaran out of prison and into the monitored life ahead of him.
Cunningham had entered the Probation Service twelve years ago ... As a postgraduate student, she had spent summers working on the wards of psychiatric units, then a year in Maghaberry prison, counselling inmates. She had learned things in those days that would stay with her until her last breath, like the terrible cost of casual violence, and how poorly the system dealt with those who inflicted it.
But was the action of the Devine boys casual violence, or was it planned revenge? And what revenge may the surviving family member of that long-ago foster household desire?

While the twisted menace of Ciaran and Thomas is a meticulous portrait of how abuse can blossom as violence, Neville's compelling investigation of what drives DCI Flanagan becomes the counterstroke of the plot.
Flanagan had seen many murder scenes. The ugliness of the act, the indignity of it. ... Sudden and violent death rarely visited those with stable lives, with loving families, with purpose to their days. More often than not, murder happened on drunken nights between friends brought together by their mutual dependencies, petty arguments exploding into bloodshed, kitchen knives buried in throats, heads cracked open by heavy objects. No planning, no intent, only rage unleashed.

But this was different.
Flanagan's effort to get Ciaran to tell the truth involves showing him that he can survive without being a puppet of his malicious older brother. But by threatening the bond of the brothers, Flanagan unleashes a tide of rage and violence against all the people around them -- especially these two women in law enforcement. Is it worth it? How good are her instincts? What evidence can there be, or what subsequent admissions?

Don't look for quintessential "Irishness" in this one -- aside from the scraps of Belfast language and the slightly different criminal justice system, THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND could take place in any harsh urban environment, even in a suburb. And that broad application, coupled with relentless insight into abuse and its consequences, is what makes this book an instant classic of crime and investigation.

There's a rumor that Flanagan will be a series character herself. That's good news: Stuart Neville's decision to confront crime's long roots may benefit us all. And to publisher Soho Crime, again -- thanks.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Not Just YA -- EDGEWATER, Courtney Sheinmel, Long Island Mystery

The photo here is borrowed from a friend's Twitter feed, and I'm pretty sure it shows a countertop reminder at Vermont's noted general bookstore in Manchester Center, Northshire. The point is clear, and it's one that readers have known "forever": Books labeled "young adult" (YA) because of the ages of their protagonists are also often really good reading for adults.

Few titles prove this as powerfully as EDGEWATER, the newest from seasoned adventure author Courtney Sheinmel. Caught by a nasty, snooty friend's machinations at an expensive summer camp in North Carolina, "advanced" equestrian Lorrie Hollander bets her last twenty-dollar bill on a competition involving her horse -- and loses, followed immediately by the camp director calling her into the office and sending her home, for nonpayment of fees.

Lorrie's sure it's all a highly embarrassing mistake. There's no dad in her life, and her mother deserted her early on, but her quirky aunt Gigi administers the trust fund that keeps Lorrie living a high-end lifestyle that fits with any long-distance view of her family's mansion on Long Island, in the beachfront resort development of Idlewild. But behind the mansion's first view is a crumbling house infested with rescued cats, Lorrie's animal-loving sister's answer to needing something to love -- and Aunt Gigi and her "Blue Periods," serious depressions that make her useless as a guardian to the sisters.

This time, though, Lorrie's old enough -- having just finished her junior year of high school -- to drop the pretenses and go looking for her trust fund, to get it transferred to her own control and stop the cascade of humiliations. After all, her beloved horse is waiting for her in North Carolina.

But the more she investigates, the more Lorrie realizes things are way out of hand. A chance meeting with the handsome and wealthy son of a nationally active political family in the same resort offers her a potent new friendship that she's too embarrassed to accept. Charlie's the son of an esteemed senator, and his mother's about to launch her own campaign. How could Lorrie guess that important answers to the mysteries of her own family could be tangled up with Charlie's prestigious household?

Astute adult readers may recall that Idlewild was the earlier name of Kennedy Airport, and some may even know it as the vanished name of a high-end development on Long Island's Jamaica Bay. And almost all adult readers will leap ahead of Lorrie to guess at what's been hidden, as Sheinmel's novel reveals parallels to the Kennedy family history, especially the segment that took place at Chappaquiddick.

Enough said. I promise I haven't given a spoiler -- you would have seen the parallel in how Charlie and his family are introduced. And, as with the best YA fiction, EDGEWATER depends for its depth on Lorrie's struggles, insights, and conflicted choices. But there's a neatly twisted bit of crime fiction involved too, and Sheinmel's writing is smooth, taut, well-paced, and blessed with the simultaneous tensions that a gifted storyteller must manage to pull closer and closer to each other.

Blurbs for the book come from bestselling YA authors and, in an unusual twist, urban booksellers. Sure, go ahead an buy the book "for the young adult in your life." But don't give it away until you've read it yourself. In fact ... it might be better to just pick up two copies, so you won't have to feel deprived of this very good tale that author Lauren Oliver described with "past and present become mysteriously, and sometimes dangerously, intertwined. "

That could definitely describe a good work of crime fiction for adults -- and in EDGEWATER, that's exactly what it does. After all, you were a high school junior yourself once, weren't you?

From Europe to Texas, Mark Pryor Moves for HOLLOW MAN

I'm a huge fan of Mark Pryor's Hugo Marston series, set in Europe (mostly circling around Paris) where Marston, a retired FBI profiler, provides security for the U.S. Embassy. (Reviews here!)  The Reluctant Matador was the 2015 title in this series, so it's intriguing to have an extra Mark Pryor book in the same year, and this one's billed as a standalone: HOLLOW MAN.

You don't need to know the T. S. Eliot poem that provides the title -- it's clear right away that Domenic, the narrator, is a psychopath, making his way as a Texas prosecutor with a performed set of emotions that he doesn't really feel. Or at least, his versions of them are very different. He's interested, intrigued, annoyed, even angry, but kindness, for him, is a matter of calculating what's in his best interest. A job transfer to a less compelling and less profitable division distresses him. But in the process, the possibility of creating a "perfect crime" arises, and of course, he can't walk away from the challenge.
But I did resist. I had to. It's one thing being unable to get off the slide once you begin; it's quite another to step onto that slippery slope with your eyes wide open. I'd trained myself that being a functional human being meant, for me, recognizing dangerous situations and steering around them. Not resisting the temptations, but avoiding them in the first place. I was the serial adulterer hiring an ugly secretary, or the booze-hound driving the long way home to avoid his local liquor store.

"Prosecutors don't steal cars," I said. "Not this one, anyway."

"It's not stealing," she said, "if you give it back. It's not even borrowing. It's teaching him a lesson."
I've got very mixed reactions to this one. Pryor's writing is compelling and convincing, and the plot he provides is neatly twisted and well paced. But I found I was uneasy "identifying" with this narrator. Maybe I should be used to it -- the Wyatt books from Garry Disher are equally disturbing in terms of being inside a psychopath's mind. But Disher's Wyatt has weak spots in his personal defenses, and takes some risks for others at odd but significant moments, and I find myself on his side. For Domenic, a cautious emotional distance fits much better. I wanted to like him, but all in all, I didn't -- and I wouldn't necessarily prioritize reading another book from his point of view. (Good thing for me it's a standalone, then.)

What did intrigue me mightily was seeing author Mark Pryor make the shift to the Texas setting, where he is himself a transplanted Englishman and an assistant district attorney. I appreciated his know-how on both the legal career and the effect of changing countries. (He has a family and does not appear to be a psychopath himself, I'm glad to note.)

After the already-mentioned Australian Wyatt series and of course the Dexter books, plus Dave Zeltersman's series, I found Pryor's psychopath approach less than satisfying, the the plot was more predictable than I like. But other readers have found the ending surprising. If you like really dark noir and the tension of crossing a legal career into crime, check out HOLLOW MAN. From Seventh Street Books, a publisher that keeps on impressing me with its reach and range.

Brief Applause: MAKE ME, Lee Child (Jack Reacher #20)

US cover, left; UK cover, right.
Lee Child's books don't need extra reviews -- they have a global audience, and I'm one of probably millions who see the ad for "the next book" and make a mental note to read it as soon as possible.

MAKE ME (released 11 days ago) opens with Jack Reacher stepping off a train at a tiny American town in the midst of miles of wheat fields, just because he likes speculating on the source of the name of the place: Mother's Rest. His late-night arrival coincides with a number of odd events in the town, and, predictably, he finds a courageous but baffled former FBI agent (now private detective) who needs his skilled assistance. Michelle Chang is good with firearms and with "situations" but she doesn't have anything like Reacher's years of experience with complexity and, let's face it, evil.

I enjoy the snappy pace of Lee Child's writing, and the clean ethics that drive Reacher, along with his old-fashioned appreciation of each new woman in his life. As someone who cut her mystery-reading teeth on John D. MacDonald (among others), I do worry for those women ... but along with crafting an intriguing explanation of the Deep Web and related tech routes, the author is pushing a new line for Reacher's relationship this time, and I'm fully intrigued! Can hardly wait to see what this approach does in the next title.

By the way, the UK cover is much more suited to the plot than the US one. But I suppose the US one signals "thriller" more effectively. Hmm.

Deftly Stitched Mystery: GONE BUT KNOT FORGOTTEN, Mary Marks

Stepping way beyond what its cover promises, GONE BUT KNOT FORGOTTEN is a well-plotted traditional mystery with clever twists and a smart amateur sleuth. This third in the "Quilting Mysteries" by Mary Marks is part of Kensington's spread of cozy themed investigations. And Martha Rose -- that is, Martha Rivka Rose, a form she never uses but that arrives on a legal envelope in the morning mail -- is a midlife Californian with fibromyalgia (she treats it with yoga) and an important circle of eccentric but devoted friends.

That legal envelope holds the unexpected announcement that Martha's been named executor of an estate. It belongs to her best friend from high school, Harriet, someone she reconnected with at their tenth reunion -- but now, they've been long out of touch. What tragedy resulted in Harriet's death at age 59? And why on earth would she name such a distant friend as Martha to deal with her estate?

And it's only getting worse by the minute, on the phone with the lawyer, who says, "There's no delicate way to say this, Ms. Rose. We discovered Mrs. Oliver's body in her home about three weeks ago. The coroner estimated she'd been dead for at least ten months."

Of course, Martha's motivated to get to the bottom of all this, especially as she begins to suspect her friend's death wasn't an accident. A valuable historic quilt, one maybe even involving stitches by Betsy Ross -- famous flag-maker of the American Revolution -- is missing, along with other treasures from the curiously sad home and collections that Martha's got to have appraised and sell for charity. Martha and her quilting pals Lucy and Birdie grasp the importance of the fabric item right away.

Luckily, Birdie and Lucy insist on being Martha's backup, because a killer who's already done away with one woman won't stop at the next -- and Martha's curiosity and persistence put her into the path of potential murder.
Author Mary Marks

The cute ideas behind the book become unusual details for a neatly paced and plotted, satisfying traditional "amateur sleuth" mystery. Good pacing and neatly placed clues bind all the pieces together. A perfect mystery for relaxing, unwinding, and taking some time off, without having to check the locks on the doors!

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Ray Celestin, THE AXEMAN: New Orleans Serial Murder, Lively Crime Fiction

The surge of "imports" in today's mystery and crime fiction is bringing wonderful work to American readers, without the necessity of crossing any oceans. It's almost taken for granted now that the most captivating of Scandinavian, French, and Italian crime fiction will be quickly translated to English and in our hands within a year or sooner -- sometimes even simultaneously with European publication. An odd twist to this situation is the growing number of English, Scottish, and Irish (here I just mean Irish setting, English language) mysteries that ought to be released at the same time in both the United Kingdom and the United States, since the language is close enough to being the same ... but somehow the publishers are not always doing this. I've reviewed several authors' works recently that face a delay of one to three years before jumping the Atlantic to America.

Of all of them, THE AXEMAN by Ray Celestin may be one of the most frustrating in terms of delay, title, and "frills." As the Dutch blogger at A Fantastical Librarian notes, there's very little available online about the author ... and the information on the book, a debut mystery, is mightily confused by its two titles: originally The Axeman's Jazz  and now THE AXEMAN. The longer version is also the title of a Julie Smith book, so that may explain the switch -- but even so, if you go looking for reviews and articles on the book, you'll find most of them appended to the longer title anyway.

That said, for a pleasant interview with author Ray Celestin, check out the already-mentioned librarian blog, linked here. And now for the book itself:

THE AXEMAN opens with a Prologue from the point of view of an alcohol-soaked journalist in May 1919 in New Orleans, John Riley, who stumbles on a letter from a self-proclaimed serial killer, in his newspaper's heap of letters to the editor. The narrative then leaps back a month, to a funeral procession where young Lewis Armstrong adds his trumpet work to the music. Yes, that Lewis ... the one who'd later be Louis. Then it jumps to Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot, inspecting the crime scene of yet another killing by the Axeman, whose gruesome violence is increasing and now includes five occasions. And the third point of view, the one that will become compelling, intimate, and risk-taking, is that of Luca D'Andrea, a newly released convict -- caught between a corrupt police force and the local gangsters. It's Luca's gaze that will become ours, as he walks from where he spent his five-year sentence, toward the city that is his. Or maybe that owns him.
Luca hadn't been expecting his return to New Orleans to be an easy experience. He knew the city was no paradise; it was violent and unforgiving, awash with criminals and immigrant communities that treated one another with hostility and suspicion. But it was also a city with a beguiling energy to it, a bright and opulent charm. For all its segregation and spite, its shabby streets and faded glory, it was easy to become bewitched by the city of New Orleans. And so the whole time Luca was in Angola he couldn't help feeling that when he returned, he would be entering a better world. That the slime of the prison life would wash off him like some kind of amniotic fluid. But now, as he looked at [inquiring reporter] Riley, he wondered if he wasn't just exchanging one kind of slime for another.
Luca and Lewis will connect; mysterious woman and their effects play a role in hunting the killer; and the distance from the 1919 city of New Orleans to Luca's birthplace in Sicily is shorter in some ways than the walk from Angola prison to the downtown.

Celestin's a long-time scriptwriter for film and TV, which explains why his debut novel has the feel of a pro. Not only are the strands of crime and investigation and the pace of suspense and intrigue expertly woven -- but the insight into and connections for Luca, Michael, and young Lewis Armstrong kept me entirely involved. The book's clearly headed into a sequel, set in Chicago, and I hope it will arrive in "the States" soon; I'd drop almost everything else on my desk, to curl up with the next book from the mysterious Ray Celestin.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Crime-Solving in the Solomon Islands: THE WHITE GHOST (Billy Boyle 10), James R. Benn

The Billy Boyle World War II mysteries span a very particular time period -- but that hasn't stopped author (and former librarian) James R. Benn from fitting in plenty of Billy Boyle's adventures during those years! In fact, this 10th in the series begins with a short note explaining that there's a gap in time between books 3 and 4 ... and THE WHITE GHOST fits into there: a South Pacific interlude for Boyle in 1943 in the Solomon Islands.

Don't go thinking "vacation" for this investigator, though! Usually working quietly for General Eisenhower (an "uncle" by extension to his Boston Irish family), this time the no-longer-green cop from the States is under orders from Ike's boss, General Marshall, Chief of Staff. There's a lot of mystery to the abrupt summons, and Billy's only relief is that his partner in solving so many crimes already, Kaz -- Lieutenant Kazimierz -- is under orders with him. The pair quickly learn who's puling the strings for their assignment: Ambassador Joe Kennedy, whose son Jack (yes, THAT Jack Kennedy) not only is suffering from a sunken PT boat and injured feet, but also stands accused of the death of a "native scout." Kennedy clout and power even then were enormous, and the grand American-Irish family can demand Billy Boyle's services to straighten things out and get Jack out of trouble.

Emphasis on family. It turns out the Kennedys and the Boyles have very bad blood between them, and much of the antipathy is actually between Billy and Jack. There isn't time for Kaz to get the full story before the investigators start their series of flights to the far-away islands (marking the first time this series has gone to the Japanese war theater), but revelations arrive along the way. Bottom line: If Billy can clear Jack Kennedy, everyone will believe it's true because the bad feelings are well known -- and if he fails to clear the Ambassador's son, Jack will still be OK, because then everyone can assume Billy had it in for the man and merely framed him in some way. Talk about a bind! Still, there's not much Billy and Kaz can do, considering their orders, other than buckling down to solve the crime, and any other complications that come along (many of them personal).

Benn's tightly woven plotting shines here, along with his deft characterizations that allow him to show the inevitable disaster between Billy and the young JFK but also make room for gradual changes through the book. He has ample room in the black history of the Kennedy clan from those years, for framing both criminal and immoral circumstances. This is also a great opportunity for Benn to highlight Billy and Kaz as a team isolated from their usual supports, working out the lay of the land (and water) in this military-overrun seascape.

Especially intriguing is the American interplay with the Chinese in the region, and Billy and Kaz enter an uneasy alliance with the very intelligent and secretive Miss Chang, who is soon more than a friend for Kaz ("Please, call me Jai-li, Billy. The baron [Kaz] spoke so much about you, I feel we are already friends.") It's Miss Chang who helps them see more clearly how alien they themselves are as "gwai lo" -- white people -- in the Solomons.
"Billy, to most of the people here, all gwai lo look alike."

"White ghost," I said. "Or is is white devil?" I'd heard the term plenty back in Boston's Chinatown, never uttered in a kindly tone.

... "And all three are dead, with no trace of the killer," Jai-li said. "It is indeed a white ghost you are seeking."
Benn's writing keeps Billy Boyle and his investigation in the heart of traditional crime-solving terrain, with both history and military machinations (like radio networks) smoothly woven into the page-turning action. And as is the case for every really good mystery, it's Billy's choices of how to honor his own integrity under pressure that make this a very satisfying read.

Highly recommended -- and no, you don't need to read the other Billy Boyle books before this one. But I'm betting most readers who race through the Solomons with Billy and Kaz will want to start collecting the entire series. James R. Benn, Soho Crime ... it's a partnership as good as they of Billy Boyle and Lt. Kazimierz. And as Billy observes: "War makes white ghosts of us all."