Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Eric Rickstad's New Crime Fiction (Vermont Suspense & Gothic) WHAT REMAINS OF HER

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Young professor Jonah Baum teaches transcendental poetry and Gothic literature at a small Vermont college. But nothing in his profession could prepare him for the November 1987 afternoon when, faced with an empty home and missing wife and daughter, he’d step into a horror narrative of his own.

With plenty of reason, and Jonah’s own doubts and confusion buttressing their assumptions, the police almost immediately began grilling him as the possible reason his family is missing. Did he chase them away? Or did he do something horrible to them? His alcohol-soggy mind can’t be fully certain of what’s going on and what he’s done.

Desperate for reassurance, and of course for his family, Jonah calls his best friend Maurice Welch, a local sheriff, for help finding Rebecca and Sally. To his shock, Maurice sees him as a possible suspect, keeps grilling him, pushing at details that Jonah’s twisted a bit to not look like what he really is—a man who’s afraid of his own incapacity, afraid of being left, afraid of any moment without the cushion of a drink and a white lie.

Those who’ve read Rickstad’s earlier books (Lie in Wait, The Silent Girls) know there will be darkness ahead. Some of it comes directly from Jonah’s weak-minded efforts to hide his inner culpability; some of it’s from Maurice’s determination to push, despite their friendship. And some of it is the dark, bloody illness of abuse and possible death pounding at the scene, forceful as a New England winter storm:
‘I hunted as a kid.’ Jonah nodded to Maurice. ‘He can attest to that.’

Maurice nodded, face grim.

‘And you just decided to take it up again on a whim?’ the detective said.

‘I don’t do much on whims,’ Jonah said.

‘Hmmm,’ the detective said.

Jonah’s every word, every action, seemed a mark against him. All of it suspicious. One of a thousand cuts. ‘I felt that old urge, and, frankly, free meat in the freezer never hurts with the cost of groceries these days.’

‘So you have money troubles?’

‘I wouldn’t say that.’

The detective scribbled a note. ‘And the head wound?’ He tapped his pen against his own forehead.

‘As I told Maurice, I got up too fast, lost my balance, and hit my head.’

‘And the dented wall in your daughter’s bedroom?’
 All the small things of life in an imperfect marriage, a restless career, line up to condemn Jonah. Maurice is unable to help—he’s there as the law more than as a best friend, it seems.

The real truth of what’s happened to Rebecca and Sally won’t be simple to find. WHAT REMAINS OF HER jumps forward into the adult life of little Sally’s used-to-be best friend, Lucinda Welch, the sheriff’s daughter. The small girls hadn’t understood much about their often scary world at the time of Sally’s disappearance, and Lucinda’s carrying a haunted burden of knowledge she couldn’t understand as a child, but recognized as full of threat.

Despite Rickstad’s reliance on ghostly tremors of unspoken, unrecognized evidence, this crime novel’s shattering conclusion arrives relentlessly and depends squarely on the reality of the long-lived circle of friends. Tightly plotted, jammed with frightening scenes of threat and loss, the book may haunt readers especially with the possibilities that what happens here might transfer to real life.

Which is, of course, the whole point of Gothic horror, embedded in crime fiction: to remind us of the fear and evil we half are drawn toward, half turn away from. Rickstad’s balance of this dark side with the counterpoint of courage and determination brought by now-adult Lucinda declares that truth may emerge, justice be measured out. Maybe.

Even this slim chance of righting the balance makes WHAT REMAINS OF HER a fiercely good read. Add it to the shelf of noir, along with Karin Fossum’s Scandinavian crime fiction, Stuart Neville’s violence-haunted Irish families, and Karin Slaughter’s twists on law enforcement and pursuit.

As always, for Rickstad’s Vermont books, don’t count on the geography matching the real Green Mountain state. Thank goodness, the crime’s won’t match, either—at least, not for today.

(Published by William Morrow.)

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

New Key West "Foodie" Mystery, DEATH ON THE MENU, Lucy Burdette

Wouldn't you love to be a food critic? Talk about not counting the calories, for a good reason! Hayley Snow putters around Key West, that southern Florida island haven, on her motorbike and checks out the latest restaurants, food carts, and other delights as part of her reporting job at Key Zest magazine. In DEATH ON THE MENU, number 8 in the delicious series from Lucy Burdette (aka Roberta Isleib), Hayley's job and her mother's catering business overlap, since both send her into tasting and writing about traditional Cuban food. (Yummy recipes at the back of the book include a Mojito Cake. Really!)

That's the good news -- that the food she's preparing, serving, and tasting (my stomach growled most of the way through this mystery) is doubling up for helping her mom and keeping her job at the magazine. Readers of earlier books in the series know Hayley's job hasn't always been secure, especially when her dating life and her boss coincided. But now she's head over heels in love with the right man for her, Nathan, who's also a police detective. Of course, friction ramps up when Nathan asks her to back off from the Hemingway Key-West-and-Cuba conference where her mom is catering. A "negative event" is part of the information Nathan has, and he wants Hayley safe.

But that's never been her key passion. Instead, she goes for loyalty to family and friends, which in this case directly counters that request. Gulp. Other stresses include how her adorable elderly roommate Miss Gloria would manage on their houseboat if Hayley ever gets married and leaves it ... her mom's business survival ... and of course the effects of the conference.

In the spirit of a traditional "amateur sleuth" mystery, there's soon a death on the catering crew. It's the brother of Cuban-born catering worker Maria, and soon Hayley's drawn into her own investigation, since the police have few clues and seem likely to blame the Cuban community for its own losses -- in this case, Maria's afraid her murdered brother Gabriel would be accused of a Hemingway-related theft at the historic "Truman Little White House":
"Why in the world do they think he was responsible for the theft?" I asked her. She bit her lip and shook her head. "If you want me to help, I have to know the truth. Is there any chance that he took it?" ...

"Please, please," Maria moaned as I started to walk away. "Closure is the only thing that might help my mother right now. It's not right that a mother's son should go first. It's not bearable.

I could only nod in agreement. I also wondered again how in the world the missing gold medal fit into his death.
Hayley's heart and mind both push her into committing to find the killer. Which will, in turn, put another of Gabriel's relatives at risk -- and then Hayley herself.

Tightly plotted, with plenty of island-style red herrings and mouth-watering food-prep descriptions, DEATH ON THE MENU is also full of friends helping friends, and the sweetness of love. I had a great time reading it, and I dream of the weekend when I'll be testing some of the recipes for the traditional delights that Hayley and her mom present along the way.

No need to read the preceding books in the series before plunging into this one -- double back to them later. DEATH ON THE MENU is a great choice for the summer reading stack, lively and evocative with plenty of action. And if I add that Jimmy Buffet makes a cameo appearance, I'm sure you'll nod in appreciation -- but you'll never guess the other celebrity guest until you turn the page and gasp. Have fun!

[Crooked Lane Books, July 31 publication date.]

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Summer Mystery, Clever and Cute Debut, LIVE AND LET CHAI by Bree Baker

Two cover images for this new mystery.

Debut author Bree Baker set up her dandy summer mystery, LIVE AND LET CHAI, with plenty of secrets to explore! Everly Swan's return to her seaside hometown of Charm (off the North Carolina coast, but way more rustic than Hilton Head) looks like a new chapter in her life, which just had a rough patch with a collapsed relationship. Here she is, though, in her own home at the beach, with enough room to open up the sweet tea and lunch shop she's dreamed of, and her doting aunts (who raised her) close enough to give her a hand; oh, but what's the story on her own parents, and the Swan family curse? Hold that thought.

Before she's even reached her grand opening, she's got trouble -- an elderly town council member who's tried to block her business is murdered and there's no doubt the poison reached him via a take-out glass of Everly's own peach tea. Rumors run rampant, and customers not only won't come indulge, they're downright hostile. So, initially, is the town's new police officer, whose hunky body and wounded heart appeal to Everly -- but not so much, while he's questioning her:
"I'd like a list of anyone else who you believe might have a reason to harm Mr. Paine."

"Anyone else? Like, besides me?" I scoffed. "I just told you I couldn't have killed Mr. Paine. It's illogical and mean."

"And you're always what?" he asked. "Reasonable and kind?"

"I try to be," I admitted. Though buying a fixer-upper home on a whim and arguing with an old man didn't support either notion. ....

Eventually, I turned to the notepad and began to recount the events of my evening, logging them as neatly as I could with shaking hands, the memories as vivid and visceral as if I were reliving each awful one.
It's soon clear that the only way Everly can retrieve her business, her role in the community, and even her own safety will be to speed up the discovery of the real criminal. Of course, that means interfering in police business a bit. And rubbing some people the wrong way. Sigh. Thank goodness, she'd got supportive friends and family, because things will be tough until the murderer comes to justice.

No signs here that Baker, who lives in the Midwest, is a novice -- this is a tightly paced, well put together mystery with just the right balance of suspense and sweet tea. Although it's a an amateur sleuth mystery in the cozy area, the possibility of romance never distracts from the clues and their pursuit, and Everly is a plucky and smart young woman determined to do whatever it takes to put her life back together. Even if that means she'll have to reveal a little of her own past disappointments, not to mention her family's so-called curse -- all of which looks full of material for future books in this "Seaside Café Mystery" series.

From Sourcebooks, new for July and perfect for the summer reading stack. By the way, the author's already a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Romance Writers of America, good confirmation for her own determination and her mystery skills!

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

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Betrayal and Pain (and Crime) Between Friends, HER PRETTY FACE by Robyn Harding

Sharp, insightful, and edgy, HER PRETTY FACE from Robyn Harding takes this author, already known for her women's fiction, into crime from a new angle: What happens to the people who survive a terrible assault and who've had a role in it -- but aren't kept in prison forever? Could one of them turn up in your life, like the dark side of a WITSEC twist?

It's easy to sympathize with Frances Metcalfe. Other than her rock-solid marriage, her life is loaded with problems: a son with emotional issues who's having trouble surfing the nasty currents of an upscale private school, her own inability to look like a mom at that kind of school should, and feeling the sting of cliques -- not just for herself but for her much-loved and rather naive son.

So it looks like an amazing gift in Frances's life when gorgeous, wealthy, and, let's face it, sexy Kate Randolph steps forward to defend her, and her son. Not only is Kate willing to stand up for them, she's happy to be a real friend for Frances, the kind who wants to go out for lunch, have a couples night with a kids' sleepover, and more.

But as Harding unfolds the story of the two women and their families, she also provides peeks into a long-ago crime, one that featured abuse and murder, and we're reading the words of someone not quite identified, who's linked to that crime. What's the connection to Kate and Frances? As it all unfolds, the tension ramps high, providing an intense page-turner.

My lone quibble with HER PRETTY FACE is the person who pays the highest price as the plot spirals -- Harding's choice detracts from the painful darkness that a book like this one usually evokes. Then again, for many readers, that will be a plus: not having to cover your eyes or double check that the door is locked, or weep for someone's irreversible damage. But it comes close ... and it's not until the final twists that any assurance can come from this tangle of secrets and suspense.

From Scout Press, a Simon & Schuster imprint. Release date July 10.

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

New in John Straley's Great Alaskan Crime Fiction Series, BABY'S FIRST FELONY -- and More

It's always great when a new Cecil Younger investigation comes out from Alaskan author John Straley -- the series has been one of the slower type, without the annual push to publish that many others have. No problem: Each one's been worth the wait, and BABY'S FIRST FELONY is a great summer read. Plus, there's more exciting news -- see the end paragraphs for details.

First, what's Cecil Younger up to? He's a criminal defense investigator, and a big part of his job is coaching clueless felons on how to behave in and around court (like, Don't come to court in shoes you stole ... really ... see a lively Straley interview here). Let's quickly add that not all the criminals are totally stupid; plenty are smart enough to make a profit somehow from their crimes. But as Straley advises, "Reality is always, always more complicated than our ability to plan for it."

And that's the situation for Cecil Younger as this book opens -- a habitual offender already known to him turns up as a client again, and when Sherrie asks him to track down the evidence she's sure will get her through court and out of jail, Cecil of course agrees. The complication is, once he starts poking into the drug and prostitution stuff where Sherrie's been hanging, he finds his own teenage daughter, naive and rebellious, showing up in the same house. Getting her home again takes all he's got (although he picks up the evidence along the way). But his daughter's now a known lever to use against him, and when she gets kidnapped, he's facing major pressure to commit crimes himself -- not just the kind on paper that most anyone might -- and even so, his daughter's life and his marriage are majorly at risk. Here's his wife confronting him:
"Our daughter is missing. You disappear and give me no information where you f*ing disapper to, and then you turn up drunk? Unbelievable. ... The police won't answer my calls. Her friends are frantically trying to find her. Todd is walking around town and just calling her name as if she were a lost dog ... and where the hell are you?" Jane Marie's voice was leaden and accusatory.

"I'm going to a card game to get her back," I said ... or at least I think I said. What was certain was Jane Marie threw a dry shirt at me and held out a clean denim jacket. She jammed some loose bills into the jacket pocket and started punching me.

"Get out of my house." She was shrill now. "Get out and don't come back. Go."

I may have fallen down the staircase because I was bleeding when I veered out into Katlian Street in the rain.
Cecil's got a lot more pain in front of him, and more disastrous choices -- all of which he's pretty much forced into. (See whether you can figure any way he could have avoided them.)

Straley admits he pushed the plot to display a wide range of disasters that come from breaking your own hard-learned rules for life. He should know -- he's now retired from nearly 30 years as a criminal defense investigator himself. I sure do hope that means there will be more books from him, a tad more often. But I'll wait as long as necessary.

Now, the big good news as a plus to all this: Soho Crime (imprint of Soho Press) just brought out softcover versions of four earlier Cecil Younger investigations! Pester your local bookseller to stock them all (tell them to go directly to Paul Oliver, a VP at the press, e-mail poliver@sohopress.com). Summer reading stack? If you can stretch them out some, you might get all the way into autumn.

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