Thursday, December 20, 2018

Multilayered Thriller TRUST ME from Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Phillippi Ryan's TRUST ME, her first stand-alone thriller, came out at the end of August. I missed the chance to review it then -- but thanks to a copy she sent here recently, I dove in, and was stunned by the intricacy and layers of revelation in this complex thriller.

Mercer Hennessey, a noted crime writer with a publisher who'd like to see her get back in the saddle, has spent more than a year crippled with grief: Her husband and two-year-old daughter Sophie died in a car accident, a one-car crash nearby. With the joy of her life gone, and little reason to take interest in life again, Mercer's been having a one-woman pity party at home all this time.

But her publisher, Katherine Craft, is Boston Back Bay stubborn, and sees Mercer as the perfect writer to tackle a courtroom story unfolding that week: the trial of Ashlyn Bryant, accused of murdering her own tiny daughter for the sake of more freedom in her skanky life. The little girl's corpse was called Baby Boston when first discovered, in its decomposing anonymity. There's no real doubt about Ashlyn's guilt. The trial will be direct and brutal, though -- and Katherine's offering a chance for Mercer to view the trial by a private line, the type set up for TV stations and other big journalistic enterprises, so she can stay home, see it all, and pound out a full-length book during the trial period, ready to rip into sales within just a few weeks from the "Guilty" verdict being finalized.

Katherine's both a friend and a clever editor, and she sets Mercer up brilliantly, so that the highly depressed writer takes a spark of anger and blows on it:
Kath understands, as much as anyone can. It's unfair for me to take my grief out on her. Is she right? Is there something I can do? ... Yes. I'll do it. To avenge Baby Boston. And I'll secretly dedicate this book to Sophie. To every little girl unfairly wrenched away from the world. The more I think about it, the more I know I can do it. I yearn to do it. ... Plus writing a book beat the options I'd already contemplated.
At first it looks like Kath's scheme will succeed: Mercer is up and at it, researching, pounding out a "true crime" book (with creative dialogue) that will rack up sales like crazy. If, of course, the trial goes as planned.

But when it doesn't, and Kath's idea of book rescue involves Mercer and Ashlyn getting to know each other, very creepy and scary psychological twists pile up rapidly.

Not only is this one of the scariest and most believable thrillers I've handled recently -- cutting very close to the lives of many an author! -- but the suspense is brilliantly paced. And, perhaps even more striking, it appears Ryan has dipped deeply here into her own life, which includes investigative reporting and being married to a criminal defense attorney.

When the book races to its highly satisfying conclusion, astute readers will also believe they know a lot about Hank Phillippi Ryan and her husband, about Boston crime and crime solving, and about the possible redemptive strength from pairing courage with love, and not giving up.

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Taylor Stevens Opens Her New Thriller Series with LIARS' PARADOX

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Jack and Jill—the names sound tame and cute, for a pair of angry 26-year-old twins finding their separate ways. But only their mother Clare calls them by those names. She taught them years ago to escape, hide, maneuver, manipulate. And survive.
            In Liars’ Paradox, Clare calls these two home-grown psych warfare players back to her. Who could love a mother who’d bullied you at ages five and ten into the skills of top spies, from weaponry to surveillance to handling death threats? Taken you away from friendships. Moved you endlessly. Thrown you out on your own after all that, incapable of finding a civil place in the world.
            Yet Clare hasn’t asked them to come home in a long time, and despite their simmering family rage, Jill and Jack head for her out-of-range safehouse in the hills, surrounded by unfriendly terrain and defenses. When the whole place explodes on their arrival, one question needs to be answered ASAP: Is Clare dead in the wreckage, or has some enemy force, some nation’s spy system (FBI, CIA, MI5, GRU? Clare says they are all after her), swooped in to grab her, just as her resentful offspring showed up?
            Short, hard-paced action chapters cascade, as these overtrained but information-deprived young adults chase down the force that’s attacked their bizarre security. With the pace of a Lee Child thriller, the knife and gun fights and high-tech weaponry flash, again and again, and with each comes a small revelation. Jack reflects on the pattern:
Clare was stronger, fitter, and in better shape than most men half her age. The only person he’d bet on going up against her was Jill, and that was because Jill was a lunatic trained by the lunatic. Clare could take care of herself.
            He picked up his rifle, ran the bolt.
            Clare was a pain in the ass and a horrible mother, but she was his mother, and it had now been a full day since he’d watched the helicopter leave her property, and still there’d been no sign of her or contact attempt from her.
            From vehicle chases to man traps, the twins tackle locating Clare. But even if and when they reconnect, the other half of the problem will still need attention: For Clare to be taken, one of those expert teams must have tracked her down. And Jill and Jack, in spite of growing up with Clare, have no idea of the still-active menace from Cold War days that can’t afford to let this little family survive.
            Those new to Taylor Stevens’s high-tech, high-adventure thrillers will find parallels to John Gilstrap and Reed Farrel Coleman in Liars’ Paradox. Mute the TV, to focus on the twists and revelations firing off like a semiautomatic with a finger held in place. Count on Jill to more than pull her weight, too, whether with a weapon or her sharp mind, as she teams up with her lifelong rival, her own twin brother. Ignore the clumsy cover design and the false-lead book title (the liar’s paradox is what happens when someone says “I always tell lies,” and you heard about it when you were a kid, right?). This propulsive page-turner turns modern espionage into a life-stakes race.
            Fans of this author’s previous series, with the genderfluid Vanessa Michael Munroe, may find it challenging to accept a switch of protagonists. But the international span of Liars’ Paradox once again displays the fierce and powerful route this author’s already lived, and her determination to bare the horrors of today’s global balance of violence. Countered, of course, by skills, and passionate loyalty to family and friends.
PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.       

Women "Courtroom Warriors" Go Dark, in Paul Batista's THE WARRIORS

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Paul Batista steps to the author’s role in this extended courtroom drama with top-flight credentials: a criminal defense lawyer for more than three decades and an expert on “RICO,” the federal racketeering statute, he’s also the author of four previous thrillers.

The Warriors provides defense attorney Raquel Rematti with a dream case: defending a former First Lady who’s about to run for President of the United States. No, don’t imagine a “Hillary” clone here—Senator Angelina Baldesteri could be a clearly corrupt and manipulative version of Jackie Kennedy, though, freed from children and husband and racing to take what should be hers.

Batista’s staging of these women in action is embedded in mob manipulations and crime upon crime; it doesn’t take long before Raquel Rematti realizes her client’s courtroom “cool” is the cover for a vicious and immoral manipulator with a web of lies. Only Raquel’s sturdy and affectionate personal partnership with TV news anchor Hayes Smith can keep her balanced enough to sustain such a complex and destructive client relationship in court. Of course, the couple must have absolute trust in each other, which is about the only thing going right for Raquel.
By now she felt no restraints. They had agreed when the Baldesteri trial started that she’d tell him everything about each day’s events and that he would repeat none of it to anyone … The trial dominated Raquel’s life, just as it dominated the news, eclipsing Putin’s invasion in Syria and the migration of hundreds of thousands of Muslims to Europe and the drowning of many of them in rickety boats in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.
The revelation that slowly arrives, though, is that Raquel and Baldesteri are being manipulated by the same Mexican cartel, and an underlying darkness of violence curtains all the action.

The Warriors is immaculately plotted, as you’d expect of such a credentialed author. Whether the book works for readers, though, depends also on whether Batista’s portrait of Raquel as both vulnerable and “tough enough” can sustain multiple character dimensions. That’s Batista’s weaker side. So for maximum enjoyment, focus on the courtroom and crime action, and let the wild ride carry this thriller.

With all its touches of “alternative politics,” Batista’s imagined crisis in American politics sounds a warning bell. Hackers, colluders, election manipulators—it’s all way too familiar these days, and Batista points out the damage that may rapidly erupt.

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

Sunday, December 16, 2018

New Maine Clambake Mystery from Barbara Ross, STEAMED OPEN

December can be snowy and gray at times -- or even worse, rainy and gray -- and the rush toward the holidays is both exhilarating and exhausting. All of those are reasons to pick up a copy of the seventh Maine Clambake Mystery from Barbara Ross, reaching the store shelves this week thanks to Kensington Books.

STEAMED OPEN features Julia Snowden, of course, the increasingly essential leader in her family's summer island-based business off the coast of Maine. Julia's far away now from the city job that obsessed her in earlier titles in the series -- she's nurtured the tourist-based family operation to thriving, made peace with her sister, settled down with her hunky boyfriend Chris, and expects restoration to start soon on the burned shell of the Snowdens' long-closed-off grand house on the island.

But it's a careful balance, and even the closing of a local clamming beach can tilt things toward perilous. Of course, the real problem is the reason for the closing: murder of the owner. Looks like Julia is the last to have seen Bartholomew Frick alive -- unless of course it was one of her clamming friends, or the tourists desperate to get to the lighthouse beyond that beach, or ... well, nobody liked the guy.
Binder leaned forward, placing both elbows and forearms on his desk. "Mr. Frick is deceased."

I'd expected it was something serious. The Major Crimes Until didn't come to town for trivial reasons. They didn't summon you to the police station at ten o'clock at night for a friendly chat. I had even suspected what that serious things was, especially when the Lieutenant had asked me about Frick. But Binder's statement hit me hard I hadn't known Frick well, and what I had known, I hadn't liked. But I had been with him that morning, talking about his great-aunt's home and her artwork. He hadn't been a nice man, but he had been a living, breathing one.
The local police are almost friendly toward Julia by this point, which helps when she decides that circumstances require her to clear one suspect, chase down others, and find out the real reason that the Herrickson mansion's got such an odd series of owners lined up. (There's a will, of course, but it makes the confused currents darker.)

Ross keeps the pace quick, with red herrings and possible victims and perpetrators slowly revealing themselves, and a second strand of mystery and tension around Julia's boyfriend Chris, once again holding his personal tensions way too close to his chest, and sleeping elsewhere when he chooses to avoid trusting her with what's going on. That's part of the charm of every Barbara Ross mystery: the braiding together of crisis outside, crisis inside, and the demand for the different kinds of courage (and loyalty) involved.

Pick up STEAMED OPEN for some relaxing and non-wintry "amateur sleuthing" on the side as you power into and through the holidays, and get an extra couple of copies to tuck into the stockings of good friends. They'll appreciate this well-plotted investigation with its cords of friendship and deeper affection, in its salt-tangy Maine setting (and oh, those clam recipes, yumm!). I've got a list going already of people who deserve a good read for this season.

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

New Alaska Crime Fiction from Stan Jones, THE BIG EMPTY (Nathan Active #6)

Love? Money? Competition for a job? Or something more sinister? If Chukchi, Alaska, police chief Nathan Active can figure out the motive, he'll be halfway to solving the recent double murder of a young couple whose airplane's been sabotaged.

Because yes, in THE BIG EMPTY (co-authored by Patricia Watts), the death of this popular pair is quickly revealed to be intentional. Maybe if Nathan's friend Cowboy hadn't known the couple so well, they'd have accepted the idea of a flying accident -- accidents do happen. But it didn't make sense, and plain ordinary investigation by the pair shows a simple but clever way to defeat the plane's systems and good piloting.

The problem is, there's a lot of friction in Chukchi right now. And that, of course, is what makes a crime novel by Stan Jones so interesting: Isolated in distance and complicated by changing cultures, Chukchi provides a lot of reasons for people hurting each other instead of solving things together. Even in Nathan's home, there are layers of secrets and stresses: His wife Gracie, a survivor of terrible abuse, is pregnant with their child and not sure how (or whether) to handle it; their adopted daughter Nita, 13 and mixed up, isn't handling this well, either.

As a crime novel/police investigation, THE BIG EMPTY provides a clever set of small twists on its way to establishing that motive. But the biggest reasons to read the book are for the time spent "within" Alaska's Inupiat culture (handy to have a glossary at the start!), and the struggle over how a family forms and persists. Add the book to any Alaska shelf, but first to a stack of good winter reading, satisfying at the heart.

Once again, it's Soho Press bringing out the book -- available this week.

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Crime Fiction Gems for the Gift Season: Best Mysteries

Sometimes I miss a really great book from earlier in the year -- for which I kick myself -- but I lucked out a few weeks ago when one of the Inkshares team asked me to consider A GENTLEMAN'S MURDER by Christopher Huang as a holiday recommendation. The publishing team described it as close to Agatha Christie. But that only applies to the setting (England after World War I). It's actually closer to a Jacqueline Winspear, or a James Benn. If you're not familiar with those crime novelists yet, let's try it this way: If you'd been through a year of front-line service for England in the Great War, made it home safely and with honor, yet found yourself an endless target for racist slurs, even at the exclusive men's club where your family's credentials have made you a member ... would you leap into a crime investigation, to make sure the wrong person doesn't pay the consequences?

Of course you would -- if you're Lieutenant Eric Peterson, "late of the Royal Fusiliers," and your face shows clear evidence of your sophisticated and well-educated mother ... who happened to have been Chinese.

Peterkin's increasing involvement in a murder investigation forces the biases of his time and "class" to be revealed. But even as an "Oriental" by appearance, he's better off that the morphine addict he'll tangle with, or the malicious murderer whose traces can be found, one layer at a time.

Integrity, affection, loyalty to friends and relatives, they're all in this marvelous "amateur sleuth" detection novel. Although this is Huang's debut (via Inkshares), the book is written with both polish and pizzazz, and I already have four people I'd like to give it to, over the holidays. For more on this excellent "Golden Age" mystery, check out Huang's page at Inkshares.

I've already nominated Helene Tursten's dryly entertaining Nordic noir story collection, AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD, for "Best Stocking Stuffer." Tursten demonstrates that a tightly spun story, well told, is at least as memorable as a full-length crime novel. I am still marveling at what "Maud" manages to do with the simplest of devices and efforts ... deadly and smart! All you need is to have no compunctions about murder, and you, too, can do what Maud's done. A dandy touch for this book: Soho Press published it as a "tiny" volume that will slip comfortably into a stocking at the mantelpiece, or among the folds of a festive holiday table napkin. Good one! The review is here, if you'd like  more details.

September overflowed with good books hitting publication, and I never quite got around to mentioning Denise Swanson's DIE ME A RIVER. The book belongs in her "Welcome Back to Scumble River" series, and features school psychologist Skye Denison-Boyd (on maternity leave) and her police chief husband Wally. Although it's technically a "cozy" -- small-town setting, amateur sleuth, no gory violence, no need to double-check that the door's locked and windows are secure -- the writing is top notch, the pacing and twists deft and clever, and the finale highly satisfying. Don't worry about any possible spirit presence along the way. Give this to yourself for relaxing between holiday achievements. Or to your best friend, for similar purposes. It's a keeper.

The crime novel that got most deeply under my skin this year was THE NIGHT MARKET by Jonathan Moore. Inspector Ross Carver's effort to investigate a bloody, very gory murder turns into an exposé of how marketing and high technology may easily destroy what we most prize about being human. I plan to re-read this every six months or so, to remind myself why it's so important to keep reading, keep thinking critically, and find the very best storytellers who can open us to our own misconceptions and dangerous dead ends. I have three very close friends who may find a copy among their holiday gifts. Compelling, powerful, well told, and utterly unforgettable. The full review is here.

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

New Mormon (LDS) Mystery from Mette Ivie Harrison Tackles Immigration

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

Reasons to read any mystery by Mette Ivie Harrison: (1) They’re set within the struggles of active Mormons in Utah (members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, an all-American historic treasure). (2) They face the grim reality of what death and other crimes do within a close community. (3) The protagonist, amateur sleuth and Mormon bishop’s wife Linda Wallheim, reveals her very vivid agony over the principles of her church, her faith, and her marriage, while drawn to rescuing victims of crime around her.

Not of This Fold is Harrison’s very to-the-moment probe of immigration issues and the treatment of darker skinned members within the church and its gospel, The Book of Mormon. Linda Wallheim tries to set a good example of how a person can question the church and its heritage, yet live within the bounds of faith in God. So at first she defends the gospel she lives with, but her difficult friend Gwen—a more outspoken and angry rebel than Linda—challenges such easy resolution:
“The idea that Latinos are the descendants of the Lamanites and that we as Mormons have a duty to bring the gospel to them, there’s an inherent superiority and colonialist attitude about it. I see it in the way that Greg Hope interacts with people every Sunday at church. He’s the white guy with the truth. They have to defer to him.”
Linda can’t deny the situation. And with Gwen, she’s quick to blame Greg Hope, who’s both a Mormon bishop (local congregation leader) and an employer of especially the Latinos in the region with uncertain immigration status. Of course, he’s assisting them in getting proper papers. Or is he?

When the Mexican mom of three small children is murdered, Linda and Gwen realize that their probing of the situation may have enflamed it further. Violating partnerships with their husbands, they struggle to investigate the roots of the crime, and of a local crime wave of breaking and entering that seems oddy parallel to Greg Hope’s security business among prosperous Mormons in the area.

As always, Harrison’s plotting is tight, her pacing compelling, and her attack on the morality of the Mormon Church sharp-clawed yet heartbreaking. As Linda continues to test the resilience of her marriage, her own faith, and her sense of responsibility to women in the area, questions and insights tumble and align. For readers of the Linda Wallheim Mystery Series, this is a must-read book.

On the other hand, those not already hooked by the characters and situation may struggle with Not of This Fold. Linda’s callous disregard of her husband’s concerns and her encouragement of risk for other women don’t make her very likeable. To the extent that a powerful mystery series shows hard-earned growth in the protagonist, Harrison is missing the magic ingredient this time around—Linda treats her husband poorly in many ways, similarly to what she did in the 2017 title in the series, For Time and All Eternities. When her husband Kurt finally demands that she drop her investigation, he says she’s got to listen to him this time:
’And if I don’t?’ I asked stubbornly. …

‘If you don’t, well …’ There was only a moment’s hesitation before he said, ‘I’m going to have to call both you and Gwen in for a disciplinary counsel.’

It wasn’t at all what I’d expected, and it made me wonder what was going on in his head. I wished I could be more sympathetic to him, but he was using his position bullying me, and I wasn’t about to put up with that.
Linda’s attitude toward Kurt eventually robs her of the chance to feel she’s solved the case and rescued someone, which also deprives the book of the satisfaction that a well-solved mystery usually conveys. Add this book to any shelf of Mormon mysteries, Utah settings, or women sleuths—but for maximum pleasure, read Harrison’s early titles first, to catch on to what she’s working to convey.

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