Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Strong "Traditional" Espionage Adventure from James Rayburn, THE TRUTH ITSELF

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

What happens to a CIA agent who turns whistleblower on her own colleagues? Kate Smith, hiding in Vermont with her young daughter Suzie, knows the price: an international-level death threat on her head and her daughter’s, and trying to live an unassuming single-mom’s life while her daughter goes to school in an ordinary small town. Way, way, under the radar.

Braced for revenge from the man whose power she’d diminished by “squealing,” Kate’s always been ready to run again. Spurred to escape by an accident instead—an invasion of her daughter’s elementary school by a pair of teenage shooters, which Kate takes action to stop—she’s suddenly made visible to Lucien Benway, who’s ready track her down. Oh, she’s still got those skills from being an agent in the field, as she’s just shown with the invading teens:

“Then she was dropping the Bushmaster and reaching in for her daughter, hauling her out the window and finding a crazy strength that allowed her to hold her child close as she sprinted through the snow, driving her legs, lifting her knees, feeling the burn of the cold in her lungs. She raced for her car, hearing the wail of the sirens bearing down on them, knowing she had no more than a minute to get to the Jeep and get away.”

Yes, Kate’s strong and driven, but in James Rayburn’s spy thriller, The Truth Itself, it’s clear that those skills aren’t enough to carve out a permanent escape from Benway and his associates. Let’s face it, they have the same skills, and they’re not subject to international pursuit. So Kate’s effort to track down a famous spy-arena “fixer” of the past makes perfect sense: Only someone like Harry Hook, now hiding from disgrace in a tropical paradise, may be able to end Kate’s life of running and ensure that Suzie can grown up in safety.

Rayburn sets up the book as a race against time, Kate and her team versus Benway and his. The highly effective page-turning speaks to Rayburn’s earlier career as a South African filmmaker (under the name Roger Smith; Rayburn is a pen name), which he followed first with writing crime fiction set in Cape Town. His leap to spy fiction may be unexpected, but his very public Twitter feed shows attachment to the classic writers of the field like Le Carré and Graham Greene. Although the espionage plot twists in The Truth Itself aren’t unusual ones, the force of character that Kate Swift provides gives a new notion of what a woman can accomplish as an agent—and a mom.

Most pressing of all is Kate’s determination to protect her daughter. As she prepares to leave yet another set of allies, to try to get ahead of the team chasing her, she faces her daughter’s pressing question of “why” the latest ally, already part of their family structure, can’t go with them:
“Kate could have said: because I want to get as far away from him as I can. For his own safety.

But she just shrugged. ‘He can’t. He has to stay here.’ …

The child had tears in her eyes. ‘I don’t want to go. As soon as I meet people I like you take me away from them.’”
And that’s the heart of the quandary. Will Kate ever be able to let her daughter bond to people, and in fact, will it ever be safe for Kate to love again? Perhaps only the gifted but worn-out fixer, Harry Hook, could truthfully answer that.

Often violent but not particularly gruesome, The Truth Itself is a classic-style spy and escape adventure. It’s a good read, with engaging characters, and the final scene hints at a possible sequel in the works. That would be excellent news.

[From Blackstone Publishing.]

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Top-Notch Suspense Debut from Stuart Turton, British, Edgy, and Provocative

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Who would guess that a time-turning fantasy twist could be braided into a grim and edgy mystery, ending up with one of the most complex, suspenseful, and original page turners of the season? But that’s what Stuart Turton’s debut crime fiction achieves. Here’s the premise: Sebastian Bell—at least, that’s what people tell him he’s called, although he can’t recall a thing about his life before waking up injured in a dark woods—witnesses a murder. Or does he? No, it turns out he might not really be Sebastian, and the person he’s sure he’s there to protect, Anna, isn’t known to anyone at the mysterious house party where he’s a down-at-heels guest in a tumbledown mansion without phone service.

Then, just as things are starting to make sense, Sebastian’s in the middle of a much more pertinent possible murder plot. One that he’s supposed to stop, if he wants to save Anna. But who is Anna, anyway?

That’s meant to be confusing. The protagonist of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle won’t figure out exactly who he is until there have been several more swift changes of point of view. And why he’s there is an even tougher mystery to unravel. 

But the basics are all in place for gothic suspense—in fact, Stuart Turton, a freelance London journalist, might as well be channeling Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King for this compelling thriller. Who is the Footman and why is he so dangerous? Are the hosts of the house party, Lord and Lady Hardcastle, part of the confusion, or are they menacing, especially toward their own daughter Evelyn? Here’s Sebastian’s effort to pull the pieces together:
I’m out of my chair before the draft fades, pulling open the drawers of my nightstand, searching for some mention of Anna among my possessions, anything to prove that she isn’t the product of a lurching mind. Unfortunately, the bedroom is proving remarkably tight-lipped. Aside from a pocketbook containing a few pounds, the only other personal item I come across is a gold-embossed invitation, a guest list on the front and a message on the back, written in an elegant hand.
Lord and Lady Hardcastle request the pleasure of your company at a masquerade ball celebrating the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from Paris. Celebrations will take place at Blackheath House over the second weekend of September. Owing to Blackheath’s isolation, transport to the house will be arranged for all of our guests from the nearby village of Abberly.
From the invitation, Sebastian realizes he’s a doctor, but in his current state of chaos, he doubts he could even wield a stethoscope correctly. 

Terror escalates. The protagonist’s genuine efforts to be heroic and intelligent, despite the situation’s brain-damaged outlook, bind him rapidly to several of his fellow guests. Whether he can actually either prevent or successfully solve Evelyn’s murder will determine not only his own fate, but that of others trapped in Blackheath with him.

At one moment a desperate Sherlock Holmes, at another a tormented Dante facing a hell he’d never dreamed existed, the narrator insists on enduring each new peril, desperate to solve the case. This urgency turns The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle into a dark and intriguing thriller, a crime novel well outside the norm, and entirely memorable for both plot twists and unusual characters. Place on the stack of “to be read twice.” Turton’s crafted a winner.

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

Charles Todd's New Bess Crawford Mystery, A FORGOTTEN PLACE, Embraces Wales

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

How marvelous to have Charles Todd set the tenth Bess Crawford mystery in Wales, the least written-about part of the British Isles. And the long, slow movement into the story in A Forgotten Place evokes how loveliness can exist next to, even woven into, a deep darkness.

The skills of wartime nursing serve well for Bess Crawford, a “Sister” returning home from battlefield hospitals, in coping with the despair of British amputees at the end of the Great War, in 1914. (Remember that unlike the American term where "sister" would have implied being a nun, the British term "nursing sister" meant a graduate nurse). With a mix of gentle bullying learned from experience and from the Matrons who’ve led the nurses, Crawford nudges a Welsh office, Captain Williams, to resume leadership of his wounded men—even with his own condition of a missing leg and uncertain fitness for postwar work.

Yet despite Bess Crawford’s best efforts, one of the men is dead of suicide before leaving her care, and others appear ready to do the same. After all, what use is an armless or legless man in a coal mine? For in Wales at the time, that was almost the only way to make a living, dirty and dangerous as it was. 

Bess works at letting go of a persistent sense of responsibility for the Welsh men. But when a note from Captain Williams informs her that another suicide’s taken place, with more sure to follow, Bess takes the man’s plea seriously: “I’m at my wits’ end, and I am writing to ask your help in bringing them to their senses. I have no right to ask this of you, but if someone doesn’t do something, we’ll all be gone by the spring.”

Todd is completely convincing in portraying Bess Crawford’s overwhelming sense that she must “fix” this, and at the same time showing the tenderness and loyalty that she gives so readily to people she cares about, even though they live far away and in circumstances she can’t fathom. And it’s perfectly logical then for Bess to take her own leave and quietly board a train for that desolate, forgotten place and the wounded warriors barely clinging to existence.

When Bess finally catches up with the captain, who has already moved away from the suicides that surrounded him, he’s in an isolated hamlet on the storm-swept coast, even bleaker than the usual Welsh settlement of the time. His first whisper to her is ominous: “You mustn’t stay here,” he said softly. “It isn’t safe.”

That turns out to be an understatement, as Bess finds herself trapped in the hamlet and cut off from all her support, with her family and Matron not knowing she’s in this place, and the threat of death aimed even at her, if she tries to escape. Why? Well, the hamlet has a secret—and because Bess is such a good investigator, she soon knows that secret. Nobody can afford to allow her to tell it.

Readers of this series will appreciate how Charles Todd (a mother-and-son writing team) draws out the impact of the Great War in this grim time that could have been a celebration of peace, but instead reveals the deep wounds of the survivors. But there’s no need to have read the series before plunging into A Forgotten Place: Todd positions Bess Crawford’s persistence and daring adeptly, and no plot elements depend on the earlier books. There are a few unfortunate name errors in the text, but it’s easy to overlook them, in the double tide of the soldiers’ despair and Bess’s fierce commitment to bringing about as much healing and justice as is possible. 

Deft plot twists and an atmospheric setting make this a must-read for anyone savoring the abundance of World War I and II crime novels being published. In addition, the Bess Crawford series is the perfect “other gender” balance to both Todd’s original Inspector Rutledge series and James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle investigations, and A Forgotten Place forms an intriguing parallel to the Shetland mysteries by Ann Cleeves. Well worth adding to the “to be read” stack.

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Anne Perry, DARK TIDE RISING (William Monk #24), Deep, Dark, and Satisfying

There are two components that make many a crime novel memorable over the long haul: the twists of the plot, and the way the crime's investigator stands up as a person—his or her courage, integrity, sense of humor, intelligence, and most of all, capacity to care.

That last aspect may seem a bit out of place at first. But it's what makes Louise Penny's Armand Gamache seem "known" to his legions of fans; it's what carries Carol O'Connell's prickly and dangerous Kathy Mallory into the hearts of her colleagues and readers; it's the part of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, and even Lee Child's feckless Jack Reacher, that pulls us to the next title, and the next.

And it's what makes Anne Perry's police Commander William Monk someone you might want for a neighbor, or on your local police force, in spite of his location in 1881 England.

In DARK TIDE RISING, Monk accepts a mission to protect the life of a wealthy real estate developer racing to ransom his kidnapped younger wife. Harry Exeter has a marriage Monk can connect with, because it's so much like his own: an unexpected and intensely valued relationship discovered against the odds, with a woman whose life is clearly worth sacrificing a fortune to save.

The protection effort and would-be rescue is going to have to take place at Jacob's Island, though. It's a location Monk knows far too well: a desperate slum of 1800s London, permeated by deadly tidal surges and even quicksand. He's witnessed death there: "He could still see the fat man sinking slowly into the tidal ooze, his mouth open, screaming, until the mud cut him off, and inch by inch he disappeared from sight." How can Monk organize his team to prevent such a disaster, while also bringing back the kidnap victim, Kate Exeter? Immaculate organization and planning must take place.

But Monk's efforts, with his men, the River Police, go quickly awry, and he's plunged into a very different and equally disastrous situation:
What he had not said, and what weighed on Monk's mind with further pain, was the thought that the kidnappers had known so much about their plans. There were five or six different ways the River Police could have got in, but the kidnappers had known precisely which ones they were going to use, how many man, and where they were along those tunnels and passages. What he forced himself to wonder was, who had told them?

It hurt even to think the words and yet they were there, whether he said them or not.
Perry's drama takes place in a setting where the gap between wealth and poverty set up extremes that were, in themselves, life-threatening, and the amount of effort for policing as she portrays it is accentuated by the absence of modern crime-solving tools and techniques. What Monk and his friends, including his insightful wife, must depend on is their sense of geography, their probing of human nature, and, in this rapidly developing and often twisting case, the classic threesome of crime: means, motive, opportunity. Here, the motive must somehow involve finances, as more threats and a whistle-blower's death are added to the events. But why?

Watching Monk sort out the motives of both the criminals and his own team members is fascinating, and emotionally compelling. Leadership, the power of friendship among men, struggles for the sake of each other ... these, as much as the sucking force of London's tides, deepen DARK TIDE RISING and make it one of Perry's best books.

No need to read the preceding Monk titles before plunging into this one, although of course they'll enrich the perspective on the characters. But Perry's a pro, laying out her characters and their past anguish with spare, quick details, making this a wicked good read. The publication date is September 18, from Random House. Pick up the hardcover first edition as a treat to yourself, an anchor of hope in humanity in this politically fraught season.

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

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Crimesolving Behind the Lines, World War II, with Billy Boyle, from James R. Benn

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Spies, enemies, and friends with mixed motives: good thing investigator Billy Boyle has his close friends Kaz and Big Mike with him in Normandy, France, in July 1944, because that may be the only loyalty he’s sure of. This 13th in James R. Benn’s must-read series of police work during the Second World War is a page-turner with complicated twists and the constant background of shellfire—often threatening Billy Boyle’s safety as he investigates close to the line of Germans trying to regain ground.

Boyle is a straightforward young American, the newest generation in a family of Boston cops. His relatives thought they’d carve a “safe” wartime slot for him by maneuvering him into the service of General “Ike” Eisenhower, a distant cousin by marriage. But Eisenhower’s early transition to the front of the war has carved out a dangerous and fascinating career for Billy, as an almost-civilian police officer probing the situations that threaten the general among his own forces.

In Solemn Graves, Billy Boyle and his team must investigate the murder of an American officer in a manor house close to the front lines in Normandy. Even the presence of Major Jerome in the house is supposed to be top secret, due to the unit he was supposed to advise: the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, also called the Ghost Army. Like the group featured by British author Elly Griffiths in her “Mad Men” series, these troops are creating phantom action to distract, disorient, and misinform the Germans nearby.

That means the situation is fraught with possible betrayals. Billy and Kaz can’t be sure who around them could be a German spy, even the manor house owner Madame Regine Janvier. She’s survived the war through the produce of her farm, both fresh foods and pressed cider, naturally allowed to turn alcoholic and even fermented into liquor. But all around are examples of how the local population treats those who’ve survived the war by trading other things, such as sex, with the occupying German forces, and Billy’s a witness to the horrors:
‘Now, Captain Boyle, you shall see how we punish the collaboration horizontale,’ Legrand said, laughing as his men forced the four women to sit on the steps. But not to receive a bullet. Theirs was to be a less lethal, but still cruel, punishment. Men with scissors and hair clippers grabbed them roughly, pulling up their hair. They held them that way for a long minute as the townspeople heaped abuse on them. At a sharp command from Legrand, they began hacking away.
‘We call this the coiffure ’44,’ Legrand said. “You see, we can show mercy, Captain Boyle. . . . Hair will grow back. Necks do not.”
‘This is mercy?’ I asked, watching the girls. One wept, while another held her head high, maintaining what dignity she could. Another was noticeably with child . . . But it was the faces of the townspeople . . . that stunned me.
They were gleeful. They jeered at the girls, taunted them, reaching forward with wagging fingers of righteous disapproval. Deep groans of satisfaction arose as the old clippers drew blood. Wild, shrill laughter rang out from hearts and throats unrestrained by pity.
Meanwhile, at the manor house, Billy at first thinks he’s seeing true compassion, while the owner shelters a traumatized young woman, speechless and frail, and so lovely that every soldier billeted there seems to fall in love and want to take care of her. Eventually he has to wonder, though, how she came to be spattered with the blood of the murdered major. And why. And whether the crimes in play could injure the American battle underway.

As usual, Benn’s written a great page-turner, loaded with likeable characters and situations of compelling moral anguish. There is more to Billy Boyle’s war than the positions of the soldiers: It’s people’s hearts and loyalties that matter most.

[From Soho Crime, released today.]

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

Diversion: Poetry Worth Reading More Than Once, from Jennifer Franklin

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Whether it’s God or fate or karma or randomness, how should we respond when life skewers us with loss and cruel reshaping of dreams into walking nightmares? Jennifer Franklin, whose award-winning poetry has appeared in an earlier full-length collection and in many literary magazines and who teaches this art, rips us out of complacency and away from the simple (if unjust) answers of Job, biblical deity, and bumper-sticker wisdom, to confront more than her daughter’s autism spectrum disorder—instead, she turns the blunt mirror onto her own emotions and choices, until the force of each poem ejects the mirror from the page, into the reader’s hands.

Under a title taken from a line of T. S. Eliot’s, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” Franklin recalls that Daisy in The Great Gatsby hoped her child would grow up to be “a beautiful little fool.” Watching her own daughter unable to take part in birthday rituals, Franklin declares:
All you read are songbooks and sing to yourself
out of tune. At least you’ll never believe in fairy tales
or blame me for walking out after each of us was betrayed.
. . .
It’s your birthday again. The few people who love you
celebrate but only the two of us know we have no cause.
It’s not enough for life to have given Franklin a speechless daughter. She’s also taken the price of loss of speech herself, in treatment for major illnesses that she never quite specifies (but can be perceived from her Facebook posts, if needed). Her wheel of challenges never ceases, and in “Waiting again for biopsy results in the second-floor exercise room,” she declares:
. . . I wish
I hadn’t been too self-conscious to learn
the basics of the Argentine tango in
the three lessons before the wedding
in Thessaloniki. Ever since I read
Brontë, I refuse to use an umbrella
and pretend I’m walking the moors even
in the city. I am never where I am.
If I told you what I look forward to,
I couldn’t bear your pity.
Torn between speechless times (one poem mentions a “trach scar”) and quandaries too intense to turn into word of mouth, Franklin carries the mythological along with the myth makers. She asks her mostly wordless daughter questions that won’t be answered: “Like if you feel sick // or if our ancestors invented cave painting / or song first. You never lie to me // because you do not speak.”
And what is the “no small gift” of the title? Hints arrive with the poem “Philomela considers forgiveness” (reminder: rape victim who in her revenge is transformed into a nightingale). Franklin offers, “He’ll / never admit what he has done, but / in the blue afternoon of regret, // I realize this is no small gift. / I need not wrestle with absolution / since he will never repent.”

With her layered images interspersed with near-playful admissions (“Still life with tongue cancer”—there’s a second way to read that), Franklin turns her journey of devastations into a multidimensional transit of human depth. If joy is to rise out of chaos and pain, there must be a composting process first, an effort of adding air and time. In “Amor Fati,” she marvels, “I didn’t / know these cuts would save // more than my body. / I wouldn’t negate any of it / now if I could.”
Far from the traditional confessional poetry of, say, Ann Sexton or John Berryman, Jennifer Franklin insists that the material of life, even the darkest, sharpest moments, be valued and named. Don’t give this poetry collection to someone in the midst of terrifying treatment for a deadly disease. Instead, purchase the copy for afterward, for the endless loop of recovery, fear, hope, and self-knowledge. In that sense: Recovery lasts a lifetime.

PS:  Looking for more reviews? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here. Only interested in poetry? Try this link instead.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Trees Worth Killing For? Pioneer Valley Mystery BELOW THE TREE LINE from Susan Oleksiw

Susan Oleksiw writes in eastern Massachusetts, has set her two earlier mystery series in India and the New England Coast, and with BELOW THE TREE LINE returns to the farming communities of the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts (along the Connecticut River). The first sentence of the book gives fair warning of what's to come: "On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it."

A single woman working out how to financially sustain an old farm (lease space to sheep that belong to fibre artists; charge fees to artists who want to paint the scene; a roadside stand of veggies), Felicity's far from prepared for the land scams and nighttime disturbances that take over her life. A shockingly large offer for the family farm triggers suspicion. But like a similar offer for her boyfriend's farm nearby, the money involved makes no sense. Except, of course, to hint that someone wants her off that land, fast.

Does that connect with the two local women, cousins, who've met sudden death nearby? When Felicity tries to find out whether one woman's car had been tampered with, she visits Kevin, the police investigator, at his home -- because of course, in this kind of community, he's a friend. Her visit gets a direct response:
"It's police business, Felicity. I'm not going to tell you anything."

"Okay, I won't ask. I rebuilt my farmstand this afternoon," Felicity said.

"You got it set up, too," Kevin said. "I saw it on my way home." ...

"What were you doing out my way?" Felicity asked.

"Police business," Kevin said.

"Oh, tell her, Kevin. She has a right to know," [Kevin's wife] Natalie said.
And with shock, Felicity learns that one of the murdered women already had a domestic violence complaint on file. Red herring? Or actual reason for her death?

A forest hermit who abruptly starts visiting national parks, a nasty neighbor or two among the good ones, a bobcat hanging out near her home -- there are a lot of distractions for Felicity as she struggles to uncover why death and threats are suddenly part of her daily life. Eventually they form a pattern that she almost understands.

Readers of traditional mysteries will appreciate Oleksiw's careful laying out of plot and clues, as they will indeed have a chance to get close to who the murderer is and why, through paying attention. And though the very last twist is pulled out abruptly, it's a clever one, worth appreciating.

Plot and pace are well done, in a workmanlike "amateur sleuth" form that's comfortable and satisfying. It's good to see the Pioneer Valley feature in this debut to a series, too -- lots of possibilities for future books.

One intriguing twist to BELOW THE TREE LINE is Felicity's gift of healing hands, something she applies to diagnosing whether an animal is healthy, and assisting her boyfriend. Counter to expectations, though, there's no explanation of the gift and it plays no role in unraveling the murders. And the final scenes are a bit hasty, compared to the rest of the book. But these are small gripes, considering the overall pleasure of this mystery. Add it to the reading stack for relaxation and a chance to solve a well-posed puzzle of crime and motive.

The book releases September 8, from Midnight Ink.

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

Sunday, September 02, 2018

When Harsh Politics Prompt a Thriller, Lisa Brackmann Steps Up with BLACK SWAN RISING

Lisa Brackmann is known in the mysteries world for her two series that take place "elsewhere" -- an intriguing multiplayer game theme in her Chinese series (memorable!), and a "Mexico noir" drug-running series with plenty of violence.

But neither one delivers the shocks and political reality of her new crime novel, BLACK SWAN RISING. The plot unfolds through two women: Sarah Price (not her birth name), whose past is so horrifying that it subjects her regularly to cyberstalking, even as she struggles to hide within a massive political campaign team; and Casey Cheng, TV news reporter determined to reach national levels, no matter how much harassment her career path triggers.

For both women, just being strong females turns them into targets of an organization as nasty and self-righteous as the original Ku Klux Klan. Online, it's called #TrueMen. Not only would its members adore any politician who talked in terms of "grab them by the p---y," they've taken the theme much farther, deliberately setting up women to be bullied and even physically harmed. Maybe, as Casey Cheng discovers, even shot.

There's a lot of rough language in this book, which makes it hard to pull excerpts that capture the tension and suspense; each passage I wanted to share involved four-letter words. And a lot of vile name-calling. And yet this book rang true, matching up with the worst gender bullying I've seen and heard.

Even though I felt vaguely ill half the time, I had to keep turning the pages. How could any two women stand up against a set of hate crimes organized nationally on the Internet and propelled by brutality and punitive actions? Blackmann pulls the plot toward a high peak of danger, never losing the "truth" of each character's power and vulnerability.

But here's the passage where news broadcaster Casey Cheng, still handicapped in healing from her attack and shaken by a mass killing, realizes she has a way to fight back publicly, as she meets with her boss:
"You know," Casey said suddenly. "I'm ready to come back now. I mean not my regular job, obviously." She laughed, suddenly feeling self-conscious. "I wish I could do it, but the fact is, I can't. But ..."

Three Dead in Alabama High School Shooting.

She waved at the monitor. ... She suddenly felt herself on the brink of tears. "You know, people who get hurt, whose friends and loved ones die ... they don't get to move on. And I was thinking ..."

She leaned forward. Time for her pitch. The hint of tears might even help. "We suffered a major loss in this community. Seven dead now. Five seriously injured. And we've largely moved on from it in terms of our coverage. What do you think about a special report? A series about the long-term repercussions of a tragedy like this?"

Jordan crossed his arms over his belly. Thinking it through. "So the angle is ... you?"

She smiled. "Who better?"   
Although Brackmann's finale ties up the story's threads, disturbing echoes remain after reading the book, and each news broadcast this year has a chance of amplifying those echoes.

So in this sense, although Brackmann has whipped out a stinging political thriller with a striking female angle, she's also done something much more. The power of this crime novel resonates like a Margaret Atwood speculation on threat of our future -- pulled much closer. Like, to next month.

It's not a stretch to say this could be the dystopia next door. I sure do hope it's not. Well played, and well written. I'd recommend buying a copy at its September 8 release -- but then being very thoughtful of who else to give a copy to. And that, in itself, is a frightening statement of where we seem to be heading. Thanks, Lisa Brackmann, and Midnight Ink, which stretched outside its usual comfort zone in bringing this to print.

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

News! English Translation of BLUE NIGHT, Excellent Police Procedural from Simone Buchholz

German author Simone Buchholz began scooping up major awards in European crime fiction a few years ago, and has an armful of titles -- and US readers this weekend can finally access one in English (lively and smooth translation by Rachel Ward). BLUE NIGHT is one of the most intriguing police procedurals I've read. It caught me within the first few chapters, not for the plot twists (although there are plenty), but for the piercing portraits of what friendship among big-city investigators can mean: having each other's back no matter what, celebrating together, and struggling to endure a high-stress and often high-alcohol life with little sleep and rare praise, in the midst of risk and loss.

Hamburg State Prosecutor Chastity Riley loves her job - but she's boxed out of it for now, demoted for having accused a superior of corruption and firing her weapon. So when we meet her trudging away from her broken-down car on a highway, her mood stinks for multiple reasons. It looks like she has an assignment though, if she can get back to the city: A smashed-up man in a hospital, pretty clearly the victim of a criminal-network beat-down, is unconscious and without identification. Her assignment is to figure out who he is and what happened, so the wheels of justice can start to grind.

First, of course, she'd got to find a way back in the darkness. She calls a friend, Faller, who agrees to collect her, but it will take at least an hour for him to reach her, which is why, disgusted and puffing on a cigarette, she's heading west on foot. She admits to herself, "I feel like a cowboy whose horse has been shot." Lucky thing Faller's own beat-up vehicle is temporarily running.

Chastity Riley's friends are mostly messed up right now: Faller himself is clearly having a midlife crisit, Calabretta's in mourning for a departed girlfriend, Klatsche -- whose bed she often shares -- has barely gotten to sleep after a long night at his bar, the Blue Night, and her buddies Carla and Rocco don't drive (and anyway, they're supposed to be taking care of Calabretta in his horrible depression).

When the man in the hospital wakes, he's clearly not interested in helped Chas solve the crime that landed him there. Of more concern is that Faller's midlife crisis seems to be heading into revenge mode, chasing the head of Hamburg's biggest crime/drugs syndicate.

As a group of seasoned investigators, Chas and her friends know Faller's in trouble if he's trying to become a superhero avenger:
I sigh; we clink bottles.

'You're worried about Faller,' [Klatsche] says.

'He's starting to crack up,' I say. 'He feels too strong. It's not good to feel too strong. You forget to take cover. I mean, we've been through all that. ..'

'Has he done anything that could be dangerous yet?'

'No idea,' I say. 'According to Calabretta, he hinted that he's planning something soon.'
Once Chas wins a few words from the man in the hospital, she begins to suspect his beat-down could be related to the same crime operation that her friend Faller is trying to target, run by an Albanian who humiliated Faller in the past. Unexpectedly, the powers that be allow her to step back into a bit more action when they send her to connect with to another police operation, one tracking drugs through the East German badlands, all the way to the Czech border. Yes, overlap, again. Big time.

Buchholz inserts short passages of character comments on their situations, including ones from the criminals involved. Interestingly, they don't slow the pace -- they just deepen the wrinkles and show how the plot is twisting yet again. Looks like Chastity Riley's irascible hospital patient is determined to take a role in the showdown, wheelchair and all. With a little help.

This is a slim crime novel, only 182 pages, but memorable and worth a second reading, too. Many thanks to Orenda Books for bringing it across the Atlantic, and giving us hope of more adept translations of Buchholz's dark and popular Hamburg police investigations.

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

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Fourth Claymore Straker Thriller from Paul Hardisty, ABSOLUTION, Questions Everything

Ever read the ads in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine? I did for a year or so. Maybe that's part of why I like the Clay Straker books so much -- Paul Hardisty's compelling thriller series set in South Africa and other nations on that continent, Arabic or otherwise. Straker's not initially a soldier for hire; he's enlisted with his closest friends in defense of South Africa, and the group is largely Boer in approach and language (he calls his allies his brothers, and his office his father, in a real sense).

But in the past three books -- The Abrupt Physics of Dying, The Evolution of Fear, and Reconciliation for the Dead -- we've traveled a journey of many killings and much thought with Claymore Straker. Forced to depend on black-skinned allies against everything he's been taught, learning to treasure human life regardless of national origin, and finding himself desperately in love over the long term with a woman who's left his continent have all contributed to Clay's growth and a deeper dignity.

Now, in the fourth book of the series, ABSOLUTION, Clay Straker makes mature, if highly risky, choices in order to merit a partnership of the heart with Raina LaTour. Raina, a journalist in hiding, is framed for killing her own husband and child. If Clay can save her and rediscover her family, he may lose her yet another time, for the sake of her child and possibly radicalized Muslim husband

But if he wants to truly live with himself -- or anyone else -- he's got to man up to the task. Terrorists? Multinational plots? Watch him struggle ... and take up effective arms. Yet some of the assistance he needs will have to come from the fellow South African military men he no longer identifies with:
'That's how you found me in Maputo in eighty-two,' said Clay.

Crowbar grunted.

'And again last year, before I went back to testify to the TRC. And on Zanzibar.'

Crowbar coughed. 'We've been tracking you, Straker.'

We. Clay shivered. He felt naked, stripped, lashed by the wind. ... 'But why, Koevoet? Why?' Clay had known since 1982 that Crowbar was somehow linked to the Broderbond. But never in his wildest imaginings could he have conceived of this.
Hardisty's series pulls action into harsh terrain and harsher cultural shifts. Claymore Straker's painful growth and potential losses raise the stakes of this international thriller, touching the emotional keys that Lee Child and Jeffery Deaver finger so well. There's no going back, as Clay begins to understand the truths of his world.

You'll get more out of this, and feel more of the shock, if you've read the other three books first. But it will work just fine to grab ABSOLUTION now, spin through it, then collect the others and read the entire sequence. Hardisty is a narrative force coming into his own, book by dense and thrilling book.

Thanks to Orenda Books for making sure Americans can easily access this series.

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

Heart-Wrenching Norwegian Sleuth Mystery, BIG SISTER (Varg Veum Series), by Gunnar Staalesen

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Norwegian author GunnarStaalesen just entered his seventies, and his crime novels date back to when he was 22. Still, he’s not well known in the US because of the lag in translation. Fortunately, for his best-selling series featuring Bergen private investigator Varg Veum, that’s changing. BIG SISTER (originally published in 2016) is the sixth in this series that Don Bartlett has translated, with an easy-to-enjoy casual feel to the writing, and just enough “foreignness” on the tongue to appreciate the Scandinavian backdrop.

Big Sister is not a standard Nordic noir—Varg Veum’s darkest years are done, and he’s settled happily into a long-term relationship with stable lady friend, and a caring if somewhat distant one with his son. He’s not hitting the bottle or any other form of mind-numbing substance. But the opening of the book proves he still has secrets in his own past, or more precisely that of his family, to cope with:  The woman arriving at his office, Norma Johanne Bakkevik, introduces herself as the elderly half-sister he’s never met (she was adopted long before his birth), and wants to be his client in the disappearance of a college student.

Veum’s baffled by the presentation of the case: Nineteen-year-old Emma Hagland, a good student and quiet person, and Norma’s goddaughter, walked out of the apartment she shared with two other young women, and simply vanished. Nobody’s heard from her since. And the police, understandably, decline to take action, since college students are all too likely to move in with boyfriends, relocate due to quarrels, quit school and go on extended vacations, you name it.

Varg’s inclined to that opinion at first, too. But there are a lot of missing or damaged parents in this set-up, including young Emma’s estranged dad, who turns out to be part of a not very pleasant motorcycle club closer to Varg’s own locale. He can’t help noticing the pattern of upheaval and hurt as he investigates (he’s a PI with pretty good police connections).

Most disturbing of all is Veum’s visit to a woman named simply Veslemøy—no surname in use—who’s grown up well cared for in a mental institution and remains almost catatonic, and certainly speechless. This condition followed a long-ago sexual assault on Veslemøy—an assault blamed on the missing teen’s long-gone father, who still associates with a pair of brutal men from those years, leaders of the dangerous motorcycle club.

There’s no big payday likely for Veum in solving this case, if in fact Emma is truly missing. Even worse, the cold case around Veslemøy becomes an obsession for him. Somehow, he’s sure, Emma’s disappearance must connect to this profound disturbance in her family’s past. Veum considers the landscape around Emma herself to be distressingly vague:

I stared into space. I still didn’t have a distinct picture of Emma, but it was beginning to resemble a kind of profile, a bit blurred at the edges, but clear enough for me to see a vulnerable young woman, someone it might be easy to lead astray, someone who was open to approaches, whether well meant or malevolent, someone who could easily become a victim.

This worried me and created a sense of urgency. Perhaps I would have to resort to a few short-cuts, however brutal they might seem to outsiders—or to those concerned.

Veum’s short-cuts take him into confronting a brutality that threatens his life, repeatedly, but that’s not a new experience. Staalesen solves those moments with some “deus ex machina” moves that detract from the emotional power of Veum’s hunt for Emma and his dark plunge into the deadly side of social media. But this minor flaw doesn’t stop the force of the book, and the search for both Veum’s truth and Emma’s makes a fiercely good crime novel, with an unexpected but satisfying final twist.

Despite the Norwegian PI slant, BIG SISTER is far from the darkness of Henning Mankell or Karin Fossom. Consider it a traditional sleuth mystery, with plenty of nontraditional options added. Well worth reading, with the rest of Staalesen’s award-winning series.

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