Saturday, October 31, 2015

Country Store Mystery Debut, Maddie Day (Edith Maxwell)

This week's release of FLIPPED FOR MURDER added a fresh and energetic investigator, Robbie Jordan, in a new series by Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell.

Writing under the pen name Maddie Day, Maxwell puts her five years of life in southern Indiana to work with a brisk plot and engaging characters. The country store that Robbie -- short for Roberta -- reopens as both a breakfast/lunch restaurant and a vintage cookware shop is based on a real business, the Story General Store in Story, Indiana. From there, the mystery leaps into fiction, though. Robbie's mom died a year earlier, and she's on the rebound from life's complications, including her own upbringing in California, without a dad, but very attached to her mom and her mom's family. That includes southern Indiana resident Aunt Adele, plucky and encouraging, an anchor for Robbie in the small town. Under Adele's urging, Robbie's bought the shop; rehabbed it and refitted it, thanks to the carpentry skills her mom taught her; and is pulling together a growing staff, in response to the brisk opening business.

But when the town employee who'd been toughest to get along with during the overhaul turns up murdered, with a strong connection to Robbie's newly opened restaurant, it looks like Pans 'N Pancakes may have a short shelf life.
"Poor Stella. But what does her death have to do with me?" I heard my voice rise and swallowed hard.

"She did not die of natural causes," Buck said.

"Oh, no. That's awful," I said.

"Do you mean she was murdered?" Jim's voice came out low and slow.

"Yup. And then somebody stuffed a cheesy biscuit in her mouth." Buck stared at me.

A cheesy biscuit? One of my cheesy biscuits? Damn. Double damn.
Author "Maddie Day" thus resolves the most critical component of any "amateur sleuth" mystery: the motivation that takes a friendly non-detective out of her comfort zone and into the risks of investigation and detection.

FLIPPED FOR MURDER steps up the pace and the stakes with a pair of parallel plot components. First there are two mysteries on hand: the murder of the very unpleasant Stella Rogers, and the question of who Robbie's father might have been -- something that's suddenly a live question, when she realizes that her mom's departure from Indiana so many years ago fits the time of getting pregnant. Was there a man to run away from? A heartbreak in the past? A danger?

At the same time, Robbie's exploring two sets of possibilities for her own life: the adventure of owning her own business, employees and all, and the endless wondering of who life is bringing for romantic possibilities. After all, although Robbie is an experienced chef and ready to invest, she's also only 27 and repeatedly startled by the attractive men in her life!

The back-up characters in FLIPPED FOR MURDER have charm and pizzazz. There's the mayor's daughter Danna, with her dreadlocks and flair for culinary creation; Robbie's friend Phil, grandson of a church leader; surprising Aunt Adele, with romance plans of her own; and the men, oh the men ... like Ed Kowalski, country-store competition in the next town; real estate lawyer Jim Shermer, ready to help Robbie in other ways; Office Buck Bird of the local police force, who seems to like Robbie but won't hesitate to arrest her if it's called for ... These folks are clearly sticking around for the next book, and I'm eager to see how Robbie invests in their lives, as well as in her restaurant and the defense of her innocence.

Yes, the recipe for Robbie's Cheesy Biscuits is included, along with a few others. Most remarkably, in her Maddie Day persona, author Edith Maxwell proves she can differentiate a new voice for her woman-centered "cozy" mysteries. The core of each of her four series (three already in print, one more coming in 2016)  is a woman standing up for herself and wondering what life's bringing her, while making strong, decisive choices on what to accept and what to walk away from. But the professions, surroundings, and -- as in FLIPPED FOR MURDER -- the casts of characters are sharply separate, intriguing, and promise a lot of fun ahead.

Kensington Books offers a teaser for the next in the country-store mystery series, Grilled for Murder, at the end of this debut. It's clearly going onto my "plan to get the next one" list!

PS -- it's well worth visiting Edith Maxwell's author website. Here's the webpage for the country store mysteries, and it's easy to navigate to the author's Events listing, too. Why not get two copies -- one for yourself, one for a holiday gift -- and get them signed by the author? She'll be mostly in Massachusetts, but there are some events this coming week in the Midwest, and sure to be more, as her research issues the call of the road!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Risk, Danger, and Love, in THE HOT COUNTRIES, Timothy Hallinan, Thailand

The seventh Poke Rafferty Bangkok thriller is out -- and it's a fantastic wrap-up to this part of the series. THE HOT COUNTRIES tackles crime in one of the world's most notorious cities for crime, but from the point of view of a travel writer who's fallen hopelessly and forever in love ... with Bangkok, with his wife Rose (who knows the sex trade from the inside), and with his firmly adopted daughter Miaow. The trouble is, love may have put its rose-colored lenses in front of some other parts of Poke's life, where it's not a wise idea to feel mushy and warm about what's going on.

The action opens with a moody and sweet scene at the Expat Bar, a local men's hangout where Poke's wandered more often than usual lately, escaping the surge of British TV watching that Rose and Miaow (or Mia, in her new teen persona) are indulging in. The oldtimers at the bar have made him welcome for years. So in Poke's mellow evening, there's no reason to worry about the presence of a new fellow in the line-up at the bar, Arthur Varney. At least, not until Poke realizes that Varney is the mover-and-shaker behind some very threatening messages coming his way, messages that threaten his family (and by the way, Rose is pregnant) and also his friends. Especially at risk is Treasure, a street waif who's seen horrendous abuse and is recovering very slowly after Poke's managed to settle her into a group home for kids who share her past experience. And the threat is being delivered via messages to Poke himself.
Treasure says, "I'm frightened."

"I know," Poke says. "But we're not just going to keep you away from him. We're going after him, and when we find him, you'll never have to think about him again."
A rash promise.

Here's where that highly technical term "part of a series" come into play. Yes, this is number 7 in Timothy Hallinan's Bangkok series, but it's also the third -- and completing title -- of a set of the Rafferty books that focus on how and whether Treasure can actually be saved from both the horrors of her past life and the overwhelming power and wealth of her abuser(s). As he did with number 6 (For the Dead), Hallinan is playing Poke Rafferty's almost naive drive to save the people he cares about, against the sweaty tropical weight of a culture that's almost given up on its vulnerable members.

Although Poke is highly motivated to fight the criminals battering his life, he's truly an "amateur sleuth" in the sense of the genre definition: no martial arts skills, no amazing weapons, not even a trained sniper on his side. But there are those old men from the Expat Bar ... a police officer who's a friend, even if a disgraced one ... and some women and "ladyboys" who recognize that Poke himself is worth saving.

The people who come through for Poke do so because he's earned their loyalty. Most of all, this time, the heroes include his own daughter, who's been through a lot herself. Astute readers will notice Miaow's steady progress toward taking responsibility for resisting evil and asserting her own amazing future -- so the book's ending is especially satisfying, as well as surprising in the best of ways.

I do hope this isn't the "final" Poke Rafferty book, because this stretch of intense and suspenseful thrillers set in a wickedly complex and dangerous Thai city has given me a really good ride! Keep them rolling, Tim Hallinan and Soho Crime ... please.

[PS - if you're a reader who stays WAY away from thrillers that include sexual abuse, you have my sympathy ... and my assurance that even though that's a major crime in the Poke Rafferty series, it's portrayed as a justice issue, not as porn. Safe to read these, truly.]

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Texas Rangers & Western Bioterrorism, STRONG LIGHT OF DAY, Jon Land

Jon Land brings us a new adventure with Caitlin Strong, a fifth-generation Texas Ranger who's still prying loose the tales of her grandfather's and father's exploits in the tough-minded law enforcers. In STRONG LIGHT OF DAY, she and her lover Cort Wesley are galvanized into action by the sudden disappearance of 30 students from Cort Wesley's son's school -- including his son. Although there's no ransom demand, what else could this be but a major kidnapping, immaculately planned?

To discover where the students are, and make a workable plan for their rescue, Strong and her team (yes, including her massive assistant Guillermo Paz, when he's not seeking paranormal advice) must probe the local wing of the Russian mob. Land deftly interweaves the conflicts of an earlier generation to show how inevitable it is that the mob would pick Strong's Lone Star State for the launch of a major bioterrorism plot.

This is a fast-paced thriller, with a bit less of the supernatural than some of the earlier ones in the series. Instead of ghostly presences, there's a major disturbance on the home front, as Cort Wesley's boys step into action, clearly the next generation getting involved. Count on a hint of Romeo and Juliet too, as Cort Wesley's family took one side of the law, Caitlin Strong's the other, at least in the past. Did their interests ever coincide? What opened the way for the current generation's intricate entanglement?

You don't need to read the others in the series before this one (this is number seven - click here for Land's blog post on how Caitlin Strong was born as his fierce and wonderful character), although some things will be clearer if you have. Pick up a copy for a fast ride with just the right amount of "it hasn't happened yet but it could" -- and plenty of lively firefights, but not much in-your-face gore. I'm a fan of the SUV combat scenes, myself!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Brief Mention of KEEPER'S REACH, Carla Neggers

There are so many subgenres of "mysteries" now -- with the most familiar being the endpoints of "cozy" (a traditional amateur-sleuth version with most violence taking place offstage and little specific description of any injuries or deaths), and hard-boiled (drenched in grim determination to solve the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice -- which may or may not involve actual court proceedings, and is likely to include a sturdy dose of depression and substance abuse).

I enjoy and appreciate the full spectrum, including its modern international versions and the related but differently paced espionage and "young adult" sleuth fiction.

One area I don't read a lot of, though, is romantic mysteries. Still, I read at least one every year, because I so much enjoy the New England and Ireland settings and complex, maturing characters provided by Carla Neggers. Her newest in the Sharpe and Donovan series came out in August: KEEPER'S REACH, set in Maine, and in the Cotwolds of England. I saved my copy for relaxing, and enjoyed it earlier this weekend.

Emma Sharpe, an art crimes expert, is happily moving toward her scheduled marriage to Colin Donovan, and the couple are learning how to share some secrets and protect others in their dual roles as FBI agents. The art thief they've pursued through the four earlier books is very much at the center of KEEPER'S REACH -- and so are the Donovan brothers, especially Mike this time. Add in winter, transatlantic investigations, and a shadow from Mike's military past, and the plot quickly grows complex. Watch for plenty of appearances by Father Finian Bracken, too.

St. Brigid's cross plays a role in KEEPER'S REACH.
I enjoyed all the interactions in the book, particularly the way Neggers handles gender differences in people committed to fast-paced and dangerous work. I didn't see the final twist coming -- maybe I missed a clue or two? -- but I'm satisfied that the complications of modern crime-solving, seasoned with romance, could indeed work out to the situations in this book. It's a good read, easy to enjoy, and full of memorable scenes -- and that, of course, forms the ultimate combination of a book well worth recommending. I'll be putting this title onto the gift list for a couple of my friends at the end of the year!

PS - For extra fun, check out the author blog for Carla Neggers, here.

Vivid History, and Reasons to Honor "Indigenous Peoples Day"

Nonfiction mystery this time!

Sometimes the mysteries of the U.S. mail baffle me. A page-proof copy of GLOOMY TERRORS AND HIDDEN FIRES by Ronald M. Anglin and Larry E. Morris arrived here a month or so ago, and when I saw "October 10" as the release date, I assumed it meant 2015. Actually the book was published a year ago. But I'm very glad it arrived here anyway, with its compelling U.S. history and narrative of the life of an early explorer.

John Colter, who traveled with Merriweather Lewis and William (Bill) Clark in their famous early-1800s expedition sponsored by Thomas Jefferson, could almost have had his own book on the strength of his work with the noted explorers "West of the Mississippi." But he became far more recognized for the generously mythologized episode in his life that happened in 1808, when he supposedly accepted a challenge from a group of Blackfeet (Native Americans). He ran -- naked and shoeless -- for his life, outracing the indigenous people he had already deeply offended by trespass, theft, and the deadly shooting done by his partner. Not only did he make his way through the "wilderness" alone for eleven days, half starving en route -- but he became known as the man who'd bring Yellowstone itself to national notice, and he survived a few more years, to become legendary.  "Colter's Run" is still observed as a race today.

What Anglin and Morris do with their book is trace and retrace Colter's sparsely documented life. Working from records kept by others -- Colter left none -- they build a forceful tower of speculation that eventually stands on its own, to describe the frontiersman himself.

But far beyond hanging flesh onto the bones of legend, these authors outline bluntly the repeated, deliberate, and deceitful treatment by the explorers, of the tribal peoples who welcomed, guided, supported, and often rescued them. By the time I'd finished the first three chapters, I was mightily sickened by the actions of the "white men" who'd probed the Western lands, and even more horrifid by the actions that followed, whether by settlers or by politicians. In the words of the authors:
Four short years into the nineteenth century, Lewis and Clark had failed to understand the Lakota for want of an interpreter -- and also for want of a desire to treat the Indians as equals. Sadly, this misunderstanding prefigured an entire century of false impressions, misreadings, distrust, and tragedy. On that pleasant day of September in 1804, when Colter looked up to see his horse gone, he could not have imagined what that missing horse would someday symbolize.
So I'm recommending GLOOMY TERRORS AND HIDDEN FIRES as a book to open on "Columbus Day" (today) or any time this coming winter. Ignore the flawed introductory material -- the chapters themselves are full of detail and well written. The passion of the two historians rings clearly, and they document their narrative and assertions -- and in particular their view of the interactions of the early invading entrepreneurs and the Lakota Sioux nation -- in abundant detail. It's a page-turner, and may also be a mind changer. It was for me -- I think it's long past time to make the change from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. It's the least we can do to acknowledge the presence of the nations of tribal peoples who were so terribly dealt with for so long, and who still struggle for the treaty rights that once seemed legally binding.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Debut "Clock Shop" Mystery, JUST KILLING TIME, Julianne Holmes

It's fun to see the pseudonym in action, but there's no dark secret here: Julianne Holmes is a pen name for Sisters in Crime New England (and Boston drama!) leader Julie Hennrikus. Her debut mystery is releasing October 6 from Berkley Prime Crime, and it's a lively and enjoyable read -- JUST KILLING TIME.

Ruth Clagan is a clockmaker, like her grandfather G.T. (for Grandpa Thom). She's part of the fourth family generation in the trade, and loves her work. And her grandfather -- even though she's been estranged from him recently. Now, a bad marriage and divorce behind her, she's ready to reach out again to the person who most embodies home for her, in western Massachusetts.

So it's a terrible shock to get the worst possible news, while driving, from a lawyer on the phone -- her grandfather is dead.
They'd found the postcard I sent him at his shop, the Cog & Sprocket, and had been trying to reach me all week. The reading of the will was today. Would I possibly be able to make it? ...

"I've got it," I said. "I'll be there as soon as possible. I don't even, I mean, wow, this is starting to sink in. What happened? Had G.T. been sick? We've been out of touch. I'd hate to think I wasn't there to say good-bye." There was a long pause on the phone. For a second, I thought we'd been disconnected.

"Oh, Ruth, there's no easy was to say this. ... he was being robbed at the time. The police are treating it as murder."
Ruth rides a roller-coaster of grief as she drives five hours to her grandfather's shop, and the hometown that was once her own. She's quickly aware that his clock shop is now hers -- and she needs to finally meet her grandfather's recent second wife, the one from the marriage just after her own, the woman who took the place of Ruth's own beloved grandmother.

But there are plenty of things to sort out that have nothing to do with that past conflict over G.T.'s re-marriage and her own ill-fated one. Why are so many clocks crowded into the shop? Are there missing items, and are they significant? How much of her grandfather's death is tied to his business -- and how much to an attempt to develop the small town, increasing the natural frictions among neighbors new and old?

Julianne Holmes crafts a marvelous set of characters, especially Ruth Clagan, smart, serious about her craft and her art, and willing to change her mind as new information and experience come her way. The pace of the book says "cozy" -- there are moments of suspense but none of that intense sort of riskiness that makes a reader get up to check that the door is locked -- and the affections among the characters mingle with a bit of gentle romance-as-a-possibility. The clockmaking is a new slant in this field, and a great pleasure to read about, from historic clocks to mechanisms to controversies.

Best of all, Holmes establishes the scene for her series: a small town in the throes of growing up, and an amateur sleuth, Ruth Clagan, who takes action out of the best motives: love and loyalty.

Do pick up this debut; it's clear the series will be well-rounded and delightful. Thanks, Julianne Holmes (and Julie Hennrikus: for more on the two alter egos, check the website here).

Worth Fighting For, in THE VILLE RAT, Martin Limón

One look, and the two crime investigators commit themselves to finding the young woman's killer. Yes, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are tough members of the 8th U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, in 1974 -- they've seen a lot of the underside of the occupied city and its surroundings, in South Korea and the DMZ (and sometimes they've crossed the line to the sadder half of the divided nation). But a beautiful Korean woman in traditional feminine clothing, clearly murdered and discarded at a frozen river, gets the guys worked up.

The 11th in Martin Limón's passionate crime series may be the clearest yet in showing what George and Ernie treasure in Korea, from its women to its people of honor and to their counterpart on the Korean National Police side of things, Inspector Gil Kwon-up, better known as Mr. Kill. So when a black-market scheme with American backing turns out to be linked to multiple deaths, and to abuse of an even younger woman, maybe a teen, kidnapped into sexual servitude, the investigative partners refuse to back off.

And they've got plenty of reason to keep pushing on the entwined cases, as Mr. Kill wants them to handle the military aspects, where he can't use his own men -- and a scrawny Caucasian, apparently former military himself, and known only as the Ville Rat, flags them down near the scene of a crime:
"I had to stop you," the man said, breathless. His voice was hurried. Green eyes darted from side to side. "He shouldn't have done it," he said.

"Who?" I asked.

It was as if he hadn't heard me.

"She just wanted her freedom, that's all."

"Who are you talking about?" I shouted.
But when Ernie switches off the engine and the two try to catch up with their unexpected informant, he runs deftly away from them, calling back, "You were almost there!"

The two actually have a lot of miles to cover, and a lot of bars in which to ask about the mysterious shipments they realize are taking place there, before the pieces start to come together. They even need to rely on Strange -- that is, Harvey, an informant inside the military, to figure out what's up.

It turns out that two generals of different divisions are using George and Ernie against each other, and it looks like they'll be crushed in a rat trap within the military if they keep in pursuit of the criminals. But, did I already mention they can't let go of this one?

Limón always spins a good tale, full of details of Korean life and culture, as well as the passions of the men who've been drawn to its exploration. This is one of the best -- with a swift pace, great twists of action and revelation, and a heartfelt sweetness interwoven with the fierce chases and escapades.

Sure, you can read this one without the other 10 -- and it will be a good introduction to Limón's series. Then pick up the others, each with a very different approach. This is one of my faves among the international crime series that Soho Crime is publishing, and I look forward to re-reading them all over the winter. Worth every page!

Friday, October 02, 2015

Mysteries for Kids, Fresh, New, Exciting (Shelley Tougas, Kekla Magoon)

Have you noticed who talks about the Nancy Drew books? Yes, I'm afraid so -- it's the 50+ crowd. It's not the kids, except for the ones who are reading "retro." And don't even ask about the Bobbsey Twins. The Hardy Boys? Those are on those cute mugs and T-shirts you can buy online for older co-workers.

But there are fresh new mysteries this season that are so good, there's no need to mourn the old character series. And adult readers have the fun of purchasing these "for the kids" and indulging in going cover to cover themselves, rapidly, before wrapping the gifts.

Take FINDERS KEEPERS by Shelley Tougas, for starters. This is a "middle grades" mystery -- the protagonists are ages 10 and 11, and kids usually "read ahead" by at least a year, so 9-year-olds are headed for this book. Tougas, a Wisconsin author, knows her age range well, and spins an adventure that has to do with the family summer cabin being put up for sale in the tough economy, so that Christa is facing the horrible possibility of no trees to climb, no lake to swim in -- and an endless series of summer crafts workshops that her teacher parents will sign her up for. Ugh!

Christa's biggest talent is her imagination. She can turn create a gold-panning adventure out of simple kitchen tools and a few other items, and new neighbor Alex Clark, just a year older, has parallel skills. But it's Alex's grumpy Grandpa -- soon to be the official "babysitter" for Christa, too -- who provides the real excitement, because his mother (long ago) might have held -- and hidden! -- a treasure trove of cash belonging to gangster Al Capone.

Tougas nimbly escorts the kids through figuring out who Capone was and why his money would be scary. If you find it, can you keep it -- to rescue your family's summer? Or is it cursed and would it ruin your life? Who else is looking for it? Escapades multiply, and even adults helping younger kids read this will be surprised by some of the twists and turns. It's fun! (Check the author website for her other middle-grades mystery, too.)

Closer to adult level in terms of ethical choices and dangers is SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD by Kekla Magoon. This is the first "Robyn Hoodlum Adventure" and it's a doozy. Robyn, with her light-brown skin and braided kinky hair, fits in well in her neighborhood of Nott City, where her parents are important politically, and of "opposite" heritage -- one dark, one light. But when the greedy governor of the region sends his henchmen (henchwomen?) to lock up all the people capable of resisting him, Robyn escapes the net and connects with the rebels of nearby Sherwood.

Adult readers, and many younger ones, will realize right away that this is a play on the old tale of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but the path that our Robyn takes out of her comfortable life and into exile -- most wanted fugitive! -- is unexpected and suspenseful. Plus there's a generous dash of mythology involved, with the "old" myths of the moon having some influence on what's open to Robyn -- and to how she'll manage without her parents.

A few times, I felt like Magoon missed a moment when things could have been tougher or sadder; Robyn's new friends call her "mean" a couple of times, with reason, and I would have liked to see Robyn struggle and grow more around that issue. (I'm a fan of Peter Abraham's insistence that the author's job is to make things harder on the protagonist.) But by dodging that kind of pain, Magoon keeps the story at a more general level, far removed from the risks and losses of, say, The Hunger Games trilogy. Wise older people lend a hand to Robyn and her allies; youngsters come around to her side instead of betraying her; and there's a minister in training named Tucker (yes, as in Friar Tuck!) who creates a safety zone for the vulnerable child rebels.

I couldn't put it down -- the page count, admittedly with large type, short chapters, and plenty of white space, is 355, but the action is swift, the characters need hugs (and make do with an arm around each other's shoulders), and there are no distractions from the brisk forward motion. At the adult level, this would have been classified as a thriller, and thus would be in the mystery field -- for kids, though, it's more of an adventure type. The ending signals "series" very clearly. Robyn has a lot more to achieve! But the skills and insight that she's gained by the end of this very good book are going to serve her well in the missions that clearly lie ahead of her. It's going to be really, really hard to wait for the sequel! Author website here -- but as of this review date, not yet updated to SHADOWS OF SHERWOOD.

I plan to pick up multiple copies of this one. It will be a holiday gift for a couple of kids, but maybe even more highly valued by the several adults I know who are watching for the best in kids' books. No, I don't consider this YA (young adult), even though there's social chaos, political maneuvering, and such ... the issues are ethical and passionate but, at least in this first volume of the series, not heartbreaking, and there's no physical attraction to deal with between the characters. Safe to give it to that rapid-reader 9- or 10-year-old whom you appreciate; those over 13 may curl their lip at this ("too young a book!") but will enjoy sneaking into its pages anyway. Just don't tell them you noticed what they decided to read after all.