Friday, December 29, 2017

Backstory #3: When Your Husband Keeps a Secret, in PROTECTED BY THE SHADOWS, Swedish Crime Fiction by Helene Tursten

Helene Tursten's investigating protagonist in Göteborg, Sweden, Investigator Irene Huss, is one of the most likeable officers in today's crime fiction. Married with now-grown twin daughters, Huss depends on her husband's cooking skills -- her own are negligible -- and lives with an endless guilt about the time demands of her career that will feel familiar to many. Moreover, she works in a Violent Crimes unit where gender bias is a daily factor, as much so as personnel shortages.

So as Irene's unit teams up with the Organized Crimes Unit to intervene in a series of motorcycle gang killings (and readers of the series already know that means extra flashbacks for Huss), the last thing she needs is to have to worry about her husband's safety. Or that of her daughters. And she can't step in to do much for them -- they will have to be, as the title suggests, PROTECTED BY THE SHADOWS.

In addition to the skillful interweaving of personal and professional tension, Swedish author Helene Tursten provides memorable descriptions of the gritty reality of crime investigation, like this:
The gangster reeked of sweat and stale booze. He was wearing a T-shirt with Gothia MC's emblem on the chest; the same emblem was tattooed on his right forearm, and more or less every inch that Irene could see of his massive body was covered in tattoos. A colorful snake wound its way around his neck, ending up by his left ear. It showed up clearly on his shaven head. The snake was a skillful piece of work, but the rest of the tattoos were of varying quality.

The tread for inking is one of the best things that's happened as far as police are concerned, Irene thought. ... Per Lindström would need to wear a burka if he didn't want anyone to see his artwork.
PROTECTED BY THE SHADOWS is the ninth in this series that Soho Crime has brought to the United States. I like Marlaine Delargy's translation work -- smooth reading with just a hint of the awkwardness that sliding from one language and culture to another can insert, and in this case it adds to the sense of being transported to Scandinavia. Swedish and Finnish cultural insight add up in Tursten's books, and it's worth reading her entire series. But jumping into this ninth title "cold" is very workable -- Tursten carries the story forward skillfully. It's soon clear why Huss's husband refuses to share his dangerous secret with his police officer wife (although as a reader of all of the series, I think Huss's own backstory could have come into this one more vividly and raised the tension).

Watch for some insight into Sweden's experience of Muslim immigration, too. Ah, the benefits of reading well-written crime fiction! (Thanks again, Soho Crime, for keeping so many "foreign" investigations coming steadily across the Atlantic. Global crimesolving, for sure.) I look forward to more in the series from Tursten, whose entry into the field came after a career in medicine. Good move.

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

Backstory #2: Criminal Masterminds Cut Loose in SIGNAL LOSS, by Australian Author Garry Disher

Garry Disher lives on Australia's Mornington Peninsula, southeast of Melbourne, and his Challis and Destry police procedural series often takes place right there. The seventh book in the series, SIGNAL LOSS, came out in late 2016 in Australia, reaching American readers via Soho Crime in late November. Now that the holiday season is wrapping up, it's a great time to treat yourself to a copy of this well-written and lively traditional crime investigation -- with the wry, dark twists of humor that are particularly Disher's own.

The book opens with an intro that could have come from that classic wisecracking mystery master, Donald E. Westlake himself:
Lovelock and Pym. They sounded like some kind of show-business duo -- magicians, maybe; folk singers.

In fact they worked for Hector Kaye, who used to run the Finks out of Kings Cross. That was before he set up as a legitimate businessman and started importing crystal meth from China. They didn't come cheap, Lovelock and Pym. Kaye paid them well and he'd bought them each a house and a car in the past year.
When the pair tackle a murder-for-hire and get overly ambitious, though, their fumbles turn deadly for more than just the intended victim. Add to this chaos the more dangerous threat of an Australian bush fire, and "mistakes are made." The kinds of mistakes that, for investigating Inspector Hal Challis, crack open the past conflicts of a crime ring and turn a small case into major impact.

Meanwhile, Challis's lover Sergeant Ellen Destry -- recently made the head of her department's sex crime unit -- realizes her own investigations are revealing a serial rapist with more skills than most. She and her team tug at each loose thread, working the details until they develop into solid leads. But Destry's distracted at times by another ambitious woman in the force, Sergeant Coolidge (Destry names her Sergeant Cleavage at one point!), who's trying to lure Hal out of Ellen's circuit.
They looked at each other, faintly challenging, bringing back old academy memories to Ellen but probably nothing at all to Coolidge.

"Haven't seen you for ages. You're sex crimes now," Coolidge said, as if that were a side path to nowhere in policing terms.

"And you're drugs," Ellen said.

Coolidge gave her a slow-burning smile and Ellen wondered at the intent: to tease me, unsettle me. She returned the smile, a quick hard nastiness in it, and opened the door of the car. "Good luck," she said and got in and drove out of there. Not much of a victory -- not much of anything -- but why get bogged down fighting the woman? 
As it turns out, Hal is the one who'll get bogged down by Coolidge's interference, but that's jumping a ahead some. Pick up this fast-paced investigation and you'll get the details quickly, because even though it would be great to have a Disher crime novel last a long time, the tension pushed the page turning. In fact, clear the schedule if you can -- here's your winter vacation between the covers in a 345-page "Down Under" romp through twinned cases that are hard to control, and incredibly satisfying to solve.

This is Disher's more accessible, easy-to-enjoy series (read chapter 1 here if you like); his other is the Wyatt series, darkly reminiscent of the Dexter mysteries yet somehow likeable (but, please note, very very dark). He also offers occasional stand-alones and "young adult" (YA) books, which Soho Crime doesn't yet bring across. Check the Soho website for the American releases of Disher's books. So far, I've appreciated all of them (Disher reviews here).

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

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Backstory #1: How Caitlin Strong Grew Into Texas Ranger Overkill, in STRONG TO THE BONE, Jon Land

It's not a spoiler to look at the Author's Note in the back of the newest Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger thriller from Jon Land. Setting STRONG TO THE BONE into context, Land wrote, "Strong to the Bone started with me wanting to challenge Caitlin as I'd never challenged her before. Provide a deep look into a part of her psyche I'd never previously explored."

With that decision, Land provided fresh depth to his series character, a Texas Ranger who's a lone female in her field much of the time in modern-day Texas -- and whose "nature and nurture" both come from her father, grandfather, and more, riding for justice and crime control in the Lone Star state.

Land's unusual format for his Caitlin Strong books involves flashing alternate glances into the past stories of the other Texas Rangers in the family. This time it's Earl Strong, who missed out on the armed forces in World War II only to find himself confronting the very dangerous J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, over a murder case at a prisoner-of-war camp ... a murder involving Germans who have complex backgrounds and motives.
Darkness fell without any of the first responders emerging from the complex.

"What did the Rangers do for excitement back in the day before we had terrorists?" Caitlin asked D. W. Tepper.

"You mean besides hunting dinosaurs? Well, we did have the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and John Wesley Hardin to deal with. And your grandpa, he even went up against the Nazis."

"Earl Strong spent time in Europe?" Caitlin asked, trying to reconcoile the apparent discrepancy with what she know of her grandfather's history.

"Nope, he went up against them right here in Texas ..."
At the same time, Caitlin's life partner Cort Wesley Masters is tangling with a case that looks independent of Caitlin's -- one that jeopardizes the safety of his risk-taking younger son. The couple's powerful and spirit-swept ally Guillermo Paz sweeps into action to protect both generations. And suddenly bullets are flying (no surprise to series readers!).

What makes STRONG TO THE BONE different from earlier titles in this series is that Caitlin's past, as probed here, is more personal than the preceding backstories of her Texas Ranger forebears have revealed: She's been overly violent for a long time, causing her superior officer, D. W. Tepper, to tear out his hair repeatedly, as Caitlin spirals from one round of violence into another. What's her trigger? Land must have written the book long before the hashtag #MeToo took over American news -- but it could have been Caitlin Strong's own battle cry.

STRONG TO THE BONE is a lively page-turner, crammed with action, suspense, and interlocked tales of courage and skilled investigation. Take the associated paranormal strands with some humor and enjoy the way they give bite to the conflict. I'm a fan of Guillermo Paz and his crazed spirit journeys here -- but every Caitlin Strong book also lures the reader to make a declaration on behalf of the historic and modern Texas Rangers, even to say (in another recent meme): I'm with Her.

[NB: Land's author website is usually out of date, but still fun to explore:]

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

Friday, December 01, 2017

Brief Mention: Nordic Noir from Kjell Ola Dahl, FAITHLESS

The Oslo, Norway, sleuthing mysteries by Kjell Ola Dahl are well known in Scandinavia -- there are 11 so far -- but had to wait for translation, and for Orenda Books to start bringing them across the Atlantic. FAITHLESS arrived in the U.S. in September, and provides a rewarding new direction in dark Scandinavian mysteries: a police procedural with depth of character and a wickedly dry sense of humor.

Inspector Frank Frølich, attending an engagement party for an old friend, discovers the new fiancée is a woman Frank had just arrested, then released, under a Norwegian legal function that allows someone to pay a fine for possession of illicit drugs at a personal use level. But that complication, which after all can be managed within careful polite manners, pales beside the next twist: the women, Veronika, soon becomes a murder victim. Is it a result of the arrest or the party or something else entirely?

Frølich's own past turns out to have some of the clues, a decidedly uncomfortable situation for the Oslo detective and his partner, Inspector Gunnarstranda. But the twists of plot get even more intense when their fellow detective Lena manipulates one of their colleagues, as well as stepping over the line toward baiting a dangerous criminal.

The translation by Don Bartlett (British) is smooth and well carried out; the scenes are short and sharp; and although the crimes involved are dark ones, and the settings more than a little spooky ("atmospheric" is another descriptor), the characters carry a force of will that makes it a pleasure to follow their investigations. I'm glad Orenda's brought this award-winning Norwegian author to our attention; I'll be watching for more of Dahl's work.

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Entertaining British Crime Fiction from Peter Lovesey, BEAU DEATH

American Thanksgiving is becoming a very long sort of holiday -- schools close early in the week or don't open at all, and turkey consumption only occupies one day of the break. On the other days, a good mystery is a worthwhile diversion. In the case of BEAU DEATH, now is the time to order for the December 5 release via Soho Crime; local stores and online ones can handle your order and make sure you get a first-day-of-release copy of this charming British mystery.

Fans of Peter Lovesey's "Peter Diamond Investigations" know they'll get more than plot, and more than the performance of Diamond and his police team in Bath -- they find a rich and satisfying feast of eccentric and sometimes sweet, sometimes dangerous, quintessential British figures. In BEAU DEATH, the discovery of a skeleton in a building being demolished leads Diamond into the small city's elegant past, when the flashy Beau Nash ruled the stylish crowd.

In fact, if Diamond's difficult supervisor Georgina Dallymore gets her highly political way, Diamond may need to don the traditional garb that members of the Beau Nash Society wear, in order to investigate possible victims as well as murderers. (And he won't exactly be armed.) As in so many others in this series, Diamond also faces all-in-the-arts pressure from his lover Paloma, and urgency from his rising investigator Ingeborg, each pushing him in another direction.

The first 75 pages is admittedly a bit slow and tame, as Diamond is "schooled" by the three women. But when Ingeborg lands the best blow, it brings both Diamond and the book back to traditional fast-paced and risky crimesolving. Diamond tunes in as Ingeborg points him back toward the scene of the murder they've uncovered:
"Under the rubble. Who knows what may be buried there? Is is still cordoned off?"

A chill of guilt went through him. He couldn't answer. He hadn't been back. He stood still, lost for words.

Ingeborg wasn't sparing him. "We don't have any idea who the killer of the man in the loft was except he used the place to hide the body. Chances are he lived there as a tenant. You can't live in a place without leaving traces of yourself. Who knows what might turn up if we do a dig? ... Aren't you listening, guv? I'm talking about the stuff he might have discarded. An empty cigarette packet, a lottery ticket, a teaspoon, a glove, a hairclip, a foreign coin. It helps build a picture of who was living there. I don't need to tell you this."

She was right. His mindset was all wrong. He'd given so much mental energy to learning about Beau bloody Nash that basic procedures had been neglected.
Murders multiply, but for potent reasons of his own, Diamond doesn't dare allow his boss to call in other officers. He'll have to push his team to new roles and new results.

Once the crimesolving got active, I had lots of fun with BEAU DEATH, chuckling at Peter Lovesey's dry humor and guessing ahead on what might be revealed in the next few pages. No nightmares from this one, no gruesome scenes, just a cheerful level of suspense and discovery. Some of it. of course, about Diamond himself.

Insulate your holiday season with books like this one, and things can stay in proportion. Some joy, some humor, and some long evenings visiting a classic British location in the hands of a master storyteller with more than 30 mysteries under his belt. Too many awards to Lovesey to even list them, but one of the more recent was a Lifetime Achievement award at Malice Domestic. BEAU DEATH arrives across the Atlantic thanks to Soho Crime, the international and exhilarating imprint of Soho Press.

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

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Vibrant New Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thriller from Timothy Hallinan, FOOLS' RIVER

There are a lot of great reasons to grab the new Bangkok-set thriller by Tim Hallinan. Readers of his Poke Rafferty series actually "need" this book ASAP, because the little family that Poke Rafferty loves and protects in corrupt and dangerous Bangkok has bonded to readers' hearts. How is Poke's pregnant wife doing? And the couple's brilliant bu wounded adopted-street-child daughter Miaow? What about Miaow's friends, whom we've also become attached to, seeing them through the half-incredulous amazement that Poke feels as he comes to appreciate, love, and yes, try to rescue them?

But if you're a stranger to this series, here are some other reasons: A chance to "see" Bangkok in its heartbreaking complexity (instead o of laughing at the pain the way John Burdett's books do). A willingness to meet and care about complex characters in the midst of very human and very dangerous stresses. Eagerness to see how a skilled author who can blend suspense and attachment on a single palette will craft the necessary (and terrifying) twists of a page-turner.

Poke's attention is mostly on his pregnant wife right now -- the couple hadn't expected to add a child to the already complicated and tender household they've formed. So it takes sserious persuasion from Miaow to have him look into the disappearance of the dad of Miaow's almost-boyfriend Edward. Once Poke tunes in to the crisis, he's quick to see a pattern -- one that means Edward's dad has a very short life ahead of him, if indeed he's still alive somewhere in the crowded city.

Don't worry about the title, FOOLS' RIVER. It's almost irrelevant, part of a different layer of suspense. Attention belongs most of all with Poke in his urgent search for the totally immoral scam artists and killers who have Edward's dad. And with the power of a 48-hour deadline, Hallinan packs the action and danger, page after page.

Don't try to do anything else. This is what a truly fine thriller is for: to let you, force you, to ignore the rest of your life and accept that all the love that needs saving, all the life that matters, is in the next chapter. Yes, the book really just covers 48 hours -- so hang in there for the next in the series. [Too bad the author and publisher, Soho, can only produce one per year ... but this year at least, there's an extra helping of Hallinan's Bangkok adventures in a compact and haunting tale included in Soho's holiday special, The Usual Santas, about two Bangkok street kids with a significant set of discoveries at the holiday season. I can't get it out of my thoughts ... or do I men, heart?]

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

Top-Notch British Thriller from L V Hay, THE OTHER TWIN

THE OTHER TWIN is a true breakthrough book: a thriller so intricate and compelling that it leaps away from previous books by the same author, into new and dangerous terrain. Presented as a "debut thriller" by Orenda Books, it hit the shelves a week ago. The author was previously known as Lucy V Hay -- but it makes good sense to see her writing drastically shifted in this new book. And the androgynous "L V" name also fits, in an entirely different way.

The book opens with an ominous scene of emotional abuse, quickly flashing instead to Poppy, a young woman way over her head in drinking and casual sex, trying to pull herself together after an all-night binge and the "mother of all hangovers," so to speak. Hers in the voice that gives us most of the story in THE OTHER TWIN. She has a past crammed with love and loss at the seacoast city of Brighton that she walked away from a year earlier, and her party life (not really balanced by her other-city job) is this cover for confused regrets and pain. Chapter by chapter, she faces the complicated mess of her past, propelled by what takes her "home again" at the start of the action: the supposed suicide-by-jumping of her younger sister India.

But there's a second voice that whispers to us periodically -- perhaps a killer's words and contorted emotions, as he enacts the twisted reality of "She Who Must Be Obeyed." Hay's mastery of suspense is echoed in the eerie sense of evil and manipulation that oozes from these scenes. Can Poppy, searching for the truths behind her sister's death, escape the seeping and vicious mind that's calling the plays around her?

The book walks an interesting knife edge of noir and violence: Much of the cruelty exerted by the shadowy perpetrators is so indirect, so disguised, that it never quite crosses into being graphic -- but the horror is even more haunting in this form.

Expect twists all the way through, and a final one that's as painful as being knocked over on a cement surface -- everybody bleeds from the heart, and as the powerful resolution arrives, it's clear there will be no escape from hurt. But maybe, maybe, there can be some escape from being hopelessly lost in a net of deceit.

Well worth reading. Yes, the title points to some meaning in the story -- but not what you might expect. And it's a stand-alone, at least so far, so there's no need to dig into Hay's earlier work -- which you can scan if you like at her (somewhat difficult to navigate) website. This title comes via Orenda Books, where the list of really fine mysteries is becoming impressive.

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Charming Holiday Mystery in Maine from Lea Wait, THREAD THE HALLS

Maine author Lea Wait's newest "Mainely Needlepoint Mystery" is a true charmer, packed with seasonal and Maine-winter details, as well as the sweetly developing romance between Angie Curtis -- once a private investigator of the gritty sort out West, and now "back home" in a New England seaside village -- and Patrick West.

Patrick, whose hands were badly burned in an earlier title in the series, is about to celebrate his first New England traditional Christmas with Angie, when his famous film actress mother Skye West announces she'll be on set with them, so to speak -- along with her co-star, screenwriter, and more, from a film she's been working on in Europe that's rumored to have major problems. Toss that dream of an intimate lovers' holiday out the (frosty) window!

Soon Angie is also tugged into the famous family's last-minute decorating and feasting plans. Top this off with a rush needlepoint assignment that engages all the members of the collaborative she's been developing. Good thing there's some mistletoe available to prompt a kiss. But on the other hand, discovering a dead body in the snowy field behind the movie star's mansion seems unlikely to endear Angie to anyone -- not even the local police, who have their own reasons for mixed feelings about the half-pro, half-amateur sleuth that Angie is becoming.

Wait's Mainely Needlepoint series, much like her earlier "Shadows" one, includes chapter-opening tags describing antique needlepoint samplers and their creators, which adds a special pleasure to her books. In addition, she's in her glory when piling holiday details into a story -- this time, including the arrival of Santa Claus (and a moose!) on a boat in the small town's harbor. (There's a recipe at the end, too -- mmm.)

The book is neatly layered with tensions and suspense. And if Angie doesn't seem like she's doing much active sleuthing this time (the discovery of the murderer isn't really from her efforts), well, she's got her hands full trying to defend herself in a lot of directions! Wait's own track record promises a happy ending, but there seem no guarantees until the final few pages. As a result, this is a snow-sprinkled, holly-merry, twinkling page-turner of a mystery. I enjoyed every twist, and the book's comforting feel of community support will move it onto several of my gift lists for this holiday season.

No need to read the previous five titles in this series before THREAD THE HALLS. But they do add depth to Angie in particular, so it will be fun to gather them and have a good holiday reading binge. Candy-cane-stirred cocoa and sugar cookies optional (or dangerous, depending on which chapter you're reading!).

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Boston Noir With a Dangerous "Backbeat" in Clea Simon's WORLD ENOUGH

She's quietly brought us four different semi-mystical cat and amateur sleuth mystery series over the past decade -- and some edgy nonfiction before that. Now Boston author Clea Simon lets her inner rock 'n roller out of the back room and rips into a dark and compelling murder mystery of Boston's music nightlife in WORLD ENOUGH, due to release on November 1.

The book roots in Simon's own passion for rock 'n roll and the feisty bands that brought original rock to "the scene." She's been a denizen of that world herself -- check out her moody and detailed article from this past summer, reviving memories of the Kenmore Square nightclub called the Rathskeller, better known as "the Rat":
When R.E.M. wanted to play a club, the night after headlining a show at Harvard, they dropped in on the Rat. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in town for a gig at the Harvard Square Theater in 1977 and wanted to hear some music, they hung out there. Although the club’s reputation had declined before its 1997 closing, by then the grungy music room had hosted the likes of The Police, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Joan Jett, Husker Du, Metallica, and a thousand local bands — including some, like The Cars, that would go on to worldwide fame. [Read the whole article here.]
Tara Winton's on a nostalgia trip of sorts, when she hangs out in a local club to hear a music group from the old days, the Whirled Shakers. Their music "still gets her going," even though she knows she's part of an aging group of fans who miss the old locales that have long since become condos, parking garages, the new city where youth and love flourish. The groupies may still own leather jackets, but their hair's gone gray and they look, hmm, kind of out of shape if they get up to dance. There's a long route back to the good old days, but the passage is one way only and Tara is grieving.

Soon there's more than just the "scene" to mourn -- one of the musicians, Frank, is dead, supposedly some strange form of suicide, and Tara needs to attend the funeral. Reflecting on the crowd that still shares these moments of her life, Tara has to admit: "We're sickly. We have fewer successful marriages and happy families. Too many of us have died."

But it's just a matter of bad luck, isn't it? Like Frank's death?

Maybe not. And when Tara accepts a journalistic assignment to retrace the old bands and track down the players -- both the musicians and the most vital of their groupies -- she begins to realize she's missed a lot of signals over the years. Things were never as safe or loving as she wanted to believe. Even her own ex-husband is pulling away from her friendship now, leaving her newly vulnerable as she pries apart the old frictions and competitions, to find out what's now going on around her.

Simon's murderous imagination, honed over years of having her mysteries creep further and further to the dark side, gives us Tara's believable naiveté and frustrated persistence. She also paints in vivid color the sense of the really hot music as a group grows into its own legend, as well as the abrupt emergence of a star:
Chris Crack -- the name stuck, despite its affectation -- didn't enter so much as pounce. A glad rock throwback in a woman's eyelet blouse two sizes too small, he leapt onstage, grabbed the mic stand and swung it -- narrowly missing Jerry -- before opening his mouth for a caterwaul that had Nieve at the bar looking up, open-mouthed. Dropping from the falsetto scream into a rough baritone, he delivered the lyrics of the Aught Nine oldie -- "Beer for Fools" -- as if it were the gospel. And when he tore into a new song -- Tara, at least, had never heard it -- he pushed back into that falsetto, letting it fade away into something as soft as a lover's sigh,

By the end of the set, he had lost the shirt, and under its sheen of sweat, his pale torso glistened. He looked like what he was fated to become: a rock star. And all five people who heard him that night knew it.
Tara's search for the truth of both the rock 'n roll past and her present conflicts takes her down dark paths in rough company. And the answers turn out to have everything to do with how human we all are ... and how the backbeat can seize us and turn us into wild ones, even now.

The publisher is Severn House; the book's available for pre-order now, and since Severn House doesn't have huge first printings, a pre-order might be wise for collectors. Simon's mid-air twist into this sharp-clawed noir is well worth reading, and I hope is the first of more to come.

Oh, and if you don't know the source of the title ... try looking up "world enough and time" in your search bar (smile).

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

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Story Collections to Savor, John Sandford, Soho Crime, D. P. Lyle

There's something about the on-rushing holiday season that makes a good collection of short stories especially welcome -- a way to grab some entertainment in a small pocket of time, a chance to savor the compact and intense writing of an already favorite author or sample an unfamiliar one, and at its best, a way to place the heavy demands of the American end-of-year culture back into perspective.

So I'm delighted to have three interesting collections to describe. I hope you'll take advantage of the season and dip in.

First -- because the editor is among the top crime fiction authors of our time, and because his introduction is so significant -- consider THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2017, edited by the inimitable John Sandford. Author of some 40 novels, best known for his "Prey" series (it started with Rules of Prey about 1989), Sandford also has a gift few authors can boast: He can write compellingly ABOUT writing. Here, from his introduction, are some guidelines for the ideal short story:
The story must be tight and well written; a novel can take a few fumbles without much damage, but a short story really suffers from them.

The opening must be catchy and quick and set a mood -- the story should be rolling with the first line. No space here for the dark and stormy night. ... [He quotes from a story by C. J. Box.]

Scene-setting should be integral to the story, part of the fabric rather than long blocks of exposition. The scene-setting ideally should contribute to the mood and texture of the story. [This, he illustrates with a PI -- that is, private investigator -- story from Charles John Harper.]

Now, we get to character. The physical description of the characters is critical, and what the reader sees in this physical description should tell us much about the character's personality. There's a reason for that: it creates an immediate image in the reader's mind, so that laborious explication isn't necessary [Fedora, double-breasted suit, smoking Lucky Stroke Green? Or an excerpt from Dan Bevacqua's story of a thin man with an orange beard and a tattoo over each eyebrow.]

And finally: there has to be some resolution. You can't just end a short story; you have to wind it up. 
Sandford's picks for the collection -- drawn from a larger pool provided by Otto Penzler -- also include stories by Jeffrey Deaver, Brendan DuBois, Loren Estleman, Craig Johnson, William Kent Krueger, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others. They are all over the map (and timeline), and they demonstrate the many delicious flavors of suspense, risk, complexity, and satisfaction that a mystery story can best serve up. Yumm.

Should you happen to be frustrated by today's phrases that carefully edge around the religious roots of year-end festivals, here's balm for your wounds: THE USUAL SANTAS, a bluntly Christmas-focused collection from the always inspiring Soho Crime unit of Soho Press, with an introduction by British crime fiction leader Peter Lovesey. Lovesey's intro chants gleefully the wide range of mystery types included here: from cyber criminals to Sherlock Holmes, and from dark noir to tender kindness to deep mysteries of life and death (including a ghost story).

If you're already savoring some of the Soho Crime authors, this collection is like a dessert buffet. Recognize any of these names? Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Martin Limón, Timothy Hallinan, Teresa Dovalpage, Mette Ivie Harrison, Colin Cotterill, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Ted Goldberg, Henry Chang, James R. Benn, Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis, Sujita Massey, Gary Corby, Cara Black, Stephanie Barron, and of course Lovesey himself ... I was drooling just from the Contents page, mentally rehearsing the locations from Thailand to Chinatown, England and Ireland, Utah, Scandinavia ... and timelines that include Ancient Greece as well as World War II.

I haven't yet reviewed Sujita Massey -- her first Soho Crime book comes out soon though, so I will -- and I was briefly stumped by Teresa Dovalpage, a Cuban writer whose first Soho book wasn't crime fiction. But in 2018 the press brings out her first mystery, featuring the characters introduced here, a great chance to taste the work ahead of time.

Don't expect me to say my favorites; there is still time to re-read the collection in the holiday mode, and I will probably change my mind at least twice more. Every one of these stories is worth multiple readings. I might have to give several copies as gifts!

Last in this group is a collection that's not intended to be mystery/crime fiction, but happens to be edited by -- with a story by -- an expert teacher in the field, D. P. Lyle. The books is called IT'S ALL IN THE STORY -- CALIFORNIA and is an "anthology of short fiction" from the Southern California Writers Association. The level of work is uneven, but it's interesting to see the wide range of approaches among this gathering of Golden State scribblers. It's not a pick for crime fiction readers (unless you are a "completist" in terms of Lyle). But if you have a Golden State itch, this will provide a good scratch, with appearances by William Randolph Hearst and by San Francisco's Russian immigrants, as well as mention of San Jan Capistrano. And of course the gold rush!

Wishing you many moments to read in the upcoming months. It will surely add some spice -- and suspense! -- to the season's special treats.

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

Monday, October 09, 2017

A Delightful 1930s Mystery from Cheryl Honigford, HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS

What fun to have a second mystery in the "Viv and Charlie" series from Chicago author Cheryl Honigford! I loved her first, The Darkness Knows (an irresistible radio drama mystery with hints of the old radio series "The Shadow"), and HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS is every bit as delicious -- a quick-paced amateur sleuth tale of the cash-strapped 1930s.

Vivian Witchell, a rising star in radio drama in the Windy City, has her eye on keeping the job she loves, no matter the pressure from home to step back into a more traditional woman's role, or the competition in the broadcasting studio, where flirtation is both a skill and a weapon. But at home, things have become complicated, and a discovery of both a hidden key and a wad of cash, with a threatening note, also threatens to undo the rosy glow Viv holds around her deceased father's life.

Fortunately, she's got a pro on her side: private detective Charlie Haverman. But that connection is also tangled with romance and passion, which Viv actually is supposed to be focusing entirely at her work relationship, where the radio drama says she's madly in love. Yep, it's complicated.

When her best friend Imogene casts doubt on Vivian's agonizing, it's tempting to call off the hunt and go out for a holiday hot chocolate instead.
Vivian frowned. She knew Imogene was right. Nothing she found in that drawer could possibly have any bearing on the present day. Still, something pricked at her conscience. Something about that envelope of money was wrong. The fact that her father had hidden the key to his own desk drawer was wrong.
Even worse, though, are the doubts that Charlie shares about Vivian's dad -- and soon she's in much hotter water, dreading a possible connection to the past crimes of Al Capone himself ... and whoever is running his operations now.

Every page of this madcap mystery has a fresh twist, and the frank urgency of Vivian's passion for Charlie adds a lively spice to the action. I had a ball reading the book -- even though I dread thinking of those Big Holidays cruising toward us already!

Well, if we can make the best of New Year's Eve the way Vivian finally does ... let's jazz it up! (Oh, you won't need to read the two titles in order. Set aside a shelf for the series, though, because I bet it will keep on rolling with great success.)

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

New Texas Ranger Mystery Series from J M Gulvin, THE LONG COUNT

US cover
The name J M Gulvin won't be familiar even to readers of this British/American author's long series of previous books, because it's a new pen name -- earlier titles came out from "Jeff Gulvin" and the pseudonym "Adam Armstrong."

Hard to say whether this newest nom de plume is intended to sound like Texas. In fact, the toughest part about THE LONG COUNT, a debut in a Texas Ranger series, is that almost nothing in the book "sounds like" the Lone Star State. And for a region with such distinctive language, that's quite a drawback in a novel set there.

On the other hand, there's plenty of Southern in the book, where Ranger John Quarrie (careful, don't confuse this with Quarry, a creation of Max Allan Collins) is struggling to keep up with the work load during student protests during the Vietnam War. Quarrie's tangled connection with a recently returned Nam veteran, Isaac Bowen, takes him dashing along back roads and sometimes all the way past the Texas border to Louisiana. What's the story behind Isaac's father's death -- and is it suicide (which John Quarrie doubts) or murder? Where is Isaac's missing brother Ishmael? Why do the members of this devastated family have ties to a high-security asylum for the criminally insane?

It took me a while to get into THE LONG COUNT because of the lack of Texas feel to it. But I finally found Quarrie -- or John Q, as he is also known -- such an interesting detective that I fell into the story after all. Quarrie's friendships and unusual extended family, including his young son, are especially intriguing. So is the rich language with which Gulvin piles details into the scenes:
Quarrie approached the house along the overgrown footpath with a flashlight the chief had retrieved from the truck. The stoop was cut from rough-looking wood and two of the steps were rotten, the edges turned to mush. He picked up a scraping of mud that seemed to have been deposited at an odd angle. Coasting the beam from the flashlight across the grass he saw where it was flattened in places and that was not due to the rain. Moving away from the stoop he looked more deeply and shone the torch on the turned earth under the window.
You can see from that sample that Gulvin's Britishisms haven't been fully pruned out. It makes for some odd descriptions, with a bit of a strange rhythm to the prose. But the plot twists are smart and dark, and the book is still a good read.

Besides, I love getting in on the first book of a series -- it's exciting to wonder how the author will grow with the characters in the titles yet to come!

THE LONG COUNT -- the title refers in one sense to going underwater and holding your breath -- is brought to American readers by Faber and Faber, and comes recommended by the magnificent Ann Cleeves. Keep your expectations modest, and enjoy the ride.

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

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brief Mention: THE FURY, John Farris, Classic Crime and Horror Fiction Re-Released by Chicago Review Press

Film buffs may be far more familiar than I was with THE FURY, released in the horror genre in 1978 (a Brian De Palma film). The recent release of this book in softcover by the independent Chicago Review Press gives an exciting way to see the original book and how John Farris, known for his contemporary horror, handled the plot some 40 years ago.

Today's fiction has surged past the premise of THE FURY in many ways -- it's not at all surprising to find that a CIA agent (Peter Sandza) needs to seek out his government-kidnapped exceptional son Robin. And the paired plot line with a mega-wealthy family's daughter, Gillian Bellaver, sharing some of Robin's unusual psychic gifts (and perhaps a psychic bond?) is not unusual, either.

But without the frills and imagery of the silver screen, it's fascinating to watch the author lay out these two young lives as the ordinary and familiar unravels. I didn't find it as chilling as the film surely was in 1978. But I couldn't put it down, either. And seeing the book as prelude to today's masters of the paranormal crime mystery (like John Connolly) is irresistible.

For insight into how the horror genre developed and for a fascinating look at the written precursor to the noted film, THE FURY is well worth picking up and ... dare I say, enjoying? (Oh, don't let the rather basic cover deter you. It's irrelevant to the work.)

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

Crime-Solving in the Korean DMZ (and Beyond) for Sueño and Bascom in THE NINE-TAILED FOX, Martin Limón

Soho Crime continues to bring remarkable international crime fiction to American readers -- and one of most enjoyable of the current series is the one from former military pro Martin Limón. Limón writes from his decade spent in Korea, with the complex mixture of love and despair that a friend of this small-but-fierce nation can easily develop. And his investigators from the US Army's military police in the 1970s, sergeants Ernie Bascom and George Sueño, operate from that same complicated standpoint: wanting to make things work out well for the Koreans around them who are so often misunderstood by the American forces, and pressed to a timeline of "solve this and get back to base" -- while also resisting the dangerous partnership with the Korean National Police that they've entered over the past few titles in the series.

There are already a dozen books before this just-released title, THE NINE-TAILED FOX, and I'm such a fan of these well-written crime novels that I suggest reading them all. But you don't need to have followed the series before plunging into this one. For one thing, Limón is a strong author who engages readers in both character and plot twists, without depending on prior knowledge; for another, it appears from the slightly uneven "explaininess" of the first few chapters that someone decided to make sure there were extra paragraphs to bring people into the situation. After all, Army life isn't simple, and neither was the Korean assistance in the 1970s, a presence by American forces that the Asian nation desired in order to hold back the Chinese, but also in some senses an Occupation operating from a narrow set of prejudices and military logic.

This time, George and Ernie -- the only ones on their base who seem able to navigate the streets of Seoul successfully -- are thrust into investigating three missing servicemen, in three different locations. The pressure's nonstop, from their superior officers (solve it, clean it up), from the Korean officer they've nicknamed "Mr. Kill" who's going to take things into his own hands soon, and of course from the sense of obligation these investigators feel when they witness murder and the associated local pressures of organized crime and prostitution.

The title refers to a Korean fairy tale of a sexually devouring woman called "the nine-tailed fox" -- or in Korean, the gumiho, a term that the investigators first hear described by others as a "gummy whore." (Their on-base informant, an eccentric pervert they've nicknamed "Strange," is quickly obsessed with this archetypal figure!) She appears to have lured each of the three missing men in some way, in order to kidnap them. But why? There are no ransom demands, no action that makes sense in American terms. Or Korean!

By the time Sueño and Bascom -- with dangerous assistance from Mr. Kill -- sort out what's really going on, they're in too deep to back out. But also too deep to keep themselves safe.

Let the awkward first few pages slide by, and follow the chase into the complicated crime and highly specific Korean negotiations that follow. This is a great page-turner, and at the same time a classic military-based mystery, packed with action and intrigue.

Oh yes, do get the rest of the series as soon as you can. I've rarely found a series with such diverse plots. And having a small taste of Korean culture in the past, I find the setting and motivations in Limón's books addicting, and the plots highly readable. Thanks to Soho Crime as well as the author, for keeping this one rolling.

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

Long Effects of Evil in BLOCK 46, Johana Gustawsson

US cover
Sometimes the movement of a good (or great) crime novel from Europe to the United States takes a while. Then again, some of them never come across the ocean. Still, the three-year transit for BLOCK 46 from French crime writer Johana Gustawsson was too long a wait for such a blockbuster of a novel.

UK cover
Like the generation-long effects of abuse and murder in the Irish "Troubles" so hauntingly portrayed by Stuart Neville, Gustawsson's terrain of Nazi terror creates people and events steeped in evil. But this author doesn't simplify in any sense -- while the serial killer in BLOCK 46 seems to reenact some trauma of Buchenwald's killings, the novel is told from three voices: his, and those of two women.

Emily Roy, a top-tier Canadian criminal profiler who works for the British police force, demands detailed support services and instant access to crime scenes and information. Considering that she's working on a killer who has already piled up three bodies in two nations when the book begins, she needs every crumb of information and insight possible.

Alexis Castells, a close friend of the first adult that the serial killer tackles, can't walk away from the murder of jewelry designer Linnéa, who at first is the lone victim in Sweden. Haunted by an earlier crime she's been unable to finalize emotionally, Alexis determines to tag along with Emily -- who, surprisingly, allows her into the pursuit process.

The book's three-voice construction is brilliantly balanced by Gustawsson. Her details of torment at Buchenwald -- the "camp" where her own grandfather suffered -- are acute and perceptive, but also rapidly exchanged for the more civilized scenes in London and Sweden as the investigation takes place. As reader, I found myself eager to return to Emily and Alexis and the assorted police officers they're teamed with. And yet after a few pages in their company, I was also ready to look again at the cold, bitter, twisted landscape and events in the concentration camp, wanting to know how (or whether) Erich Ebler, a medical student imprisoned and debased in the camp, was surviving.

BLOCK 46 was a huge hit in Europe; the author's website exposes interviews and background that fascinate almost as much as the book. Like this:
These places define me as a woman and writer: I'm not only Marseillaise and French, but I am also a Londoner and an aspiring Swede! I arrived in London in 2009, after seven years in Paris. At the time, I was a journalist, freelancing for French magazines. I immediately felt at home in this city of various villages steeped in history, great parks and ancient pubs, all mixed with a cosmopolitan culture that inspires you. Hampstead is my favourite part of town. It is truly a haven that feels just like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. As for Sweden, it was my husband who brought the Scandinavian influence to our family. He introduced me to the rough beauty of the west coast, the Nordic folklore and the divine  chokladbollar !
Well done, Orenda Books, in bringing this debut crime novel across "the Pond." I will be watching for the next installment.

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

Sunday, October 01, 2017

New Thriller from Paul E. Hardisty, RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD

The third in Paul E. Hardisty's Claymore ("Clay") Straker series, RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD, is now available, and it's a double whammy of a book: a South African soldier thriller set in the gory battles of 1971, coupled with Clay's 1996 effort to clean up his past by testifying to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both carry their own freight of terror -- and appalling risk.

Deepening the plot are Clay's deep and desperate love affairs -- one that builds during his efforts to untangle the corruption and possible biowarfare experiments during 1971 (at what point should loyalty to brother officers be tested against moral and ethical horror?), and another that continues in 1996 in his effort to merit the love of a woman we've met with him in the two preceding books in the series, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, which was short-listed for the 2015 John Creasey "New Blood" dagger from the Crime Writers Association (CWA), and The Evolution of Fear.

RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD -- and how can one read the title without also hearing an echo of "Requiem for the Dead"? -- can be read without the preceding books. In fact, its attachments to them barely affect this newest book, except for reinforcing Clay's motivation to give his testimony. The new title is a compulsive page-turner. Clay's earliest experiences of doubt toward the men he fights with -- his brothers in war, and the officer who in most ways is his father -- build ferociously through firefights and danger. The occasional glimpses of his future, layered into the story, give the reader confidence that in some form, Clay will survive. But the degree to which he'll compromise his integrity is in doubt at all moments, as he finds himself caught up in brutal experiments that reflect especially the racism of his country and his time.

I mostly raced through the book, eager to discover how Clay would confront his present and past, and to explore the dangerous terrain (human and geographic) of this thriller. Somehow, though, the whole time, I thought the biowarfare aspect would turn out to be fictional. So there was added shock and horror to learn in the author note that Hardisty based Clay's quandary on a real episode in the machinations of the South African apartheid government in 1981. Guess it just goes to show that truth can indeed be as dreadful and terrifying as fiction ...

Lee Child readers, espionage fans, and those savoring the new opportunities of this decade to enjoy global crime fiction will appreciate RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD. I expect to read it again, for the pleasure of this skilled author's layered plotting that tests the human heart and soul along with the capacity to navigate a battlefield and a crime. Highly recommended -- but leave time for this one, because it's worth savoring. And the powerfully drawn scenes and conflicts linger in my mind. Perhaps they will in yours, too.

All three titles are from Orenda Books.

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Scandinavian Mystery, New from Vidar Sundstøl, THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING

If you started your Scandinavian crime fiction with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series, Vidar Sundstøl's mystery novels, deep and layered and rich with character, may provide a very different approach to Norway's singular history and culture. The latest from this award-winning author -- winner of the prestigious Riverton Prize for the Best Norwegian Crime Novel -- feels at first like a traditional "retired police officer" investigation. Max Fjellanger's odd compulsion to attend the funeral of fellow police officer he hasn't seen in more than 30 years, takes him to Eidsborg, a village noted for its impressive "stave church." And now it's also the source of an enduring disquiet that haunts Max and may have resulted in three untimely deaths. That is, in murder.

But can Max prove the interrelationship of the deaths, spread as they are by time, profession, gender? What ties them together has something to do with the church and a family of local sheriffs. And most of all with a haunting carved "saint" or possible ancient idol that sits in the church and has links to the village's ancient pre-Christian past.

The layering of such diverse forms of mystery -- those of vindictive or punitive death, possible suicide, cheating lovers, mystic beliefs, and family traditions of danger and threat -- is key to Sundstøl's writing. Fortunately for American readers, the University of Minnesota opted to publish over the past few years his Minnesota Trilogy: The Land of Dreams; Only the Dead; The Ravens. The dark human evil present in those volumes brings the same shudders as the classic story "The Most Dangerous Game" -- crossed with the suspense of Edgar Allen Poe. In fact, the middle volume Only the Dead may be the strongest and darkest full-length novel ever of hunting gone mad, and I plan to re-read all three books periodically, to recall how complex and probing a crime novel can become.

The press connection with the Sundstøl novels (with skilled translator Tiina Nunnally) is clear in the Minnesota Trilogy, which links crimes in that wild American landscape and its earliest inhabitants, with the lives of Norwegians who arrived as settlers, prepared to displace Native peoples by force as needed, forging their own connection with the Minnesota landscape.

It's less obvious how THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING fits the press, except that clearly there is a heartfelt connection between Minnesota and Norway -- and Sundstøl sweeps sideways into that relationship through Max Fjellanger, whose confused defeat as a young law enforcement officer in Eidsborg led to his emigration from Scandinavia, to the United States. The bittersweet pain of a loving but childless marriage there and the death of his beloved wife carries Max into an impulsive trip to his "birth country" where the losses of his adult life began.

The book's title refers to a space in the wildest segment of the hillside adjoining Eidsborg's famous and ancient church, a space where it is claimed that "the devil" once dropped his wedding ring -- causing nothing to be able to grow again where the ring had landed.

In the community life as Max explores it, however, that location in the woods may have something to do with sustaining a dark and mystic practice that has more to do with primitive roots than with community as Max finds it today. University librarian Tirill Vesterli, eager to put her dream of becoming a detective in motion, soon links up with Max while supporting his research, with Max quickly realizing he has a valued new colleague in his risky investigation:
Possibly a little eccentric, but definitely compos mentis. And clearly sharp-witted.

"Do you have any idea what you might be getting involved in?" he asked.

She nodded eagerly.

"Then why are you doing this?"

"Because the truth is out there, even though we can't see it."

Max Fjellanger leaned back and took a sip of his white wine. That was the right answer. The truth had always been his lodestar -- the thought that it was out there somewhere, no matter how difficult it might be to see. Precisely as Tirill had just said.
Max hears the story of the devil's wedding ring from a local criminal named Tellev Sustuglu, who claims he heard the tale himself in prison -- a tale that emphasizes that the past is not necessarily dead, and neither are some of the dark personalities who have shaped the criminal events that once took place, even a generation earlier. Or more.

Sustuglu wraps up his tale by saying, "And they say a place like that still exists in the woods above the Homme farm. I've never seen it personally but ... So maybe you'll understand now why I won't say anything against [former sheriff[ Jørgen Homme in public, even though he's been dead for years. That man was from another world."

Max's confusion over this statement of "facts of the case" grows more intense -- as does the risk of his life, and Tirill Vesterli's.

Sundstøl spins a well-wrought, intelligent, and intense modern mystery with archaic roots, and much to offer about the roots of crime itself. THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING gets a place on my "hold for reading again soon" shelf, with the books that enchant me because they also teach me about writing, about a really good story, and about how to comb out the complexities of the human spirit.

(And thank goodness for the University of Minnesota Press!)

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Powerful Trilogy by Tarn Richardson Concludes -- But Only in the UK So Far

Every now and then, a moment comes along when readers can make a huge difference in getting a good book published. This is one of them -- because the third volume of Tarn Richardson's stunning "The Darkest Hand Trilogy" has been published in the United Kingdom. But not yet in the United States. Overlook, the US publisher for the series, needs to see sales jump for the first and second books, and to hear from readers who want the third one NOW ... instead of in 2018, which is when the title is tentatively pushed back to, in the Overlook Press schedule.

Which of course immediately raises the question, why do you want these powerful World War I crime novels for your shelf, and how will Tarn Richardson's work pull readers into the desperate and dangerous adventures of rogue Catholic inquisitor Poldek Tacit?

Let's back up a bit -- to the three premises of the earlier volumes, The Damned and The Fallen. Poldek Tacit was raised by the Catholic Church to be one of its inquisitors, and that's premise number one: that the most powerful religious structure of modern history, one that still has its own city and its annointed God-listening leader, could have maintained a hidden force to fight evil and the inevitable corruptions of the faith that it brings: the Catholic Inquisition, a corps of dedicated trained experts in exorcising demons, battling Satanic forces, and preventing any earthly appearance of the AntiChrist.

Premise two, which calls for an almost equal suspension of disbelief -- or perhaps more realistically, for accepting an unusual metaphor for what a powerful church might bring into existence -- is that the church Poldek Tacit serves has created a dreadful half-caste of former humans that live in the dark places of the world and take the form of flesh-hungry werewolves. Starved and tormented though these half beasts may be, they still may have human emotions and loyalties. And Poldek finds himself in league with one such werewolf, Sandrine, whose loving loyalty toward a former soldier of the world war brings her into the fight against the surging evil in the world.

Premise three is the most outrageous, but the most compelling, despite its "paranormal" slant: that there might exist with the Catholic Church and among its priests and bishops a corps of power-hungry, devil-eager men, known as The Darkest Hand, determined to bring about the re-emergence of the AntiChrist, and thus the End Days of the World -- and that the otherwise irrational mass carnage taking place in the years of World War I, the Great War, is actually an intentional sacrifice of the innocent and brave, a killing spree intended as a worship effort toward the leader of the forces of evil.

If you've been reading the surging amount of World War I crime fiction (and literary fiction) being published, this leap of metaphor may begin to make astonishing and uncomfortable sense. How could we explain in any rational way how so many nations in Europe plunged into killing so many young men in such horrible ways? The "shell shock" that plagues Charles Todd's detective protagonist Ian Rutledge comes across as a probably very rational reaction to trench warfare, poison gases that made the act of breathing into a short path to death, and gruesome bayoneted killings where people walked or "swam" among body parts and their detritus, struggling to reach safety.

[Spoiler alert] At the end of the second volume, The Fallen, not only have we seen the forces of goodness fail and fall, but dark hero Poldek Tacit himself tumbles from the heights into certain death below -- we stagger with grief, along with his beloved Isabella and his close friends. Although Poldek has his own confusing inner spirits that shout evil to him, his actions are reliably those of a strong warrior for the good, and his loss is terrible.

But readers of the first two volumes won't be surprised when they meet Poldek again in the third, THE RISEN. As with the fall of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, we long to find a loophole to the contract with disaster. And although Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series remains dead in body after the sixth title, he's not the protagonist of the series -- it's Harry who must survive to the next book. Similarly, it's hard to picture a third volume here without Poldek in some form.

But like Graham Greene's whiskey priest, or even Le Carré's George Smiley, there are enormous flaws in Poldek Tacit. And the closer the series gets to an actual rising of the AntiChrist, the louder the invasion of Poldek's soul and mind becomes.

Meanwhile The Darkest Hand assembles its final plan. Javier Adansoni, within the Vatican, defines its reasoning:
"We have done what needed to be done. To persevere. To triumph. Ask yourself, would any other faith not do as we have done to ensure its continuance? Are we so different from other religions who try to enforce their creed upon others? No! We are simply better prepared and better provisioned for the task."
The group's members explain to each other how they have trapped and tormented Poldek Tacit over the years -- although they don't at first realize he may have survived their attacks.

Meanwhile, Tacit's re-entry into his own small counterattacking force of four people -- Tacit, Isabella, Sandrine, and Henry -- breathes some hope back into their effort. But first they need to figure out what the other forces in play are up to, especially those of the priest-turned-wolf Poré, who appears to be on the side of the Darkest Hand in some confusing way. Poldek Tacit begins to wrestle with the details:
But all he could say was, "I need more to go on. More than Seven Archangels!" And then he paused and said, "Unless ..."

"Unless what?" asked Henry, sitting forward, his eyebrows arched. He recognised the keen light in Tacit's dark eyes, a look always adopted when the Inquisitor had discovered a vital clue. He was pleased to see it. It meant that this feral distant man, the one who seemed so remote and indifferent to all they had told him, was now snagged by its mystery.
From here, THE RISEN becomes a race against the clock and against the forces of The Darkest Hand, as the team presses all its resources -- and recruits a few more -- into stopping the rituals and slaughter that are swiftly opening a portal to the End Times of the world.

The final stunning twist to the actions of evil makes a bitter sense out of another terrible aspect of the years 1917 and 1918. But for that, you'll need to read THE RISEN, which ends with an author note reminding us that "World War One was responsible for the deaths of 10,000,000 soldiers and 7,000,000 civilians and achieved no tangible benefits to mankind other than in the science of medicine. It resulted in the annihilation of an entire generation of young men, bankrupted nations ... eventually dragged the world into a second world war."

Is it outrageous to apply this to the times in which we live today? I think the fit is frightening, as our nation jockeys for dominance with another nuclear power, wrestles with the costs and pain of diversity, struggles to assert moral value during terrible choices. Tarn Richardson's series is a darned good read, jammed with suspense and the efforts that are required to remain humane during dark times. It is, painfully, more than fiction, I fear.

Now, to circle back to where this began: To get your third volume, THE RISEN, you have several options. You can, of course, spend extra funds to import a British copy. Or you can take direct action here: Make sure you've purchased -- and that Overlook knows you have -- the first two volumes of the trilogy. Then tell the publisher you want the third volume, THE RISEN, as soon as possible. Here's an e-mail for the press:

The Overlook website is and its Facebook page is here

Let's see what we can do to move THE RISEN onto US bookstore shelves -- and our own.

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Newly Released Father Anselm Mystery, A WHISPERED NAME, William Brodrick

Who are your favorite British mystery authors? Most readers will have one or two they quickly name. American readers may not yet have William Brodrick on their "short list" -- yet he won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger award in 2009 for his novel A Whispered Name and is noted for his Father Anselm series, in which a monk with a past as a lawyer (barrister in England) is sent by the Prior of Larkwood Priory to sort out crises that blend both crime and conscience.

 British readers, clearly, have already had access to A WHISPERED NAME -- now, thanks to Overlook Press, this title just arrived for U.S. access, released this week. If you haven't yet read one of the other Brodrick "amateur sleuth" novels featuring this Augustinian friar, it's still easy to slide into A WHISPERED NAME. Brodrick swiftly sketches in the boundaries and blessings of life at the Priory, including the unexpected assignment that Anselm has for working with beehives ... and then the inevitable out-of-Priory mission he gets, to resolve the blowback from a court martial that took place a generation earlier, in France.

In the process, Brodrick paints the grim reality of young, unformed men attempting to obey orders and fight what seems an endlessly losing battle across what was once a kind and cultured landscape. The particularly delicious twist to the plot here is that one of the priory's founding fathers, Herbert Moore, appears to have some responsibility for a wrongful death -- or at least one that should not have been allowed -- from a firing squad.

Brodrick reveals what took place through two timelines: Anselm's as he pursues the mostly hidden history and secrets of the long-ago court martial (some nice archival work here to admire, as well as emotional insight), and Herbert's as a young officer not skilled in reading the subtext of the court martial and plunged into agony by trying to do "the next right thing."

I found the narration a bit uneven at first -- as I felt with another Brodrick book, this seemed somewhat over-revised in early chapters -- but once the story began to flow, I was entranced, and by the ending, felt both satisfied and uplifted in a way that mystery novels rarely provide. 

A note for readers who've explored Chesterton's Father Brown mystery stories: Brodrick's Father Anselm is far more sophisticated than Father Brown, in ways of the world, issues of law, and the emotional and moral changes a person goes through in the processes of maturing and making a commitment to living in a dedicated community.

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


The Horror of Bullying, Violent Crime, in a Page-Turner from Eric Rickstad, THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS

As I write this, the final episode of a serial drama on the Unabomber, a mail-using terrorist whose bombs murdered innocent unconnected people over two decades, has just aired. It's clear that there are humans -- shudder -- who will use any means to exert power over others, whether to make a point or to watch the effects of threat, torture, and death on others. Crime fiction, I think, helps us to box this into a "story" so that we can set the knowledge aside and go on with our lives.

Into this comes this week's hot release, THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS, from Eric Rickstad. This award-winning author who lives in Vermont mines the forms of terror that can occur in small rural communities, weaving them across the lives of people who care deeply about keeping each other safe ... in this case, Detective Frank Rath, his colleague Detective Sonja Test, and Frank's niece, long his adopted daughter, Rachel. The release from prison of the murderer who killed Rachel's parents triggers a situation of danger and threat for Frank and Rachel, and only proof of the violent psychopath's continued crimes will gain any kind of peace of mind or safety for these valued members of their community.

Rickstad is a flawless storyteller and an expert at raising suspense through small images, sudden plot twists, and believable crises. In THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS another powerful thread is Rachel's now-adult awareness of what happened to her parents, as she obtains access to the file on their murders:
The profound and profane violence did not crush Rachel; the photo of her parents alive, beaming, coddling their swaddled baby between them, did. They were radiant. They were young. Scarcely older than Rachel. In their twenties.

Rachel forced herself to memorize the photos ... The images would never let her forget.
Macabre and slow revelations pile up for the characters that Rickstad paints so well. By the time the book's speeding toward its dark conclusion, there's no putting it down. Keep in mind, this is a sequel to The Silent Girls and the e-release Lie in Wait; also, a reminder for Vermont-familiar readers -- the place names are sort of random, not connected geographically with the actual named locations in Vermont, although heavily based on the Northeast Kingdom.

Don't miss the Author Note on this one -- because Rickstad reveals what started him on this track, with images I may never be able to forget, either.

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

Noir Crime Fiction from Tod Goldberg, GANGSTER NATION

I've always been tickled by those stories of really terrible criminals who set aside one part of their life in which to be nice -- even, to be generous, kind, loving. In some versions, I can hope the "good" part will gradually leach into the awful part and transform someone. Certainly that was one idea about Whitey Bulger during the long hunt for him and the discovery that he'd been living as someone's almost unnoticeable husband in a small ordinary-seeming retirement world. Real life, though, proved he hadn't changed underneath: still the brutal criminal who had no hesitation about killing, maiming, violating the social contract in the most violent ways.

Enter Rabbi David Cohen in GANGSTER NATION, the eagerly awaited sequel to Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg. There's no secret for readers about Rabbi David Cohen's original identity: He's a Chicago hitman named Sal Cupertine, who made one of the great escapes from capture, through plastic surgery and into a new life. Tenderly, Goldberg reveals the rabbi's attachment to his new life of attending committee meetings, listening to marriage problems, escorting families through their teen's bnei mitzvah processes and ceremonies. As he reflects on how uncomfortable he feels about solemnizing a marriage -- knowing that if his identity ever comes to light again, the married couple will feel unmarried and even besmirched -- it's tempting to wonder whether Sal has actually transformed, changed into a new person inside as well as outside.

Stop right there. Consider how this rabbi figures out how to get "Temple Beth Israel" through a tight funding period:
If someone missed two [tuition] payments, the Temple would start getting liens right away, none of that Fair Debt Reporting crap, the Temple getting every family to sign contracts allowing property liens, never mind the public shame aspect. Worst case scenario, David figured if someone had to accidentally get electrocuted at home to get their life insurance to pay the debt, well, then he'd go and f*** with their pool light. It hadn't come to that, thankfully, because the nice thing was that everyone was rich as f*** these days.
Count on a dark ride through this lively page-turner, and expect more than the usual share of violence (although not especially gory and without kiddie porn, thank goodness). Obviously there are plenty of grim chuckles too (especially if you've been part of an organized religion scenario), and a few heart-jerking moments of family love, distorted of course by gangster ethics.

Just released by Counterpoint, tightly written, and a good one to add to your noir shelf -- as well as any collection that favors Chicago or Las Vegas or Jewish dark fiction.

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

Saturday, September 09, 2017

New Mystery Series from Denise Swanson Starts with DEAD IN THE WATER

After 19 mysteries set in the fictional Illinois town of Scumble River, author Denise Swanson has started a new series (her third! and that's not counting her romances), "Welcome Back to Scumble River." A short author note to the first book in this new series, DEAD IN THE WATER, explains Swanson's reboot, in which she's moved her timeline to "now" and updated her protagonists, school psychologist Skye Denison-Boyd and her husband Wally Boyd, police chief of the bustling little town.

DEAD IN THE WATER opens with Skye very, very pregnant, and a storm arriving -- one that includes enough tornadoes to affect one-third of the state and, in its up close and personal form, to smash Skye and Wally's house (oh no, the nursery that's never even been used yet!). That's a lot of pressure for the couple. But Swanson is a pro at ramping up the stress and suspense, and soon there's much more to cope with beyond power outages and a vanished home: a Big Issue in Skye's pregnancy, a dead town councilman in the midst of tornado damage and flooding, and -- gulp -- a kidnapping.

I won't say more than that, for fear of giving away some of the twists that Swanson uses so cleverly. But one of the niftiest aspects of this "traditional" mystery (it's not really a cozy!) is who's doing the sleuthing: not Wally, but Skye herself. Swanson's deft storytelling includes plenty of complications from the couple's close relatives and extended family, as well as some humorous portraits of the less likeable characters in town. (Skye is not feeling very pacifistic as her pregnancy speeds along, so they'd better stay out of her way!)

Brace for a wild ride, a lot of fun, and adventures that are risky and intense (but not at that scary disturbed sort of level that makes you double-check that the front door's locked -- thank goodness!).

Long-time fans of Swanson's books will feel the love in every chapter, and their past experience with Scumble River will add to the details -- but for newcomers, there's plenty of detail to invite you in and have you feeling at home. This is a warm and entertaining mystery, lively and colorful, and perfect for weekend relaxing, but of course, not a very appropriate gift for friends going through hurricanes this season. Sigh. Stay safe, y'all. (Published by Sourcebooks Landmark.)

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

Crime Among the Magicians, in THE BLOOD CARD from Elly Griffiths

US cover
British author Elly Griffiths provides two entirely, vastly different series of crime fiction -- and whichever series I happen to be reading becomes the best at that moment for me! This skillful storyteller gets under the skin of her characters -- whether crime solvers, victims, or criminals -- and brings me directly into the scene, eager to explore and to test my own "readerly" sleuthing as the plot twist and the characters reveal themselves in good and evil.

Griffiths reaches number three in her "Magic Men Mysteries" with THE BLOOD CARD, released in America a few days ago. This satisfying "traditional mystery" series began with a set of World War II veterans whose connections to each other involved building a deceptive front to deter a Nazi attack during the war -- a group called the Magic Men for their work with illusion at that time -- and takes them into the strange postwar years of 1950s Britain, when bombed-out buildings filled the cities, food rationing continued for far longer than Americans might have guessed, and a shattered and shell-shocked nation began to rebuild.

In the Magic Men series, postwar rebuilding involves both returns to careers of "before," as master illusionist Max Mephisto has done in the music halls and other gritty urban venues around him, and attempts to carve out new paths forward: like Detective Inspector (DI) Edgar Stephens, who's hoping to soon marry Max Mephisto's recently discovered daughter, another illusionist or, as Americans are more likely to say, magician.

THE BLOOD CARD opens in 1953, with the English excitedly preparing for the royal coronation of Elizabeth II (yes, her reign began in '52, but the coronation came later). There will be a public holiday, mass gatherings, and -- most strangely for Max to contemplate -- people will watch the event on their new parlor devices called televisions.

To Max's amazement, his almost dying stage career suddenly gets a boost from an invitation to perform in a televised event as part of the coronation festivities. (It's his daughter Ruby who's suggested him for the show, a rather humbling situation.) Meanwhile DI Edgar Stephens can't pay much attention to his old friend Max, because he has the death of a local fortuneteller on his hands -- a death that's looking like murder, but very hard to investigate due to the closed community of Gypsy background to which the dead woman belonged.
UK cover

When Edgar's investigation doubles and crosses into Max's circle of stage illusionists, mesmerists, and such, there are startling common elements -- including the presence of a playing card known to magicians as the "blood card" (the ace of hearts) and a playbill for a stage performance from years ago -- the crime investigation takes on national importance. After all, the circumstances suggest a possible terrorist attack to coincide with the royal coronation!

Griffiths deftly raises little-known details of the performing world and England's postwar recovery, as well as the stresses of her characters, from Edgar's premarital strains to Max's struggles with aging in a young person's field, and to the heartache of one of Edgar's constables, Emma. Not everything will be resolved, either -- as the fortunetelling family in the book's foreground, the Zabini clan, could have told us from the start.

Grab a copy for the pleasure of reading a traditional British mystery with highly memorable characters, paced impeccably as Griffiths once again demonstrates crime-solving storytelling at its smoothest and best. Highly collectible -- you may in fact want both series, and thank goodness, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has brought them across "The Pond."

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