Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Lucy Burdette, A SCONE OF CONTENTION, New Key West Food Critic Mystery

Every now and then, a good "cozy" series goes on a journey -- it's a good way to keep the death count lower in the amateur sleuth's home town, and can refresh the narrative with new conflict.

Lucy Burdette's Key West Food Critic mystery series has been intensely enjoyable, prying open the off-kilter culture of the vacation island of Key West through the eyes of year-round residents: food critic Hayley Snow, and her police detective Nathan Bransford, who's become her husband at last. But with her own visit to Scotland and exploration of its gustatory treats as fodder, Burdette came up with this lively diversion for book 11 in the series. 

A SCONE OF CONTENTION offers family stress right away, as Hayley and Nathan's honeymoon trip to the land of tartans, bagpipes, and scones galore begins with a pair of ride-along guests unusual for anyone's first marital vacation: the aging Miss Gloria from the houseboat next door (how could they leave her home when she's always longed to visit Scotland?) and Hayley's new mother-in-law.  Series readers will perk up with interest at that second guest—Helen Bransford has been both strong and mysterious in earlier books of the series.

Most poigant for this round is the fact that they're staying with Nathan's sister Vera, whose early-life abduction damaged Nathan's family structure yet, ironically, gave Hayley and her mother-in-law an area in which to cautiously bond. Then, because after all "these things happen" around Hayley, a tourist who might or might not be involved with Vera dies in a Ferris wheel accident—and a poisoning follows.

It's not great for the newlyweds, who are already struggling with family demands on their time—Nathan is about to play with his brother-in-law in a golf tournament. A big-league one. Wearing a kilt!

Nathan seems willing to let the local police work on the possible crimes taking place. Not Hayley:

Within seconds, his breathing grew slow and easy as he dropped off to sleep. I lay awake for much longer, puzzling over the possible poisoning incident. Had I seen anything that was off-kilter in the kitchen? I had been so distracted by Gavin's buffoonery that I'd noticed nothing out of order at Glenda's end of the table. I also thought about Nathan's sister. True, she seemed very much wound up about her project. I liked her very much, but I hadn't spent enough time with her yet to get a sense of whether she was really anxious about something she interpreted as threatening, or whether the men around her simply couldn't handle her being emotional and having strong opinions.

Either was possible.

Of course, Hayley's nearly an expert by now on dodging Nathan's requests for her to stay out of investigations, and she has an assistant-in-place with Helen on hand. Her thinking and experimenting take her toward a solution. But will Miss Gloria's fragile health and newly arrived resonance with a Highland clan massacre make the investigation more dangerous than usual?

Count on an unusual resolution, and a handful of yummy-sounding recipes to wrap up the book. Burdette's plotting is reliably strong, the dialogue's lively, and her portraits of friendship in action add to the delight of this well-spun story of a truly unique honeymoon excursion. 

 Still have some vacation time ahead? Pre-order A SCONE OF CONTENTION for your hammock reading. The publication date is August 10, from Crooked Lane Books.

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

Brief Mention: Denise Swanson, BODY OVER TROUBLED WATERS

My copy of this newest in Denise Swanson's "Welcome Back to Scumble River" cozy mystery series arrived after the publication date, so this is just a brief reminder -- if you enjoy this author's cute and romantic cozies, pick up the newest. Starting with a Valentine's season "active shooter" drill and involving school psychologist Skye Denison-Boyd as amateur sleuth with her hunky police chief husband Wally, the book spills out entertainment that's not always believable, but light and frothy enough for a frivolous "beach reading" pick. Overlook the gooey comments about her twin babies, and go for figuring out who'd kill the local school superintendent. Hint: It's not Skye. And ignore the title -- BODY OVER TROUBLED WATERS is neither a pun nor a clue.

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

CLARK AND DIVISION, a World War II/Chicago Crime Novel from Naomi Hirahara

It's hard to face some of the nastiest tragedies of wartime. That's a good reason for historical fiction — it gives us vision through the eyes of someone we care about, without having to endure the burden of grief and rage that nonfiction reporting often conveys.

Naomi Hirahara's new crime novel CLARK AND DIVISION (to be released by Soho Crime on August 3) provides a well-told crime narrative, as 20-year-old Aki Ito delves into the short life and recent death of her older sister. The Ito family arrived in Chicago during World War II in stages: first Rose, the beautiful and confident older sister, in autumn 1943, then then Aki and their parents, a few months into the new year of 1944. But the night before the family's arrival, Rose died in a train accident, presumed suicide, and this tragedy knocks them out of hope and into despair.

They hadn't even had time to get accustomed to hope, really. As Japanese-born individuals, Aki's parents were targeted right after the Pearl Harbor attack, and with their daughters they'd subsisted in the rough cold life of the desert location called Manzanar. Their business, their home, their belongings, nearly everything was stripped from them. Arrival in Chicago was supposed to give them a chance for a new start. And instead, it seemed it would destroy them.

But in a meeting with the coroner, who tells her bluntly that her older sister had an abortion a couple of weeks before her death, Aki steps unexpectedly out of her culturally instilled roles and speaks up:

"You have made a mistake," I said. My declaration surprised even me. I usually would not tell any authority figure, especially a hakujin man, that he was wrong. Why was he mentioning an unspeakable criminal procedure like an abortion wen my sister was dead. "A train ran over her." ... My sister didn't kill herself. Not on the day before we were coming to Chicago.

The coroner looked at me silently, and I knew what he was communicating. She had taken her life because we were coming—probably out of shame for her situation.

"Rose wouldn't do that."

Aki's conviction drives her to investigate Rose's life as well as death, a slow process since she's also got to handle earning a living and taking care of her devastated parents. But Chicago is riddled with crime, gangs, and the kind of prostitution that depends on half-starved immigrant women. Aki may be right. 

Hirahara's crime exposition works well, and Aki's investigation operates with alternating success and barriers. The closer she gets to solving her sister's murder (and it is indeed murder), though, the more danger she's in, herself. Plus she's depending on others, from American-born Japanese to other kinds of Americans, to assist her in the doubly strange new world she's entered.

Hirahara's earlier publications include two mystery series, as well as nonfiction books including Life After Manzanar. A hint of stiffness in the text gives the feel of translated work, which this clearly isn't -- but perhaps the author struggled at times to translate the emotional impact of Manzanar and persistent anti-Asian attacks into another time, and bring them back to us. It's a forgivable struggle, very understandable. 

The greatest delight of reading CLARK AND DIVISION (the title refers to a street district in Chicago) is stepping inside the mind and heart of the "other," as Aki Ito begins to determine what it is to be a Japanese American in a bold new world. Hirahara's given a protagonist who'll feel more like a friend by the end of the book, a route to insight and refreshed experience for her readers.

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

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

"Neo-Noir Procedural" Crime Fiction: MIDNIGHT, WATER CITY by Chris McKinney

This year's most remarkable crime fiction may be Chris McKinney's July 13 release, MIDNIGHT, WATER CITY. Take a hard-boiled detective novel, with all its bitterness and grim assessment of the human race -- and knock it 80 years into our future, when a strike from a major asteroid is averted just in time to save what remains of Earth.

 But that's not the heart of the book, or it wouldn't be such a good read. 

The protagonist tells the story, and remains simply "I" throughout -- a man who's reinvented himself too many times, with wives and children gone, and a current wife and small daughter he adores. But his career hasn't shifted much: Long ago he was head of security for the world's most important and heroic scientist, Akira Kimura, who saved the planet from that asteroid. Then he became a police detective. And as MIDNIGHT, WATER CITY opens, Akira has called him back, because she feels under threat.

Unfortunately, it's too late. And as Akira's life, science, and secrets unfold, the criminal behind her murder becomes painfully obvious: a family member who's determined to out-think her, out-class her, out-live her ... and even take on the deification that the culture has given to the amazing astronomer and politically savvy women who saved the world.

The book's also an environmental morality tale, plus a crushing accusation of a culture that's increasingly divided between haves and have-nots, or Less Thans. What saves it from becoming another Gulliver's Travels or similar bitter satire is the tender loyalty that the protagonist displays despite his despair:

Some people would say that using the word "security" for what I did for Akira is a stretch. But it's what I did. I kept her safe by any means necessary. That instinct hasn't faded ... people on all levels tried to take her down. I silenced them all. Aching joints now, perhaps the loss of a step, but when I'm in mode, I know I've got a power bomb or two left in me.

But it's been ages since I had to be in mode. Decades. I get to the telescope door and let its scanner flash over my face. Even after all these years, it recognizes me and opens, and for some reason, I'm surprised. Not that I still have clearance, but that the machine even recognizes me. Because the older I get, the less recognizable I am to myself.

This protagonist has some special abilities of his own, and he's relied on them to direct his ethical compass during a lifetime of protecting Akira. But when he begins to realize the real crimes that are emerging from his past, and hers, even his strengths are tainted, and the classic hard-boiled formula of a wounded detective unable to save himself seems about to take over.

McKinney tosses some stunning twists into this, though, and crime readers may find this book's play of betrayal and discovery to be a haunting futuristic version of the best crime fiction of the past.

Released by Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

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

Unforgettable Crime Novel by Chris Offutt, THE KILLING HILLS

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“The Killing Hills probes the darkness in both land and families, along with the limits of forgiveness. It’s not just a fine and unforgettable crime novel. It’s a heartbreak and a bond.”

ChrisOffutt’s first crime thriller is far from his first book, since he’s already had two award-winning novels. The Killing Hills spins the grit and danger of a murder investigation into a gruffly tender examination of hardscrabble rural life in the hollers of Kentucky. From the challenges of family feuds and payback frictions, to the dangers of grandparents armed with pocket pistols and long guns, Army CID agent Mick Hardin is in almost as much danger as when he was in combat. But he has a lot less assurance on who are the “bad guys” around him.

Mick’s home on leave to see his pregnant wife, a woman who has loved what he loves: this place and its half-crazy people. But nothing’s what he expected on his homecoming. “He loved her. He would always love her. He’d never met a woman he liked as much, or seen one he thought was better looking. During sex, Peggy’s face seemed euphoric, her mouth tiny, eyes wide as if drugged. That’s what bothered him. Not the sex or the child growing in her womb, but the sheer injustice of another man seeing her face that way.”

Stranded among his own emotions toward Peggy and their fracturing marriage, Mick accepts a potent diversion: to seek the murderer of a local woman, as an unofficial deputy to his sister, the local sheriff. Caught in a sexist political bottleneck and without enough staff even for routine work, Mick’s sister Linda really needs him—even if she has to wait for him to kick off his latest hangover.

Mick’s strong understanding of how Kentucky hill life operates draws him into the web of interactions around the dead woman. Even an old ginseng gatherer can be both an informant and a danger to him; someone walking a back road should be offered a ride, for instance, but when Mick does so, delivering the walker—after an exchange of names that lets each man place the other’s family—to the third holler down, he finds a remarkable situation: a live mule with a chair lashed to its back, roped and serving as a support to a front porch roof.

Though the scene is both very funny and very poignant, it’s Mick’s quick assessment of how to resolve it, complete with release of the mule (which of course bites him), that reveals the kind of investigator he is: one who can think several steps ahead and alter plans as results change around him. He explains his reasoning to his passenger after the fact: “If the mule had stayed hooked up to your porch too long … you’d have to do something back … Then my sister would get mixed up and somebody’s setting in the jailhouse. So, no, it ain’t necessarily for [the mule], but for the good of everybody.”

He’ll need all of that forethought and backward looking, to determine who had the motive for the killing, and how it took place.

Loyalty and betrayal slide back and forth in this tightly plotted, immaculately paced novel. What binds them together is Mick’s capacity to care intensely, not just for his estranged wife, but for the landscape and people he’s grown up with. The Killing Hills probes the darkness in both land and families, along with the limits of forgiveness. It’s not just a fine and unforgettable crime novel. It’s a heartbreak and a bond, laid out in precise scenes and careful conversations, with the most painful of choices remaining in the hands of those who live—and love.

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

Monday, May 31, 2021

Brief Mention: A "Trouble in Paradise" Mystery from Carrie Doyle, IT TAKE TWO TO MANGO

After reading Carrie Doyle's traditionally cozy country inn mysteries set in the Hamptons, IT TAKES TWO TO MANGO comes as a huge surprise -- because Plum Lockhart, thrust unexpectedly into a real estate job on a tropical island, is such an incredibly unlikeable character!

Reasons for her attitudes and behavior are quickly provided (her isolated childhood, rejection by her parents, etc.), but honestly, even Plum sometimes realizes she's never going to enjoy life or friendships, even in Paraiso. And what she's known as a scrappy New York magazine journalist isn't working for her.

Plum  quickly learned that having a fit or creating scene was not a successful approach to getting things done in Paraiso. An event like a crushed golf cart drew an enormous amount of resort personnel to stand and evaluate the scene and discuss endlessly what should be done before no one did anything. Things happened when they happened. And when Plum tried to hasten their reactions, she was met with the requisite "tranquilo."

A murder of one of her villa clients threatens Plum's employment, the security staffer she'd like to attract seems to see her emotional issues way too clearly, and her stylish New York City clothes are not suited to the humid warmth of the locale. Doyle's handling of the sea change that Plum needs in her life and her soul feels in a strange way like a grown-up recap of how an angry kid gets isolated in a school move. Some island type-casting also stings.

Yet Plum is so very injured in her temperamental behaviors that the book chapters are almost irresistible—so the suspense is not so much who killed the visitor, as ... how on earth will Plum adapt, and can she possibly do it before she has to turn tail and return to the city?

For light distraction and a chance to argue with the author in your thoughts, pick up this Poisoned Pen Press offering (first in a series) and tuck it into the beach bag. (Release date June 29.)

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

Might Never Fly Again, after Clare Mackintosh's Thriller HOSTAGE

Mystery fans who read the classics (or view them in film form) have long treasured Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, where Hercule Poirot peels back the lives and motives of those riding the train with him after a passenger is killed.

Now British author Clare Mackintosh re-fits the suspense of this "closed room" situation by framing a deadly hijacking of a high-profile commercial flight. Using alternating passages that reveal the motives and means of multiple passengers, including criminals, on the flight, HOSTAGE circles around the terror felt by Mina Holbrook, adoptive mom of a preschooler named Sophia. A highly believable threat to Sophia's life forces Mina toward the kind of unforgivable action that no airline service provider should ever have to consider.

Meanwhile, Mina's husband Adam faces a very different threat: one seated in a terrible error he's made as a police detective. He's sure he's about to lose his job, and then ... "What will I do? Being a copper isn't like most other jobs—you don't do it then move on, as if you worked in a bar or tried your hand at retail. It's like teaching or being a doctor. It's part of you. And I'm going to lose it all." With that, Adam figures he'll also lose his marriage, as well as the fathering he's struggled to provide.

Short chapters and an unremitting ramping up of tension and danger make HOSTAGE a thriller that can't be put down. (What could happen to all of them—especially Sophia—if you turned away for even a moment?) The details of a bent investigator are so familiar from similar situations that the levels of threat against Adam don't seem pressing at first, but when they engage the emotionally fragile preschooler as well, every shadow seems twice as terrible. And Mina's agonized decision making, trapped among what she gradually realizes are multiple terrorists in the airline's nonstop 20-hour flight, ring an insistent alarm bell of shock, coupled with being trapped, and an inability to fight back effectively. 

Mackintosh, whose three previous thrillers have been award winners, writes fluidly with abundant drama, positioning her characters such that there's no such thing as a little courage—they've either got to give everything, or fail. HOSTAGE is a hot compelling read, earning its way into any suspense-laden summer reading stack. (Release date is JUNE 22 from Sourcebooks.) Only the final chapter pulls the book a bit beyond the believable—all the rest of it rings so true, and so frightening, that the book may well persuade some readers that it's not worth the risk to take an international flight ever again!

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

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Exhilarating New 1920s India Mystery from Sujata Massey, THE BOMBAY PRINCE

Half the fun of of reading really good historical fiction is the pain-free way a book can take you into another time, "experiencing" the differences almost as if you were there. International fiction offers the same advantage in terms of location instead of time travel.

So in the third "Mystery of 1920s India" from Sujata Massey, THE BOMBAY PRINCE, you get double the delight in one smoothly written adventure.

Plus, Massey's protagonist, female lawyer Perveen Mistry, is breaking barriers for the women of her time, the first in her career in Bombay. She's compassionate, smart, and rarely makes mistakes in judgment. That means a Massey mystery can focus on crime and detection, instead of on rescuing the amateur sleuth.

It's November 1921 as THE BOMBAY PRINCE opens, and an independence movement is roiling India's political landscape. Long ruled from afar by Great Britain, India's people have paid the usual prices of the colonized: marginalizing minorities (like the Parsi culture that Perveen Mistry has grown up with), skimming revenue, and refusing to let the national leaders actually lead. A visit from the Prince of Wales fans the flames of Gandhi's otherwise peace-centered movement, street protests break out, even shop looting, and Perveen struggles to get appropriate treatment for the body of a murdered Parsi college student, Freny, who'd recently sought Perveen's legal advice. The timing puts Perveen herself into danger—it's easy for men around her to assume that a woman walking alone out in the city is asking for the worst kind of trouble, and impossible for them to see her as a professional, or worth respecting at all. When she tries to stop the looting of a shop where she knows the staff, she becomes a target, attacked with both scorn and sexual threat.

Fortunately for Perveen, some Parsi men spot the trouble and tackle her assailants, telling her to run, and she actually gets a ride from a solicitor known to her family, who delivers her to the family's driver.

"You are returned, Alhamdulillah!" As Mustafa invoked thanks to Allah, his voice cracked with emotion. "Violence has swept the city ... You sari is torn. What happened?"

Perveen pulled the sari closer around her. "There were so many people. I was rushing in the street, and it must have happened then." ... All she wanted was to wash herself at home, to erase the memory of the brutal men. And hide under her own covers. ...

Mustafa's voice was firm. "Your father said on no account will you go anywhere but that hotel. And I'm coming in the car with you for protection."

What none of them could predict is that the European man who's caught Perveen's affection in an earlier book in the series might be at the same hotel. Even in her professional duties in the days ahead, what Perveen struggles to offer her family firm's legal clients puts her at further risk—especially when she probes the student's death further and begins to guess who's responsible.

Massey writes in swift, colorful scenes that sweep the action and danger along, drenched with period manners and struggles. If the dialogue is at times a bit stilted because of such formality, the pace never wavers, and Perveen's battle for self-determination is driven as powerfully as India's. 

No need to have read the earlier two books of this series (The Widows of Malabar Hill, The Satapur Moonstone)—just plunge into this new release from Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press (publication June 1). Massey's skills are strengthening with each book, and this is definitely her best yet. But if THE BOMBAY PRINCE wakes you to wanting to know more about India's modern history, you'll want the other two titles for your shelf as well. 

This promises to be a continued series well worth savoring!

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

Delicious Ice Cream-Oriented Mystery Series Debut: PINT OF NO RETURN, Dana Mentink

This series debut from seasoned (award-winning) romance author Dana Mentink is a must for the summer TBR stack, perfect for beach reading or one of those rainy afternoons when you're stuck inside the house or cabin. The premise of PINT OF NO RETURN is delightful: Trinidad Jones had no intention of relocating to a small town in Oregon, but her beloved husband (now ex) turned out to be an embezzler with multiple wives ... and the only thing solid he provided her with, on his way to prison, was a storefront. Dipping into her dreams, she's opening the Shimmy and Shake Shop and scooping up ginormous festive shakes with "the works" for her hoped-for clientele.

Ramping the suspense right away is the presence of the other two wives in town! And Trinidad's not exactly an easy fit into Oregon culture ... with her grandfather Papa Luis suggesting, from the other end of the country, that she's way out of her culture and her comfort zone.

Good giggles and guffaws are packed into this cleverly crafted cozy, starting when Trinidad finds the local popcorn store owner murdered and realizes the investigating police chief is the older sister of her ex. No filter here, as she squeaks out, "The sister who stole cars?"

And here's the heart of this heart-warming mystery:

"People change, ma'am," the chief said after a beat. "I don't steal cars anymore. The Army set me on the straight and narrow. They're pretty good at helping a person reconfigure their priorities." She cocked her chin. "I've met Juliette and Bonnie. I didn't plan on getting to know the remaining ex-wife at a murder scene."

Ice cream, romance, an adorable service dog named Noodles ... this charmer has lots to enjoy, and with a seasoned author spilling the dialogue and slipping the scenes into place, it's a pleasure to read. The interactions between Trinidad and the chief also highlight the reality of amateur sleuthing:

[Trinidad] felt a flicker of anger. "I don't think you're exactly on Juliette's side. You sent her to jail."

The chief's eyes were cold. "The evidence sent her to jail, and you shutting me out might have just cost us information that could have cleared her. Did you think of that while you were playing detective?"

Highly recommended. And I'll be watching for more from Dana Mentink, who clearly knows both human nature and how ordinary people pull up their courage and help each other at the toughest of times.

From Poisoned Pen Press, on sale May 25.

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

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Cool Detroit Crime Fiction from Stephen Mack Jones, DEAD OF WINTER

Maybe Detroit has something in the water that affects authors. What, you think that's a joke? You haven't heard about Flint, Michigan? They're not so far apart ...

Think Loren Estleman's Motor City mysteries. Jane Haseldine's Julia Gooden series. A couple of titles from Elmore Leonard. Steve Hamilton and Jon A. Jackson place crime fiction in Michigan, too. And then there's Stephen Mack Jones, with his third Detroit crime novel.

DEAD OF WINTER samples Detroit's worn and reworked neighborhoods through August Snow, a former cop who's accepted a huge settlement for the way the city, his employer, treated him in the past. With that money Snow's been rehabbing his neighborhood. Honoring both his African-American father and his Mexican-American mother, he's enjoying a mixed heritage of good food and great friends -- especially his godfather Tomás, who's ready to put his explosive defensive skills to work for Snow whenever needed.

There's blackmail and some kind of real estate scam going on nearby, though, and the family of Authentico Foods owner Ronaldo Ochoa seems pretty strange about whether Snow should step into the dangerous mess, or leave them to make money from it. Good thing August has allies in the police force who thought he'd done the right thing way back when. Then again, there are a few who'd like to keep punishing him, by leaving him to the dangers of a net of billionaire developers creating luxury "safe houses" for international crime.

Meanwhile, Snow's equally international lover, Tatina, is pushing him to straighten out his life and stop feeling (rather alcoholically) sorry for himself.

Watching her dump the remaining half of a fifth of WhistlePig rye down the drain was painful, but I finally, in my confession, was addressing the things that were and had been tying my guts into a million strangling knots.

"People get hurt around me," I said. "That's the way it was in Afghanistan. The way it was at the DPD. And now . . ."

"People are saved because of you, August," Tatina said. She'd stopped pouring my booze down the drain. What a party that would be for the sewer rats of Detroit. "And don't think for a minute I don't know who you are, what you have done and can do. You're not that good of a liar, and I'm not that naive. Neither of us has any rightful claim to innocence."

Snow's crisis of conscience and the way his buddies boot him through it provide an extra strand of interest for a plot that features outsized shooting sprees, abundant threats, and sometimes absurd resolutions (when you finish reading it, tell me what you thought about the deer thing). All of which can't take away from the lively pleasure of reading Jones's enthusiastic and suspenseful storytelling from the point of view of a rich guy who loves the neighborhood. You won't need to read the other two August Snow novels before this one. But you'll probably want to buy them afterward, if they're not already on your shelf (August Snow and Lives Laid Away). They're too much fun to miss.

This one comes out May 4, from Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

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

Fierce Debut Crime Novel from Chris Power, A LONELY MAN

When you look up British author Chris Power online, you find his literary criticism for The Guardian, and his short story collection Mothers. Maybe the noted story collection marked many perceptions of his new crime novel, A LONELY MAN—because his publisher uses terms like "existential" and "elegant literary thriller" to describe the work.

Actually, it's a gritty and intense thriller set in Berlin, with an all-too-believable premise: Robert, a writer with a devastating case of writer's block, casually meets another author, the rather drunk and miserable Patrick. When Patrick gets himself into a public fist fight and Robert and his wife intervene, the two men set a follow-up get-together. The conversation isn't exactly what you'd expect from a pair of writers getting together:

'You were telling me how you made your fortune writing this oligarch's memoirs,' Robert said.

'My fortune, yeah. Well, it fell apart.'


'Vanyashin died. Last year.'


'The inquest said suicide,' Patrick said. 'Just announced it, in fact. The coroner gave his verdict last week.'

But Patrick claims it wasn't suicide. He's so drunk, and such an obvious mess, that Robert has no problem laughing this off, and calling Patrick suicide. Russian oligarch, dead of suicide -- anything else is clearly product of an overactive, alcohol-fueled imagination. But he might as well use this amusing paranoia in his new author buddy as fuel for jump-starting his own fiction. Right?

Well, maybe not so right. While evidence piles up around him, Robert keeps labeling his sightings of people following him, or Patrick, as imagination, but with more edge, more underlying terror. And when his family comes under threat, his worst imaginings aren't equal to the risks.

A tightly knitted, sharply paced espionage/crime novel, A LONELY MAN is well worth devouring. Berlin never looked so much like, well, any large city you too might walk into, looking for a story worth telling. Readers beware: The presence of friendship and affection does not guarantee everything will work out -- especially when danger's already been pushed aside for so long.

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

Dark and Terrorizing: THE DEAD HUSBAND from Carter Wilson

Rose Yates hasn't lived in New Hampshire since she was a teen—so returning to her father's house at age 37 as a new widow, with her 11-year-old son Max, looks like trauma from the start. Carter Wilson quickly makes it clear that Rose doesn't blame herself for her husband's death, which has been ruled accident verging on suicide (pills and alcohol). But something terrible happened when she was growing up in Bury, New Hampshire, and readers won't know the details until very late in the book. Still, the guilt that permeates Rose is so powerful that on Max's first day of school, when she gets a call to come pick him up at mid day because he has threatened a girl in his class, she's already got a mantra that won't cease: It's all my fault.

Wilson turns THE DEAD HUSBAND into relentless suspense by setting next to Rose's voice an alternative point of view, that of an obviously nice and smart Wisconsin detective who's caught a whiff of the too-quick processing of Rose's husband's death. Colin Pearson doesn't necessarily want to pin Rose for murder (though she can't help feeling he does), but he knows something's off. 

Colin went with his gut, knowing there was something. There was something about Bury. if not outright malevolent, then at least mysterious. Suspicious. There are no perfect communities. Every town has a stain. 

When Colin's research takes him back to the town's one serious crime of the past, a missing boy, he cuts across the desperate route that Rose Yates is already racing along. Manipulated by her father, tormented by her sister, and unable to protect Max effectively, Rose needs Colin as an ally. But is that even possible, considering what happened in Bury, so long ago?

This dark thriller will keep readers on edge all the way through, with a tight plot and macabre and memorable family drama. The book's final twist shows exactly how the past and present intersect, with terrible consequences. Don't read this one for a happy ending. That said—you won't easily forget what Rose both reveals and discovers, at a very high price. [From Poisoned Pen Press, publishing on May 4.]

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

Brief Mention: LADY JOKER, Volume 1 of Kaoru Takamura's Japanese Crime Epic

LADY JOKER came out in mid April with many thoughtful reviews. At 576 pages, it's far from beach reading. Even the reviews have been on the long side -- really, they have to be. One of the most enjoyable articles on the book's release from Soho Press is this interview with editor and publisher (and author) Juliet Grames, full of its own twists. From the true-crime basis of the three-volume epic (the Glico-Morinaga case of the 1980s) to the challenges of translation, the interview itself is compelling.

Though LADY JOKER is a suspense novel and came out under the Soho Crime imprint, it also fits two other notable descriptions: It's obviously the Japanese version of the Godfather series, rich with the frictions of Japan's own caste system and the criminal temptations of corporate greed and advantage, framed around a high-stakes kidnapping. And it's a scorching indictment of capitalist manipulations of both government and society—one that could as easily apply to America or today's Russia as it does to Japan. If the love of money is the root of evil, Kaoru Takamura's portrait of the postwar profiteering and manipulations of the Hinode Beer Co. shows five decades of festering injustice, evil, and eventually manipulative and ruthless violence.

This book requires slow, persistent reading, as it's not constructed with "thriller" props or passionate emotions. But for those who savor the view of our global perils through the lens of all-too-human history, it's a dark treasure well worth the time for reading.

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Legal Thriller from William Deverell Offers Rich Read, Moral Choices, Laugh-Out-Loud Moments

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]


“Along with its humor, every chapter of Stung offers both the cost of taking moral action, and the deep suspense of being human. “

Stung is the eighth of Canadian author William Deverell’s award-winning Arthur Beauchamp legal thrillers. Dogged by the challenges of his own aging mind—unsure whether he can absorb the details of a case, let alone defend a group of radicals who’ve clearly committed a crime—lawyer Arthur Beauchamp finds himself caught in a tripled disaster. First, there’s the defense of the seven urban radicals who invaded an insecticide factory, to bring attention to the mass deaths of honeybees resulting from its products. Second, his home retreat on an island off Canada’s west coast is under threat from a mining company. And third, he keeps disappointing his politician wife, who’s spending a lot of her time in Toronto and other urban and urbane locales. Oh, and then there’s the dog problem.

Deverell doubles the size of this enjoyable crime-and-defense enterprise to nearly 600 pages by narrating from both Arthur’s point of view and that of one of the defendants, the very clever (if in many ways naive) activist Rivie Levitsky, whose task to prepare for the factory attack was the almost-seduction of one of its managers. (This is one of very few crime novels in which She give He a “roofie,” for extraordinary reasons.) And Rivie is a delight, full of surprises and passion. But it’s Arthur that Deverell presents as the character under most threat, and under demand for personal courage and change.

When he first appears, in the second chapter, he’s not in great shape after stepping on a wasp nest in his pasture: “Arthur Beauchamp is in his underpants, seated, his right foot elevated, an inflated pink balloon, and it hurts like the wrath of God. Thirteen stab would fir which a cold pack, calamine, and baking soda offer not a tittle of relief. … Arthur used to don his gown for occasional courtroom forays, always scuttling back to his sanctum sanctorum with great heaves of relief. That’s history. Let his record of thirty-six straight wins be his legacy.”

His intent has been to retire, continue his island paradise, love his dog. But the dog dies and gets replaced by an enormous and spirited Irish wolfhound that can’t stay out of trouble; paradise gets invaded by commerce; and the only ally he has who’s capable of rescuing his home is a lawyer who’s involved with the arrested activists and maneuvers Arthur into a swap: One will save the island, and the other will do his best to save the activists (who, in the name of “all publicity is good publicity,” are already proclaiming their “criminal actions” as utterly necessary to save the globe).

Despite its length, it’s almost impossible to put down Stung—Arthur and Rivie are warmly likeable, doing their best to stand up for their moral imperatives, despite the way they stumble: Arthur from aging (can he re-engage his courtroom dynamism if he can’t recall names anymore?), and Rivie from impulsiveness and at times terror. The threats are well portrayed, the action quickly paced, and the stakes enormous. Plus, Deverell provides word-play and humor in moments like this one, when Arthur narrowly avoids yielding to a neighbor’s seductive offer:

“Now, in the bathroom, standing under a hot, cleansing torrent, aghast that he’d skirted so close to a disaster of orgasmic magnitude, hardly able to fathom how, God knows how, he’d found enough strength to deny the primitive urgings of his id, desperate to believe he had not encouraged what nearly happened, feeling shame but still flushed and quivering with carnal heat, Arthur takes matters into his own hands.”

But of course, there’s also courtroom drama, and continued backsplash of crime and threat for the defendants, from both the corporation they assaulted and their public. Along with its humor, every chapter of Stung offers both the cost of taking moral action, and the deep suspense of being human. Shelve this one in the “read it twice” section, for good fun and thoughtful provocation around what it will take to save the planet and its best people.

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

WHEN A STRANGER COMES TO TOWN, from Mystery Writers of America

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“When a Stranger Comes to Town will give you the very best of what crime fiction should deliver. Means, opportunity, and obsession—right?”

Just seeing Michael Koryta’s name as editor for When a Stranger Comes to Town makes a mystery reader’s fingers itch to open the cover—which also bears the names of noted crime fiction authors like Alafair Burke, Michael Connelly, Joe R. Lansdale, Joe Hill, and Lisa Unger. There are nineteen wildly varied stories in this collection from the Mystery Writers of America, and each one packs a punch of plot and character, bound so tightly in the short story format that their power can be explosive. Or, on the other hand, haunting.

Part of the fascination of these compressed-action stories is wondering where they fit into each author’s outpourings. For example, the Michael Connelly story has nothing to do with his iconic protagonists Harry Bosch and (Lincoln lawyer) and Mickey Haller. Instead, it gives us a nearly solo detective on a busy resort island, with a plot twist that provides both whiplash and high excitement. So you have to wonder after reading it: Was this a character that Connelly intended (or will intend) to introduce into one of his two big series? A situation he imagined Bosch falling into? Or something he dreamed up especially for Koryta’s Mystery Writers of America collection, with delight in building a new “world” and characters?

On the other hand, S.A. Cosby, in spite of being an Anthony Award winner, isn’t anywhere near as well known. His “Solomon Wept,” just nine pages long, opens the volume with a startling glimpse into a desperate female criminal’s world. The experience of stepping into this story will take many readers off in search of more by this Southern author.

Compare that to the hefty 44-page story from Lisa Unger, so complex that it’s divided into twelve mini chapters, with a major plot twist that emerges in the final section. Or explore for diverse experiences, like the horror that Joe R. Lansdale serves up (if you’ve read his crime novels, you’ll be ready), a toe into Mumbai crime with “Kohinoor” by Smita Harish Jain, Ukrainian online crime and love (!) from Bryon Quertermous, or the emergency-room story from Steve Hamilton, set at the front edge of the COVID-19 pandemic: “It’s a cold night in February and Charlotte is about to see her first snowfall. And her first gunshot wound.”

Positioned as the collection’s finale is “Last Fare” from Joe Hill. A quirky and tender tale that veers into speculative fiction, it holds the potential for crime to erupt out of all the interpersonal tensions revealed. That may be one of the big “life lessons” from reading crime fiction: that crime doesn’t come out of a vacuum, but often from the pain and not knowing what to do next. Hill’s precision comes through in this shred of experience for Gene, who’s losing everything via her alcohol problem, and desperate enough to risk her very soul, it seems, in a taxi ride: “The time bomb tick-tick-tick of the meter gave her a queer feeling in the head. She reached for the crank and lowered her window halfway, feeling a sudden urgency for fresh air. The night smelled of baked clay, the still-hot kiln of the painted desert. The stone-oven heat rushed in and dried the bad sweat on her forehead.”

That’s the marvel of really fine short stories: Despite the intensity, the demand that everything important take place in a handful of pages, these authors provide vivid details of character and location and terrible situation so that in almost change of protagonist, there’s a fresh demand for attention, excitement, and even compassion.

When a Stranger Comes to Town will give you the very best of what crime fiction should deliver. Means, opportunity, and obsession—right?

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Brief Mentions: Mysteries from Kelly Irvin, Carrie Doyle, Cate Quinn

Trust Kelly Irvin for intense plotting that highlights the suspense in "romantic suspense." Her February release, HER EVERY MOVE (Thomas Nelson), pushes together a librarian and a detective when a bomb explodes during a climate change debate. Among deft red herrings and page-turning pressure, and with compelling attraction between them, Jackie Santoro and Detective Avery Wick turn the library's next event into an effective trap for a killer -- and a test run for their irrepressible need for each other's deep and intelligent attention. "Wick had an intensity that reminded her of sticking a bobby pin in a socket." Looking for a lively beach read? Grab this one.

There's something about a cozy mystery set at a rural inn that's hard to resist, especially when the innkeeper, Antonia Bingham, is an outstanding chef with abundant comments about the best gourmet delights. With DEATH ON BULL PATH (Poisoned Pen Press), the prolific Carrie Doyle expands her "Hamptons Murder Mystery" series. Antonia's forced collaboration with an obnoxious local journalist keeps her relatively safe and helps track down the killer in a pair of summerhouse murders ... but only a very last-minute discovery salvages her own romance with her movie-star crush, Nick Darrow. "You have a proclivity for danger," says her best friend.

If you look up author Cate Quinn online, you can get quickly confused, since her hefty thriller BLACK WIDOWS (Sourcebooks) gets labeled a debut, or a US debut, or her first thriller -- but actually she's an established historical fiction author in Europe. Thus, her plunge into Mormon polygamy for this thriller is an outsider's view of Utah and the American-origin religion with its powerful traditions. Telling a murder story from the points of view of three wives is a novel approach, but doesn't allow readers to follow the time-honored crime fiction task of assembling clues and working out the killer. So the book's a lively read (and hefty!), but won't satisfy genre fans.

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