Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Newest Simon Serrailler Investigation from Susan Hill, British Crime Fiction

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

The ninth book in the Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler series from British author Susan Hill is a tour de force—a complicated emotional roller coaster among several deaths, a serial murderer, and Serrailler’s anguished self-examination about whether he still wants his job back after a prolonged recovery from an attack that’s cost him a limb.

The Comforts of Home makes it clear that home is about far more than where you hang your hat, be it an official uniform cap or a disguise. For Simon Serrailler in his self-doubt and anger, “home” for recovery at first is on the island or Taransay, off the British coast, swept by fierce winds and storms. Staying with friends who won’t pry into his grief (although their sweet young son wants to know all about the new prosthesis), Simon builds a set of protective walls, postponing decisions, walking, visiting with the locals. To be with his own family would be too intense, and he’s not yet confident of his working self, that most crucial component.
He had a strange sense of re-entering his old life, as if then he had been another man. … He had been young. He had been fit, hale, whole, but he was not whole now though the physical effects of having lost a flesh-and-bone arm and gained a prosthetic one had been far easier to cope with than the psychological ones. He was haunted by the loss of his limb.
When a lone woman on the island is found dead, and her death turns out to be a complicated killing, Simon’s the only police professional available to lead an investigation. So begins his slow return to a recognizable profession. He’s well on his way to solving this small but poignant case when his sister’s new husband, who happens to also be Simon’s chief constable, calls for his help on a cold case.

Soon the psychology of the killer (or killers?) and that of Simon’s own father make a complicated dance of dysfunction around Serrailler. Readers of the earlier eight books of the series will appreciate how the demands of the cases tug him back toward characters they’ve come to trust and admire, because Simon trusts them, and now he actually needs them, to find his strength again and to manage the challenges of pursuing those who commit murder.

Although Hill’s books are well known as award-winning crime fiction, The Comforts of Home can’t be read as a page-turner: It’s too dense, too probing, too layered with pain and loss and the kind of love that family and good friends provide in the middle of life’s major messes. As the best mysteries do, this one probes the mysteries within, especially the interaction of an investigator’s own inner darkness and that of the criminals he pursues. At stake: Can Simon Serrailler pull his personal and professional lives back into a whole person? Or must he see himself as crippled by the only career he’s embraced?

While it’s not necessary to read the earlier titles in the series first—this one’s compact and well planned—some threads don’t quite tie together without more of Simon Serrailler’s back-story. So it’s worth going to the others after reading this powerful ninth in the series, and appreciating the growth of Susan Hill’s own fusion of the personal and professional, the interior and the complex plot maven. A fine read, memorable and satisfying in its dark tangles and solutions.

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Brief Mention: New "Dog Days Mystery" from Jamie M. Blair

In her third "Dog Days Mystery," FATAL FESTIVAL DAYS, Jamie M. Blair presents a sleuth whose life is an endless series of interactions with her four canines -- but Cameron Cripps-Hayman, planning the dog sledding and sports and more for her local Winter Festival in Metamora, Indiana, is also jumping from one humorous quandary to the next, with each scene adding another twist to her busy life. Wife of the local police investigator, she's certainly not going to let protests or even murder get in the way of her town's festival. Not if she can solve this first!

Danger: The number of funny moments in this cozy mystery may exceed the number of pages in the book -- which means you may be at risk of reading some of them aloud to anyone nearby as you consume the tale. Be cautious! But have fun. Friends and pets add to Cameron's pleasures and assist her in solving the crime, just in time. From a northeast Ohio author, and new this month, via Midnight Ink.

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

New Twist on a Village Mystery, at Maryland's Keepsake Cove with Mary Ellen Hughes

Mary Ellen Hughes, author of three other mystery series, brings Agatha Christie up to date in her Keepsake Cove series, which features Callie Reed, owner (due to murder in the preceding book, A Fatal Collection) of a shop selling highly collectible and enchanting music boxes. With A VINTAGE DEATH, Hughes makes it clear that the tourist-attraction cluster of shops forming Keepsake Cove might as well be a village: Everyone knows a little about each other, but there's a tradition of respecting privacy about "back stories." So when the merchant group invites an author of spooky novels, Lyssa Hammond, to give a reading at Halloween, the sudden menace and murder emerging within the group has no obvious source.

Callie is unwilling to let her much-liked fellow merchant Dorothy be blamed for the murder, even though the victim is Dorothy's obnoxious estranged husband. An inheritance and a pair of antique scissors from Dorothy's shop tighten the noose ... but Callie knows there must be some other explanation, and begins to poke around. She's too young to be a Miss Marple type, but her naive assumptions about the shopkeepers slide to one side as she digs for other possible motives.

Looking for a pleasant distraction from holiday to-do lists, or a charming Maryland mystery as a gift? Pick up a copy of A VINTAGE DEATH and relax in the hands of a seasoned storyteller who adds a hint of romance and just enough risk to spice up the action. It's a Midnight Ink publication, new this month.

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

FOOL'S MOON, a Tarot Cats Mystery, New from Diane A.S. Stuckart

Give an award-winning author a challenge, and she'll rise to the occasion -- as Diane A.S. Stuckart, aka Ali Brandon, proves in her newest series, the Tarot Cat Mysteries. Launched this month from Midnight Ink with FOOL'S MOON, the books invite a generous willingness to buy into the minds of black cats Ophelia and Brandon; their new housemate Zuki, a smart, strong, and steady-minded pit bull; and a mysterious koi in the courtyard pond, able to tell fortunes in rhyme and with extreme discretion.

This quirky group makes up the household of just-beginning South Florida "botanica" owner -- substituting for her more experienced half sister -- Ruby Sparks, whose readings of the Tarot cards are still pretty basic. Nor does Ruby know when to seek extra information from the cards. Fortunately, Ophelia turns out to be very talented at this, even without cards under her paws. And when the question that a customer has is about murder, Ophelia won't let Ruby struggle alone:
Ruby could understand how [this client, Luciana] would worry about accusing her man -- fiancé, boyfriend? -- of such betrayal, only to learn she'd been wrong.

"Well, let me keep shuffling. And if you don't want to say it out loud, you can just think it, and we'll see how that goes."

And that was when Ruby heard a soft meow behind her. Before she could say anything, a sleek black feline landed with a soft thud in the middle of the reading table.

Luciana gave a surprised little cry, and then laughed. "Un gato negro -- a black cat," she exclaimed as Ophelia sat and stared at her. "Does the kitty tell fortunes, too?"

"She likes to think she does. Bad girl," Ruby scolded.
Still, if it weren't for Ophelia's deft turning of an extra two cards, there'd be much less insight into the dangerous situation that Luciana's in, at the house where Ophelia used to live.

I wasn't sure I could buy into the premises here, but Ophelia and her four-legged friends turned out to be both enchanting and persistent, and by the end of the book, I'd followed clues, enjoyed twists and red herrings, and half believed in this little cat's abilities. It helps that Stuckart does a terrific job of describing the Tarot cards and the mind-wrestling that they can inspire for a good "reading." Quick action and plenty of pet-to-pet loyalty and affection also turn this mystery into an enjoyable (and gore-free) romp.

With more to follow in the series, I'm ready to find out what else is in the cards!

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Always Knew There'd Be a Mystery for This Massachusetts City -- New, from Liz Rosenberg

Worcester, Massachusetts: Drive into this bigger-than-expected urban enclave, with the second highest population of the Bay State's cities, and new buildings for the arts and commerce shine from the downtown. But the traffic patterns, the neighborhoods, the twists of roads re-made over the years and not quite up to the number of cars on them, even when it's not rush hour ... all these speak most eloquently of the years when manufacturing made up the life energy of Worcester.

In the powerful new novel from Liz Rosenberg, INDIGO HILL, time shifts dramatically backward a lifetime, after Michelle and Louisa's elderly mother dies quickly of pancreatic cancer. For one brief moment, Alma Johansson, hard-working widow of a hard-working good man, considers trying to tell her secrets to her grown daughters. But as usual, 43-year-old Louisa's brusque comment jams up the conversation, and after that, there's no time left to confide anything. Well, what could it have been anyway? Her daughters know all about Alma's life.

But when their mother's will is presented, they discover how wrong they've been. And the shocking process of allowing an unexpected beneficiary to come to their mother's house and sort through its contents spins Louisa, an outwardly bitter woman with a soft core shown only at her workplace (she's a much-valued mental health counselor), back into her own net of secrets, losses, and terrible trade-offs.
She'd known it for a long time. People disappointed you. They let you down, they went away or died. They seldom turned out the way you thought.

But not, whispered the secret voice in her head, not your mother. ...Her mother at least could be counted on; Alma Johansson was rock solid -- or so Louisa had always believed. ... No. No way, She just couldn't do it. Louisa stuck the key into the ignition, and before she knew it she had parked the Chevy in the lot behind the hardware store belonging to her oldest school friend, Flick Bergstrom.

The sight of the old familiar brick building made her breathing a little easier, the pain at the center of her chest less intense.
Flick, it turns out, bears outward scars of a fire they'd experienced as teens. Louisa's are inward. And to make sense of her own past, as well as her mother's, she'll have to open those wounds again.

A fire that changed her teen community is at the heart of what Louisa must exhume. It's a long, painful, yet achingly lovely process, something like peeling away the collapsed roof and walls to rediscover something precious and unburnt within. Rosenberg's pace is steady, relentless as time itself, as she walks Louisa toward the truths that shimmer beyond her matter-of-fact family, her compromising in love, and her community.

Is it a mystery? Hmm. The pace is deceptive; the secrets are deep and burning. I felt as though INDIGO HILL solved something vital, and something that could perhaps only exist in the layered maufacturing city of Worcester. Even when the author's Afterword reveals the "facts" beyond the story (a real fire in 1968; lives lost), there's a magical sense of revelation as well -- as if all the bok-length uncovering had created also somehow the answer to how to live with the past and how to bless it. And that may be the deepest mystery of all.

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Former MI5 Director Stella Rimington's New Espionage Novel, THE MOSCOW SLEEPERS

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

What if ordinary universities in America are already hosting “sleeper” agents and networks, awaiting a signal from Moscow or Beijing to activate and demolish democracy? All too possible, this concern leaps to life in the newest book from former MI5 director Stella Rimington, The Moscow Sleepers. Grimly real (as American elections already show), the threat of international meddling confronts all democracies that depend on freedom of speech and universal voting.

As The Moscow Sleepers opens, a professor’s murder in a Vermont hospital provides the first clue that such a plan could be in place. Around the same time, a postcard message alerts Liz Carlyle, working at a high level within MI5—Britain’s Security Service, addressing threats inside the UK—that a former collaborator in Moscow wants a face-to-face meeting in Berlin. MI5 would have to alert its international-operations counterpart, MI6, for this kind of outreach. Will Liz be able to control the connection safely if she complicates it in this way?

Rimington provides straightforward espionage activity, without much distraction of character issues. (Liz is lonely, and responds differently in some situations as a result, but not in any way that could jeopardize the action.) In a delightful way, she reveals Liz Carlyle’s alliance with the junior MI5-er whom Liz has mentored, Peggy Kinsolving, and the utility of that alliance in navigating a male-heavy hierarchy. “Lean in” is looking good for these women at headquarters, as well as in the field.

And the field is where Liz will have to go, to respond to outreach from that Moscow field agent. Of course, MI6 will send its own agent, the deft and adept Bruno Mackay, but it’s Liz and Peggy who will find the threads that tie together the murder in Vermont, the agitated spy reaching out, and an odd and sinister boarding school in the English countryside where tech-brained immigrants are led unwittingly to become expert hackers.

To grasp the import of that last strand, Liz reconnects with Chief Constable Richard Pearson:
 'I’d better warn you it’s business,’ said Liz, and she heard Pearson sigh. ‘Well, only partly,’ she added. ‘Something’s come up in an investigation that seems to connect to a college in your patch. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it. It’s a sixth-form college about ten miles west of Southwold called Bartholomew Manor.’

There was a pause, then Pearson said, ‘Now, that is really interesting. I don’t think it can be a coincidence. This college has crossed our radar here, and just a few days ago. I’d love to know what your interest in it is—if you can tell me.’
Rimington’s writing rarely ramps up high suspense, even though one of the youths at the school is in peril; instead, she unspools a web of interconnection, with ramifications in The Moscow Sleepers that resonate with daily news in today’s perilous reality. Neatly plotted but without angst among the characters, the book offers an insightful look at what today’s Security Services really worry about, and how they cope in their half-lit theatre of action.

Looking for the page-turning risks of a Joseph Finder or John Le CarrĂ© book? Don’t pick up Rimington. Instead, The Moscow Sleepers offers a sturdy display of espionage agencies wrestling to collaborate via real-life intrigue, with a nice dose of feminine teamwork. It’s a good, if quiet, read, and may yield a better dose of the real thing than most other espionage novels today. 

From Bloomsbury; publication date November 13.

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

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Best Holiday Stocking Stuffer: Helene Tursten's AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD

If you live with or love or are great friends with another mystery fan, you may have already experienced this holiday quandary: You'd like to slip a relevant and enjoyable gift into one of the stockings hanging at the mantel but a book is too large to fit -- or create a package in an eight-nights-of-small-gifts stack that doesn't instantly scream "book." Pilgrim, your search is ended. (Oops, if you recognize that line, you're as old as I am.)

In a generous and marvelous move, Soho Press just published (available as of yesterday) a marvelously wicked set of stories by Swedish author Helene Tursten. No, it's NOT related to her powerful Detective Inspector Irene Huss series ... instead, it's a set of situations that the elderly and solitary Maud finds frustrating. Living alone quite nicely, and in her eighties, Maud shouldn't have to put up with extreme frustrations, should she, at her age??

Fortunately for the clever protagonist of AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD, Maud's scruples regard principally her own comfort. If it's necessary to undertake criminal action in order to protect her way of life, her main concern is not to be a suspect -- and of course, not to make a huge mess of her charming apartment.

The five stories are neatly tucked into a darling hardcover book, about 4 by 6 inches -- yes, it will fit into most stockings, and definitely won't be guessed right away at a Yankee Swap party (you don't know about those? click for details of this odd New England custom).

Here's a taste from one of the tales as Maud prepares to take action:
Maud's luggage consisted of a suitcase and a sturdy stick with a rubber spike on the end. The stick had been leaning against the wall by the door of the clinic when she went to see the doctor about the problem with her eye. She had picked it up on the way out. You never know when something like this might come in handy, she had thought.
Oh, there is a short cameo appearance by Detective Inspector Huss near the end -- but is she good enough to tag Maud for any crime? Have fun discovering the answer.

I'm getting a modest stack of copies myself. This book is solving a lot of problems for this not-yet-elderly lady, and may prevent my having to take some of Maud's steps!

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

Engrossing New Caper Mystery from Timothy Hallinan, NIGHTTOWN

I had the BEST time reading the newest mystery from Timothy Hallinan. NIGHTTOWN hit the store shelves yesterday and already has a slew of stunning reviews, including a starred one from Publisher's Weekly. So this write-up arrives a bit late to the party (yours truly had a pressing five-day commitment to a family wedding and couldn't quite write everything on time), and I feel free to just talk about how much fun I had with this latest caper.

Let me explain the premise of the Junior Bender series, one of two that Hallinan writes: Junior (his real name -- and this is NOT a YA series, he's a loving and mature adult) acquired an awesome mentor into house burglary in his youth, has strong boundaries around what he will and won't do, and pretty much exclusively robs the rich when they're not home. (This is the seventh in the series -- check out earlier titles here.) Focused in Southern California, his targets are often multimillionaires with major film connections. Come to think of it, his allies in crime often have those connections, too. Or better. For example, there's his astonishing fence, Stinky Tetweiler, who's referred Junior into his latest commission, which actually isn't working out too well, so ...
I just kept kicking the front door, yelling and jamming my thumb against the bell. It was after 2 a.m. and I was making a lot of noise for a sedate, upper-middle-money neighborhood full of TV series supporting actors, second-tier studio executives, and record producers who hadn't had a hit since Big Hair, but that was the point. Stinky had a couple million bucks' worth of reasons not to want any of his neighbors to get alarmed and call the cops. At any given time the house had three or four rooms full of extremely expensive objects from all over the world, improbably jumbled together as though Sotheby's had held a garage sale.
The trouble is, the assignment stinks -- literally, of the baby powder used to cover human odors in a mansion where the owner recently died -- and the most worrying part of it is the amount of money at stake: so much money for Junior to burgle a single item from the house that he's sure there are layers of risk involved (not least of them the cops). But he's stuck with the job because he and his beloved need to fund an effort to kidnap back her daughter from a mob boss, so money really is essential. Hence the need for more resources on the job than Stinky suggested Junior would need, including "a short-tempered hit woman, a hippie throwback who hadn't signed on to the peace and love part of the lifestyle. Her parents, bless them, had named her Eaglet. I was thinking I might have a use for Eaglet when the door opened."

In fact, Junior does recruit Eaglet, as well as a tech team that readers of earlier titles in the series will recognize happily. And some of the funniest passages in this laugh-enough-to-annoy-your-spouse book involve Eaglet and that team of life-confused teenagers.

Are you a fan of Donald Westlake's caper books, or the first series from Bethany Maines with its side-splitting moments among makeup experts who ride on the wild side? Here's what you've been waiting for: exquisitely plotted action and twists, with conversation and commentary so dryly funny that those pee-proof panties advertised on TV should be sold with the book in some regions. (Tim? Is that possible?)

You need at least three copies: one for yourself (shelve with caper books, or with California crime fiction, or with "best of the year"), and two for the people in your life who get most tense as the holiday season approaches. Because they need this book to put it all back into perspective. For Junior Bender, if your reason for crime is both loving and well-executed, then what's the problem? Oh yeah, those risks and dangers already mentioned. Sigh. I can make a guess at the sequel (and can hardly wait).

Oh yes, one more compelling reason to read NIGHTTOWN: I swear it's based in part on the Winchester Mansion. What, you don't know about that? Read up about it here. You'll be glad.

From Soho Press, a fine host of today's crime fiction in all its diversity and richness.

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

California Noir in Fresh Memes, from Jonathan Lethem, THE FERAL DETECTIVE

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

When Arabella, an Oregon college student, vanishes into a Southern California desert cult, it’s Phoebe Siegler’s call to action—because Arabella is the daughter of her best friend and somebody needs to do something, right? A referral near a mountain retreat connected with both Buddhist monks and Leonard Cohen leads Phoebe to a highly eccentric local detective who may be able to help. So The Feral Detective, one of the strangest and deepest mysteries of this year, begins as a missing-teenager case, only to morph into looking at what’s missing in Phoebe herself.

Of course, she doesn’t see herself as having issues, other than her tremendous rage and grief surrounding the 2016 presidential elections. (Somebody needs to do something!) Obviously, private eye Charles Heist, with a live opossum in his desk drawer and a wild young woman burrowing into the blankets on the office couch, is a prime candidate for Phoebe’s judging and labeling. In fact, she tags him as “the feral detective,” using a term that most of us only attach to starving and flea-bitten cats that won’t accept affection. Is it the investigator who fits the term? Or is it Phoebe herself, with her abrupt sexual approach and immediate aggression toward the people she meets?

To get a hint at where the missing Arabella may be, PI Charles Heist opts first to assist a group of “homeless” people (really quite at home in their scrap of vulnerable land) to evacuate from a massive gully—a “wash”—before the oncoming rain sweeps them away. They may already know Arabella. Phoebe accepts the role of sidekick for the effort, doing something that’s more productive than her usual routine of watching and hating the politics of the moment. Then suddenly Heist leaves her at her hotel and takes off with some of the rescued outdoor folks:
Then came a strange time. In the hours before Charles Heist reappeared and took me away in his truck again, I entered a kind of spell or pall as if the small hotel room were a kind of tunnel too, and I’d been left behind instead of rescued. I stripped off my soaked clothes and took a hot shower, and while one part of my mind urgently wished to scrub off the mud of the Wash, the rank smell of the tunnel and of my homeless companions in the cab of Heist’s pickup, another part mourned some loss I couldn’t specify. I felt I’d been allowed to taste Heist’s world, teamed with him in pursuit of abjectly hopeless tasks in a pit in the rain. And then I’d been expelled.
But Heist does return, with a hint of where to look for Arabella: amid the often dangerous vagabonds, hippies, and outcasts who make up a pair of opposing cults out in the desert east of Los Angeles. Is Arabella caught up unwillingly in a massive feud between two groups known as the Rabbits and the Bears, or is she about to take part in a ceremony that will turn her into a desert queen? If Phoebe and Charles do extract her, will Arabella consent to go home with them?

Jonathan Lethem’s writing weaves together the surreal and the heart-wrenching, and Phoebe’s strong dark voice speaks with the same alcohol-soaked despair as in the earlier Los Angeles noir. At times, she sounds like one of the PIs of the 1930s, harsh, unlovable, able only to attack the world that refuses to accommodate her.

Readers of classic noir will recognize and bond to Phoebe’s gruff assessments of her case and her life (post-election trauma, anyone?); imagine Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain crushed in the latter-day typewriters of Lisa Brackmann and Taylor Stevens, then dried out under a desert sun. Complex, tragic and comic at once, and utterly memorable, Phoebe and her “hired gun” become memes for all of us trapped in political quagmire and questions.

But going deep isn’t the only way to read The Feral Detective: It’s also one of the most unusual, unlikely, and un-put-downable PI novels ever.

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

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Murder and Life Entangle Across Centuries, in KEEPER from Johanna Gustawsson

Reading the new title from the French crime fiction author Johanna Gustawsson requires fierce concentration -- because once again, as she did in Block 46, Gustawsson tells multiple tales in multiple voices, and at multiple times. So if you enjoy feeling challenged to keep track of all the clues and see how the motives and means interact, KEEPER is meant for you.

Often gruesome, yet focused more on character, as well as the character of the times, KEEPER provides an intimate look into the lives of the London women-of-the-street who suffered at the hands of Jack the Ripper, among many other brutal people of that time. Meanwhile, we follow the reconnection of profiler Emily Roy and true-crime writer Alexis Castells as their lives become way too closely tied to an unfolding police investigation of a now-imprisoned serial murderer and possible copy-cat crimes breaking out, including in Sweden.

Most urgently, a noted actress is missing, believed kidnapped -- and because we're shown her point of view, as well as her torturer, we can see the parallels to what's taken place before. Maxim Jakubowski provides a clean, smooth translation with power and elegance, as in this reflection from the victim:
Her throat feels like it is lined with thorns. Her mouth is bone dry and her tongue unbearably heavy. Beads of sweat moisten the back of her neck, her armpits and her upper lip. As if there were a direct connection between the water deserting the inside of her mouth and the moisture pearling on the outside of her body.
Fair warning: There's a touch of Hannibal Lecter in this one. And the final plot twist are harsh and sudden. You'll want to double check the door locks and keep a few extra lights on, as you read. If that's a fair deal, grab a copy -- the book's well written and powerful, and the suspense is brutal. Released in the US by Orenda, today.

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