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.