Thursday, March 26, 2020

Long Awaited Crime Fiction from Julia Spencer-Fleming, HID FROM OUR EYES

Julia Spencer-Fleming's fan base has redefined loyalty to a mystery series, waiting nearly five years between books five and six in her Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne investigations, and again a gap headed toward eight years from book eight, Through the Evil Days, to book nine, ready to release on April 7: HID FROM OUR EYES. (Series list here, in case you want an organized look back. And Kingdom Books reviews of other JSF titles, here. )

There's good reason for this supportive passion: Both Clare Fergusson, Episcopal priest in small-town, upstate New York, and Russ Van Alstyne, the local Chief of Police for Millers Kill, are smart, loving, deeply human and hence wounded and flawed, and work with all their hearts for something bigger than themselves. Van Alstyne doesn't just solve crimes and seek justice; he also mentors an ever-changing roster in his department and beyond, nurturing the people who'll take care of his town through its darkest moments. And Clare, a combat veteran now "collared" and shepherding a mostly conservative flock, struggles more than many with her role of speaking about God and religion, managing her team for worship and community care, and, God help her, loving her now-husband, Russ.

But each of these two generous-hearted people works from underlying heartbreak. Russ couldn't please his father. Clare carries a serious case of PTSD that she's self-medicated for years with alcohol. And now they've got a baby, to add to the stress.

HID FROM OUT EYES jumps around some, starting with flashbacks to 1952, when Harry McNeil, then chief of police for the town, found an unsolvable murder on his hands, of a woman dressed in a party dress -- then 1972, when chief Jack Liddle found another. Now Russ confronts what looks like a continuation in the chain. But a serial killer would have aged out by now, right? Could it be a copycat crime? Yet there are too many corresponding details to make that likely.

Meanwhile, Clare, who's chilled by constant fear that her drinking in early pregnancy may have damaged the child she carried, keeps heading to the pediatric doctors for diagnosis or reassurance. The latest practitioner there, Dr. Underkirk, assures her that her child's difficulty sleeping and fussiness are quite normal for a four-month-old. Especially one who's showing no problems at all at the doctor's office.
"I don't want to minimize your concerns. ... I'm going to suggest that part of your baby's behav iro might be iatrogenic rather than innate. That means —"

"It's a reaction to my behavior? I'm causing it?"

The doctor held up a hand. "I'm talking about the total environment, not just you. ... you're dealing with fairly new sobriety and some issues with your military service. Do you have any PTSD symptoms?"

Clare had been about to say I'm not an alcoholic, for heaven's sake but was diverted. "Symptoms? Yes. Sometimes."
When she leaves with a "prescription" for getting consistent child care help and some calming mediation, she's also carrying the doctor's "airplane emergency rule in life": nothing to do with how you fly a plane (although Clare knows a lot about that), but "Always secure your oxygen mask first before attending to your child."

And that might be a good route to follow, except, as readers of the series already know, Clare's never been good at taking suggestions or following "good ordinary direction." She and Russ are under intense pressure to save his local police department, threatened by local budget cuts. If he loses his job, they might have to move, taking her job away in the process. More importantly, though, Clare hasn't been honest with anyone, not the doctor, not Russ, not her colleagues, maybe not even herself, about how hard her addiction's become in self-management. She longs for stress relief, while her stress just keeps rising.

Solving the murders starts to involve conflict with the community, which doesn't make anything easier. And the ticking clock of the town vote, on top of the enduring violence and warped person or persons unknown, committing murder and posing a threat to both Clare and Russ, ramps up the tension to nearly unbearable.

There are no easy solutions to this situation. And even if the criminal is named and located, will the crimes end? What about the future for these much-loved individuals?

Fans and new-to-the-series readers alike will rejoice that the ending of the book clearly promises a sequel. But the costs piling up are terrifying by that point. Twelve-step recovery folks, beware of triggers in this one -- take some space and call your sponsor if it gets too rough. You know, those self-care efforts that Clare can't seem to get the hang of. Right?

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Forceful Swedish Police Procedural from Johana Gustawsson, BLOOD SONG

Between the harsh cover design and the threatening title, readers eyeing the American release of Johana Gustawsson's "Roy & Castells Thriller" BLOOD SONG (Orenda Books) could figure the book for gory, gruesome, and dark. And some readers might not open it, as a result.

But although this detailed police procedural investigates a multiple murder that's  part of a series of killings rooted in historical horrors from Spain's Franco years, the focus of Gustawsson's writing, as in her award-winning Block 46 and Keeper, is on the tender and insight-laden interactions of two detection professionals: profiler Emily Roy, and crime historian Alexis Castells. Each woman walks with significant wounds from her courageous interludes in the past, but they've worked together before and built significant trust. So when the arc of investigation begins to curve toward their own families, each can borrow strength from the other and keep moving forward.

Gustawsson interleaves three, even sometimes four, points of view, clearly marked at the start of each chapter with place and date -- so this diverges from a traditional narrative. The most baffling flashbacks, horrible in the abuse and torment portrayed, are set in Spain in the 1930s. Only knowing that this skillful storyteller must have a purpose can pull them into the mystery at hand. At it's not until well past the midpoint of the book that the strands show their deeper connections.

Instead, the action begins with a triple murder in Falkenberg, Sweden, in December 2016, not long before the long-planned wedding for Alexis. Although Emily is based in London, she's immediately drawn into the case because the victims are family members of a younger woman she cares very much for, named Aliénor. Emily's own inner traumas are massive -- they're not explained fully here (see at least Keeper, before or after you read BLOOD SONG, or just go with the flow, as Emily's colleagues do), but her unemotional presence in crime-solving team meetings says a lot, as does her coping mechanism while investigating such horrors:
The cold struck her full in the face as Emily stepped outside the station. Greedily sucking in a few breaths of icy air, she crossed the street and went to sit on a low stone wall beside the pavement. Then she took a little black box out of her inside coat pocket. She opened it and gazed inside for a few seconds.

That was always the hardest part. Being in tune with her senses, without letting her emotions overwhelm her.

Emily tucked away the image of Aliénor in the empty box. She contemplated her friend's face for a moment, then closed the lid.
Gustawsson's writing, and her clear insistence that injustice must be exhumed and confronted, make it necessary to press forward with Emily and Alexis as the meaning of the crime finally emerges — along with other disturbing secrets. Some crimes take a generation or more to solve. But in this book, as Martin Luther King Jr. asserted, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Haunting and Enchanting, THE GLASS HOTEL from Emily St. John Mandel

[originally published at the New York Journal of Books]

Mandel’s symphony of belief and offerings builds slowly to a pattern that, in the midst of loss, insists on meaning and value to the half-understood, half-intended journeys that people so often take.”

Some places lend themselves to mystery from the start. In Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, a luxury hotel on the edge of ocean-isolated wildness provides a set piece of wonder and mystical connection: the Hotel Caiette, a five-star location on the north edge of Vancouver Island, off the coast of Canada.

Follow the bartender’s gaze, as she offers both warmth and intelligence to fabled investor Jonathan Alkaitis. For Vincent, whose half-brother has little to give her, and whose mother died in the nearby waters, perhaps of suicide, the elegance and wealth of Alkaitis represent an opportunity that the island itself could never offer: a chance to live graciously, luxuriously, embraced by travel, fine clothing, and a blunt but kind role as not quite wife, not quite mistress, and almost a partner in how Alkaitis spins his own sense of fantasy.

Alkaits is indeed an expert at raising financial fiction. Through gazes into the past and future, it’s not long before readers understand the parallel between this mogul and the now-infamous Bernie Madoff: Without malice, without any intent to harm, Alkaitis and a close circle of “asset-aware” employees have stacked investments that turn out to be fictional at best, tangled in Alkaitis’s own desire to please everyone and make them feel good – until he can’t meet the call for funds, and the whole pile collapses.

What Mandel does, in her layered and tender narratives, is show the haunting that love and good intentions can create. In fact, Alkaitis himself becomes haunted by the people who’ve died in his “best of intentions” scheme. And Vincent? What can she find for her own eventual liberation, despite the dragging anchor of her half brother, whose dreams and pain also become part of this stacking of tissued longing? Her strength and exuberance ring bold and clear. Still, she leapt into the game from a position of no power, no assets. Alkaitis doesn’t seem ready to add to her base, except within the careful agreement the two have crafted.

Although Vincent and Alkaitis occupy the heart of The Glass Hotel’s spiraling story, each character is brought to delicately blushed color as if in Japanese watercolor, through the moments Mandel provides for them, either in their visions or in their settings. Like this, between a relatively minor character, Leon, and his wife Marie:

“’We move through this world so lightly,’ said Marie, misquoting one of Leon’s favorite songs, and for a warm moment he thought she meant it in a general sense, all of humanity,  all these individual lives passing over the surface of the world with little trace, but then he understood that she meant the two of them specifically, Leon and Marie, and he couldn’t blame his chill on the encroaching night.”
Trembling between a crime whose effects devastate the lives of many, including of those Alkaitis truly treasures, and the hauntings that seem threaded to Vincent’s own passion and insight, The Glass Hotel also places life and dying into their necessary parallel positions of meaning—or, to inappropriately offer another song lyric, “You can’t have one without the other.”

Mandel’s symphony of belief and offerings builds slowly to a pattern that, in the midst of loss, insists on meaning and value to the half-understood, half-intended journeys that people so often take. And wake up to, and marvel, and perhaps see through the glass.

NOTE: For a quick take on Mandel's earlier (2014) Station Eleven, a pandemic-related novel, click here.

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

Monday, March 16, 2020

Local Book News: THINKING INSIDE THE BOX from Adrienne Raphel

No, this is not a mystery ... not even poetry ... but here in the Northeast Kingdom we're especially proud of our locally rooted authors, and that applies to Adrienne Raphel. So this is a heads up: Adrienne's long-awaited book probing the life of crossword puzzles and their fans launches on March 17, and with commerce in person getting pretty sluggish in this pandemic period, I bet it will be easy and fun to get this book online:

(And the other usual outlets, of course.)

Congrats to Adrienne and her family on another gem in print!

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Donna Leon's Newest, TRACE ELEMENTS, Exploring Another Venice Mystery

[originally published at the New York Journal of Books]

“The plot and related risks are less dramatic than usual, and perhaps less memorable, but in the long run, this is a book rich with questions of honor and trust, offered from the hand of a master storyteller.”

It’s tempting to itemize the many pleasures of a Donna Leon mystery: reconnecting with Commissario Guido Brunetti, who is both kind and clever and often becomes appropriately infuriated with the injustice and malice his job exposes him to; exploring Venice through his gaze, which is the gaze of a lover who barely notices the latest attire but instead revels in the scent of the body, the shared history, the upcoming meals together; and tiptoeing behind Brunetti in order to slide, unnoticed, into his Venetian family’s home, where amazing culinary delights appear routinely, teenaged children become wise, and forgiveness and intelligence are equally prized.

And then there are the plots – each of which reveals, in layers, the deeply prized (and sometimes fragile or misled) culture of Venice and its surroundings.

In Trace Elements, Leon opens with a dying patient at a hospice care facility, who’s requested a chance to speak to the police. When Brunetti and his not-yet-seasoned colleague Claudia Griffoni respond, they find Benedetta Toso too ill to give a coherent report. But her husband, recently dead on a motorbike ride that ended in a canal, is clearly on the woman’s mind, and what she is able to say is disturbing: “It was bad money. I told him no,” the patient says clearly, in her first lucid moment of the visit, followed a few minutes later by “They killed him.” And that’s about all she can convey before collapsing.

Struck deeply by the woman’s suffering, Brunetti and Griffoni commit themselves to tracking down what must, at least to the dying signora, have been a serious crime, perhaps murder.

Fans of the series will be enchanted by the adroit research that the police department’s administrative “assistant” (everyone knows she’s far more than that), Signora Elletra, provides as Brunetti pulls apart the strands of what the dead man had investigated, and his role in possibly hiding or altering data at a water testing lab. Of course, Brunetti’s boss, Patta, gets in the way, and the Commissario’s wife Paola provides sensible commentary. Most poignant, though, are the small interludes of conversation between the investigators and the people they care about or care for.

For instance, Brunetti’s daughter Chiara challenges her father about one of his old friends whom she calls “Zio Giulio”: “Is he in the Mafia?” the teen asks bluntly. As Brunetti struggles to put this into context, he gropes: “His father was. … So that’s what the Mafia is like. If you’re born where it is, your thermostat adapts to it. Not everyone’s, but lots of people’s.” Chiara wants a more definite answer, and Brunetti is stranded among all the details and history that tint the picture for him: “How to tell her about Giulio and his connections, his law practice and the clients he defended, the things he could make happen with a phone call?”

This interlude in fact is prelude to the kinds of moral choices Brunetti and Griffoni must repeatedly struggle with, as they discover who in the water pollution testing world is committing crimes, at what level, and who can be held responsible – in fact, how they may need to assist Justice in balancing the scales, strictly legal or not.

Leon’s ability to paint both her city of Venice and the quandaries of commitment make this Trace Elements a quietly powerful book. The plot and related risks are less dramatic than usual, and perhaps less memorable, but in the long run, this is a book rich with questions of honor and trust, offered from the hand of a master storyteller. 

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

Monday, March 02, 2020

Brief Mention: Colleen Coble, ONE LITTLE LIE, Romantic Suspense

Colleen Coble is an astonishingly prolific author, mostly of romantic suspense with a thread of church participation. In ONE LITTLE LIE, which seems to be the first book of a new series for her -- the Pelican Harbor Series -- Coble brings us Jane Hardy, newly appointed interim sheriff of a small waterfront town in Alabama. She's filling the shoes of her father, who's retired, but she gets the job unexpectedly and with no time to catch up.

Almost immediately, she's caught in a murder investigation, one that becomes increasingly creepy as at least one stalker seems to be involved. Coble's switches of viewpoint keep the reader more aware of the threat level than Jane Hardy is, which doesn't always work well in terms of plot twists and surprises. Everyone seems to be dropping hints all the time. On the other hand, this author is a master of suspense, especially of romantic suspense. Characters wonder about each other's thoughts and feelings all the time, even as danger heads their way.

Because it's clear from the start that Jane's past involves a cult, other aspects of the suspense are pretty obvious ... power struggles of the past will soon catch hold of her.

Whose lie is the dangerous one? Jane's? Her father's? The murderer's? Or even the premise of the cult itself?

If you enjoy feeling on edge all the way through a work of suspense, this one will suit you, while laying the groundwork for a sequel that's clearly in the pipeline.  Thomas Nelson released the book on March 3.

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

New from Betty Webb, THE PANDA OF DEATH, a Gunn Zoo Mystery

In her sixth Gunn Zoo Mystery, THE PANDA OF DEATH, Betty Webb provides a relaxing, intriguing, and at times even charming armchair delight to enjoy in this in-between season. Narrated by zookeeper Theodora "Teddy" Bentley, it features the newest resident of the local zoo -- a red panda, not at all like the classic black-and-white version -- plus the competitive vibe of California would-be actors and writers. Most importantly, it's Teddy taking on yet another (forbidden) effort to solve a crime. But how can she resist?

Any other happily married spouse might get understandably defensive and angry, upon discovering her husband fathered a child long before they married ... yet never even knew he'd done it. When 18-year-old Dylan comes into Teddy's life, she's charmed by him, and goes to see Lauren, the ex-girlfriend of her husband, and mother of this delightful young man.
She shrugged and looked back up, meeting my eyes. "Look, I just couldn't cope, so for a while I simply did what everyone told me to do. Until Dylan was born. Then I took one look at him and everything changed."

Her movie-star face twisted, and I could see how hard she was trying to keep from crying.

Seeing Lauren's grief spurred me toward resolve. Regardless of what happened, I would find out who had really murdered Cliff Flaherty.
Murdered? Oh, that's another unexpected detail -- no sooner had Teddy met and, with her husband Joe, embraced the newfound family member, than the police turned up and arrested him on charges of killing a local and particularly unpleasant TV script writer.

Nothing gruesome or horrific in this one -- a series of clues, classic red herrings, and emphatic efforts toward solving the crime follow, and along with the triumph of justice, both friendship and family surge to the forefront. Pick this one up for traditional mystery puzzle solving without stress, and enjoy again Betty Webb's behind-the-scenes knowledge of animals at the zoo, along with Teddy's steady progress toward a happy ending.

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

Like Your Noir Crime Fiction Very Dark? Pick Scott Phillips, THAT LEFT TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE

When the first hardboiled crime novel from Scott Phillips, Ice Harvest, came out in 2000, nominations and awards quickly swarmed to the clever and sardonic book. (Dave and I picked up multiple copies and were thrilled to get them signed.)

In a great twist of plot, Phillips has brought his latest, THAT LEFT TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE, over to Soho Crime (Soho Press's imprint) and grabbed a dynamic platform for his wicked work. Taking the classic slip-into-crime approach that Donald Westlake so excelled at, Phillips provides the slimy and increasingly unlikeable Douglas Rigby, a California attorney who should know better. But then of course, making dumb and immoral decisions just "happens" to Rigby. None of it is his fault ... right?

Home for a quick lunch with his real-estate agent wife, Rigby's no longer as jittery about his upcoming financial disaster as he had been the night before, and assures his spouse:
"Don't worry about it, baby. It's under control."

"We could lose the  house, Rigby. That's a disaster for anybody, but for a real estate agent ... Jesus, I don't even want to think about it."

"Baby, did I just say I've got it under control or didn't I?" He was squirting Sriracha sauce onto a plate of cottage cheese.

"You did, and as usual you left out the important details. All the details, in fact. And also the broad strokes. ... Don't blow smoke up my a**, how much trouble are we really in?'

He shrugged and made a face, eating fast and talking with his mouth full of pinkish, mushy curds. "Look, we're not out of it yet, but I've got a plan. We're going to be fine. Now, all I need is for you to stop worrying."
And that's classic Phillips -- if Rigby's casual amorality isn't obvious in his clichés of "I've got it and it's not my fault anyway," his disgusting habits round out the character description, don't they?

If you're already a Phillips fan, you're bouncing in your seat by now, wondering how much worse things will get and how many stupid solutions Rigby will come up with, before getting caught in his own leg-hold trap. And if this author is new to you, imagine Westlake's most disastrous crime capers, shoved into darker and more dire straits ... or Dave Zeltserman's morally ambiguous criminals on the loose, shackled only by having a home life they mistakenly think they might be owed.

It's good to see the twisted noir end of the Soho shelves filling up with deftly narrated, irresistibly twisted material like this! But of course, it won't fit every taste. So, reader, consider yourself warned -- and invited. How bad can Rigby's decisions get? Once you're halfway in, you won't be able to resist finding out.

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

Sunday, March 01, 2020

British Crime Fiction by Michael J. Malone, IN THE ABSENCE OF MIRACLES

Families. They have their noisy dysfunctions and their quiet secrets, but for the most part, they manage to get along. Until something in that managing snaps, with devastating consequences.

That's the situation in John Docherty's family, in the new crime novel from British/Scottish author Michael J. Malone, IN THE ABSENCE OF MIRACLES. John's mother's stroke won't let her go home again from nursing care, and John, clearing the house in order to put it on the market, discovers enough evidence to realize that his mother and father -- a police detective -- have hidden something he had every right to know: He is not the oldest child in his family, after all.

How much should he dig into this secret, with his mother so ill, and his father already dead? Will it only cause pain? His father's old friend, also in a nursing home, suggests as much:
"If you'll excuse an old man for speaking out of turn ..." He paused while another cough wracked his frail form. "I loved your old dad like a brother. He was a fine, fine man," he said as if he was keen to offer me something, without breaking any promises. "You need to go, son, before I say too much. But think on this: only an eejit runs away from the present by burying himself in the past."
Malone tips the point of view occasionally to that of John's own good friend Paul, who cautiously asks whether John ever suffered abuse as a child. John's answer is a firm "no" and he has no doubts. It's only Paul's odd question that unsettles him.

But John's a broken-winged creature in life, unable to keep his own promises to an important girlfriend and uneasy in his teaching career. In order to discover whether he really once had an older brother who has vanished, and to confront the long-buried demons of his soul, he and his allies will have to pull off the covers of terrible crimes, proving emphatically that the past isn't even past -- it's what shapes us now. And, short of a miracle, opening up the dark passages can be deadly.

Malone's far better known in Britain than in the US, but thanks to Orenda Books, readers can now access his award-winning crime fiction. When you visit this website, be sure to dig down a layer and sample the powerful range of his work.

Best of all, despite the horrific crimes that Docherty discovers (fair warning: some are sexual, but the book's so well written that it's bearable), IN THE ABSENCE OF MIRACLES is equally a tale of heart and friendship. Near the end of the book, John Docherty's painful realizations also generate this thought: "It's kindness that brings us back to ourselves."

Highly recommended, and released for publication in the US today.

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