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. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Locked-Room Mystery at Sea: THE LAMPLIGHTERS from Emma Stonex


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“With such dark and treacherous secrets, the men of The Lamplighters echo the force of the seas around them. The deepest mystery that Stonex then offers is: What use is the love each of them has known, if it can’t finally rescue them?”

Emma Stonex is not a debut author—she’s written nine other books under three pseudonyms—but with The Lamplighters she steps forth proudly with a novel she’d prepared for in all that time, the first under her own name. It opens as a locked-room mystery, with the added quirk of the room being a lighthouse, and all three victims, if victims they are, missing from the deserted scene. Clocks halted at 8:45, table set for two (not three), every surface clean and bright. But the three keepers of this isolated lighthouse, known as the Maiden, off the Cornish coast of Britain cannot be found.

It’s hard for the rescue team from Trident, the corporation in charge of the lighthouses, to grasp, since their orders suggest they are cleaning up some form of crime scene or at best isolation-induced madness: “Bring them off quietly, Trident said. Do it discreetly. Find a boatman who’ll keep it under his cap; don’t make a fuss; don’t make a scene; nobody needs to know. And make sure the light’s all right, for God’s sake somebody make sure about that.”

Then, exploring both 1972, when Arthur, Bill, and Vincent vanished without a clue to why or where, and 1992, when a persistent novelist insists on interviewing the three women involved—two wives and a fiancée—Stonex offers a boatload of possibilities. Yet the two that the rescue crew expected, murder and madness, consistently rise to the surface as the women slowly release details that they’ve hidden for two decades. The book rocks back and forth between those option like a ship rolling on waves, tilted now this way, now that.

Arthur’s wife, the oldest and most dominant of the three women (after all, her husband was the PK, the principal keeper of the light), refuses at first to coddle the investigating writer’s notions. “Lightkeepers aren’t romantic people; they don’t get nervous or look into things too much. … Arthur was never afraid of the sea, even when it was dangerous. He told me how, on a tower, the spray from the waves can come right up to the kitchen window during a storm—bear in mind that’s eighty or eighty-five feet above the water—and the rocks and boulders roll against the base, so it shudders and shakes. I’d have been scared, I think. But not Arthur; he felt the sea was on his side.”

Arthur’s inevitable secret turns out to be one he and his wife Helen bear together. But she has another source of guilt that she thinks he doesn’t know—although Bill, the second keeper does, and Bill’s wife Jenny may be more aware than you’d guess. As for Vince, it’s not a big secret that he’s spent time in prison, although only Michelle, his fiancée, will eventually know the worst of his criminal life.

So whose secret has tipped the ocean-isolated threesome into dangerous waters? What violence erupted from the frictions and faults trapped in the tower, so compactly that even the sleeping bunks require a man to curve his spine to fit against the outside wall? And assuming that someone finally cracked—then what happened to all three men afterward? The Maiden Rock is an impossible place for a casual passing boat to try to visit, and what about the locked door, the absence of evidence?

Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson, Stuart Neville, all come to mind as Stonex ramps up the tension and hauntings. The Lamplighters holds its secrets close, forcing the investigator and the reader to pry determinedly at those deep-driven slivers of loss, jealousy, anger, and yes, even the violence of the cold and powerful ocean, until the last layers of revelation finally are torn apart.

With such dark and treacherous secrets, the men of The Lamplighters echo the force of the seas around them. The deepest mystery that Stonex then offers is: What use is the love each of them has known, if it can’t finally rescue them?

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

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Espionage and Insight in Northern Ireland, in NORTHERN SPY from Flynn Berry


[Originally at New York Journal of Books]

“Author Flynn Berry landed major awards for her two earlier thrillers, and Northern Spy merits more of the same.”

Unashamedly focused on loving and savoring her six-month-old son Finn while also working as a news producer, Tessa Daly can’t believe it when the police claim her sister Marian has joined the IRA. Though the enduring aftermath of the Troubles marks every day for Tessa, her mother, her child, and yes, her sister, it’s impossible that their lives in Northern Ireland could become militarized and criminalized in this way.

Until, somehow, it isn’t. Whether her sister’s a sort of hero for fighting against the government forces, or somehow playing a “doubles” game to move both sides toward peace, Tessa needs to know which choices are right and necessary. And whatever her own position becomes, she’s got to protect her baby first, and Marian second.

Author Flynn Berry landed major awards for her two earlier thrillers, and Northern Spy merits more of the same. Taut and passionate, it’s a plot-driven and morally demanding narrative full of threat and heartbreak. The fiercely portrayed reality of life in a divided land and the costly choices everyone faces make this into a page-turner. Berry also excels at keeping her protagonists smart and even wise—so when things do go wrong, it’s not because of foolish mistakes.

Most importantly Tessa holds her focus:

“I wonder, would a good mother take Finn away from this place, or keep him close to his father? Would a good mother work for peace, or stay away from the conflict? Would a good mother be preoccupied with terrorism during every minute she has spent with her son this week?

I don’t want my son to have to forgive me for anything, but I can’t even tell what that might be, so how can I avoid it? … I want someone to tell me what to do. If we can stay or if we need to leave tonight, right away, the sooner the better.”

By staying in place, and maintaining loyalty to her family, Tessa’s soon a person of interest herself. The detective chasing the terrorists makes that clear: “He shakes his keys in his suit pocket, then fixes his gaze on me. ‘Tessa, what does nitrobenzene smell like?’ I blink at him. ‘I have no idea.’ Fenton considers me for a few long moments, the turns to go. He knows I’ve just lied. Nitrobenzene smells like marzipan.”

Northern Spy will be a hit for readers of Dublin noir and tartan noir, as well as those who’ve already discovered Stuart Neville’s Belfast noir with its grit and darkness. But because Berry opts to view the pain and violence through a young mother’s eyes, there’s less in-your-face blood and guts, and perhaps more agony in spite of that. Denise Mina and Tana French readers can also find familiar ground—but so in fact can any readers who treasure a well-plotted mystery with a powerful sense of how place and the near past can force a person to cross the lines they once felt were sacred.

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

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Outstanding New Thriller Launches New Series from Michael Sears, TOWER OF BABEL

Move over, Brooklyn—the newest New York City borough to get thriller setting status just became Queens, in the fast-paced and delightful launch of a new series from award-winning ex-Wall Street author Michael Sears.

Sears's expertise in financial surprises grounds the livelihood of fallen-from-grace lawyer Ted Molloy. With his not very charming research partner Richie Rubiano, Ted locates forgotten funds left over from real estate foreclosures and takes a finder's share as he helps the rightful owners grab hold. It's legal, but not necessarily attractive ... in fact, Ted's something of a bottom feeder.

But that's no reason for someone to kill his research assistant, is it? Detective Duran brings him the grim news, of course suspecting Ted has a role in the murder:

"Would you be willing to come down and give a statement?" Detective Duran managed to make the request sound casual.

Sirens and flashing lights went off in Ted's head. The shark was inviting him home for dinner. "Only with my lawyer present. And that would cost me money, and you would learn nothing that might be of use to you."

Ted noted the feeble attempt at inducing guilt and ignored it. Bitterness had long replaced guilt as a motivating factor in his life. But people he knew were not murdered. He felt himself being pulled in despite misgivings.

If there was any chance that Richie had stirred up some hornet's nest by looking into the old lady's surplus money, there was also a chance of that trouble leading back to Molloy Partners.

The first few chapters of TOWER OF BABEL read like classic noir: disgraced former law partner type, plenty of drinking, threats and darkness. But that's a feint, an East River tunnel sort of entry into a classic moral jeopardy and friends-at-risk kind of mystery. Besides the vivid portrait Sears provides of Queens, in its gritty multiethnic glory, the characters shape the force of the book:

There's Lester, the conveniently appearing new assistant, ready to pick up where Richie left off, for a share of the money. The Preacher, a street minister as poor as his flock, but with a magnetic appeal and willing to open doors when Ted needs to dodge through them. And Kenzie, fighting against developers to sustain the neighborhood and laying an indefatigable guilt trip on Ted when he tries to slip out of the net of obligations that Richie's widow enforces through death threats and more.

Adding extra layers of stress and motive is the presence of Ted's needy ex-wife, Jill, now married to cutthroat attorney Jacqueline, who hates Ted passionately. And of course there are Jill's family members, still willing to do Ted a bad turn after all this time. 

Ted imagined calling Jacqueline Clavette and begging to dig through her files. "Not gonna happen."

"So, what will you do?"

He weighed the question. He owned no one a thing. Not [Richie's widow] Cheryl, not the cop, and not Richie. He could walk away and feel no responsibility. That was the smart move. But someone had taken a big chance just to hide information. He had a strong urge to kick the hornet's nest.

"We follow the money."

This enjoyable thriller's only weak spot is the use of Russian mobsters as the ultimate threat, a trope that's a tad overused lately. Yet Sears can write a fight scene so vividly and precisely that the stereotypical bad guys are just as caught up in the detailed portrayals, and easy enough to accept (maybe with a wince on the side), as the layers of crime get peeled back.

Sardonic wit, quaint café; high-stakes conspiracy, neighborhood loyalties; TOWER OF BABEL speaks all those dialects, one after another, against an urban setting well worth the visit. Grab a copy, turn off the phone ringer, and settle in for a page-turner that promises lively sequels to follow. 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.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Berlin in 1933, Great Crime Fiction "Prequel" from David Downing in WEDDING STATION

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Wedding Station
is an ideal choice for both Downing fans and newcomers to his fast-paced and intense crime novels.”

DavidDowning’s novels of crime, suspense, and espionage have danced through both world wars. His “Station” series, with six titles before Wedding Station, evoke the relentless terror of life in Berlin during World War II. Now, in a fierce and daring prequel, Downing reveals the back story to the propulsive series.

A British citizen with a “German” son from his first marriage, John Russell has no desire to leave the complex and culturally rich city of Berlin. But Wedding Station opens with the burning of the Reichstag parliament building, a display of political malice that Hitler’s forces deftly blame on “Communists” and utilize as a reason to crack down on liberty. Russell’s a reporter for the Morgenspiegel—it’s his job to dig into any crime aspects to the fire, as well as other events around him.

Since the fire’s an obvious fake, with the expected political posturing—“The German people would be expecting a vigorous response from their government, and harsh new measures would be announced over the next twenty-four hours”—Russell’s free to investigate other ominous shifts in the city. Within limits: The newspaper’s editor is already under enormous pressure to toe the official line, if he wants to keep publishing.

“This was what the seasoned professional journalists lived for, Russell thought. Exciting times. Only this was the sort of excitement that might well prove fatal to some of them.”

Within hours, life in Berlin shifts from cultural glory to silently witnessing corpses and abuse. And at work, Russell chases scraps of crime stories, like the death of a teenaged male prostitute, that become entangled with the power and sadism of the various Nazi forces and leaders. When his other leads turn up parallel threads, from a genealogist’s death to a celebrity fortune-teller’s disappearance, Russell’s relentless digging puts his personal liberty and safety at risk. Soon a professional beating comes to seem routine, and his choices narrow to what will put his son and his ability to be a father under threat. Or cost him his integrity and self-respect.

“Russell liked fiction as much as the next man, but he couldn’t imagine agreeing to lie for a living. Better to sidestep the issue … He had thought the crime desk might provide a safe haven but most of the stories he’d covered so far had political hazards etched right through them, like the letters in a stick of seaside rock. Which shouldn’t have come as a shock when the forces of law and order were the people committing the crimes.”

As a “foreigner” in a dangerous city, Russell’s becoming a sort of criminal himself, conspiring with the occasional halfway-human police officer to get murderers captured, hiding out for days on end, desperately trying to protect his son while seeing the child inevitably seduced by Germany’s new politics. Downing manages the painful transformations in thoughtful passages that never detract from the threat and tension of the situations that Russell deliberately puts himself into, in the hunt for both honest journalism and a personal stance against Hitler’s imposed regime.

Wedding Station (the title refers to a location in Berlin, Wedding, pronounced with a V sound at the start) is an ideal choice for both Downing fans and newcomers to his fast-paced and intense crime novels. As a “prequel,” it won’t require catch-up time, except perhaps for the alphabet soup of the various German groups menacing Berlin. And as part of the series, it’s a marvelous exploration of how John Russell steps out of ordinary life into endless dangerous choices, and into how the Nazi regime will convince itself of a mission to subdue all of Europe.

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

Monday, March 01, 2021

Guilt Stalks the Sheriff, in NIGHTHAWK'S WING from Charles Fergus

In the second Gideon Stolz mystery, set in Pennsylvania Dutch terrain in 1836, the young sheriff is acutely aware of how different he is from many of the people he's supposed to protect and serve. There's his accent, of course, and his personal legacy of loss and violence, yet equally important are his beliefs about justice and worship, strands that are vital in a community still very much built as a set of frontier settlements.

But as NIGHTHAWK'S WING takes off, Gideon has far more to worry about than just feeling awkward among others. He hasn't recovered from striking his head in a fall from a horse, and the ongoing physical effects and memory loss threaten his job, his reputation, even his marriage and his liberty. As he realizes he's not even keeping up with routine tasks, his questions turn frightening:

Gideon asked himself why he hadn't remembered the horse as soon as he smelled the stench. Or before he went out for his walk. Or maybe he had remembered it and had gone out from the jail to check on whether the horse had been removed, and then forgotten why he'd ventured out in the first place.

Why couldn't he remember such things? ... Why couldn't he remember anything about his own accident, getting thrown off Maude or otherwise falling off her, striking his head on the ground, and (so he'd been told) lying insensible on the road?

He worried about the gap in his memory. He didn't know how far back it went.

Charles Fergus delicately draws out the differences in pioneer culture—the absence of medical knowledge, the fragmented communities from different European roots who knew just enough to be suspicious of each other, the fierce expectations of gender and age—as Gideon investigates a violent death on a farm some distance from the town where he lives. Has there been accidental poisoning? Are there implications of witchcraft, and of punishment for such deviation? Worst of all, he discovers incontrovertible evidence of having played a role in the tensions on the farm, before the death: With no reliable memories of what had taken him there at the time and of what had taken place, must he now suspect himself of abuse or violence?

Even Pastor Nolf in the farming community represents strangeness to Gideon. As sheriff, he needs to grasp how this German offshoot of religion functions here:

Nolf continued, "You asked earlier if I thought that Rebecca Kreidler had a disturbed mind. I told you yes, I did sense that. I also sensed in her a deep anger and a black despair. As Neigeboren, we work to purge from our lives that which would not be pleasing to the One we serve, including anger and despair. One thing I have been considering since her body was found: I think it's very possible that Frau Kreidler took her own life. That she purposely ate a plant she knew would kill her, and in a way that would inflict severe pain."

Meanwhile, Gideon's double distraction—over the dead woman's cause of death, and over his own possible enmeshment in the case—results in his effectively abandoning his gravely depressed young wife. Each of them, Gideon and True, is still in deep pain over the death, from illness, of their small child. And neither seems able to give the other what's needed. There's a chance that the marriage may be damaged beyond repair, despite Gideon's love for True. She reminds him: "You only believe in what's standing in front of you and nothing else. There's other ways of seeing, other ways of knowing. Maybe someday you'll figure that out."

Fergus's measured pace, rich with the feel of the raw, unsettled landscape and its fragile human bonds, provides a depth to the double mystery: the crime, and how to reinvent a marriage after a child's death. Not until the very end of the book will the answers become clear—and the pain and loss along the way are vivid and visceral. In the tradition of Jeffrey Lent's In the Fall, Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, and even Nathaniel Hawthorne's early American novels, NIGHTHAWK'S WING melds human frailty and strength into the very texture of the place and time, creating a mystery that will call for multiple readings that savor its layers and revelations.

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

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

British Crime Fiction from Belinda Bauer, EXIT

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Pick up Exit if you’d like to sample a very new way of building a crime novel, with an unusual pace. It has something of Jasper Fforde in the compiled coincidences.”

The crimes embedded in Exit begin with an elderly man, missing his deceased wife and son and making do with a relatively unpleasant dog, in an English setting where nothing much looks like improving. However, Felix Pink has at least found a volunteer task in his retirement that gives some meaning and emotion to his days: As an “Exiteer,” he assists terminally ill people who’ve become ready to commit suicide, in a neat and anonymous fashion that allows the relatives of the deceased to assume that a natural death has taken place.

When Felix’s usual partner in this kindly and quiet labor pulls out of the group and a young woman arrives instead, he’s willing to show her how things should go. Except that nothing goes as expected in the death they’ve been called to facilitate, and the wrong person seems to have died. Although Felix, in a panic, leaves the scene, his quietly conventional morality insists that he should turn himself in, make a confession of his role, and see it all tidied up. However, this too turns out to be an unreliable expectation:

“Until now Felix had been quite sure of one thing—that when he was arrested the police would believe his version of events, because the evidence would support it. That he’d only have to tell them the trust to make them understand how the tragedy had unfolded.

But what if his truth was wrong?

What if some bit of evidence he’d missed or forgotten supported another truth entirely?

Then, killing the wrong man and fleeing the scene of the crime might not sound understandable at all.

It might just sound like murder.”

Both the British notes and the baffled protagonist develop something of the feel of Mole in Wind and the Willows: Felix has a very hard time developing insight, caution, and imagination, as the pieces of a crime frame assemble around him. Belinda Bauer forces a methodical pace of events matched to Felix’s expectations of his hitherto ordinary life, while the buildup of complications among a handful of characters (including the police investigators) pushed the pieces closer and closer to revelation.

“The young woman [constable] was crouched down in front of Felix now, looking anxiously into his face. She reached up and gently touched the lump on his head. ‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘What happened here?’

‘You should see the other guy,’ Felix whispered, and then he started to cry.”

Pick up Exit if you’d like to sample a very new way of building a crime novel, with an unusual pace. It has something of Jasper Fforde in the compiled coincidences, and more of the relentless yet methodical pace of, say, Mario Giordano or Oliver Potzsch. There’s humor here, but it is very, very dry, alternating with tender—with the kind of protagonist who may eventually have to “blow his nose with happiness.”

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