Thursday, January 21, 2016

Best Caper Espionage, in HIGH-CALIBER CONCEALER, Bethany Maines #3

Women have been hiding their skills from their boyfriends for generations. It's called flirting. But when high-ranking Carrie Mae covert agent Nikki Lanier finds herself getting serious -- as in, living together, maybe long term -- with CIA agent Z'ev Coralles, she's got more to hide than her firearm skills. Just as she comes close to seizing a major drug dealer, she's got to back off for Z'ev's own take on the sting operation underway. And after all, even the CIA doesn't realize what the Carrie Mae makeup company really is: dead serious about helping women in the most competent and permanent ways. And dangerous. (Did I mention firearm skills?)

So it's a good thing in HIGH-CALIBER CONCEALER that Nikki's entire team is the corporate equivalent of grounded: laid off for two weeks, as a penalty for killing a bad guy without the right approval, while Nikki was out of the country.

Bumped into her own reluctant vacation, Nikki heads for her grandmother's farm near the Canada border, the place where Nikki grew up, loved and smart but almost dumbed down ... until Carrie Mae recruited her, years back, and set her onto a growth path where she thrives.

One easy revelation turns out to be firearm skills, after all: Nikki's grandmother, adapting to the times, has her own handgun and wants Nikki to catch up. Much more challenging is the rapid shift of who's in which rooms at the old farm, as not only Z'ev but also Nikki's team of Jane, Jenny, and Ellen land in the midst of what looks like a classic DEA operation gone wrong, surrounding the old home place and pitting Nikki's loyalties in several directions at once. And, oh yes, her mother pulls in, too.
"Well, this seems to be going well," said Jane carrying a stack of plates.

Nikki stared at her in disbelief. Sometimes she thought Jane existed in a parallel universe. "My mother is offering to show my boyfriend my junior high photos. Jenny is draped over my ex-boyfriend, which would be a lot less annoying if he didn't look so happy about it. And Ellen and my grandmother are attempting to discuss ammunition using mime, since they don't want my mother to notice."

"I know! It was adorable."
Good thing somebody's having fun, because Nikki's choices are rapidly narrowing. Oh, she'll stop the drug operation -- that's the easy part. But managing her family issues, especially once the family secrets start coming out (including a big one she didn't know about), is much tougher. And what happens to her romance if she's got to take charge, as she's been trained to do so well?

The first Carrie Mae spy-plus-spoof action novel that Bethany Maines brought out was Bulletproof Mascara, with Nikki's rocky road through being recruited and trained; then Compact With the Devil caused some dangerous side-effects of laughing too hard while reading in bed (as in, irritable husband syndrome -- but those elephant issues, how could I help it?); this third Nikki Lanier adventure, with a tamer crime situation but a much tougher management conundrum, may be the funniest yet. And it's clear from the finale that there's a fourth title coming soon (Glossed Cause -- one chapter included as a teaser).

If you've ever wondered what would have happened if James Bond and, more importantly, Q himself had been born savvy women ... here's the answer. But much, much funnier.

Enjoying Tim Hallinan's Junior Bender series? Have a hidden stash of Donald Westlake's caper mysteries? Love to tackle a good spoof on Sherlock Holmes?

This one's better. Write to me when you've read all three. Yes, they'll be best if you start with the first book. But if you're impatient, dig right into HIGH-CALIBER CONCEALER and then get the others underway. Available at online retailers, or order them through the local bookstore, or have the fun of getting yours signed, directly from the Tacoma, Washington-native author:

Turning Noir Inside Out with HAMMETT UNWRITTEN, "Owen Fitzstephen"

There's nothing like a journey into the roots of modern noir to put things into perspective. A little Dashiell Hammett, a little Maltese Falcon -- whether in the book or film or (chuckle) in modern pastiche as "Guy Noir" on A Prairie Home Companion, it's all a great refresher. That solitary, whiskey-soaked detective has Hollywood flair: That's where the genre rose to its early glory.

So it felt a bit risky to open up HAMMETT UNWRITTEN by "Owen Fitzstephen" (with "Notes and Afterword" by Gordon McAlpine, the author of record). Would it make fun of the famous detective, or respect him? Would it be dark, or a spoof?

It turned out to be a little of both -- and even more, a mystery-writer's mystery, probing the tragic illness known as "writer's block." The cover blurb from Ken Bruen signals there will be some depth of character, too! And, as Bruen cautions, "Writer's block will never be quite the same again."

Item: one statue of a black bird, worthless. Item: one former girlfriend, scorned, emerging from prison. Item: a deal with the lady, a trade of a useless item, a sacrifice of the past in order to hold onto the Hollywood life, shared with a successful and beautiful playwright. Hmm.

So that jailbird gal, Moira, confronts "Sam" Dashiell Hammett in 1933 in the second chapter and tells him:
"A joke is exactly what it is. Your problem is that you don't know the punch line yet."

Hammett knew this: in his bed one night in '22 -- before the fullness of Moira's dark, conspiratorial nature became clear to him -- she'd rested her head in the crook of his arm and confessed that she'd pilfered his case notes on the Black Falcon affair (then still embroiled in mystery) from his desk at the Pinkerton office. As her confession occurred ... Hamilton's reaction was relaxed. She proceeded to tell him that the most important thing she gleaned from his notes was not any single piece of information, but the realization that he possessed a strong, straightforward prose style that not only served as something of an aphrodisiac for her but also suggested he might one day be wise to trade in his Pinkerton-issued .38 for a typewriter.
Oh, this is a fun read! If you're facing a snowy week ahead, or a rainy one, it will make good company. If your shelf includes The Maltese Falcon, you can tease this onto the same shelf. Why hot?

From Seventh Street Books, where the line of good mysteries keeps growing.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Vermont Fiction With Life's Painful Mystery, HIDDEN VIEW, Brett Ann Stanciu

When I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and then its two sequels, there were plenty of times when I said "No way, this couldn't happen" -- but they didn't add up to much, compared to the amount of truth in Stieg Larsson's dark Swedish trilogy. The first book's original title on publication in Sweden was "Men Who Hate Women" and this noted crime series paid attention to the inevitable results of such brutality: shattered families, increased darkness and evil, and a young woman adept in opening up puzzles as if they were infected wounds, and coolly and professionally removing the diseased portions of the body.

Now Brett Ann Stanciu, in a debut novel published by tiny Green Writers Press of West Brattleboro, Vermont, has shown that an American woman can meet the same high bar, in painting the reality and the consequences of domestic violence.

Young, sheltered, and completely convinced by an older man's wooing, Fern has married in haste and taken on the enormous task of being the wife of a hard-luck farmer with big dreams, on an isolated Vermont hill farm. HIDDEN VIEW is also the name of the farm itself. Stony soil, trees whose hearts have rotted, a barn crumpling and a house that hasn't been maintained -- for Fern, these are hidden aspects that she can ignore. She defines her world in terms of her own possession of it: "my husband Hal," and "dear darling baby girl" Tansy, and her view of herself:
a young mother and woman, in love with her husband, a farm spread out around us with a thousand different potentials.

He bent toward me and kissed my lips, his mouth laced with coffee. "Ah," he whispered. Then he drew back and with his free hand waved grandiosely.  ... In the warm weather, the fields sprouted green corn and alfalfa. A bat swooped over the garden's center, a dark darting blur, feeding, and then vanished. Tree frogs chorused, alive. I found myself nodding, yes, yes,  my daughter's minute hand tugging at my shirt collar.

Perhaps that yes was simply the song that carried me along through those early days of our marriage. All around me I saw nothing but possibility, never a hand held up to say stop, stop.
Stanciu shows, through Fern's eager eyes, the verdant beauty and potential of the hill farm. Beyond her thriving vegetable gardens and her brave kitchen efforts and her committed and marvelous mothering of Tansy as baby and toddler, though, a dark shadow is spreading. At first she defines it in terms of Hal's drinking -- the bourbon poured with abundance into a jam jar and consumed in a way that fuels his angers and his insistence. To Hal that garden doesn't count, the child's a distraction costing work hours, and the cows in the barn stink and remind Hal of his father; only making maple syrup matters, the amassing of Vermont "liquid gold" for the rising market. And the accidents that go with the process, whether his burned foot or the scorched sugaring pans that Fern doggedly scrubs and labors to save, are nothing compared to the flame of Hal's own obsession with remaking the farm in his own image.

Early in the novel, we're blindingly aware, in a way that Fern can't afford to be, that Hal is a menace, someone putting Fern's life at risk and demanding that she give up hope of being happy -- including the nurturing of their daughter. Fern's stubborn resistance protects Tansy, for the most part, although the little girl's imaginary rabbit friends begin to utter loud protests. How much will it take before Fern admits the situation can't be saved? Isolated, friendless, cut off by her own distant mother, she's not seeing any way off the farm. And like spring itself, pressing the maple sugaring season into frantic action, then washing the days away into the melt and greening of the world, Fern clings to the possibility of her original dream of marriage and home.

Just as it seems it all must tumble down, and Fern must finally admit it's time to go -- somehow, anywhere -- the careful balance of forces turns untenable, with the arrival at the farm of Hal's long-vanished brother Lucien, who has some amount of hold on the farm itself, and a tenderness with baby Tansy that completely undoes Fern's defenses. Yet she can't quite let go:
I believed Hal and I would come back to each other, this rift between us a rainy season that would, eventually, disperse and clear. I believed we would grow old together. ... I believed to get there, I had to endure through here. All things in due course. Hands to the shovel. Lean into your work. Persevere.
Early in the book, I was swept by a certainty of truths in HIDDEN VIEW: that Stanciu knew the bizarre and fragile construction that people's self-deceptions can frame. And that she was telling, out in public, against all the rules, the heartbreaking story of far too many women I've known, at one time or another, who struggled to make their dreams come to reality in situations where any detached observer would have said instead, "Leave! Get out while you can!"

This isn't crime fiction in the classic sense, but the mystery of Lucien's life and disappearances turns out to circle Fern's struggle. And the questions of loyalty to person, commitment to dreams, and betrayal of the helpless are as vivid as the flames in the sugarhouse, as sweet and dangerous as the hot boiling maple sap on its way to becoming valuable syrup.

There's so much truth in this book that at some point, it stops being "fiction" and stands instead as a portrait, layered, complex, and wise. The Vermont that we love, the farms that we treasure, the children we nurture are fully present.

And so is the darkness, and despair. What is the value of a view that's hidden, even from the viewer? Fern, Hal, Lucien, Tansy: their lives depend on the answer.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Recovering from James Bond? Try REAL TIGERS, Mick Herron

Espionage fiction creates a painful double bind: We want it to be thrilling, and we want it to reveal something about the real thing. It's possible, of course, to just jump into those books that take place on nuclear submarines facing off against Russian ones -- or whoever is the enemy of the moment -- and race along with the ticking clock and the hidden bombs. But the books that endure in this genre tend toward the mournful, the regretful, the slow if intense revelation of betrayal and loss. And maybe that's the effect of deep fiction, or maybe it's part of a Truth: You can't play with global power and not get burned.

John Le Carré walked this route through the Cold War's links with Britain's diminishing standing, walking George Smiley into the morass of well-loved men-who-have-bonded-as-spies and edgy women (from Lady Anne to Connie Sachs). Alan Furst's books make me afraid to visit Eastern Europe, since I worry that I'd sob from one town to the next. Charles McCarry binds the sweet tragedy of aging to the complications of loyalties. And Olen Steinauer proves that even a spy of integrity and unexpected courage is still going to get crushed by the Great Powers.

So why not start all over again with Mick Herron's marvelous "Slough House" trilogy, where the premise is unflinchingly grim from the start: Slough (pronounced "slow") House is a division of Britain's famous MI5 that holds the operatives who've made a mistake so severe that official forgiveness is impossible -- but it's better to shove them into a make-work, useless department than to try to fire them. Let them push paper and do Internet searches and drink their way into oblivion. And maybe, some day, quit on their own and lose their pensions.

With REAL TIGERS, the third in this series (the others were Slow Horses  and Dead Lions -- notice a trend?), Herron pries open the collected lives of his not very merry gang of disastrous espionage failures, from River Cartwright (victim of a misplaced traffic jam of sorts) to Jackson Lamb (too smart to be trusted) to the desperately horny but very tech-savvy Roderick Ho. And Catherine Standish, whose past alcoholic idiocies have added up to repeated failures that locked her into Jackson Lamb's limping team of misfits.

Shockingly, Catherine finds herself kidnapped from the London streets. It seems pointless -- any information value she might have once had is long since gone -- and it's messy, since she knows one of her assailants, another former drunk named Sean. Catherine's sobriety isn't pretty or brave; nor is her reaction to being "taken" in a van, then photographed in bonds and a gag. And the question she's issued is disturbing: "Which of your colleagues would you trust with your life?"

Catherine is disturbed, perturbed, not particularly frightened, and curious about her own chances of survival:
When Jackson Lamb was send into exile in the reshuffle that followed, he'd taken her with him. And it was true, she knew, that Lamb would never leave a joe in the lurch -- having been one himself; having been left there himself, more than likely. So maybe she should have nominated Lamb as the colleague she'd trust with her life, except that there wasn't much she'd trust him with. The collateral damage didn't bear thinking about.
What's actually going on? Those who've followed the series will catch the scent of sickening wicked betrayal in the air when Dame Ingrid, who ought to protect Slough House, strides into the action. (You can read this one "cold" without the other two books, even though it will be much more fun if you take them series in order. Fear not, we are talking espionage disaster here -- so go right ahead and read this one first, then ramble through the other two. Each one's a gem.) And although River Cartwright is the un-spy who races toward Catherine's rescue (the wrong way, of course), in the long run the heavy lifting comes down to Jackson Lamb himself: his plans, his negotiations, and his deft playing of each of his team members, with lust, addictions, failures, and all, within the political crisis they've all tumbled into. Prime Minister? Even higher and wider? Catastrophes begin to unfurl.

Herron's "imagining the whole thing" doesn't detract for a minute from the conviction that in a lot of departments of every government's espionage apparatus, the fallible flawed people create many of the issues, just as they do at Slough House. And as the plot shifts to a much wider field of betrayal and likely deaths, it also becomes utterly convincing.

But what is the stake, for the "whackjob files" being maneuvered, and Catherine's freedom? And will the "slow horses" of Jackson Lamb's pained little office commit their usual massive errors all over again? Or will loyalty -- and a clever sense of how to leverage pressure back to its origins -- preserve Slough House to fight another day?

Now that I've mentioned so many details of this third book, I think I might have to go back and read the entire series again. Let George Smiley wander off in his ever-damp raincoat. Next time I'm in London, it's Catherine Standish I'll be looking for.

Oh, Herron's website is rather a mess. But poking around on it will reveal items like this description of how he starts his next book in this series: "It’s like rocking up to a college reunion, with everyone behaving themselves at first, but loosening up after a few drinks. I wonder when the fighting will break out?" 

A tip of the hat to Mick Herron for an unforgettable group of characters. And to Soho Crime, printing the edgy, the strange, the powerful, and the global, in today's essential crime fiction.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Dark, Compelling, Insistent: THE GUN, Fuminori Nakamura

When a culture completely bans private possession of an item, does its value rise? Does its presence generate a fascination that will lead to obsession and deadly results?

On the surface, the intense and unavoidable map of Fuminori Nakamura's college-student protagonist in THE GUN says exactly that. In the midst of an unremarkable and boring life, where classes are easy to sleep through or avoid and the biggest challenge is getting laid with new women on a regular basis, this student, Nishikawa, suffers the accident of finding a gun next to a dead man under a bridge. When he yields to impulse and seizes the weapon for himself, in Japan's gun-empty climate, he moves from ordinary to extraordinary in one swift choice.

From here, the movement of the plot zigzags between suspense -- how will the student keep his discovery private, how will it overtake his mind, who may intrude on his private world and challenge his possession -- and inevitability: when will he yield also to the gun's own design and purpose and choose to fire it, and at what? Where? Why?

It sounds almost simple as a premise. But the steady pounding of the existential narrative acquires, in Nakamura's hands, a frightening force. At the same time, the gun itself becomes a love interest, far more possessive than the women weeping and having hook-up sex with the young man.

This is actually Nakamura's prize-winning debut novel, although Soho Crime released three of his others in earlier translations: The Thief, Last Winter We Parted, and Evil and the Mask. It's not clear why this one was delayed. But it has the force of many a debut novel, where the press of a contract hasn't yet forced the author to hurry -- each phrase, each scene cuts a precise step toward the book's conclusion.

Beyond the premise of a machine that begs for being used as designed is another layer of cultural critique, as the author makes it clear that Nishikawa associates the gun with America: a place where life involves more surprise and variety, at least on the surface, than in Japan. Tickling at the edge of this awareness is a lecture given by his professor:
"What is so powerful about American culture" -- he got this far and then sneezed once, loudly -- "however, is America's diversity itself. The Americanization of Japan is nothing new, but I would hate to think that it demonstrates a scarcity of Japanese culture. Yet the longing for American culture has existed since our defeat in the war up through the present day . . ."
Nishikawa's only half listening to the professor -- his thoughts are already wound around his secret possession. "I led a boring life. It stood to reason that the gun would act as a stimulant within such tedium. ... I could think only of it causing injury, of destroying life; it had been created expressly so that a person could commit such deeds."

The gun becomes a symbol for more than cruelty, more than precise intent: It carries away the possibility of sane and loving life in community.

I live in a gun-welcoming culture, in rural Vermont, where a gun is hardly more lethal, and no more focused on cruelty, than a pipe wrench. (You probably don't want the gruesome details of what happened near here with a pipe wrench a couple of years ago.) It's more complicated than that here, though -- you can't access a "long gun" (at least, for legal use) until you acquire a certain age or standing (such as taking a hunter safety class, in order to get your deer hunting license), and for many youngsters, receiving a gun of their own is as potent a sign of "adulthood" as a first beer or a car.

And I don't for a moment believe that the device itself turns someone into a killer. Nor do I think Nakamura is proposing that ... although the steady poisoning of his student's mind is fully believable.

But I do think the role of firearms is one of the crucial results of the difference between Japan's island-based culture and the American "Manifest Destiny" and wildlands. A small personal story here: A couple of decades ago, my teenaged sons and I enjoyed our first Japanese student guests in our home. I think it was the second one who, upon arrival, looked around the cozy country kitchen with fear and asked, "Where are the guns?" When we said we didn't have any, he asked, with even more fear, "Will there be guns at school on Monday?" Looking back, our quick response of "No, of course not!" was naive and innocent -- the dailiness of gun killings in 2015 has been one of the most terrible shocks of the year. We could have seen it coming.

No, THE GUN isn't a cultural critique. It's a short, intense work of suspense and increasing madness, really. It moves with long paragraphs, little dialogue, a constant first-person view without much inner forethought, and with a rising tide of horror. Framing it around "the student" places it parallel to The Little Prince and several works of French and German philosophy-in-fiction. It's a good read (if you can handle "noir").

But it's also more than that. I tip my hat to Soho Crime for providing it (release date is January 5). And of course to the author.

THE GUN is a book I'll never forget. What I'll do with that, I'm not quite sure. Yet.