Monday, November 30, 2020

Afghanistan Suspense, in THE OPIUM PRINCE by Jasmine Aimaq

Look at author Jasmine Aimaq's career trajectory and it's hard to imagine her turning to crime fiction: Of Afghan/Swedish lineage, she "grew up in several countries, including Afghanistan and the United States," has taught international relations at the university level, and worked for both the Pacific Council on International Policy, and Global Green USA. Now she's director of communications for Quest University Canada.

The review copy I read, however, spells out her motivation on a front-page insert: "My desire to tell their story coalesced with my lifelong interest in literature, especially fiction that illuminates the role people inadvertently play in world-changing events."

Daniel Sajadi has returned to Kabul in the 1970s, heading a US agency dedicated to persuading Afghan farmers to give up their very profitable opium poppy fields in exchange for agricultural assistance. He's trying a mix of money and on-ground maneuvers, and has a few fields to show for his efforts, but clearly isn't making friends in the process.

Trying to argue the case for what he's doing, he speaks to a man he perceives as just another local:

"How long have you had this field?" Daniel said.

"I don't know. I don't like time."

"That's understandable. Time isn't working in your favor. Your days here are numbered."

"Everybody's days are numbered."

"Some of us have more favorable numbers than others. You're up against men who are smarter than you, with much more money. This will become farmland."

"It's already farmland," Taj said.

Daniel has completely misunderstood Taj's role and approach. When he accidentally kills a Kochi (tribal) girl named Telaya, he falls under the power of this man, who has enormous power in the opium business, and suddenly Daniel's world turns upside down. Learning from brutal example that his own efforts are literally killing local people, Daniel begins to fall apart. Whether it's his guilt or the torment he's being manipulated into, he's also haunted by Telaya's spirit.

THE OPIUM PRINCE, named of course for the opium khan wielding the power, Taj Maleki, is offered as a "literary thriller." It's a lively read, crammed with risk and danger. Although it's easy to sympathize with Daniel's plight, it's frustrating that he repeatedly fails to achieve his own goals, or even to form strong actions. Yes, it's hard to see any better choices -- but, again, frustrating, and when he finally does resolve the pressure on his life, it's not through significant growth or change, other than desperation. In addition, the haunting he's enduring turns out slowly to be due to his own misunderstanding of the circumstances around him, which the reader understands long before Daniel has even a clue. He's also the victim of major betrayals, presented as earned by his own carelessness and refusal to understand.

I have two main tests for deciding how good a book is -- and this one fails one test and passes the other with high marks. The one it fails is the count of how many book-loving friends I'd want to give it to. Answer: None. It portrays too sad a set of failures. But the other is whether I'd want to read it again myself, and on that, the book scores a strong "yes." Aimaq has a lot of insight to share, and I look forward to noticing and appreciating more of it with future re-reading.

From Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, and released December 1, just in time to remind yourself that there may be more important factors in life than the holiday gift list and strained absence of guests.

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

Monday, November 23, 2020

Newest Mickey Haller Crime Fiction from Michael Connelly, THE LAW OF INNOCENCE

 [Originally published in New York Journal of Books]

“Connelly spins a story where the risk is life itself, and the collateral damage may be integrity. Watching Mickey Haller work out how to balance the two makes this a compelling crime novel that lingers in value long after the last page.”

What is the difference between innocent and not guilty? Michael Connelly’s The Law of Innocence, extending his “Lincoln Lawyer” series, confronts Mickey Haller with that important issue, in painful ways. Mickey knows he hasn’t murdered a former client who never paid the bill for Mickey’s defense work. But when the man’s corpse is found by police, jammed in the trunk of the Lincoln that Mickey drives, with the killing bullet smashed on Mickey’s own garage floor … who’s going to believe he didn’t do the job?

Connelly writes two significant California mystery series. One features police investigator Harry Bosch, always in pursuit of criminals and punishment for crime. Mickey, on the other hand, is a defense attorney whose demand for justice takes a very different form: If the State can’t prove a case against his clients, they shouldn’t lose their freedoms. That’s the “not guilty” side: when a jury concludes the crime hasn’t been successfully (“beyond reasonable doubt”) pinned on someone.

The frustration for Mickey in this book is, he knows he’s innocent. A handful of people—his staff, his ex-wife Maggie, his daughter, and thank goodness, his half-brother Harry Bosch—accept this innocence. But the frame against him is so clever and complete that even his attorney friends have doubts about him.

In placing Mickey in the hands of the law and a furious prosecutor who’s convinced he committed the crime, Bosch sends his protagonist to prison for months. Living on three meals a day of bologna sandwiches makes Mickey’s clothing hang loose, and he struggles to stay alive as the people he’s offended in the past, including sheriff's deputies who run the prison where he's held, see a chance for brutal revenge.

Connelly spins this series as a first-person narrative, which slows the pace. There are plenty of action scenes, but also a lot more inner conversation than in the Harry Bosch books. Micky reflects:

I had no illusions about my innocence. I knew it was something only I could know for sure. And I knew that it wasn’t a perfect shield against injustice. It was no guarantee of anything. The clouds were not going to open for some sort of divine light of intervention.

I was on my own.

… In the law of innocence, for every man not guilty of a crime, there is a man out there who is. And to prove true innocence, the guilty man must be found and exposed to the world.

The back story of the murder itself—who profits, from what looks like a pure case of revenge against Mickey?—must be determined in order to find that “guilty man.” Working under a near-impossible deadline, and directed by Mickey from his cell much of the time, his team quickly finds promising threads. But they lead, in multiple ways, to dead ends.

Along the way, two big changes take place in the people around him, as Mickey sweats his way to discovery of the pieces: his half-brother Harry Bosch aggressively takes his side (even financially), and Mickey falls back in love with this daughter’s mother. The feeling might even be mutual. Will it make them more successful in solving the crime in time to get Mickey off the hot seat, though?

Passionate followers of the Bosch series may not find much to enjoy in The Law of Innocence: Bosch’s appearances are brief and not very interesting, compared to the character himself. That’s part of the cost of Connelly’s choice to write Mickey “from the inside.” The criminal enterprise that forms the back story of the murder is also rather weak. That said, Connelly carries out what he’s endlessly powerful in doing: He spins a story where the risk is life itself, and the collateral damage may be integrity. Watching Mickey Haller work out how to balance the two makes this a compelling crime novel that lingers in value long after the last page.

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Brief Mention: New Cozy Vet Mystery from Eileen Brady, SADDLED WITH MURDER

Eileen Brady already has four earlier "Kate Turner, DVM, Mysteries" from Poisoned Pen Press, but with the press transition to an imprint of Sourcebooks, Brady's books are also making a transition, positioning SADDLED WITH MURDER as a "cozy." Making it especially appealing for this season is its Christmas theme, twisted with an office holiday party that goes frighteningly awry.

Kate's staffers open up a game about saying out loud a "selfish Santa" Christmas wish. Frazzled and exhausted, Kate is foolish enough to wish she didn't have to deal with a couple of the practice's most challenging (human) clients -- and a staffer catches this on video and releases it on social media, without thinking about what could follow.

Soon Kate herself is taking deep breaths but unable to corral the tumbling emergencies: 

After a few more breaths I'd started to calm down, when the speakers came to life with a loud and lively chorus of "On the First Day of Christmas." I replaced their words with my own.

Two dead clients, one ex-boyfriend, and a present dumped in the trash.

From tender moments with dogs and other companion animals, to a struggle with an out-of-control adopted wild horse, to the machinations of staff, family, and boyfriends, Brady provides a generous set of veterinary and very human sidelights to her mystery in process. 

SADDLED WITH MURDER is a treat for animal lovers and for collectors of veterinary, horse, or dog mysteries, and a delightful lightweight treat for relaxing before, during, or after Christmas. 

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

Brief Mention: THIRST FOR JUSTICE, Medical and Environmental Thriller by David R. Boyd

Canadian author David R. Boyd has an interesting background for his fiction: A UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, and an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability (University of British Columbia), his online presence features nine works of nonfiction, almost entirely environmental.

In his debut thriller, THIRST FOR JUSTICE, Boyd presents a trauma surgeon struggling to meet overwhelming health care needs in the Congo. Michael McDougall is gifted in the operating room -- but like the other volunteers for the fictional International Medical Assistance Foundation, he's seeing casualties that result from simple needs for food and clean water. By the end of the first chapter, we also know he's a desperate risk taker on behalf of his patients, opening up his own blood vessel to create an emergency blood transfusion.

But it's the events of the next chapter that turn his mind, soul, and life inside-out. Caught out on the road by a merciless crew of Mai Mai brigands, he sees his driver murdered, his colleague raped, and he can't shake the notion that his own "by the book" response to a demand for money has resulted in these horrors. Sent home to America to recuperate from the trauma, he instead spirals into both posttraumatic stress disorder and the conviction that he can hold the US government to ransom and "make" it pay for clean water for destitute populations.

Boyd presents a neat plot possibility for Michael's threat to his country, and the plan initially works smoothly. But then things twist far out of shape, as both corruption and brutality in the halls of power distort Michael's intended results and turn him into an international criminal.

Although Boyd is a skillful narrator, his shifts among points of view and his portraits of power both suffer from his lack of expertise in this field. The book's ending is also a bit hard to buy into. Then again, Michael Crichton's books had similar issues, and look how people have enjoyed those, anyway!

If you are collecting Canadian mystery authors, or environmental thrillers, THIRST FOR JUSTICE belongs on your shelf. Since Boyd's fiction craft is still a work in progress, this won't make a casual gift book -- but on the other hand, it's always exciting to snag a debut where there's a good chance the author's going to continue to mature and deepen. This is one of those opportunities.

Published by ECW Press of Toronto. 

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

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Crime Fiction from Canada: RUNNING FROM THE DEAD, Mike Knowles

Other than Louise Penney's work, books by Canadian authors are often slow to reach the US. I was glad to receive (from ECW Press) a copy of the eighth book by Mike Knowles, RUNNING FROM THE DEAD, for review this season. The book came out in June, and it's well worth tracking down via bookstore order on an online retailer.

Private investigator Sam Jones has spent six years searching for an abducted 8-year-old. He's taken plenty of other cases during that time but hunting for Ruth Verne's child never left his priority list, and he regularly reports in to the grieving but ever-hopeful mom.

What he certainly never expected was losing his own tight control upon discovering what had happened to the child and confronting the perpetrator. As Jones starts to face his own shattering reaction, he believes he has only a short time—maybe days—before he'll have to answer for what he's done, to the police and the justice system.

So when he finds a cryptic pair of scrawls in a coffee-shop bathroom that sound like they're from a girl or young woman being held captive, his inner clock starts ticking: If he couldn't save Ruth Verne's son, can he at least rescue someone else's daughter?

Of course it's more complicated than that, and more horrifying, too, as Jones digs into the worst corners of his city on the hunt for the young victim who's asked for help. 

And he can't get away from what the young women's former foster mom says to him:

Norah wiped away her tears with the back of her hand. "You're not here for her. You're here for you."

"Yes," Jones said.

"You're here for hope."

Jones nodded.

Norah took two fists of his coat. "I don't care if you're not here for her. I don't care, because you think you can bring her back. She's still out there and you think you can bring her back. Please—please bring her back to me."

"I'll try."

"Do better than that. Promise me."

Jones gently took hold of Norah's hands and pulled her fists away from his chest. "This world hates promises. All I can do is try."

Knowles leavens the plot by including some unforgettable characters, from the barista willing to pitch in, to an aging reprobate doing his best to cast off his daughter's efforts to make him go straight. RUNNING FROM THE DEAD swerves back and forth between emotion and action, with tight twists of plot and highly satisfying surprises. 

It may have taken a while to get hold of a Mike Knowles crime novel—but now I'll be watching hard for more. And by the way, if you need a comparable to think about ... think Travis McGee, but even better.

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

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Stuart Woods Reinvents James Bond in SHAKEUP

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Woods provides a lively romp of a book, but it’s built for entertainment, not solving puzzles. Pick up a copy to update your sense of why James Bond was and is adored.”

The newest Stone Barrington mystery from Stuart Woods, Shakeup, offers a lively fantasy world of being rich, attractive, and surrounded by great friends and wonderful lovers. Add a touch of crime and investigation, and you have a perfect luxurious visit to a New York City version of Bond—James Bond.

Spoiler alert in terms of earlier books in the series: Stone’s longtime and delightful lover Holly Barker has indeed reached the US Presidency, so Shakeup opens with the Inauguration. Of course, Stone’s not obvious about his relationship with Holly in public, but he’s there for the big event, witnessing (in his world) the second woman to  step into the top US leadership role. It’s all good, including the warmth between Stone and Holly, and the civilized game plan of neither person being sexually exclusive when the other one’s not in town.

The tough part begins when Stone returns to his hotel suite and finds a newly dead woman on the floor in front of him.

Good thing Dino Bacchetti is both Stone’s suitemate and able to directly call in the chief of the DC police, Deborah Myers. Dino is also Stone’s former partner from their New York Police Department days. That means he’s one of the few that Stone can entirely trust, as the victim’s identity and the several individuals with motive to frame Stone become clear.

Meanwhile, Stone’s adjustment to his own new situation involves finding federal agents at his own home.

“‘Oh, hello, Mr. Barrington. I’m Agent Jeffs.’

‘Hello, Agent Jeffs,’ Stone said. Jeffs holstered his weapon and shook Stone’s hand. ‘I’m alone, so you can stand down.’

‘I’m afraid not, sir. Washington has listed your residence and the Carlyle Hotel as places frequently visited by the president, so we’ll have one person on duty here at all times.’

… It was damned inconvenient, Stone thought.”

Rearranging almost everything at this point, including how he and Dino go out to dinner and where, keeps Stone hopping. So do the women in his life; his staff is adept at quickly rearranging his place, all fresh and welcoming, for the next one arriving. It’s all a sweet life of affection and pleasure—or, as Stuart Woods describes one of the new president’s arrivals where Stone is staying, “They enjoyed a long kiss, then more of each other.”

Interrupted, of course, by gunshots and another death or two, scattered around.

Things quickly heat up, and only Stone and Dino are really on top of all the possible suspects and motives involved, until the President sends her own powerful help to pitch in.

Don’t count on solving the crime before Stone; Woods provides a lively romp of a book, but it’s built for entertainment, not solving puzzles. Pick up a copy to update your sense of why James Bond was and is adored, and have fun imagining how the other half might investigate and celebrate.

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