Sunday, December 08, 2019

Getting Ready for Holiday Relaxing, with "Cozy" Mysteries from Bree Baker, Lucy Burdette, Denise Swanson

Lists, guests, expectations ... the big year-end holidays can be overwhelming. Even the moments of loving kindness, grace, and appreciation for the holy (especially one's neighbors) can wear a person a bit thin on energy or social pleasure.

Which must be why "cozy" mysteries fit so perfectly for so many in this time of year! Relax, chuckle, ride a small wave of suspense, have confidence that almost everything will come out right -- and even, with some in this genre, pick up an extra delicious recipe to add to your festive kitchen.

Amateur sleuth Hayley Snow is always good for a new recipe, from seafood to dessert. The protagonist of Lucy Burdette's very popular Key West Food Critic Mysteries, Hayley writes a regular column for a community newspaper on the south Florida island famous for Hemingway, festivals, parties, and restaurants. Although she's technically not a "hard news" reporter, her editor often assigns her to take a broad view of a food or restaurant or vacation trend -- and Hayley's ongoing romance with police officer Nathan Bransford helps her justify her urge to climb into risky situations for the sake of justice, or a good friend.

As A DEADLY FEAST (number 9 in the series) opens, Hayley's struggling to get a final assignment done for Key Zest magazine before leaping into the family-complicated celebration of her long-planned wedding to Nathan. Of course there's still the question of whether their home will be ready in time, not to mention a family-and-friends Thanksgiving feast to pull off. But murder, alas, intervenes, and the suspense swings back and forth between who's done the deed, who might be next, and surviving to walk down the aisle!
I couldn't keep my mind from circling back to Nathan's mysterious case. I felt intensely curious. Why wouldn't he tell me more? The answer wasn't obvious like the time last winter when he'd been in charge of security for the Havana/Key West event and its major celebrities ... The more secretive he acted, the more curious I got.
This is one of Burdette's best yet, with steady tension, some quick grins at the turns that friendships take, and well-plotted clues and investigation. The recipes at the end of the book, for Key lime pie, smoked fish dip, and more, are the icing on a terrific cake. For good entertainment that will let you kick back and breathe, no matter how much snow does or doesn't fall, pick up a copy. (And an extra for the gift stack, maybe? From Crooked Lane Books.)

*

Bree Baker's Seaside Café Mysteries, set in the seaside town of Charm, North Carolina, provide consistent delights: light sweet romance, deftly twisted mysteries that pit members of the close community against each other, and protagonist Everly Swan's warm-hearted life as owner of a tea shop next to the beach, within easy reach of her two endearing great aunts who mentor her and help out in the kitchen.


Two titles in the series arrived in 2019: NO GOOD TEA GOES UNPUNISHED opens with Everly catering a beach wedding and providing a new tea blend for the occasion: "Hibiscus tea, cinnamon sticks, a dash of sugar to taste, lemon for garnish. I call it the Blushing Bride. It's a signature creation for your special day." That's Everly, enjoying every moment -- until there's blood on the cake knife and death in the sands.

By the time the friction explodes into the community (politics! great aunts!) and Everly's barely-started love life, the triangle of motive-means-opportunity is ringing nonstop. Hang on for the ride, ignore any to-do lists (pizza is best when delivered, right?), and read to the end to get the reward of a pair of tea recipes and another for "signature pineapple chicken wraps." Why not stage a beach party for the New Year? (I'm thinking.)

Then Baker also brought out TIDE AND PUNISHMENT this fall, and since the first words of the book are Merry Christmas, it's a perfect fit for this season. In this third in the series (the review for book 1, Live and Let Chai, is here), Baker puts Everly's great-aunt Fran onto the suspect list right away -- which in turn means both Everly and Fran are at increasing risk, as evidence about the mayor's murder piles up. It's easy to lose track of the "cozy" aspect of this mystery, since the tension never lets up. But of course the ending is faithful and just, and there's a recipe for (yumm!) gingerbread bars as a reward. [These are both from Sourcebooks, with the latter coming under this publisher's Poisoned Pen Press imprint.]

*

Denise Swanson's Scumble River, Illinois, mysteries got a reboot a couple of years back, so COME HOMICIDE OR HIGH WATER clocks in as the third in the "Welcome Back to Scumble River" group. Protagonist Skye Denison-Boyd has just six weeks left of her maternity leave as a school psychologist, and she's already working part time because her fill-in person is a bit scared of the tough cases ... but Skye also has twin babies, a police chief husband, a pushy mom and a controlling father-in-law (they both mean well and are usually sweet, but totally overwhelming too!), and a not-yet-finished house, with Christmas around the corner. (Feel better about your own situation for the holidays now? I do!)

Murder strikes all too soon, and Skye herself discovers the body -- of a woman who'd just filed suit against her school:
Skye knew she wasn't being logical. She knew that the murderer would have attacked Earl or her rather than wait for an armed police officer. But now that she and Wally had kids, some protective instinct had kicked into high gear, and she worried about everyone even more than she had before becoming a mother.
The plot twists are intense and unusually surprising; this is still a great book to unwind with, because Skye has such amazing support people in her life and enough insight to head the investigation toward a good solution. But COME HOMICIDE OR HIGH WATER whips so much suspense that it calls for an occasional break to grab some hot chocolate with a candy cane or a couple of holiday cookies (sugar? almond? rugelach?) for extra comfort. Of all the ones on this page, this is the one to grab for energy! Oh, it won't come out until December 31, but can be pre-ordered of course, from a local bookseller or online. Consider it recovery fuel, for yourself and a best friend or book club.

No need to read the others before this one, but for a taste of Denise Swanson's other titles, check out the reviews here.

Here's wishing you a "cozy" set of holidays ahead!

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



Saturday, December 07, 2019

More 2019 Crime Fiction to Sample, from J. D. Allen, Luca Veste, David Putnam



Sort these terms between the categories of "mystery" and "crime fiction": investigation, puzzle, elucidate, race the clock, sleep on it, round up resources, prevention, seek justice.

There, you see? Even on the days when you can't spell out the difference, it's there.

So here are three powerful works of crime fiction from 2019, with diverse locations and investigations, and a drive to cope with an often dark and violent world:

J. D. Allen's second in her Sin City Investigations series is SKIN GAME, again featuring Las Vegas private investigator Jim Bean, as in the first book, 19 Souls. The plot is intense — Jim's ex-fiancée turns up looking for her missing sister, and Jim's own disastrous past surges up to overflow and consume him. The human trafficking ring he faces turns this book into high-risk suspense. The writing also thrives by including great moments of what's important in life, like this cat, for instance:
[Ely] pulled the fussing feline out. "Didn't want the pigs to let her out or hurt her when they pulled their Stormtrooper act." He cooed at her. Patted her head. She calmed down some. ...

Again, Jim fought the urge to let the past and his anger overwhelm him. Annie [the cat] leapt from Ely's arms to his. She clung to his shoulder, digging in with her claws. He inhaled her kitty scent. Petted down her soft back fur. "I really like that damn door. Just painted it blue."
Reed Farrel Coleman blurbed this book, and Jeffrey Deaver blurbed the first one; it's close in feel to their urban suspense, but also a good match for those who enjoy Karen Slaughter and today's California Noir authors. [Midnight Ink is the publisher.]

*

The sixth book from English author Luca Veste, who describes himself as of Italian and Scouse heritage, is a terrifying crossover of very dark (noir) crime fiction, and horror. THE BONE KEEPER begins with three teens daring each other to pass through a dark tunnel -- and one never makes it back out. DC Louise Henderson probes the case through the uncertain and frightening memories of victims who may have experienced related attacks:
"How did you get away, Caroline?" Louise asked, not taking her eyes off the woman in the bed. "How did you end up on that road?"

Caroline shook her head, blinking away more tears. "I don't know. I don't remember. I was just suddenly ... out. I must have broken whatever was holding me. ... I just know. It was going to kill me. There's no way it would have let me go. No one every gets away from it."
Veste has a perfect pace of terror, suspense, and discovery, so that even though the book had me checking the locked door and turning on extra lights, I never put it down until the end.

[This author's website is not up to date, but here is his agent's. Sourcebooks is the publisher.]

*

David Putnam, a former law enforcement pro, writes the Bruno Johnson series. THE RECKLESS, his 2019 title, is the sixth. He won a lot of praise for the earlier books, of which I liked The Squandered, but not so much The Vanquished. I was relieved to find THE RECKLESS taut and well-paced with wonderful twists. Bruno Johnson, a young Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff, gets loaned out to the FBI and finds himself caught up in a criminal case that links back to a triple homicide from Johnson's own past, and an episode in the Watts riot of 1965, when he was a kid -- and his father witnessed an accident, extricated a child, and had Bruno, only a child himself, drive them to the hospital, the only way Dad sitting in the passenger seat could keep the child alive.
"Faster, son. You're going to have to go faster. You're doing fine. We only have ten blocks to go, that's all." He brought his foot over and put it on top of mine, and pushed down. The car lurched forward.

One block passed, then another.

"There. There's a police officer," Dad said. "Honk the horn. Honk."

Dad had always taught be to stay away from the police whenever possible, that sometimes the police did not treat blacks appropriately. That's all he'd say about it. My entire life, I'd dodged them, took the long way around, whenever I came upon them. Now, he wanted me to get their attention while I was committing a crime.
Putnam's writing isn't always as smooth as the writers at the top of the field, but it's always edgy, well paced, and comes squarely to grip with the grit and harshness of real life. He continues to earn praise from authors like Michael Connelly and Timothy Hallinan, and he's earned it for sure with THE RECKLESS. [Oceanview Publishing deserves big credit for these.]

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

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Do You Like Your Espionage Icy or Warm? Check out JOE COUNTRY by Mick Herron

Mick Herron's Slough House espionage novels come along mostly as an annual series now, with occasional diversions into standalone works and novellas and such. JOE COUNTRY is the sixth full-length novel in the set that opened with Slough Horses, where the ever-farting and outwardly vulgar Jackson Lamb corrals the failures of Britain's government-run system: the men and women who've committed mistakes so glaring or costly (or stupid) that they can't be allowed back in the saddle, yet can't be simply fired either, since they know too darned much. Hence Lamb verbally abuses and embarrasses them while giving them small tasks to keep them out of trouble.

But readers of the series know that some of what's put the "slough horses" into this corral has been bad luck or someone else's successful venial plot. Or love. Or grief. So from time to time, Jackson Lamb sends his crew out to actually accomplish something in "joe country": the landscape of where the working spy, aka the "joe," struggles to undermine the forces of evil and somehow stay alive.

In John Le Carré's classic espionage series, George Smiley's drive is not really love or protectiveness, but an ardent belief in honor that can only be justified if he can make the scales around him come into balance. To do that, he has to pay attention to and care about the small people being run over by the government and espionage ("church and spy") maneuvers and sacrifice plays.

Herron gives a very different set of characters, only one of whom might fit into Smiley's honorable world: River Cartwright, grandson and espionage heir of the O.B. (Old Bast***). But as JOE COUNTRY gets underway, River's grandfather is dying, not going to outlast the day.
He had thought about calling his mother, but for no longer than it took to shake his head. Then he'd willed himself up and into yesterday's clothes, arriving at Skylarks, the nursing home, before the sun. His grandfather had been moved into a room that was purpose-built to die in, though nobody actually said so. The lighting was gentle, and the view through the window of winter hills, their treeline a skeleton chorus. The bed the O.B. would never leave was a clinical, robust device, with upright panels to prevent him from rolling off, and various machines monitoring his progress. On one, his pulse echoed, a signal tapping out from a wavering source. A last border crossing, thought River. His grandfather was entering joe country.
River's deep solitude of the soul, and his bitter state of mourning, were in place long before his grandfather began to fail. But they're not a symbol for the state of England (or Britain); they're an honest assessment of his world and his provoked failures in it, as well as the violence of joe country itself. Each of the others who accompany River in Lamb's entourage is broken in some way, some of the ways more entertaining than others—it can be a hoot to see Roderick Ho lasciviously spy on random women and think he's a hot ticket, while it's desperately sad to walk with Catherine Standish as she flirts with destroying herself alcoholically ... only holding back in order to either punish or rescue Lamb (pick any two).

Meanwhile, the Park—that is, the formally surviving manor of espionage where the pay and the politics both serve as honed blades—aims to destroy Lamb and his entourage. Fortunately, Lamb's not just tricky and malicious (and much smarter than his opponents): He's discovered a dangerous foreign agent manipulating the top brass and knows how to use that to ensure protection for his game.

It's Catherine Standish, despite her vulnerability, who takes in the whole scope of the mess at last. "She had to remind herself, maybe for the millionth time, that this was the world she lived in; that Spook Street wasn't all boring reports in manila folders. That joe country lay around the corner."

The twists and wicked humor in JOE COUNTRY, combined with the odd forms of loyalty embedded in the operations underway, make it a classic. Shelve it. Mark for re-reading. (I have.)

Do you need to read the others in the series first? I always want to say no, but ... tell you what, pick any of the preceding titles (Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers, Spook Street, London Rules) and read that one first. Then JOE COUNTRY will feel twice as satisfying.

But no matter which route you take, when you finish this book, make room for the other Mick Herron titles on the same shelf. They deserve the space, including in the heart.

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

Monday, December 02, 2019

Magicians and Mystery, in NOW YOU SEE THEM from Elly Griffiths

When Elly Griffiths opened her "Magic Men Mystery Series," the threads and tension drew on the experience of a team of illusionists, some professional, helping Britain protect itself from World War II bombings. How the men perceived what they'd done in the war and the echoes remaining in their postwar lives deepened the suspense.

With her fifth in the series, NOW YOU SEE THEM Griffiths has already arrived in the 1960s in her seacoast once-was-resort town of Brighton, and those wartime connections have little meaning. The book opens, in fact, with a funeral for The Great Diablo, and Edgar Stephens, now the Detective Superintendent for the city's police force, sees the adventures of his youth being buried too.

But at least Edgar still has crime investigation to do! For his wife Emma, who loved her work on the police force and who's now parenting three small children, even attending the funeral and seeing Max Mephisto there is painful, as she resents the loss of her main identity:
"So, Mrs. Stephens," said Max, "how's married life?"

"We've been married for ten years now," said Emma, rather tartly. She wasn't sure that she liked Max's new habit of calling her Mrs. Stephens. As a child she'd hated her maiden name, Holmes (the source of much teasing when she entered the police force), but now she rather missed it.
Emma also has reason to feel envious of the new young WPC (woman police constable) on the force, Maggie -- who in turn is sick of the way her colleagues hold up Emma as an unattainably heroic beauty.

These frictions push Emma into her own investigations as schoolgirls in the region begin to disappear, and eventually they tip the balance on how much she'll risk to pursue the criminal and reach the girls in time to prevent more than one murder.

Count on revelations about "mods and rockers," Brighton's smuggling history, and the art of magic -- along with as strong traditional mystery framework that lets Griffiths move into the terrain she's already established so well in her other series featuring archaeological specialist Ruth Galloway: the hard choices women face daily in balancing what they want from life. (There are hints that Griffiths will also tag men's choices in her next book, as Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby work out their own fates in more detail.)

Griffiths is a polished, tight writer, and like her other books, NOW YOU SEE THEM provides a good share of astonishing revelations. Enjoy it as a holiday treat to yourself, and shelve with women sleuths, England, postwar, and sleight of hand.

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

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Entertaining Roaring Twenties English Mystery, WHO'S SORRY NOW?, Maggie Robinson

Maggie Robinson's been a Maine author of historical romance fiction, but she's launched a fresh new series that's quintessentially English: her Lady Adelaide mysteries, clever and funny and garbed in the froth and fun of the upper-class across-the-Pond version of the Roaring Twenties.

In WHO'S SORRY NOW?, the second in the series, Lady Adelaide Compton, newly widowed at a quite young age (despite feeling SO much older than the Bright Young People around her), accompanies her younger sister to a raucus and slightly risqué club scene -- where she promptly engages in unofficially investigating a pair of murders that continue to multiply. Aided in this pursuit by a Scotland Yard inspector who's charmed by her and willing to give her room to probe the social set, Addie proves her mettle and her sharp sense of how to probe motives.

Remember the trio of motive, means, and opportunity? The scene that Robinson sets corrals them neatly, since everyone dying is part of a small group of friends, either wealthy or descended from collapsed wealth. Included and adding great panache to the group is the Russian Prince Alexei Andropov. And complicating Lady Adelaide's juggling of suitors and possible killers is the annoying presence of the ghost of her late husband, Major Rupert Compton.

Although Charles Todd has praised the series, the ghost here brings none of the gravitas of Todd's Inspector Rutledge series -- Major Rupert was a flying ace and is trying for access to heaven by helping his young widow solve crime! If that tickles your funnybone, tuck in for more entertainment. For example, when Addie's sister gets a lash of the poisoner's attack, Addie seeks the handsome (and Indian-heritage) Detective Inspector Devanand Hunter's permission to jump fully into the case, while Rupert's far too excited:
"Well done, my dear. It's just like old times. Fighting crime. Seeking justice." Rupert bounced up and down on the iron [hospital] bed and gave her a grin. He was still wearing the very same clothes she had buried him in.

She'd been lucky since January 1. Apparently her time was up. ...

"I know. It's most unsettling for you, me showing up again out of the blue. But think of me! Just when I was acclimating so nicely. ... I was rudely torn away again, without even a chance to discover my mission or shave—I know how you dislike my moustache. Never mind. Sacrifices must be made. Cee was in danger, and I know how fond you are of her. It was my duty."

What a speech. Addie's head spun. Did facial hair grow after one was dead? She'd heard ghastly things about fingernails. "How did you know it was poison?"

Rupert shrugged. "How do I know anything? It's a mystery. Or a miracle. You can thank me now."

Addie would have thrown a bedpan—empty or full—at him if one had been handy. But Rupert's words at the Savoy had made her act quickly.
Consider this the lighthearted version of a Jacqueline Winspear crime novel, or a feminine version of P. G. Wodehouse, come to think of it! Don't fight the fun ... just kick up your heels with the Charleston and keep an eye out for clues. [Published by the Poisoned Pen Press, now an imprint of Sourcebooks.]

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

Brief Mention: HOUSE ARREST by Mike Lawson, Political Thriller

A new Mike Lawson title is always welcome, and early 2019 release of HOUSE ARREST carried me along as a fast page-turner with Washington, DC, conflict. (Apologies for the delay is posting. Life got in the way.) But this political thriller has nothing to do with the controversial presidential administration of the moment -- and everything to do with classic crime fiction motives like money, power, and love. Plus it's a great brain teaser!

Series protagonist Joe DeMarco is a troubleshooter for US Congressman John Mahoney—he does the slightly unpleasant work that a congressman can't afford to be connected with. So although he has a DC office, small and shabby, he has little clout on his side. Almost casually, he's framed for a high-profile murder of another congressman, and almost immediately gets arrested, locked into a jail that's also hosted high-profile federal prisoners in the past. And he doesn't have an attorney:
Consequently, he didn't call a lawyer; he called the only person who could help him, praying she'd answer her phone. She often ignored phone calls; he just hoped she didn't ignore this call tonight.

She answered the phone saying, 'Yes?"—which was the way she usually answered the phone.

"Emma, it's Joe. I've been arrested for murdering Lyle Canton. I'm at the Alexandria city jail. I need a lawyer."

His statement was greeted by several seconds of silence, before Emma said, "Okay." Then she hung up.

DeMarco thought: She could have at least acted surprised that I've been accused of murder.
Count on this frame to involve big money, lots of power, and chases and investigation that will put DeMarco at risk. It's a classic thriller investigation, and a great way to put your feet up and forget your to-do list. Not heavily promoted, so you may not have heard of the series, but fans of Joseph Finder will recognize the action and brisk narrative. Classic escape suspense, very enjoyable!

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


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Naughty and Nice: Three Diverse Crime Novels for Your December List

Three crime fiction treats for your reading pleasure, now that the evenings are so long:
  • Barbara Cleverly, INVITATION TO DIE.
  • Martin Edwards, GALLOWS COURT.
  • Gerry Boyle, RANDOM ACT.
Crime fiction fans are fortunate readers: They can dip deeply into a series, or explore a wide range, and either way, there's some great reading among the 2019 titles!

Let's start close to this reviewer's Vermont location with Gerry Boyle's 2019 title, RANDOM ACT. The 12th in Boyle's highly enjoyable dark crime series featuring Maine journalist Jack McMorrow, this is a gem of action, risk, and vicious crime. Most dangerous in this title is the romantic passion that Jack's Special Forces neighbor Louis drops into ... with a mysterious blond who brings Russian crime attention to the neighborhood. The only risk on this one is that you may need two copies, so you can give one to a friend as a holiday gift and keep the other for your own shelf. Well worth it! (We've been fans of all Boyle's work, always a good read. And Islandport Press does a nice job.)

Can't figure out why I haven't reviewed more of the crime fiction by Martin Edwards. GALLOWS COURT comes via Poisoned Pen Press, which is now a Sourcebooks imprint. Set in London, 1930, it's an astonishing classic sleuth novel featuring a woman detective clearly operating outside the law, Rachel Savernake. Double points of view keep the twists spinning, and the finale meets the quintessential criterion for a good novel: a perfect fit with what's happened, and yet an intense surprise. Reading Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Barbara Cleverly? Try Martin Edwards and put a pillow over the phone for the duration.

Classic English detective (inspector) fiction, Roaring Twenties, Cambridge, and romance: What a divine mix! This second in Barbara Cleverly's John Redfyre series (the first was Fall of Angels last year) has a delightful set of treats, along with a series of mysterious crimes that involve multiple murders and insight into a "dark and bloody war." A gem of a comment to Detective Inspector Redfyre from a medical examiner in here:
"They say death's a leveller," the doctor murmured, "but I don't know. It's hardly a scientific view, but it always seems to my jaundiced eye to accentuate differences. And sometimes it distorts. Subjects take on a deceptively saintly aspect—and the reverse. Looking at our bloke, I'd say 'saintly,' wouldn't you? He may have been an utter blackguard in life, of course. That's up to you to discover, my friend."
You don't need to read the first in the series, but Cleverly, published by Soho Crime/Soho Press, is a consistently agile and entertaining storyteller; grab this one, and the odds suggest you'll want some or all of the others. (The Joe Sandilands series, her earlier one, is highly satisfying.)

Good luck with your list ... hope this gives you a boost into the season, whether for gifts or for self-spoiling stress relief and delight.

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

Olen Steinhauer, THE LAST TOURIST, March 2020 Release

Olen Steinhauer's penetrating anti-spy espionage book The Tourist was published in 2009; for his March 2020 title, he's chosen THE LAST TOURIST. Like his other titles, this one can be read in several vital ways -- as announcing the last in his "Tourist" books, for instance, or as a label for Milo Weaver himself, struggling stepfather and agency-organized murderer with mega regrets. The group he worked for was called the Department of Tourism, and it tackled adjusting the global balance of power, one daring and highly illegal exploit at a time.

In the opening section of THE LAST TOURIST, however, it's not Milo's point of view we're sharing, but that of the very naive CIA desk jockey Abdul Ghali. To his astonishment, this young American whose first language is a special Arab dialect is summoned from his desk to fly to North Africa and interview Milo Weaver -- someone he's never heard of. But the CIA issues Abdul a specific set of questions to ask the notorious former "Tourist," and off he goes. Even Abdul has to wonder whether he's been chosen for the task because he is, ahem, expendable.
The shock took a while to fade. The idea that the Agency considered me expendable, yes, but more than that I couldn't shake the image of Collins, tosssed against that stone wall, the way his head had lost its form. His broken body stuck with me as we drove north, into the wide black desert that had been a home to my people, but to me looked like the antithesis of home, a terrain that left nowhere to hide.
On the other hand, Milo's transformation from authorized criminal of the Department of Tourism has led to his developing a very different organization, entirely information based: The Library. And Abdul's presence is quickly enmeshed in the issues of who's gunning for The Library now, and whether the attack is survivable — for Abdul, for Milo, for the information network itself.

Steinhauer's fast-paced thriller is based squarely in "today," including the current US presidential administration. He works from two directions: the awkward moral choices and deepening of Milo himself (and incidentally Abdul, much though he hates the notion), and an outrageous proposal about the nature of our time.

In terms of Milo, here's how I described this conflicted spy-on-spies back in 2012, when the original Tourist trilogy was completed:
The trouble is, Milo Weaver, like George Smiley, is one of those people who feels "responsible." In spite of having done some terrible things, he's mostly done them when directly ordered to do so, and he's the sort of spy who'd somehow try to make things right for people he's hurt by accident. So when people he cares about are threatened, and he's the only one who can take action, he's got little choice in his moral calculus: He's got to go back undercover.
In fact, Milo in later life is far further undercover than ever ... and managing a massive information network that engages a dozen nations and uses the effort of balancing their databases as a way to damp down conflict and disaster. With his sister Alexandra, he's held the group together so far, but with his power and control come regular attacks, and the group itself is a prime source of those! So, can he (1) maneuver around the latest effort to depose him and capsize The Library, (2) avoid killing indiscriminately and preferably only murder truly bad people, and (3) save enough of his interior morality to be able to face the questions of his now 17-year-old stepdaughter honestly?

You want to know about the outrageous proposal part? Let's start with the US court decision commonly called "Citizens United" -- the one that enables private wealth to operate easily as a political force. Steinhauer, through Milo's very uncomfortable multinational (and very risky) discovery process, paints the entire global power structure as transformed into a balance of profit: Corporations, especially information ones (such as a thinly disguised Facebook-cum-Snapchat), can overwhelm and overrule, and the Big Decisions are now made to favor their increasing wealth and power. Milo's catching on:
Bad days in America and always, the cloud that hung over all human endeavor: climate change. As world temperatures crept steadily upward, people remained resolutely distracted by the crimes humans committed against each other. Everyone was dancing to the wrong tune, and dancing toward a cliff.
Later, Milo will try to explain this to Abdul, a perfect foil in such naive ignorance:
"Look we got it wrong, and we kept getting it wrong. All of us. Afer 1990, we thought history as we knew it was over. The last big competing superpower had imploded, leaving only the US to oversee the final move into a liberal democratic world order. Not everyone agreed. ... Factionalism. So we all started adjusting our policies to deal with this. But history kept shifting. Russia and China rose and Europe began to fracture, which brought us back to the start: Superpowers were back. ... Money ignores borders. Corporations are the new nation-states."
Although there seem to be quite a few lectures to Abdul (and Milo's lectures to himself), the action is swift and suspenseful, with abundant firearms, explosions, and chases. (I'm on board for the film versions, just let me know when, Mr. Clooney.)

How Milo will resolve the dangerous refocusing around him and whether he and his family can survive it without further deaths or deep wounds -- moral or physical -- is in doubt all the way through. Brace for an ending that clearly concludes the Tourist espionage books. The author never gave you any other expectation, right? But is it also the end of the world, as we know it?

And who are we more similar to: Milo? His sister Alexandra? Or ... Abdul?

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

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Stress-Free Holiday Travel: Crime Fiction from Sujata Massey and Peter Lovesey

Book shopping for the holidays? Here are two for the list, whether your intention is to gift-wrap a treat for a friend, or to build a TBR stack for yourself to hide in as the year-end "important" celebrations roll up.

Sujata Massey's India series, set after World War I, features Perveen Mistry, a young woman lawyer from Bombay struggling to find a niche for her skills in a culture and time period that bars women from full action. The first in the series was The Widows of Malabar Hill, and it involved a lot of explanation of religious groups, liberal versus orthodox leanings, and gendered roles of the period. In THE SATAPUR MOONSTONE, the second in the series, Massey relaxes this pressure and focuses instead on life in India's hill states at the time, when a prince can isolate the women and children in his family in ways that prevent any public presence for them. So Sir David Hobson-Jones recruits Perveen to travel to the very un-Westernized state of Satapur and insinuate herself among the women there, to tackle a mess that the civil service is unable to resolve.

Aong its haunting details of the terrain and the odd balancing act of British rule and local princedoms, to the dangerous emotional ride Perveen chooses for herself as she interacts with a man her own parents would clearly not approve of, the book's tension rises rapidly. Risk, deadly attacks, poisoning, and isolation in the hill country all ramp up the suspense. Although, because this is a series, there's good reason to believe Perveen will survive her investigation, she's clearly stirred up more violence, including against children, by intervening on behalf of the civil service, and a number of intense scenes and perilous moments keep open the question of how much Perveen herself will risk and lose in her work ... and who else will pay the price.

Fair warning: Although you don't need to read the first in the series before thoroughly enjoying THE SATAPUR MOONSTONE, you're likely to want to acquire it soon afterward. And, of course, leave room on the shelf for more to come. (No translation issues here, by the way; Massey was born in England and lives in Maryland, and is a very nimble storyteller.)

Peter Lovesey opens his 18th "Peter Diamond" crime novel, KILLING WITH CONFETTI,  with a prison outbreak that's soon linked to a quandary for his long-term protagonist and seasoned law enforcement officer, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond: Diamond's superior, Deputy Chief Constable George Brace, expects him to personally supervise a highly unusual situation. Brace's son Ben is marrying his longtime girlfriend Caroline, and Diamond is to provide both security and prevention ... because the bride is the daughter of crime boss Joe Irving, and the fact that Irving is out of prison at the moment doesn't make him any less dangerous or treacherous. Plus, of course, Irving's exposure in a public wedding frame sets up crime vengeance opportunities for his enemies.

Louise Penny has called this investigator "impatient, belligerent, cunning, insightful, foul, laugh-out-loud funny." It's a good description, and Diamond will need all those character traits to sort out the mess he's been dumped into. Adding to the complex of personalities and potential crimes is the setting for the wedding: the Abbey and Roman Baths of Bath, England, an archaeological delight and a crime prevention nightmare.

If you have a friend who's still stuck in "old-fashioned" British crime fiction like Agatha Christie's books, here's a great opportunity to lure the reader into the modern century without losing the very British flavor. No need to read the earlier books before this one, as Lovesey is adept at setting a scene and moving his diverse and diverting characters into believable and intense confrontations. That said, long-time readers of the series will get the most chuckles from the humor in here. A great book for crossing generations, too—something to bear in mind if you're in a book club where the age range is wide and there are frequent disagreements about taste. You could sow holiday peace and renewal, just by handing around copies of Lovesey's latest.

Both of these are from Soho Crime, the very active mystery imprint of Soho Press.

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

How Murderous Is the Tour de France? THE BLACK JERSEY by Jorge Zepeda Patterson

Award-winning Mexican journalist and novelist Jorge Zepeda Patterson released THE BLACK JERSEY, a dark and threatening look behind the scenes of the bicycle race called the Tour de France. Through the eyes of Marc Moreau, a professional cyclist whose own past has included strange experiences in the military, the complexities of the race and its "teams" take on a harshly competitive atmosphere. The stakes of the race are high enough to overwhelm ordinary morality and inspire an "anything goes" mentality ... as Moreau suffers the trials of an athlete tackling mountainous terrain, yet in far more danger from the other riders.

As crime fiction, THE BLACK JERSEY -- the title is a riff off the tradition of the cycling leader wearing a yellow one -- is fast-paced and intense. It will make a great addition to the shelves of anyone regretting that they're not at the top of this cycling adventure themselves, since the miseries of both the sport and the aggression make staying home seem far more appealing!

American readers will find two challenges to the book: First, it's narrated entirely in first person, rich with personal insight at a literary level that's not common in this kind of crime fiction. Second, the translation, by Achy Obejas, sweeps a flavor of translated Spanish fiction like that of Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind) through the pages. If you're a fan of the Zafón work, you'll feel right at home. But if you're happier with the familiar phrasing and pacing of American crime fiction, you may feel stranded in a foreign land.

Here's a sample to get the feel of the writing:
Once again, Radek spoke for our collective indignation. "If you do anything like yesterday," he told the Lavezza leader, "I'll kill you. ... I'll do it, do you hear me?" Radek insisted, then looked at me defiantly, as if I'd also disrespected him. I nodded without a word, thinking anything I said could make him angrier or, worse, lead him to fulfill his promise. ... "Don't kill him," I said after a pause. "Just make sure he's not wearing the yellow jersey in Paris." I went for a festive tone, as if the whole conversation was nothing more than a joke. I hadn't finished my sentence when I realized my mistake. Radek pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes, like a Templar receiving a holy assignment. I won't uncover the killer, but I'm going to end up creating one,  I thought with a shiver.
Grab a copy if you're ready to dig into this challenge. And by all means, give a copy to any cycling racer who has time to hit the couch with this slow work of quintessential noir. You never know — you could save a life, or at least protect a good friend from daring the Tour.

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

Monday, November 18, 2019

Autumn Mysteries to Catch Up With: Archer Mayor's BOMBER'S MOON, and THE RANSOM by Nancy Boyarsky

November's a perfect month for shopping for mystery books, because there are two equally valid choices: buy them as gifts (the gifting holidays are racing toward us), or stack them for the dark days that linger from now til February, at least in the northern hemisphere.

So here are a pair to consider. THE RANSOM from former political author Nancy Boyarsky is the fourth in the Nicole Graves series:

1. The Swap
2. The Bequest
3. Liar Liar
4. The Ransom


This time, Nicole has a proper private investigator's license, which makes investigating in Los Angeles much safer. Or at least, it should. But while she investigates an apparent home invasion-turned-kidnapping, she discovers an unexpected deposit of more than $2 million to her own checking account. Tracking down the source isn't hard—but the sudden wealth makes Nicole herself a target, and soon she's trying to investigate multiple crimes with a very clever twist.

Boyarsky deserves to be better known: Her plotting is fast-paced, tight, and surprising, and she walks the line between dark and smart in an enjoyable mode that leaves room for some laughter, some flirtation, and a lot of hard-core investigation:
Nicole took the box, went into her office and closed the door. She'd just finished locking the money in the cupboard where she kept her purse and jacket, when she thought of something. Why had the kidnappers failed to show up at the first two drops? ... the police took extra care on the second drop, when they'd used the drone to keep watch. Somehow the kidnappers still found out the cops were involved.  ... She thought of her conversation with Kevin that morning, his nonplussed attitude ... It was as if he'd been expecting her call.
I enjoyed racing along with Nicole, and savored the careful plotting that allowed me to get a handle on the crime just in time to feel that I could have solved it -- but not so soon that the suspense would be crushed. Nice work! And worth picking this up, especially if you have a shelf for women investigators.

Another must-buy from the autumn releases is Archer Mayor's 30th Joe Gunther mystery, BOMBER'S MOON. Fans of the series will be especially pleased to savor a full house of the favorite characters from this Vermont-based investigation team: Joe Gunther as an investigator resisting retirement, the puzzling relationship of Sammie Martens and Willy Kunkle, return appearances by other investigators and even one of the criminals from an earlier book. It also features Mayor's trademark "rough talk" as he crossed police conversation with a hint of military:
In fact, Gunther's present ranking was as statewide field commander of all VBI investigations. However, instead of flying a desk at headquarters in Waterbury, alongside the agency's director, he'd insisted on also being agent in charge of the southeast office, one of five aceross Vermont. An unusual setup, it had been his only requirement to transferring to the VBI from the Brattleboro PD, where he'd been chief of detectives. He was among the longest-serving and most respected cops in Vermont.
What makes the book stand out the most is the way Mayor plays two characters against each other and then perhaps in tandem: investigative reporter Rachel Reiling, and private investigator (PI) Sally Kravitz.

The book also has some frustrating aspects that may irk obsessive readers: papers that seem significant but never quite materialize, the absence of resolution on at least three characters and their conflict, threads left incomplete for Willy and Sammie. But go for the ride and don't be too fussy! Add this one to a Vermont shelf ... or PI shelf ... or police procedurals. Or place it in the center of your TBR stack, for a delicious winter reward.

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

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Alaskan Crime Fiction from Keenan Powell, HEMLOCK NEEDLE

It's winter in Vermont, and the weather's taken on an ambition to reflect the storms of the nation's capital: Gusty, icy, sometimes bright with color, but determinedly making things harder, day by day. And with the shortening hours of light, a person needs to take deliberate action to avoid freezing into some seasonal depression.

Reading mysteries set in Alaska might be a good notion, about now.

Crime fiction often goes dark when it's set in northern landscapes. Nordic noir exposes the cost of unhealed grief and trauma -- often, as in the hands of Henning Mankell, tugging a reluctant and damaged sleuth across the landscape. John Straley and Stan Jones tilt the darkness into the murders and abuse in their Alaskan crime fiction instead.

Keenan Powell takes another direction. Although her sleuth Maeve Malloy has reason to be bitter -- her choices in love have burned her and her career badly -- she can't afford time for a pity party. HEMLOCK NEEDLE is the second in the series (the first was Deadly Solution), and just as Maeve received notice that there's a bar complaint against her legal career, she confronts an irresistible emergency: Single mom Esther Fancyboy has vanished, and Esther's seven-year-old son Evan wants Maeve to find his mother. Now.

Powell spins a lively page-turner, with well-paced variation from action plot to Maeve's own issues. A former Anchorage attorney herself, she also dips heavily into Yu'Pik Eskimo culture:
Margaret continued. "In the village, when someone gets lost, their soul wanders the tundra. They look different from real people, all white. If you see them, they run away. They're afraid of living people."

Esther had been missing three days. No call, no text message from her at all. No effort to assure her seven-year-old son that she was alright, that he was loved, and that he didn't need to be afraid. By now, there was a pretty good chance that she was a ghost.

But until there was proof, Maeve would assume she was still alive and needed help.
It's touchy to write crime fiction that crosses cultures (white legal person, Yu'pik Eskimo community). Evaluating whether the author's crossed the line of #ownvoices is tough. The best measure that Powell has done this cleanly, though, is that her writing almost always stays inside Maeve's thinking: Her other Alaskan voices speak for themselves, but with restraint, and she writes with respect and a touch of awe about the customs and beliefs among her characters. Even the missing woman Esther Fancyboy, is a chief financial officer, someone strong and active and likeable.

Although the physical copy of the book, from Level Best Books, has the feel of a low-budget self-published work, HEMLOCK NEEDLE provides a well-written, hard-driving investigation with memorable characters. It stacks up well against the more experienced Alaska crime fiction voices of Jones and Straley, and I'll be watching for the sequel.

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

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Mystery Publisher to Keep an Eye On: Encircle Publications


At  the New England Crime Bake this weekend, the two (married to each other) people who "are" Encircle Publications, Eddie Vincent and Cynthia Brackett-Vincent, shared perceptive insight on today's mystery publishing business. Just as much in flux as any other market segment, it's also providing healthy new forms, and Encircle captures one of the most intriguing: a small to mid-sized publishing house where authors are significant, strong writing matters, and this much-loved genre thrives.

In a season when several small-ish mystery publishers have either folded or been gobbled up by the big franchises, here's a chance to pay attention -- and pay some support -- to a rising star.

Currently the mystery author list at Encircle includes:

Thursday, November 07, 2019

For the Gift List: Cara Black, MURDER IN BEL-AIR

It's time to shop for holiday gifts. One book for me, one book for you. Isn't that fair enough, from one book lover to another?

Cara Black's MURDER IN BEL-AIR, number 19 in her astonishing series featuring single-mom Parisian detective Aimée Leduc, may be her best yet. With a robustly complex plot that involves the disappearance of Aimée's own mother, as well as others, this crime novel plunges into both the Leduc family complications and the criminal enterprises of the City of Lights. And it's full of moments that capture this stylish detective at her most determined an active, like this:
She'd struck a chord. Thrown him off-balance.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Arles." His answer came too quick. And she'd never heard a Provençal accent like his. Not even close to that musical patois.

She saw him tense, and his lips moved—he was whispering something.

Merde. Was he wired?

With no more of a plan than to get the hell out, she accelerated, veering left as she kicked straight out with her right foot. Counted on the element of surprise. Her stiletto heel got him in the thigh. Wobbling over the cobblestones in the rain, the scooter shot forward and out of the courtyard.

Right into traffic. Her handlebars scraped a van, and she almost lost her balance. But somehow she kept going, weaving in the downpour with a cacophony of horns blaring behind her.
Black's author note at the start connects the plot to her own mother, and her lithe depictions of strong vibrant women in MURDER IN BEL-AIR contributes to the story's swift action and bright undercurrents. No need to read the other 18 titles first ... get this one for yourself for holiday-season relaxing, and give a copy to one of your best friends as well.

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

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Strong Stand-Alone from Garry Disher, UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS (Australia)

Australian author Garry Disher now has more than 50 books to his credit, but is not yet well known in America. Thanks to Soho Crime, his two crime series—the gritty yet often tender Hal Challis books and very very dark "noir" of the Wyatt series—have mostly traveled to the United States. In July, Soho Crime (the crime fiction imprint of Soho Press) brought out a stand-alone from this author: UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS.

The book's closer in tone to the Hal Challis series than to the Wyatt books. Detective Alan Auhl, now an acting sergeant, is much older than most of the force and has been pulled back into action to tackle the cold cases. He is clearly wounded, himself. His former wife sometimes visits, but not always to share affection with him; in addition, Auhl owns a boarding house that caters to people with hard-luck stories yet decent hearts, among them an abused woman named Neve and her young daughter Pia, still being emotionally strangled by their ties to Pia's father. While Auhl struggles to help Neve and Pia find a position of strength, he's also tangled up in the cold case of John Elphick, whose daughters insist he was murdered, and with a newly discovered body that clearly dates back to a much earlier death, as well as a murderous doctor—and maybe it's just as well he's so busy. Otherwise he'd drown in the grief and angst of his boarders.

The delight of Disher's investigation novels is the depth he unfolds in his investigators, and UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS is a great example -- and also, for that reason, a good starter if you haven't yet read any of this Down-Under author. Here's a sample:
As the evening deepened, Auhl brooded. Men like Kelso, Fanning—Alec Neill. Their assumptions,  cronyism, power, sense of entitlement. Pre-emptive strike kinds of men: they seized the advantage while the rest of the world was thinking things through. Like Neill with his accusations against his wife,  thought Auhl. And as soon as we move against him he'll surround himself with lawyers and colleagues. ... Quite suddenly, a deeper unease settled into Auhl. Saturday morning. Janine Neill, pale, dizzy, uncoordinated. She had speculated blithely that Neill might shoot her or push her off a rock, but what if he'd poisoned her? Surely he couldn't be that arrogant? But he'd succeeded three times before Maybe he thought he was untouchable. ... [Auhl] dressed in dark clothing, backed his elderly Saab out of the garage and headed across to East Melbourne, heart jumpy and mouth dry.
Like Karen Slaughter, Tucker Coe (a Westlake nom de plume), or Louise Penny, Disher gives us an investigator whose sense of his own belonging to the world depends on taking action against the cruel, malicious, and criminal. Thanks to his deep experience and careful craft, UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS is one of the most satisfying mysteries of 2019.

[More Disher reviews here.]

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

Friday, November 01, 2019

New from Lee Child, BLUE MOON (Jack Reacher)

At a rough count, this is number 25 from Lee Child, of which 23 involve Jack Reacher. Count on BLUE MOON for rattling good adventure, casual violence, and those moments of thoughtful appraisal and deep kindness that make a Jack Reacher thriller so different from the average shoot-'em-up. I confess, I pre-order each one and look forward to a couple of evenings of true relaxation.

In BLUE MOON, Reacher's riding on a long-distance bus when he realizes an elderly man on the bus has become a crime target. And you know Reacher, right? He gets off the bus when the almost-victim does, tries to intervene ... and gets caught up in a city-wide crime wave.

It's hard to avoid spoilers, so let's just say there are Albanians and Ukrainians, and some effect of Russians -- and a remarkable woman, and some great brothers-in-arms moments.

What I do want to specifically mention is part of the brothers-in-arms conversation on pages 182-183, when Reacher outlines his approach to the potentially violent confrontation he's headed into:
"First I need to understand what they're saying in the texts, and then I need to use what I learn, in order to figure out what to do next. No combat readiness yet. No warnings necessary."

"Suppose what you learn is that it's hopeless?"

"Not an acceptable outcome. Can only be a failure of planning."
Now that I've noticed this, I'll be re-reading earlier Reacher titles, looking for the same sort of wry comment on military prep and thinking. It comes up again later in BLUE MOON, when the very interesting woman (yes, Reacher seems to only connect deeply with strong women) asks Reacher whether he actually believes -- as he told someone earlier -- than some day he will fail:
"It's something they teach you in the army. The only thing under your direct control is how hard you work. In other words, if you really, really buckle down today, and you get the intelligence, the planning, and the execution each a hundred percent exactly correct, then you are bound to prevail."
And in some ways, of course, Reacher does. Readers of the series know that won't make him immune from pain and loss, but ... it makes a heck of a good story.

If you've never read one of these -- go back as far as you can in the series (see https://www.leechild.com/books.php), and read your way forward, for the most enjoyment.

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

One of the Deepest Reads of the Season: SARAH JANE from James Sallis

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]


“Lit with insight, affection, and the deep tenderness that can accompany long-term grief, Sallis’s Sarah Jane is that most unusual of mysteries: one that investigates the soul, walking.”

Author James Sallis (Drive; The Killer Is Dying) is often called a master of noir, so it’s no surprise that Sarah Jane is a crime novel. But tenderness? Intense personal loss as felt by a vulnerable woman? By the fourth page, Sarah Jane’s revealing the hole in her heart, on the pages of a journal meant only for herself, as she recalls her one and only, very private experience of childbearing:

“Six hours after I had her, two or three in the morning, they told me they’d done all they could but my baby had died. They brought her for me to hold, wrapped in a pink blanket. Her face was ghostly white. Had she ever really lived? An hour after they left, I was gone.”

Sarah Jane’s got a military past as well as a hardscrabble youth, but most importantly she’s had firsthand experience of how a “good man at heart” can become abusive of a woman. For instance, there’s “R.H.,” who believed in what he was doing, and in himself, but couldn’t handle when things didn’t go the way he wanted to. “He felt his world unraveling, loose ends flying every whidch way That grinds on year after year, you see the worst of people day by day, you change.”

This kind of insight works in Sarah Jane’s favor when she becomes a small-town sheriff, the kind who both understand the criminals on her turf and knows how to catch them. Tough and private, she keeps most of her past secret from even her closest colleagues. And as her story unwinds, there’s also her loyalty to the people that, against her will, she comes to love – and that’s what drives her. In a rough little rural town like Farr, where she settles almost against her will, any vulnerability in your heart can threaten your life, one night or another.

Sarah Jane’s narrative of her past and her confrontation with the present are interrupted by flashbacks to her childhood on a chicken farm, and by reflections like this: “All stories are ghost stories, about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted, by the living.” Does she count herself as ghost or living? How can anyone walk forward with such sorrow and loss?

Little by little, one sideways reference or clue after another, the crime at the heart of the book emerges. And a silence builds, as large as the loss that Sarah Jane’s still carrying. Is it Sarah Jane’s own, or does it belong to one of the dead men she’s seen?

Lit with insight, affection, and the deep tenderness that can accompany long-term grief, Sallis’s Sarah Jane is that most unusual of mysteries: one that investigates the soul, walking.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.
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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Brief Recaps: Eliot Pattison's BONES OF THE EARTH, Ang Pompano's WHEN IT'S TIME FOR LEAVING, Michael Stanley with SHOOT THE BASTARDS

"Life on life's terms" meant missing out on some reviewing earlier this year. So here are some brief recaps of books you may want to stock in for the cold weather!

BONES OF THE EARTH (Minotaur) is the tenth and final Inpector Shan Tao Yun mystery from Eliot Pattison. Pattison's first in this series, Skull Mantra, won an Edgar. Both of those, plus the locale in what was once the Hidden Kingdom and remains a controversial region taken over politically by China, are great reasons to read this finale.

Shan's position as a former Chinese official who's become a determined Buddhist places him at a spiritual sweet spot for the investigation of ancient shrines underlying the criminal efforts that soon threaten him and his son. It's fascinating to watch the threads drawn together, and there's hardly a moment without suspense, as Shan navigates a series of traps and investigates on both the mundance and the spiritual level. Pattison's deft twisting of the plot strands to reach a fitting resolution of the series makes for an excellent read.

Ang Pompano is a long-time active member of Sisters in Crime, nationally and in the New England chapter. Yes, there are "brothers" in the organization! His stories have been anthologized, and he's developed academic themes, too, including on detective fiction. WHEN IT'S TIME FOR LEAVING (Encircle Publications) is his debut mystery novel. And what an exhilarating, well-paced adventure it provides! Disgruntled police detective Al DeSantis, leaving behind multiple discouragements in New Haven, CT, plans to relocate to sunny Los Angeles. But a phone call from Mrs. Greenleaf at the Blue Palmetto Detectie Agency in Georgia topples his assumptions of life by letting him know his long-gone father is still alive, and entering a nursing home. "You own a detective agency and a home on Ava Island," Mrs. Greenleaf says. Oddly, though, even though he now owns it ... it seems like she's in charge.

While Al tries to work out what's going on, murder moves into his life, along with Max, an attractive and very sharp female detective who seems to be his official boss. Meanwhile his father, with rapidly increasing dementia, repeatedly goes AWOL from the nursing home. In a series of side-splitting scenes reminiscent of Donald Westlake at his best, Al and his dad become partners in trying to stay alive. Grab a copy of this (hopefully) first of many more to come, and enjoy the sense of being ahead of the crowd in spotting a strong new talent.

Michael Stanley (pen name for a writing duo) already has an award-winning series featuring Detective Kubu. With SHOOT THE BASTARDS (Poisoned Pen/Sourcebooks), Stanley launches a new protagonist: investigative journalist Crystal ("Crys") Nguyen, of Vietnamese heritage but raised and based in Minnesota. In a classic "Livingston searches for Stanley" move, she persuades National Geographic to assign her to complete the rhino poaching story of her missing colleague, Michael Davidson -- and, if possible, to locate Davidson (dead or alive) as a sidebar to the main investigation.

Crys is soon hopelessly muddled about who's a good guy and who's not, and in a chase for information that takes her into the South African bush, north to Geneva, Switzerland, off to Vietnam, and finally back to African landscape that's already become part of her. She's strong and skilled with a light bolt-action rifle, from training at home in winter biathlons -- but how will that stack up against organized criminals with automatic weapons and a huge cash incentive?

Great to see this lively new series, and to know in advance that Michael Stanley's seasoned mystery writing will carry Crys into high risk and tension, challenging all her thinking and action.

Watch for a few more of these, before reviews of the November releases ahead!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.
The newest South Korea mystery from Martin Limón, G.I. CONFIDENTIAL, is at once a tight and fast-paced crime investigation—military police Sueño and Bascom are under fierce pressure to ID and halt the serial bank robberies that are painting US occupying forces as murderous criminals, thanks to an out-of-control GI contingent—and a hilarious tangle for three, as the two men find themselves repeatedly bested by tabloid reporter Katie Byrd Washington.

Before the reporter engages action, though, catch up with the stresses of the 1970s as the investigators walk the challenging line of respecting the local Korean National Police, and the demands of their own officers. George Sueño, who's achieved speaking fluency in Korean (a very unusual asset for an American then!), partners with the more impulsive Ernie Bascom. They add up as an effective team, but sometimes the requirements are odd ones:
As the GI and injured Korean policeman stood awkwardly in front of one another, I translated ... But I translated his words into Korean with quite a bit of diplomatic license. It came out as something like, I'm sorry I hit you, I shouldn't have done it, and I'll be sure to show more respect for Korea and Korean law in the future. Both [Korean police commander] Mr. Kill and Officer Oh realized that my translation was less than exact but kept their faces impassive.

The wounded Korean officer paused for a moment, making sure that everyone absorbed this abject apology from an obnoxious foreigner. Finally, he nodded his head and barked an order. ... Quickly, the two GIs, mumbling to themselves, climbed back into their truck ... and sped away.

Mr. Kill told me, "You should be in the State Department."

"Every American soldier is an ambassador for their country," I said.
One situation defused for the moment -- but a lot worse ahead, as the tabloid reporter drags the investigators into a situation that could seriously tarnish the reputation of several US officers. Or, come to think of it, ignite a big war.

Limón crafts an exploration of corruption and sex scandals, while creating a highly entertaining snap-trap for Sueño and Bascom, as slippery journalist Katie Washington sets them up to take the fall. When the story began to threaten armed conflict, I jumped for some Korean history and confirmed that what seems like wild exaggeration in Limón's timeline is actually reflects the chaos and risk of that time. It's a lot of fun to surf the action through the down-to-earth assessments and effective counterstrikes of Limón's characters.

This is the 14th in the series, and one of the best—shelve it with historical fiction, or with (military) police procedurals, or with Good Crime Fiction to Read Again. As long as the plot's tight and the clues are sensible, the heart of a good mystery is in the characters and the action. G.I. CONFIDENTIAL is a winner on both counts.

Like Lee Child? James R. Benn? Barbara Cleverly? Jacqueline Winspear? This series shows the same fine storytelling, with an excellent sense of pace and satisfaction.

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

Saturday, October 19, 2019

One of Today's Best British Traditional Mystery Series, from Elly Griffiths

[originally published by the New York Journal of Books]


“A well-turned-out, exciting, and at times downright nail-biting traditional mystery, with satisfying emotional resonance.”

Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series enters its 11th title with The Stone Circle, featuring the single-parent archaeological specialist and DCI Harry Nelson, who’s been gradually revealed to his family and his community as the father of Ruth’s child. The pair met and had a brief passionate connection that resonated into deeper emotions, but DCI Nelson was, and is, very married, and the chances of him leaving his wife were always slim.

Now, an anonymous letter threatens to bring back the violence that once brought Ruth and Nelson together. It looks like it’s written by the criminal they battled—a man who’s quite dead. But if that’s the case, who’s writing the letters that continue to arrive?

While the crime-solving team struggles with what the threats mean, Ruth gets looped into the tension too, since the letter writer refers to a “stone circle,” one of the prehistoric religious sites in her region. Distracting her from actually tackling the clues is a new factor: Nelson’s wife Michele is about to add a new baby to his life, and Ruth is realistic enough to see that the baby will crush any remaining chance that Nelson would come to her and her daughter. Not that she wants him to. Well, not really. But it would be nice to have him desire to do so, wouldn’t it?

Griffiths spins a complex crime tale that invades multiple levels of time, historic and otherwise. Her greatest strength is the way she sketches, then delicately shade in, the very human nature of investigators and the way their ability to see the relevant strands of clues, motives, and opportunities is shaped by their personal lives. In the long run, one of the crime officers who persists in following her hunches will be the one to turn the case. But with enough warning to actuallu stop the perpetrator from a new murder? It’s doubtful.

Series fans will appreciate the strong presence in The Stone Circle of Cathbad, a druid and dad, along with his daughter Madeleine, now a journalist with dreams of investigative work herself. But of course the tension ramps up most when the threatening letters begin to rope DCI Nelson and Ruth back together around their daughter Kate and more:

“Nelson’s phone buzzes as he goes up the stairs. He sees ‘Ruth’ on the screen and so waits until he’s in his office to call back.

“’Ruth? What is it? Is it Katie?’

“A deep sigh. ‘No, it’s not Kate. It’s me. I’ve had a letter.’ …

“As Ruth reads, Nelson can almost feel his blood pressure rising. He remembers the letters arriving when Lucy went missing and then later with Scarlet. The same mocking, erudite, menacing tone. She called from the depths and you answered. It’s the same person, he’s sure of it.”

Because The Stone Circle loops back to Ruth and Nelson’s past, Griffiths provides plenty of back-story for new readers of the series. And the combination of an amateur sleuth who’s a professional investigator of graves, Ruth, with a trained police investigator, Nelson, keeps the pace sharp and quick, the insights clever, and the plot twists highly enjoyable.

Trust Elly Griffiths for a well-turned-out, exciting, and at times downright nail-biting traditional mystery, with satisfying emotional resonance and smart current issues raised.

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