Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Dangers of Investigative Journalism, in THE PROJECT from Courtney Summers

Canadian author Courtney Summers leaves behind her young adult track record to launch into a nail-biting thriller in THE PROJECT, laying out terrain that at the same time feels deeply familiar. As
"Lo"—Gloria Denham—insists that her office position for a revelatory news magazine should give her a chance to try her own hand at exposing something (would a religious cult do?), the levels of internal and external threat pile up in this hotly paced and frightening thriller.

This might be what it would be like if Stephen King were a woman, and unwilling to fully commit to a paranormal effect. Just to what evil looks like, in human and cult-centered form.

But how can The Unity Project be a cult, when Lo and her missing sister Bea were involved in the first back-to-life miracle performed by its leader, Lev Warren? Not that Lo realizes that. Despite a preface that lets readers briefly behind the scenes of the miraculous recovery from a car accident, Lo's search for success and meaning only drives her toward The Unity Project because her older sister Bea seems to have disappeared into the upstate cultic community.

At first her attack on the boundaries of the charitable group's meetings and settlements has one main goal: to make her sister come forward and speak to her. When that never happens, she absorbs a new challenge: she'll force her employer to call her a writer instead of a schedule manager, by writing her own exposé of The Unity Project, using her relationship with the vanished Bea as leverage.

But belief can be contagious, especially to a young woman with an accident-scarred face and a loss-seared soul. And when Lo finds the charismatic Lev Warren himself tending to her next injury, she pushes away from his gentleness, then tugs it back toward her:

"I take care of myself," I said again.

But I've reached for him.

He hesitates, then sits down beside me.

"I am so sorry," he says, "that no one has taken care of you."

And just like that, Lo receives the sense of family that has so long eluded her. 

But is Lev working miracles? If so, is there a cost? By the time Lo figures out her share of the quandary, she's knee deep in danger and headed for fresh damages.

Summers explores human need and those who, at first unthinkingly, manipulate the forces of love and loyalty. Brace for a dramatic and costly ending to Lo's courageous search into what The Unity Project really means, and a highly satisfying end to a page-turner of a crime novel at its best. From Wednesday Books, releasing February 2.

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

Magic and Mystery from Clea Simon, in A CAT ON THE CASE

Boston-area author Clea Simon has always excelled at world building.

Some of this in her previous books has evoked the passionate underworld of Boston's music scene, with its drugs, sex, rock and roll, but above all, deeply needed relationships. At other times she's woven complex relationships between humans and their pets, often understood better by the four-footed companions. Her hauntings and witchery have delved into human longing, as well as desperation.

Now, in A CAT ON THE CASE, Simon evokes a layered set of mysteries: a crime that involves a mostly helpless immigrant music student (make that two crimes, as one uses her as a front and the other threatens to sink her into hopeless debt and danger). And the longing of pet owner Becca Colwin to exert magical abilities,which enfolds a mystical confusion of its own, as Becca is sure she's already been able to make something magical take place—which her three cats, savvy and powerful, know darn well was something they achieved, not Becca.

Readers of Simon's "Witch Cats of Cambridge" series (Polis Books) will already know that the cats Clara (the youngest and assigned to protection detail), Laurel, and Harriet have a long and powerful past and are rather arrogantly aware of their own power. Simon's world building includes lives of felines dating back to the awesome Egyptian deity Bast, and the first couple of chapters of A CAT ON THE CASE require close attention to what's going on.

But after that, the book becomes a classic mystery involving a possibly valuable antique violin, thieves at the crystals-and-magic shop Charm and Cherish where Becca works, and a murder next door. Becca's determination, and her sense that the vulnerable Ruby is worth caring about, quickly propel her into chasing down danger and sniffing out the double entrapment that Ruby is too naive to notice.

Becca's old friend (and magic circle member) Maddy isn't convinced.  

"So tell me everything you know. I mean for real, Becca. Not just that you have a feeling about this girl."

"I do, though." Becca paused before continuing. "There's something going on with her, but I don't get any sense of danger from her. More than that, my cats are very calm — they were fine with her and they're fine with the violin."

That's the violin that seems to be the target of international thieves willing to murder in order to possess it. But why?

Good thing Becca has three savvy cats to watch over her and work out the means, motive, and perpetrators, whether in person or in spirit!

Yes, this is a feline-filled cozy, but it's also an intricate work of speculative fiction. Shelve with Boston mysteries, cat tales, female protagonists, and intricate fantasy, all wrapped into an unusual crime-solving exploration of friendship and the paranormal.

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

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Top-Notch New "Wounded Sleuth" from Lisa Gardner, BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

Before She Disappeared introduces what may be the most powerful sleuth of the decade, an “ordinary” woman driven to uncover the truth at any personal cost. There’s only one thing to ask for by the time the book ends: please, please, a sequel and a series.

The new thriller from Lisa Gardner, Before She Disappeared, cuts remarkable new ground. An intense and fast-paced investigative novel—practically a police procedural—it features the compelling presence of Frankie Elkin. Sober more than nine years, Frankie’s on a hunt for the only thing that eases her personal cravings: finding the lost.

Her arrival in the Mattapan section of Boston comes hard. White and female, she might as well wear a target or a sign that says “hurt me” in the rough district. But she’s there to find Angelique, a vanished high school student. Whatever search there’d been for “Angel” ended months ago, as far as Frankie can tell. Drugs, prostitution, or just leaving town, those are the common assumptions made about a kid on the wrong side of life.

But not by Frankie. Looking straight at the situation, she sees no reason that a high-achieving Haitian immigrant determined to save her family from deportation would just vanish and not even reassure her mom or brother. And Frankie’s got a plan for investigating and trying to find Angelique, as she’s done with fourteen earlier missing persons. Only this time she hopes, as she hopes every time, to find the person alive.

Taking up a job as a bartender may sound risky for her sobriety, but although booze hasn’t lost its appeal, she’s committed to something more powerful, the surge of adrenaline from finding the lost. Her first task: persuade the local bar owner to give her the job, as well as the empty upstairs living quarters. In spite of her white skin.

“He shakes his head. With more glasses to dry, he crosses his arms over his chest and looks at me straight on. He still doesn’t say a word.

‘I work hard.’ I tick off a finger. ‘I’m on time, especially because I’m going to be living upstairs, and I won’t siphon your booze. I pour fast, I know how to change out a keg, and I’m an excellent listener. Everyone likes a good listener.’

‘They won’t like you.’

‘Neither did you, but you’re coming around. Give me a month. By then no one will notice my white skin or superior gender. I’ll just be another fixture behind the bar.’”

Why here? Because this is where Angelique and her relatives belong. And in a very short time, Frankie figures out why the hunt for this teen started late, ended early, and isn’t going anywhere. Partnering with a police detective who’s frustrated at the lack of progress, Frankie earns her way past his reluctance to trust her, and proves that her ability to listen—especially to teens and women—can reopen the case.

When Frankie discovers proof that the teen is still alive, and seeking help, that partnership with the local detective becomes essential. But it stays charged with anger and territory, and the hunger Frankie carries with her: consuming, propulsive, and perhaps entirely destructive. That’s similar to what drives the “kids” around her, including another missing teen, revealed as “the missing girl no one even knew was missing,” yet who sets a criminal enterprise into focus and ramps up the danger to all involved.

Gardner’s fierce and skillful blending of rage and despair and unhealable wounds makes Frankie an unforgettable protagonist. She can’t be called an amateur sleuth, because her impassioned searches have shown solid results. She has families that speak for her, because she cared enough to work for discovery of what happened to their loved ones. Yet she’s not paid by any of those. And she walks a knife edge of internal haunting.

Before She Disappeared introduces what may be the most powerful sleuth of the decade, an “ordinary” woman driven to uncover the truth at any personal cost. There’s only one thing to ask for by the time the book ends: please, please, a sequel and a series.

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

Keeping Up With Faye Kellerman: THE LOST BOYS, a Decker/Lazarus Mystery


[Originally appeared in the New York Journal of Books]

“Kellerman’s writing frames deep tenderness among her characters very well. The dropped plot threads can be irritating, but series readers will have faith that there’s a point to some of them, and that next year’s title will build on this year’s hints.”

The Lost Boys is the 26th in Faye Kellerman’s Decker/Lazarus series, and a warm and dense novel of investigative support, people who care about each other, and a good marriage—but also the tragedies that can erupt from well-meant friendships and small adventures.

Series readers will be able to slipstream along with the main characters, upstate New York detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina. New to the series? It helps to know that the name “Lazarus” on the cover and in the series title refers to the last name of Decker’s wife before she married him – and the teasing nickname “rabbi” that  Decker’s much younger investigative partner Tyler McAdams uses for him reflects Decker’s religious practice; he’s not a rabbi, but with his wife, he practices the traditions and food customs of observant Jews. All of which has little to do with the plot, but will help in following the narrative.

It will also be helpful to drop the customary attentiveness of mystery readers determined to solve the crime just before the detective gets there. The book’s early chapters in particular are full of mild errors in the text (people start in one direction, then go in another; someone is invited for one meal that gets skipped and you’re in the next day). Paying too close attention will be frustrating. Just go with the flow, and with Decker and McCabe, who’ll traipse through woods and across the north country, trying to catch up with a pair of missing persons and, at the same time, three more missing ones from a decade earlier.

Kellerman’s plot takes a really interesting idea and plays it into intriguing characters: If people are emancipated adults but have learning disabilities, what happens when they leave their assisted living locales? Should they be considered “missing” in the sense of police interest, or are they entitled to make their own life choices?

Decker’s team first hunts for Bertram Lanz, a “developmentally disabled” man who has either walked away from a field trip or been kidnapped. Since his parents are very wealthy, kidnap has to be on the table. Yet the parents mysteriously won’t return phone calls. When Lanz’s sweetheart also vanishes, plus a facility staff member who’d been close to Bertam, doubts about chasing after the missing adults cascade.

The young lady’s parents raise the first serious questions about this:

“‘She seemed to be doing better lately.’ He turned to his wife. ‘Am I right about that?’

‘Yes, I thought so.’ Alison looked up at the ceiling. ‘Maybe she was happy because she was planning her escape.’”

Similar questions arise in terms of three missing college students who vanished a decade earlier. Decker and McCabe enter the case, which began well before their time on the local police force, because a body turns up that appears to be one of the trio.

Turning around the scant facts on hand, along with more sets of uncommunicative parents of missing “adults,” the detectives start wondering what roles sex and drugs might have played in the distant past.

The third thread of suspense rises from concern over Peter and Rina’s foster son Gabe, whose disturbed birth mother has surfaced, along with a successfully criminal father and a man in India who could both pose threats to Gabe’s mother and thus to Gabe. Or at least to his heart. Again, what are the right choices in terms of the struggles of an adult who needs support but not a takeover? Which boys are lost, and which are just seeking independence?

Kellerman’s writing frames deep tenderness among her characters very well. The dropped plot threads can be irritating, but series readers will have faith that there’s a point to some of them, and that next year’s title will build on this year’s hints.

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Deadly Envy in a Science Lab, in Cara Putman's LETHAL INTENT

What happens when you blend a legal issue with a cancer lab, terribly ill children, and faith-based romance? Answer: a suspense novel with intriguing layers of complexity, from long-time "romantic legal thriller" author Cara Putman, published by Thomas Nelson.

When attorney Caroline Bragg steps into a high-pressure job at a biotechnology firm developing cells that may fight children's cancer, she's got two huge things going for her: experience in the patent process and government regulations, and an abiding inner joy that has a lot to do with how Brandon Lancaster is telling her he wants her in his life always.

Her first challenge in the new job is to assert herself: Petite and not grounded in the science itself, she could be easily mistaken for a beginner. When the scientists try to rush into treatment without the proper protocols, though, she puts on the brakes -- and suddenly she's not as welcome as five minutes before, since the people around her really want to save children, not wait for the approved channels.

Making things more complicated in LETHAL INTENT, there's more going on under the surface of the biotech company, and the author slowly gives a reveal of a malicious but unidentified person willing to sacrifice those very children, for revenge on the company. Caroline's so busy trying to keep her ambitious boss on the legal straight and narrow that she's late in realizing there's more than accidental mischief happening.

Strikingly, she's also pinned by nondisclosure requirements, once she realizes her boyfriend is an investor in the company she's working for. Here's a sample of Putman's romantic writing from Caroline's point of view about Brandon:

Caroline pulled up the pictures and scrolled through several shots. She'd have a closer look later, but she liked what she saw: a man who looked at her with adoration. She could get used to it and wanted to bottle the moment so she could pull it out when she felt alone.

When te nights were dark and she couldn't sleep.

She wanted to remember what it felt like to have his hand covering hers.

Remember the feeling of security and lent strength.

Remember that he found her worth loving.

LETHAL INTENT will suit romance readers more than standard mystery fans, since although Caroline is strong and makes great decisions, she really has little chance to figure out what's going wrong in the treatment trials and the company's action, because Putman frames the book with a secret villain's voice and little in the way of outright clues. Still, it's a good read for a winter evening, sweet and strong at once, and very smoothly written.

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