Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Peter Diamond Gets a Private Eye, in Peter Lovesey's 20th in Series, DIAMOND AND THE EYE

 [Originally published in New York Journal of Books]

“Every private eye from Sherlock Holmes to Matt Scudder needs a line into the factory. Sam Spade had his tame sergeant, Tom Polhaus. Philip Marlowe had Officer Randall from Central Homicide. It comes with the territory.”

Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond investigation series is in its 20th full-length title, and with age comes the privilege of taking things very lightly – so Diamond and the Eye is an almost nonstop giggle, as well as a classic police detection episode with this British Detective Superintendent. It’s the perfect prescription for those who’ve been taking their lives (or their crime fiction reading) too seriously.

From the very start, Diamond is fed up with a private investigator—the private “Eye” of the title—crashing into his Friday evening, and then a missing person case as well. Diamond’s perception of PI Johnny Getz (a nom-de-dick for the job) tells it all: “The stranger’s voice was throaty, the accent faux American from a grainy black-and-white film a lifetime ago. This Bogart impersonator was plainly as English as a cricket bat. His face wasn’t Bogart’s and he wasn’t talking through tobacco smoke, but he held a cocktail stick between two fingers as if it was a cigarette … he was dressed in a pale grey suit and floral shirt open at the neck to display a miniature magnifying glass on a leather cord.”

From calling Diamond “bud,” to speaking of him as “Pete” to colleagues, Johnny Getz is a man without boundaries—but with a determination to get his first and only PI job done for his relatively trashy client, Ruby, daughter of an antiquities dealer named Seppy Hubbard. Seppy’s vanished, Getz is supposed to find him or find out what happened to him, and Diamond, fighting back as hard as he can be bothered to do, soon discovers there’s been at least one murder involved, with every reason to bring in his team.

But there’s nothing straightforward about tracking down a missing (perhaps dead) dealer, when Johnny Getz keeps butting in. Peter Diamond’s Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith attempts to keep the peace, assuring Diamond that Getz won’t stay involved: “He’s out of his depth now. Private eyes don’t investigate homicides except in books. A missing person case, maybe, but not a killing.” But once Ingeborg does meet “Johnny,” she’s got to admit he’s going to stick around as they work this case.

Johnny Getz litters his conversation and his performance with references to PIs of the past, all in books. Readers of classic detective fiction can giggle and guffaw as they ride shotgun with this new wacky character, recognizing his American PI heroes well before the British police team grapples with what Johnny’s attempting to copy. Finally, Ingeborg feels the need to take a stand: “Don’t knock my guv’nor,” she warns Getz. His response is to tell her how much he values Diamond. Why, after mentally calling the DS a fat slob? It’s simple: “Every private eye from Sherlock Holmes to Matt Scudder needs a line into the factory. Sam Spade had his tame sergeant, Tom Polhaus. Philip Marlowe had Officer Randall from Central Homicide. It comes with the territory.”

Though Ingeborg protests that PIs belong in a different country and a different century, far from 21st-century Bath in Britain, she doesn’t have a chance of talking Johnny Getz out of getting his man, so to speak. And getting paid.

Through the nonstop campy humor runs a solid and clever little mystery, with some great red herrings and a fine twist before solution. The one part unresolved by the end of Diamond and the Eye is whether Johnny Getz will now leave “Pete” alone.

It’s the nature of a series to leave the reader suspecting there is more to come of this frustrating and funny pairing, in Peter Lovesey’s books ahead. 

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


Martin  Edwards has a marvelous mystery series of his own, featuring Rachel Savernake, set in the Golden Age. A perfect transformation has turned him into the editor of several collections of detective stories brought out by British Library Crime Classics (Poisoned Pen Press, a Sourcebooks imprint). 

A SURPRISE FOR CHRISTMAS, released last week, is the fourth anthology in this series of "classic crime stories with a wintry theme" -- or, as Edwards also calls them, "detective stories in the classic vein." Scanning the author names for the dozen tales gave me shivers: among them Ngaio Marsh, G.K. Chesterton, Carter Dickson, Ernest Dudley, and Margery Allingham. Some of their stories may be almost unknown, even to those who have read the full-length crime novels from this pantheon of writers. As a Chesterton fanatic, I know I'd read "The Hole in the Wall," but so long ago that I'd forgotten the critical twist until I was several pages in. Cyril Hare's "A Surprise for Christmas" is morbidly funny; "Give Me a Ring" from Anthony Gilbert, one of the longer stories in the collection, has a sweet air of old-fashioned threat, from the days before risk and danger had to be garbed in gore or psychosis.

Adding to the delight of this collection are short forwards to the stories, recapping each author's presence in the Golden Age and noted sleuths. But often the stories presented come from outside the commonly known work of these authors. For example, the one from Ngaio Marsh does not feature Roderick Alleyn — but for "Death on the Air," which was published just three years later than Alleyn's first exposure in print, Marsh presents a classic "closed-circle detective story of the period," says the story's introduction. 

The tales also vary enormously in length, adding to the feel of opening a range of holiday gifts. With, of course, the advantage of no torn paper or ribbons to clear away afterward.

There is perhaps one drawback to A SURPRISE FOR CHRISTMAS: Any passionate reader of the authors collected here will need to purchase two copies ... one to savor as the days grow shorter, and one to give to the very best of friends.

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

Monday, October 04, 2021

Elderly and Wicked! Darkly Funny Murder from Helene Tursten in AN ELDERLY LADY MUST NOT BE CROSSED


[Originally published in New York Journal of Books]

“If you’re looking for distinctive international bouquet in your “Scandi noir,” this isn’t going to fit your shelf. Instead, it will be a dandy holiday gift, pocket size, darkly light-hearted, and a quick and easy introduction to the tongue-in-cheek side of one of today’s leading Swedish crime novelists.”

HeleneTursten summons her two established Swedish sleuths from two different series, Irene Huss and Embla Nyström, to tackle the wicked machinations of 88-year-old Maud in An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed, a holiday treat that will make a great stocking stuffer. Maud’s debut appearance in 2018’s An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good demonstrated that a stack of cleverly twisted short stories can comprise a delightful book. Tursten’s choice to pit her two detectives against this frankly wicked old lady adds to the dark humor of her newest tales.

For Maud, the pressure applied by the two police investigators as a team is the last straw: She’s successfully gotten away with murder in her own home, but it’s taken quite a lot of scheming and arranging, and she’d like a break. Why not treat herself to a luxury trip to South Africa, be wined and dined, see amazing wildlife, all while disguising her cleverness under the deceptive appearance of aging into confusion? People do so much work for you if you appear to be frail and needy, don’t they?

After the first tale, “An Elderly Lady Begins to Remember Her Past,” these dryly funny and dark stories form a mostly chronological sequence—starting with Maud as a child, caretaker of an 11-years-older sister with increasingly odd habits. Not that Maud herself is particularly normal! As she reflects during her flight to Africa, “Memories rise to the surface. That’s what happens when you get older.” We find the grim smiles of “little Maud” executing a trap for bullies; we also find her smiling as she rehearses her father’s fishing methods while making sure a competitive colleague will have a terrible accident.

“No point in brooding over the past,” Maud reassures herself. “Sometimes a person had to do certain things in order to survive the hard life of a single woman with a heavy responsibility to bear.”

In delightfully creepy steps, Maud develops her murderous personality through this set of six revelatory narratives. And if the ending is perhaps a little more sweet than an aging Maud has led us to anticipate, don’t neglect the pair of cookie recipes at the end of An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed. Innocent and sweet as they appear, one of them has been a murder weapon in Maud’s hands. But only, of course, because she was forced to use it!

Marlaine Delargy’s translation never gets in the way of the action in Tursten’s stories. On the other hand, it has little Swedish flavor to it, so if you’re looking for distinctive international bouquet in your “Scandi noir,” this isn’t going to fit your shelf. Instead, it will be a dandy holiday gift, pocket size, darkly light-hearted, and a quick and easy introduction to the tongue-in-cheek side of one of today’s leading Swedish crime novelists.

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

Intense and Chilling Thriller Set in Vermont, I AM NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM by Eric Rickstad

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“When Wayland becomes convinced that he’s witnessed some sleight of hand—that the death he witnessed was not his father’s but someone else’s—his passionate defense of the theory is based on the mysterious message he’d found.”

EricRickstad’s latest Vermont thriller presents a psychological mystery with stunning twists—perfectly paced and carefully constructed so that each startling new direction fits perfectly with what’s gone before, yet feels utterly unpredictable. That’s the ideal balance for this can’t-put-it-down novel crammed with sinister foreboding and family trauma.

I Am Not Who You Think I Am is titled with the words that eight-year-old Wayland Maynard discovers, in his father’s handwriting after he sees his father kill himself. Or is that what he’s actually seen? With age and maturity come questioning, and soon Wayland has a set of alternatives he’s desperate to prove and explain.

A child’s view provides an ultimately unreliable narrator, and at first, Wayland’s first-person narrative reveals the affection between his parents, and a possible weakness in his father. “I have pieced together enough to know that what happened on the day of the Incident was not done because he was a bad man. A bad father. It was done because … well, we’ll get to that. This isn’t some magic trick where the secret machinations are kept hidden. No. This is all about the reveal. The truth.”

But which parts of the child’s memories are relevant truths? Is it the tall threatening man who visited his father’s barber shop? “My father’s shears nicked my ear. I yelped. Blood trickled from my notched flesh. My father didn’t notice. His eyes were locked on the figure in the doorway. Dead leaves danced around the stranger’s feet. I felt a chill from the air that carried the tang of autumnal decay.”

Though Rickstad declares this novel to be a new direction for him, the vivid portrayal of place and threat will be familiar to those who’ve read his other books, like The Silent Girls. The tale quickly complicates as Wayland begins to share his investigation with Juliette, who sets his adolescent hormones and perceptions spinning and who is at least as strange and prone to vanishing as his family. When Wayland becomes convinced that he’s witnessed some sleight of hand—that the death he witnessed was not his father’s but someone else’s—his passionate defense of the theory is based on the mysterious message he’d found. And he poses the most critical issue: “Q: If it wasn’t your father, where is your father now? A: I don’t know. But I’m going to find out. Find out what they did to him.”

Some of the answers seem to be in the hands of the town’s most wealthy and reclusive citizens, and Wayland places himself in extreme danger, trying to discover the secrets he knows they are keeping from him. When the final twist arrive, it’s not just Wayland who will be shocked—and the mood of love mingled with deception never lets up for a moment.

Rickstad makes it clear that it took both The Story Factory and the unusual tilt of Blackstone Books to allow him to swerve into this powerful diversion of narrative and suspended disbelief. Three more books are promised. Which should be, in fact, as good a return on investment as young Wayland will get for his desperate investigation.

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

Rock Music, Suspense, Dark Thriller: HOLD ME DOWN by Clea Simon

Clea Simon's deep dives into the crime, pain, and heroics of Boston's club music world gave a fierce and dark passion to her crime novel World Enough (2017). With HOLD ME  DOWN, Simon goes multiple layers deeper and darker—thanks to the persona of Gal, a scarred and angry woman who has held crowds in the palm of her hand as she belted out the lyrics of her own top songs, mic stand and the strings of the bass as much a part of her as her own vocal cords and rough screams of rage and sexuality.

For Gal, a Boston return, 20 years later, is fraught with potential failure. Taking a cameo role in a club performance, she falters at first, realizing the guitarist is "all metal and speed, still" -- can Gal keep up? But she finds out right away: "The move centers her ... belting out the chorus as well as she knows the tattoo on her wrist—an F clef, faded blue—as the song pours out of her, the words coming easily now. Winding up to the hook. The line with the hiccup. One extra beat that makes the rhyme different." And she's back in charge of the image she's been ready to project, of a woman and a band grown tougher with age, "blooded, in ways they can only imagine." It's about power, sexuality, control.

And then, with one tricky glimpse for a moment of a face in the crowd, she's rubbed raw again, and in danger.

Scenes of touring, of the drug-supported physical challenge of performing for one crowd after another, clawing up the charts, the band becoming a life form of its own: Simon peels these like layers of a sharp onion, tears and rage starting to flow with Gal's slow recognition of the deep punishment she's sustained in her life. Her best songs—including the iconic "Hold Me Down"—root in that festering pain and anger that only her closest friends have even a hint of. 

"That song, 'Hold Me Down,' had been their breakout. Their hit, even in the rough four-track version they'd recorded down at Randy's, burning up the college stations with a waiting list for the single. Fans asking at the record store whenever she dropped back in to pick up a shift. It was why the suits had come calling, taking the shuttle up from New York to hear them at the Rat, the Channel, Taji's."

With the "suits" had come the controllers, the people who shoved the band at a pace beyond human capacity, drugging them as needed, pressing them into alcohol and drug abuse and a demand for performance that's deadly in its effects.

As the 20-years-later brutal murder of one of the team confronts her, so long after the band's success, Gal slowly admits to herself why the killing happened and who has deliberately done damage to her and the others. Then the police get involved, demanding that she reveal information she's barely coming to terms with. "You could come in and speak with us, if you'd like. Or should I send someone to get you?" That's the investigator. And Gal replies that she'll come in, without being dragged—admitting, in that moment, that her choices are "all about control."

But you can't control what brutal crime does to you. You can only cling to your friends and what's left of who you thought you were, and keep going. Or not. 

Simon's pacing in this crime thriller offers more than plot and character: She reincarnates the demanding sexuality of the rock underground with the costs of fame and addiction. Page by page, scene by traumatic scene, there's no guarantee that Gal can even perceive a safe harbor. 

Anyone who's dreamed of the power of being a rock performer will get double the emotional kick from this raw and compelling suspense novel. Simon's particular genius in HOLD ME DOWN is shining her light into the world of tough, struggling, and brilliant women—a side of the rock world rarely acknowledged or envisioned. HOLD ME DOWN is a heartache packed into 248 pages, with the possibility of breaking always just within reach.

After multiple genres of mysteries and crime novels, this Boston-area author has come into her own, so that Gal yells the words so many have had in the back of their throats, an accusation: "You wanna, you wanna hold me down." It's all about how we fight back. Can Gal do it—and survive?

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

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Enjoyable Historical Mystery from Andrea Penrose, MURDER AT THE ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“For relaxed enjoyment and the diversion of adept time travel, an Andrea Penrose historical mystery is hard to beat!”

The fifth in Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford & Sloane historical mystery series, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, brings the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloan into the home stretch, approaching their Regency-era wedding in London. These two nicely layered characters have solved many a murder together already, in collaboration with the smart people who work for them and a pair of clever young street lads that Lady Charlotte has adopted as wards.

But holding themselves in the light of “Society” through the last weeks of unmarried life is critically important to the positions they’re soon to hold. Readers of Penrose’s series already know (and new readers can quickly absorb) that Charlotte’s risk-taking personality and abundant loyalty have made trouble for her in the past. Should “Society” get wind of the scandals behind her, she won’t make a suitable bride for the earl; on the other hand, once they are wed, her past can’t seriously damage her.

So the pair, and their households, have carefully planned a set of social appearances, to reassure any critical eyes around them. It’s not their fault, of course, that murder falls into their paths at the first of those events, a posh celebration prepared for the many “nobles” who dabble in citizen science or invest in scientists and their potential. At the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, rare blooms flourish as a striking backdrop.

Yet a murmur from the Royal Society’s secretary is enough to put both lovers on the alert: “’Forgive the interruption, sir.’ The look of alarm in his eyes belied his smile as he drew Wrexford aside. ‘But might I ask you to come with me to the conservatory. There’s been an … unfortunate mishap.’”

With the high visibility of their approaching nuptials, Charlotte and Wrexford could understandably turn down this plea for assistance in solving a murder and stilling the ripples of crime spreading around it. But one of the charming aspects of this series, beyond its romantic strands and delightful across-class conversations and loyalties, is the presence of Charlotte’s two rapscallions—that is, the young boys who are her wards. And since one has been a possible witness to the murder, neither adult is going to back away from resolving it.

Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens offers a well-spun historical mystery with a nice assortment of factual details, period cuss words, and insight into the science and medicine of the time. In contrast to the current tradition of “cozy” mysteries, neither Charlotte nor Wrexford stumbles into poor decisions. That makes it a pleasure to watch them peel back the layers of graft and deceit related to botanical discovery of the period. Moreover, their interactions with the boys, nicknamed Raven and Hawk, are charming and affectionate and add an unusual spice to both the passions and the discoveries of Penrose’s mystery.

For relaxed enjoyment and the diversion of adept time travel, an Andrea Penrose historical mystery is hard to beat! [Released this week from Kensington Books.]

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

Excellent Swedish Crime Fiction: WE KNOW YOU REMEMBER from Tove Alsterdal


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Among today’s abundant crime novels, it’s rare to find one that demands a second reading for its language and insight. We Know You Remember is one of that small group.”

Even before investigators suspect that he’s a victim, not a perpetrator, Olof Hagström’s presence in his long-ago home town in rural Sweden is drenched in sorrow, terror, and accusations. Living on the fringes of society, supporting himself through an off-the-books job and isolated by both his slow speech and his burdensome past, he yields to an impulse to visit his childhood home—where he finds his father dead in the bathtub.

Police detective Eira Sjödin hasn’t been around town much either, but the case calls her into a community that hasn’t forgiven or forgotten Olof. At age 14, he’d been the local scapegoat: convicted of rape and murder of another teen. His own mother wanted nothing more to do with him.

But Eira is going through her own changes of identity, as the investigator who’d mentored her enters retirement. A woman on a police force, including in Sweden, needs to watch her back as often among her colleagues as on the street. Suggestions from her mentor send her back to the case 20 years earlier where Olof was charged. “GG hasn’t exactly been explicit about what he wanted her to do, but his hints were more than enough. An unwillingness to listen. A suspicion that she was digging into Olof Hagström’s past because she felt guilty.”

Eira’d been only 9 years old when Olof was charged. Why should she feel guilty now? It has something to do with how she’d first seen the man in the interrogation room, sweating and frightened and incompetent. “It wasn’t just unease, it was stronger than that. It was disgust and contempt and a kind of curiosity that made her stray beyond the strictly professional.”

But opening up Olof’s past means reopening her own, and Eira’s family life growing up was far from simple. Those teen rebellion years included risks and secrets. If her investigation moves suspicion onto people she cares about, will the cost be too high? And what about her own mother, sliding into dementia—when she asks her mother to open up about the past, it’s only Eira’s anger at the old silence that keeps her pushing. “Whether you do or don’t remember, she thought, there’s something you’re trying to protect me from.

The pipeline for translation of Scandinavian noir demands time. Tove Alsterdal’s 2009 debut in Sweden won her immediate acclaim, and she’s brought out more stand-alone novels.   We Know You Remember came out last year in Sweden, under a title that translates as “Uprooted.” This translation by Alice Menzies reads well, letting Alsterdal’s steady accumulation of haunting and guilt-drenched detail build a memorable internal world. The power of this crime novel is as much in the struggles of Eira’s too-personal investigation as it is in the criminal threats involved. Eira is a victim of her own inescapable compassion, as well as of the demands for clarity that comes with her investigation.

Among today’s abundant crime novels, it’s rare to find one that demands a second reading for its language and insight. We Know You Remember is one of that small group, and more American appearances of Tove Alsterdal’s other titles are well worth looking forward to.

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

Friday, September 24, 2021

Montana Mystery, "Cozy" With Lively Writing: THE GLITTER END, Vivian Conroy

International thrillers and traditional mysteries and even espionage are a time-honored route to soaking up locales without paying for an air ticket. Think of Istanbul, Paris, Rome ... recently the fine Venice investigations by Donna Leon. Not to mention, for Americans, the mildly exotic locales in Britain or the UK or Canada.

As this urge to "explore" works its way into cozy mysteries, those gentler, sweeter ones with not too much gore and a hint of romance (no sex), even locations around the United States become "virtual visit" material. Vivian Conroy's "Stationery Shop Mystery" has the tang of a bookstore mystery (think the Books by the Bay series from Ellery Adams), with the far more intense flavor of Montana as its locale -- are you ready for mining towns? 

I got a kick out of Conroy's newest, THE GLITTER END. The title's not exactly doing it any favors (it's more a scrapbooking angle, and yes, there's some scrapbooking in the story but that's not important), so ignore it. Focus instead on what might happen when an eccentric artist who makes miniature towns sets up a diorama inside Delta Douglas's stationery shop, as holiday entertainment for the small, tourism-hungry locale.

When a tiny murder appears within the diorama, Delta's worried about who's done it, and why. (There are only two keys to her shop!) But a real killing takes place within hours, and law enforcement focuses its glare on the eccentric artist, an older woman with few resources. At the same time, some sneaky wealthy folks seem to be trying to seize the artist's work, maybe even her life.

Conroy writes smoothly, weaves in the classic red herrings, adds plenty of pets (a tradition in the latest round of cozies), and keeps the plot both light and engrossing. Too bad the journalist involved is not one of the good guys! But could that be a clue, too?

Pick up a copy for stress relief and a peek into Montana life that's not necessarily out on the range or trapped in a snowstorm ... and get acquainted with this pleasant and reliable series.  This one's from Poisoned Pen Press (a Sourcebooks imprint) and released September 28, in paperback only.

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

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

What Happens When You Add Ian Rankin to William McIlvanney and Get "Laidlaw 4"!


[originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Reading The Dark Remains yields far more than the strangely amazing and touching answer to ‘what if you combined crime noir geniuses McIlvanney and Rankin?’”

The evolution of The Dark Remains is highly unusual for the crime fiction field, where an author’s death and incomplete manuscript often leads to completion of the writing by someone less well known, scrambling to climb the ladder.

In this case, the half-written book found after William McIlvanney’s death in 2015 landed in the hands of acknowledged master of Scottish noir, Ian Rankin. McIlvanney’s Laidlaw novels, set in Glasgow, provided fertile ground for Rankin’s own development of the Detective Inspector Rebus investigations, set in Edinburgh.

Now the master, in collecting and completing this work, provides an unusual act of generosity to the dead.

The Dark Remains is a prequel to McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books. Jack Laidlaw is the “new boy” in the Glasgow Crime Squad, taking his seat in a season when shady and money-grubbing criminal lawyer Bobby Carter lands in an alley, dead. As Bob Lilley admits on the side to the Crime Squad’s Commander, “Jack Laidlaw is not an unknown quantity, sir. His reputation has always preceded him, which I’m guessing is why we’ve been landed with him. Who has he rubbed up the wrong way this month?”

In short, Laidlaw is no team player. But as the Commander points out, “He’s good at the job, seems to have a sixth sense for what’s happening on the streets.”

Even-tempered Bob Lilley’s got a tough job in “babysitting” this new member of the squad. From the moment the Bobby Carter case goes active, Laidlaw rejects all routine assignments (like going house to house) and heads directly for Glasgow’s underworld, which he already understands. Like the two (or is it three?) criminal gangs wrestling for control of territory and resources, and those who may want to promote a crime war.

In this occasionally off-balance volume, commentary from Lilley fills gaps around the investigation’s action. That slows the pace. But it also allows a peek at how current master author Rankin views the original character, as Lilley analyzes Laidlaw: “Maybe he’s a streetsman, the way Davy Crockett was a woodsman. Davy could read all the signs in the wild, he’d lived there so long. Probably wasn’t so good on the domestic front. I think Jack’s like that with Glasgow: he brings the city home with him, and that’s too much for even a decent-sized living room to contain.”

As the strands of gang action are slowly sorted out (with more murder, of course), Laidlaw’s marriage circles the drain. Compared to his work, his family life is tame, mundane, boring—and Lilley takes warning from his colleague’s domestic peril.

Even McIlvanney probably didn’t write “from beginning to end” without changes—so a lot of what Rankin received was likely to be far from finished work. The shorter paragraphs, less deep descriptions, and uneven pace (compared to classic McIlvanney) all suggest exactly that. So reading The Dark Remains yields far more than the strangely amazing and touching answer to “what if you combined crime noir geniuses McIlvanney and Rankin?”

Instead, it presents an unusual sort of time travel: not to the start of McIlvanney’s astonishing career in writing the darkness, but rather to the basic bones of how he shaped a Laidlaw investigation, working from crime victim, to criminals, to the rough and imperiled moral universe in Jack Laidlaw’s mind and heart.

Near the end, Lilley again responds to the Commander about how Laidlaw’s working out in the squad, and what could lie ahead: “He’s the business. … He’s a one-off in a world of mass production. He’s not a copper who happens to be a man. He’s a man who happens to be a copper, and he carries that weight with him everywhere he goes. … Mind you,” he felt it necessary to quality, “he can be a pain in the bahookie too, but it’s a price worth paying.”

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

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Nerve-Wracking Thriller from Katie Lattari, DARK THINGS I ADORE

The point of Audra Colfax's long seduction of her thesis professor, Max Durant, is clearly announced from the start of DARK THINGS I ADORE: She's going to make him pay.

But what he owes will only be revealed through a long, slow fan dance of characters at a long-ago summer camp for artists, the Lupine Valley Arts Collective. And if you're thinking those pretty flowers when you read the word "lupine," Audra's carefully staged punitive drama should remind you that the word has another and very different meaning.

Laced with the power exertions of manipulative professors over students, of great artists over hopeless ones, and of sadists over the mentally and emotionally vulnerable, Audra in DARK THINGS I ADORE constructs a hunt-and-prey situation that calls to mind "The Most Dangerous Game" over and over. Who's the hunter here, and who will take mortal wounds—Audra, Max, or one of the others from their linked pasts? As Audra confides:

My voice is gentle and maybe mildly flirtatious. I let him have it. This gift. A bit of the wolfishness from before creeps back into the lines of this face, the glint of his teeth. I relax. There he is. The predator I'm fully prepared to face.

The tension never lets up. This is Katie Lattari's debut thriller, but she's no neophyte in the writing world. And if the motives may not perfectly match the crimes involved—without the obvious psychopathic thru-lines of, say, a Hannibal Lector—this is a tightly paced and well spun work of suspense, promising more from the author in deeper development.

The book will release September 14, from Sourcebooks. Leave the light on, and lock the doors.

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

Brief Mention: Summer Thrillers from Jule Selbo and Ashley Winstead

Portland, Maine, already home and home-away-from-home to several stellar mystery and crime fiction authors, has acquired a new one: Jule Selbo, a rambling screenwriter determined to enter the genre. With 10 DAYS, released earlier this month from Pandamoon, she's launched a police-trained sleuth who's clearly destined for series appearances. 

Set on the Maine coast, including islands and boats, the mystery pits Dee Rommel and her PI godfather Gordy Greer against the manipulations and hidden crimes of a family of tech inventors specializing in valuable artificial intelligence solutions. Dee's line-of-work injury has landed her with a prosthetic leg and a big chip on her shoulder. She's still got good friends ... but she's reached the point where comfort and congeniality, instead of cheering her up, can send her into a depressive tailspin. That makes her hunt for missing AI heiress and scientist Lucy Claren edgy and perilous, and Selbo spins an excellent crime novel with unflinching pace.

Are you facing a dreaded high school or college reunion? IN MY DREAMS I HOLD A KNIFE by Ashley Winstead, the debut from this Houston writer, could keep you from agreeing to attend. Which might be a good thing, really.

Jessica Miller's been planning a triumphant return to her elite Southern college for the 10-year reunion. She's shaped herself into the stylish and high-flying success that she wants her former buddies to admire and respect. But she'd built this on the grounds of a college disaster: a death in the circle of friends, and a long-simmering doubt about who's responsible.

As the title suggests, this is a thriller, laced with betrayal and risk. The author plays more than fair with red herrings and clues, resulting in a pace that's perhaps a bit too predictable; the first-person style is unusual for this kind of crime novel, and raises the tension. Love a good nail-biter? Try this one, from Sourcebooks.

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

Soviets and Night Witches Link With Billy Boyle, in ROAD OF BONES from James R. Benn

You could spend weeks, months, a lifetime, reading your way through the evidence of what happened during the Second World War.  And sorting out heroes and villains.

Or instead, you could trust the kindness of author James R. Benn, who unearths unusual details of the war that enchant and inform, while investigator Billy Boyle pursues crime on behalf of the American forces. Blunt-spoken as this Boston Irish detective can be, he's also dedicated to supporting his friends and allies, and this 16th Billy Boyle World War II Mystery is another "keeper" for solid enjoyment and excitement.

After an exhilarating opening chapter in which Billy fills in on a bombing run in a B-17 Flying Fortress (Benn makes it easy to slipstream names and terminology in mid scene), the point of his new mission -- partnered with "Big Mike, aka Staff Sergeant Miecznikowksi -- is an Office of Special Investigations order that the team sort out a double murder at an airbase ... in Russia. More specifically, it's at an air base in Ukraine, part of a plan Billy recalls: "Take off from England, land and refuel in Russia, then hit the Germans again on the way back."

With the Russian allies blaming the Americans and sure the murderer must be a "Yank," immediate action is called for -- Billy and Mike need to identify the real murderer(s) to avoid a devastating international incident. And just to make things a bit more challenging, they'll need to collaborate with a Russian cop to smooth things over.

If that only meant the attractive and American-enchanted Lieutenant Maiya Akilina, life would be good. But complications pile up swiftly: Big Mike's transport abandoned him where he's likely to end up in a prison camp, and Billy's got to locate and retrieve his partner. Worse yet, the Russian colleague assigned is Captain Kiril Sidorov, and Billy already knows him from a London experience soaked in treachery in several directions.

"My homecoming was not as I expected," Sidorov said, a sigh escaping between his lips. "I have been in a labor camp in Kolyma. ... Little food, very cold, long hours. Many prisoners die there. Because of the frozen ground, the authorities decreed that interments be made in the roadbed as it is dug. Much more practical. Hence, road of bones."

"Why did they send you there?" I asked. I had a pretty good idea, but it seemed like Sidorov wasn't aware of the role I'd played. Otherwise, he'd be at my windpipe right now.

As the murder investigation reveals a drug component and potential inventory crime, Billy (and, he hopes, Big Mike) must watch their backs in every direction. 

Special interest in ROAD OF BONES comes from collaboration with a little-remembered group of women aviators on the Russian side, the Night Witches -- once again, author James R. Benn dips into details of the historical war and finds intrigue and adventure. Adding personalities (and charming figures) to these female heroes is par for the course in this crimesolving series, lightening the interactions among the investigators and adding charm and amazement to what might otherwise be a very male-focused plot line.

Memorable twists to the action include seeing a Russian officer demoted from NKVD status to prisoner (delicately sketched with much sorrow), and wrestling with an alliance that puts the Americans at risk of Russian betrayal. For instance, is it better for the Russians at the base to assume that Billy's been shot down in the midst of action? Billy admits, "They may think I'm already dead. It may be easier to let them think so a while longer." His host congratulates him on learning to think like a Russian: "There is an old saying. 'Close to the Tsar, close to death.'" For Billy, "it made perfect sense, God help me."

Series fans know that at least Billy is likely to survive the action, whether imprisoned or not. But the risks to his friends multiply, there's endless confusion about who's an enemy and how, and it doesn't just take the rewards of crime to produce lies and betrayal in wartime. 

This lively series makes for great reading. No need to read the other titles before this one, but there's plenty of incentive to pull more onto the TBR shelf afterward, to enjoy a gifted storyteller and a full deck of unusual historical details.

ROAD OF BONES releases on September 7, 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.

Indelible Darkness: THE HOUSE OF ASHES by Stuart Neville

In a fierce and powerful twist away from his crime fiction that roots in Ireland's "Troubles," Stuart Neville's September 7 release THE HOUSE OF ASHES (Soho Crime) is a stand-alone stirring the tides of domestic violence. Narrated in two time periods -- a dread-saturated present-day one of Sara Keane, newly arrived in Northern Ireland with an abusive and criminal husband (and his much more frightening father), and a set of multiple murder recollections from 60 years back, in the mind of the elderly Mary Jackson, more or less incarcerated in a "care" home -- this hardboiled thriller paints a shattering image of how absolute power becomes absolute control. Of life, itself.

More than the actual plot, the power of THE HOUSE OF ASHES comes from its blunt revelation of men's potential brutality. It's hard to connect this to the politically scented preceding Neville novels: There's nothing in either Sara's abusers (vintage mob-style dominators) or Mary's (three men who treat women as rape-able animals and kill of their babies) that can be tied directly to the emotional trauma of Irish life. Except one morsel, delivered early in the book through Sara's eyes:

[Sara] had met Damien at the University of Bath, he a postgrad architecture student, she in her second year of studying for a social work degree. She would never have imagined, even after they married, that she would come to live in the place he never ever called Northern Ireland. Always the North, the North of Ireland, sometimes the Six Counties, but never Northern Ireland. As if to speak its name would shame him.

Their move to a house that Damien's father has purchased and rebuilt for them—from a fire-struck wreck—is supposed to be a fresh start, removing Sara from the place where she'd had a breakdown and installing Damien as an architect in his father's property development firm.

But the arrival of a confused elderly woman at the house shatters Sara's preoccupation with staying obedient and blind, and as Mary Jackson's background becomes clear, Sara can't close her eyes to her own situation.

This is a work of psychological horror, drenched in blood, death, and sexual abuse. Perhaps only Stuart Neville could bend the arc of narrative in such a way as to make the story compelling. The terrors revealed and persisting match the book against such classics as Silence of the Lambs, but Neville leaves open the possibility that either Sara or Mary may escape the surrounding real-life nightmare.

It would be comforting to think that this fictional version is a wild exaggeration of abuse that doesn't actually take place in real life. Unfortunately, despite the persisting paranormal threads that are so classically Neville's, this crime novel makes real situations violently present and unforgettable. Read at your own risk ... but trust that the author also knows what impels survival and escape.

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

Monday, August 09, 2021

Second in Camilla Trinchieri's Tuscany Series, THE BITTER TASTE OF MURDER

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]


“Similar in pace and tenderness to the Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries of Alexander McCall Smith, this mystery fits neatly into the traditional mold, providing an enjoyable read that’s intensely place-based and engaging.”

It’s no secret that Nico Doyle is a former New York City homicide detective. But his new life in the small town of Gravigna, in the Chianti hills of Tuscany, Italy, isn’t supposed to involve his old skills—he’s even mostly now accepted by the locals (The Bitter Taste of Murder is book 2 in Camilla Trinchieri’s new series). Comfortable with a routine of small restaurants and working friends, he’s “employed” as a full-time volunteer at a restaurant owned by his in-laws. Sure, he’s still mourning his wife Rita, and taking flowers to her nearby grave. But in a lot of other ways, life has re-started for him.

If only his friends were simply—friends! Salvatore Perillo, mareschiallo (marshal) of the carabinieri, enjoys cycling, visiting with Nico—and, as needed, pulling him into crime investigation. As Gogol, a very old man who’s a regular at the breakfast “bar” quips to Perillo, “You were Nico’s Virgil through last year’s journey into hell, or perhaps he was yours. Whichever it is, friends of Nico are welcome today.”

The mareschiallo’s presence in Gravigna this time involves a visit to town of a famous critic of Italian Wines, Michele Mantelli, who is “said to have the power to make or ruin a new vintage.” Soon Mantelli’s murder shakes up the community, and when it’s revealed that Nico’s friends Aldo and Cynzia had been threatened with a bad review for their wines, Nico can’t help caring.

“Did Mantelli truly have the power to bankrupt Aldo? And why did he want to? What was Cinzia and Mantelli’s relationship? … If Mantelli ruined Aldo’s business, he would ruin Cinzia too. None of it made sense, and it was none of his business, but Nico felt for Aldo.”

So when Mantelli turns up dead in a car accident, there’s some relief—until it’s clear that the wine critic had died before his car went off the road. And it’s looking like a convenient death for several others, too, including the wife Mantelli was about to divorce and perhaps even his current lover. The only way Nico can be sure his friends will be safe from suspicion is to accept Perillo’s invitation into the active investigation.

Luscious descriptions of food, vineyards, vistas, and Nico’s sweet small-town life make this mystery highly enjoyable as summer reading:

“[Nico] was bent over a baking sheet, tamping down small mounds of grated Parmigiano into flat rounds with the back of a spoon. … Each fritella, once roasted, was carefully lifted with a spatula and just as carefully added to a tray and sprinkled with chopped chives.” At the same time, Nico’s “boss” Tilde prepared “Yellow pepper stuffed with rice, sausage meat, onion, pecorino and tomato sauce.” The book’s kitchen prose enriches all the action!

So do the entangled threads of friendship, affection, and community that confirm Nico’s made the right choice to take up retirement (well, at least he’s only a crime-solving volunteer!) in his late wife’s home town. The Bitter Taste of Murder is the second in Trinchieri’s series, and makes it clear that her studies in both film and creative writing have paid off. (She has eight mysteries published under a pseudonym as well.) Similar in pace and tenderness to the Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries of Alexander McCall Smith, this mystery fits neatly into the traditional mold, providing an enjoyable read that’s intensely place-based and engaging.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Outstanding Swedish Crime Novel from Peter Mohlin and Peter Nyström (Overlook Press)


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Layered and lethal … The only thing better than the pleasure of this suspenseful and tightly plotted “Scandi noir” investigation is knowing there’s a sequel on the way.”

FBI fan? Witness protection reader? Scandinavian noir collector? The Bucket List, first in a new Swedish series of “Agent John Adderley” crime fiction, satisfies all these enthusiasms at once, in a stunning debut that’s layered and lethal.

Authors Mohlin and Nyström bring both journalism and screenwriting skills to this intense and unusually long first effort. FBI agent John Adderley, wrapping up an undercover stint to break up an international drug ring, knows he’ll never go back to his old life afterward, and that’s fine. Until, that is, he gets a packet from his long-estranged and dying mother in Sweden, calling him to investigate a cold-case murder being blamed on his half brother, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 12. Deliberately breaking the witness protection rules after the trial’s over, he head to his home town of Karlstad to dig for the truth, no matter the cost.

At first, chapters alternate with the earlier time of disappearance of Emilie Bjurwall, college-age heiress to a clothing empire, as seen through her father Heimar’s eyes. If Emilie is a rebel, her dad is a defeated misfit, resigned to being the eye-candy husband of his powerful wife, whose family owns the company. He’s the complete opposite of John Adderley, whose ability to plan and instant commitment to action should mean a great record in crime-solving—but backfire as he misleads his own team.

Then the action increases in pace, and drives directly through until the unexpected and impressive finale, based on John’s own deadly choice:

“John felt his palms go clammy, as Ruben continued. ‘I’ve not spoken to the boss yet. I wanted to find out what the situation was myself—see whether you were going to make contact with your brother and leak details of the investigation. But so far, all you seem to have done is drive by the house—so I’m willing to give you a chance to tell Primer yourself. He doesn’t have to know about our conversation here. With a little luck, he won’t throw you off the case. But it might also end in immediate dismissal and an internal investigation for gross professional misconduct.’

‘I realize this is going to have professional consequences,’ said John. ‘But the most important thing is that my true identity doesn’t get out. You have to understand that there are people out there who want nothing more than to see me dead.’ …

His colleague started the engine—a clear sign the conversation was over.

‘I’ll give you until the end of the week,’ he said. ‘If you haven’t told Primer who you are by then, I will.’”

Boosted by smooth and deft translation by Ian Giles, The Bucket List—the title refers to a mysterious tattoo on the arm of the missing-presumed-murdered heiress—weaves in lively side episodes of passion and pretense. Adderley’s unethical mother and brother make everything tougher. And whether the international syndicate will catch up with him before the crime’s actually solved means the pressure of that ticking clock never lets up.

The book’s already taken a debut novel award in Sweden (“Crimetime Award”) and merits more. The only thing better than the pleasure of this suspenseful and tightly plotted “Scandi noir” investigation is knowing there’s a sequel on the way.

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.