Sunday, September 15, 2019

Guest Reviews by MADonnelly: MYSTERIES by Isabella Maldonado, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Becky Clark. A. J. Mackenzie, Kirsten Weiss, Antti Tuomainen

MADonnelly is a published poet, a Vermonter, a good friend. As guest reviewer on this blog, she brings a hint of Irish delight to the space. And you know what the Irish say: May your home always be too small to hold all your friends. The same applies to a good review blog. Thanks for these pithy takes on six mysteries, Friend!

DEATH BLOW by Isabella Maldonado (A Veranda Cruz mystery, Midnight Ink)

If you like tough cop heroines and  chilling, gruesome hit jobs, this one’s for you.  Add a savagely cruel Mexican drug smuggling cartel, a violent family history, and fast paced, tense police work and you’re in for a wild ride.  The author, with over 20 years in law enforcement, joins intimate knowledge of criminality and  police procedures with considerable writing skills and  a gift for  creating some psychologically complex characters.   Occasionally some tender heartedness, devotion  or cop loyalty shine through rough exteriors to relieve the horrors and appear at the right time.

TRAP by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, trans. Quentin Bates (Orenda Books)

As if trying to get custody of her son away from an abusive and criminal husband weren’t enough, Sonja herself is part of an international drug smuggling operation and in an on-again off-again lesbian relationship with a money laundering cocaine addict.  As she realizes the connections between the  banking and  drug plots, she finds herself being drawn in deeper and deeper. The more she desperately wants to get out and live a normal life with her son, the more she finds herself with a target on her back and unable to extricate herself from the increasing corruption, danger and threats. (Note the translator, who's an Icelandic noir author himself.)

FOUL PLAY ON WORDS by Becky Clark (Midnight Ink)
Witty, self deprecating  and somewhat neurotic mystery writer Charlemagne Russo arrives in Portland  for a mystery writer’s conference thinking all she has to do is give a keynote speech, catch up with her best friend and fly home to her boyfriend.  Instead  she immediately discovers that she is in charge of the conference with no help, her friend’s daughter has been kidnapped and the conference hotel has  been double booked with a dog show. Her friend has told her to focus on the conference  but Charlee can’t let the kidnapping go.  She must find the daughter. Motive? Financial insolvency? drug addiction? family secrets? illicit romance?  Everything’s possible  with lots of barking dogs,  rendezvous in dark passageways under the hotel, suspicious looks and cryptic remarks by staff and attendees.  The  ransom, possible multiple murders and conference deadlines  are all looming.  A  frantic, comic tale.

THE BODY IN THE BOAT by A. J. Mackenzie (Hardcastle & Chaytor Mystery, Zaffre)

There are a number and variety of strong female characters in this mystery. Particularly astute and principled is Mrs. Chaytor, who with her close friend Reverend Hardcastle  have  not only multiple murders to solve  but  troubled parishioners and refugees to tend to.  They do so with fierce intelligence and relentlessness, while struggling with their own personal sorrows and demons..     
    Romney Marsh in Georgian England during a war with the French,  is the rough, gloomy setting for this story and   its smuggling and banking worlds — and the sinister ways they are connected. Mrs. Chaytor and the Reverend, with the help of a couple of the smugglers (there are both”good” and “ very bad” smugglers) keep going over  every angle and all take pretty daring risks to uncover the chain of complicated events, the slippery perpetrators, the mysterious contrabands.

CHOCOLATE À LA MURDER by Kirsten Weiss (Midnight Ink)

  A Ghost Detecting resident cat  (named G.D.) and  a haunted Mexican molilnolo ( a stick for stirring chocolate) are just what you might expect in a “Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum”.  But a  dead chocolatier, found covered in chocolate,  is probably not your  typical murder victim.  Museum owner Maddie Kosloski, a self appointed amateur detective wants desperately to solve the crime. She goes about it steadfastly and with wacky humor, much to the annoyance of friends, family, and the local police. There’s not as much assistance or interference from the paranormal as the name of the museum suggests, but Maddie does well without it.
  And maybe the chocolate shop, billing itself as  producing the most high end best chocolate ever, (“ hand crafted, ethically sourced, organically grown ingredients”) is not all it’s cracked up to be.

PALM BEACH FINLAND by Antti Tuomainen (Orenda Books)

Here’s a mystery that starts with a murder and the reader knows right away who did it, how and why. The real entertainment , sustained, deepened and embellished beautifully and sometimes hysterically, is in how the assortment of characters figure it out, react, compromise, diabolically pursue, bungle, cover up. There are big themes too: Life’s dreams and plans, failure, greed, friendship, revenge, brutality, love - and the ridiculous.  The author focuses masterfully on the characters’ eccentricities and inner lives.  Psychological complexity, wild humor, romance-  it’s a rich mix in the new, garish, plastic-palm-trees-and -all   Palm Beach Finland resort, “the hottest beach in Finland.”

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

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Doubling Up on Edith Maxwell's Quaker Midwife Mysteries

Well-written historical mysteries offer the benefits of time travel, first class: With a trustworthy author who does plenty of research, diving into a "history mystery" reveals the nuances of a particular time and culture, through the eyes of a compelling character tackling risk, danger, and injustice.

That's one of the great pleasures of reading the Quaker Midwife Mystery series from Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell. Set in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in the 1880s, the books have probed class and gender, liberty for Black Americans and for women across the board, and the customs of the politically active worship units of the Quakers.

Maxwell's most recent book in this series was CHARITY'S BURDEN, released in April 2019. Protagonist Rose Carroll is a midwife who takes her religious customs with her to to family homes she visits -- addressing people by their first names, for instance, something that Quakers of her time did to indicate that all were of equal standing. As an activist on behalf of her clients, Rose confronts the inequities in their lives: poverty, abusive spouses, terribly long work hours.

In CHARITY'S BURDEN, Rose discovers, to her horror, that one of her clients may have experienced a botched abortion and died from the results. Rose certainly understands the need for family planning, and can sympathize with a woman's desire to end a pregnancy when conditions will make another birth dangerous or cruel. But she has no patience for people who knowingly injure women (pregnant or not).

So the hunt begins for who in Amesbury is quietly putting lives at risk. At the same time, while Rose collaborates with police detective Kevin Donovan (despite Donovan's new boss banning such teamwork), she longs for the chance to finally marry her own beloved David, a doctor who in fact may be of assistance in her search for justice:
It occurred to me that David might know of doctors who provided abortion services, as illegal as they were. "And I might need a bit of help from thee."

"Whatever I can do."

"We had a happy announcement here last night. Faith and Zeb are also to be wed, and it will be this First Day."

"My, so soon. You're correct, that's very happy news." He fell silent for a moment. "Did this make you wistful for our own vows, darling?"

"I confess it did."
However, since David's mother is adamantly opposed to her son marrying Rose -- her career, her values, even her clothing are not what's expected for such a marriage -- Rose's efforts to take care of her clients and stop the illegal procedures costing them health and even life may cost her dearly.

Series readers get an extra treat with the Quaker Midwife series this year: Mystery publisher Midnight Ink, which brought CHARITY'S BURDEN and the three earlier books of this series to print, has closed its doors. So the next in the Quaker Midwife series, JUDGE THEE NOT (involving a false accusation, class bias, a pregnant woman who's blind, and more) is coming out from Beyond the Page Publishing ... not next year, but next week!

So order both books through your local store or online retailer, and enjoy the double treat. Not much "on-stage violence" in these books, but wonderful information (instilled the way Barbara Cleverly brings us England between the wars, or Sujata Massey offers India of the 1920s) and a capable and loving sleuth -- well worth adding to the TBR stack and then the "read it again soon" shelves.

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

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Crimesolving in the Trenches: WHEN HELL STRUCK TWELVE, James R. Benn

What do you value in a good mystery book? Pace? Character? Clues? A certain level of darkness but some restraint on gory moments?

I want all of those -- and a recognition that someone's got to take action against that darkness -- but I also want to respect the sleuth, feel challenged by watching for clues with the protagonist, and earn my satisfaction with the book's resolution. I may not "solve the crime" before the book's main character does (and I surely don't want to solve it in chapter 1 and then wait impatiently for him or her to catch up!), but I want to feel like I was somehow on the right track. I could have done it, if I'd had the good friend, or the moment of stress, or that head-knocking sudden new view of the people and their actions that have crowded around me in the book, right?

That sense of working toward satisfaction, coupled with the value of friendship and some good moral choices: Those are the components that make me a fan of the Billy Boyle mysteries. Or, as the covers now say, "A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery."

James R. Benn works with a well-defined stage of action and timeline. After all, World War II ended some 74 years ago, and we "know the ending." We won. So to speak.

But the details of the war years include many surprising twists and tales, and Benn's two most constant characters in this series, Lieutenant Billy Boyle (of the Boston cop Boyles) and his Polish military intelligence buddy, "Kaz," have already trudged through Spanish battlegrounds, across North African terrain, and among Roma Gypsies, while working for SHAEF, a special operations wing under General Eisenhower's personal direction.

Now in the 14th book of the series, WHEN HELL STRUCK TWELVE, Billy and Kaz undertake operations in northern France in August 1944. Back on the Allied line of action, they're caught at the opening of the book with a group of Free Poles stranded on a hill under vicious bombardment. "Every Polish soldier knew what surrender to the SS meant. Execution... There was only one choice—to fight to the death." For the Poles are all aware of the valiant Warsaw Uprising, crushed and massacred by Nazi SS troops. In Billy's grasp of the Polish situation, readers too bond with the valiant effort and with the exhilaration as the tide of battle turns: "In the midst of all the yelling, I heard a familiar voice, and saw Kaz join us. He chanted Warszawa with the rest of them, tears streaming through the dirt and dust on his cheeks."

So this isn't a "war book" -- it's an emotionally charged journey of friends under fire. And to this, Billy and Kaz's boss, Colonel Harding, adds a crime-solving mission: The team must find and isolate a traitor among the leaders of the French resistance groups, before General Patton moves into his final fierce maneuvers to retake Paris from the Nazi forces. Some of those resistance leaders aren't exactly nice people, even when gathered at an all-allies confab for final plans:
One of the bodyguards delivered a cup of coffee to Jarnac, who gave a slight nod, indicating they could relax and take their turn at the sugar bowl.

"It seems you may still be in danger," Kaz said, watching as the two hulks waited at the coffee urn.

"Simply a precaution," Jarnac said. "Old habits are hard to break. Look, even Louvet comes with his guard of honor!" ... Louvet had his own beefy men behind him, eyeing the crowded room with suspicion. No one had entered with rifles or machine guns, but there were enough revolvers and automatics in holsters, waistbands, and pockets to kick off our own gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
By the time the coffee-and-conference is over, murder's been committed, and since a coverup of the suspected traitor seems the likely motive, Billy and Kaz launch a risky and clock-racing investigation.

Fans of the series can expect other stars from earlier volumes to appear as the team gets closer to re-taking the City of Lights. Benn also hurls startling twists into the book's finale, promising an intense next book in the series.

If you're curious about the book title, here's the epigraph at the front: "O childhood, the grass, the rain, the lake water on stones, / oh moonlight when the hell struck twelve. ... / The devil's in the tower right now." From Hellish Night, by Arthur Rimbaud.

That's right. Every fiercely good mystery takes part in the battle of good and evil. Part of the suspense is in wondering how the good guys (whether at the O.K. Corral or in 1944 France) will muddle through, when (by choice) they're not using the nastiest weapons in the fight. And the other part -- which James Benn evokes so well -- is wondering ... at what cost??

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