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.

A FATAL LIE, New Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery from Charles Todd

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Those who value similar portrayals of place as character—as in Louise Penny’s Three Pines, for instance—will treasure A Fatal Lie and its Welsh backdrop.”

Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge can never be quite sure whether his own employment will endure through the investigation of his next case; Chief Superintendent Markham can’t stand him, and only Rutledge’s quick success on behalf of powerful political connections has ever been enough to guarantee his job from one day to the next.

In A Fatal Lie, Markham takes advantage of a help request from a northern Welsh county to send Rutledge out into a raw, bleak location—which, come to think of it, isn’t much worse than sitting in the office exposed to his superior’s malicious dislike of him. Moreover, Rutledge is by nature determined to find criminals and see justice done. In his private life, he is still struggling to make amends for events in his Great War service, which have resulted in his mind being haunted by the voice of Corporal Hamish MacLeod.

“Hamish was saying, ‘Ye ken, the Yard doubts ye. Else, they’d not send ye to Wales for a drowning.’

Rutledge didn’t answer.

‘Aye, ye can try to ignore the signs. But ye’ve seen them for yersel’.’

Hamish was trying to goad him into a quarrel, but it was only a reflection of his own troubled mind.

Setting his teeth, he concentrated on the road ahead.”

Though the drowned man has no easy identification, and the community around the drowning refuses to assist Rutledge’s investigation, he’s quick to realize that the body is that of a member of the Bantams, a wartime service unit of very short men, like the Welsh with their poverty. And it turns out easy enough to be sure the victim is Sam Milford.

But then it’s as if Rutledge has tumbled down a rabbit hole of people’s mixed motivations: a solicitor who deliberately steers him wrong, a new widow misleading him, dangerous individuals willing to extend their self-protection to threatening Rutledge himself.

The new widow, Mrs. Milford, may be the most difficult to understand.

“She closed her eyes. ‘I can’t go on,’ she said in a strained voice. ‘I can’t endure any more. … I’ve lost everything now,’ she said finally. ‘There’s nothing left, I can’t go on. It’s my fault. And I can’t bear it.’

He wondered if she’d even heard his questions.”

Some of the plot here turns on what different people mean by “lost,” as well as on what Rutledge can find, as he dodges the malice aimed toward him from London. Even more of it swirls through the disturbing waters of twisted love and dark motives that in some ways, Rutledge is too kind a person to grasp.

And when he does begin to understand the complicated motives in place, he’s already in danger himself – being hunted by the killer.

Ardent readers of this Charles Todd series (one of a pair by the mother-and-son author team) may regret that Hamish’s abrupt and caustic voice, so quick to warn Rutledge of danger, is not especially present in A Fatal Lie. Nor are the other aspects of this investigator’s own grief-stricken life: the betrayals in love, the desperate need for honest friendship, the sense of being forever lost in a peacetime that doesn’t grasp and won’t admit what he’s endured and how the war has broken him.

Yet for that very reason, A Fatal Lie provides an excellent book with which to walk into Rutledge’s pursuit of crime and determination to make things right. It also gives a haunting introduction to the perils and fierce protectiveness of Welsh culture, a setting in which long-term vindictiveness can flourish and persist, if Rutledge fails to grasp the forces in play and the motives that may stem as much from love as from malice.

Those who value similar portrayals of place as character—as in Louise Penny’s Three Pines, for instance—will treasure A Fatal Lie and its Welsh backdrop. As a police procedural, also, the book’s persistent untangling of motive, means, and opportunity provides an instant classic for this mystery genre, along with an intriguing exploration of the heart’s effects on the mind. 

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

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Freshly Spying Out the Cold War, in Tense New Espionage from Paul Vidich, THE MERCENARY


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Vidich carries the wintry mood of Soviet menace and danger powerfully, and his plot twists are tight and all too believable. “

The third espionage novel from Paul Vidich, The Mercenary, slides back to six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Moscow provided a frightening standoff of Soviets and Americans, and the notion of an American president being a “friend” of a Soviet leader couldn’t even be considered as a political move. With George Mueller, a CIA agent rolling out of the embassy and into a late-in-life mission to meet a new Russian spy, the moment is all about rational fear and determination.

But Mueller’s nighttime adventure hits a swift end in police hands, betrayed somehow, and when the Soviet source comes back into contact with the “Agency,” that person has one unconditional demand: that the new American case officer drawn in to connect with him in the future be Aleksander Garin.

Garin is the “mercenary” of the book’s title. Burned by a betrayed operation of his own on Soviet ground, when he’d lost the life of the general he was trying to assist out to freedom, he’s retreated to a New York City life of increasing despair and loss, taking short assignments that he can’t explain to his wife, with little continuity or satisfaction. The call to the new assignment arrives when he has nothing else to hold him. So he lands back in a nation he’d never expected to see again.

“Garin didn’t talk on the drive in. … There was something illusory about time and space that in the moment made him feel as if he’d never left the Soviet Union. The low visibility darkened his mood and reminded him of the morning he’d been forced to flee. It haunted him that he hadn’t seen, or chose to ignore, the obvious dangers. … Nothing has changed, he thought. But things were different. He was older, with a scar on his neck, another name, and a new assignment.”

Garin’s return to the Soviet Union is by definition perilous, with all the odds against him. His own identity as some sort of Russian himself will slowly unfold over the course of his mission—but there’s no question that somewhere in the Soviet files, his image and story are well documented, and he’s in danger from this moment on, in Moscow.

Vidich carries the wintry mood of Soviet menace and danger powerfully, and his plot twists are tight and all too believable. Garin’s forced progress from one crisis to the next reveals much more than his Russian self and his past failure, however: The new “source” has asked for Garin not by name, but as the person who’d failed to get the general out. The forced play is intended to dig into Garin’s own self-image and presumed longing to redeem himself, after such a colossal failure. His new contact, “Gambit,” is counting on Garin to get things right this time. Redemption.

But espionage is a landscape where nothing’s likely to be or go right. Everyone involved knows this. George Mueller himself struggles to protect Garin from the self-serving manipulations of his own “side,” while the KGB maneuvers to find out who’s now leaking secrets to the Americans, and to make sure there are no long-term rewards for such actions.

For readers new to espionage and to the climate of the dangerous Cold War, Vidich’s book provides a fast-moving and emotionally powerful ride into the darkness of both spying and the battered soul. The book’s effect on seasoned readers in this genre may be very different, however, since two questions insist on being addressed: Why title the book The Mercenary when, even from Aleksander Garin’s first step on Soviet soil, it’s clear he’s engaged for far different motives than money? (Is there a true mercenary anywhere in this book?) And second, inescapably, why has Vidich named his protagonist “Alek” when the book’s closest parallel is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the John Le Carré classic that lures Alec Leamas into tragedy?

Ultimately, the deepest and most painful conflict in The Mercenary becomes whether Alek Garin must meet the same ending as Alec Leamas. Vidich holds the issue in fierce suspense all the way through this standalone thriller. 

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

SLOUGH HOUSE: Mick Herron's 7th Tongue-in-Cheek London Spy Novel

If you live with other people, or have members of your pod stopping by while you're reading, you might want to warn them that you'll be reading the next Mick Herron "slow horses" espionage delight — the people in my living space kept showing up with the bewildered question, "You're reading a spy novel and you're laughing out loud??"

SLOUGH HOUSE builds on the escapades and character revelations of the previous books, and it's even funnier and, ironically, more heart-breaking if you've read the other titles (Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers, Spook Street, London Rules, and Joe Country). But it's still an excellent and compelling read if you plunge into it as your first visit to "Slough House," the building and department where MI5 dumps its staff failures. An alcoholic, a dance-crazy coke addict, a brilliant hacker with an ardent fantasy life involving how "hot" he is, a despairing staffer who'd been framed for pedophilia (guess how fast his fiancée left him), and the espionage-born-and-bred River Cartwright himself, in some ways the straight man among these various delightful nut cases. Most of all, the department circles around its head of operations, Jackson Lamb, a deceptively fat and farting slob whose skills in espionage, sorting out international intrigue, and even attacking the opposition physically are far better than those of his treacherous superior, Diana Taverner.

Here's a classic moment as the team waits for Lamb to show at a planned meeting:

A door banged, not the one from the yard, but the toilet on the floor below. So Lamb had floated in and up several flights of stairs without fluttering a cobweb on the way. It was unnerving to picture him doing this, like imagining a tapir playing hopscotch. The smell of stale cigarettes entered the room a moment before him, and the slow horses made way for it, then Lamb, by shuffling to either side. He arrived among them shaking his head in wonderment. "What a dump."

... He threw himself into his chair, which, one happy day, was going to respond by disintegrating into a hundred pieces. "Sorry to keep you waiting. I was up late comforting a gay American dwarf."

It's quickly evident that only Lamb, despite his crude language and behavior, would have noticed and listened to the story of that American, who had showed up unexpectedly in a room full of ex-spies who were saying goodbye to an old-time espionage meeting place being closed down.

That attentiveness to small details that in fact reveal Russian operations in Britain is half of what Lamb excels at; the other important half is the way he shepherds his group of failed spies, people who can't be easily fired because they know too much, but can be corralled where they may not hurt serious business. Lamb's robust verbal abuse and bluntness feel humiliating, but also give the staff a focus beyond their own misery. 

Besides, Diana Taverner, head of MI5, has already done something far more humiliating to the "slow horses" department: set them up as targets for her own spies-in-training. Her mistake here is underestimating how far Lamb will go in response, to defend his bizarre team. But she's got problems, and would be the first to admit it: For Diana, "it turned out that the actual cost of having someone whacked remained one of those subjects too embarrassing to discuss in public, so that wasn't subjected to intense scrutiny either." And having set this up, funded by political forces she's misunderstood, Diana is in a serious mess ... and trying to pass the dirt downhill to Jackson Lamb's department. As she soon discovers, "that was the thing about shit, real or fake: once you'd begun spreading it about, it never ended up precisely where you wanted it."

Herron's espionage is highly realistic and well salted with views of the ridiculous — expect sudden guffaws or long laughs. (Good treatment for pandemic-induced depression.) Ironically or inevitably, it's also strung around some bizarre forms of love and loyalty in action. Plus Herron provides a crystal-clear view of modern British politics and even the American disaster. All of this makes SLOUGH HOUSE far more than a good read. It's worth reading twice, shelving, and pulling out again a few months later. Where else are you going to have so much fun while isolated and waiting for your vaccine? (Don't answer that. Listen to Jackson Lamb instead.)

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

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Treasures from Alexander McCall Smith, in PIANOS AND FLOWERS, a Book of Stories

Perhaps your high school teacher gave you the assignment: Here's a photo—write a short story based on it. Poets do it often, and even have a name for when the image is actually artwork. The resulting poem is described as ekphrastic.

But when Alexander McCall Smith tackled a similar assignment a year or so ago, he accepted a selection of photos from the archives of The Sunday Times and created a world of affection and often loss around each of them. The result, including some that were published in the newspaper, became his newest stand-alone book: PIANOS AND FLOWERS, BRIEF ENCOUNTERS OF THE ROMANTIC KIND.

Some meander from one person in the photo to the next, tracing the odd connections of our lives; some tell love stories; and my favorite of the 14 of them is "I'd Cry Buckets," which opens with a photo of two young men waking with a pack horse that in turn is carrying a dead deer (or, as it's called in England, a stag). The opening is evocative:

The sweep of the hills. The burn tumbling joyously across the rock. The pony sure-footed but scared of moving water, picking his way gingerly under the burden of the dead stag. And the two boys, who were sixteen, and who were tired from being up on the hill since six that morning when it was still chill and misty and not quite yet light. They had two uncomfortable house to go before they would be back at the lodge.

Bruce, the boy in front, checks that David is all right, in a conversation that stays determinedly on the mundane at first -- until David asks, "Do animals ever think they're going to die?"

The teens continue this pattern of surface discussion with abrupt deep moments, and it gradually becomes clear that they share some secret knowledge of each other, in a protective fashion. Of course they grow up and take divergent paths, only to meet during wartime, aware again of each other's interiors in ways they choose to silence. In tiny details, Smith allows a slow recognition that the bond between the two is deeper than friendship. And trembles under the weight of knowing that death comes to everyone, not just the stag on the ridge.

The wide variety of images, and hence of characters that Smith breathes life into, takes him far deeper than his usual mystery series have time to probe, with a lush descriptive narrative that depends on and interacts with the small photos provided. PIANOS AND FLOWERS evokes a tenderness founded in shared human pain and delight, and demonstrates that the big things in life are grown from the small one, treasured and gathered and finally, in meticulous description, known and loved.

Order two copies: one for your own shelf of Pandemic Relief, and one for a person you care about.

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