Monday, January 27, 2020

A Crime Fiction Puzzle from England (Nat'l Puzzle Day = Jan 29!), CAIN'S JAWBONE

Do you check off each red herring and clue and twist as you read a mystery, competing to solve the crime before the book's investigator? Have you ever argued about whether Sherlock Holmes correctly interpreted the facts in selecting the criminal? How do you feel about really hard puzzles??

"Torquemada," a name associated with the Inquisition, became the pen name of Edward Powys Mathers as he created cryptic crosswords in Britain in the 1920s. When he published, in 1934, a "selected" group of his puzzles in a book, he added to them a highly unusual puzzle: 100 pages of a crime novel, "out of sequence." Solving these for the correct sequence would reveal the murder details of the story. (And solving the crime would assist arranging the pages.)

In an unusual crowd-funded celebration of this intense puzzle called CAIN'S JAWBONE (supposedly after the "first murder weapon"), Unbound recently republished the puzzle in a clever new form: a box of the 100 pages, each on a numbered card, to make it simple to keep track of rearranging them. Solve the puzzle, submitting your correct results before September 19, 2020, and you may win $1,000. Attempt it, and you'll experience both a unique crime fiction challenge and a sense of a large community of people trying the same thing.

Interested? Treat yourself to a "copy" of this "book" in honor of National Puzzle Day, January 29. And read more about it here.

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

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Brief Mention: THE MISSING AMERICAN, Kwei Quartey, Ghana Mystery

The Ghanaian mysteries from Kwei Quartey, published under the Soho Crime imprint of Soho Press, prove how vital it is to read, read, read -- across lines of culture. Following the emotional journey and puzzle solving of a crime novel protagonist conveys culture far more effectively than a documentary can. Because what matters most is the human journey of exploration, growth, survival ... and love.

Quartey, born in Ghana and now a a physician in southern California, created his first series around Ghana Police Service officer Darko Dawson and his family. Freighted with significant needs for his wife and children and the community he cares for, Dawson's negotiated crime and corruption, and done well for himself. Still, in many ways, despite the very different landscape, the framework for the Darko Dawson novels has felt familiar, an echo of the values and passions of North American life.

With his newest title, THE MISSING AMERICAN, Quartey takes a leap into far more edgy writing, with dark twists and disturbing motives. Fittingly, he introduces a new protagonist: 26-year-old Emma Djan, eager for a police career like her father's but dumped unceremoniously out of the police force in a harshly unfair twist that #metoo readers will confirm is far too likely.

However, with a dash of luck, a connection with a former associate takes Emma to a job after all, in a private detective agency. The "crimes" she'll investigate are more personal and less idealistic -- cheating spouses, for instance -- but also include missing persons, as well as opportunities to test her deductive reasoning. It's not the worst possible outcome.

Yet Ghanaian crime includes notorious global scam networks, and Emma's fall from grace hasn't made her immune to this dark network of misleading and threat. When her path crosses with that of American Derek Tilson, whose vulnerable and lonely father's become a scam victim and is now missing, the plot escalates. Suddenly Emma's in the midst of experiences very much like those she'd have faced as a police officer:
The attendant rolled back the sheet and Emma saw it was even worse than she'd imagined. Had not a head and outstretched arms been present, Emma would bot have thought it human. Eyes popped out from a blue-green face that had become slimy, bloated, and pushed off to the side like a badly-fitted mask. The mouth was open with the lips forming an oval in a silent scream for help. Some of the skin on the arms and chest had turned deep purple and had sloughed off—or was about to.

Emma shuddered and averted her eyes. Derek retched, turned, and ran out of the room. Sowah looked at Ema and they both went after Derek. He was outside the building leaning against the wall in the rain.
Because Emma's worked to find Derek's father as a missing person case, her role is technically now done -- but can she let go of solving the actual crime?

Quartey laces THE MISSING AMERICAN with other scenes that are as tragic and terrible, and some that shiver with horror. He uses Emma's reactions to probe the reasons for such moments: poverty, morality, family dysfunction? Whichever is responsible for each form of human abuse, it's not isolated. And in this new depth of exploration, Quartey gives us a fresh series with potential for sustained insight and deep, if painful, consideration.

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

Friday, January 17, 2020

LIARS' LEGACY, Taylor Stevens, Second Thriller in New Series

One big benefit of recent global events is, the favorite terrain of international thrillers—pitting Russians against Americans—is suddenly very close at hand and of great concern. Author Taylor Stevens showcased stunning martial arts knowledge and close fighting, as well as advanced weaponry, in her Vanessa Michael Munroe thrillers over the past decade. Now, in a powerful switch to a brother-sister team targeted by multiple assassination forces, Stevens lays out the ultimate conflicts on a European canvas: secrets, power, and above all, potential profits.

While siblings Jill and John (aka Jack), loyal yet often in conflict, struggle to deplane after escaping Dallas (see the prequel, Liars' Paradox), they're unaware that at least two "kill teams" are after them. A collapse in the global assassination market has followed the death of a figure called the Broker, who's kept murder-for-hire available to government agencies. Now it's time to "take out" all the freelancers who ever worked for the Broker. That means at least Jill -- and since the siblings' missing mother Clare was the Broker's final target, there are reasons for these killer contractors to have Jack on their lists, too.

LIARS' LEGACY takes the legacy the siblings have from Clare — not just combat skills but disguises, safe houses, multiple identities — and spins it into both a dangerous safety net for Jill and Jack, and a trap that keeps them seeking Clare herself in the manipulations and risks that surround them. Stevens punches the action in sharp short chapters from several points of view, and danger escalates: Fans of Jason Bourne, and even more so of Karen Robards and Karen Slaughter, will feel at home in this high-tension action thriller with its constant twists of pressure and information. Even if Jill and Jack can enlist some allies, they're overwhelmed by the numbers. Plus they can't trust their own alliance:
Jill gave him a heavy dose of side-eye. "Why would anyone come after us in the first place if they didn't already know what they were chasing?"

[Jack] didn't have an answer for that, either.

"I marked four," she said. "How many do you think we missed?"

He shrugged in noncommittal nonanswer.

There was no we here. He knew exactly how many operatives had followed him off that flight, and he also knew they weren't the only ones who'd come looking. There'd been another spotter in the waiting area — he'd made the guy right about the time he caught sight of Jill — and where there was one, there'd be others. Priorities had forced him to keep moving and trust that she'd find what needed finding and let him know the rest later.

The whole truth required quid pro quo, and she was holding out.
This second book in the new series from Stevens is much stronger than the first, which explained many connections but lacked the sustained force of risk that LIARS' LEGACY conveys. While it's always good to read a series in order, especially to appreciate the author's growth, this may mark one of the rare exception. Best advice: Leap into LIARS' LEGACY and then, more slowly, pick up the prequel and pick apart the threads.

Because for sure, in this Taylor Stevens series, every thread is going to contribute to the ongoing action and revelation of this book and the ones to follow. (Don't you hate having to wait a year between titles?!)

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

TRACKING GAME, Margaret Mizushima, Timber Creek K-9 Mystery #5

Mattie Cobb has a canine partner in police investigation: her trained K-9, Robo, who also acts in part as a chaperone. But when crime and death break out, Robo is all business.

TRACKING GAME is the fifth in the K-9 police procedural series from Colorado author Margaret Mizushima. Deftly portraying the allure of watching this kind of investigation partnership in action -- the gestures that alert a dog's highest capacity to seek, the communication between animal and handler, the risks they tackle together -- Mizushima adds to it a fitting strand of growing romance between Cobb and the veterinarian who keeps her dog fit. Mattie and vet Cole Walker both have engrossing careers that leave them with little spare time, but at least this time, they're learning how to make space for each other.

But then again: With the unfolding criminal entanglement at Timber Creek, even the usual shreds of down time may vanish:
Cole still knelt beside his friend, apparently assessing his condition, while Mattie's heart thudded in her throat. Who in the world could've killed Nate Fletcher? And did the person who shot him torch his van to destroy some kind of evidence?
Mizushima spins an active, smoothly constructed crime novel that tugs at interpersonal connections while also laying the familiar card of a ranch threatened with foreclosure and a possible gambling habit. Then she lights up the strands with a new form of smuggling: exotic wildlife for highly illegal "big game" hunting for big dollars.

The twists of the plot are balanced best by the moments of Robo going into action, prepared for it by Mattie Cobb:
She turned to go to her Explorer, and as she approached, Robo started his happy dance, his head bobbing behind the front seats. He'd probably been watching the entire time, wondering when it would be his turn to play. It took mere seconds to prep him, and when she slipped on his narcotics detection collar, it focused all that eagerness into work. She clipped on his leash and used the phrase that would communicate his mission. "You want to find some dope? Let's go!"
K-9 policing will be new to many crime fiction authors. It makes a great new "shelf" of books to collect, starting with Mizushima's five (she describes them as stand-alones with a character arc). Add this also to Western mysteries, to female leads, and to well-done police procedurals. Violence? Enough for crime, but not gory, although brace for some wildlife moments that aren't always gentle (Western life, right?). Consider this a traditional mystery, treading fresh ground.

Published by Crooked Lane, and already available.

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