Sunday, October 28, 2018

Brief Mention: Eve Wing's Sex-Style Murder Mystery, CHASING RAINBOWS NYC

Everyone deserves a chance to bring out a first book that shows there's a beginning author behind it. So a tip of the hat to Eve Wing, a retired artist manager who's taking solo flight with CHASING RAINBOWS NYC.

Structured with a murder at the start and a revelation at the end, the rest of the book is made up of the sexual adventures of protagonist Ariella Garvin, a writing coach and agent who slides back and forth between hot relationships with two different men, Jesse and Gael. She tells one of her sex partners: "It's you men who want virgins, Gael. Women want experienced men like you, and they don't want to wait until they get to heaven." So the book is a good fit for those who savor not-too-explicit sex scenes (when Ariella's turned on, she gets "the wrigglies").  But if you're a reader seeking "clues" and the usual progress of a mystery toward a solution, this book shouldn't be in your check-out basket. (A tougher editor could have eased some of the niggling goofs in continuity, too.)

Wishing this author good luck with her efforts, and congrats on the urban debut with Strategic Book Publishing.

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

Top-Notch Thriller from John E. Stith, PUSHBACK

If you already know the name of author John E. Stith, chances are you've been reading his high-octane science fiction. His author website,, strongly reflects the space travel component of books that have taken him into the finals for the Nebula, Sejun, and La Tour Eiffel Science Fiction awards. But those books have often had a mystery component (see Deep Quarry and Death Tolls).

With PUSHBACK, Stith leaves behind science fiction entirely -- although that might not be clear in the opening of this thriller, when Dave Barlow takes his significant girlfriend to his high-school reunion, and finds himself erased from the class entirely. It blows apart the romance. But before it can totally knock Dave off kilter -- with his serious case of PTSD, that's a real possibility -- he gets a text from an unidentified sender: "How does it feel to be forgotten so quickly? Have a nice day. [Smiley face]"

Okay, somehow this is a setup, right? Maybe a practical joke? Except the cascade of events that follow, some of them directly life-threatening, are clearly not a jest. Someone's after Dave Barlow, even willing to attach the investment firm where he's worked. And there can be only one thing he's done that might cause such persecution: survived a car crash in which his then-fiancée perished.
Multiple nightmares got past my defenses during the night, and by the time I should be getting up, I felt even more tired than when I'd gone to bed. ... Two major events in three days gave me an awful feeling about what life might be like if I couldn't defuse this. I was a little closer to understanding Butch and Sundance's decision to flee to Bolivia. And my question was a bit like theirs: "Who is doing this?"
Stith's sci-fi expertise turns out to be excellent background for realizing how the Internet and social media and a few well-placed real-life gossip chains can be mobilized to swiftly destroy a life. His pacing is ideal for time-driven suspense and threat, and as narrator-with-issues, Dave Barlow is a terrific "Everyman" with vulnerabilities and a tough time keeping his anger in control.

One extra pleasure: Aside from an ordinary screwdriver and borrowing a few electronic items from a buddy, Dave Barlow's efforts in PUSHBACK to escape the cyberbullying and other horrors designed for him require no special tech expertise -- it's all about how painful ordinary life can be when a bully (or two?) can line you up front and center. I couldn't put the book down, so it's lucky for dinner that it ended around page 300.

John E. Stith
I hope Stith will keep pushing into the crime fiction area. He's a natural.

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

Diversion: THE DELIGHTFUL HORROR OF FAMILY BIRDING, Eli J. Knapp (Torrey House Press)

I pay attention to Torrey House Press, "Voices for the Land," because the press publishes the very satisfying National Park Mysteries by Scott Graham. When I saw this nonfiction title, though, I wanted to review it right away -- because "family birding" plays a daily role up here on our Vermont ridge and in our family.

The book's a collection of birding adventures and thought-provoking quandaries provided by Houghton College professor (of intercultural studies and biology) Eli J. Knapp. The anecdote that gives its name to THE DELIGHTFUL HORROR OF FAMILY BIRDING involves Knapp taking his family on a road trip near their home at the time, in Oregon, trying to stage for the kids and his wife the sort of magical experience he'd already had on his own, this time with a "Wildlife Refuge Photography Bird Blind" at Tule Lake. But instead of a heavenly moment, he found spiders and wasps ready to frighten and possibly hurt his family, including his two-year-old daughter. Crushed, scared, mortified, he retreated with his family to the car and the snacks.
My thought was simple and straightforward. Leave. Quickly. Like my family, I was tired, frustrated, hot, and hungry. Even worse, I felt stupid. What had I been thinking? Obviously I couldn't recreate inspired moments I'd had by myself ... [En route home,] We fortified ourselves at a grand buffet, navigated around the smoke and fires, and laughed about the delightful horror of the Tule Lake bird blinds. ... my sister-in-law uttered a word that again sent goosebumps down my spine. "Owl!" she gasped, pointing to a striking silhouette atop a large Douglas fir. I pulled over, positioning the car to give us all a vantage point. A deep indigo sky outlined the owl's barrel form, accentuating the ear tufts. Its head swiveled robotically, right then left. The body tilted slightly forward, and the owl lifted off, dissolving into the inky night.
Many of Knapp's adventures involve taking his students to locations where the "rare bird" being sought can be very hard to find, or to places not known primarily for birds -- like the Grand Canyon. His reflections delve into why it's hard to ensure survival of particular species -- and to see them personally, as well.

With 31 essays rambling from Tanzania to Florida to upstate New York, the book provides both diversity and challenge. (I feel better about my home birdfeeder now.) Not much horror, but quite a few moments of risk and "OMG."

I enjoyed particularly the reflections on the "why" and "why it matters" of birding. Sure, it's well outside my usual mystery and crime fiction fare. But every palate needs a change now and then. I'll be giving a copy of THE DELIGHTFUL HORROR OF FAMILY BIRDING to a couple of people on my holiday list. Definitely recommended -- for yourself or as a well-appreciated gift.

Consider this conclusion to a section where the author ponders his own shyness about being a birder:
It's good to march out of the house seeking an exquisitely hued varied thrush. Even better when my son follows me out. Or when my students ask to tag along. Occasionally, it's even okay to interrupt a meeting to point a thrush out. Why? Because my response to those who are earnestly seeking nature's overlooked wonders shouldn't be varied at all.
The book's available at all the usual stores and outlets -- but it's even more fun to purchase this one directly from Torrey House Press, in order to scoop up some of those Scott Graham mysteries at the same time. Right?

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Brief Mention: C. M. Wendelboe's Western Crime Novel, HUNTING THE SATURDAY NIGHT STRANGLER

A former law enforcement pro who worked first in South Dakota, then long-term in Gillette, Wyoming, C. M. Wendelboe just brought out book 2 in his second crime fiction series: HUNTING THE SATURDAY NIGHT STRANGLER, "a Bitter Wind mystery." Readers of Craig Johnson's series will appreciate Wendelboe's books -- so will Scott Graham's fans. I think they'll also be a good fit for Nevada Barr readers, although with less character depth at times.

Retired detective Arn Anderson and TV reporter Ana Maria Villareal team up and try to convince the Cheyenne police that two recent deaths are the start of a series of killings -- then, of course, tackle the investigation themselves. Count on desperation, hard terrain, some very broken minds, and a fierce plot twist to resolve the details.

Midnight Ink published this, as well as its predecessor, Hunting the Five Point Killer. Shelve with Western fiction and brace for blunt violence and a fast-moving plot, without necessarily a lot of growth of character.

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


The co-authors of THE QUESTION OF THE DEAD MISTRESS, E. J. Copperman and, are based in the same person, whose third name is Jeffrey Cohen. And if you are already gently bemused by that, you are in the right frame of mind to enter this author's (these authors' ?) newest title, a lively and entertaining investigation featuring not a detective, but an answer seeker, on commission: Samuel Hoenig.

Samuel is a relatively young adult whose mother, like so many of us today, feels he should have gainful employment -- it was her idea that he open his agency, Questions Answered, housed in a modest strip mall in New Jersey. His assistant, Ms. Washburn, seems well cut out for her role as translator at the start of this fifth "case": She helps Samuel get the gist of such expressions as "What are you doing for lunch" -- which, contrary to what a logical mind might expect, is not usually a request for a description of a process. And if it weren't for Ms. Washburn's opinion on the matter, Samuel might have turned down this particular question from Virginia, who wants to be his new client: "Mr. Hoenig, is my husband having an affair with his dead girlfriend?"

To a literal mind -- say, one like Samuel's -- the immediate obvious answer is one word: "No." But of course, there's a reason why Virginia has brought him this question, and the case is surprisingly complex.

The author(s) have nonfictional experience with parenting a person diagnosed as having Asperger's syndrome -- a term for a kind of very high functioning version of the brain variant described by autism spectrum disorder. (It's commonly said by many that a high percentage of the geniuses figuring out today's technology have this form of brain function.) Copperman/Cohen plays the syndrome for chuckles around Samuel's efforts to comprehend and act on the highly irrational words and needs of the people around him, and anyone who has experienced a flood of dinosaur names and facts from a compulsively learning four-year-old will identify a lot of the time! The author's experience justifies writing from this point of view -- but I wasn't always comfortable with it. Still, the book makes excellent reading, with the flavor of an up-to-date Sherlock Holmes crossed with the adolescent agony of wondering when someone actually wants to be kissed (Ms. Washburn, for instance) and what is meant by that!

Eventually Samuel figures out that he can best handle this question by appointing Ms. Washburn to be the lead investigator, since she sees some reason to pursue the answer. But soon the two find a need to pool their skills (not just for kissing opportunities), and discover there's more danger than expected in an ordinary question case.

An entertaining puzzle mystery with lively twists and a lot of food for thought, THE QUESTION OF THE DEAD MISTRESS will please many a Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown fan -- and, of course, anyone who began grade school by reading Encyclopedia Brown. Actually -- I really enjoyed it myself. I'd read more. Fortunately, since this is the fifth in the series, that option is available! (Although the publisher has been Ink, which is closing its doors, so expect a change of publisher.) And, my best measure of a good book: I've got at least three people I'd like to give this to.

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

British Traditional Mystery with Magic, THE VANISHING BOX, Elly Griffiths

[Originally published in the New York Review of Books]

In the English seaside town of Brighton, there’s an active murderer again—one whose theatrical death scene creation immediately binds together the amazing (if aging) Max Mephisto, stage magician, and his former wartime colleague, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens.

The Vanishing Box is the fourth in the “Magic Men Mystery” series from British authorElly Griffiths, and it’s set in 1953, when the deep echoes and wounds of The War still shiver in England. But it’s also a time when the future is coming brilliantly to life, as the landlady where the variety stage player lodge appreciates her wireless (radio) but the stage players themselves are eager for the huge audiences that television promises to give them. Max Mephisto’s daughter Ruby, also a magician, is ready to play to that enormous crowd. Max, maybe not so much.

The “Vanishing Box” is, of course, a famous trick of stage magic. Max and Ruby create a father-daughter performance where one after the other disappears, only to return to applause. Behind the scenes, each struggles with romance (an enduring thread in Griffiths’s mysteries): Ruby, in love and engaged to DI Stephens (but always second in line behind his investigations); Max, feeling over the hill (was 44 so old, back then?), and suddenly open to a new and younger lover. How cruel that murder could threaten these possible happy diversions!

At first, it seems the murderer might just have madly posed one beautiful young woman to resemble something from the local stage show, a historic scene from a painting. But when the murder rate escalates, even the police investigators suffer trauma:
 ’Holy Mary Mother of God.’ This was the porter becoming religious with shock.

‘Don’t come any closer,’ said Emma.

Bob was leaning over the body. ‘He’s dead all right.’ …

‘Have you got a telephone?’ [Emma] asked the porter. … She was very grateful to Bob for offering to stay with the effigy that had been [a man] but didn’t quite know how to say so. She followed the porter, whose name she learnt was Norman, to his basement apartment. There she rang the DI and refused Norman’s offer of a whisky ‘for the shock.’ 
Despite the foregrounding of Max and Ruby, the magicians at center stage of the murder scenes, it’s the police investigators that Griffiths places into best perspective. Murder still horrifies them; death wounds them; investigating a killing, whether it’s purely evil or somehow a necessary twist to a shattered mind nearby, shatters their everyday interactions and relationships. How many losses will the Brighton murderer create, as he or she continues to stage death with theatrical trappings and terrible effectiveness?

Griffiths is one of the few suspense authors who can successfully summon the reality of the awkward 1950s, with its uncertainty, its breathtaking possibilities, and its rapid changes that build up a heap of dead customs, vanished family structures, safety wiped away. Staging The Vanishing Box in the last of the old-time variety shows adds to the sense of regarding a vanished era, along with lives lost.

The plot is neatly pinned together, and if the red herrings are not as noticeable as the kisses and courting, well, that’s how Griffiths spins this series. (Her other one features forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway.  And Griffiths has been a winner of the prestigious CWA Dagger in the Library Award.) Pick this one up as a good traditional mystery that won’t keep you up at night, but will keep you pleasantly engaged, page to page, like the ones from G. M. Malliet, Ellery Adams, or Barb Ross.

Once everything’s sorted out at the end of The Vanishing Box, quite a few things have vanished, but not returned. Will the series continue? It’s not clear what will come next, but DI Edgar Stephens has new possibilities in front of him—and so does Max Mephisto.

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Vivid New Crime Fiction from Martin Limón, THE LINE (Korea, the Suenõ and Bascom Series)

There are plenty of good mysteries around, in this season -- but the really masterful ones, the ones written by a gifted storyteller who keeps you in another time, place, and person without stumbling, those are rare. And such a gift!

So I dove hopefully into the new George Sueño and Ernie Bascom investigation from Martin Limón and Soho Press, THE LINE, and sure enough, I didn't come up for much else until I reached the end of the book. Although Limón's series starters are very exciting (Jade Lady Burning, Slicky Boys, Buddha's Money), this 13th title (14th if you count the short story collection) may well be the very best.

Sueño and Bascom are criminal investigators for the US Army in Korea in the 1970s, the heyday of tension along the line dividing the significant Asian nation, and a time when most Americans abroad still performed the "our country's way better than yours" routine. In fact, George Sueño stands out in the Army because he's taken time to learn Korean, both spoke and written, which makes him a far better investigator. On the other hand, his partner in crime-solving, Ernie Bascom, "gets" the Korean culture, and together the pair is almost fearless.

Which they're going to need especially this time, because "the line" that divides Korea from (at the time) Communist North Korea is the site of a murder the pair should investigate. But their arrival on scene at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bristles with weapons and antagonism from both sides, and the investigators are stranded in between, in every sense. Soon, as anyone in their shoes could have predicted, even their superior officers opt to blame them for the friction and possible outbreak of hostilities resulting.
Colonel Brace stood up. "That'll be just about enough out of you." He stuck his finger about a foot from Ernie's nose. "You will not investigate this matter further. Is that clear?"

Ernie didn't answer.

"Is that clear?"

Finally, Ernie relented. Even he know that the hammer of the US Army smashed whatever it hit completely flat. He'd seen the splatter often enough.

"Yes, sir," Ernie replied sullenly. "It's clear."
Still, that won't stop the action -- they'll just have to figure a way to investigate "something else" that will circle around toward the information they want. Fortunately (so to speak), a missing officer's wife gives the two investigators a reason to return to the scene, this time in a dive bar near "the line." George is narrating:
Her name was Ai-suk. Love-Chastity. When I asked for her family name, she clammed up. Apparently, that was too many questions too fast. She was a cocktail waitress at the Lucky Seven. ...

Her eyes widened. "You dingy dingy?"

"No," I replied. "I'm not crazy."

"Paju-ri woman no can love GI," she replied, suddenly serious. "GI come. GI go. Always count days until go back Stateside. Go back wife. Go back girlfriend. Paju woman just make GI happy." She fluttered her fingers like a bird taking flight. "Then he go."

"What do you get in return?" I asked.

Her eyes widened once again. She was debating whether I was making fun of her. Apparently, she realized that I wasn't, so she answered seriously, "What Paju-ri woman get is we get to live."
Because George and Ernie take even these bar girls seriously and kindly, their case builds strength, one revelation at a time. And because Korean crime at the time came knotted together as a network, and the pair have exchanged favors with the Korean National Police, it will be possible to work on both their crime scenes at once -- most of the time, and with acceptable risk. Well, maybe not so acceptable.

Long-time fans of the series will enjoy appearances from "Strange," and Inspector "Kill," and scenes when the investigators go under cover in their blue jeans, sneakers, and nylon jackets embroidered with fire-breathing dragons. And oh yes, ID and firearms. Big money's at stake in both crimes.

Limón's expert plot twists and the heart-deep (if sometimes clumsy) generosity of the "good guys" here make for yet another excellent crime novel. If I were headed for a desert island -- or a Vermont winter --- I'd want this book in my backpack. And the other 13. No need to read the earlier ones before plunging into THE LINE, but be ready to start scrounging for them afterward, for the sheer pleasure of exploring this series in all its details and delight.  Release date, October 23.

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

[Or if you're just interested in more from this author: click this one.]

Monday, October 15, 2018

Strong British "Father Anselm Thriller" from William Brodrick, THE SILENT ONES

Some British mysteries might get stranded on the other side of the Atlantic, if it weren't for the sturdy persistence of The Overlook Press, hauling them over "the pond." The newest to savor, with a US publication date of October 16, is THE SILENT ONES by William Brodrick. What an excellent read!

Brodrick won acclaim with his 1999 opening of the Father Anselm series, The Sixth Lamentaion, and took a Crime Writers' Assocaition (CWA) Golden Dagger Award for A Whispered Name. The newest in the series via Overlook, THE SILENT ONES, came out in 2015 in Britain -- alas for the 3-year wait! But now it's here ...

It's hard to write about The Church these days without confronting the specter of child sexual abuse. And that's what Father Anselm knows he'll have to look into when he's assigned to trace the missing Father Littlemore, a member of an order of monastics that is distant from his own Larkwood Priory community. He'll have to head for London and leave the treasured silence of the Priory, and leave his beehives. But an order is an order (double meaning intended), and sometimes silence must be sacrificed.

To Father Anselm's shock (and near despair), once the missing man is "located," he wants Father Anselm -- a former barrister himself -- for his legal representative. But Father Littlemore won't speak in his own defense. And the facts of the matter are far from clear:
R v. Littlemore  opened in Court Twelve at the Old Bailey on a Thursday in the first week of August. It was a warm day with clouds drifting carelessly across a cobalt sky. A crowd had gathered in the street behind a row of grey metal barriers. Police officers in fluorescent jackets stood on the pavement, keeping the entrance clear. Seeing the gathering as he approached on foot from Ludgate, Anselm lowered his gaze. For months he'd lived in dread of this moment. Now that it was upon him he wanted to turn around and go back to Larkwood; to deal with his bees and the other simple obligations of a quiet life. The clouds were drifting there, too. Bede's parting words rang hoarsely in his ears:

'Find out what really happened . . .'
Despite the "newsworthy" side of the proposed crime, THE SILENT ONES is actually a traditional mystery, well framed, salted with a slow accretion of clues, and paced with enough room to enjoy the atmospherics. Plus it tenderly probes the forms of affection and loyalty that grow within a monastic community -- as well as the frictions and sometimes cruel words.

Pick up a copy if you treasure the genre of English justice mysteries; if you enjoy peeking behind the scenes among clerics (Father Brown lovers, grab two copies); and if you value an author who can write of affection in a way that warms your heart and gets you ready for a better week ahead.

One small caution: As usual with Brodrick's books, the first few chapters can be a bit choppy (overworked, perhaps?). Slide on through and enjoy the rest of the book. I did.

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Diversion: Northeast Kingdom Poetry from Judith Janoo, January 2019

I just got word that Judith Janoo's very place-based poetry collection AFTER EFFECTS will be published in January, by Finishing Line Press. I wish I had it already, since there's an amazing poem on stacking wood in there, and this brisk weather has me thinking fondly of woodpiles past.

But more than the seasons and scents of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, Janoo's collection tenderly pulls open the sheathing around our family intimacies: how we live with each other and manage to still like and love, despite winter's incursions that shorten tempers, limit tolerance for "one more hard thing," keep us enclosed together more often than we may wish to be. Piling details in neat stacks, this poet paints a world -- one that is hers, but that we also may recognize is closely related to ours. Say, first cousins. Or step-siblings. Or neighbors.

I'll put just a taste of the woodpile poem here -- and you can already pre-order the book, in case you don't trust your memory to hold onto this all the way to January's deep snows.

From "Stacking Wood":

The first row on pallets for airflow,
coarse, split, no two wedges
the same, but fitted
between two rock maples,
bookends against the drop of light
and months ahead when
it feels like it’s all
coming down.

Smell of moss,
pepper, feel of leather,
splinters of sand.
Alone stacking bones
to last out the cold.

See the entire poem on this poet's website:

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Classic Village Mystery Turns Dark and Irish, with Andrea Carter's Debut, DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH

Sometimes a review runs later than the release date -- just because life gets hectic. And that's the case here for Andrea Carter's stunning debut crime novel DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH (Oceanview Publishing). The US edition came out a few weeks ago, and it's well worth grabbing a copy. Despite being a debut, the book from this barrister-turned-novelist took laurels at the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, and is tautly plotted and a great new twist on the traditional village mystery.

When solicitor Benedicta ("Ben") O'Keefe tags along on a last-minute check of an old church being sold, the last thing she expects is a set of bones, wrapped tenderly in a blanket, in a crypt that hadn't been on the property map. Looks like the sale may not consummate. Meanwhile, along the coast of Inishowen, "everyone" expects the bones are proof of murder -- of a missing bridegroom from six years earlier. After all, who else could it be?

But soon there's another death in the village, and like any good Irish complication, it looks like a political twist underneath, one that may have its source in Ireland's terrible grief-stricken history. Or could it be just the results of the usual drinking and grieving? Ben's in the midst of it all, as a friend and neighbor as well as lawyer, and nothing seems straightforward:
"Well, what's happened?" I prompted.

Molloy took a sip of his coffee and leaned back, shaking his head as if in disbelief at what he was about to say.

"It looks as if we won't be opening a murder investigation in relation to the bones in the crypt, after all."

"How come?" I asked. "Last time I was talking to you, there was still no cause of death."

"That wasn't entirely true," Molloy admitted. "We'd established that the body had head injuries and a broken neck, which were probably the cause of death. We now know they were fatal injuries incurred as a result of a car accident."

I was confused. That sounded uncannily like Danny Devitt's injuries and circumstances of death. 
It's no coincidence. And Ben's effort to keep up with what the investigation reveals will turn inside out a lot of her relationships with what she thinks she knows about her home and her friends.

Carter's debut has already been followed by two more crime novels, and it's tempting to try to order them from across the Atlantic, since it will be a while until they arrive in "the States." Meanwhile, here's DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH to savor -- an up-to-date and sophisticated re-braiding of what Agatha Christie did so well. My only wish would be to find more depth in Ben O'Keefe -- but maybe the sequels will satisfy that hunger. I hope so!

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

Taipei Night Market (Crime) Novel 3, 99 WAYS TO DIE, Ed Lin

The next "Taipei Night Market" novel, 99 WAYS TO DIE, comes out from Ed Lin and Soho Crime on October 9 -- and it's worth pre-ordering it now, to line up a reading session of enjoyment, lively suspense, and a taste of another world's other world.

Jing-nan, an amiable young man with a strong business drive, runs his dynamic and carefully balanced food stand in a sort of late-hours-only food court in Taipei, Taiwan. He's dead serious about the quality of food he serves, and ponders ways to add interest and excitement to the menu without losing the solid "Yelp" type following he already has among American tourists. His thinking on creating a vegetarian item from a new kind of fruit he finds on sale is downright intriguing (it almost sent me to the kitchen).

But what really counts with Jing-nan is loyalty to his friends. Even when his life is in danger.

So when his former classmate Peggy Lee phones him in tears, even though he has customers queuing at the stand, he's there for her -- although it's hard to understand what's up, between her sobs and the fact that her powerful father (who happens to be Jing-nan's landlord) could not possibly be the victim of a crime. Could he? Fortunately, the two other worked in the stand -- whose ethnicity will soon be significant! -- pick up on the crisis and give Jing-nan room to listen.
I fully turned my attention back to my old classmate. Her sobs had decreased in volume and frequency. Maybe she could talk now.

"Peggy," I said as I looked to the wall. "I want to make sure I heard you right. You said your father was kidnapped?"

"Yes," she managed to say. Peggy Lee, who would be nonchalant while standing on a cliff that was crumbling beneath her feet, was having difficulty verbalizing a single syllable. She must love her father more than anything.
And that, actually, could be a problem for Jing-nan if he gives in and tackles trying to rescue Peggy Lee's dad ... because no matter the risks involved, Peggy will feel they are justified, and won't care if Jing-nan's injured or killed in the process!

Fortunately, Jing-nan's girlfriend Nancy offers some counterweight to this tendency of Peggy's. But the kidnapping turns out to involve gangs, money, business ... and the politics of Taiwan, which holds a very uncomfortable position in terms of mainland China. And oh yes, since it's Peggy Lee's family at stake, this will be a media circus as well.

Lin's plotting has tightened over his career, and he's now adept in twisting his crime fiction in marvelous ways that incorporate almost as much humor (in mystery, we call it "capers") as the master Donald E. Westlake -- while winding into the plot the tensions of native, aboriginal, mainland, island, in lively and quickly grasped strands of added tension. Best of all are his characters: I wished Jing-nan and Nancy lived a lot closer (although I don't think I'd want to have a lot to do with Jing-nan's employees, whose skills extend beyond the kitchen in somewhat scary ways).

I enjoyed book 2 in this series, Incensed, almost as much. Although there's no need to read the earlier books before 99 WAYS TO DIE, it's a lot of fun to catch up with Lin's narratives, and I think I'll add number 1, Ghost Month, to my shelf, for the pleasure of such good reading.

Published by Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, which continues to gather great additions to international crime fiction.

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Kjell Ola Dahl's Norwegian "Gunnarstranda" Police Mysteries Continue

It’s twenty-four degrees below zero in Oslo, Norway, as police detective Lena Stigersand watches a corpse being pulled from the harbor, in contrast to the Christmas decorations around the market area. A crane hauls the body from the water: “The dead man rose higher and rotated in the air. The lapels of his jacket hung like heavy pennants. Water dripped and immediately froze into icicles on this clothes. … The water on the dead man’s face froze to ice as they watched.”

Lena’s quickly aware that this is a suspicious death, with the body identified right away but the clothing and alcohol-free stomach contents denying the proposal that it could be a suicide. Yet who would want to kill Sveinung Adeler, a relatively minor political aide?

When a journalist steps into Lena’s life, seducing her with both hot sex and hints about the dead man’s significance, things look promising: She’s feeling great about herself and she has more to add at the department meetings. Her colleague, Detective Gunnarstranda, is working on another death that looks at first like suicide, where a homeless woman’s run over by a train after leaping in front of it. When the two deaths, and then a third, show signs of being linked, the detectives must negotiate the perils of governmental interference, including a member of Parliament whose staff bites with powerful teeth.

Lena’s path is the more compelling in THE ICE SWIMMER, as she’s handling (badly) a medical diagnosis that puts her way off balance in a very recognizable way, so her errors of judgment in the investigation make perfect sense. Meanwhile, Gunnarstranda’s pursuit of the criminal behind the deaths is suspenseful and dangerous:
Gunnarstranda got up. The shadow slipped through. Gunnarstranda went after it, through the door opening. … He was standing on the edge of a sheer drop. A square hole in the floor.

He gasped as his hands groped for something to hold on to. They found nothing, but he regained his balance.

A vibration made him step back two paces without his knowing why. A crash made him start. A concrete block had landed where he had just been standing. It smashed into pieces and sprayed his face with bits of cement and gravel.

… At that moment he received a violent push and fell. He broke his fall with his hands and grazed both palms. Someone jumped over him and ran down the stairs.
Regular readers of Nordic noir may recognize Gunnarstranda as one of the two noted detectives in Kjell Ola Dahl’s Faithless, and this is the sequel, second in Dahl’s popular “Oslo Detectives” series, finally being translated and brought across the Atlantic. The translator, Don Bartlett, also works with material by Jo Nesbø and Gunnar Staalesen (the Varg Veum crime novels), and provides a smooth text that’s only slightly “foreign” in feel (more a question of the “music” of the phrasing; nothing awkward). Inspector Frank Frølich is absent from this second title in the series, except for a short visit that Gunnarstranda makes to tap his expertise. Hard to say what will follow, but it would be great if these all returned in book three in a year or so.

Although the crimes and their locations are dark, Dahl’s detectives arrive with force of character and are willing to share a bit of wisdom with each other. That’s lucky for Lena in this case, because a police detective going to bed with a journalist hints at disaster to follow, and she’s far from immune.

Well written, quickly paced, Dahl’s series fits the traditional police detective model (think Michael Connelly, and Karen Slaughter), including the hint of despair that a high-alcohol profession brings along. Good reading, and all the plot threads fit together by the end, although there’s a rather odd postscript chapter to pick up the last bit. But perhaps it’s also to lay the start for the book that comes next.

From Orenda Books, which continues to bring solid translations across the Atlantic. 

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

"Wicked Game" Trilogy from Matthew Farrell Wraps Up in END GAME

Matt Johnson’s “Wicked Game” trilogy began with Wicked Game, then Deadly Game, and now wraps up in End Game. A complicated mix of police procedural and antiterrorism thriller, the book is a must-read for those who’ve devoured the first two titles.

This British trilogy as a whole is based loosely on Johnson’s own career, first as a soldier, then in the Metropolitan Police for 25 years, and present at such hot-news events as the London Baltic Exchange in 1993, the Regent’s Park bombing in 1982, and a 1983 shooting at the Libyan Police Bureau—followed in 1999 by a discharge from the police to enable treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As his self-introduction admits, “Hidden wounds took their toll.”

Much of End Game unfolds from the point of view of Inspector Bob Finlay, whose hoped-for promotion just hit the skids, probably due to both his own case of PTSD (already treated) and actions he took the previous year that look questionable to some other officers. Long ago trained in hostage negotiation, Finlay responds to a call that’s specific to him, as a police constable who’s flipped out and barricaded with a hostage asks for Finlay by name. It turns out they have experiences in common, and Finlay is highly successful in ending the standoff. But in the process, he bucks the orders of a vicious and unforgiving superintendent from the “Met” Complaint Investigation Branch. And now it’s Finlay who’s in trouble.

Many segments of End Game are enormously appealing. For instance, there’s Finlay’s effort to reassure his wife, by filling her in (after their little daughters are in bed) on what’s taken place:
I wasn’t sure where to start and, to begin with I didn’t make a lot of sense. But the more we talked, the more focused the conversation became. Jenny listened as I talked, asked questions and joined in with ideas and suggestions when I seemed to be either stuck for the right words or lacking the means to describe how I felt. …

‘We need you back, Robert,’ Jenny then said unexpectedly, as she pulled away. ‘Looking after your girls.’

I was confused. ‘I’ve not been anywhere.’

‘Not in the physical sense, no. But you’ve been away in a different world, especially over the last couple of days. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken to you and you haven’t even heard me.’

... ‘Kevin’s in trouble, Jen. If what I’m saying is right, somebody has fitted him up.’
 Can Finlay manage his increasing emotional distress over the case and the frame-up he sees taking place, and avoid becoming the scapegoat? The suspense is strong, and the scenes memorable.

On the other hand, Johnson narrates through multiple points of view, including that of the criminals, a difficult routine to pull off. As a result, readers often know what’s around the corner, what’s going to hit Finlay next. It’s an awkward strategy and doesn’t work well, distracting from the plot and its twists. There’s a terrorist (Arab) plot involved, as well as complications of British/UK law enforcement and malicious political maneuvers. A stronger book would have relied more on Finlay’s own growth, and less on the often jerky changes of viewpoint.

End Game will appeal most to those already enmeshed in the earlier volumes of the trilogy, and for those collecting terrorism plots. James Patterson readers may find it a good fit. But it won’t fit well for those who prefer a crime novel where the pace is more determined by the characters and their motives for investigation and growth, as in some of the Michael Connelly Bosch books; Finlay’s also not as driven or as generous as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, and the suspense doesn’t rise the way Lisa Gardner would paint it. Dan Brown fans, however, may wish to add this to the shelf of “to be read” for the season. [From Orenda Books]

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

Debut Crime Novel from Matthew Farrell, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, in Philly

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Matthew Farrell’s debut crime novel What Have You Done opens in Philadelphia, rich with the details he absorbed growing up in a police officer’s family. It begins with Liam Dwyer, who is a police forensics specialist, not a police officer or detective—so he shouldn’t get seriously disciplined for being hungover on one challenging morning, right?

The problem is, he’s not just hung over—he’s clueless about what he did the night before, how he got home, and where his clothes are, as well as why he has a scrape down his chest. Called out to respond to the mutilated body of a woman found hanging in a seedy motel in the “city of brotherly love,” he’s plunged into a nightmare that may not let him go: not only does the crime scene include an item from his just-before-waking nightmare about a day he nearly drowned, but it turns out the murdered woman is someone from his own past.

It’s totally reasonable for Liam’s next move to be phoning his brother Sean, who actually is on the police force, as a homicide detective.
Sean leaned against the wall and ran a hand through his hair. ‘Do you know what happened? Can you tell from the scene?’

‘She’s strung up like some animal. Hanged and cut open.’

… Liam sniffled on the other end and took another deep breath. ‘There was a bouquet of paper flowers at her feet. Just like the ones Mom used to make. And her hair was all chopped up. Like Mom did to herself that day. It’s freaking me out. Just get down here.’
And Sean will be on the scene ASAP. It’s not the first time he’s stepped up to rescue Liam, but this time there’s no guarantee, as the evidence mounts up, that Liam can avoid being tagged as the murderer.

Farrell skips back and forth between the brothers’ points of view as Liam struggles to combat the evidence, then to run from arrest. Heavy in strings of dialogue, and without a lot of character development, the plot depends on the race against a final box of accusation that could wipe Liam out.

There are some twists ahead, all of which are knotted into the relationship Liam has with his wife—and the marriage he’s struggling to save, after his affair with the dead woman had ended. The final untying of the knot is a bit obvious, and won’t challenge “reader detectives” much. But the action pace is sound, and those familiar with the Philly region may appreciate the bar and police scenes as they add up.

This is Farrell’s first crime novel, and despite its promising opening, it’s not strong enough to recommend for those already savvy in the genre. On the other hand, if you’re collecting Philadelphia mysteries, add this one to the shelf. And keep an eye out for Farrell’s future work, which may build on his experience in What Have You Done.

[From Thomas & Mercer]

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

Ever Call an Uber? Nic Joseph's THE NIGHT IN QUESTION Changes Everything

Telling what happened when you're in the middle of it -- that's what makes it so hard when you're the victim of a crime. And Paula, driver for a car service in her "spare time" (basically, a full-time second job), might be one of the victims in THE NIGHT IN QUESTION.

Or, judging by what she's saying to the investigating detective, she might just like minding other people's business -- she's there to inform on someone she delivered to a crime scene.

Then again: Could she have played a more active role in the tragedy?

Nic Joseph's second thriller (after Boy. 9, Missing) zips in and out of times, situations, points of view. It's confusing and scary -- especially from Paula's point of view. Chronically short on sleep, desperately aware that she'll never make enough money to afford possible treatment for her husband's below-waist paralysis, mixed up about how she's fallen into a groupie role with a famous singer she'd barely known about, Ryan Hooks ... she's the most unreliable of narrators, even when she's trying hard to sort out what actually took place and how drunk she may have been. Most of all, she's in the process of realizing, thanks to her girlfriend's insight, that she's a witness to what Ryan's done off stage:
I hadn't made it up.

I wasn't delusional.

Ryan Hooks had been in my car.

"I can't believe it," Vanessa hissed as she seemingly came to the same conclusion. "It really was him! And you saw him cheating on Tiffane." She paused for a moment and then raised her eyebrows. "What are you going to do?"
Because Ryan Hooks, superstar, left his cellphone in Paula's car. Not only is that something she might return to him -- she maybe could get a reward. Not just for the phone, but for the evidence on it.

And that's how Paula steps into the scary lane of life.

It takes some patience to read THE NIGHT IN QUESTION because of the sudden and frequent shifts of point of view and timeline. But the concept of a crime that begins in a ride service is blazingly on time, and the final twists show how skilled Joseph is with plot. I wish she'd been a bit deeper on character for this one -- I never decided whether I liked Paula, actually -- but I couldn't put the book down.

Then again, I may never again be willing to try a ride service.

[Published by Sourcebooks, released this week.]

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