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.