Monday, November 30, 2015

Trust Your Neighbor? Not in Mette Ivie Harrison's Second Mormon Mystery, HIS RIGHT HAND

Mette Ivie Harrison's second crime novel, with its December 1 release, is a terrific addition to the winter reading list. It's an excellent gift for most mystery readers (the only exceptions would be devoted cozy fans who don't read other forms) -- and an even better gift to oneself, for a powerful journey into a little-understood but all-American culture: that of a middle-class community of Mormons, in today's Utah.

Like Linda Castillo's framing of Amish culture, or Donna Leon's of Venetian, Harrison portrays the gentle force of isolation that can arrive with a community where belief or geography draws a line of defense -- "people who live here" know each other, and know the rules of interaction, in a way that outsiders can't.

In the opening of HIS RIGHT HAND, the second Linda Wallheim mystery, Linda's quickly aware of unusual frictions around her. The scene is a three-couple evening out, the "annual bishopric dinner" where her husband Kurt, the bishop, is host to his closest assistants Tom and Carl, and all three wives. A Mormon bishop is not at all similar to a Catholic one -- the task is a lay leadership one, heavy with prayer and study, yes, but very much "one of the people" agreeing to manage the local community, known as the ward. It's all a volunteer effort, laid on top of working full-time jobs. So for Kurt, Tom and Carl are essential: "Without them, the job of bishop would have overwhelmed Kurt. They were his right hand in more than one way," Linda reflects.

But Carl and his wife Emma don't show up as planned, Carl's not answering Kurt's phone calls, and when Linda places her own call to Emma instead, the background conversation reveals fractures in Carl and Emma's marriage that make Linda suspect the relationship is in deep trouble, and possibly abusive.

A bishop's wife, in Harrison's world, gets as heavy an assignment as her husband but with no formal standing: Her husband relies on her to let him know when pastoral care is needed by women and children in the community, and to do her best to smooth over the normal life frictions around her. (And that's on top of being a somewhat "dated" version of a wife, plus mom.) Linda's ready to pry a bit into the lives of this couple who live near her. And when Carl and Emma finally arrive at the restaurant, she's on Emma's side in what might be an uneven situation where the men aren't respecting the women -- at least, as Linda sees things:
I wasn't going to let Carl off so easily. "We're all God's children, here to do His work to serve each other," I said to him. "The form that service takes surely matters less than the fact that we have a joint purpose." I watched Emma nod once and set her hands on the table, folded.

But Carl didn't let it go. "We may have a joint purpose, but our roles are entirely different. Women have one path to follow and men have another. We can only find true perfection in fulfilling our roles completely, and accepting that God is the one who chooses who is to have one role and who is to have the other."
When Emma opts to head home, away from this pontificating, Carl hurries out to join her. And that's the last Emma sees of him -- his death soon after leaves her drenched in guilt for her suspicions about him, her own harsher-than-usual words, and the possibility that she's overlooked what's going on in her neighbors' lives, when she's supposed to be paying attention and helping her husband know where to add extra caring and support.

Harrison's explanations of Mormon (Church of Latter-Day Saints) life can sometimes come across as a bit stiff and lesson-like. But her characters, especially Linda and Kurt, are rich and well rounded, and Linda's mix of guilt and curiosity, and soon her determination to fix things, are easy to believe and to empathize with. So are Linda's regular lapses from the submissive role she knows she "ought" to take with Kurt as she probes the situation and the people around her who may have had motives to
murder Carl.

A second powerful plot line is the fracturing taking place in Linda's own family, where one of her grown sons announces his identity and life choices in ways that make her unsure whether she'll be able to hold her family together. Soon the issues in her home prove to be a rippled echo of the ones stressing the community at large -- including, oddly enough, Carl and Emma's family, too.

Harrison's pacing is strong, and her portrayals of stress and mental illness ring valid, no matter what community or religion is involved. For many readers, this will be a first look inside Mormon family life, and Harrison is clear and proud as she opens the doors and windows for newcomers.

If there's a flaw here, it's in Linda's impulsiveness, which at times goes well beyond curiosity and the urge to make amends, into meddling and deliberately ignoring her husband's more tempered pace. I found the same uneasiness with her choices in Harrison's first book, The Bishop's Wife -- but let's face it, the poor choices of amateur sleuths are building blocks of this genre! Here, it wasn't enough to spoil the pleasure of this well-spun mystery and Linda's struggles with her beliefs about God and the faith she upholds. A really good read, and I strongly recommend this book! Yes, you'll get more out of HIS RIGHT HAND if you read The Bishop's Wife first -- but Harrison's explanations fill in the details quickly, and reading the pair in inverse order will be just about as good.

From Soho Crime, again -- a great choice for bookshelves that feature strong mysteries with unforgettable settings and all-too-human motives.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Katherine Paterson (Signed) Collection, Re-Priced and Available

We really do work hard to stay focused on first-edition mysteries here, mostly signed. But we've had some other specialties in the past, including Vermont authors of fine children's books -- so last week I pulled out our Katherine Paterson collection and asked The Chief (that's Dave) to review prices and make it all extra accessible.

And that's what he's done. If you're a fan of this author's work (and if you've read her, you're probably a fan; think Bridge to Terabithia, which unfortunately we've already sold, but all the books in the photo are here today), this is your chance. And if you're friends with a fan, these are the ultimate holiday gift treat for that person, signed by the author, who lives about an hour away from us. You can see the list here. (You can order there, too.)

Wishing you joy in these, and in the season ahead.

Dark, Twisted, and Clever, in JEWISH NOIR, ed. Kenneth Wishnia

Kenneth Wishnia's been touring a lot this fall, and there are still some significant appearances ahead on his calendar, from Holbrook NY (Long Island) to the Poisoned Pen (Arizona) to City Lights (San Francisco). (Check his website, here.) It would be fun to catch up with him at any of those locations -- but it's even more fun to read his new anthology, JEWISH NOIR.

The range of authors here is stunning: Jonathan Santlofer, Moe Prager (aka Reed Farrel Coleman), Wishniak himself, S. J. Rozan, Wendy Hornsby, Robert Lopresti, even Marge Piercy. And among the 30+ tales, there's even one from 1912, making its first appearance in English (in 1912 it was in Yiddish). I enjoyed the finale from the extraordinary Harlan Ellison. A special pleasure was a clever tale from Dave Zeltserman, whose writing is often quintessential in this area. Zeltserman's narrator, an embittered writer who's broken through into being well published in spite of an early and very nasty rejection letter, pauses to talk about noir itself, and I really like his summary:
... there are no heroes or happy endings in noir. And there's certainly no hope. True noir is about the alienated, the hapless, the broken.Things start off bad in noir fiction and only get worse. Moral lines are crossed that can't be uncrossed and characters fight a losing battle to keep from tumbling into the abyss.
Zeltserman's crime-pondering protagonist in this tale is borderline psychotic, too, which will give you a good taste of where his dark fiction tends to roam!

But Prager's tale "Feeding the Crocodile" is at least as dark, with a cameo for an SS lieutenant. And then there's the diversity -- Michael J. Cooper takes us to Jerusalem in 1948; B. K. Stevens opens with a faculty meeting; S. J. Rozan delighted me with Jews in Shanghai; and there's a midnight-dark tale of adoption form Travis Richardson that is probably going to sit malignantly in my brain forever.

More than 400 pages of malice, despair, conceit, sometimes heroic actions, and yes, alienation -- JEWISH NOIR should probably be read in very small doses, with a warning label. (Grim grin here.) But oh, what a collection!

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Texas Mystery, STILLWATER, from Melissa Lenhardt

There's a sure touch to the abundant dialogue carrying STILLWATER, unusual in an author's first book. But Texas writer Melissa Lenhardt is already writing across genres, with mystery, historical fiction, and women's fiction, and before this book went to print, it became a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers' MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. Which is a long way of saying: Other writers already think Lenhardt's writing is darned good.

So do I. In fact, I was tempted to say, "Move over, Craig Johnson" -- but Texas isn't Wyoming, and Jack McBride, new police chief for Stillwater, Texas, isn't Walt Longmire. He doesn't have that permanent wound on the verge of despair. Instead, arriving in town prepared to treat his previous work with the FBI as career step, he's capable, sober, and open to an amazing romance that starts as soon as he meets the town's newest business owner: Ellie Martin, proprietor of a brand-new bookstore. Too bad the two of them have so little time to bond in other ways -- Jack's teenaged son isn't ready for his father to date (after all, Jack's still technically married), plus a combination of a new crime and and old one put Jack into overtime right away. Can the hot-shot profiler bite into what's gone wrong, or is he too far out of his home environment?

In addition, Jack has a bigger problem: his predecessor. When his son Ethan wants to push the boundaries, Jack must admit what he already knows about the Stillwater job:
"It's because I'm the chief that I can't do whatever I want. The guy before me did too much of that. I have to set a new tone -- and fast."

"He took his kids to crime scenes?"

Jack sighed. "I don't know. He was corrupt, is what I meant. I have to be extra careful what I do. Taking my teenage son to interview witnesses is a bad way to start."
And of course, Jack's going to have to earn the town's respect and challenge his predecessor in person, if he wants to hold the job.

Lenhardt spins a great story, full of lively action, intriguing twists, and a heavy dash of romantic tension. And when Jack's efforts to woo the bookshop owner fall apart -- not his fault, huge factors beyond his control -- the cases heat up and challenge all his skills.

This is a smooth and enjoyable small-town Texas mystery, with well-chosen police issues, strong emotions (criminal and otherwise), and top-tier pacing in the tension and suspense. Maybe Jack McBride is a little too balanced to take the Western prize away from Walt Longmire and all his depression and losses ... but reading one series and then the other is going to be a lot of fun, as Lenhardt continues to push Jack forward in his challenged new police role. Glad to have found this author, looking forward to more.

Is It a YA Mystery? BLOODLINES, Lynn Lipinski

The cover design, the promotions, the snippets I saw about this book all had me wanting to read it. Then, before I got around to buying a copy, the publisher sent one here for consideration. So I plunged into BLOODLINES, an irresistible mystery by Lynn Lipinski. And ended up with burning question.

Zane Clearwater, age 26, is a suspect in his mother's death by presumed arson at the trailer where she and his younger sister live -- and so does he, although he's paid a deposit on his first apartment based on his job at the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Zoo. The trouble is, Zane got fired on suspicion of selling turtle eggs; lost his sobriety that day and got drunk with his mom; and left the trailer park just about 15 minutes before the trailer erupted in flames. There are a lot of reasons to consider him a suspect. Worse yet, Zane's a blackout drinker: He has no idea what happened that evening.

Soon Zane and his sister Lettie, 14, find the outlines of their lives irretrievably blurred, as they discover their mother's life was very different from what they'd thought -- basically she had a name change and is in hiding from a possible spree killer who'd threatened her life. The siblings, especially Zane, have to know more, and soon they're in touch with the man who surely was Zane's biological dad, who'd been released by the courts for lack of evidence. The discovery of a couple of grandmothers and half-brothers doesn't make this any easier.
Zane wondered if his blackouts were inherited from his father. And he also wondered what other traits he might have inherited. Maybe that dark rage that overtook him sometimes when he drank? The part of him that itched for a fight or welcomed violence? The part he tried to keep clamped down.

Learning that his life was based on a set of lies was like someone had opened a locked door, but instead of revealing a brightly lit path forward, all he saw was another closed door. He wasn't even sure he had the energy right now to open it. The adrenalin of the day had evaporated and he slump in the chair. There was no fight in him now; all he wanted was a nap.
Meanwhile Zane's hoped-for girlfriend turns out unreliable, and the police are increasingly interested in Zane -- which his newly discovered relatives are only exacerbating.

This is a well-written mystery, with plenty of energy and good plot twists. Zane and Lettie are indeed engaging, and memorable. I'm really glad to have read the book, and I'd recommend it to .... well, there's that burning issue I mentioned. Zane is the protagonist who's viewing the action, and his issues are coming-of-age issues: naive belief that a parent will solve a situation, that a first girlfriend will become a wife, that the warmth of his newly discovered father means he has a "real family" to depend on -- and, of course, that he can somehow drink like his father and not screw up his life.

So this is a "young adult" (YA) mystery. Even the language in it, the sentence structures, the dialogue, say young adult. In fact, I don't buy Zane as 26: He acts and thinks like 18 or so.

And that means I'm recommending this for teens -- and for the many adults who enjoy YA mysteries. Share it across generations for extra pleasure. It won't make you double-check the door locks as you read, although Zane's dad is one nasty character. (Native American issues do rise up here, since the villain of the book is Cherokee. I leave that for others to probe, but please be aware of it.)

This is Lipinski's debut novel, and I look forward to reading more of her work. Her website is intriguing -- check it out here. The book is a paperback original, published by Majestic Content Los Angeles, and also available as an ebook.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Maine Murder Mystery, THE SCOTTIE BARKED AT MIDNIGHT, Kaitlyn Dunnett

This new mystery from Kaitlyn Dunnett (a pseudonym for Kathy Lynn Emerson) is a keeper -- a lively and all-too-believable escapade in the chill of March in still-snowy Maine. And if some of the characters are a little wilder than real (the woman with the python? the stage magician and his charming assistant?), the sense of performance is intentional: They're on a very much staged reality TV show.

Somehow (and you do know how these things happen, admit it), Liss McCrimmon's rescue of a charming Scottish terrier on an icy highway leads to her impulsive agreement to help this terrier -- and a second one, and their owner -- to complete a set of performances on "Variety Live." Subbing for the trainer/owner in the act of "Deirdre and her Dancing Doggies" ought to be a pleasure for Liss. She's a retired Highlands dancer herself, loves the dogs at first sight, and can easily take some time away from her shop in tiny Moosetookalook, Maine, at this time of year.

But while Liss soon realizes that the dog's previous owner may have been murdered, it takes a dangerously long time for her to put enough pieces together to see that the killer may come after her as well!

Kaitlyn Dunnett provides a fresh new twist to her series, and shows that she's getting better and better ... nicely twisted plot, great pacing, characters who are unforgettable, and the charm of the friendly dogs to round it all out. Count on Liss's hunk of a hubby, Dan, to back her up, with support from her best friends, too. THE SCOTTIE BARKED AT MIDNIGHT is the perfect "amateur sleuth" mystery to curl up with on a chilly late-autumn or winter's night. From Kensington Books, of course, adding to the shelves of this publisher's diverse and enjoyable "cozies."

Outstanding International Drama, MRS. JOHN DOE, Tom Savage

I'm not sure booksellers should ever feel at home with the idea of an "e-book original." There is something a bit frightening about the notion of a book that may never have pages or covers. It's a soul in need of a body.

So I hope that Alibi/Random House will soon move from e-version to physical book for the latest from New York City author Tom Savage. Author of six suspense novels and two mysteries (the mysteries are under the name T. J. Phillips), Savage calls himself the Mystery Man, and worked for years at the quintessential mystery shop Murder Ink, as well as being an actor.

With MRS. JOHN DOE, he neatly turns the classic espionage plot inside out: Nora Baron is enjoying and appreciating her upscale Long Island home, just before she gets the phone call that any spouse dreads --"I'm so sorry, Nora. It's -- it's Jeff. He's been in an accident. He's dead."
She heard the words, and they registered; she understood. Something happened inside her, a sudden feeling that she was on a stage, and they were speaking lines that had been written by a playwright. She gripped the receiver carefully in her hand and spoke slowly, distinctly, so that the audience could hear.
It will be many chapters before we understand what that stage image means to Nora. She's headed right away to England, to make identification of her husband's body -- delayed because he'd been without ID, hence a "John Doe." She's quick to decide: It's necessary. On the plane, she suspects for a while that she's being watched. And moments after she makes the critical corpse identification, so that cremation can be done, a personal message and a warning arrive. From friends of her husband? Colleagues? What she knows about his life, its secrets, its shadows, is barely enough to guide her first reactions. An attack in the notorious London fog sends her racing to continental Europe, to discover what complications have thrown her life into such upheaval -- and why Jeff has left such messages for her to follow.

Savage twists the plot in two startling ways, and Nora's transformation from wealthy home-focused wife to clever investigator holds up brilliantly. There may not be many mystery fans today familiar with The Scarlet Pimpernel, but still, MRS. JOHN DOE begs the comparison with that early novel in which a woman shows unsuspected pluck and skill at racing after her husband's politically fraught and dangerous shadow. I enjoyed each page, gasped at the swift twists, and came away with a hunger for more of the same, whether it be thrills, France, or ... books by Tom Savage. Author website here.

Fingers crossed, please, that the book gets its body ASAP.

Brief Mention, THE RECKONING, Vol. 3 of Niceville Trilogy, Carsten Stroud

The finale of Carsten Stroud's Deep-South gothic Niceville Trilogy came out at the end of the summer, and I devoured it -- I really needed to see how Stroud would wrap up the series, and there was a lot of waiting involved, as publication of THE RECKONING was delayed more than a year.

The blurb that fronts the book is from Stephen King and says, "An authentic work of American genius." I'd be happier with something more pointed -- say, a 21st-century follow-up to Faulkner blended with the malice and darkness of T. Jefferson Parker at his most wicked. Carsten's task in the final book is to decide how much victory Nick Kavanaugh and his wife Kate Walker will be able to salvage from a part-paranormal burden of horror and evil that sucks its energy Niceville. I completely bought the interweaving of Native American and plantation and greed -- enough to ride with the paranormal parts pretty contentedly. (Who hasn't entered a place that said "creepy" and known it was rooted in the history of what took place there?) Carsten's blunt caper humor that interrupts the tension is a bit heavy-handed, but deliberately so (think Westlake or Zeltserman). The book's startling in its shifts from one mode to the other, though.

Don't read this one unless you plan to read all three. (Check out this review of book 2.) And keep your expectations for the finale modest -- I found the endings a bit too neat, and a bit too sweet, considering all the tension and darkness that had gone before. But it's definitely worth the read, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the trilogy take its place as an American classic.

Oh. Maybe that's what Stephen King meant? Yeah. That works for me.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Espionage and Opposition, World War I: ONE MAN'S FLAG, David Downing

David Downing's six-book World War II espionage series, with each book named for a railroad station in Berlin, established him as a master storyteller who could play the passions of romance and loyalty like stage lights across the scenes of menace, risk, and carnage. It almost hurt physically to come to the end of the series with Masaryk Station and watch the characters learn what the war-torn, peace-torn city would become to them. And with the end of the war, and the end of the high-stakes spying that nearly destroyed them, John Russell and his lover Effi Koenen, an actress who has performed for the German High Command as John forcibly served British, American, Russian, and German needs, were free to walk away. To become, in a sense, ordinary, wounded people, able to make choices in large ways instead of just in small ones. To live in peacetime.

So of course, the series ended. To my delight, in 2014 Soho Press brought out the first book of Downing's next series, Jack of Spies. Oh, marvelous -- Downing simply moved back into the preceding war! In the second book of this series, released this week, ONE MAN'S FLAG, Downing takes readers on a much stranger journey than in his Berlin series. Despite the popular pre-, post-, and in-the-midst-of-war mysteries that are circulating from other authors around the World War I timeline (Charles Todd; Jacqueline Winspeare; Pat Barker), this massive monster of a war is less well known to Americans -- we had so small a role in it -- and Downing draws out details that surprise and challenge. In Jack of Spies, for instance, the German occupation of part of China launched the action (and I'd never been aware of it until I read the book). In ONE MAN'S FLAG, we discover also the perilous state of the British Empire, first in India, where Jack McColl is investigating gun-running efforts to feed a predictable rebellion against the long-time foreign rulers -- and then in Ireland.

And it's Ireland that has pulled steadily on McColl and his former lover, Caitlyn Hanley. If you haven't read Jack of Spies, sorry, this will "spoil" its plot a bit -- but you can't go into ONE MAN'S FLAG without learning right away what Jack did in the debut book of the series, his serious and painful betrayal of Caitlyn and her brother that smashed their relationship and sent them spinning to opposite corners for the opening of the war. But fear not -- that revelation's barely scratched the surface of the first book. Should you read it before ONE MAN'S FLAG? Yes, probably. You don't "need" to, as the second book retells, quite deftly, the core of the first one. Oh well -- don't worry, you'll catch up, in either sequence.

The point is, Downing lays out the intriguing but less well-known crises of the opening salvoes of the war, including Ireland's Easter Rising, which any history book or website will tell you right away was timed to shrug off British rule ... but naively, and with very poor timing indeed. Still, it's the crisis that pulls Jack and Caitlyn back toward each other. Neither has been able to walk away from what their love means to them. And this time, it's not just Jack who struggles with loyalty: Caitlyn's commitment to honor her brother's death sets her up to potentially entrap Jack, for revenge, maybe even death.

That's where the book title takes on increasing importance: It's from an expression that is supposed to be an old one, parallel to "one man's meat is another man's poison" -- this time, "one man's flag is another man's shroud." If Jack is to serve his British masters honorably, he may put Caitlyn in danger. And if she is to honor her brother's commitment to the Irish independence cause, she will do worse to Jack.

Downing provides more than a page-turning plot, and more than fresh views of the events of this "war to end all wars" -- he looks into the face of War itself, over and over, not just through Jack and Caitlyn's eyes but also through Jack's brother Jed, who rises bitterly to Caitlyn's probing challenge, to spell out what it's like in the trenches:
"I used to take the human body for granted," he began conversationally. "What you saw was what you saw. Just another person. And sometimes I still see them that way. But mostly they're bags, bags made of skin, crammed full of blood and flesh. And the bags get punctured so easily, and all that stuff falls out. Slithers out, usually. Brains, intestines. You see men who suddenly realize that their bag has split, and they're desperately trying to hold it together, but they can't. You see someone you know well, someone you've seen talk and laugh and eat and smoke, and suddenly there's nothing there under the nose but blood pumping out, and the eyes are still open, full of horror. And you think, Thank God that isn't me." He fell silent, as if remembering something.
Facing such revelations, small wonder that it's Caitlyn even more than Jack who sees the disaster that the Great War is inflicting on the peoples of Europe. Will either she or Jack be able to see their own work clearly enough to survive, in any sense whole?

Sign me up for every book of this series. As in his earlier series, Downing portrays with detailed intensity the life of honorable people and especially of clear-eyed women in his espionage fiction. The epigraph for ONE MAN'S FLAG is a Virginia Woolf comment on women, ending, "As a woman my country is the whole world." Caitlyn might say the same -- and Jack might have time to hear it, before his nation pulls him back to his own sort of trenches to soldier onward.

If your mystery reading is wide and varied, you may have come across the Diana Gabaldon books -- oddly, and poignantly, Downing's books inhabit a parallel universe of strong passion and irresistible forces of history. And, of course, risk. Danger. And integrity.

Which is, of course, why I recommend them so strongly.