Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Tech Entrepreneur Turns Kidnapper? Gripping Debut from Rea Frey, NOT HER DAUGHTER

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

The first chapter of NOT HER DAUGHTER is taut, intense, gripping – and by the end of its handful of pages, it’s clear the speaker, entrepreneur and CEO Sarah Walker, has taken someone else’s child: Emma Grace, an adorable and smart little girl in a red dress who’s been routinely, casually, physically and emotionally abused by her mother (and ignored by her father). Is there any way this can be right? Has Sarah become a kidnapper, a criminal, a runaway from her own life—for the sake of rescuing a child who reminds her far too clearly of her own abandonment?

Sarah’s probably the last person you’d imagine as a kidnapper. Her loyal and caring employees at her firm, which provides educational materials for schools in the US and abroad, call her “Boss Lady” to her face, and do all they can to make her high-stress, hard-work life a little smoother and sweeter. Her aging dad counts on her support. Her mother—well, she walked out when Sarah was a small child. And Sarah’s boyfriend just took off recently. Traumas, or clarity?

One way or another, Sarah and Emma are on the run. But Emma might not be the classic victim imagined. Consider this moment when Sarah considers Emma’s offer:
She closes the gap and looks up at me. My hand is still extended. She studies it, arms at her sides. I manage a smile and secure my lips against my teeth. ‘I just want to help you,’ I say.

I am going to take you away from here.

She takes another breath. Her whole body balloons and then deflates. She bends the fingers of her left hand, then lifts her right hand toward mine.

It makes contact. I squeeze and press her hot palm to mine. Our bodies link. Our eyes lock. She nods, and my voice catches in my throat as I begin to pull her away from her mother, her house, and her life.
Rea Frey lives in Nashville and has a daughter (with her husband). She’s been co-owner of a gym in the past. Her previous books have been nonfiction—on detoxing before pregnancy, vegan eating, cheating boyfriends—and this is her debut in fiction. It’s a high-suspense crime novel, well paced and smoothly written. The ending raises multiple questions, and is a little too rushed to do them justice. Probably the most interesting aspect of NOT MY DAUGHTER is the urge to identify with Sarah, who clearly is guilty of a horrifying crime. Of course, from her point of view, she’s a rescuer, taking action that the social welfare system won’t.

Also intriguing are the segments from the point of view of Emma’s mother, the woman who gave birth to her and in most ways hates her. That abuse is real; there are reasons for it, but of course, no possible justification.

Book-club questions wrap up the novel. It could be fascinating to listen to discussions from other women, moms and aunts and grandmothers, who’ve imagined saving a child this way. Would you do it?

Rea Frey’s most pointed question may be: Whose daughter is Emma, really?

A note about this unusual author: Frey gave herself an 8-week window to write this book. Not only did she complete it (in a month), but her manuscript ended up in a bidding war among publishers, and she received a two-book contract. So, expect another gripping crime novel from her, in a year or so.
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.  -->

Chilling Debut Mystery, British, from Sandie Jones, THE OTHER WOMAN

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

British author Sandie Jones brings out her debut crime novel The Other Woman as one of the creepiest “fall in love and step into danger” books ever. With a tang of Stephen King in its horror passages (especially his title Misery), this book requires a good light on and the doors securely locked. Because, yes, it’s terrifying.

Jones provides a half-page prologue in the voice of someone who’s going to make sure a wedding doesn’t happen. Then she leaps to the opening of the first chapter, which puts the possibility of trouble right out front, in Emily’s view: “There weren’t many things that I didn’t like about Adam when I first saw him across the crowded bar at the Grosvenor Hotel in London, aside from his lack of empathy. I’d just come out of an incredibly dull ‘Future of Recruitment’ conference and needed a drink far more than he or the barman realized.”

Emily Havistock, whose voice and point of view take over the rest of this thriller, believes she’s found the man of her dreams in Adam. He’s perfect (she’s willing to set aside that strange lack of empathy), tender, adores her. She adores him. But there are secrets in his past and his family (a doting mother, a close brother) that keep tripping Emily into waves of doubt. What’s the story on the woman Adam expected to marry earlier in his life, Rebecca, whom he “misses every day”? Is James trying to warm Emily that Adam can be hurtful? And how should they handle Adam’s mother Pammie, who’s doing so many things to make Emily ill at ease and even to capsize the planned wedding? Emily tries to talk this through with Adam’s brother James:

 ’Any ideas on what we can do about your mother?’ I asked, aware that I might be crossing a line. I screwed up my face as I waited for his response.

‘She’ll get over it,’ he said softly.

I smiled. ‘I don’t think it’ll be anytime soon. You know what your mum’s like. She’ll drag it out for as long as she can.’ I wasn’t sure whether I’d meant to say that out loud.

‘Her bark’s worse than her bite,” he said, after a long pause. ‘She’ll come around.’ 

But what if Pammie had something to do with the earlier death of Rebecca? What if Emily now wears that target herself? And—gulp—would the target also apply to other people Emily loves, including a possible infant? More pressing, why isn’t Adam doing anything about this? How can he let Pammie repeatedly exclude Emma from “family photos” and more? Her heart’s breaking.

Of course, Emily has a few secrets of her own, one of whom shows up for the “hen party” before the wedding. Gulp.

Read this one as a page-turner, a creepy set of circumstances that keep getting more threatening. Don’t expect depth of character, and don’t expect to “solve” the crime, as Jones hasn’t set up the plotting for reader access to the truth until the final twists take place.

That said, it’s intense, compelling, and very British, a good palate-cleanser to restore a full range of flavor after watching too many sweet happy-every-after films (newly released The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?) or kindly books (this is much more aggressive than even the darkest Agatha Christie!). And The Other Woman proves conclusively that Hitchcock’s talent for threat and terror in the unfolding of each scene can just as well emerge in this up-to-date and clever London author. (From Minotaur.)
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.  -->

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Crime Fiction Debut from Martin Jay Weiss, THE SECOND SON

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

A debut thriller is always an adventure—has the author been secretly practicing the craft of tight, suspenseful writing, so that the plot will make sense, the pace will force the pages to turn, and the characters will be memorable? Or will there be small gaps in means and motive and opportunity, or flaws in dialogue, or accidental mismatches?

Fortunately, Martin Jay Weiss is far from the usual debut author. Under the name Marty Weiss, he’s already an accomplished filmmaker and director, producing award-winning commercials. Translation: He can set a scene swiftly, raise the ante, and make it work.

So Rare Bird Books didn’t just snatch up his debut—this independent California press grabbed both THE SECOND SON for this season, and Flamingo Coast (not a sequel) for next year. That’s great news.

Start with the risky and exhilarating business of a California tech entrepreneur. “Stalker,” owned by brothers Ethan and Jack Stone, isn’t quite ready to go fully public. Its facial recognition software still has glitches. But the pressure from their CFO (chief financial officer), Bailey Duff, keeps escalating. There’s not much the brothers can do to rein that pressure in, since it’s coming from an anonymous financial “angel” who refuses to give the team its next dose of funds unless Stalker launches immediately.

So the tradition of “first death, first chapter” in many a thriller becomes, instead, a premature birth of an app. At the same time, Ethan Stone’s life decomposes in a matter of hours, as his brother Jack, who’s his twin, announces an immediate departure to go work for the competition. The two have never been significantly apart. How can this happen?

And when Ethan gets home, the other intimate part of his life turns upside down, because his live-together-girlfriend, his beloved Brooke, has left him at the same time. How can this happen? Have his brother and his heart’s desire somehow bonded in a way that’s stolen them both from his life? Will his venture-capital-funded tech firm collapse, as his private life explodes?

 Even so, Ethan’s awareness of what’s really going on hasn’t really started. What’s the real connection that Brooke has with her own business, the Dancing Rabbit retreat house in Big Sur? Why do people disappear there? If Ethan’s own business is about people finding each other via new search modes, could Brooke’s business somehow be doing the opposite? And, as mysterious as all the rest, how could the firm’s competitor, Hounddog, have recruited Ethan’s twin out of his life?

When Ethan decides to undertake his own search for both Jack and Brooke, he stumbles into evidence of a pair of deaths near the retreat house, and suddenly he’s interfering with the police:
 Ethan took a few steps forward and tried to explain, ‘I haven’t been able to get through to them on the phone and I just want to make sure—‘

‘This is an investigation, sir. I need you to get back to your vehicle.’

The officer didn’t want to leave his post but was getting irritated. Ethan knew the officer wouldn’t let him through, so he waved, as if thanking the officer for permission, and headed for the crushed metal barrier opening.

The officer shouted, ‘Don’t even think about it!’

By the time the officer waited for a passing car, Ethan had already disappeared into the pitch-black muddy slope. The officer grabbed his walkie-talkie and warned the officers below. ‘Civilian approaching!’

Another voice echoed a complaint, but it was too late. Ethan was upon them.”

Haunting the rest of the action and the secrets that Ethan’s got to uncover is something Brooke told him before she vanished: “Birth order and birthrights shouldn’t matter, but they always do.”
Even between twins?

The pace is tight, even though the writing shows an early-career tendency to “tell” more than “show,” making the book a little too wordy. But there’s enough adventure in here to promise a heady career for the author. A parallel could be Paul E. Hardisty’s books, which began a little too “loose” and turned into the powerful Claymore Straker series, increasingly tight and challenging. Espionage from Karen Robards has the same feel.

Granted, Martin Jay Weiss has some distance to go, but he’s already worth reading. And here’s the other excitement of a debut thriller: spotting the ones where the author’s rapid growth will make that first book into a treasure. THE SECOND SON offers exactly that promise. (Published by Rare Bird Books)

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

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Chasing Crime in Laos with Dr. Siri Paiboun, #13, DON'T EAT ME, Colin Cotterill

Dr. Siri Paiboun has retired from his Party-required position as national coroner of Laos (1980s style). That gives him plenty of time to spend with his wife, Madame Daeng, assisting at her noodle shop -- except somehow he's pretty often away on adventures instead. As DON'T EAT ME (number 13 in this highly entertaining international caper series) opens, Dr. Siri and his good friend Civilai -- Comrade Civilai, that is -- have smuggled a large, bulky item home on a raft. And the next morning brings them a regrettable visit from their friend Inspector Phosy, who has not retired and therefore needs to confront them with presumably smuggling a weapon into the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.

The good part is, it's not a weapon -- it's an enormous electrical movie camera, for the friends' ambitious notion to create a Laotian version of War and Peace on screen. Starring, of course, handsome young men like themselves (okay, like they Once Were).
A year earlier there had been an incident that resulted in the old boys coming into possession of some drug money. Quite a sum in fact. Siri had invested much of his in charitable acts while Civilai had smuggled in some delicious but rather expensive wines, a new lounge suite and a car -- not new but classic. Yet still they had not completely used up their ill-gotten gains. In fact they had enough not only to buy the camera, but also, with a little budget tweaking, to produce a modest film of tehir own. ... They removed the camera and wrapped it in an old parachute canopy. Getting it to the Lao side would be Siri's problem. ...

"How do we develop the film?" Civilai asked.

Siri laughed.

"Old Brother," he said, "on the eve of the race does the marathon runner worry about what drinks will be available at the winner's reception party? No. He takes one step at a time."
Once Phosy realizes he doesn't have to arrest his buddies, everyone relaxes. Which in turn leaves time to comtemplate the challenges for their plan: No power to run the machine. No operating manual. An interfering sort of local bureaucracy that's likely to rewrite the script for its own members, if it gives a shooting permit at all. And, oh yes, complications in the family circle, related to Mr. Geung.

Readers of the series will leap at the notion of hearing more about Mr. Geung's life, especially his planned marriage (!). If you haven't read any of the earlier books, be warned: You need to abandon disbelief, go with the flow, and let Dr. Siri and Mr. Geung demonstrate the fine points of the Laotian spirit world, where each of them keeps connecting.

But there's more to DON'T EAT ME than the madcap adventures of these rebels! There is, of course, a crime ... perhaps two or three? ... a skeleton (not yet bare) ... a criminal enterprise involving animal smuggling ... and conflict with the "real" bureaucracy.

Cotterill's passion for clever and unexpected twists that show the Party at its manipulative worst (and of course Dr. Siri fumbling his way toward a solution that his friends will help implement) takes the plot to drastic extremes this time. It felt like a lot of chapters spent wondering whether the team would ever be able to restore its usual lives -- and feeling highly anxious about missing family members!

Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri books are always a delight. DON'T EAT ME may be one of the most memorable in the series. And it's almost sure to send you back to the earlier titles, whether for the first time or the third (or more). Good fun, and a great summer read, from Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press).

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

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Debut British Police Thriller from Max Manning, DON'T LOOK NOW

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

What are the keys to a serial killer crime novel well worth reading? Max Manning, a seasoned British journalist who’s covered crime and more for London’s big newspapers, crafts a modern “Jack the Ripper” in Don’t Look Now and takes readers along with the killer on a journey of multiple killings. But in spite of direct glimpses of this nightmare’s thinking process, there’s no expectation of liking or even fully understanding the criminal here. Instead, Manning binds readers to the very different lives of two men who will risk losing everything, for the sake of ending this crime spree.

One is Detective Chief Inspector Dan Fenton, who’s caught in a political net that won’t give him time to solve the crime, as the newspapers ramp up their pressure on his officers, on him, on New Scotland Yard. Suddenly a single parent, with a school-age daughter and a huge grieving hole blasted by his wife’s death from cancer, Fenton still needs to work overtime, maybe double, to clear the case that keeps growing with each new death. Yet each time he breaks a promise to be home “soon” for his daughter or their new live-in nanny, he’s tormented. Yes, that kind of person, the kind who really cares about respect for others, kindness, obligations. How on earth can that kind of person survive a police bureaucracy?

Then there’s Adam Blake. At first, we only know he’s taking really hard the first murder. It’s the woman who’d been his girlfriend until a few weeks before, when she’d given up on him, especially his unwillingness (as she saw it) to get help for the frozen parts of his soul, massive remnants of an inner and outer wound that wasn’t his fault. But isn’t healing. It’s clear his friend Lauren Bishop was a random choice for the killer. Is there some reason Blake should turn back toward the broken relationship now, after this murder, and help seek the killer?

Those are the factors that Manning handles with enormous skill: keeping the suspense and danger frighteningly intense, while murders pile up and Fenton takes a public shaming for being unable to stop them, Blake struggles to function within “civilization” after his exiling, and pain shows itself in even the smallest gestures. Fenton is rubbing his eyes red; Blake might as well be sweating tears, as he chases a hacker who might be able to help.

And that’s where the “modern” aspect of this serial killing plays out. The killer—readers know him only as @IKiller, from his Instagram account and other social media plays—has the same craving for public fame that the Ripper probably shared. But he’s tackling it through the most modern processes of publicizing cellphone photos of his victims before and after killing. London’s terrorized by the literal faces of terror and death. And by a disgusting fascination that emerges in the seams of the city.
Blake took a couple of deep breaths. … ‘It’s down to human nature, I suppose,’ he said. ‘We’ve all got darkness somewhere inside.’

‘You really believe that?’

‘Why do you think drivers slow down to rubberneck at car crashes? Why are we fascinated by horror movies, TV coverage of disasters? Don’t ask me to explain it, because I can’t. The ghouls following the killer disgust me as much as they do you. It just doesn’t shock me as much.’ 
Dark and focused on three men’s choices—those of Blake, Fenton, and the killer—Don’t Look Now uses the women in this story (the deceased girlfriend; her surviving sister; Fenton’s daughter) as measures of how much the crime solvers care. When their lives fall apart, will they be of any use to each other in stopping the killing?

Closer to a Jeffery Deaver manhunt emotionally, than to the Nordic noir, Manning’s debut crime novel is a keeper. (Published by Sourcebooks Landmark.)
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.