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.

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.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Terrifying New Crime Fiction, THE CHAIN, from Adrian McKinty

[ originally published by the New York Journal of Books ]

“The Chain will unforgettably haunt you even if you just read the first chapter—so you might as well lock the doors, bite your nails, and read it all.”

Irish author Adrian McKinty has built a pair of crime investigation series, as well as a handful of stand-alones. Always dark with an undertone of grit and desperation, he’s also seasoned his compelling fiction with a generous twist of wry humor.

But leave the frivolous behind: The Chain is any parent’s horror story, spelled out in twisted and lurid detail. The only way to read it is to be very sure it’s not going to happen to you and yours—but McKinty doesn’t leave much room for that certainty. It’s tempting to wonder whether this increasing noir tension results in part from the author’s relocation to New York City: away from the direct effects of “The Troubles,” and into the binding net of American urban life and menace.

At the outset of The Chain, divorced mom Rachel O’Neill learns her young daughter Kylie has been kidnapped—learns it from a disembodied voice on her phone, followed by a call from the mother who committed the crime. How can she get her daughter back? Money, yes, but the ransom is the smallest part of the task: She must kidnap another child, set up the same threat scenario, keep the “chain” of kidnaps going. Or else her daughter will die. The mom who’s taken her child prisoner has done so under the same threat, for her own child. And on it goes.

Most Americans and many Europeans will have received a “chain letter” at some point. They used to come in the mail, with the names of a few friends who waited for you to send them a recipe, or something similar. Their more threatening form arrived with the Internet: “Send this to five people and get rich; fail to send it, and you’ll have bad luck, bad karma, horrible results.”

McKinty, in his note at the end of the book, admits to a fascination from fifth grade with such poisonous threats. And by melding it to a dreaded Mexican concept of “exchange kidnapping” and his own twist on terror, he designed this long-term threat—then set it on Plum Island, a resort section of coastal Massachusetts that can morph to an ominously barren region in the non-tourist season.

The exhilaration of a crime ride with McKinty is that he never stay just on the surface. His jabs to the underworld aren’t just in terms of menacing criminal figures; they reach the darkness in all of us. Detached now from his Irish setting (he moved to New York City with family), he pries open how humans react to evil. One moment Rachel’s the shower, trying fruitlessly to “get clean.” The next, she’s calling BS on a quote from Camus, “in the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” And she confronts her soul:

“All she feels is pain and misery. Fear above all. And yes, this is the depth of winter all right. This is the middle of the Ice Age at the sunless North Pole. My daughter has been kidnapped and to get her back I’m going to have to grab a sweet little boy from off the street and threaten him and his family and mean it. Mean it when I say I’m going to kill him because if I don’t I’ll never see Kylie again.”

And of course, if and when Rachel obeys, she doesn’t know whether she can live with herself afterward. Or whether her daughter will accept her if she does this.

McKinty’s fierce twists of narrative and pressure create one highly believable surprise after another, for a compelling up-to-date twist on crime and threat. The Chain will unforgettably haunt you even if you just read the first chapter—so you might as well lock the doors, bite your nails, and read it all.

But don’t recommend it to parents of small children!

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

Crime Reporter in Detroit? Great Setup, Now in Its Fourth Title, from Jane Haseldine

[originally published by the New York Journal of Books]

“Fans of Karen Slaughter will find Haseldine’s crime fiction rewarding, and it’s also a good balance to another excellent Detroit series from Stephen Mack Jones; of course there’s also a hint of Loren D. Estleman’s Motor City mysteries here, too.”

The fourth in Jane Haseldine’s Julia Gooden mystery series, You Fit the Pattern, resumes after her major scoop of discovering the truths in her own family: her much-loved brother’s childhood abduction, his killer (found by Julia 30 years after the crime), and the devastating role their father played in the crimes. 

Meanwhile, active crimes in Detroit have spun out of control while Julia was swamped in her own detection. There’s a killer seizing woman joggers, creating a pattern of highly planned and horrific deaths for them. When Julia realizes the serial killer is picking out women who resemble her, enacting over and over a both a passion for her and a deadly obsession, she can’t help feeling responsible—and so, driven to take risks to bring the murderer out of hiding.

Also at stake, of course, is the safety of Julia’s young sons, already traumatized enough by the threats that her career has brought into their lives. Thank goodness for her motherly housekeeper Helen and for Julia’s increasing closeness to Detective Raymond Navarro, both doing their best to keep her safe.

But when the killer’s routine turns out to include a voodoo symbol, as well as items that make it clear he’s stalking Julia and her family, things rapidly get very creepy. Soon the killer even has a nickname: the Magic Man Killer.

The one plus to this escalating mode of threat is, it pulls Julia and Navarro closer:

“Navarro sighed and ran his fingers in frustration through his thick shock of dark hair.

“’You need to do something for me. I’m not going to let you and your boys hang solo with all this going down. I checked with my apartment manager. He has a vacant unit next to mine … And I’ll be right there. I’m not going to discount that the killer knows where you live. … please think about it.’

“’Okay. We’ll do it.’

“’Just like that? I don’t have to fight you on this?’

“’Not this time. The Magic Man Killer has got a direct line to me. I don’t know how close it is, but I need to make sure he doesn’t get anywhere near my family.’”

But of course, safety’s not that simple, especially when Julia’s own drive to investigate and get the story become tangled with the creeps tracking her and trying to lure her in. Yes, that’s creeps, plural. When the nasty part of the world opens up, there’s way too much evil in there.

Haseldine’s narrative is strong and direct, a good fit for her protagonist. With this fourth in the series, Haseldine has clearly grown more adept at holding all the cards in her hands, from threats to red herrings to cop-shop interference and the loyalties that make live worth living. Fans of Karen Slaughter will find Haseldine’s crime fiction rewarding, and it’s also a good balance to another excellent Detroit series from Stephen Mack Jones; of course there’s also a hint of Loren D. Estleman’s Motor City mysteries here, too.

There’s no need to read the preceding titles first (The Last Time She Saw Him; Duplicity; Worth Killing For). But the satisfaction of seeing this sometimes gritty and always fast-paced series maturing makes it worth gathering all four titles on the shelf, and watching for the next one. 

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

Spooky, Dark, Great for the Season: Short "Noir" Collected by Lawrence Block

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

“Serious stories, taking in the main a hard line on reality, and any gray scale would show them on the dark end of the spectrum.”

When mystery author extraordinaire Lawrence Block gathers stories for an anthology, top names mingle with newcomers among the authors he taps on the shoulder. His own mysteries have dipped deeply into the classic New York City and Los Angeles dark police procedurals, but also skated and danced with merriment at times. Obviously, its the darkness that Block wants for At Home in the Dark—starting with a chatty Foreword that reviews the history of “noir” and explains why he’s avoided that term in his title.

But you can’t avoid the genre, since each story here features some aspect of the unsettling, creepy, menacing, and lock-the-door disturbing. There are 17, and it’s worth grabbing this collection just for the sake of reading another mystery by Joyce Carol Oates. But Joe R. Lansdale, Nancy Pickard, Jim Fusilli, and Duane Swierczynski will also draw fans. And part of the fun (if being alternately scared and despairing is fun!) is the contrast among their styles, as well as the surprises in the directions each one chooses.

Loosely speaking, James Reasoner’s story is a Western (but dark!), Joe Hill’s is horror, and Joe R. Lansdale jumps to an unexpected dystopian future.

But then there’s Elaine Kagan’s story “Hot Pants,” which launches this collection. It opens in a nursing home where everyone’s losing whatever marbles they entered with, yet it’s where Lucinda Conte needs to keep her failing father housed and cared for. Grim motivation for working in an Italian restaurant with good tips … and a kitchen culture straight out of the #metoo nightmares. See whether you would have predicted the final sentence, and the way the last action ties back to the title.

What would you guess a story called “The Eve of Infamy” would be about? Hint: Think FDR and his famous speech. Here’s a taste of the story, by Jim Fusilli:

“No, he decided, knee-deep in debris. He’d wait out the war and go back to the Bronx. The streets were in his blood. He knew the rooftops and alleyways. Theft came naturally, violence did too. If the next few years broke his way, he could bankroll a future, playing steady amid the turmoil. Then he’d go back home a champion. He’d aim high. The cops wouldn’t dare touch him.”

In other words, don’t look for happy endings in this collection. A few “just desserts” maybe, but even those are grim. Block’s roundup proves that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t unusual, just longer than usual for this genre. Brace for violence, sexual and otherwise. Don’t read this if you’re on the brink of depression, as it might tip you in. But if you’re a survivor of many a dark crime novel, there’s great pleasure in these concise, tight, and twisted tales.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of At Home in the Dark is seeing the collection as insight into Lawrence Block’s preferences, amply described in his “rant” at the opening. His description of the noir collections in vogue is spot on: “They are serious stories, taking in the main a hard line on reality, and any gray scale would show them on the dark end of the spectrum.”

Here’s one more classic snippet to treasure from the collection, from the story “The Cucuzza Curse” by Thomas Pluck: “Joey was here because he knew people, and he knew people. … He had a reputation as a reasonable if foppish good earner with an even temper, respected by men of violence.”

Don’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into: the dark!!

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

French Crime Fiction from Fred Vargas, Good Reading!

[originally published in the New York Journal of Books]

The poison of the crimes, like the spider venom involved, threatens to incapacitate and to kill.

In her ninth translated Commissaire Adamsberg crime novel, CWA award winner Fred Vargas takes a strand from the #metoo movement and weaves it into scandals around unprotected children and religious failings, to craft an intense and deep-cutting investigation in This Poison Will Remain.

The book’s title in French was Quand sort la recluse: loosely translated, “when the recluse goes forth.” It’s a better title than This Poison Will Remain, since the heart of the crimes that Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his officers investigate involves the double meaning of “recluse.” First, there’s the brown recluse spider, which can give a toxic but not generally deadly bite. So why are victims dying of what appears to be the spider’s venom … multiplied to an amount that at least 22 spiders would have to provide?

Second, a recluse, as Americans know, is also a hermit, a person who deliberately lives separately from society and even friendship. In France, it’s extended to some kinds of religious hermits, as well as a vicious past history of abused women enclosed in terribly deprived huts, reduced to the status of charity-fed animals, in order to hide their shame at having been sexually abused.

Adamsberg finds support in the investigation from a spider-interested older woman who in turn is caregiver for someone who no longer functions outside the home. It seems a kindness. But as he and his team begin to untangle threads that lead back to a gang of childhood bullies at an orphanage in Nîmes, their suspicion of any player from that locality takes them deeper into how personalities can deform, not just with abuse but also with isolation.

Vargas is not as well known in America as some other French crime novelists. It’s a delight to read the smooth translation by the same person who’s worked with her previous crime fiction, Siàn Reynolds. Adamsberg has collected a talented but in some ways crippled set of detectives: a tense commandant ready to challenge the Commissaire’s authority, a narcoleptic research pro, a calm but not yet self-confident female lieutenant. In This Poison Will Remain it’s the concerns of Commandant Danglard, some for himself, some for the group, that nearly capsize the investigation and the team:

“When Adamsberg had come into the room, with his usual slightly rolling gait, smiling round at everyone, shaking hands, Danglard’s anxiety immediately revived. More vague and elusive than ever, with his wandering gaze and absent-minded smile, the commissaire seemed to have lost touch with the precisely carpentered joists which had always … underpinned his approach … He’s looking invertebrate, boneless, Danglard deduced.”

This meeting lays the groundwork for Danglard to become a danger to his own boss, and a traitor to the group. The poison of the crimes, like the spider venom involved, threatens to incapacitate and to kill.

What Danglard fails to keep in mind, though, is Adamsberg’s attentive intuition, as well as his grasp of the heart’s own reasoning. Solving the crime successfully will also demand winning back his team’s loyalty and building their strength. Vargas paints a stirring portrait of how a true leader does exactly that—while making sure the job gets done.

No surprise that Vargas’s books (“Fred Vargas” is a pen name; it’s Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, a historian and archaeologist as well) have sold more than 10 million copies. It will be good to see more Americans enjoy the series.

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