Monday, February 29, 2016

Darkness, Drowning, and a Drug-Danger Landscape in THE NINTH LIFE, Clea Simon

Ready for some shocks to the heart and mind? THE NINTH LIFE from Clea Simon releases on March 1, the start of this Massachusetts ex-journalist's fourth crime fiction series. But if you think you already know all about Clea Simon because you've read her other books, forget it. THE NINTH LIFE is tough, gritty, urban, and often violent -- and can best be read as if it were a debut for both the author and the series, with its radical new direction.

Before you read further, think about this: There's a release party for this book at the Harvard Book Store. Got that? The cover may have a cat on it, but Simon is tackling grim and serious issues, in a fast-paced mystery that depends on Blackie, the cat on the cover, being able to somehow communicate to his human partner Care what he's able to discover:
The night's shelter has done me good. I leap and land with a grace I'd not remembered, and my satisfaction is deeper than vanity. I am on a hunt, and I cannot afford to fail.
Haunted as he is by the moment when he seems to have woken into this cat body after being drowned in a culvert -- from what form? for what reason? -- Blackie is nevertheless the ultimate rational investigator, persistent and straightforward and without scruple. That puts him in opposition to Care; even though she's at once his guardian and partner, grasping his needs without entrapping him, he soon realizes she's trapped by her emotional attachments to the group of homeless, battered kids she's hanging out with. And the criminal and drug-pushing gang maneuvering them through the harshest regions of the city, wherever it is.

In a recent interview in The Big Thrill, Simon spoke of her drive to cut new terrain in this book, deeper and darker than in her other series: to probe the nature of isolation, as well as the bonds people forge with their self-made "family of choice." For Blackie and Care, the guardianship Care assumes so passionately for both the independent Blackie and the very dependent (and drug-addicted) boy Tick come into inevitable conflict.

And by the end of the second chapter, it's clear that Tick's mistakes are costing everyone at the most basic and dangerous levels, as Care herself reveals while Blackie evaluates the scene:
Her voice has tightened. I sense the others listening.

"He had a message. I was supposed to find you. Only --" He breaks off. Kicks at the dirt. ... "He said someone is weighing down the scale. That you'd know what to do. That Fat Peter wasn't on the level."

"Fat Peter?" She's leaning in. "He said that?"

... "I figured I could do it. I mean, I'm sorry you won't get the coin --"

"The coin?" She explodes, spitting the word out. "I'm not thinking of the coin. This was a message, Tick. A message. If you had found me, if you'd told me this before, maybe I could have saved him."
For all the efforts Care makes to provide affection and direction to the ragged crew around her, the dire and hungry poverty drilling into them and the siren call of "the scat," the drug that Tick's embraced, keep driving this group into worse risks and greater danger.

Simon nails (sometimes brutally) the cruelty and costs of living on the street and wrestling with people who aren't trustworthy. Blackie serves as blunt narrator of this dark world where there is no social safety net. Trading sex, drugs, and deals is a terrible way to get by. And it's raising the cost of what Care will have to pay if she's ever going to pull Tick back out of danger.

There are mysteries here beyond the crime narrative. What city are Blackie, Care, and Tick inhabiting? And when? Some aspects speak of the eras of the guilds in medieval Europe -- others of some barren and fire-blighted sections of modern New York City or Detroit. And what about Blackie -- does the "ninth life" refer to his ninth time as a cat, or has be been human at some point in the past? What chance does Care have to make a life for herself, beyond what she needs to do for Tick?

The book's stunning finale begs a sequel, and it's good to know there's one in the works. I'll be watching in particular to see whether THE NINTH LIFE trickles out of the adult (and cat-centered) categories, toward the young-adult dystopian fanatical readers, who'll recognize something from other worlds and other despairs in these pages.

This isn't an easy book to read. It has the rough edges of a deliberately coarse narrative, and the darkness of an "Oliver Twist." I had moments when I objected to being held in prolonged suspense, and wanted more assurance of loyalty and growth. But this sensation seemed also to fit with the nightmare of homelessness that Simon evokes, and most of the time, I accepted it as the price for a very new kind of crime fiction.

I'm looking forward to the next in this new series -- from Severn House, bringing out an American edition, which almost guarantees a modest print run and the need for collectors to get quickly into action. Don't miss the chance.

[PS - Simon is releasing two books on the same date. Please check the adjacent review here.]

WHEN BUNNIES GO BAD, Clea Simon -- Animal Talker Pru Marlowe Fights Crime

The sixth book in Clea Simon's "pet noir" series, WHEN BUNNIES GO BAD, hits bookstores on March 1, and from the wild humor of the title, to the wry conversations between animal behaviorist Pru Marlowe and her cat Wallis, every chapter of this new mystery is jammed with surprises and suspense.

Of course, you'll have to put up with setting aside any skepticism about horse whisperers and people who "get" what a dog or cat is saying to them. It shouldn't be too hard. Pru herself is at pains to point out that her midlife ability to "hear" the thoughts of animals in words is actually not what it seems. Her cat Wallis, the mature adult in all of this, reminds her often that the "words" are simply Pru's own mind imposing a framework on the information and emotions coming her way from, say, Growler the (gay) dog she walks regularly, Frank the ferret, and a not-so-talkative rabbit whose owner is hiding some secrets of her own.

And as someone whose four nearest neighbors all have dogs living with them and running their lives, I'm inclined to ride with Pru's take on the situation in her small, western Massachusetts town.

This time she's worked up right away abotu what looks like a "moneyed older man" manipulating a beautiful young woman, a ski bunny in town to enjoy the nearby snowy slopes while also collaborating in an affaire. But if you're reading this, you pay attention to crime, both fictional and non, right? So if I say, "Think Whitey Bulger and his girlfriend," you'll see things differently from Pru's line of vision. Of course, all the clues are in front of Pru. But she's a bit stubborn, and the fact that her pet wrangling's being demanded by a woman she sees as weak, and another (the rabbit owner) who's somehow afraid, doesn't make for clear insight.

Take this scene, for instance, when a human corpse has already been discovered (this is noir, remember?) and Pru is searching the nearby woods alone for a dog she's sure she heard barking before the death was revealed. Of course, the nearby birds and squirrels are making their own sort of racket in Pru's mind.
"Where is she? Where?" A new voice had joined the cacophony -- and this one I did understand. What I heard as a question was the sharp bark of a little dog, racing toward the development -- and me. ... "Where? Where?" The barking was growing louder, and I turned. It would be a sad circumstance if the little dog were hit by a car just as he emerged from the woods. ...

The car -- a silver Honda -- braked and a redhead -- Cheryl Ginger -- stepped out. ... "Did you hear him?" she asked. "Is he here?"...

The woman beside me knelt as the dog -- a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, from the size and silky coat -- leaped into her arms. "I've been looking for you everywhere." She was talking to the dog, but I saw her glance at me as he reached up to lick her cheek. When she caught me looking, she turned to work a small twig out of her pet's jeweled collar. "Where have you been?"

The dog didn't answer. Then again, I had the feeling her line of questioning had actually been for me. I wasn't sure what the pretty ski bunny was about but I knew a staged scene when I was placed in one.
Readers of the earlier books in the series (Dogs Don't Lie, Cats Can't Shoot, Parrots Prove Deadly, Panthers Play for Keeps, and Kittens Can Kill) will get extra pleasure from the appearances in the book of Pru's held-at-a-little-distance police officer lover, and know right away that Pru's efforts to keep both her animal insight and her crime-solving out of Jim's focus are in trouble. There's also a criminal figure from earlier books, the very dangerous Gregor Benazi. Well, this is noir, right? Some evil, plenty of danger, collaboration with people you know aren't trustworthy?

No, you don't need to read the other books first. Clea Simon (who writes three or four mystery series) is adept at inserting just enough background so you can steam through these chapters, chasing the killer and his or her motives along with Pru. And yes, I understand being a bit reluctant to trust the narrator about animal communication -- but trust me on this one, Simon's ingenious in how she outlines Pru's talent and its costs. Set the issue aside and focus on the clues and twists. Above all, this is a fiercely traditional crime novel, with red herrings (not fish, but four-legged and two-legged) and a relentless trail of risk and discovery.

Grab a copy while the book's in its first printing -- you can make time later to collect the entire batch if you get hooked. And please check out this evening's OTHER Clea Simon review. This prolific author has two mysteries releasing on March 1, and the other one's the start of an even darker set.

WHEN BUNNIES GO BAD is in the hands of Poisoned Pen Press -- more proof that this specialty mystery publisher knows when to carry on with an intriguing and successful series.

Nursing Home Noir, in S. W. Lauden, CROSSWISE

Ready for a quick read (novella length) that's an updated version of the old pulp noir? CROSSWISE is released today from Down & Out Books.

We might have known it was coming, as the big generation of writers and readers faced versions of the future: What crimes are taking place in nursing homes? And who's going to solve them -- the oldtimers in the adjacent rooms? The nursing aides and volunteers in pastel smocks? The tough-as-nails director?

S. W. Lauden, a Los Angeles writer and drummer with a lot of short fiction published plus his Greg Salem series (starts with Bad Citizen Corporation), isn't nursing home age yet. For that matter, neither is Tommy Ruzzo, the hard-drinking and bitter ex-cop from NYPD, now working a security gig in Florida at Precious Acres Retirement Community. But with a major mistake in his past -- having to do with an evidence locker -- he's blackballed from his official profession and muddling along among the crises of gray-haired gamblers and crossword puzzle fanatics. And oh yes, getting involved with at least one woman he knows he should have stayed away from.

The thing is, a lot of the oldtimers at Precious Acres are former New Yorkers themselves. And when they start being killed, with taunting clues for Ruzzo arriving on crossword puzzles in the local newspaper, he suspects a Mob connection from the Big Apple has followed the gents south. Has nursing home work made Tommy Ruzzo too soft to dig into the case, though?
The empty bottle rolled from Ruzzo's hand and banged against the hardwood floor. He sprang up in a daze, groping wildly in the bed for his gun.

He went over to the pantry and twisted the lid on his last bottle. The warm bourbon felt like it was tearing him apart as he crept over to the window. He pushed the mini blinds aside with the barrel of his revolver and looked out across the pre-dawn stillness. A golf cart came into view, the driver tossing newspapers onto porches as he crawled along. Ruzzo waited for the silence to return before he slipped downstairs to steal a Sentinel from one of his neighbors.
Lauden makes it clear that Ruzzo is about as corrupt and prone to violent shortcuts as the murderer(s) he's chasing. But even Tommy Ruzzo can get surprised by what surfaces in the Florida retirement grift!

CROSSWISE is a fun read and a quick one (130 pages) -- a great tip of the hat to the noir genre. Shelve it with Westlake, Robert Parker, and your vintage paperbacks with their slinky women brandishing firearms. Or with Carl Hiassen and Kinky Friedman, for the good-humoredly ridiculous capers. Good stuff!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Brief Mention: VANISHING GAMES, Roger Hobbs

In 2013 Roger Hobbs won the prestigious CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for his debut thriller, Ghostman. An acknowledged master of suspense, Hobbs positioned the criminally skilled Jack -- gambling under the name "Jacques Fisher" in an Oregon casino as VANISHING GAMES opens -- within a dark underworld rooted in Macau and Hong Kong. In this second book, Jack's "jugmarker" (the person who plans and directs a serious criminal caper) needs him to come back to the region, this time operating in the South China Sea. It's been years, and Jack and Angela, each a superb performer with appearance shifts and high-tech protection, have changed so much that they might not have known each other if they'd passed in an airport.

Very few people know how to contact Jack. But Angela still can, and does, when a standard heist of gemstones goes seriously awry and her life and operations are under extreme threat.

I had not read Ghostman before this second book, and I enjoyed the swift action and insight (imagined? real??) into a world of international jewel theft. Hobbs doesn't yet paint depth of character successfully, but his maneuvers, twists, and discoveries make for a page-turning read (with a lot of gore), and Jack and Angela's collaboration has long-term possibilities. I prefer more layers in my protagonists, but I'm willing to keep following this series on the assumption that Hobbs will deepen as he keeps writing.

I just wish I knew someone who could verify for me that the global thievery networks do operate the way Hobbs shows them. No, actually, on second thought, I'm relieved that I don't know anyone caught up in so much violence. I'd rather read about it, and hope it's uncommon in real life.

For VANISHING GAMES, thank goodness, we're not going to meet the ghostman, or the jugmarker, living down the street. This is hard-boiled crime writing at its most forceful; don't expect any happy endings or intervals to last!

FOGGED INN, New Maine Mystery from Barbara Ross

Julia Snowden, the amateur sleuth of Barbara Ross's "Maine Clambake Mysteries," came across as smart, intriguing, and savvy in the first three books of this already classic New England series -- and now, in the fourth title, FOGGED INN, she's under more pressure than ever. As a result, as the best people do, she reveals more of herself and faces her life more courageously. While, of course, working to save her friends and capture the criminal!

The opening of FOGGED INN is especially intriguing, as Julia and her boyfriend Chris roll slowly awake, hearing their friend and landlord Gus bellowing up to their bedroom, just a few hours after they've finally gotten to sleep. And what Gus is saying isn't going to start the day all that well: "There's a dead guy in my walk-in refrigerator. You leave him there?"

No, neither Julia nor Chris knew about a dead man in the downstairs restaurant. But considering the night they just had -- which we'll only find out about gradually -- it all seems to fit together, in a creepy way.

Because actually, as Julia is just starting to realize, the dinner guests she and Chris had served the night before were all very uncomfortable about being at the newly opened dinner spot on the same evening. Trapped in place by an accident outside, in the seacoast fog, the guests still revealed little of why they stayed so firmly spaced apart in the little dining area. And soon it's apparent that someone else wanted those couples to show up on this night, maneuvering them through clever use of gift certificates with an added expiration date.

Julia has the same problem facing many another amateur sleuth: The local police are getting annoyed with the way murder seems to prod her into doing her own investigating. At least this time Chris and Gus are behind her, though:
"I keep thinking about that guy in the walk-in, going over and over what everyone said and did that night. I'm convinced the couples in the restaurant were brought there that night for a reason, even though they all said they didn't know the dead guy or each other when they talked to the cops. While [the local police] are in Augusta today, I want to check a few things out," I said.

"That's the spirit," Gus shouted from the other side of the room. "Solve this mystery, get rid of that damn yellow tape." He gestured toward the walk-in. "Life goes back to normal."

Chris didn't repeat his caution about leaving things to the professionals.
Readers of the series already know that Julia and Chris might be meant for each other, but had a lot of trouble getting to the love-and-live-together stage. The friction of another murder in their lives and of the secrets each keeps "protecting" ramps the pressure up  on their relationship. Luckily, the murder itself isn't related to Julia's family this time, or to Chris's past -- but the more that Julia tugs on the threads of evidence and connection, the more it seems to involve a lot of the town of Busman's Harbor, Maine. And her actions incite further threats and risk.

Ross's writing reaches far beyond the casual level you might expect in a "cozy" mystery with a cat on the cover. Her clever structure for gradual revelations at the start intrigued me, the pace is excellent, and when the twists arrive -- and oh wow, do they! -- they fit the perfect combination of being unexpected but, in hindsight, an excellent match with how the plot and characters pull against each other.

By all means, read the preceding titles if you have a chance -- they're enjoyable, and well plotted. But if you only have time for one Barbara Ross mystery this month, grab a copy of FOGGED INN next week (publisher release date is Feb. 23). It's solid evidence of an author who's advancing her strength as a mystery author through seasoned understanding of the worst people can do ... and of the good ways in which others grow, to see justice served and make sure there's more good in the world.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the setting -- the Maine seacoast -- turns each of Ross's books into a mini-vacation for those of us outside Maine! Thanks also to Barb Ross and her white-aproned husband for the enjoyable recipes at the back of the book, and to Kensington Books for giving this series room to grow.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

World War II Horror from F. R. Tallis, THE PASSENGER

Mystery readers may know F. R. Tallis better under his other name, Frank Tallis, with which he brings out crime fiction, especially books set in Vienna. Like Ruth Rendell setting aside her most twisted and cunning psychological fiction to her pen name Barbara Vine, Tallis's two names allow a darker side to flourish vividly without the predictability of today's mystery genre.

THE PASSENGER is the fourth in the F. R. Tallis horror titles, all independent but also curiously linked by the powerful resonances among them: the chilling effect of voices not quite heard, of recorded versions of ourselves, of "deviant" forms of spiritual search that take the searcher out of the usual "communion" of belief. This time, Tallis probes a different culture, the intense intimacy of a submarine crew during World War II. The nationality of this crew -- Germans at the turning point of the war, just as America agrees to join the European conflict -- adds to the eerie distancing and terror that Tallis creates in the narrative.

Siegfried Lorenz, a skilled U-boat commander but a political skeptic, knows and excels at his real work: to comprehend the emotions and interactions of his crewmen and induce them to exert their best skills, within a "communion" of mutual effort and attachment. He inclines to more mercy than the Fuehrer's commandants are expected to show -- not only does he refrain from slaughtering survivors at sea, but he presents them with a bit of survival gear that his crew can spare, and leaves them with shards of hope.

So it's ironic that a special mission for his submarine results in the sudden deaths of two prisoners on board, and Lorenz can prevent none of the twists of fate: not the deaths, nor the apparent run of bad luck that follows, complete with what must be hallucinations, the appearance that one of the dead men is haunting Lorenz's sub, determined to undermine his command and the safety of his crew.

Lorenz makes the most of his brief relief between missions to seek information from an elderly doctor named Hebbel, a friend of his family in Berlin. In Tallis's framing, this interlude is the last moment Lorenz can claim as under his control in any sense:
'A curious thing happened on our last patrol,' said Lorenz, affecting an attitude of casual disregard. 'We were transporting a British prisoner who unfortunately dies before we could get him back to base for questioning. Shortly after, one of my mechanics had an accident -- he banged his head on a diesel engine -- and from that moment onward he kept on babbling about having seen the dead man.'

'The brain is a remarkable organ,' the doctor responded. 'But uniquely vulnerable.'
Under Lorenz's continued pressure and questions, the doctor finally gives his professional opinion on the hallucinations that Lorenz poses as a hypothetical -- but that are far worse than that. The doctor explains:
'The unconscious: that part of the mind that is not accessible to introspection. Deeper and wider than any ocean you have explored, my dear fellow, infinitely deep. ... Hallucinations might represent some kind of communication from the unconscious. ... if a person were, let us say, in some kind of danger, then the hallucinations might be construed as a warning.'
There are, of course, almost no moments when submariners are NOT in some kind of danger.

Tallis braids the complexity of the mind and spirit with the pagan symbolism chosen by leaders of the Third Reich, and lets Lorenz recount the battle, both personal and literal, erupting from the conflict of his humane beliefs and his tender care of his crew, versus the demands of German (or any) warfare.

Although THE PASSENGER is not a typical fit for the crime fiction genre -- even less so than Tallis's 2014 title The Voices (reviewed here) -- the depths and currents explored turn out to mesh with the darkness that lies within modern crime. The author is also a psychologist, and readers access the richness of  the practice, probing the strengths and dangers of the mind.

If you're reading the post World War I crime fiction of Charles Todd, the World War II mysteries by James Benn, or the classic "Regeneration Trilogy" from Pat Barker, THE PASSENGER will fit well with your exploration. Dark, direct, and chilling, it's an excellent read, deftly paced for psychological suspense and a very believable brush with the supernatural. I won't forget the terrors -- or the strong assertions -- of this well-written "gothic" novel with its ocean of symbols and its stormy crises.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Released Today, THE SAMARITAN, 2nd Thriller from Mason Cross

My family laughs at the gaps in my "cultural awareness," usually in terms of TV or films. I'm too busy reading to catch all the screen shows, I confess.

But I've started paying attention to little things that mark how skilled an actor can be, like Alan Cumming, a "Scottish character actor" whose native accent never shows in the abrasive character he plays on television's The Good Wife. It's as if he stepped through a looking glass into a different life entirely.

I get the same feeling when I read a thriller by Mason Cross. Another Scot, born in Glasgow and living and writing in England, his thrillers are flawlessly American -- not even an occasional European spelling or expression to distract from the relentless pace and compelling characters.

With THE SAMARITAN, Cross earns high praise in a blurb from one of America's top writing -- and well followed -- thriller authors, Lee Child, whose terse comment is, "My kind of book."

"Carter Blake" (a false name, but one he's comfortable with) reappears here, speaking a similar language to Child's skilled and heroic Jack Reacher. Blake isn't former military in the way Reacher is; instead, he's cut loose from a skilled "black ops" locate-and-assasinate team recruited by the US government, and he's making an independent living locating the lost for those who need to find them, in a "white hat" sort of way. In fact, as THE SAMARITAN opens, he's putting a runaway daughter back in touch with her dad, and solving their complications casually in the process. A chance glance at a TV news item sends him jetting out of Florida toward Los Angeles, where he's dead certain he knows the perpetrator of a newly discovered series of grisly murders.

But the spotlight dances quickly away from Blake, and it isn't until nearly halfway through this fast-paced crime novel that Blake speaks the name of the strong and fierce FBI Special Agent he worked with in The Killing Season ... and even then, it's only to establish his bona fides for the Los Angeles cops.

Instead, Cross gives us primary interest in a woman homicide detective, Jessica Allen, as determined and with as much integrity as Elaine Banner showed when she teamed up with Blake in the earlier title. Allen's new in LA, and wears a taint of possible betrayal of the force in her last police position, so that she's an outsider on the LA team. An unexpected collaboration from another local detective and the information that Blake can provide will tip the scales at last toward giving her a chance to prove her worth against the serial killer. But Blake can't reveal too much. Take this moment, for instance, when he's trying to get the ex-cop dad of one of the murder victims to open up:
I took my time responding, because I couldn't share everything here. I couldn't talk about the fact that I knew the killer's name.

"I think this guy has killed before -- before any of these three, I mean -- so we might be able to do something by backtracking, tagging open and unsolved case to him. I think he's done it in the past and he'll do it in the future, so that means he needs to be stopped by any means possible."

Boden's eyes flicked up to me at that last remark, but he didn't comment. The personal fighting back against the professional, maybe.
Cross uses some writing devices to keep the strong characters' voices separate: Carter Blake's experience comes in first person, as just demonstrated, but both detectives Jessica Allen and her partner are in third person, as are the scattered glimpses into the killer's viewpoint. It works, but it does mean you've got to stay alert while chasing the clues here.

Cross's narrative is top notch -- well, not yet as powerful as Lee Child's, but never distracting, and his pacing is well chosen, keeping the pages flipping. His female characters, like Jessica Allen, are a bit less engaged in reacting to Blake than Child's women are with Jack Reacher; the difference may cost him some of the devotion that Reacher's drawn, but with the plus of a more "real" feel to the choices made. THE SAMARITAN includes some great twists, too.

Today's the release date, and I think I'll buy another couple of copies to share. It's always exciting to catch a new author in the early work, and feel the buildup toward the top of the field. Mason Cross seems likely to succeed in that climb. Many thanks to Pegasus Crime for making sure the series is available on this side of the Atlantic.

And yes, I think if you have time, the resonance from reading the debut The Killing Season first will be worthwhile, but it's not necessary; THE SAMARITAN stands fiercely and triumphantly on its own.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Good Police Gone Bad, Gone Good Again: THE SQUANDERED, David Putman

The third in the Bruno Johnson series from California author David Putnam, THE SQUANDERED, takes a dark view of how law enforcement and prison systems can turn lives upside down in all the wrong ways -- but for Bruno Johnson, on the run from the justice system where he used to work, the old connections still matter. Most importantly, his dad -- terminally ill -- needs him to go back to California and help his estranged brother's grandchildren ... kids Bruno didn't realize existed. His beloved Marie, now his wife, won't let him take his chances alone as a wanted fugitive slipping back into the old neighborhood. And thank goodness, Marie's not the only one who insists on helping: Bruno's former colleagues step forward one more time to help him dodge not just an arrest warrant, but drug dealers and government agents (and some of those are hard to tell apart).

I couldn't put this page turner down. Looks like I wasn't alone in that: The book has blurbs from Michael Connelly, C. J. Box, and T. Jefferson Parker, among others. I loved Connelly's comment about the preceding Putnam title, The Disposables: "Its a gritty street poem recited by a voice unalterably committed to redemption and doing the right thing."

Here's a taste of THE SQUANDERED, as Marie calls in some help before she and Bruno face entering a state prison, risking everything:
"Ah, Marie, I told you not to call him."

"Stop it right now, Mr. Bruno Johnson. He's your friend, and it's ridiculous that you're afraid to see him, let alone talk to the poor man. You owe him a lot, more than you can every repay him. Not after what he's done for us."

"I know, don't you think I don't know? I'm ashamed of what happened-- "

"Ashamed? Thre's no reason at all for being ashamed ... If you stayed, you would have been in prison. He knows that. He knew the rules of the game before he asked to play."
Marie pulls the best out of Bruno, and makes him live up to all of it.

This is a cop tale turned inside out, with the good guys labeled more by what they're willing to sacrifice than by who they're working for. It is indeed gritty and raw in places -- but it's also a ripping good read. Thanks, David Putnam and Oceanview Publishing. And if, like me, you're new to this author, check out his website here: "During his law enforcement career, “Deputy Dave” Putnam worked primarily in California on teams for Patrol, Investigations, SWAT, Narcotics (street level and majors), Violent Crimes, Criminal Intelligence, Internal Affairs and the Detective Bureau." Writing is Putnam's retirement gig. Here's to more of the Bruno Johnson series.

New Jane Austen Mystery -- THE WATERLOO MAP, Stephanie Barron

Have you ever enjoyed a Sherlock Holmes appearance in a TV program or film? If so, you already know the most important part about Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries: This Jane can't be the same as the one you know from reading Austen's own writing in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. But the parallels are close enough for pleasure. And by unbinding the character into an amateur sleuth who's also an early feminist and eager author, Barron's created a lively protagonist for her thoroughly enjoyable British period mysteries.

There are already 12 others in this series, which is good news in two directions -- you have plenty of other titles to gather later on if (like me) you find you're delighted by THE WATERLOO MAP.  (I liked the title before this one, too. A lot.) And if you've been reading the series already, here's a delicious adventure to plunge into, keeping in mind Jane's trials and tribulations from the earlier books. Among those -- and deftly reviewed by the author to bring new readers up to speed -- are Jane's obnoxious and pompous brother who can't stand her writing or her independence, the women friends and relatives who admire and support what she's doing, and a guilty romantic attachment to the painter Raphael West (a real historic personage worth knowing about), who keeps crossing Jane's path.

This time, her journey takes her reluctantly into the London home of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, who keeps a full set of Jane's works, handsomely bound, in each of his residences. And the royal personage wants Jane to visit his library at Carleton House ... maybe even to write something while there! ... and add to his prestige. Jane's not a fan: "There are few people of whom I think less than the Prince Regent. His entire history is either foolish or despicable." But the invitation can't be declined, and with a sigh, Jane concedes her calendar to the Regent's pleasure. At least, for one day!

That visit turns out to plunge her into crime-solving, as a hero of the recently concluded battle at Waterloo dies in the library, at her feet. Thanks to her insight, the "natural" (if unexpected) death is quickly and quietly recognized as murder. One mustn't offend the Regent, of course! But Colonel MacFarland of the Scots Greys cavalry is also too important to have his death overlooked. Jane's evidence is crucial to the court doctor:
"I will be forced to anatomise MacFarland now," the doctor mused ... "if it is a matter of murder..."

There. He had uttered the word aloud.

"Suicide is not to be thought of?" Raphael West asked.

"I should have said the Colonel had everything to live for," Baillie replied simply. "He was a Hero, recollect."

I met West's eyes. How had he earned that honor?  And might one man's reputation, be another man's shame?
Jane's probing into the heroics of the battle that everyone in England admires is far from welcome, and the Hero's widow has every reason to be furious with any assault on her husband's career. Should Jane back away from it all? Friendship and honor pull her forward instead.

This well-spun, entertaining "traditional" mystery is costumed in an era of ritual, class, and significant moments. In Stephanie Barron's hands, the setting is an added delight, forcing Jane to tackle the social forces that prevent women from taking bold action. Secrets, revelations, and further crimes unfurl.

If February's a tough time for you, great news -- the book's release date is February 2, and it's much more fun than watching for that funny old groundhog! If you can't make time for a midwinter reading binge, you can still scoop up a first edition from Soho Crime and let the pleasure of reading it wait for the right moment. Barron's website doesn't give her tour dates, but there are plentiful resources on Jane Austen, and maybe the best part of the site is discovering how this former CIA intelligence analyst tumbled into, shall we say, channeling one of the wittiest women of the Regency period.

A bit more modern than a Georgette Heyer mystery, but very close in flavor to Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, and to Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes adventures, THE WATERLOO MAP makes it onto my shelf for "keep and re-read." We deserve to enjoy this much fun!