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.

Brief Mention: Denise Swanson, BODY OVER TROUBLED WATERS

My copy of this newest in Denise Swanson's "Welcome Back to Scumble River" cozy mystery series arrived after the publication date, so this is just a brief reminder -- if you enjoy this author's cute and romantic cozies, pick up the newest. Starting with a Valentine's season "active shooter" drill and involving school psychologist Skye Denison-Boyd as amateur sleuth with her hunky police chief husband Wally, the book spills out entertainment that's not always believable, but light and frothy enough for a frivolous "beach reading" pick. Overlook the gooey comments about her twin babies, and go for figuring out who'd kill the local school superintendent. Hint: It's not Skye. And ignore the title -- BODY OVER TROUBLED WATERS is neither a pun nor a clue.

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

CLARK AND DIVISION, a World War II/Chicago Crime Novel from Naomi Hirahara

It's hard to face some of the nastiest tragedies of wartime. That's a good reason for historical fiction — it gives us vision through the eyes of someone we care about, without having to endure the burden of grief and rage that nonfiction reporting often conveys.

Naomi Hirahara's new crime novel CLARK AND DIVISION (to be released by Soho Crime on August 3) provides a well-told crime narrative, as 20-year-old Aki Ito delves into the short life and recent death of her older sister. The Ito family arrived in Chicago during World War II in stages: first Rose, the beautiful and confident older sister, in autumn 1943, then then Aki and their parents, a few months into the new year of 1944. But the night before the family's arrival, Rose died in a train accident, presumed suicide, and this tragedy knocks them out of hope and into despair.

They hadn't even had time to get accustomed to hope, really. As Japanese-born individuals, Aki's parents were targeted right after the Pearl Harbor attack, and with their daughters they'd subsisted in the rough cold life of the desert location called Manzanar. Their business, their home, their belongings, nearly everything was stripped from them. Arrival in Chicago was supposed to give them a chance for a new start. And instead, it seemed it would destroy them.

But in a meeting with the coroner, who tells her bluntly that her older sister had an abortion a couple of weeks before her death, Aki steps unexpectedly out of her culturally instilled roles and speaks up:

"You have made a mistake," I said. My declaration surprised even me. I usually would not tell any authority figure, especially a hakujin man, that he was wrong. Why was he mentioning an unspeakable criminal procedure like an abortion wen my sister was dead. "A train ran over her." ... My sister didn't kill herself. Not on the day before we were coming to Chicago.

The coroner looked at me silently, and I knew what he was communicating. She had taken her life because we were coming—probably out of shame for her situation.

"Rose wouldn't do that."

Aki's conviction drives her to investigate Rose's life as well as death, a slow process since she's also got to handle earning a living and taking care of her devastated parents. But Chicago is riddled with crime, gangs, and the kind of prostitution that depends on half-starved immigrant women. Aki may be right. 

Hirahara's crime exposition works well, and Aki's investigation operates with alternating success and barriers. The closer she gets to solving her sister's murder (and it is indeed murder), though, the more danger she's in, herself. Plus she's depending on others, from American-born Japanese to other kinds of Americans, to assist her in the doubly strange new world she's entered.

Hirahara's earlier publications include two mystery series, as well as nonfiction books including Life After Manzanar. A hint of stiffness in the text gives the feel of translated work, which this clearly isn't -- but perhaps the author struggled at times to translate the emotional impact of Manzanar and persistent anti-Asian attacks into another time, and bring them back to us. It's a forgivable struggle, very understandable. 

The greatest delight of reading CLARK AND DIVISION (the title refers to a street district in Chicago) is stepping inside the mind and heart of the "other," as Aki Ito begins to determine what it is to be a Japanese American in a bold new world. Hirahara's given a protagonist who'll feel more like a friend by the end of the book, a route to insight and refreshed experience for her readers.

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

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

"Neo-Noir Procedural" Crime Fiction: MIDNIGHT, WATER CITY by Chris McKinney

This year's most remarkable crime fiction may be Chris McKinney's July 13 release, MIDNIGHT, WATER CITY. Take a hard-boiled detective novel, with all its bitterness and grim assessment of the human race -- and knock it 80 years into our future, when a strike from a major asteroid is averted just in time to save what remains of Earth.

 But that's not the heart of the book, or it wouldn't be such a good read. 

The protagonist tells the story, and remains simply "I" throughout -- a man who's reinvented himself too many times, with wives and children gone, and a current wife and small daughter he adores. But his career hasn't shifted much: Long ago he was head of security for the world's most important and heroic scientist, Akira Kimura, who saved the planet from that asteroid. Then he became a police detective. And as MIDNIGHT, WATER CITY opens, Akira has called him back, because she feels under threat.

Unfortunately, it's too late. And as Akira's life, science, and secrets unfold, the criminal behind her murder becomes painfully obvious: a family member who's determined to out-think her, out-class her, out-live her ... and even take on the deification that the culture has given to the amazing astronomer and politically savvy women who saved the world.

The book's also an environmental morality tale, plus a crushing accusation of a culture that's increasingly divided between haves and have-nots, or Less Thans. What saves it from becoming another Gulliver's Travels or similar bitter satire is the tender loyalty that the protagonist displays despite his despair:

Some people would say that using the word "security" for what I did for Akira is a stretch. But it's what I did. I kept her safe by any means necessary. That instinct hasn't faded ... people on all levels tried to take her down. I silenced them all. Aching joints now, perhaps the loss of a step, but when I'm in mode, I know I've got a power bomb or two left in me.

But it's been ages since I had to be in mode. Decades. I get to the telescope door and let its scanner flash over my face. Even after all these years, it recognizes me and opens, and for some reason, I'm surprised. Not that I still have clearance, but that the machine even recognizes me. Because the older I get, the less recognizable I am to myself.

This protagonist has some special abilities of his own, and he's relied on them to direct his ethical compass during a lifetime of protecting Akira. But when he begins to realize the real crimes that are emerging from his past, and hers, even his strengths are tainted, and the classic hard-boiled formula of a wounded detective unable to save himself seems about to take over.

McKinney tosses some stunning twists into this, though, and crime readers may find this book's play of betrayal and discovery to be a haunting futuristic version of the best crime fiction of the past.

Released by 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.

Unforgettable Crime Novel by Chris Offutt, THE KILLING HILLS

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“The Killing Hills probes the darkness in both land and families, along with the limits of forgiveness. It’s not just a fine and unforgettable crime novel. It’s a heartbreak and a bond.”

ChrisOffutt’s first crime thriller is far from his first book, since he’s already had two award-winning novels. The Killing Hills spins the grit and danger of a murder investigation into a gruffly tender examination of hardscrabble rural life in the hollers of Kentucky. From the challenges of family feuds and payback frictions, to the dangers of grandparents armed with pocket pistols and long guns, Army CID agent Mick Hardin is in almost as much danger as when he was in combat. But he has a lot less assurance on who are the “bad guys” around him.

Mick’s home on leave to see his pregnant wife, a woman who has loved what he loves: this place and its half-crazy people. But nothing’s what he expected on his homecoming. “He loved her. He would always love her. He’d never met a woman he liked as much, or seen one he thought was better looking. During sex, Peggy’s face seemed euphoric, her mouth tiny, eyes wide as if drugged. That’s what bothered him. Not the sex or the child growing in her womb, but the sheer injustice of another man seeing her face that way.”

Stranded among his own emotions toward Peggy and their fracturing marriage, Mick accepts a potent diversion: to seek the murderer of a local woman, as an unofficial deputy to his sister, the local sheriff. Caught in a sexist political bottleneck and without enough staff even for routine work, Mick’s sister Linda really needs him—even if she has to wait for him to kick off his latest hangover.

Mick’s strong understanding of how Kentucky hill life operates draws him into the web of interactions around the dead woman. Even an old ginseng gatherer can be both an informant and a danger to him; someone walking a back road should be offered a ride, for instance, but when Mick does so, delivering the walker—after an exchange of names that lets each man place the other’s family—to the third holler down, he finds a remarkable situation: a live mule with a chair lashed to its back, roped and serving as a support to a front porch roof.

Though the scene is both very funny and very poignant, it’s Mick’s quick assessment of how to resolve it, complete with release of the mule (which of course bites him), that reveals the kind of investigator he is: one who can think several steps ahead and alter plans as results change around him. He explains his reasoning to his passenger after the fact: “If the mule had stayed hooked up to your porch too long … you’d have to do something back … Then my sister would get mixed up and somebody’s setting in the jailhouse. So, no, it ain’t necessarily for [the mule], but for the good of everybody.”

He’ll need all of that forethought and backward looking, to determine who had the motive for the killing, and how it took place.

Loyalty and betrayal slide back and forth in this tightly plotted, immaculately paced novel. What binds them together is Mick’s capacity to care intensely, not just for his estranged wife, but for the landscape and people he’s grown up with. The Killing Hills probes the darkness in both land and families, along with the limits of forgiveness. It’s not just a fine and unforgettable crime novel. It’s a heartbreak and a bond, laid out in precise scenes and careful conversations, with the most painful of choices remaining in the hands of those who live—and love.

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