Tuesday, April 21, 2020

American Espionage Deepens, with THE COLDEST WARRIOR from Paul Vidich

[Originally published at the New York Journal of Books]

There are two special pleasures for a book reviewer: to spot a stirring talent with the first published book from an author, and to see an author's skills and passion ripen during further work. If you savor a well-turned novel of espionage and moral challenges, THE COLDEST WARRIOR, the third book of espionage fiction from New Yorker Paul Vidich, belongs on your shelf.

Here's the premise: Readers know from the first chapter that Dr. Charles Wilson, a scientist in a high-security government program, became a major security risk in 1953 and was, ahem, enabled to take a plunge from a hotel window high enough above the Washington, DC, streets to kill him at once. But when CIA agent Jack Gabriel approaches retirement from the Office of Inspector General in 1975, twenty-two years later, he's tagged by his superiors to exhume the case and determine what role the Agency played in the death.

Vidich rarely gives much description of a scene or personal appearance, but sketches the interior of a character -- and all his significant ones are men -- deftly and sharply. Jack Gabriel's been drawn to his work by the "cerebral challenge" and the complex problems coupled to high adventure and an urge to fight "the great Cold War against Communism." But his choices are also based in deeper rhythms of moral character:
The call to worldly action had been planted in him by a mother who pushed him to excel in school, who did everything in her power to have him see opportunity beyond the small Midwestern town she hated. ... When young Gabriel arrived in New Haven [for college], he carried a bundle of hundred-dollar bills she had pressed into his hand, a fondness for Shakespeare, an affinity for his mother's Socialism, and a deep skepticism of the rituals of the Catholic Church. The world, he'd been taught to believe, was a dangerous place.
That's a very typical sample of Vidich's writing style, where disclosure comes more from the author's revelatory passages, and less from the situations playing out. In that sense, this author's style differs greatly from the classic work of John Le Carré, who reveals George Smiley's driving forces through his unexpected efforts on behalf of small people: a Russian emigré living in poor housing, a petty criminal who'd lost his beloved to a political betrayal, a retired police officer raising bees. Vidich also walks a very different journey from Olen Steinhauer, whose protagonists bleed from long-ago inner wounds and must rise above their understandable frailty when confronted by political evil-doing.

And the first few chapters of THE COLDEST WARRIOR aren't the greatest quality -- whether from overworking, or hasty rearrangement, or careless editing, it's impossible to know. Yet Vidich soon blooms with powerful moments and short snippets of insight that cut deep: Of one of the antiheroes in this thriller, Phillip Treacher, Vidich exposes Treacher's despair over his relationship with his wife by writing, "He was aware of the first lie he'd told her that Thanksgiving long ago. That deception had metastasized in his soul. He felt more alone than ever."

The halls of power in Washington, DC, shook in the 1970s from Presidential disasters like John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco, Richard Nixon's Watergate lies and brutality, and the casual use of the CIA to topple international figures. All of this comes through in THE COLDEST WARRIOR, as the threats around Jack Gabriel mount and writhe. The book spins quickly into risk and danger, and the final chapters, fast-paced and dark with threat, provide one of the best manhunt and intended escape sequences of current espionage fiction. One could quibble with the very last scene, a bit soft for a book of such terse "noirish" narrative -- but the heart of the book is so good that it's an important one to grab, read, shelve, and think about. What other moments in our nation's political past may metastasize in its soul? How about in its present season?

Pegasus, part of Norton, published THE COLDEST WARRIOR and released it in February. And of course, this is the year when fine books will falter, due to social distancing and the hum of anxiety across the globe. So order a copy, through a local bookstore's "curbside delivery" or online. You'll want the satisfaction of having read Paul Vidich's work now, when he rises toward the top of this field later.

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

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Brief Mention: ENEMY QUEEN, Erotic Suspense from Robert Steven Goldstein

This blog rarely runs reviews a month ahead of publication, but it's a strange season for bookselling and we're trying to give authors an extra chance this way.

Chess playing is traditional in my family-of-origin (my sons and grandsons play, too), so the title and delightful cover of the new crime novel by Robert Steven Goldstein, ENEMY QUEEN, grabbed my attention right away. It turned out to be pretty different from what I expected -- fair warning, only pick this one up if you can stomach a lot of sexual "play," including S&M and fetishes. Since that is emphatically not the area I shelve, I'll just mention here that this is indeed crime fiction: Two men who should have known better begin to share a house in a North Carolina college town, then invite a "shared" woman to join them. She takes over, a murder follows, and, umm, that's all I'll say. Publication date is May 12.

But I really like the cover!

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

Brief Mention: CLOSER THAN SHE KNOWS, Romantic Suspense from Kelly Irvin

Kelly Irvin is best known for her Amish romance books, but she also has a set of romantic suspense thrillers, and her latest is CLOSER THAN SHE KNOWS. In a clever introduction of a career rarely featured in crime fiction, protagonist Teagan O'Rourke is a court reporter who writes the official records, and we meet her at a moment when her task is far different from the desk work -- she's been in a terrible accident and must protect the evidence traveling with her. Soon the book's revealed to be stalker suspense, with Teagan as the victim and her potential beloved, Max Kennedy, as a sometimes fumbling but determined ally.

Irvin's drive to forward the romance for the couple sometimes pushes scenes a bit off kilter -- when Max gets wounded, it's not the crime that's elucidated, but his passion for Teagan, as he whispers from his gurney, "All I could think about was you. ... Life is short." And Teagan's own inner dialogue about the crime is, "Not being able to take people at face value sucked the life from a person."

Readers of romantic suspense as a subgenre will find CLOSER THAN SHE KNOWS to work familiar ground; make sure the doors are all locked, though, because the stalker aspect is pretty creepy, and the number of victims escalates rapidly. Those looking for Christian-themed fiction may also want to pick this up, although the religious aspects are a bit basic and blunt. If we ever get to beach reading this year (six feet apart for those towels?), this book will fit into the beach bag nicely. Publication date is May 13.

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

Friday, April 10, 2020

Nantucket Island's Merry Folger Mystery Series: Francine Mathews Writes Another Page-Turner

There's a subtle knack in writing a mystery that's edgy with risk and danger, but also threaded with human loyalties and questions, even love. Done right, the blend creates a book that you can't put down. And that's just what Francine Mathews (aka Stephanie Barron) has pulled off in her sixth Merry Folger mystery, DEATH ON TUCKERNUCK. The book release is May 5, so this is an advance review -- think of what a great reward it will be, to pre-order a copy for yourself.

DEATH ON TUCKERNUCK spins two narratives of smart women called into situations demanding courage. Detective Merry Folger, about to get married, has a career that calls for courage and persistence, and expects to navigate hazards. The nastiness of her current superior is a surprise, though, and playing havoc with her efforts to make it to her own wedding rehearsal, or even the ceremony. The excuse dragging her repeatedly back on duty is an off-season and mostly unexpected hurricane striking Nantucket Island, with a desperate need for all hands involved.

Her boss is already snarling at the island's deficits as she reports in:
"NEMA will take care of setting up a shelter at the high school, and distributing relief supplies from the elementary school," she concluded hurriedly before he could launch into his favorite diatribe, "but they'll need police at both places, for security."

NEMA was the Nantucket Emergency Management Agency, an island-sized version of the federal one that coordinated disaster relief.

Potock sighed and glanced at his watch. "That meeting's now in fifteen minutes ... I'm designating you notetaker."

"Very well, sir." Merry felt a surge of relief. At least she'd know where the gaps and problems were, heading into the storm. ...

"And detective?" he finally said. "Wedding or no? If disaster hits, you're on call, just like the rest of us."
There's a parallel narrative, though, when Dionis Mather's father collapses in a heart attack, needing emergency surgery, but the Mathers (father and daughter) haven't yet completed the rescues they're pressured into on Tuckernuck, an adjacent barrier island. When Dionis takes off into the storm to complete the tasks, she's headed into a worse danger than a hurricane at sea: There's at least one psychotic murderer grounded on that island, as readers are well aware.

Mathews is a gifted storyteller, able to keep both storylines pumping with adrenaline and shreds of hope. A few moments of a third perspective, that of the criminals, are sometimes distracting, but never for long, and the action and stakes are so compelling that DEATH ON TUCKERNUCK is a striking page-turner.

Nice work by Soho Crime in boosting Mathews into continuing this series, which had taken a 19-year break between book four and book five (Death on Nantucket) while the author, a one-time CIA intelligence analyst, wrote two dozen other books. It's great to see Merry Folger in action, and Nantucket's complicated social structure, economy, and history provide a dandy frame for these suspenseful police procedurals.

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

Clever New Mexico Mystery, LESS THAN A MOMENT, Steven F. Havill (Posadas County Mystery #24)

This is number 24 in the Posadas County Mystery series from Steven F. Havill, but the first of his books crossing the desk here. Hurrah for Poisoned Pen Press, which sent along a copy of LESS THAN A MOMENT. The book released on March 17, and since the press is now an imprint of Sourcebooks, it should be readily available despite our stumbling economy. Good news for seasoned mystery readers, indeed!

Long-time readers of the series will know that it has featured Sheriff Bob Torrez, who knows everyone (more or less) in this county along New Mexico's southern border. But in LESS THAN A MOMENT, Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman takes the lead on a pair of cases that look linked -- and that have deeply disturbed the region's relative peace. 

The first case is a drive-by shooting, with multiple rounds, of the town's newspaper office. Just a quirk of fate that two people were still working that evening, and injured, one of them badly. The other takes place halfway through the book, so it would be a spoiler to get too specific here. Still, it's no surprise that it involves a recent real estate deal that might threaten what's bringing the region its fresh prosperity: a set of mega telescopes gathering research data but also hosting public programs and visits, the chance to see deep into space, with a developer who's gradually won over most of the community, thanks to his generosity with jobs—except maybe no job for the sheriff's immature nephew, who's still drinking way to much. When a murder takes place, Estelle takes over the initial site survey and forensics:
The view downward wasn't so grand. The victim lay on his face, arms and legs spread-eagled as if he'd been determined to fly. Instead he'd plunged face-first the forty feet to the rocks below. The artfully eroded sandstone under his head was blood-soaked.

"Was Luke down there?" Estelle asked. The deputy had been with the Sheriff's Department less than a year, and Estelle was not yet confident that Deputy Luke Miller could resist galumphing his size thirteens through a potential crime scene before calling for assistance.

"Nope. He stopped right where we're standin' and called it in." He pointed south with his chin. "I took one climb down over there, stayin' on the hard rocks, and checked his wallet. It's in his left back pocket." ...

Estelle set her camera bag down and unzipped the main compartment, selecting a wide-angle lens. "Ay, this is going to be so bad." She took a deep breath and held it, then let it out as if she were exhaling a jet of smoke."
Likeable investigators, a plot nicely complicated with intriguing clues and sidetracks, enough risk in the final scenes to make it exciting -- this is a really well-written mystery, a police procedural of the Southwest that puts trustworthiness at front and center.

Now it's time to read the other 23.

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

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Sixth Mystery of the American Revolution from Eliot Pattison, THE KING'S BEAST

A few months ago, one of my Manhattan grandsons, this one age 11, mentioned to me that he was studying the Haudenosaunee. That moment set into perspective the stunning leap in two generations of the teaching of American History as a field. When I was his age, I knew Indians as the people who fought the Cowboys on the Western shows ... and could name a couple of East Coast tribes, sometimes with their colonized names.

But this youngster, seriously devoted to learning and experiencing the diversity around him and "behind" him, speaks the tribal name and has firm opinions about modern racism as well as the historic forms. I couldn't be more pleased -- for both my grandson and his teachers, as well as the world he perceives.

Part of the charm of historical fiction is the way it can swiftly teach readers, by immersing them in a world they enter emotionally as well as descriptively. Eliot Pattison's Tibet series, featuring Inspector Shan, began with an Edgar Award-winning title, The Skull Mantra, and probed the spiritual and religious background of Tibet at the same time as it fingered meticulously the Chinese occupation, adoption, and immigration into that landscape that was once a "Forbidden Kingdom" of mystic significance. And may still be.

With the end of that series, there is now room to focus intensely on Pattison's other growing series, the Bone Rattler books (named for its first title). Set in Colonial America, the series began with a striking premise: that a displaced Highlander (Highland Scot), exiled while mourning the death of his clan at British hands, might connect at soul-deep level with a Native American from a tribe that's been similarly destroyed, the Nipmuc, down to its last few members. So begins the difficult and rewarding friendship of Duncan McCallum and Conawago, in the uncertain landscape of a not-yet-formed nation of settlers, exiles, and the peoples who knew the land best and longest: its earliest known inhabitants, or, as they are called in Canada, its First Peoples.

THE KING'S BEAST opens in the Kentucky wilderness in the spring of 1769, with Duncan McCallum eagerly -- yet with some level of fear -- witnessing the excavation of skeletal remains of what modern readers will recognize as a mammoth, and later a sabertooth tiger. Duncan's on hand to make sure the fossilized bones reach the great Dr. Benjamin Franklin, a journey that only should extend as far as Philadelphia and amount to little more than being transport security for some scientific "curiosities."

But that plan goes quickly awry, with two major complicating factors: what the remains represent to the Seneca people at the "dig" site, and Dr. Franklin's deep intentions for the remains -- which in turn are seeing violent opposition from others on the new continent.

About a third of the way into THE KING'S BEAST, Duncan finds that Conawago is missing. The search for his friend and mentor becomes a rescue mission that whips Duncan across the ocean to London, England, and into an even more complex network of interacting political forces. The true stakes for Duncan involve his friend's safety. But as he comes to grips with the real Dr. Benjamin Franklin, he also has to confront what's emerging politically from the land that's become his own—the land that in a few short years will declare its independence.

Readers of the series know that Duncan is a trained medical doctor who has become, in his new land, a forensics resource and thus a "speaker for the dead." Pattison uses this skill to engage Duncan in sorting out crimes, especially murders, and that is certainly the case in this sixth title in the Bone Rattler series. But this hefty volume (more than 400 pages) also represents Pattison's effort to portray the forces leading toward Revolution, and their counterforces. Add to this his infusions of the sciences of that time and the economic forces in play, plus the decision to set the larger part of the book in England, and there's a potent load of information in the pages. At times, inevitably, it drags at the pace and passions of the story. With that in mind, here is one of the last American scenes unfolding:
Duncan weighed the words. "The bones are important, or the killers would not have tried to steal them on the Ohio. But," he added with a nod, "we should sleep in shifts, switching when the ship bell rings the change in watch," he suggested. He touched a pocket of his waistcoat, which held a slip of paper that he had been given in Philadelphia. He had long since memorized the address on it. 7 CRAVEN STREET. He prayed the powerful Dr. Franklin could protect them once they reached London.

Ishmael noticed Duncan's motion. He well knew what was in the pocket. "We have nothing to fear," he declared with a hollow smile. "We'll soon have the wizard of lightning on our side."
But their rescue mission involves entering an insane asylum that seems designed to torture, maim, and further demonize its inhabitants, and Franklin may not be as effective as hoped for.

Taking Duncan and his Nipmuc friend Ishmael out of the New World and into a sinister urbanity increases an unfortunate tendency for Duncan to react to forces, rather than to make choices. Not until the final scenes does he undertake independent action. Oddly, this gives the book some of the feel of a "cozy mystery" in which the protagonist flails against situations and tries repeatedly to suspect various criminal possibilities, until finally stumbling against the most dangerous person and having to exert physical and mental stamina to escape life-threatening peril .... and hence at the same time solving the crime in play.

The book's also clearly setting up for the next titles in this series. Another historical mystery author, James Benn, has moved his investigator Billy Boyle slowly through the years of World War II, and this fall will see the 15th in that series. Pattison's increments of historic time headed toward the American Revolution may likewise last for many more Bone Rattler books, and I look forward to them, even as my heart, as a willing reader, clenches to think of the vulnerability of Conawago and the fate of the tribes, in what lies ahead.

[Published by Counterpoint, available April 7.]

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here. (But if you're specifically looking for earlier Eliot Pattison reviews, click here as a shortcut.)

Thursday, April 02, 2020

The Best Cara Black Yet: Solid Suspense in THREE HOURS IN PARIS

Once in a blue moon, an author leaps from one genre or segment of writing, into another. And either it's an epic fail -- or it's WOW! Cara Black just made the WOW leap, in switching from her well-loved but long (and increasingly predictable) series featuring stylish Parisian detective Aimée Leduc, into a tremendous espionage thriller.

So if you only love Aimée and her struggles to purchase designer clothing in thrift shops while juggling her newborn baby and a couple of love interests -- well, nobody's going to force you to try THREE HOURS IN PARIS (Soho Crime, April 7 release). But you'll be missing a lot if you skip the transition. And new readers will find this book immaculately plotted, riveting in suspense, packed with unforgettable characters, and opening a chunk of historical Paris that's often forgotten: the three hours that Adolf Hitler spent in the City of Light, as it fell into Nazi hands in June 1940.

The story opens with an instant in the fingers, eyes, and heart of Kate Rees, a young American/British woman hidden in a dome in Paris, waiting for her moment to compress a rifle trigger and assassinate the German leader. The only reason she fails to do so -- she's a heck of a sharpshooter -- is the presence of an unexpected person on the steps in her sights: the one kind of person sure to shatter her composure and steal from her the precious seconds her task demands.

And then, in a flurry of pages, we're back eight months, in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, learning why Kate's reached this critical moment in an occupied city, in a land where she doesn't belong. Only the harsh events of war can move a person as sharply as Kate's moved in the following hours, days, weeks, speeding toward becoming a secret military assassin.

Her deep wounds, her grief and anger, make complete sense. What doesn't make sense, really, is how she gets recruited for the task. But Kate's in no position to think logically about that, even though readers will get a hint of what's happening behind her back -- and may feel almost as enraged on Kate's own behalf. But most of the time, the action of this well-written, fast-paced thriller distracts even a careful reader from the hidden plots-within-plots that seem destined to wound Kate again, as she risks her life:
Kate's blouse stuck to her back and her breath came in pants as she kept walking. Only a few more stairs until she reached rue Muller. She felt warm air rush past her ears, raise the hair on her neck as footsteps thudded on the stairs behind her. Any moment she expected her arm would be seized.

Then German soldiers were rushing up from behind and past her.


Just ahead on rue Muller the melon seller looked up, terror in his eyes.

A moment later he was surrounded ... Kate averted her gaze and kept to the wall. Bile rose in her stomach. She tied to block out the man's yells, which raked like nails across her skin. She wanted to reassemble the rifle and pick the brutes off one by one. A car bearing small swastika flags mounted on either side of the hood squealed to a stop on rue Muller. The doors opened and the old man was pulled inside.

Too late.

Keep moving.
Yes,  it's that fierce, all the way through. Next, of course, based on Black's past series, comes the question -- is this the launch of a new series? The final scene doesn't suggest it. But the date, 1940, leaves plenty of occupied Paris ahead. Could it be? If yes -- sign me up for more.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here. (But if you're specifically looking for earlier Cara Black reviews, click here as a shortcut.)

Brief Mention: Nonfiction for Crime Buffs (by Tom McCarthy, Bruce Goldfarb, Billy Jensen)

Our review platform is meant for ardent collectors of mysteries and crime fiction, as we ourselves have been for decades. That said, now and then a publisher or publicity person sends along a work of nonfiction related to crime. We generally just pass them along to someone who needs them (research! research!). Here are three that lingered in the office for a while and are now headed out to further readers ... you might want to order one or more of them for your reference shelf. Here's why:

1. You love caper mysteries. Maybe you grew up with Donald Westlake (or discovered him later in life) and love the humorous twist. Most of all, though, you appreciate a tale of a good heist. Your recent "likes" may include Tim Hallinan's Junior Bender series, or the San Juan Islands capers written by Bethany Maines, or some of the Colin Cotterill series and an occasional treasure from David Carkeet. Or, of course, you're still hoping someone will reveal what happened to the art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum? Nope, sorry, that's not in THE GREATEST HEIST STORIES EVER TOLD, edited by Tom McCarthy and published by Lyons Press in 2019. But DB Cooper is in here! So are eight other "compelling and true stories of brilliant plans, guile, and nerves of steel," as the editor describes the selections. "Planning is everything, and carrying out those plans is no easy task ... benefits for these clever thieves were abundant—loads of money and the freedom to do whatever they wanted with it. If only for a short time."

2. You're obsessed with how the forensics work out. Did you mark your calendar for the recent TV miniseries featuring Lincoln Rhyme hunting for the Bone Collector? Shelve every book by Patricia Cornwell next to your bed, until her later titles starting making you feel too ill or invaded your sleep with overly realistic nightmares? Do you pick apart a Kathy Reichs or even an Archer Mayor mystery, probing whether a death investigator or coroner would really miss that particular hint? Frankly, you need the back story, which you'll find in 18 TINY DEATHS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF FRANCES GLESSNER LEE AND THE INVENTION OF MODERN FORENSICS (Sourcebooks, 2020). Bruce Goldfarb whips the details of this woman's life and classrooms into a well-laid-out tale of scientific investigation. It puts the modern science into perspective and shows how hard it can be to move things forward ... especially as a grandmother without a college degree. The reading's a bit slow, but there are lots of golden nuggets.

3. You can't resist those late-night true-crime shows on TV; you drive extra slowly past any local murder site; you wonder whether the detectives would let you offer your insight, based on how clever or intuitive you are. Is that you? Or would you rather get the true story of someone this really applied to, and how he went from journalism to solving mysteries himself ... that's Billy Jensen, who relates his own engagement in crimesolving in CHASE DARKNESS WITH ME (Sourcebooks again, 2019). This is solidly first-person narrative, and doesn't pretend to be balanced. But my goodness, is it ever a page-turner! If you can put up with Billy talking entirely about himself and his perceptions, grab this for your shelf -- or give a copy to a friend who fits the bill.

Good luck! And don't use these as how-to books, please. There are no guarantees of success in such a field ...

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