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.