Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Cozy Comforts of Mystery Authors Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero

Welcome, Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero, to the Kingdom Books review blog today! It's December 27, release day for the latest New England mysteries for each of you. Congratulations! Yesterday (scroll down, readers ...) we were excited to share reviews of your new titles, ICED UNDER (Barbara Ross) and CUSTOM BAKED MURDER (Liz Mugavero). Now let's settle in for a some post-holiday hot chocolate or a cappuccino together, and do some author chatting.

Your mysteries are releasing on the same date this year, December 27 -- just two days after the merriment of Christmas. You have the same publisher, Kensington, but you live in very different parts of New England. How on earth did you meet each other? Any memories from your early writer-to-writer friendship?
Barb: We met at Seascape, a lovely and instructional writing retreat run on the Long Island Sound in Connecticut by Roberta Isleib (Lucy Burdette), Hallie Ephron, and S. W. Hubbard. After that we kept in touch via Sisters in Crime New England and the New England Crime Bake. Find your tribe, is my best advice for new writers.
Liz: Before Seascape, I remember seeing Barb at many Crime Bakes over the years. She was one of The Published - a real author! And it’s so true - finding your tribe is the most important thing for a writer to do.
What are the special challenges of writing a mystery series? How do you cope with them?
Liz: There are so many! Understanding how my main character needs to grow in a way that makes sense based on where she’s been and what she’s experienced is something that’s top of mind for me. Also, making sure my plot has no holes, that the mystery makes sense and the clues are strategically placed - that keeps me up at night.
Barb: Argh—for me it is first drafts, letting my imagination flow and not judging myself too harshly. And because we both write amateur sleuths, there’s the ever-present problem of “why is she investigating this time?”
What made you choose to write in the "cozy" subgenre of mysteries? Or do you prefer to talk about your book as an "amateur sleuth" mystery, or a "traditional"?
Barb: I have fully embraced the word “cozy,” even though I know other writers shy away from it. It’s true that cozy mysteries never get the big awards or reviews, but they do have a dedicated following. And, it suits me. I don’t go to my desk everyday thinking, “Drat! Another day when I can’t torture animals or children.”
Liz: I’ve embraced it also. As long as I feel like I’ve done a good job with the story, the mystery is solid and the book has a deeper message despite the lighter feel to it, I’m happy.
Your mysteries all take place in and around one small town. Do you think of this place as fictional, or do you rehearse in your mind the layout of the actual New England town you already had in the back of your mind when you started your series?
Liz: My town is fictional, but it’s a hybrid of a couple of towns. I picked and chose the parts of each that worked for me, then added what else I needed to make it a town I would want to spend time it. But I keep the general location real - it’s eastern Connecticut.
Barb: Sort of half and half. Busman’s Harbor is a highly, highly fictionalized version of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where my husband and I own a home. I’ve moved a lot of things around, but whenever my sleuth, Julia Snowden, leaves Busman’s Harbor, I Google map the distance from the real Boothbay Harbor.
People across the world, I discover, have a Normal Rockwellian, Currier & Ives archetype of New England in their heads. Those of us who live here know it’s a real place with real crime and real problems, but the classic New England-based cozy both plays into and against that archetype.
Readers of this kind of mystery series need to bond with the sleuth and celebrate the person's changes -- and the solving of the crime somehow affects those changes. Do you have a long-term arc of character development in mind for your series? Or do you feel you are "reading along" with the rest of us, discovering your protagonist's growth as you write?
Liz: I usually try to think about the character arc in a 3-book span, since that’s usually the length of the contracts. I know what’s happening in the immediate book, then based on that I think about where it would make sense to take Stan’s growth next.
Barb: I had a definite, planned arc for the first three books in the series. The fourth through sixth have been more book to book, and I haven’t enjoyed that as much. So if I’m lucky enough to get three more, I’ll go back to an overall arc for the three.

Don't spoil the suspense for us -- but tell us one "device" of plot or location or clue in your new book that especially tickles you as the author ... so we can watch for it and enjoy it from your perspective as well as our own!
Barb: Fantastic question! In Iced Under, the detective investigating the murder keeps asking one question over and over. It turns out to be the right question in the end.
Liz: Oh, this is a tough one! I would say it’s important to really pay attention to the people around you and not take everything they say or do at face value. If someone is suffering they sometimes try to hide it, but if you look closely you might be able to pick up on a cry for help.
What's the most important thing we readers should pick up on from your latest book -- whether it's handling a challenging romance, or dealing with a dead body?
Barb: Iced Under is a book about family—how it’s complicated and operatically difficult, but ultimately worth the effort.
Liz: There’s a few things going on in Custom Baked Murder. Family is definitely a key component, and how to deal with them. If you don’t typically have a great relationship, murder can make it worse! Also, dealing with serious issues that sometimes people don’t think will surface in a small, cozy town where everyone knows everyone—or thinks they do.
We know you must be partway through the next book in your series. Any hints or draft title that you'd like to share with us?

Liz: Purring Around the Christmas Tree, the sixth Pawsitively Organic Mystery, will be out in late 2017.

Barb: Stowed Away, the sixth Maine Clambake Mystery will be out sometime in late 2017, assuming I make my deadline of March 1. (Ulp.)

Thanks, Barb and Liz! This has been great fun -- and getting to know you and your writing process makes it even more enjoyable to read your newest books. 

 PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Monday, December 26, 2016

New England Amateur Sleuths: New Mysteries from Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero

NEWS FLASH! Special interview tomorrow with the authors!! Read on ...

The magic of a New England winter comes with big challenges too, from fuel oil or logs to icy roads to snowstorms that seem like they'll last forever. And that's part of why New Englanders treasure good neighbors: We need each other in such varied ways, including being able to share fresh-made doughnuts and clam bakes and "boiled dinners" (much more delicious than the term suggests).

Into this world of personal connections and family complications step the protagonists of two of New England's engaging mystery authors, Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero. Each is releasing a new mystery in her ongoing series, via Kensington, on December 27. And they couldn't be more different!

CUSTOM BAKED MURDER from Liz Mugavero opens at the end of summer in Frog Ledge, Connecticut. I know it's hard to remember back that far just now (or maybe we don't want to!), but that would be the time of year when temperatures cool gently as election fever is heating up. Kristan "Stan" Connor, who's been running her organic pet treats business successfully from her home, faces a new segment of her career: opening a pet patisserie and café. Her boyfriend's moved in with her and is incredibly supportive, but in order to finance the new side of her work, she's accepted financial partnership from her mom -- who seems to want to decide everything, while also dragging Stan into a public engagement party for mom and the town's ambitious mayor, Tony Falco.

To Stan's bewilderment (and, let's face it, anger), the party guests include public relations professionals from Stan's own former career -- recruited to help the mayor advance his own career. One in particular, Eleanor Chang, is what we call around here "a nasty piece of work." Mugavero's deft setup means it's no surprise when sharp-tongued Eleanor gets murdered. But it's a major problem for Stan, because it happens at her mom's party; the mayor is a suspect; and there are drug-related overtones that involve her boyfriend's extended family as well.

This book's perfect for waking you back up from holiday-induced food coma, because every chapter ramps up the stress higher, and the plot twists come fast and furious. Mugavero nails the knack of keeping her amateur sleuth committed to solving the crime, and Stan's so likeable (along with her rescue dogs and smart cats) that each time she's at risk in some way, I can't help paging onward into the next chapter, no matter what time it is. Stan's friends have noticed the trend of her life, though, and feel free to comment on it, as Izzy does:
Neither of them spoke until they were safely in Izzy's car. As she shot down the street Stan held onto the armrest and closed her eyes. Once they reached the main road, Izzy let up on the gas and blew out a breath.

"D**n," she said, trying for humor but unable to mask her shaking voice. "Stan, what is it with you and dead people?"

Unfamiliar with Mugavero's "Pawsitively Organic" mystery series? No sweat -- I like this one best of them all so far, it's easy to jump into, and chances are you'll look for the other titles afterward.

Barbara Ross's new "Maine Clambake Mystery" ICED UNDER features Julia Snowden and her continued efforts to find the right place in her family's business and affections.  Winter with all its complications has deepened into February storms at the Maine seaside town of Busman's Harbor, and considering the weather and a request from her mother, Julia agrees to hike to the post office to fetch the mail, although she has her doubts about how useful the errand is:
"Mom, there's never anything interesting in the mail. It's all junk and catalogs." The trip to the post office would add a triangular, half-mile-long detour to my mother's house. I didn't relish trudging all that way in this weather.


What could I say? She was offering a hot lunch and companionship on a cold winter's day. And she was, after all, my mother.
The incoming mail turns out more interesting than expected, though, with a massive black diamond necklace sent anonymously to Julia's mother -- and the evidence Julia quickly assembles indicates it once belonged in the family, and vanished, along with most of the connections to relatives on that side of the family. A steady series of questions about the value of the necklace, the unexplained long-ago death of a cousin while at the family's island home, even her mother's love life, all of these press Julia into driving to Boston and braving a tangle of old treacheries for both her mother's sake and the possible inheritance that could be the needed piece to save the current family business.

Ross's writing is smooth, polished, and tender, exposing the vulnerable heart of the Snowden family and how, as we say, "No good deed goes unpunished." Could one of the twists in the Snowdens' present implicate a hospice nurse in the early death of a patient? Who mailed the diamond necklace to Julia's mother? Whose secrets are the dangerous ones that put Julia at risk?

I loved the pace of ICED UNDER, steady with just the right balance of tension and release, and the ending entirely satisfied me. If you haven't yet sampled this series, it's easy enough to step into the latest title, then catch up later. And for those already following Ross's Julia Snowden, this book is a must-read, delightful and rewarding.

Finally, a special treat for readers: Tomorrow, on the release date of these two yummy mysteries (and yes, each one includes recipes!), we'll feature here an interview with the two authors. Whether you're an ardent reader or a would-be (or published!) mystery author, or all of the above, don't miss that interview! See you here again, tomorrow morning.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Mystery Writers of America 2016 Grand Master: Max Allan Collins

As Dave and I reflect on the past year's adventures among mysteries and their authors, we're especially pleased at the announcement that arrived on November 29 from Mystery Writers of America: naming Max Allan Collins and Ellen Hart as the 2017 Grand Masters.

Today's my day to write a bit about Max Allan Collins and his books. With more than 100 titles, Collins has carved out more mystery, detective, and thriller terrain than any five ordinary authors put together. His most noted series may be the Quarry books, which feature a US marine sniper who returns from the Vietnam War and becomes a professional assassin. It began in 1976 with Quarry and continues, as Quarry in the Black was issued this year.

But for noir fans, the top series is the one with Nathan Heller, where this Chicago "pulps style" private investigator tangles with noted personalities of the 1930s and 1940s. This series is also still running -- this year's title was Better Dead.

The moment I knew that the writing by "M.A.C." had permanently marked my own life and thinking was the evening I finally watched the film version of his 1998 graphic novel  Road to Perdition. Tapping into the American experience of the Great Depression, the story reminded me of what's unique about both our history and our choice of narrative in American crime fiction.

I'm a fan of Collins's blog, where his back stories take on fresh life, at http://www.maxallancollins.com/blog. His reflections on life events, like his prolonged climb to survival of several health events in the past years, as well as the Grand Master award, are told clearly and with some power and a lot of thought -- here's a recent snippet:
I’ve been reflecting on the Grand Master this past week, the only troubling aspect of which is that it’s a reminder that a long career preceded it, and that the remainder of that career will be much shorter. Life achievement awards are something people try to give you while you’re not dead. So that part of it is sobering.
Though it takes years to amass a writing career that brings the Grand Master title your way, Collins is only 68, and with luck and care, we'll have many more of his books ahead. In addition to the ones I've mentioned (see the lists at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Allan_Collins), he's written film novelizations, and co-wrote with others, including his wife Barbara; one of his acknowledged mentors, Mickey Spillane; and Matthew Clemens.

Another aspect that I appreciate is his filmmaking side, which leads him to provide intriguing critiques of others' films as he sees them (an entertaining wrap-up of his 2016 viewing can be found here). And then there's his work on Eliot Ness of The Untouchables. Wow!

Dave and I could barely catch our breath when we finally met this writing legend, at a Bouchercon a few years ago. I see we still have a few of the books for sale that he signed for us then (click here), and he was generous enough to keep signing for a long, long time, as Dave brought many titles, some quite scarce. (The photo here shows Collins at foreground, and Matt Clemens at center.)

Last but not least, Collins's writing and warm friendships bring him lifelong fans. For an enthusiastic and knowledgeable sample of what comes from those friendships, enjoy the write-up from Kevin Burton Smith.

Yes, we'll provide material on Ellen Hart later; the Grand Master awards are presented in April, so there's time to keep reading and thinking about what these authors mean to the mysteries field.

Just a reminder: We're still ready to give away a stack of Ed Gorman paperbacks -- Gorman, like Max Allan Collins, was an Iowa resident. Details here.

PS:  Looking for mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Noir: The Darker Side of Life, and Mysteries

When I was a child, one of my grandmothers regularly sent me milk chocolate squares from Switzerland, and I understood that it was the finest chocolate in the world.

Now we live in an era of chocolate gourmands, and most of the best chocolate seems to be dark -- with various additions that still surprise me.

Mysteries, of course, range widely in "color" (whether that's an emotional term, or a plot description). Many of the cozy mysteries that I've reviewed recently are sweet, to the point of describing a lot of desserts, as well as affection between characters, human or not. Then I appreciate in fresh ways the contrast and bite of the darker mysteries, of which today's Scandinavian police procedurals are among the very darkest. Today's dark Irish and Scottish ("tartan noir") crime novels often come in as close seconds.

Hollywood explored the possibilities of these dark, moody, stormy mysteries very effectively, even decades ago. From the gritty urban mysteries of Raymond Chandler, to the eerie perspectives of Alfred Hitchcock, to the special effects of smoke, fog, and gruesome visual death effects, film noir  -- via the mystery and crime dramas that took root in the 1940s and 1950s -- continues to capture the desolation and danger that translate brilliantly across many kinds of boundaries.

Exploring the website and writings of Eddie Muller, "noirchaeologist," adds valuable background and insight to this darker side of mysteries, and to how authors and filmmakers portray life and death. There are moments when despair and loss serve to highlight how to value the light and hope that other places and plots include -- even if that light is simply the glow of the windows in a diner, seen down a hard road.

The poster shown here is from one of the Noir City festivals that Muller curates and nurtures. Kingdom Books is thrilled (really!) to present this -- as Muller himself signed it. It's available for purchase, and could be exactly the right gift for someone who treasures this side of the mystery world. Drop us an e-mail at KingdomBks at gmail dot com and we'll provide details on price and shipping (and conversation, of course!).

PS:  Looking for mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

It Gets Tougher as the Holidays Get Closer -- But FIELDS WHERE THEY LAY (Tim Hallinan) Might Change That Feeling

Depending on how you measure yourself against what sort of stick, chances are you're either juggling holiday lists at this point, hoping you can do it all -- or you're just starting to write a few, or pretending you don't need a list. "We've got love; we don't need no stinking holiday lists," as the old dark crime film quote could be twisted.

Whichever category you're in, you can take it like a tightrope walker and just look straight to the other side, colored lights and candles and all ... or you can look down from that tightrope ("face reality") and assert that there's not a chance that you'll make it through the holidays without disappointing someone. Most likely, yourself. And the people you love, which is even worse. Ouch.

And that is why, in 12-step groups, the main teaching about any holiday, even the Big Ones, is: It's just another 24 hours. You make it through, the same way, trying to take the next right step.

Cut (as they say in Hollywood) to the latest Junior Bender crime novel from Timothy Hallinan. FIELDS WHERE THEY LAY is number six in this series and in spite of the protagonist's name, this is emphatically not a mystery for kids. "Junior" is Junior Bender's real first name, and he's an adult with a broken marriage, a disillusioned ex-wife and daughter, and a lover who refuses to even tell him where she's come from, although in the last book (King Maybe) Junior bared one of his own deepest secrets to her. The setting is Hollywood (the city, not the film sets), now, and the time, very importantly, is the run-up to Christmas. Junior is a professional thief, with some very questionable connections from recent efforts. When he asks long-time buddy Louie the Lost to come drive him to an important meeting, they connect at a car repair shop ,with Junior bringing the coffee and pie. Junior's complaint about the greased-up place doesn't get him far.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. So? What's the emergency?" Louie swept aside some sparkly Christmas cards, heavily accented with black fingerprints, to make room on Pete's desk for the pumpkin pie. ...

"So," I said, "I've got to talk to a guy named Tip Poindexter."

Louie was sliding his feet experimentally across the grease on the floor. "Tell you what," he said without looking up. "Here's my best suggestion. Go get your passport. Go get all your passports. Then go to Pakistan with a lot of plane changes and double-backs and new names along the way. And stay there."
That gives you some idea how bad it could be to work for Tip Poindexter. Unfortunately, Junior doesn't have much choice. Poindexter is actually a violent and sadistic Russian mob type (call him Vlad, say) who knows where Junior's family lives. And for Junior, having his ex-wife and daughter tortured and killed (or even worse, kept alive) by a Russian mob-type sadist would be considerably worse than not getting them the right Christmas gift, wouldn't it?

Yes, Christmas is indeed part of the problem. What Junior needs to solve -- very very quickly -- is why the theft statistics have escalated sharply at a festively bedecked shopping mall outside Hollywood that the mobster and his "friends" own. Maybe it's a good thing he's got this challenging problem, because his girlfriend shows signs of being about to vanish (forever? or until the holidays are past, at least) and he still hasn't bought gifts for anyone. He has some very good reasons to hate Christmas. Reasons that are big enough where even a 12-step group isn't going to provide an attitude adjustment.

So why would you want to read this book? You already probably know (crime fiction being what it is) that someone's going to get killed. You know Junior's going to screw some things up, and his chances of making Christmas work out get more slim with every fresh crisis.

And yet ... there's a refugee making a new life with a leather shop. A Jewish man named Shlomo wrapped in red velvet and fur as the second Santa in the mall, and dispensing old-fashioned (time-tested) wisdom. There are Junior's allies: not just Louie the Lost, but also two amazing tech wizards in teenage girl form named Anime and Lilli, who've helped before, and some decent folks among the ripped-off merchants at the mall. And there's the desperation that the approach to the biggest holiday season of the year can bring: Somehow,  Junior knows he's got just one chance to make things right.

Don't you want to see whether he can do it? With a little help from his friends, of course. Or, again with the crime fiction part of your reading brain, don't you want to see which part is so far out of his control that Junior loses someone or some love forever??

Hold it right there. With friends like Junior's, and with his recent discovery that he can love and be loved, there's a lot of reason for hope, after all. Keep reading.

Oh, that's right -- you don't have the book yet. Well, that's the easy part to fix. It came out a couple of weeks ago, from Soho Press, so it's even still in the first edition. When you pick up your copy, clear the decks (you can catch up on your lists later, and you'll feel better about them if you give yourself the experience of FIELDS WHERE THEY LAY first). Here's one more example of the gems in here: When Junior takes his teenage geek assistant Anime to meet Shlomo, the Jewish Santa, here's the conversation:
Shlomo gave her all his attention. "Have you been good?"

"Oh," she said. She fidgeted. "Um, not very."

"She's been fine," I said. "Better than fine."

"I can see that in her eyes," Shlomo said. "What are you going to give for Christmas?"

Anime's eyes widened. "Give? Oh, right, thank you for asking."
See what I mean?

Even if you hate the holidays with reasons just as good as Junior's -- or especially if you do -- this book is still the best gift you can give to yourself. And if you've already found hope and joy and a sense that you're not obligated to complete all those lists and that the people you love really do love you back ... well, maybe you'll recognize something in here, too.

Best of all: The finale. It provides the best promise that the author of a highly entertaining and intriguing series of mysteries can offer. And I bet you know exactly what that means.

Read on! And ... happy holidays. It may only be 24 hours on the Big Day ahead, but that gives 24 chances to fill each one with something worth appreciating. It's the holiday spirit, after all.

What am I going to give for Christmas (Hannukah)? Hmm. I might need some more copies of this book.

PS: Tim's website isn't up-to-date. I think it's forgivable, considering he's busy writing good books. Check out the Soho Crime site instead. And ...  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Amateur Sleuth Mysteries to Lower the Holiday Stress

When the pace of pre-holiday prep gets too intense, it's good to have an amateur sleuth mystery on the bedside table -- and here are two for relaxed reading.

SHADES OF WRATH from Karen Rose Smith (Kensington Books) is number six in the (planned) eight-title "Caprice De Luca Home Staging Mystery" series. Home staging is something I've only really seen on TV, but I get the idea --setting up a "scene" in a house that's for sale, so the person shopping for a new home will want to move right in. Caprice De Luca extends her business beyond that aspect, though, to include what I would have called interior decorating. In SHADES OF WRATH, she's on tap for the women's shelter in her town of Kismet. The shelter organization just inherited a run-down mansion and they want Caprice to turn it into something homey for the residents who'll land there, confused, scared, even maybe bruised and battered by life physically. Caprice will also make over the main office of "Sunshine Tomorrow" for the directory, Wendy.

But all too soon, Wendy's found dead in the mansion. Of course there must be many people who resented Wendy's interference in their marriages. But who would go to such a violent extreme?

There are no gruesome images to live with here, even though the crime was deadly, and that's part of what keeps this mystery on the puzzle-solving shelf. Caprice's choice to sort through Wendy's complicated past is rooted in her own guilt, though, for not taking action the night before, when she realized Wendy might be in danger, and all she'd done was give the phone number for a police detective she'd gotten to know. Talking with Detective Brett Carstead, she's on the spot right away as the detective points out:
"She said you had given her my number. Why did you do that?"

Brett Carstead didn't dole out information unless it could help his investigation.

"I didn't do it easily," she admitted. "But Wendy did serious work. When she called me yesterday for your number, she said she was going to talk to you about a matter that had to do with blackmail."
This tightly plotted and smoothly written mystery -- Karen Rose Smith has written nearly 100 books! -- is a great distraction from unending gift lists, calendar conflicts, and family friction. You know all the pre-holiday stuff will work out by the Big Day, but still, it's a relief to step into this book and let the author move you (and Caprice) safely toward a happy ending that's not quite predictable.

DYING FOR STRAWBERRIES is the start of the new "Berry Basket Mystery" series from Sharon Farrow -- but far from the first book for this author, whose usual name is Sharon Pisacreta, of Michigan.

For berry shop owner Marlee Jacob, age 29, business is blossoming -- there are strawberry muffins and other goodies to whip up and serve or distribute, a local festival for June called the Strawberry Moon Bash, and a sweet fiancé to spend spare time with (is there any spare time?). But when the downtown festival turns out to be a cog in a real-estate scheme that could shut down all the charming independent businesses in town, including Marlee's, the town of Oriole Point erupts in conflict. And some of it must be related to what Marlee finds: First someone tries to drown her in the lake, and then she practically trips over a murder. Plus her own past is suddenly putting her new career at even more risk. There are moments like this for Marlee: "I shook my head when he offered me another slice of pizza. This conversation had killed my appetite, and I hadn't even brought up the crystal meth yet."

Highlights of this fast-paced and chunky mystery (almost 350 pages, longer than the usual amateur sleuth book) include Marlee's solid friendships that come through for her, and the yummy recipes at the back. (I plan to try the Strawberry Nut Bread soon.) A lively distraction from real life, for at least a few hours!

Of course, there are also "seasonal" mysteries, to cope with holiday stress in a far different way. Look for the review of Timothy Hallinan's new Fields Where They Lay for that kind of indulgence. More book news to come soon!

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Delicious Murder Mysteries to Devour or Give, in EGGNOG MURDER, Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis, Barbara Ross

A fine rain is drizzling here in a silver mist, and it's pure November. One defense is to decorate a bit -- knowing the Big Holidays are racing toward us. I always figure those twinkling lights and glowing candles are intentional efforts to push away short-day-linked depression. And omigosh, the holiday to-do lists and the agony over presents to choose!

Thank goodness, those issues are neatly dealt with, now that EGGNOG MURDER has hit the shelves. This festive mystery volume brings together three noted New England storytellers who dip into the holiday brew and emerge with entirely different crime scenes for their noted sleuths. The only thing in common: eggnog, a traditional beverage that, in its purest form, includes cream, raw eggs, and plenty of booze, generally bourbon, rum, and cognac. (One recipe I regarded called it the "drink that thinks it's a custard pie"; here's a link to Martha Stewart's own version.)

EGGNOG MURDER contains three novellas (call them short books, or extra-satisfying story lengths). Each is about 100 pages long -- well actually, Leslie Meier's contribution "Eggnog Murder," which starts the volume, takes 130 pages. I was glad to break into the tale, knowing I'd reconnect with small-town reporter Lucy Stone in Tinker's Cove, Maine. Sure enough, at the tiny office of the weekly newspaper where Lucy works, a gift-wrapped bottle of eggnog turns up, just in time for the local business open house. Meier comes up with a fascinating way to poison a drink, and a lively set of red herrings -- or do I mean red Santa suits? Every Lucy Stone mystery wraps up some family issues and affection, too, perfect reading to escape those to-do lists for a couple of hours.

You know how your imagination can run away with you when you're reading a good mystery ... well, that's half the point, isn't it? You're trying to figure out the crime and the criminal just a few pages before the sleuth pulls it all together (yes, I really am competitive like that). As I slid merrily into the second novella, Lee Hollis's "Death by Eggnog," I suddenly pictured the three authors daring each other to tackle this theme, confident that they would diverge, and at the same time just as worried as the rest of us over whether their holiday offerings would come out right. And different enough!

Well, they are -- in "Death by Eggnog" Hollis's series sleuth Hayley Powell, a food and cocktails columnist, gets double pressure as she prepares to cover the Maine town's "Restaurant Association Christmas Dinner" event. It's a big deal, one of her co-workers wants to tag along, her brother is entering a recipe that's "killer" spicy, and friction among the year-rounders in the tourist-dependent town of Bar Harbor is running rampant -- although not quite nasty enough to produce the theoretical crime wave that the newspaper may need to juice up its sales figures. So why is Hayley the target when someone actually does die? (Confession: I peeked ahead to the end of the Hollis novella, to check out the recipes. Yes, there are recipes and a holiday note to readers from each author.)

"Nogged Off" from Barbara Ross provides a nifty interlude and set of family revelations for financial-wizard-come-back-to-Maine Julia Snowden. Fans of Ross's "traditional" and highly enjoyable sleuth series know that Julia's been torn over whether to cut all the ties to her former high-income, high-prestige urban job. At the start of "Nogged Off" she's finally closing down her city apartment -- and in the process, taking home to Maine with her a forlorn waif who'd been subletting the place. Is young Imogen jinxed, with all the bad things happening to her? And if she's a target instead, is Julia bringing something wicked with her, back home for the holidays? Imogen's version of eggnog already accidentally poisoned a bunch of people in the city -- what could happen in Busman's Harbor, Maine, though, with one extra guest for the preparations for Christmas? I couldn't stop reading this page-turner that pits family stresses and unexpected crime against the strengths that Julia, her boyfriend, and her mom, sister, and neighbors have already demonstrated.

You could just pick up one copy of EGGNOG MURDER and enjoy reading it yourself very carefully, so you can then wrap it as a gift for a bestie. But that would mean missing out on the pleasure of savoring this great distraction during the weeks to come, because you'd be rushing to finish the book. Besides, the recipes are worth keeping -- I plan to use the "Pecan Puffs" one, in happy memory of the year our neighborhood cookie swap accidentally included seven versions of nut balls. Might as well enjoy them, if they're only cooked up once a year!

So, all things considered, I recommend picking up two copies of EGGNOG MURDER. Unless, of course, you see the need for three. Pass me that gift list again, would you?

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Mystery Author Ed Gorman

Just about a week ago, on October 14, Ed Gorman died at the age of almost 75.

More than anything else, Gorman and his career represented the strength of mysteries as "genre" fiction: lively, entertaining, original, but always a form of suspense and disguise, with a dark edge.

We don't have any books signed by Ed Gorman right now at Kingdom Books -- but in a fit of nostalgia, we dug through the downstairs paperback collection and found these four. Dave says they should be given away ... so if you've always wanted to read some of Ed's books, or the urge is now striking you, be the first person to get in touch, ready to PayPal or send a good check for the postage (say, $5) and we'll send you this short stack.

It's the best way to honor a writer: Read his books. And meanwhile, here's a link to his blog.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Updating the Sherlock Holmes Pastiche, with Historical Romance Author Sherry Thomas

There are many novels that take their inspiration from A. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, filling literally shelves of the mystery collection here at Kingdom Books. They range from Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution to Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, and to the marvelous series from Laurie R. King that follows Holmes into his "golden years" through the eyes and sharp mind of his young wife Mary Russell.

Now Sherry Thomas, noted author of historical romances, provides a startling new version of Holmes as detective -- one that, like a Shakespearean play, inverts the gender roles, while at the same time weaving in our very modern obsession with the inner world of the finest minds of an era. And of course, because it's from Thomas's pen, A STUDY IN SCARLET WOMEN (a play on the original detective's tale "A Study in Scarlet") is lush with possible romance and alluring sensuality.

But let's begin at the beginning, with a young woman named Charlotte Holmes, who lacks the emotions that her sister Olivia fully experiences, but who has intense and amazing gifts of observation and analysis. Trapped in the highly gendered and class-conscious world of Victorian England, Charlotte contrives an audacious way to escape her parents' control -- without fully understanding how hard life can be for a "ruined" young society woman untrained, undereducated, jobless, and on her own (by choice).

I'm an ardent fan of the original Holmes narratives, and I also appreciate a good twist in the retelling, as in this adept female view of detection. Thomas's careful structure to provide a base for not just one book but an entire series -- the Lady Sherlock Series -- slows this first book in its first half. But by the midpoint, the suspense is riveting, the romance pulse-pounding, and the twists of the great detective's origin are pushing the plot. I could hardly wait to discover how Thomas would introduce "Watson" into this damsel-driven structure ... and when I realize the arrival of morphed versions of Mycroft Holmes and the evil mastermind Moriarty, I laughed in delight.

Here's a taste from when Charlotte struggles to explain her personal handicap to the new friend who'll soon guide her into a detection career:
"I learned early in life not to practice it in public. Or in private, for that matter -- people I know well are as easily disconcerted by it."

"Practice what, Miss Holmes?"

"Discernment, I suppose." Charlotte took a deep breath. "I can tell more about you, for instance, than you would want me to know."
After savoring Thomas's clever twists of the original story -- and realizing how, as A. Conan Doyle did, she's going to explain the difference between the new fiction and its predecessor -- I'm hooked. I'll be looking for the next in the series, as soon as possible, and chuckling for the rest of the evening.

The book released today, with the warm blessing of fellow author Deanna Raybourn, from Berkley Books.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Mystery Novella and Short Stories, from James Grippando and Jim Fusilli

There are seasons when shorter crime fiction is a perfect fit for the days and evenings. I was glad to discover James Grippando's new work, THE PENNY JUMPER. About 140 pages of the book is a novella, "The Penny Jumper," a provocative and highly suspenseful tale of how a brilliant software developer finds her life highjacked -- and her freedom threatened.

Ainsley Grace tuned her coding skills in astronomy, following her father's passion for exploring the night sky through giant telescopes and their programming. But when her programming tackled the fine units of time difference that show up in the light from distant galaxies, it also had applications to a form of stock-market trading called penny jumping. What happens once Ainsley solves the market application is downright terrifying, and totally convincing. This one's a real nail-biter.

Two stories and a reflection by the author on his long-time pet follow the novella -- all enjoyable, and giving good evidence for how a notion or puzzle becomes transformed into a good piece of writing. The book just released in hardcover from Nightstand Press, and Grippando is a former trial lawyer turned best-selling author (The Pardon was his debut novel in 1994).

CRIME PLUS MUSIC, edited and contributed to by crime fiction author Jim Fusilli, ties together 20 stories where music takes a starring role in vicious attacks or criminals. Jazz, rock, blues ... the stories not only twist suspense and puzzle solving, but they also showcase their authors' musical passions, some of which are already familiar to their readers -- like that of Craig Johnson of Longmire note. I especially liked Peter Blauner's clever contribution as the first story of the group, "The Last Temptation of Frankie Lymon." It was also enticing to search for the pieces by Reed Farrel Coleman, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, David Corbett, David Liss, even Zoë Sharp, as well as authors whose writing isn't as familiar to me.

This collection comes from Three Rooms Press, and could make a dandy Halloween hostess gift (to yourself or your host). As Fusilli writes in his introduction, "You are warned: Songs familiar and not so will be brought to mind, yes, but there will be blood."

Both of these are good candidates for the shelf of short crime fiction, as well as for completing a collection of works of any of the outstanding authors involved.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

If You Can't Visit Taiwan Yourself, Pick Up INCENSED from Ed Lin

Native New Yorker Ed Lin is of both Taiwanese and Chinese descent. His first series of crime novels was set in Manhattan, and it was good. But the newest series, starting with Ghost Month and now INCENSED, is set in Taiwan -- and it's even better.

Jing-nan has his own restaurant stall in Taipei's Night Market, and with his sense of excellent cuisine (even if simple in concept) and dramatic presentation, he's making an excellent living for himself and his kitchen partners. And he's entirely part of this local culture, even if he does pull on an alter ego he calls "Johnny" when he's doing American-style pandering to customers.

So as the Mid-Autumn Festival arrives, Jing-nan is just as committed to reconnecting with family and prioritizing those relationships as anyone else around him, even though he has a bit of time in America in his own past. When his uncle Big Eye, a criminal sort, seeks his help with 16-year-old Mei-ling, a rebellious daughter (and Jing-nan's cousin), he can't really say no ... and Big Eye has ways to make sure of that!

But Mei-ling's got her own agenda, and when Jing-nan thinks he's got her tidily installed in a job and apartment, he's kidding himself. Soon he's involved in a series of crime-related capers that reveal to him more of his uncle's way of life (and family debts) than he ever wanted to know about.

Nor is his own life a quiet peaceful one lately, considering what his girlfriend Nancy is up to:
When my cousin excused herself "to go piss," I told Nancy about my gangster uncle, the gambling den in the sugarcane field, the shootout and the crazy temple. She told me that she had joined a protest group that was going to storm a government building and occupy the space.

We were each surprised the other wasn't.

When we hit the street the full weight of my exhaustion fell upon me. I staggered to the MRT subway system while Nancy escorted Mei-ling back to her apartment. From there Nancy would walk south through Da'an Park to the university and go on plotting revolution.
As social revolution, teen rebellion, and gangster craziness spin together, Jing-nan's life takes a risky series of racing jumps and twists.

It's all fun, and a great way to get a taste of Taiwan from the inside. My one hang-up about the book was in terms of Lin's choice to write the narrative as if it were being translated -- slightly stilted with a choppy feel to it. I'm betting this American-born author's spoken English is a lot more fluid, and that this is a literary device to pull the story out of New York and over to Taiwan. It works -- but it's an acquired taste, and you may need to bear with it for a while, until the plot thickens and the pages turn on their own. Fun reading, and a great journey into international mystery -- from Soho Crime, of course!

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

SO SAY THE FALLEN, Belfast Noir from Stuart Neville

Last year around this time, Stuart Neville's Those We Left Behind brought us Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Serena Flanagan on the Belfast police force, an investigator whose personal commitment to determining the truth of a crime takes her into "contagious" contact with evil that drains from a generation of malice. In SO SAY THE FALLEN (Soho Press), Flanagan's struggling to find her way out of an explosive episode of posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD. It looks like she's going to lose at least her marriage and probably her children as she clings to the structure of work to hold herself together. Work, and overwork. Who hasn't been there, done that -- or at least witnessed it?

But when work involves murderers and other malicious narcissists  -- blackmailers, cheaters, liars -- embracing it is dangerous to the soul. Flanagan's son doesn't want her to put him to bed or even read him a story. Her daughter's even more blunt: "You're never here." She knows her husband is almost ready to leave.

With a crisis like that at home, she ought to let go of the death that her supervisor wants declared a sympathetic suicide, the slide into death-by-pills of a gravely injured and maimed man. But the case clings to her, with those small indications that pull a good detective into compulsion to investigate. Along the way, torn in spirit and emotion, Flanagan confides something of her own despair to the local church rector, the Reverend Peter McKay.

And here is where Neville's powerful ability to explore what haunts us becomes vivid and compelling -- not with the paranormal strands of his earlier series, but in heartache and despair and the struggle for something to believe in. In Flanagan's confession, the pain of life along the harsh edge of community spills out in, for her, "every rotten thing that festered in her soul."

McKay has his own secrets, as we readers already know. But as he listens to Flanagan, he sets aside his urge to likewise confess, and instead becomes the blunt but kind voice of a true spiritual advisor:
"If your job's making you miserable, then quit," he said. "Simple, isn't it?"

Flanagan shook her head, fumbling for an answer. "No, it's ... it's not ..."

He smiled that kind smile of his, the one that warmed his eyes. "No, it's not that simple, is it? We have this in common, you know. Neither of us has a nine-to-five job we can leave behind at the end of the day. We don't work in some office, watching the clock, waiting for home time. You don't stop being a police officer when you go home any more than I stop being a priest. ... Then you are your job, your job is you. Same for me."

"And I am my family. I need them, even if they don't need me."

His fingers tightened on her wrist, a small pressure. "Then the answer lies somewhere between the other two. It's like two sides of an arch. One can't stand without the other."

"Then what do I do?" she asked, another sob catching in her throat.

"What you came here for," McKay said. "You pray."
Given that support, it's no surprise that Flanagan also binds herself to the catastrophe that unfolds for this kind, if somewhat naive, man.

But Neville takes her through brutal confrontations with the force of psychopathic evil, before Flanagan has a chance to try to make things right.

I am still asking myself -- because I found Neville's "Ghosts of Belfast" series so compelling -- whether this twist toward Flanagan in the Belfast author's newer series is as indelibly marked by place as the earlier books. The more I ponder SO SAY THE FALLEN, the more I think Neville is indeed framing a narrative of loss and potential redemption that belongs in this war-wounded landscape. And consider me committed to this author crime novels, here and in the future, as a way of examining the important question of what makes our lives (and deaths) not only human, but worth the effort.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

British Murder Mystery, Traditional Yet Chilling, from Elly Griffiths, SMOKE AND MIRRORS

It's not easy for American readers to keep up with the top-notch British crime fiction, when the American authors are the ones getting the big full-page ads and the point-of-purchase bookshop displays. Thanks to a partnership between UK publisher Quercus and pub giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), though, two strong series from Elly Griffiths are now available here. And her newest title, SMOKE AND MIRRORS, arrives in the costume of a traditional British murder mystery, with perservering CID officers and a snow-covered seaside resort town.

But with deft story twists and an appeal to the dark side of classic fairy tales, Griffiths quickly takes her detectives and the pantomime cast for "Alladin" in 1951 Brighton into terrain that's deceptive, wicked, and downright eerie. All of which could be expected if you're already reading this "Magic Men Mystery" series featuring professional magician and brilliant illusionist Max Mephisto.

Max has a deep connection with Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, who is leading the search for a pair of vanished children: A decade earlier a British defense effort against Hitler's forces involved Max and Edgar and a handful of others -- the so-called Magic Men, established by the military -- in a secret operation to confuse any invasion of England's coast by faking the presence of strong defenses there. The trust forged in the operation allows Max to work sometimes with Edgar, a big plus for the CID because Max grasps how the illusion of a successful crime can be built. And busted.

As the investigators begin to realize that the criminal they're pursuing and the children missing are somehow connected with a staging of a twisted sort of "Hansel and Gretel" by a group of children, Sergeant Emma Holmes begins to step out of her chilly, self-protective role in the local force, following her hunch to talk with a teacher who'd encouraged the children's drama efforts, especially by young Annie, already writing scripts:
Miss Young did not protest that Annie preferred sciences. Instead, to Emma's surprise, she drew out a folder from a pile on her desk.

'She wrote plays and stories too. I was just looking at these before you came. Morbid really. But reading them brought Annie back for a moment.'

Emma looked a the first sheet of lined paper. ... The writing was perfect primary-school script: 'The Wicked Stepdaughter.'

Emma started reading: 'It's the stepmother who's meant to be wicked but mine's just stupid, a fool who doesn't know what's coming to her. No, I'm the wicked one.'
Is Annie, one of the missing children, actually manipulating her own disappearance? If not, has she somehow threatened an adult who is punishing her and the community? And what does all this have to do with another child's stage-related death from before both world wars, in 1912?

It takes a lot of courage by several people, some in the police force, some performers, some children, to resolve the case of the missing children. And there are more at risk.

Griffiths ties together the damages of wartime Britain, the failings of damaged minds, and the dangers of being an astute child, into a wintry and fast-moving novel of intrigue and suspense. Max Mephisto's sleight of hand and mind will tilt Edgar's insight ... but most important will be the way the investigators follow up even the smallest detail, as the snow buries clues and pushes the pace in Brighton and on Max's stage.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS is one of the best new crime novels for this autumn. No need to read The Zig Zag Girl (its predecessor) before this one, but you may want to get both at once, for a highly satisfying read.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Diversion: David Budbill, Katherine Paterson, and Young Adult Collection

Every now and then, we realize how far we've strayed from our mission of gathering the best (and mostly signed) mysteries to present here. Today was one of those days, as I prowled through the section of "children's books we couldn't resist," and recalled when the authors signed each one.

One of my favorites as a Vermont classic is David Budbill's picturebook Christmas Tree Farm. With its Donald Carrick illustrations, it captures a slice of Vermont that's rarely pictured. This week the tributes to Budbill's life continue to pile up in various publications; it's good to recall his versatility as we look at this book again. (Yes, it's available -- click here.)

While I was looking at David's book, I also noticed that we still have eleven (yes, eleven!) books signed by the amazing Katherine Paterson. Although we no longer have her most noted title, Bridge to Terabithia, we have quite a few others -- the list is here. I hope some of them will move to "good homes" as holiday gifts. In fact, if you decide to order one or more, mention this blog post and we'll take the shipping cost down to a penny, just for the fun of seeing these travel outward. Ten of them are here; the eleventh, edited by Amy Ehrlich and also signed by Ehrlich and by Reeve Lindbergh, is here.

And of course, I ended up going through our entire "young adult" collection while I was sitting on the floor by the shelves. Most are mysteries -- a few are just darned good writing, like The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson that I sort of wish my grandson were old enough to read, because it captured me so intensely. (It isn't signed -- but it's here.) Or the signed copy of softcover copy of Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks that I was thrilled to find in a bookshop a couple of days after I'd missed seeing her in person there. But there are also good dark mysteries and suspense by Joelle Charbonneau and many others (even a delightful book by Robert B. Parker). As you can tell, we range quite a distance when we're seeking an author's signature! And although we remind each other that our mission is mysteries, a well-written story always gets our attention.

Well, that's enough "chitchat" -- I'm going to go read another exciting book.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Quick Mention, Charles Todd, NO SHRED OF EVIDENCE

This morning's New York Times Book Review section includes mention by Marilyn Stasio of the newest Bess Crawford mystery by mother-and-son writing team Charles Todd, In the Shattered Tree (click here for Stasio review). I think I'm going to have to read it soon -- I'm usually pretty casual about getting to the Charles Todd books because they are so well publicized that the Kingdom Books review is just a bit of kindling in the usual warm blaze of appreciation.

And that reminded me that I hadn't yet mentioned this year's Charles Todd book in the other series, the one built around British World War I survivor Inspector Ian Rutledge. I caught up with NO SHRED OF EVIDENCE recently and enjoyed the read very much. Taking a somewhat different tack from others in this series, Inspector Rutledge knows from the start that murder has been committed and that a murderer is on the loose in the hauntingly lovely terrain of the north coast of Cornwall (far from the usual Scotland Yard support services, and creating a crisis of conflict among police forces). Rutledge's task is to force the double community -- the local folks and the wealthy residents who form their own closed network within this -- to open up enough for him to find actual evidence. ("Was she strong enough emotionally to lie for the others, if they had decided to drown Saunders? To keep their secret even in the face of trial and conviction? He couldn't be sure. Sometimes fragile people were made of steel, where their own interests were concerned.")

I liked very much the steady progress of police procedure, personal commitment, and dogged pursuit of "means, motive, opportunity" in this book, and the integrity that Rutledge continues to display. As an ardent fan of the situation Todd has created, where Rutledge's war-induced "shell shock" has created the voice of his deceased friend Hamish in his mind, I would have liked a bit more of Hamish's presence and voice here. Such hunger may yet drive me back to re-read the entire series in sequence. What a satisfying thought for facing the colder seasons ahead!

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Three "Cozy Mysteries" for Light Reading, New This Fall, from Colette London, Alex Erickson, and Vickie Fee (Kensington)

The last week of September was filled with newly released books, and I'm scrambling to catch up! Here are three enjoyable and entertaining "cozy" mysteries from Kensington to stack at the bedside table or beside an armchair and enjoy in the autumn evenings ahead.

Colette London's "Chocolate Whisperer" series always includes tasty insight into the dark-to-milky dessert treats that chocolate honors. In THE SEMI-SWEET HEREAFTER, Hayden Mundy Moore;s career as an ultra-discrete chocolate whisperer -- helping clients fix their baked goods, truffles, and in this case, cooking shows -- takes her to London to assist the owner of a chocolate patisserie. But when very British client Phoebe Wright lands in the midst of a murder scandal involving her hunky hubbie, Hayden's quickly relying on her other skill, the one her recent other adventures (Criminal Confections and Dangerously Dark) have unexpectedly nurtured: investigating crime. Tangling up Hayden's life further are the two romantic men of mystery who support her career (and who thought sending her to London would get her own of trouble). A lively tale, and one where the reader may be able to work out the crime and criminal a hair's-breadth before the amateur sleuth does (perfect!). (PS: Colette London is a pen name for Lisa Plumley.)

Alex Erickson (a pen name for Eric S. Moore) was new to me this autumn, but his "Bookstore Café series is in its third title with DEATH BY PUMPKIN SPICE. Forget the bookstore aspect, and there's not much of the café experience involved, either -- business owner Krissy Hancock, insecure about her working-class background at a very fancy upscale Halloween costume party she's invited to, finds herself actively investigating the murder of someone costumed like Marilyn Monroe while past boyfriend Officer Paul Dalton and party date William Foster take up space in her thinking and her blushing body. The mystery resolves triumphantly, but the tangle of romance only gets more complicated. Light and frothy reading, good to escape raking the leaves if you like!

Vickie Fee (apparently not a pen name!) moves into the second in her "Liv and Di in Dixie" mystery series with party planner Liv McKay in Dixie, Tennessee, for IT'S YOUR PARTY, DIE IF YOU WANT TO. Liv's party planning extends to a riverboat gambling engagement party, preceded by a businesswomen's retreat where a returned-to-town ghost hunter and her film crew arrive along with a corpse. Motives abound, and red herrings and many twists carry Liv toward a Southern-style finale. You'll need to stick with the story to follow the plot, which is complicated; the gals' support network is cute, and the settings are charming. Party-planning tips conclude the book.

All of these have sequels in the works, so if you get hooked by a character, better settle in for the long run with Kensington's abundant lists of books to come.

Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Psychic Mystery in Maine, from Jessica Estevao, WHISPERS BEYOND THE VEIL

Berkeley Prime Crime, a Penguin Random House imprint, brought out the first "Change of Fortune" mystery from Jessica Estevao -- aka Jessie Crockett -- a couple of weeks ago. Set in Maine, WHISPERS BEYOND THE VEIL takes carnival con's daughter Ruby Proulx out of her Canadian father's circle and into the family she's never known: Her mother's sister Honoria owns a very specialized hotel on the coast of Maine, and to Ruby's surprise, she's warmly welcomed back to this embrace she's never known.

Estavao's first in the series isn't Crocker's first, and the hand of an experienced author means this series arrives tight, well plotted, and cleverly paced from the get-go. A traditional mystery in the Agatha Christie vein, with plenty of suspicious characters and motives, the 1898 story is spiced with psychic and criminal possibilities. Aunt Honoria's unusual resort is the Hotel Belden and it caters specifically to those seeking wisdom from beyond -- that is, to Spiritualists (quite fashionable at the time!). Ruby's arrival turns out to be a blessing in every way, as she steps up to help her aunt with the resort's opening week.

When the expected staff member who's a medium doesn't turn up -- and many of the guests have booked especially to meet with a medium! -- Ruby and her inner "voice" offer to fill the gap. At first Ruby expects to con the clients, the way her father did in the snake-oil sales that supported the two of them while Ruby grew up. She can "read" a person adeptly, especially with the aid of her pack of Tarot cards (which in themselves turn out to be significant). But the "voice" has better plans for Ruby than that. As she wrestles with a refreshed sense of honor and integrity, she also must sort out the deadly peril accumulating at the hotel, protect herself from exposure as a fraud, and figure out whether, in fact, she has a "gift" or a terrible curse over her life.

I enjoyed every page, and can't wait for the next in the series from this adept New England author, who blogs at the Wicked Cozy Authors site.

Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Complete Collected Mysteries of Grand Master Margaret Millar

About two weeks ago, Syndicate Books -- distributed by crime fiction marvel Soho Press -- released the first of a massive seven-volume set that will offer the complete works of Margaret Millar.

And for many a mystery fan, the most pressing mystery is: Who was Margaret Millar, and why don't we know her books already?

Think back to when you began reading the classic mystery authors. I know who I read: Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, and my mother's copies of Earle Stanley Gardiner and John Dickson Carr. Then Mignon Eberhart, John D. MacDonald, Graham Greene, even Ngaio Marsh. These have all been named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. The award began in 1955 with Agatha Christie; many others named since then have written for so long that I think of them as my own contemporaries instead of my mother's -- John Le Carré, Tony Hillerman, Donald E. Westlake, Ruth Rendell, P. D. James.

But I missed a few, and I think it's no accident that Margaret Millar's work was among them. Deeply disturbing, psychologically intense, probing, and really truly creepy in their pace and suspense, her books -- like Vanish in an Instant and Beast in View -- are books I could not have absorbed well during the anxious and hectic college years and then childrearing. Now, however, their power and finely honed craft make an immediate impression.

It's not easy to find Millar's books in bookstores; even in the online sources of used books, they're not plentiful. So it's a huge gift to find the first collected volume of COLLECTED MILLAR, subtitled The Master at Her Zenith, as a freshly issued oversized paperback (9 by 6 inches, and 1.5 inches thick, 533 pages). Unlike the "old" softcovers familiar to collectors, this one is sturdy and well bound, to rest comfortably (if heavily) in the hands. And what a source!

Not only has this central volume of five of Millar's novels been released -- the remaining six are scheduled to follow briskly, this month for Legendary Novels of Suspense and the others in 2017: in January, March, May, June, and July (the last volume is her memoir and nature writing).

I found the insistent tightening of suspense in Vanish in an Instant reminiscent of watching a Hitchcock film playing out -- here's a sample of the writing:
Cordwick picked up the wrinkled bloodstained trench coat, quite naturally and casually, as if it was an ordinary piece of clothing. There was no indication, in his movements or expression, of his extreme distaste for the sight of blood, the feelings it gave him, of loss, futility, vulnerability. The blood on this worn and dirty coat had been the end of a man and might be the end of another.

He said calmly, "Do you, for instance, recognize this coat, Mrs. Hearst?"

"I -- don't know.. It's so wrinkled. I can't ... what are those marks?"


She drew in her breath suddenly, gaspingly, like an exhausted swimmer.
Beyond Hitchcock, the rich literary writing also reminds me of Henning Mankell's work, and the pained examination of emotions might well be a response to those who accuse crime fiction of wanton violence. In Millar's writing, every wound, every death, is shockingly real.

Feminist, Grand Master, sustained powerful author, Millar merits more reading today. I'm glad to see this series in print, and recommend it for many a collection of strong crime fiction.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Powerful Storytelling of Carol O'Connell and Julia Keller

Last week I caught up with the latest crime fiction from Carol O'Connell, who lives in New York City and sets her Mallory novels there, and Julia Keller, a Chicago-oriented writer whose journalism career earned her a Pulitzer there and whose novels of Belfa "Bell" Elkins focus on small-town and rural life in West Virginia. The differences are huge; the similarity that matters to me is, I trust each of these authors to take me into a crime novel where I care passionately about the protagonist and her allies.

SORROW ROAD is Keller's fifth tale of Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney in Acker's Gap, West Virgina. The book opens with a tip of the hat to the issue that has nearly destroyed Bell's life in the preceding books: substance abuse, especially of prescription medication, and what horrible things people do to others and themselves to feed the habit or gain the incredible profits involved. Bell's marriage is long gone; her sister, now out of jail, doesn't even phone her in this season; and most painfully of all, her grown daughter chose to leave her and live in Washington, DC, while at the same time Bell's forced a gap into her relationship with the younger man who's become important to her ability to love herself.

But of course, things are tougher than that -- questionable deaths at a nursing home in the next county become Bell's moral burden when a long-time woman friend of hers dies in the midst of probing the deaths. And Bell's daughter, caught up in a wicked case of PTSD with flashbacks, is in trouble. And, to make everything harder, the region's being pounded by high-snow-total storms.

Really good crime fiction has at least a double mystery to it -- the kind that means sorting out the crime in order to bring justice, and the deeper one that bonds readers to characters, the risky business of trying to be both strong and sane in a world that often punishes people -- especially women -- who embrace that road. Keller's West Virginia novels take Bell fiercely into that double firefight. Well worth reading ... and very satisfying. If you can make time for it, start with the first in the series, A Killing in the Hills, because the force of one book on top of the next will enrich SORROW ROAD when you get to it. If you're going into this newest title cold, though, you'll still get a very good read; you just may wonder why the rest of us like Bell enough to let her pull some of what she's up to in this one.

Carol O'Connell is one of the rare series novelists who doesn't promise a book per year -- her Mallory series comes with enough pain that I can picture the author insisting on her own timeline, to make room for recovery between drafts. Kathy Mallory was an abandoned street child/pickpocket adopted by a Manhattan police detective and his warm-hearted wife; BLIND SIGHT steps into a powerful season in her life, when her own police detective career is thriving (also very hard on her superiors) and her allies see her clearly. What they see, and what readers can access, is a brilliant detective who is driven, meticulous, wickedly humorous in her own dry way, and who refuses to socialize in normal ways -- in fact, probably she really can't. Her personality works well for the determined pursuit of a twisted criminal here, as both a blind boy and a nun in a monastic order vanish from the city streets on the same day, and turn out to be related to each other. It's up to Mallory to figure out whether there's a kidnap-and-ransom aspect involved, who's being forced to pay, and how ... while also racing the close in an effort to force the detectives around her to grapple with the investigation her way.

Years ago, I tagged Mallory as a fictional precursor to Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In terms of personality, there are strong parallels -- both women are brilliant, tech-minded, and emotionally closed off due to past extreme trauma. A third parallel could be Vanessa Michael Munroe, the outwardly androgenous investigator provided by series author Taylor Stevens. All three women ignore social rules when they need to, all three can hack a hard drive overnight, and all three commit criminal acts in the process of bringing justice to criminal situations. And it would be easy to slap a label like sociopaths onto them, because of the violence they seem to not regret.

Yet a recent letter to readers from Taylor Stevens firmly made the cogent point that her protagonist -- and, I think, the others I've just mentioned -- lives far differently from the lack of empathy that a psychopath (and perhaps sociopath, depending on whether you see them as similar) displays. In short, Munroe gets done what needs to be done, and since nobody else can keep up with her, she does it in the best way she can -- while accruing a cost, enlarging her own preexisting wound.

That's certainly the case for Lisbeth Salander. But the biggest surprise twist of BLIND SIGHT from O'Connell is the possibility that Mallory's network and her own choices may lead her in a new direction: away from further pain, and perhaps toward some sort of inner justice and balance at last.


And that's part of why every Mallory novel is worth reading -- for the empathy that works its jagged way through O'Connell's edgy narrative style, and the sense that something in the world might end up less wrong and more right than before.