Sunday, May 27, 2018

Intense Lowcountry Mystery from C. Hope Clark, NEWBERRY SIN

What a delight to sink into the fourth Carolina Slade mystery from award-winning author C. Hope Clark, NEWBERRY SIN. Well actually, this is the kind of sometimes chilling murder mystery that makes me jump up to check that the door is locked, on my way to put the kettle on. But that's all good, when suspense and risk are supposed to be lining up!

And with Carolina Slade, an amateur sleuth despite her job description that includes "investigation" on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture, suspense and risk are necessities -- they keep Slade happy, and they connect her to a pro investigator, her romantic partner Wayne Largo.

So when a radio host takes Slade along to witness a newly discovered corpse and pushes her to follow the trail of possible corruption within the USDA, that should be a happy moment, right?

Ooops. Not this time. Slade's seriously confused about her relationship with Wayne (and it's getting worse), her boss is determined to strip her of any investigatory possibilities, her co-workers are under threat because she can't handle all of this, and the crime field is widening with every moment that she's forced to spend detouring around those roadblocks.

I've been a fan of C. Hope Clark's mysteries since the start of her Carolina Slade mysteries, set in the coastal Lowcountry of South Carolina, where community has Kevlar-strong threads and knotted webs of connection, much like my home terrain of Vermont. For example, Slade's contacts tug her into a coffee gathering right away, to set her straight on what she needs to resolve (as well as the murder):
I then studied the women. "Hello, I'm Carolina Slade. Which one of you is Mrs. Cassie Abrams?"

The one who raised her hand held the coarsest stare. Gray-headed, hair up in a bun, the charcoal pants outfit hinted her new role as widow. "I am she. And you have some accounting to do."

"Pardon me?" This felt more like an ambush. Made me wonder how much Lottie had exacerbated her story to draw this crew.  ... [I turned my] attention to Cassie, who chose to continue speaking in lieu of letting me give the accounting she'd just demanded.

"That vamp y'all put in your office here. Despicable. Manipulative. You planted her, I say. Using her ways to entice our men to come in, sign on more debt, then y'all take all this credit for serving Newberry. Even confiscate our land."
And that's the least of the misstatements, accusations, and threats Slade's going to have to cope with. Meanwhile, she may mess up her personal life even further.

C. Hope Clark is a pro with lines of tension, twist of plot, and above all, a protagonist whose courage and pain are front and center. I couldn't put this one down.

No, you don't need to read the others in the series (or Clark's other series, the Edisto Island books) to enjoy this one. And they do keep getting better ... but I'm guessing after you savor this one, you'll want the set. Classic amateur sleuth work, with extra high suspense and personal challenges. What's not to like? (As long as it's in the book, not in the living room, right?)

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


It's almost release day (which will be June 1), so I'm jumping in with another enthusiastic recommendation (if you read mystery reviews, you've seen some already!) for TINY CRIMES, a compact, neatly designed, and very, very enjoyable set of extra-short stories, aka flash fiction, that set out mysteries, suspense, crime, or astonishing darkness. It's as if editors Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Neito skimmed the best and strangest tales from all the strongest mystery magazines going, and packed them into this intense block of well-designed illustrated pages. Thirty-nine of them.

Many are written by specialists in the short story form -- which isn't my usual area of reading, so the names of the authors were new to me, although their credits at the back of the book are fierce and impressive. Two particularly thrilled me: a New England tale well spun by Elizabeth Hand, and an unforgettable surreal one from Japanese noir novelist Fuminori Nakamura. I also like the one from Paul La Farge, which begins "The next to last time I saw Polanski" (talk about classic!), and couldn't stop marveling (with dark chuckles) at "Hygge" by Dorthe Nors.

Treat yourself. As far as I can tell, there's only one drawback to buying this book: You won't want to pass it along to a friend ... because there's always going to be a moment when you think "That story I liked so much, I should read it again" -- and this one's going to have to stay on your shelf. Or even on the bedside table.

From Black Balloon, published by Catapult. Good stuff.

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

The Hangman's Daughter Series #7, THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE by Oliver Pötzsch

It's time for this year's Bavarian hangman mystery set in the 1600s, from mystery and thriller author Oliver Pötzsch -- and it's a wild ride!

As THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE opens in 1672, hangman Jacob Kuisl, a true specialist in a time that needs his skills, is preparing for a journey to Munich, with his family. That includes daughter Barbara, who needs to get engaged, and daughter Magdelena, a crime-solver of unusual courage and determination (highly motivated by the need to protect and survive for her child).

It will be Magdelena who eventually takes the greatest risks in trying to solve a rash of young women's deaths in Munich. But she comes by her investigative side directly from her father, who's working the crimes from another angle, the basic autopsy, before the term was well known:
"Then let's do it." Kuisl pulled the girl's dress up. He got out his knife, which he sharpened as frequently as his executioner's sword, and made the first insertion from the breastbone downward.

The hangman had cut open dozens of bodies in his life. Like Deibler, he was fascinated by the inside of humans, of which very little was known as yet. Kuisl believed he had more medical knowledge than most studied physicians from here to Schongau. He was the proud owner of a small Latin library at his house, hundreds of medicines, and countless surgical instruments, which he sometimes lent to his son-in-law.

Because he's the physician and I'm just a dishonorable hangman, Kuisl thought.
Yet Jacob Kuisl knows a belly full of deadly nightshade when he finds it (in fact, he'd already suspected it), and just like that, he's making progress on the case in front of him.

Too bad Magdelena doesn't have as easy a route to her part of the investigation. Yes, she learns a lot, very quickly, while being held captive at threat of life and other losses. But cut off from her husband and her father, what can she actually do to protect herself and prevent other deaths?

Pötzsch (with translator Lee Chadeayne) spins a fast-paced tale with abundant risk, suspense, and twists -- while smoothly carrying the 1600s into all possible details of setting and crime. And when a colleague complains about how the hangmen's association is being treated during the hunt for the criminal, saying, "In good old Bamberg, folks still appreciate a hangman and don't chop off his hands and feet," Jacob Kuisl quickly replies, "In good old Bamberg, folks were hunting for a werewolf only a few years ago." He's got quite a challenge in trying to persuade his colleagues that the serial killer who's been murdering young women might come after them, too, for what they may already know or guess.

At close to 500 pages, THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE is a long romp that transports summer reading into fresh terrain, with humor and clever detection. In addition, as I mentioned when reviewing last year's title in the series (The Play of Death), you may have extra reason to grab a copy if any of the following pertain to you:

1. You collect the reading experience of mysteries set in Bavaria.
2. You pursue fiction set in the 1600s.
3. You're planning to see the Bread & Puppet Theater in action in Vermont (or treasure having done so in the past, especially in the 1970s and 1980s).

And in addition, there's a dog at stake in this one. Talk about diverse! The series is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and THE COUNCIL OF TWELVE is available May 29.

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Very Different British Mystery from Judith Cutler, Teacher's Point of View, in HEAD COUNT

When's the last time you read a mystery that paid attention to the social needs of eight-year-olds, the career risks of head lice, and the criminal vulnerability of illegal immigrants?

Right -- I thought so. Welcome to HEAD COUNT, a series debut from highly experienced British author Judith Cutler. Brush up your cricket terms just in case (Cutler adores it), and jump into action with Jane Cowan. Not only is she the head of two schools instead of one this term -- she's also in high demand as an umpire for official league games of cricket in the region. Bottom line: She's got to hang tough, no matter what.

But that won't be easy, as her newly adopted small primary school is neighbor to an irritated and manipulative major landowner; unplanned students with language issues land in her classrooms; and one of the biggest guys in the cricket group has multiple grievances with her that may play out painfully, both on the field and in the school hallways.
And what could I do? Tell the governors, for one thing. But that didn't involve striding around, questioning people -- anything. It must have been some of that frustration that Hazel Roberts sensed. 'I'll alert everyone else on the board and start them searching too. Meanwhile, my dear, get off the phone. It's vital you keep the line open. You're the point of contact for everyone -- the still point of the turning world, as Eliot put it.

Where on earth could Zunaid be?
Cowan's roles may pin her into forced play or, regrettably, non-play. But that doesn't mean she can't make sure a missing student is safely found, and a set of major crimes brought to a halt. With a bit of danger along the way.

Cutler's written some 40 novels and knows how to spin the tale. This book came out in the UK in 2017 from Allison & Busby, and reached the US this month via Casemate/IPM. It's a pleasant read, and good to add to the summer reading stack, for a chance to relax and follow along in a traditional mystery with neat twists and satisfying (if somewhat predictable) finale.

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

Barbara Cleverly, British Mystery Author, Launches New Series, FALL OF ANGELS

Change has its challenges. If you've read your way through all 13 books of Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series, with its ex-military, ex-India investigator easing open the layers of British society between the two world wars, take a deep breath. Pretend you're reading a new author. And step into the 1923 world of Detective Inspector John Redfyre. There, it's not so terrible if you don't try to imagine a 14th Sandilands book, right?

And for the rest of you -- readers of British mysteries old and new, and investigators of that mysterious interlude after the Great War and before the bombings that will crush London -- welcome to the smooth, polished writing of one of the heirs of the Dorothy Sayers mystery tradition. Cleverly keeps a tight plot, never loses track of her red herrings, and plays fairly with the rules of the genre: Search for motive, means, and opportunity, and try to solve the case a page or two before the protagonist announces how it all went!

FALL OF ANGELS provides a wide cast of smart women to balance DI Redfyre's appearance. Pressing for equal representation in the vote, and also in the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, Cleverly's women range widely. There's the highly attractive and clever young trumpeter, Juno Proudfoot, making her academic debut at a Christmas concert that Redfyre's been manipulated into attending (way up front). And there's Redfyre's fiercely independent Aunt Henrietta, who seems to think she can gently nudge her nephew into a planned role in the battle for the fair sex. And, of course, Redfyre's own friends -- a circle rapidly growing.

His superiors and peers are not as well equipped to infiltrate England's conservative social scene, so Redfyre must tackle the case mostly alone. Fortunately, he's aware of Aunt Henrietta's proclivities, so when an emergency erupts, he's ready to take charge:
Redfyre firmly drew the doctor aside and spoke to him quietly. "I'd rather she didn't skip off. Miss Stretton will be staying with me for the moment. She's a witness to what may well turn out to be a crime."

"A crime?" The doctor looked back at Juno in some puzzlement. "Fallling down a dark staircase is hardly a crime, surely."

"Attempted murder is a crime in my book," said Redfyre. "This apparent accident will be investigated as such ... I would be most grateful if you could bear that in mind when you carry out your more detailed examination at the hospital."

"Indeed? Well, of course. A sort of 'ante-mortem' report? Understood."
That sort of military conspiring of the men on scene works out well for Redfyre. But to get to the truth of the case, he'll have to sort through the much more devious plans of the women instead. (I did mention Dorothy Sayers, didn't I?)

Once I stopped mourning the absence of Joe Sandilands, I enjoyed FALL OF ANGELS. I'm interested in seeing how Cleverly, one of the true professionals of the British "traditional mystery" genre, will draw us further into the complicated 1920s and the rather pleasant interior of her new detective, in the titles yet to come. From Soho Crime, a Soho Press imprint.

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

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Forensics and Detection, 1768 Style, in SAVAGE LIBERTY from Eliot Pattison

Available this week, the newest "Mystery of Revolutionary America" is the fifth in Eliot Pattison's series that was originally called the Bone Rattler books, after the first title in it. An international attorney (still practicing) and master of three vastly different series with three entirely separate cultures -- the other two are Chinese-occupied Tibet, and a post-apocalyptic version of a nuclear frontier -- Pattison crafts an immersion experience of hardships, crime, investigation, and dramatic changes. And SAVAGE LIBERTY perches at a fierce point in history, as colonists with diverse background and motives began to realize that rejecting the British king's power over them could be possible.

Most compelling in Pattison's books are his wounded heroes: here, the Scottish medically trained Duncan McCallum, bound under a punitive indenture contract that prevents him from committing to the love of his life, Sarah Ramsey. Ramsey is herself an outrageous figure for the time, trying to craft a peaceable community of Judeo-Christians, frontier folk, and Native Americans at the edge of the East Coast's strip of "civilization." But by binding McCallum for long-ago "criminality" and a few recent misjudgments, Ramsey's father effectively prevents the couple from a balanced and equal relationship.

This is part of McCallum's motive for taking off into the wilderness in search of a rogue collaboration of British and Abenaki warmongers -- they've pushed his bonding further and put a bounty on his head. But as always in Pattison's books, the emotional depth comes with McCallum's identification with members of a threatened culture: in this case, the Native Americans being brutally evicted from their lands. One of the most moving scenes in the book involves McCallum witnessing a heartbreaking farewell to the trees and forest, by his Nipmuc friend and ally, Conawago. Pattison's strongly drawn parallel of the outlawed Scottish Highland clans and the Native American tribes provides McCallum with some of his passion for the Nipmuc and his allies. Yet, as in Pattison's Tibet series, it's the underlying spiritual commitment that most deeply connects these men.

McCallum's usual care in decision making goes off track in SAVAGE LIBERTY. With the unsettling of his belief in the king's right to rule the colonies also comes an unsettling of some of his loyalties and convictions. And his beloved isn't pleased, telling him, "Stealing muskets from the king! Bribing army guards. This is how you will prove yourself innocent of treason! I beg you, Duncan, leave this behind before it is too late."

But Duncan McCallum is forming a new commitment, to the Sons of Liberty, a group that's clearly fomenting revolution. It's troubling him:
He lay on a comforter beside Sarah's bed, listening to the slow, quiet breathing of Sarah and Will, recalling prior conversations in Boston. The arguments with the king would never come to violence, Hancock and Sam Adams always insisted. King George would soon recognize that the inhabitants of his most valuable colonies had to be given the same respect as Englishmen in the home country, and all would then rally around the monarch. But the terrible visions of the innkeeper's dying wife now visited him, vivid images of ill-trained colonists being massacred by British regulars, the massed bullets of their. Brown Besses mowing down farmers and shopkeepers like the blade of a bloody scythe. Whenever a colonist fell, an Abenaki materialized to rip away his scalp.
Pattison's choice of Abenaki for the most dangerous criminal in this book (in a revenge motif based on the massacre of the St. Francis group of the tribe) disturbed me, as it seemed a choice that could tar an entire group of people with a label of irrational and uncontained violence. I kept pausing to check details, finding that small parts that rubbed me wrong -- scalping, displays of scalps -- had ample historical backup, but still ill at ease. I also missed the more deliberate investigative direction of earlier titles in the series.

That said, Pattison does a masterful job of keeping his red herrings afloat and his competing rationales for crime and violence well sorted out. Most vitally, he illustrates the slow and irreversible turn from an angry but heartfelt loyalty to the monarch, toward the possibility of independence. I look forward to how he'll carry Duncan McCallum into the very forces of liberty in the next book of the series. And, of course, to how this deep-probing author will illustrate the ongoing death of tribal occupation of the new America. "Savage" liberty, indeed.

Publication is by Counterpoint, and the book's release date is May 22.

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

Stunning Crime Novel with Intense Twists, DEAD GIRLS by Graeme Cameron

Sick of all the book titles that use "girl" or "girls" lately? Don't let that delay your reach for Graeme Cameron's second book, DEAD GIRLS. This British author spins a complex and highly gratifying suspense novel in the most unusual "police investigation" I've ever read. And it opens with the ultimate unreliable narrator: Detective Alisha ("Ali") Green, whose brain can't handle even the basics of daily memory as she struggles to recover from a brutal attack by a serial killer who'd left her for dead. Between the pain, the understandable alcohol abuse, and the broken transmissions in what used to be a fine mind, Ali can't even tell for sure what's in her thoughts and what she's shouting out in front of her former partner, Kevin. "My heart sank, though I made the best attempt I could at keeping the horror from my face. How much had I said out loud? And why did I not know the answer to that?"

Turns out that the psychopath who's more than ready to finish the job of killing her has been killing plenty of other women, and tormenting those he's left alive. Even his "friends" know he's dangerous. And in acute twists of action and emotion, Cameron makes clear their damage and risk, as at the moment when Annie, a presumed witness to the brutality, retreating to her safely locked up home, spots a still-wet mug next to her kitchen sink, one she never ever uses:
Annie took a breath and waited for her heart to start beating. And when it finally did, she slumped to the floor in the corner of the kitchen, and shuffled back into the crook of the wall, and drew her knees up to her chest, and listened to the kettle boil, and cried and cried and cried.
Making things more dangerous is the extreme lack of experience with which Ali and Kevin's superior officer tackles the multiple victims and the hunt for the killer. There are already two dead cops -- will Ali be the next? And you're not expecting good decisions from Ali and her broken brain, are you?

The special pleasure of DEAD GIRLS is Cameron's highly believable knotting of support ties among the damaged yet seriously angry women who tackle this case. I'd suggest putting this onto the summer reading stack, but really, if you get a copy now, dump all the dull chores of the next few days and just immerse. It's worth it, with rewards in every twist, including the finale.

From Park Row Books, a suspense imprint from Harlequin.

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

Memoir Worth Reading: The Girl Who Smiled Beads, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

There are so many interesting things to consider with THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS. The subtitle is "A Story of War and What Comes After," a good description. Author Clemantine Wamariya and her sister Claire survived six dangerous years mostly on their own in seven African countries, when their family of origin was shattered and dispersed by the Rwandan genocide. A refugee program finally brought them to the United States. And then their scraped-together survival was turned upside down by an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's show Oprah, where the TV star gave the girl-turned-woman a stunning surprise: Oprah's team had located Clemantine's mother and surviving siblings and brought them to the show.

That's the center point of Wamariya's narrative in terms of time and change. But it's not the easy part and maybe not even the joyful part. Sorting out the horrors of the past, the damage of the present, and what to do within modern Western culture turn out to be both complicated and painful. PTSD? Sure. And more.

The narrative's management by distinguished co-author Elizabeth Weil -- a writer for the New York Times Magazine who's done this kind of co-authorship before -- turns what could have been a candy-sweet tale into a powerful exploration of culture, recovery, and determination. The book is an easy read in short chapters with abundant adventure, and solidly rewards the reader who follows the entire journey. It gave me a lot to think about, especially coupled with my spring plunge into Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, and more. Hope you have a chance to add it to your stack.

And don't miss Wamariya's website, for a startling look at what she's now pursuing.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Vivid Debut Thriller from Charlton Pettus, EXIT STRATEGY

If you'd asked me whether a career in songwriting could benefit the power of a debut thriller, I would have said "Hmm, sweet notion, but unlikely." And I would have been wrong. Charlton Pettus is best known for producing the group Tears for Fears, with which he plays lead guitar -- and scoring and writing songs for film and TV. Somehow he's tumbled to this new area, though ... thank goodness!

EXIT STRATEGY may be the top international thriller I've read so far in 2018. With its rapid pace, adept twists, and compelling protagonist, I couldn't put it down. Here's the premise:

Jordan Parrish, founder of a medical technology firm, might have made a mistake in moving from lab work to business. He adores his wife and kids, but his financial disaster is going to let them down, bigtime. Is there any way he can escape the shambles of his career and leave his family in better shape than if he stayed around? He takes the risk of placing a call to a company that specializes in such disappearances. Even though he hangs up quickly, the damage is done, and Jordan's life as he knows it has ended, just that fast.

But nothing's as it seems. His wife realizes, almost before he does. The answers she's getting about Jordan having a second household, a car accident, a disaster, just don't fit the man she loved, and who loved her so much. Meanwhile, Jordan's struggling to meet the demands of having gone into hiding. Somehow, his life is more at risk than ever before.

Yet at first, things seem about what you'd expect:
Leaving a couple euros on the table, Jordan walked to the restroom. He locked himself in a stall and opened the envelope. Inside was a round-trip coach ticket to Hong Kong along with a well-worn Croatian passport and a credit card. The credit card and passport were in the name Antonin Kramaric. He crumpled the envelope and threw it in the trash. He washed his hands and dabbed at his face with a wet paper towel. His nose still hurt like hell and his eyes burned. He gingerly took off the shades and studied his face in the mirror. Where the nose had been broken there was now a pronounced Roman dip. Also his eyes were now a little wider and subtly sloped down at the outside, giving him a vaguely morose Slavic look. The skin was still puffy and red at the corners where the lids had been cut and sutured. Taken with the short, short hair and the scruffy facial growth, the cumulative change was substantial. If a former colleague had passed him in the airport Jordan doubted he would have looked twice.
When the plot swerved into a code that I "caught" right away, with exhilaration, I knew I was in for a memorable ride. Loved it.

Tough and at times violent, but not gruesome and not sadistic, this is a classic thriller with excellent pacing. I found the ending a bit out of line with the rest of the book -- when you've read it, let me know your opinion. But all told, I think Hanover Square Press made a great pick with this one.

No author website at this time.

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

Brief Mention: John Copenhaver's Debut, DODGING AND BURNING

John Copenhaver's debut mystery, DODGING AND BURNING, came out in March. I've hesitated to present it here because I didn't care for the writing style -- heavy use of adverbs and a rhythm and rocking of tenses  that somehow bothered me -- but I think it's an important mystery in three ways:

1. It probes the fallout of World War II.

2. "Gay and lesbian" in a time much less welcoming than today gives it flavor.

3. In spite of my personal frustration with the writing style, it's got strength and power and I suspect Copenhaver will be writing good mysteries in years to come. So it's important to grab his debut for your shelf.

I also really like the title, which is a play on words between some criminal threats, and film-based photography speak.

Here's the jacket blurb, in case you're thinking this over:
A lurid crime scene photo of a beautiful woman arrives on mystery writer Bunny Prescott's doorstep with no return address―and it's not the first time she's seen it. The reemergence of the photo, taken fifty-five years earlier, sets her on a journey to reconstruct the vicious summer that changed her life.

In the summer of 1945, Ceola Bliss is a lonely twelve-year-old tomboy, mourning the loss of her brother, Robbie, who was declared missing in the Pacific. She tries to piece together his life by rereading his favorite pulp detective story “A Date with Death” and spending time with his best friend, Jay Greenwood, in Royal Oak, VA. One unforgettable August day, Jay leads Ceola and Bunny to a stretch of woods where he found a dead woman, but when they arrive, the body is gone. They soon discover a local woman named Lily Vellum is missing and begin to piece together the threads of her murder, starting with the photograph Jay took of her abandoned body.

As Ceola gets swept up playing girl detective, Bunny becomes increasingly skeptical of Jay’s story about the photograph and begins her own investigation into Lily’s murder. A series of clues lead her to Washington, DC, where she must confront the truth about her dear friend—a revelation that triggers a brutal confrontation that will change all of them forever.
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Brief Mention: Indie Self-Published "Pathologist" Mysteries from Jane Bennett Munro

Despite all the frustrations for a mystery author of "submitting" to commercial publishers, there are two important things that the process instills: Enough willingness to meet the genre's conventions of plot, suspense, character, and excellence in pace and twists so that a book will make it up and over that bar. And professional editing that demand that the author have a darned good reason for wandering astray or scattering abundant red herrings.

So the "indie" route is a tough one for most authors, and I want to mention the murder mysteries that Jane Bennett Munro is publishing. She's gaining awards for them (including an IPPY), and they're lively and well plotted. Puzzlingly, her fourth book featuring pathologist Toni Day -- DEATH BY AUTOPSY -- turned up in my mailbox recently. It dates back to 2014, so it's not exactly a new release. But I enjoyed the pathology language in it, and of course the premise: that the autopsy might be to blame for the final death of someone! Here's a snippet, from Toni Day's point of view:
My heart sank. Did the fractured sternum make that laceration, or did I? There were no other marks on the myocardium, so my needle puncture had to be somewhere in that bruised area.

"What's that?" Pete asked.

I took a deep breath and tried to appear calm. "It appears to be a laceration of the left ventricle."

"Is that where the bleeding came from?"

"More than likely." My voice trembled. "Photograph it. Just in case."
If the "pathology talk" appeals to you, you might indulge in one or two of Munro's books for your summer reading stack. Be reasonable -- settle in for a jaunt, and a bit of learning on how an independent author may opt to spin a story. I enjoyed this one, and it gave me a lot to think about.

(The author website is out of date and incomplete, but in case you want to peek:

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Hot Thriller for the Summer Reading Stack, WARNING LIGHT by David Ricciardi

This spring's fine Middle East thriller from David Ricciardi has a publication story that's twisted suspense as well: The thriller author self-published his book WARNING LIGHT in 2014 -- then Penguin Random House picked it up, and the following re-edit created what the publishing firm calls a whole new book.

With the power and punch that the April 2018 release packs, I have to guess the earlier version was also intense (wouldn't it be fun to compare them?). I couldn't stop reading ... even in ebook format (my least favorite).

Here's the premise: A CIA desk office, an analyst, happens to be on a plane that gets diverted to a secret closed airport in Iran, where weapons are under construction. There's an actual field operative on the plane, who'd been meant to infiltrate the site -- but in the chaos of arriving, his cover is blown (and so is he).

So Zac Miller takes a couple of quick snapshots of the airport while debarking, to try to fill the information gap for the Agency. But he's not nearly as subtle as he thinks, is almost immediately caught by very unfriendly military types, yet with a bit of luck and guts, makes a narrow escape -- into, of course, the highly dangerous terrain of the Middle East, with the Iranians after him. Oh yes, and his own side, which swallows a clever Iranian frame-up suggesting Zac's gone rogue.

So begins a high-suspense survival trek through terrain that's unfriendly in every sense:
He paused atop a long scree field. Even in the mountains it was close to one hundred degrees and the heat seared his lungs as he struggled to catch his breath. His legs were sore, his ribs ached from the beating, and he hadn't seen any water. He sat atop the loose rocks and wondered how he would make it out of Iran alive.
Lee Child blurbed this book, which is appropriate, considering the well-structured pace of crises, collaboration, and gutsy survival maneuvers. And the ending is a real delight ... If you appreciate a page-turning thriller with on-the-ground detail and rapid twists, plus a character who grows "just enough" during his run for his life, grab this one. Put it in the summer reading stack -- or sooner! -- for pure release from life's ordinary stresses.

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

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

New Orleans Crime Fiction Rises Again, as Julie Smith Returns to Skip Langdon Series

Author Julie Smith's website says it's been 12 years since she last released a Skip Langdon crime novel. The series just came back to life, with MURDER ON MAGAZINE, released as an almost-self-published paperback and ebook via

MURDER ON MAGAZINE picks up in New Orleans, putting Skip back onto her old familiar beat -- but with a very modern twist: the killing she's investigating took place via an "AirBnBad" short-term rental, and it's quickly clear that not only is the trend for these rentals ruining residential areas of the city; it's making it way, way too easy for pimps and prostitutes to operate under false ID in those spare-cash bedrooms.

Told from two viewpoints -- Skip's, and that of Cody, a half-child victim of sex trafficking who may also be a killer -- the action is quick and intense. After all, valuable prostitutes aren't readily released by the people who've "owned" them, and Cody's quick and cute but with those pink tips to her hair, sort of memorable; the hard-core criminals know how and where to find her. Of more concern, so might her last client, the "Whale." But with some tech support, Skip too is a force to reckon with. And Julie Smith allows time to get inside Skip's mind, as well as her dog-loving heart:
First Miguel's death and Lloyd's arrest, then, barely a day later, during her nice January "barbecue," Abasolo's phone call. Sometimes it seemed like one step backward for every step forward. The Whale was on the move.

Skip couldn't believe what she was looking at. Or rather, she didn't want to. She didn't even want to be a cop today. She wanted to walk time back and arrange to be out of the country so she wouldn't have to see this. Because it was ugly and terrifying and heralded so many more bad things she felt her throat close and nausea roil her stomach. ... It was obvious to both of them: the wannabe serial killer who'd first attacked the dog and then the pink-haired girl -- and probably killed Benjamin Solo -- had now achieved his goal. He'd embarked on a killing spree that wasn't going to stop until they got him.
If you've been longing for a new book from this seasoned New Orleans writer, here's a chance to get back to Skip Langdon -- and if you've never happened to read Smith's mysteries, well, as of the moment of writing this, two Skip Langdon stories were on the author's website as a free ebook. What a chance! Have fun, and enjoy the nostalgia.

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

The New Quaker Midwife Mystery from Edith Maxwell, TURNING THE TIDE

It's 1888 and the presidential election furor is heating up in Amesbury, Massachusetts. No surprise, then, that the skillful and strong-minded midwife Rose Carroll is prepared to join a protest on behalf of women getting the vote -- not in any offensive way, of course, but standing up with her friends, relatives, and especially other members of the Society of Friends, aka the Quakers.

Of course, any time Rose stands up publicly, her patients/clients worry whether she'll be on hand for their birth-related needs. And taking a stand for a "right" that wealthy men in the region may consider illegitimate can mar her carefully built reputation. Still, you know Rose ... or you do if you've been reading the excellent amateur sleuth series that Edith Maxwell provides as the Quaker Midwife Mysteries. The 2018 title is TURNING THE TIDE and it applies to a lot of the action, but especially to the force of public opinion. And that of Rose's mother-in-law to be,  who is not happy about the planned match for her son (Quakers are a step down socially!).

In the sturdy tradition of amateur sleuth mysteries, this time Rose sees an accusation of murder leveled against someone she suspects is innocent. Simple commitment to justice requires that she address herself to solving the crime, so the real criminal can pay the consequences instead.

I enjoyed the vibrant historical feel, as well as the many adept twists of plot here. Most of all, I appreciated the connection with Whittier, insight into the suffrage movement, and following Rose into the bedrooms of her ladies-in-labor. There's just enough suspense to keep the pages turning rapidly, yet nothing that would make me check the locks on the doors at night. A perfect balance!

Later this month (May 22), I'll share a book event with this very active author of three to four mystery series (at Water Street Books in Exeter, NH). The second book cover shown here relates to my own "Quaker connection" and part of what I'm eager to converse about with Edith Maxwell. If you're in the New England area, I hope you'll join us.

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

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Mass Killings, Cultural Collapse, or Just Murder ... in CULT X from Fuminori Nakamura

Japanese noir can finger the dark and dangerous side of urban life deftly -- a long-term slide from the twists of culture and despair that William Gibson's Neuromancer laid out for us in (the real) 1984. It's the obverse of the playful simplicity of manga's wide-eyed images. And because Japan's imperial drive toward domination remains bottled up inside today's imposed regimen of gun scarcity and forbidden military action, there's an aspect of sharpening blades for action that can be terrifying.

Fuminori Nakamura (the pen name of a Tokyo author) showed in The Gun his capacity for binding emotions around a small symbol until the pressure to act -- and act violently -- can't be restrained. In his newest novel, CULT X, set for release by Soho Press on May 22, he's chosen to probe an appalling moment of recent Japanese history: the 1995 sarin subway attack in Tokyo. That attack was the second to rip news headlines, preceded by the 1994 sarin poisoning that took place in Matsumoto City, Japan.

As in his earlier work, Nakamura moves toward the criminal actions in increments rooted in damaged lives.  Toru Narazaki can hardly believe it when he learns that the woman who disappeared from his life -- hinting at suicide -- has been seen alive. His desire to rediscover this woman, Ryoko Tachibana, pulls him out of his ordinary life, into exploration of what he thinks at first is a religious retreat group. The sleuth who's informed him that Ryoko is alive gives us a window into Narazaki's soul as he reflects that Narazaki "looked like he'd lost something he needed to go on living. Yet his gaze was terribly powerful, and had a strange radiance."

It's hunger and necessity gleaming at the surface of a life that's been ordinary until now. In fact, when Narazaki first visits the retreat building pointed out to him, and a middle-aged woman's voice inquires who he is, his reply is revelatory:
"My name's Toru Narazaki. I'm ... I'm not really anyone."
Although he's unaware of the force of his desire, Narazaki presses forward, trying to find Ryoko and make sense of her abrupt departure from his life. Long before he locates her, though, he's trapped in the power of his own longing for attention, sex, human contact in the most basic and childlike (although orgasmic) ways. His quest thus originates from almost pure physicality -- the exact opposite of what he'd imagined a religious process would involve.

It's not long before Narazaki realizes there are double undercurrents to what he's experiencing. On one hand, he's welcomed into a cult that's based in both philosophy and modern physics, with an engaging lecturer for its revered leader. And on the other, he's made himself into an ideal victim for the cult's enemies.

Sorting this into waves of external action, the book twists adeptly toward a horror-laden plot of mass destruction. Is Fuminori Nakamura suggesting that Japan's soul is a match to this protagonist's? I dread the notion, as the missing woman finally appears to greet the seeker, and Narazaki is intensely humiliated by the way she finds him:
When reality ultimately punctured one corner of his consciousness, the violence of his desires came rushing out. That's why I came here, Narazaki thought. To make my own real life seem like a fantasy. Out of contempt for my life ... No, contempt for the real world. But Narazaki couldn't say that to Tachibana. [...] Why am I like this? Why is my body like this? Narazaki's eyes began to tear up -- tears no one could sympathize with. Anger rose up to replace his embarrassment -- ugly, inappropriate anger.
Is that why the sarin poisonings took place? Out of an ugly anger rooted in abiding humiliation? In that case, what does the suspense here threaten, for all of us?

CULT X is a dark crime novel, published by Soho Crime (Soho Press). But it's also, like Nakamura's earlier books, a deliberate and painful fingering of old and new wounds. Horrifying, yes -- but worth confronting.

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