Thursday, March 31, 2016

Haunting Photos, Frightening Tales, in THE STARLINGS, editor Ann Cleeves

There's a certain inevitability to it: When your best friends are crime writers, and everyone gets together around a stack of scary photographs, each picture can easily become the seed of suspense, twisted desire, and murder.

At least, that's what happened when British crime fiction author Ann Cleeves and the group calling itself Murder Squad -- a team of half a dozen writers co-promoting each other's bloody endeavors -- received a stack of photos of Pembrokeshire, Wales, with a proposal to write short stories to accompany the black-and-white-and-spooky images.

Hence: THE STARLINGS. Published in 2015 in Britain and just arriving in the US now (publication date April 1), this elegant and professional photo exhibit calls forth shudders of anticipation before the text starts to unfold. Packed for more than 200 pages with bizarre and calculated crime from a dozen writers (six in Murder Squad and six added partners), the book brings the hard-boiled home for these Britishers, who oddly enough all had connections somehow to the landscape of the photos that David Wilson had taken. And for us in "the States," the images recapitulate our own ghosts: deserted houses, unexpected and inhuman visitations, unfinished desperate circumstances of the past.

I particularly enjoyed Cleeves's own brief twist of plot and characters in the title story, "The Starlings" (and yes, the adjoining photo does call forth Hitchcock's "The Birds"):
She closed her eyes and thought that even an odd snatch of conversation might help.

When she opened them there was a face staring in through the Land Rover window. She was startled. At first she thought it might be the local officers, though the siren had been a long way off and even deep in thought surely she would have heard their car on the track. And the face belonged to an elderly woman. ... The woman was pale and dishevelled with white hair straggling over her face. Vera felt ridiculous. She might be haunted by the past but Forbes' death could be something more commonplace -- a domestic situation that had developed into a tragedy; she could see that this woman might have mental health problems. ... Vera introduced herself.

"You'll have seen that Edward's shot himself. The bloody fool."

"I can see that he's dead. No idea yet how it happened."

The woman blinked as though she'd been slapped.
Though the stories are all impressively compact crime narratives, they have an unexpected result, at least for me: What I wanted to do after reading the book was keep returning to those photos, the way they captured desolation and betrayal and death.

What a collection! From Graffed, brought to the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing.

[To explore more of this blog, click here, or on the title bar at the top of the post.]

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Brief Mention: Loren D. Estleman Stories, in DESPERATE DETROIT (Mysteries)

Flint, Kalamazoo, Detroit ... those Michigan cities keep coming up in the news. To get a slant on the dark syndicate past of Mo-Town itself, there's nothing as enjoyable as a hard-boiled mystery from Loren D. Estleman.

Just in time for the distracted season of spring, when it's a challenge to find time to read a dozen pages at a sitting, Tyrus Books is bringing out (on April 1) DESPERATE DETROIT (subtitle: And Stories of Other Dire Places), a collection of Estleman's widely varied tales. From his earliest pulp-style fiction, to sneakily nasty "PI" adventures, this is a wicked and urbane collection. My advance copy doesn't have the original pub dates and venues for the stories, which I would have enjoyed; but Estleman's personal comments introducing the pieces give a good feel for his own sense of his past and his writerly pleasures. Good twists, classic noir, and a must for any collection of either this author or the pulps and their descendants.

Gower St Detective Series #3, DEATH DESCENDS ON SATURN VILLA, M.R.C. Kasasian

M.R.C. (Martin) Kasasian's Gower St Detective Series is quirky, often confusing, frequently dark, threaded through with vicious humor -- and irresistible in terms of posing puzzles to solve and placing it all in the most graphic sort of Victorian world.

In short, I like these books. A lot. My only problem has been deciding which friends to share them with. It's entirely possible that anyone I give a Gower St book to will think I am as strange as the characters within. Alas!

And they are fiercely memorable characters. For instance, there's the narrator, a young woman named March Middleton -- except she only narrates part of DEATH DESCENDS ON SATURN VILLA. There's her godfather Sidney Grice, most famous and most unpleasant detective in the mean streets of London. (Not to mention his insistence on disgusting vegetarian meals, his abuse of his untutored maid-of-all-work, and his scorn for March Middleton herself.)

The puzzles set before March and Grice in the previous two books, The Mangle Street Murders and The Curse of the House of Foskett, have dragged March into gutters and gruesome crime scenes. Her assistance to Grice is a painful necessity: Stranded in his home, unable to live separately due to the mores of Victorian London (and lack of funds), she's caught up in his investigations for lack of anything else to do. And even though his lessons to her are mean-spirited and stingy, she's learning how to assess a crime scene.

But as DEATH DESCENDS ON SATURN VILLA opens, March is on her own, unexpectedly, when a summons arrives from a relative she never knew existed. Risky though it is to accept such an invitation, she feels compelled: Perhaps this new "uncle" can shed light on the terrible suspicion she's harboring about her godfather's role in the death of her own mother.

What March can't have expected, though, is that Uncle Tolly's home will exert such odd effects on her that she'll soon be convinced she herself has committed murder. Will Sidney Grice exert himself far enough to solve her case? Or will his evidence condemn her in court?

Even as March struggles to gain Grice's assistance, the pair continue to play out a "who's on first" sort of dialogue with the uneducated, blunt-tongued maid, Molly:
"Dear March," Mr G spoke tenderly, "I think you may be telling the truth that you do not know if you did it -- whatever it may be."

Molly came in and put a tea tray on the table. "Cook said I was very rude to say that about your dress the other day, miss."

"It does not matter," I told her.

"I just wanted to make it clear," she continued. "There wasn't not nothing wrong with the dress. Anybody else might have looked pretty in it."

"Thank you, Molly."

"And -- "

"Get out," her employer commanded, "before Miss Middleton attacks you as she allegedly did the last maid who crossed her path."

"Oh miss." Molly put her hand to her mouth. "I never even knew you had a path. I hope I never allegingly cross it."
As you can see, the further you're drawn into DEATH DESCENDS ON SATURN VILLA, the more you are trapped halfway between Alice in Wonderland, and Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with a dash of Jasper Fforde on the top. Is this your kind of book?

I confess it's mine on alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays, and crazy though the series is, I can't put the books down, once I start them. Kasasian's plot twists are always unexpected and bizarre, although perfectly reasonable in hindsight (considering the characters involved). The pace is brisk, and the frank depiction of the dirt and dismay of Victorian everyday life is oddly endearing. Most of all, March Middleton is someone worth saving, somehow, so her disappearance in the middle of DEATH DESCENDS presses the book into desperate straits.

I know -- you're going to tell me you are NOT one of the people I should give this book to. Wait -- you've read this far? Maybe ... maybe you like this crazy British humor in detective guise, after all? Go ahead -- get a copy and enjoy snickering and snorting.

Yes, you can read this without reading the other two books first. But I think it's a lot more fun for this series to take one after another. Mute the phone, and keep the tea and crumpets (no cold cabbage stews!) coming.

PS - There's no author website at the moment, as far as I can tell, although Pegasus Crime hosts a launching spot for Kasasian. Look for him on social media instead.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Diversion: Eighth Collection of Poems from Leland Kinsey, GALVANIZED

Poetry month will arrive in a few more days, and with it, on April 8, the publication of the eighth collection of poems from Vermont writer Leland Kinsey. Nearly 400 pages thick, the volume is a treasure of rural life -- of place, and of family, as well as the traditional trades of farming and "going to the woods" for trees, lumber, solitude, and consolation. GALVANIZED speaks to the energy and nearly alchemical process of refining experience into story, and story into poem, as Lee continues to do.

The collection is a "New and Selected Poems," fronted with a baker's dozen of poems that haven't seen the press before. They are not all "just hatched" ... but maybe they have lain on the desk long enough to detach their sharp edges from this poet's heart, so that he can allow us to enter his grief for his sister Helen, for instance, in "Transit of Venus." These newly revealed tales-in-lines are also a bit looser in form and sound, a bit more clearly the stories themselves that press toward the light. Kinsey's kneading, pressing, and forming of the narratives engage us in the sharp turning points, the sudden awareness of a son who echoes one's own childhood, a longing for long-passed times and family members, a connection between what was then and what stands strongly now: as "Work and Song" announces, "substrate, intrusions, and bedrock / redolant with song."

Of equal and lasting delight are Kinsey's selections from his seven earlier books, and I felt as though I were milling in a crowd of old friends, marveling at how their early appearances had lingered in their lined faces full of character and choice. From the Barton, Vermont, poet's first book, Northern Almanac, I found the memorable and still shocking (in the sense that a young man is shocked by his first exposure to the grit and glory of sexuality) long poem "Fair Days." From Not One Man's Work is the poem "Galvanized," with an ending that satisfies me all over again, describing the "niter," the unpalatable residue from boiling maple sap for a season:
When young we tried it ourselves
dared each other to like it.
It had the sour and bitter taste
of the metals that make the world,
and, if attention was paid,
left for a second on the tongue
a thin sweet coating.
Here is also one of my favorites, "Fireflies," one of the many poems drenched heart-deep with Kinsey's emotions and connections to his father and his upbringing. (This is unquestionably a man's world for this poet, in a good sense, the way that Maxine Kumin's poems were and are always a woman's.) "My father's face glistens / in the milk house doorway / the first hot night in June."

I paged eagerly into the section from In the Rain Shadow, poems that follow this quintessential rural Vermont poet on a once-in-a-lifetime visit to a cousin working in Tanzania, where people call out "Kinsey!" and don't expect Leland to reply! I love the ties of one working landscape to another, half a world away, as with "In the Rain Shadow of Mount Meru," where the first stanza opens with "Young camels' groaning calls / carry to their mothers" and then nips toward "The least of the camels produce more milk / than an average cross-bred cow." Each new experience is lapped over the earlier ones, building a fresh sense of both the distant location and the meaning of home.

Three-quarters through, the collection crescendoes into poems from The Immigrant's Contract, a book I share with people who find poetry confusing in general -- but who may find themselves deeply connected to Kinsey's portrait of the landscape of the Nullhegan River's surroundings, where "the immigrant" logger proclaims: "Took years to cut this region over once. / This river drove us both ways, / into and out of life, and, shining dark-like, / just kept coming." And at last there are poems from the sweet and intense exploration of the wildlands remaining among us, Winter Ready, which Kinsey gave to us in 2014, spilling out "bottle gentian, asters, nettles" as well as "Moose paths, vole and lemming runs" -- the varied and specific abundance of the places best explored alone, a little bit lost, aching with both grief and beauty.

GALVANIZED captures why we live in the vulnerable places of the world, tasting and savoring and exploring. It captures the root word "love" in "loveliness," without speaking those names, but instead showing us through story, memory, and vivid complexity. Let this book simmer and thus perfume the days and evenings ahead. With Leland Kinsey, Green Writers Press of Brattleboro, Vermont, has brought us this fine and treasured gift.

Friday, March 11, 2016

America's Revolution Begins in Murder, in BLOOD OF THE OAK, Eliot Pattison

What kinds of oppression awaken a nation to action? When do struggles for survival become a force to light a revolution? No, I'm not talking about this year's Presidential campaign, but rather, the simmering, smoky, and definitely violent build-up to the American Revolution. In the fourth book of his Bone Rattler series, BLOOD OF THE OAK, Eliot Pattison's protagonist confronts those questions -- and the investigation of multiple murders.

Exiled and shorn of his family and clan, Duncan McCallum's path during the three earlier books has meant turning his medical training into the baby steps of a new forensic science. Technically he's still a runaway from government justice, living in the forests of Pennsylvania, far from the vicious man who claims to hold him within an indenture. But readers of the earlier books have seen Duncan transformed through learning the ways of the Algonquin Nation. His friend Conawago is an elder of the Nipmuc tride, and together the men have survived brutal attacks, rescued the well-meaning and innocent, and upheld the tribal rights and customs. Duncan has, in fact, joined a New World clan, and he's well aware of how fortunate he has been. Now in 1765, he even has a woman in his life, someone he trusts and respects and who is also working for justice and, dare we say it, peace.

That may be a lot to swallow for first-time readers of this series. If it sound like further than you can imagine stretching, don't read this one yet -- go to Bone Rattler, then Eye of the Raven, then Original Death. Follow along on this remarkable but step-by-step reasonable path that Pattison outlines.

But many first-time readers of the series will find instead that the quick pace, dramatic action, and fiercely honorable allies presented here make it easy to leap into Duncan's adventures right away. Remember how William Penn thought he was creating a "city of brotherly love" in Philadelphia? Duncan's beloved Sarah Ramsey makes a smaller version possible on the western frontier (yes, Pennsylvania edged the wilderness then), in her Edentown. And Duncan needs some of that peace and tranquillity for himself.

Especially now, because he has a mission from the Iroquois. Summoning him to use his skills, Adanahoe, an elderly woman who leads the spiritual side of the tribes, needs him to retrieve a holy item that's been stolen -- before the tribes lose their ability to survive in the new age.

Almost before Duncan can reach his heart's home, though, killings erupt around him -- and without time to consider, he's thrust out into the wilderness again, chasing murderers and trying to interpret cryptic clues that surround him.

Without our hindsight, Duncan has no idea that the colonists around him in 1765 have reached a boiling point. He's been out in the forest, after all. In the taverns, and the back rooms of powerful men, rebellion is brewing. War is on the table for consideration -- and Duncan takes far too long to grasp what's at stake.

But he sees clearly enough the folly of the settlers and city men, even the ones who think they are healers bringing their art to the natives, like the young Benjamin Rush, an associate of Ben Franklin's.
Duncan eyed the tied leather roll Rush had carried through his ordeal, now resting on the pile of logs beside the young scientist. Rush sighed but did not stop him as he unrolled it, exposing a row of silvery instruments, each in its own sewn pocket. Surgical knives, tweezers, a metal rule, a small bone saw, probes, long needles with silk thread, and a reed-thin stem of metal with a tiny mirror at its end ...
Duncan eyed the tools uneasily. "What exactly in God's name are you doing here, Rush?"

"Gathering evidence, of course. With doctors in Philadelphia paying three pounds a body, there's no end of cadavers there. But it's damnable hard to find a native specimen. ... I showed them my coin. I asked about the recently dead. They did not seem to understand. Only one spoke any English and that poorly. So I pulled out a surgical blade to help him understand. He asked what it was and I told him, very slowly, to help him grasp the word. Then he pulls out his war ax and shouts at me."

Duncan stared in mute astonishment. "You must have an angel hovering over you to have survived so long. ... You come from Philadelphia, where they pay bounties for Indian hair, you show him your coin, then display your blade, naming it your scalpel." Duncan repeated the word, slowly, the way Rush must have done. "Scalp-el."

The color left Rush's face. "Dear God! I didn't ... I never meant to suggest ... dear God!" he repeated.

Duncan stared at the forlorn man, wondering not for the first time how learned men could be so unwise in the ways of the world.
But this interlude is almost a gentle one, compared with what Duncan and his friends are headed toward, as Duncan's hunt for a murderous cabal puts him into the way of the most angry patriots along the New World's coast. Duncan has never dreamed that good, wise men would ever actually choose to defy the King -- and as he begins to realize how wrong he has been, lives of the people he loves are on the line. He will have to mesh his training in deduction and reason, with the canny opportunism he's learned from both of his "tribes," to have a chance at surviving.

The horrible conditions of slaveholding, of manipulative indentures, of women who have no real rights, and of invaders uprooting a land's people in order to seize wealth -- all of these align againtst Duncan in this volume.

A small caution for mystery readers: Although Duncan's forensics operate powerfully here, especially in the first half of BLOOD OF THE OAK, several major twists and his eventual fate depend more on his ability to choose the right alliances and sustain them. Thus, this is less a tale of investigation than of revelation and maturing.
His confusion was like a physical pain. He stared at the foreboding words [on a slip of paper inside a Bible], which kindled anew his grief for the young couple in the churchyard.

It made no sense that amidst the urgent, mysterious work these men were engaged in they would take the time to speak of Shakespeare, to memorize passages ... He shook his head in bewilderment.
Pattison's deep strength is in his gift of in-life autopsy of the human mind and soul. He lines up, chapter upon chapter, the forces that Duncan must face in a new way -- or lose himself in the process.

So, this one's a little less of a clue-based mystery, but instead a powerful book of transition: for Duncan, from naive to knowing; for his friends, from tribal loyalty to spiritual search; and for the settlers and their gatherings, from ruled colonies to something that dares to whisper: Independence.

There must be a sequel already in the works; I'm looking forward to watching Pattison carry this striking and passionate narrative into the explosions that will forge the American Revolution -- and Duncan McCallum's fate.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

THE SAINTS OF THE LOST AND FOUND, T. M. Causey, Serial Murder Plus Paranormal Plus Powerful Storytelling

When seasoned storyteller Toni McGee Causey tugged on her T. M. Causey persona for THE SAINTS OF THE LOST AND FOUND, she chose to go dark -- very dark. And turning her experience in "romantic suspense" Southern novels toward an FBI hunt for a serial killer in Louisiana has put her onto the terrain of the "big writers" of suspense thrillers. Take the loneliness of Lee Child's Jack Reacher, add the determination of Jon Land's Caitlin Strong, and for the third strand, let loose the diabolical wickedness of the killers in, say, Jeffery Deaver's Lincolm Rhyme books. Yes, that seems about right.

But let's start at the beginning of the book, with Avery Broussard riding a but to her former hometown in Louisiana, hoping not to be recognized. The hope is soon dashed, because Avery's been on all the major newspaper front pages for a long time. Her pyschic gift, the ability -- or curse -- of seeing what people have lost, and sometimes where to find those items, pushed her into volunteering as a consultant for the FBI. Sure, the professionals were skeptical, but the FBI agent in charge of the Little Princess Killer cases, Hank, tested Avery to the max and chose to work with her, defend her, protect her as she gave herself to the investigations.

Now Avery's on the run from even Hank. Her most recent efforts to find the small girls that the Little Princess Killer abducts worked out in one sense -- she found the child -- but too late to save the girl's life, by a mere couple of hours. In despair, and blaming herself for the child's death, Avery still wouldn't have run home. After all, her father -- whose pyschic gift is even more awkward than here, because he sees how and when each person will die -- warned Avery years ago that her lifelong true love Jack would kill her. She ran away from marrying Jack, at a cost that's been overwhelming for her and her beloved. Especially since he has no idea why she left him.

So when her father (one of only three people to have her phone number) had a new vision and phoned her to tell her that her brother Latham would die if she didn't come back home, Avery was acutely aware that only pain lay in front of her. And Jack. But given the chance, didn't she need to save her brother's life? (He is the only other person in the town suffering from a psychic gift. Gift? Curse, is more like it.)

Readers of serial killer cases know there's no escape from the evil until you fight it and defeat it, though. And the same holds for Avery. She may think she's home to save her brother. Even for that, she needs to face down her own PTSD, guilt, and horrified awareness of the losses all around her.

That's a lot of twists all at once, and a lot to ask of a reader. But Causey's storytelling is so strong, and Avery's desperate courage is so painful and necessary, that this is a true page-turner.

Take, for example, Avery's first task after she sets up a carefully guarded home for herself, surrounded by alarms, cameras, whatever it takes to keep the curious and the press away from her (and anyone else who may want to hurt someone who's been unsuccessful in preventing children's deaths). Jack's young son Brody goes missing, and Jack's instant reaction is to demand that Avery find this child -- the last thing she needs to be doing, but how can she say no? And in fact, she does find him, once she's able to shake off her "friends." She tells the boy she'll get him to the road home, but he'll have to walk the rest of the way to his dad on his own. Of course he asks, why?
"Town weirdo," I said, pointing at myself, "so I get to make whatever rules I want. That's my rule. And here's my other rule: you don't get to tell anyone -- not a soul -- that I helped you tonight. ..."

I put my hand out for him to shake, which was my second big mistake of the night, because he took it and immediately the image of two bloody eyes [of the boy's presumed-dead mom, his pressing loss of the moment] drilled me with the force of a diamond bit grinding through rock. I nearly passed out right there; it was everything I could do to hold it together for the kid. I must've yelped and jumped back from the contact, because suddenly I was standing -- when I was aware again of my surroundings -- a good three feet away from him.

"You okay?" His eyes were big as his face. Even in the moonlight, I could tell he'd gone all pale.
Avery's mix of tough and vulnerable, of love and despair, is as direct and desperate as her language. I couldn't put this one down.

So I guess I have a couple of authors now whose "paranormal mysteries" are so compelling  that I'll ignore my allergy to psychic moments, and keep turning the pages. (One of those authors is John Connolly. Another is the aforementioned Jon Land.) I never doubted that T.M. Causey would whip, twist, and pound the plot -- and her characters -- to a highly satisfying ending. And sure enough, she does.

I may have to get in line for more of these. Bottom line: tight plot, relentless suspense, and powerful human choices, along with the kind of twists the best mysteries should always have. And yes, there's a darned good reason for the title, but I'm not going to spoil the explanation now -- discover it for yourself, in THE SAINTS OF THE LOST AND FOUND.


When I asked for a review copy of this book by Katherine (Katie) Towler, I had in mind her lovely literary novels placed on an island between and during world wars. Somehow I thought THE PENNY POET OF PORTSMOUTH would be an old-fashioned tale of a long-ago poet who made rhymes and stood on the street corner to sell them.

Nope. If I had looked more closely at the book's subtitle -- A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship -- I might have made a better guess. But all's well, because I found myself blissfully engaged, page after page, chapter after chapter, in one of the most wonderful surprises of my literary year.

Katherine Towler's life focused on writing from an early age; she was writing poems at 10, and as a young adult she craved both solitude (for writing) and diversion, the kind that comes from moving often. To her own surprise, after years of learning to spend time alone in pursuit of her best writing, she married Jim when the two of them were 35, in a midlife marriage with a great deal of gentleness and ample space to be herself. The couple settled into a rented space in an older home at the edge of the tidal waters of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in a neighborhood where their cat, at least, felt immediately at home.

And it was through a neighbor's cat that she first exchanged word with Robert Dunn, a poet himself, living nearby in far less comfort than she had. Katie's slow dance of becoming acquainted with her coastal town and its residents needed to balance with her urge to withdraw, to create for herself the solitude she felt her writing demanded. Her early perceptions of Robert gave her an ideal to look toward: a man who walked slowly around the town keeping to himself, not making conversation, not even meeting anyone's gaze, living the life Katie believed that her craft -- and his -- demanded.
I admired the nimble grace with which Robert navigated this territory, his ability to maintain a guarded privacy while, in a limited fashion, letting people in. He appeared to have mastered something fundamental I wasn't sure I ever would, though I was feeling my way toward my own kind of balance. For the first time, I appeared to have found a place to live where my warring impulses could coexist, and in my marriage a relationship that could accommodate, although not always easily, my need to disappear.
To Katie's surprise, a connection she formed with Robert through Portsmouth choosing to select him as the town's second Poet Laureate -- she was in the selection group -- tugged her into Robert's circle of friends. It wasn't just the surprise of being chosen for this, but even more so, the discovery of  how many people considered themselves Robert's friends that startled her. Then came the biggest surprise of all: Robert's decision, step by prickly step, to involve Katie in his efforts to stay alive and keep writing while struggling with the diseases that poverty and aging (and cigarettes) put into place.

The struggles that ensue will seem achingly familiar to any creative person agonizing over how to manage enough privacy while also contributing to a family or community. In Towler's book, the frictions of two writers in need of inner solitude -- she with her novels and Robert with his poems -- also come laden with New England revelations about how difficult poverty can be, and how embarrassing and humiliating the lack of power in a personal life becomes.

The slow pace of discovery of Robert's life and secrets mingles with Towler's own slow movement into strength as a published author, a tide of rising and falling parallel to the nearby ocean's. The two poets also intermingle their life lessons in terms of spirituality and religion. Although none of Tower's own poems appear here, those of Robert's often call upon familiar texts while simplifying the language to paint the New England town life accurately, like this one:
Vesper sparrows, turnable of bellbirds,
the small owls have called from tree to tree.
No need to comfort or be comforted.
Pitched high or low, grief is a kind of love
and so must be. Or no one else will know
when the sparrow falls, least of all the sparrow.
       --- Robert Dunn
I ached with Towler in both the beautiful unpeeling of her own life here -- that of Katie the writer adapting to settling in one place -- and the slow realization of Robert's life through his requests to her and her own discomfort in filling his needs. Suspense builds in the telling, as we readers realize, with Katie, the inevitability of Robert's illness and oncoming death, and the enormous efforts of personal sacrifice that both he and Katie choose to make in the long and unpredictable process.

Make time for this one. Pick up a copy or two now (if you've read this far in the review, it's likely there will be people you love, to whom you will want to give this book), but set it on the shelf or table for a quiet rainy afternoon when you can relinquish Ordinary Time and settle into the deep, long sweeps of the narrative.

I will never face writing in the same way again. And the next time I visit Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I expect to be haunted by the ghosts of Robert Dunn and the younger, struggling writer who was Katherine Towler before she stepped forward into her own strong ability to evoke such a portrait as THE PENNY POET OF PORTSMOUTH.

[From Counterpoint Press, and available through bookstores and online.]

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

RAIN DOGS, Fifth Detective Sean Duffy Novel from Adrian McKinty

Setting his crime fiction during the 1980s -- The Troubles -- in Ireland gives Adrian McKinty the perfect opportunity for violence that spreads, fire and counterfire in Northern Ireland. Readers of the series know that Detective Sean Duffy is good enough to earn bigger offers in major policing. But so far, between his own hard-living choices (drinking, drugs, challenging women) and the rash of deaths that keeps breaking out among those he cares for, Duffy has stayed with the force in Belfast.

And it's in Belfast we find him at the opening of RAIN DOGS, taking extra hours of work in order to meet "the most famous man in the world," Muhammad Ali. Yes, The Champ really did visit Ireland -- land of one of his ancestors -- and Duffy even gets a handshake from the formidable and charismatic fighter. But when the day resolves into the ordinary again, and he's home with his younger girlfriend Beth, the good luck hasn't rubbed off on the rest of his life: She's leaving him, as she's told him she would. And the next morning, when a fair sort of world might allow him to enjoy snuggling with her one last time, the phone's ringing with a call to work: a politically sensitive theft, followed like clockwork by a dead body discovered in a locked ... no, not a locked room, a locked castle.

Long frustrating hours of work follow, with nothing seeming to fit. In the usual life of Duffy, each return to the car means another exam of the undercarriage for a mercury tilt-switch bomb, easy to tuck under a police officer's vehicle for another killing in the endless enmity of Northern Irish life, Prods (Protestants) against Catholics, British rule against home rule. Any progress for Belfast will depend on a hand from elsewhere, especially a financial one. Could a Finnish corporation buy into the barren Belfast landscape and bring work to the battered city? This too puts pressure on Duffy: Solve the case so the visiting dignitaries can go home. And by no means can he consider any of them to be suspects in what must, after all, be suicide of a depressed journalist. Yes?

No. McKinty interleaves risk and assault with insight and companionship. Duffy's interactions with his team include solid partnership with the tough and seasoned Sergeant McCrabben, and generous mentoring for young Lawson, whose main roles involve placing phone calls and carrying report.
"Stomach contents? Where's the full autopsy report?"

"Hasn't arrived yet," Lawson said.

"What's the holdup?"

"Uhm, I don't know. I did call them, sir. Apparently there's some kind of problem. The pathologist is carrying out more tests."


"They wouldn't tell me." ....

"Well, find out, Lawson. You can't let these people run roughshod over you. You're a policeman."
McKinty's wry humor enlivens many of the scenes, but make no mistake -- this is police investigation in a dangerous time, and Sean Duffy may get some fun from teasing his team a bit, but death, well, that's something he takes seriously. And personally.

The locked-castle problem, the suicide that's a murder, the bombs and riots ... this is Duffy's Belfast. I enjoyed book 4 (Gun Street Girl) a lot, and saw some bits here that fitted with the earlier book, but mostly RAIN DOGS reads just fine on its own. Good twists, affection balanced with work, quick pace, well-managed suspense, yes, it all adds up to another great read from McKinty.

And if the ending seemed just a bit unusual for this series, well, I figure that's because book six will depend on these pieces falling into place. No spoilers, but I'd like to hear your opinion of the finale, especially if you'vee read the earlier books in the series. Deal?

Make time for this one. Seventh Street Books released RAIN DOGS in America today. That gives you just a little more than a week to get your copy, devour it, and be properly in the mood for a darkly enjoyable St. Patrick's Day.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Drug-Gang Police Work, in TAKEDOWN, Jeff Buck, with Jon Land & Lindsay Preston

The cover of TAKEDOWN, the new true-to-life drug bust tale from police investigator Jeff Buck and two co-authors -- Jon Land, noted author of the Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger crime fiction series, and Lindsay Preston, an established and esteemed ghostwriter -- says the book reveals "A small-town cop's battle against the Hells Angels and the nation's biggest drug gang."

Stop! If you're looking for a shoot-out with the wicked and powerful motorcycle gang called the Hells Angels, this is not the book you want!

But if the actual day by day process of setting up a drug bust at a high enough level to actually get the dealers out of the territory for a few years (in this case, out of Ohio), grab your copy of TAKEDOWN when it goes on sale on March 8.

Land explained the genesis of the book in his post last week at the online 'zine, The Big Thrill. It's fascinating. I'll paraphrase, but really, it's worth reading all of it, by clicking here. The short version: In her (nonfiction) ghostwriter life, Preston tackled police detective Jeff Buck's life story, only to realize the details were more striking, more important, than a simple ghosting task could do justice to. When she said to Jon Land, "Did you know more drugs come into the US over the Canadian border than the Mexican border?" -- Land was hooked. He leaped into the process, interviewing Buck for many more hours, learning about undercover life, family stresses, successes, complications, and most of all the urge to avoid the low-level arrests of neighborhood drug dealers, in order to reach up to where cutting the pipeline can actually have effects.

For Buck, that meant tangling with the Russian mob, while running parallel to a major Canadian sting operation that would arrest 143 Hells Angels in Montreal around the same time. It also meant coming to grips with a gap in US border enforcement, which Buck and co-authors describe as taking place where the Akwesasne tribal lands straddle the US–Canada border. (Yes, that does mean this book portrays reservation poverty as having an effect on people being willing to run drugs. It's a grim take on an American social issue.)

Land's seasoned narrative technique brings the police detective's tale up to "noir" standards. Here's Buck explaining how he maneuvered his way around the multiple territories of other police forces involved in the region:
From the look on Kondrat's face, I knew I had him. But the scrunched, bushy eyebrows of Detective Meyers said otherwise.

"That is, if you want me to," I added in a show of deference, already contemplating how best to negotiate the politics of crossing jurisdictions to take control of this particular drug case.

Because it was time to go after the real bad guys again.

"Of course, we'd love to catch this guy," Kondrat responded, "but I gotta tell you, he's good."

I started to smile and stopped. "We can get him," I said confidently. "It's all how you go about doing it."

"I just don't want you to get your hopes up," Kondrat said, not swayed by my experience or swagger. "I just don't think this kid ever touches the drugs or the money."

I found it amusing that Kondrat didn't want me to get my hopes up. Then again, he didn't know me. It wasn't about anything as random as hope; it was about the handling of a case, knowing what to do and when to do it and when to give up if necessary.
Of course, you might not always like this narrator! But he's real, and Land and Preston clearly took great pains to carry Buck's own voice into nearly 300 pages of tough police work. And that puts this book at an intriguing intersection of nonfiction and police procedural and thriller -- even though Buck makes it clear that a shoot-out is the last thing a good investigation needs. Or wants.

Prowling along with Buck in TAKEDOWN is great background for crime and crime fiction writers, as well as entertaining for readers. Buck makes some great points, too, about why he doesn't consider marijuana use to be a victimless crime (worth reading for all of us, really).

As Land points out in his Big Thrill article, despite the cover design, you're not going to run into many Hells Angels here, because Buck himself was too smart to do that. But his investigative journey around the drug pipelines that he sees as manages by the crime syndicates turns out to be at least as compelling.

And he lives to tell the tale. And see Ohio, his home state, have a reprieve from those drugs, for at least a little while.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

World War I and the Inquisition? Yes! Well Worth Reading THE DAMNED from Tarn Richardon

The British have known Inquisitor Poldek Tacit since January 1 of 2015 -- today, thanks to Overlook Press, Tarn Richardson's powerful debut thriller THE DAMNED featuring the rough-living Jesuit arrives for American and Canadian readers. Clear your calendar; I couldn't put this book down.

And I was so reluctant to start reading! Subtitled "The Darkest Hour Trilogy Book 1," THE DAMNED has a cemetery monument topped with a cross on the cover, and the cover text reveals the presence of werewolves in this World War I crime novel. Oh dear!

But fortunately, I've recently become an ardent fan of John Connolly's Maine-based books of crime where evil wears paranormal garb, so I'm a bit more open that I used to be to accepting this kind of twist in a murder mystery IF it's really, really well written.

And Tarn Richardson can definitely write a rattling good tale, with page-turning suspense that never slows down. The book opens in the front-line trenches of Arras, France, in 1914, where the gas, the mud, and the deadly shelling of the nearby German lines turn each battle's movements into a dance of terror and death. For Lieutenant Henry Frost, caught between war's clearly mad leadership and the impending deaths of his men, every effort of courage and gallantry is also a losing effort. When the German shelling abruptly ceases, it's tempting to celebrate -- until Frost and his forces realize the horror of what's actually taken place.

And as the war lines writhe and suffer, Poldek Tacit, an Inquisitor sent by the Vatican against the forces of evil, faces his nemesis in France. Unexpectedly assisting him in investigating who is dying why, in the run-up to the anticipated Mass for Peace, is Sister Isabella, the most unlikely "Sister" that Tacit has ever met. Deliberately sexualized in appearance, she's a Vatican inquisitor of sorts herself, sent forth to "test the faith" of the Church's hardened fighters in the field.

As townspeople, combatants, and even priest around them die, Tacit and Sister Isabella finally take off the gloves and attack each other, with Tacit accusing her of deliberately enticing him:
"Do they think I've fallen from the path with more than my drinking and my faith? Thought that I would be tempted? That I would wish to f*** a whore of the Vatican?"

The words tormented and disgusted her. "How dare you!" roared Isabella, storming forward to strike him. Her hands were drawn white with rage. "How dare you call me such a thing?"

"Well, look at you. You never looked like any Sister I've ever seen!" he cried, climbing out of his chair.

"And you're not like any Inquisitor, Inquisitor! What happened to the man who's hanging [as a portrait] on the wall of the Vatican! The Inquisitor of honor? The one with a light in his eyes and an urgency in his features?"

"He got old."
But this failure of teamwork can't be allowed to stand, because indeed the Church has cause to believe in the evil that's multiplying within the landscape. And unless the bitter Inquisitor with his silver bullets and the angry Sister figure out how to reach and stop that evil, World War I and the Mass for Peace may be even more of a disaster than the armed forces can imagine.

Did I "buy" the notion of an alternate World War I, of werewolves, of a secret and ongoing Inquisition led by the Catholic church? Actually, yes -- the horrors of shell shock, poison gas, and international machinations that we're learning about a century after the Great War, make Richardson's additions to the landscape seem just one small step further in danger and darkness. And Poldek Tacit, a violent but oddly honorable version of Graham Greene's "whisky priest," is a perfect fit in this world gone mad.

So who do you suppose the true villain is? By the end of THE DAMNED, the sacrifices that Tacit needs to make are clear. And I found I was eager for the second and third books of the trilogy. I hope Overlook won't wait too long to move them in our direction.

By the way, THE DAMNED is a debut novel, and only a roughness in the pacing gives this away; the author's writing career is eccentric and includes digital media -- which makes sense, as there's a sense of cameras rolling and dramatic shifts of light with the twists of plot. Overlook's print runs are not huge -- make sure to get your first-edition hardcover ASAP, before a lot of people start grabbing them.

THE CONSIDERATE KILLER, Finale of Danish Crime Series, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

When Lene Kaaberbøl, a lifelong writer, and journalist Agnete Friis collaborated to write the first Nina Borg crime novel, The Boy in the Suitcase, they swept immediately into the top level of Scandinavian crime fiction. Nominally writing from Copenhagen, Denmark (although Kaaberbøl also is at home on the island of Sark: see her website), they brought to life heroic Red Cross Nina Borg with her fierce commitment to serving the wounded and ill under the most desperate conditions. Not surprisingly, those conditions also foster crime.

In the fourth book in the series, THE CONSIDERATE KILLER (released today), assault in a parking garage takes Nina down with a cracked skull and a very much expected segment of amnesia around the attack. Readers know that her assailant spoke the Lord's Prayer over her, in a language she didn't recognize as her consciousness faded. Her relatively recent lover Søren Kirkegard has even less specifics on why someone would go after Nina. But he's less in denial than she is: Her urge to rescue and to fight for the beleaguered, front and center in the past three titles of her adventures, have always put Nina close to danger. Somehow she insists on pushing into more of it, and her children -- who now live with their (divorced) dad, in an effort to give them safe and sane childhoods! -- have already realized what Nina doesn't seem to grasp: Their mother is never out of danger.

Readers also know, as Kaaberbøl and Friis spin out to Manila and an earlier time, 4 years earlier, that something evil and manipulative happened then in the Philippines. Somehow, for reasons slow to unfurl, that knot of evil has leapt across the globe to Denmark. But what does Nina have to do with it? Her mother, battling cancer, doesn't have time to waste on dainty confrontation:
"Nina-girl, you can't save the entire --"

"Don't call me that!" Nice. Now she had shot out of her chair and stood with two fists floating up somewhere near chin level, like a boxer with his dukes up. Her head was pounding and she forced herself to lower her hands and breathe more calmly. ...

"Nina. You have two children who are afraid of losing you, and you need to deal with that, whether you want to or not."

She had no defense. She couldn't deny it.  ... Nina hadn't exactly sought it out.

... D*mn it. Exactly how rotten a person did you have to be to take out your own frustrations on your cancer-stricken mother?
Soren's not in great shape, either. He's still recovering from the knife Nina deftly inserted into his chest to save his life when his police work went awry in the preceding book, and "work" won't let him back into action until he's shown real recovery. Awkwardly, with less-than-wise choices stemming partly from his own exhaustion, partly from the powerful love he feels for Nina, he flounders into the situation, where a killer keeps apologetically appearing and trying to kill Nina the rest of the way.

Kaaberbøl and Friis do more than shape a hunt for a killer (and an anxious effort by Nina to avoid pulling the threat toward the people she loves): They also frame dramatic contrasts between the Global South and the middle-class affluence of Denmark; between those called to their work, whether nursing or doctoring or policing, and those struggling to get into a "well-paid career"; and between friends and family who link to each other out of love and loyalty, and those who manipulate and maim in order to out-shout the emptiness within them.

In the end, it's Nina's courage that counts, and Soren's persistent investigation, in a long struggle for survival while the motives of the killer and his allies are slowly, painfully revealed. What success can there be -- readers already know from the book's cover that this is the series finale. Who will die? What must be relinquished in order to defeat a spreading illness of menace and blood?

THE CONSIDERATE KILLER wraps up with a fitting, satisfying ending, one where it's good to pause and reflect on these four strong Nina Borg books. This time, there's clearly no sequel, but in spite of searching the websites, Twitter feed, and Facebook posts related to the collaborating authors, I don't have a clue of what's next for this writing team.

But I'm certain it will be well worth reading.

* * *

PS - Kudos to Soho Crime for bringing this series across the Atlantic, and to translator Elisabeth Dyssegaard for making sure the fast-paced and insightful storytelling moves smoothly into English, for American readers.