Sunday, February 26, 2017

Heads Up: Emelie Schepp, MARKED FOR REVENGE, and Bill Pronzini, THE VIOLATED

I won't be posting full reviews of these two books coming out in the next week or so, but want to mention them -- and the reasons for my choices.

Emelie Schepp lives in Sweden, and her "Marked" trilogy is being adeptly translated -- the second book, MARKED FOR REVENGE, was moved into English seamlessly by Suzanne Martin Cheadle (it's hard to even tell it was translated). It's suspense, with high stakes; the protagonist, prosecutor Jana Berzelius, is investigating the international drug trade and child trafficking in Sweden.

My problem with it is really my own ... I find graphic child abuse really hard to read. I read all of the first book in this series, Marked for Life, and couldn't bear to reframe it as a review. As soon as I started reading the second book, MARKED FOR REVENGE (release date February 28), all the emotions from the first book rolled back at me. I've skimmed book 2, and it's brilliantly plotted and tightly written. But again, the level of abuse and violence is so far outside my comfort zone (which is pretty wide really ... I have read and enjoyed most of Andrew Vachss and Carol O'Connell, for example, as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) that I'm not going to spell it all out. If you're into it, you can see reviews elsewhere. Sorry.

For a very different reason, I'm not going to present THE VIOLATED, the March 7 release from Grand Master of Mystery Bill Pronzini. This one's an audacious attempt at narrating the investigation of a serial rapist's career and murder from multiple points of view. I thought the technique took the book into being very flat, and the tension never rose the way a good work of suspense should. Not did the character acquire enough depth. Even the California setting didn't quite come to life. I can't recommend it -- but that said, Pronzini is generally marvelous, and if you haven't yet read any of his books, do try some of the others. I'll be watching for his next book, figuring that he too knows this one didn't work out as well as he'd hoped ... so he'll create a major winner on the next round.

Obviously, if you're a Pronzini collector, you'll pick up a copy of THE VIOLATED anyway. Go for it.

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

British Spies Who Break Your Heart, from Mick Herron, SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron has done it again -- written an espionage novel where the characters might as well be members of your own family. (Maybe they are, and Herron just changed the names.) It's the fourth in his Slough House series of British "spooks" who've made major mistakes in their careers and have ended up in a painfully humiliating backwater of spydom, headed by the unpleasant, unclean, and constantly flatulant Jackson Lamb.

And if SPOOK STREET were just a riff on this situation, the misery of being labeled a career failure with no way to regain a decent spying slot, or the black humor of a physically disgusting boss in a falling-down building, well, who'd want to read it?

But instead, it's a vivid and achingly sad (and also terrifyingly funny!) mingling of the once cream of the crop, still smart and savvy but isolated, with their humanity way out in front of them. There's Louisa Guy, expecting (with mixed feelings) a sexual come-on from one of the younger men in the group, River Cartwright; the midlife stylish Roderick Ho, a genius on a computer but a disaster at reading his colleagues; the new and apparently both crazy and dangerous colleague JK Coe, whose PTSD seems to live in his fingers, which keep fingering an invisible piano in an effort to drown out what he remembers. And more.

The thing is, they all care about each other. Well, maybe not Coe -- he's too new to matter much -- but all the others hiss and spit and in the long run would lay down their lives to save each other, as dry-drunk Catherine Standish did in an earlier book of the series, and River Cartwright has, too. Even Jackson Lamb himself somehow cares, if only to spite the other Secret Service teams: If you're one of his "joes," he won't let you drown. Much.

So in spite of their frequent mistakes and bad language, the washed-up spies of Slough House grabbed a bit of my heart long ago. In this fourth title, the office sniping and insults fall way short of the disaster that's taking place: River Cartwright's once-famous grandfather, who still know enough to sink the Secret Service (which is one reason River is at Slough House, not out on the street), has dementia. At what point will the mainstream spy network discover this fatal failing? Will someone try to take advantage of the elder Cartwright (known mostly as the O.B., which does not stand for Old Boy, but Old B--, well, you know)? Or will he be mercifully executed before he can spill his dangerous old secrets? That's River's problem in terms of his aging grandfather. A very big problem.
Louisa had said: Yeah, I wasn't actually suggesting they'd have him murdered, though I can see you've put some thought into that.

But how could he, his grandfather's grandson, not have done?

And what really worries me, River had wanted to tell her, is that he's always loved telling stories. Even now, visits meant sitting in the O.B.'s study, sharing a drink and hearing secrets. That these had grown confused, frequently petering out down lanes that led nowhere, didn't mean they were no longer secret, and the thought of the O.B. on his daily pilgrimage round the village -- butcher, baker, post office lady -- weaving for all the same webs he'd spun for River, had kept him awake two nights on the trot.
It turns out River's right to be concerned, and nearly too late, as Jackson Lamb soon finds himself identifying a former spy's body for the police ... but who has shot whom? And what does all of this have to do with River's missing mother, and his unknown father? Not to mention the terrorism that starts the plot spinning?

By the time everything is "sorted," we know a lot more about each of the Slough Horses, especially River, but also the inimitable Catherine Standish, and even the mysterious JK Coe.

I don't know how I'm going to wait an entire year for the next in this series, from Soho Crime.

Can you jump directly into SPOOK STREET without having read Slow Horses, Dead Lions, and Real Tigers first? Of course you can. Mick Herron is an amazing storyteller, and you'll be just fine.

Besides, your heart won't clench up nearly as hard that way -- because the more you get to know Mick Herron's desperate group of failed spies, the more you'll care about them. I do.

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

Third Linda Wallheim Crime Novel, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, from Mette Ivie Harrison

There's a marvelous uncertainty about jumping into a crime fiction series as a reader, not starting with the first book. Will the experience be more powerful because the author has grown in the process of writing earlier books in the series? Or lack resonance because you as the reader don't really know what's developed in the protagonist's life before this book? Or will it be sort of neutral -- because the author is skillful enough to paint the important details of the past without being long-winded, so it doesn't matter whether you've read the earlier books or not?

An example of a series where it's important to read in sequence is David Downing's John Russell espionage series, set in Berlin, Germany, during the Second World War. Russell and his lover Effi Koenen, an actress uneasily performing for the German High Command as John forcibly serves British, American, Russian, and German needs, grow and change in their priorities and goals across the series (and across the war). Start with Zoo Station and savor the author's process, the characters' journeys, and the plots that stand alone in each book, yet dovetail smoothly into the war's history.

A parallel crime fiction series with a very different feel is another Second World War series, the Billy Boyle investigations, written by James Benn. Boyle, new generation in a family of Boston cops, works secretly for General Eisenhower as a detective, and although subsequent books sketch in deftly some of the adventures Boyle and his friends experienced in the earlier ones, his development is the kind you'd expect for a police detective growing more skillful and more dedicated over the years -- it's enjoyable to enter the series at any book, and even to skip around among them. Benn frames each as its own special world of risk and intrigue.

Where in this set of considerations should we place the books by Mette Ivie Harrison? Her third in her Linda Wallheim series, like the other  two (The Bishop's Wife, His Right Hand) exposes the protagonist to a disturbed family situation that she feels obligated to address -- because she is the wife of a leader in the family's religious community, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka LDS). FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES sees Linda Wallheim grapple with another of the reasons that she finds her church difficult: its history of plural marriage and the fragments of existing cults that still cling to that tradition. Wallheim's earlier "amateur sleuth" investigations have involved the duty of spouses to each other, and the acceptance (or rejection) of same-sex love when family members reveal they no longer fit the church's doctrines.

In a sense, Harrison's series resembles Benn's -- the protagonist does not rely on her emotional or mindful learning from earlier books as she goes along, and Harrison's adept portrayal of the church she herself loves supports each book's plot well. When friction arises at the start of this third book, Wallheim is horrified by what she hears from her son Kenneth as he reveals details about a new girlfriend:
There was a long pause and I realized we weren't done with the difficult part of the conversation. "We met at a former Mormons group. We call it Mormons Anonymous."

Mormons Anonymous -- like Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous? As if my religion were some kind of addictive behavior that you had to recover from?
Harrison has been open in sharing some of her own struggles with that church. Having experienced a profound loss of faith and then a restoration of it, she is a member in good standing in the LDS. Her website admits that her first crime novel was part of her struggle with how to face the conflicts in the group. She is careful to note the differences between her own faith journey and Linda Wallheim's; still, she is clearly still tugging at the most painful issues of the mainstream LDS structure, and showing some of the issues through her fiction.

Wallheim stumbles, through wanting to help her son, into a group that's living with plural marriage -- the usual form, multiple wives (and children) to one powerful husband. She's soon aware of dysfunctional undercurrents in the situation, and overdoes her involvement.

When the plot blossoms into a death, possibly a murder, Wallheim makes an enormous error of judgment (and making an error of judgment is of course classic in an amateur sleuth plot): She goes along with not calling in the police.

And here, as a mystery reader, I found myself in deep disagreement -- I could not "buy" that this experienced wife of a dedicated church leader would jeopardize her marriage and commit a crime herself (helping to cover up the death) for the sake of holding this terrible family together.

My flaw? Or the book's? I'd love to hear from other readers on this issue.

However, my reaction changes how I feel about the series: If you are new to it, start with the first two books, please! You'll have a good chance of bonding to this smart, questioning, impromptu investigator and grasping the love and (overblown?) sense of responsibility that drive her into the sleuth role. And in that case, you'll definitely want to have book 3, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, to fit into the arc of narrative and the important changes to Wallheim's own family.

I'd suggest not jumping into book 3 without the others ... I think it won't stand well on its own, but may well be critical to read before we all have the chance to savor Harrison's fourth book in the series (which is doubtless mostly written at this point). Like Louise Penny's books, there's clearly an overall progress through the series -- and I want to enjoy every bit of it. From Soho Crime, another must-read series.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Grit, Violence, Dark Losses - and Somehow, Love, in David Putnam's Fourth, THE VANQUISHED

Placing his Bruno Johnson series within a network of friends who've worked the worst police beats in Southern California guarantees that David Putnam's suspense fiction will continue dark and violent. The third in the series, The Squandered, was a really good read, with plenty of unexpected twists. Brotherly friendships and the intensity of police work made the novel unusual and I liked it.

Number four in the series, THE VANQUISHED, hits a lot of the same buttons. But this time Bruno and his wife Marie find their Costa Rica haven -- where they are hiding the abused kids they've rescued -- is under threat from old enemies in an outlaw motorcycle gang. With the kids at risk, Bruno charges back to California to straighten things out. Soon Marie's at his side.

And that's the one drawback of this one ... the Bruno/Marie pairing doesn't leave much room for the police brotherhood that I liked in The Squandered. But there's no question that THE VANQUISHED is a page-turner, jammed with threat and danger.

Putnam has the solid investigative past himself to make the twists in his book authentic, and that's good. But I missed the redemptive notes of the earlier book. If you pick up THE VANQUISHED, let me know what you think. A must-own for those who especially appreciate the wild motorcycle world, too. Published by Oceanview.

FBI Profiler Series from Elizabeth Heiter, STALKED (#4)

It may take a while before FBI suspense fiction written by women catches up in terms of publicity with what the taller sex is writing -- Elizabeth Heiter's "The Profiler" series ought to speed the process along, though. The fourth in this series, STALKED, takes profiler Evelyn Baine into new terrain in several ways: (1) She's tracking a vanished teen, Haley, in a time period well past when such cases usually end badly. (2) She's got to liaise with a prickly local police force in order to enter the case, and that's downright hard. (3) Her romantic relationship with former Hostage Rescue Team operator Kyle McKenzie is out in the open at last -- but also under immense stress, as Kyle faces the possibility that he may never be physically able to return to the HRT job that's the center of his self image.

And as Evelyn's own case heats up, becoming more dangerous, the pain she's inadvertently causing for Kyle could cripple her investigative instincts.

Set in the DC area, STALKED twists the assumptions around lost teens into new versions, ramping the suspense. (Lee Child and Tess Gerritsen are among the suspense authors praising the series and verifying that Heiter has her Bureau facts right.) And when the questions around Haley start interlocking with issues of possible human trafficking on a nearby college campus, the book becomes a must-read, a true page-turner.

Recommended -- and for those as intrigued as I was, the preceding books in the series are Hunted, Vanished, and Seized; the paperback original's publisher is MIRA.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

San Francisco Police Suspense from Jonathan Moore, THE DARK ROOM

A couple of weeks ago, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released Jonathan Moore's newest crime novel, THE DARK ROOM; there should still be plenty of time to collect a first printing of this powerful and intricately plotted investigation. Moore's third book, The Poison Artist, is also set in San Francisco, that city of fog and back alleys that forms such a powerful backdrop for pain and loss.  In Moore's hands, the city itself is an enabling force -- one that investigators must confront.

In THE DARK ROOM, we meet Gavin Cain, an SFPD homicide investigator. He's in the midst of witnessing an exhumation when a phone call drags him away at top speed: The city's mayor is being blackmailed about what looks like violent and sadistic sex games from his past. And Cain's task is to stop the possible release of dirty information about the mayor, as well as protecting him and his family -- against a very angry blackmailer with a ticking clock.

Complicating the investigation, for Cain, are threads that lead from it toward his own secret: He's become the committed lover of a former crime victim, whose chance at resuming normal life depends on his ability to protect her from further threats. Soon the cases inevitably cross, and the tension ramps up exponentially.

Despite the emotional risks involved, Cain's investigation is at heart a skilled and multipronged one, so that THE DARK ROOM is also an adept police procedural. Here's Cain thinking things through and prioritizing:
Cain stopped at a light on Santa Cruz Avenue, put his phone on his knee, and began to dictate a note to himself. This didn't require any real precision. He just spoke in a free flow of thoughts.

Thrallinex. Benzyldiomide.

Redding thought the drug was the key, and he might be right. In an hour, the ME could tell Cain how it compared to a hypnotic like Rohypnol, what a dozen pills would have done to the girl. Then there was the dress. When it came to high-end fashion, he had no idea where to begin. He'd been wearing the same suit three days running, and knew switching ties and shirts wasn't fooling anyone. But every problem had an entrance. Maybe a clerk in one of the shops around Union Square could poin him in the right direction.

The '84 Cadillac Eldorado was something he might be able to work with, though. No one had to register a dress. Pills got passed from hand to hand. But cops know how to find cars.
It's clear that the city's mayor has a dark past that's made him vulnerable. But it's the present that matters most, and Cain's hampered by the mayor's refusal to open up -- and tangled in the dodgy information that the mayor's family ekes out to him.

Intense pace, taut plotting, an investigator who gambles his own life to save others -- it all adds up to one heck of a good thriller, with a highly satisfying ending. Count this as a little darker than Michael Connelly in terms of plot, and a bit less dark in terms of how haunted the investigator is, but with the same gift of compelling storytelling and, of course, overlapping terrain.

Finally, there's a note from the author that makes it clear THE DARK ROOM is effectively the prequel to another book that Jonathan Moore had already written, called The Night Market. Its publication will follow this one (scheduled for January 2018). Count me among the people who will be preordering a copy.

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