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.