Saturday, October 21, 2017

Story Collections to Savor, John Sandford, Soho Crime, D. P. Lyle

There's something about the on-rushing holiday season that makes a good collection of short stories especially welcome -- a way to grab some entertainment in a small pocket of time, a chance to savor the compact and intense writing of an already favorite author or sample an unfamiliar one, and at its best, a way to place the heavy demands of the American end-of-year culture back into perspective.

So I'm delighted to have three interesting collections to describe. I hope you'll take advantage of the season and dip in.

First -- because the editor is among the top crime fiction authors of our time, and because his introduction is so significant -- consider THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2017, edited by the inimitable John Sandford. Author of some 40 novels, best known for his "Prey" series (it started with Rules of Prey about 1989), Sandford also has a gift few authors can boast: He can write compellingly ABOUT writing. Here, from his introduction, are some guidelines for the ideal short story:
The story must be tight and well written; a novel can take a few fumbles without much damage, but a short story really suffers from them.

The opening must be catchy and quick and set a mood -- the story should be rolling with the first line. No space here for the dark and stormy night. ... [He quotes from a story by C. J. Box.]

Scene-setting should be integral to the story, part of the fabric rather than long blocks of exposition. The scene-setting ideally should contribute to the mood and texture of the story. [This, he illustrates with a PI -- that is, private investigator -- story from Charles John Harper.]

Now, we get to character. The physical description of the characters is critical, and what the reader sees in this physical description should tell us much about the character's personality. There's a reason for that: it creates an immediate image in the reader's mind, so that laborious explication isn't necessary [Fedora, double-breasted suit, smoking Lucky Stroke Green? Or an excerpt from Dan Bevacqua's story of a thin man with an orange beard and a tattoo over each eyebrow.]

And finally: there has to be some resolution. You can't just end a short story; you have to wind it up. 
Sandford's picks for the collection -- drawn from a larger pool provided by Otto Penzler -- also include stories by Jeffrey Deaver, Brendan DuBois, Loren Estleman, Craig Johnson, William Kent Krueger, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others. They are all over the map (and timeline), and they demonstrate the many delicious flavors of suspense, risk, complexity, and satisfaction that a mystery story can best serve up. Yumm.

Should you happen to be frustrated by today's phrases that carefully edge around the religious roots of year-end festivals, here's balm for your wounds: THE USUAL SANTAS, a bluntly Christmas-focused collection from the always inspiring Soho Crime unit of Soho Press, with an introduction by British crime fiction leader Peter Lovesey. Lovesey's intro chants gleefully the wide range of mystery types included here: from cyber criminals to Sherlock Holmes, and from dark noir to tender kindness to deep mysteries of life and death (including a ghost story).

If you're already savoring some of the Soho Crime authors, this collection is like a dessert buffet. Recognize any of these names? Helene Tursten, Mick Herron, Martin Limón, Timothy Hallinan, Teresa Dovalpage, Mette Ivie Harrison, Colin Cotterill, Ed Lin, Stuart Neville, Ted Goldberg, Henry Chang, James R. Benn, Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis, Sujita Massey, Gary Corby, Cara Black, Stephanie Barron, and of course Lovesey himself ... I was drooling just from the Contents page, mentally rehearsing the locations from Thailand to Chinatown, England and Ireland, Utah, Scandinavia ... and timelines that include Ancient Greece as well as World War II.

I haven't yet reviewed Sujita Massey -- her first Soho Crime book comes out soon though, so I will -- and I was briefly stumped by Teresa Dovalpage, a Cuban writer whose first Soho book wasn't crime fiction. But in 2018 the press brings out her first mystery, featuring the characters introduced here, a great chance to taste the work ahead of time.

Don't expect me to say my favorites; there is still time to re-read the collection in the holiday mode, and I will probably change my mind at least twice more. Every one of these stories is worth multiple readings. I might have to give several copies as gifts!

Last in this group is a collection that's not intended to be mystery/crime fiction, but happens to be edited by -- with a story by -- an expert teacher in the field, D. P. Lyle. The books is called IT'S ALL IN THE STORY -- CALIFORNIA and is an "anthology of short fiction" from the Southern California Writers Association. The level of work is uneven, but it's interesting to see the wide range of approaches among this gathering of Golden State scribblers. It's not a pick for crime fiction readers (unless you are a "completist" in terms of Lyle). But if you have a Golden State itch, this will provide a good scratch, with appearances by William Randolph Hearst and by San Francisco's Russian immigrants, as well as mention of San Jan Capistrano. And of course the gold rush!

Wishing you many moments to read in the upcoming months. It will surely add some spice -- and suspense! -- to the season's special treats.

Monday, October 09, 2017

A Delightful 1930s Mystery from Cheryl Honigford, HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS

What fun to have a second mystery in the "Viv and Charlie" series from Chicago author Cheryl Honigford! I loved her first, The Darkness Knows (an irresistible radio drama mystery with hints of the old radio series "The Shadow"), and HOMICIDE FOR THE HOLIDAYS is every bit as delicious -- a quick-paced amateur sleuth tale of the cash-strapped 1930s.

Vivian Witchell, a rising star in radio drama in the Windy City, has her eye on keeping the job she loves, no matter the pressure from home to step back into a more traditional woman's role, or the competition in the broadcasting studio, where flirtation is both a skill and a weapon. But at home, things have become complicated, and a discovery of both a hidden key and a wad of cash, with a threatening note, also threatens to undo the rosy glow Viv holds around her deceased father's life.

Fortunately, she's got a pro on her side: private detective Charlie Haverman. But that connection is also tangled with romance and passion, which Viv actually is supposed to be focusing entirely at her work relationship, where the radio drama says she's madly in love. Yep, it's complicated.

When her best friend Imogene casts doubt on Vivian's agonizing, it's tempting to call off the hunt and go out for a holiday hot chocolate instead.
Vivian frowned. She knew Imogene was right. Nothing she found in that drawer could possibly have any bearing on the present day. Still, something pricked at her conscience. Something about that envelope of money was wrong. The fact that her father had hidden the key to his own desk drawer was wrong.
Even worse, though, are the doubts that Charlie shares about Vivian's dad -- and soon she's in much hotter water, dreading a possible connection to the past crimes of Al Capone himself ... and whoever is running his operations now.

Every page of this madcap mystery has a fresh twist, and the frank urgency of Vivian's passion for Charlie adds a lively spice to the action. I had a ball reading the book -- even though I dread thinking of those Big Holidays cruising toward us already!

Well, if we can make the best of New Year's Eve the way Vivian finally does ... let's jazz it up! (Oh, you won't need to read the two titles in order. Set aside a shelf for the series, though, because I bet it will keep on rolling with great success.)

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

New Texas Ranger Mystery Series from J M Gulvin, THE LONG COUNT

US cover
The name J M Gulvin won't be familiar even to readers of this British/American author's long series of previous books, because it's a new pen name -- earlier titles came out from "Jeff Gulvin" and the pseudonym "Adam Armstrong."

Hard to say whether this newest nom de plume is intended to sound like Texas. In fact, the toughest part about THE LONG COUNT, a debut in a Texas Ranger series, is that almost nothing in the book "sounds like" the Lone Star State. And for a region with such distinctive language, that's quite a drawback in a novel set there.

On the other hand, there's plenty of Southern in the book, where Ranger John Quarrie (careful, don't confuse this with Quarry, a creation of Max Allan Collins) is struggling to keep up with the work load during student protests during the Vietnam War. Quarrie's tangled connection with a recently returned Nam veteran, Isaac Bowen, takes him dashing along back roads and sometimes all the way past the Texas border to Louisiana. What's the story behind Isaac's father's death -- and is it suicide (which John Quarrie doubts) or murder? Where is Isaac's missing brother Ishmael? Why do the members of this devastated family have ties to a high-security asylum for the criminally insane?

It took me a while to get into THE LONG COUNT because of the lack of Texas feel to it. But I finally found Quarrie -- or John Q, as he is also known -- such an interesting detective that I fell into the story after all. Quarrie's friendships and unusual extended family, including his young son, are especially intriguing. So is the rich language with which Gulvin piles details into the scenes:
Quarrie approached the house along the overgrown footpath with a flashlight the chief had retrieved from the truck. The stoop was cut from rough-looking wood and two of the steps were rotten, the edges turned to mush. He picked up a scraping of mud that seemed to have been deposited at an odd angle. Coasting the beam from the flashlight across the grass he saw where it was flattened in places and that was not due to the rain. Moving away from the stoop he looked more deeply and shone the torch on the turned earth under the window.
You can see from that sample that Gulvin's Britishisms haven't been fully pruned out. It makes for some odd descriptions, with a bit of a strange rhythm to the prose. But the plot twists are smart and dark, and the book is still a good read.

Besides, I love getting in on the first book of a series -- it's exciting to wonder how the author will grow with the characters in the titles yet to come!

THE LONG COUNT -- the title refers in one sense to going underwater and holding your breath -- is brought to American readers by Faber and Faber, and comes recommended by the magnificent Ann Cleeves. Keep your expectations modest, and enjoy the ride.

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

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Brief Mention: THE FURY, John Farris, Classic Crime and Horror Fiction Re-Released by Chicago Review Press

Film buffs may be far more familiar than I was with THE FURY, released in the horror genre in 1978 (a Brian De Palma film). The recent release of this book in softcover by the independent Chicago Review Press gives an exciting way to see the original book and how John Farris, known for his contemporary horror, handled the plot some 40 years ago.

Today's fiction has surged past the premise of THE FURY in many ways -- it's not at all surprising to find that a CIA agent (Peter Sandza) needs to seek out his government-kidnapped exceptional son Robin. And the paired plot line with a mega-wealthy family's daughter, Gillian Bellaver, sharing some of Robin's unusual psychic gifts (and perhaps a psychic bond?) is not unusual, either.

But without the frills and imagery of the silver screen, it's fascinating to watch the author lay out these two young lives as the ordinary and familiar unravels. I didn't find it as chilling as the film surely was in 1978. But I couldn't put it down, either. And seeing the book as prelude to today's masters of the paranormal crime mystery (like John Connolly) is irresistible.

For insight into how the horror genre developed and for a fascinating look at the written precursor to the noted film, THE FURY is well worth picking up and ... dare I say, enjoying? (Oh, don't let the rather basic cover deter you. It's irrelevant to the work.)

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

Crime-Solving in the Korean DMZ (and Beyond) for Sueño and Bascom in THE NINE-TAILED FOX, Martin Limón

Soho Crime continues to bring remarkable international crime fiction to American readers -- and one of most enjoyable of the current series is the one from former military pro Martin Limón. Limón writes from his decade spent in Korea, with the complex mixture of love and despair that a friend of this small-but-fierce nation can easily develop. And his investigators from the US Army's military police in the 1970s, sergeants Ernie Bascom and George Sueño, operate from that same complicated standpoint: wanting to make things work out well for the Koreans around them who are so often misunderstood by the American forces, and pressed to a timeline of "solve this and get back to base" -- while also resisting the dangerous partnership with the Korean National Police that they've entered over the past few titles in the series.

There are already a dozen books before this just-released title, THE NINE-TAILED FOX, and I'm such a fan of these well-written crime novels that I suggest reading them all. But you don't need to have followed the series before plunging into this one. For one thing, Limón is a strong author who engages readers in both character and plot twists, without depending on prior knowledge; for another, it appears from the slightly uneven "explaininess" of the first few chapters that someone decided to make sure there were extra paragraphs to bring people into the situation. After all, Army life isn't simple, and neither was the Korean assistance in the 1970s, a presence by American forces that the Asian nation desired in order to hold back the Chinese, but also in some senses an Occupation operating from a narrow set of prejudices and military logic.

This time, George and Ernie -- the only ones on their base who seem able to navigate the streets of Seoul successfully -- are thrust into investigating three missing servicemen, in three different locations. The pressure's nonstop, from their superior officers (solve it, clean it up), from the Korean officer they've nicknamed "Mr. Kill" who's going to take things into his own hands soon, and of course from the sense of obligation these investigators feel when they witness murder and the associated local pressures of organized crime and prostitution.

The title refers to a Korean fairy tale of a sexually devouring woman called "the nine-tailed fox" -- or in Korean, the gumiho, a term that the investigators first hear described by others as a "gummy whore." (Their on-base informant, an eccentric pervert they've nicknamed "Strange," is quickly obsessed with this archetypal figure!) She appears to have lured each of the three missing men in some way, in order to kidnap them. But why? There are no ransom demands, no action that makes sense in American terms. Or Korean!

By the time Sueño and Bascom -- with dangerous assistance from Mr. Kill -- sort out what's really going on, they're in too deep to back out. But also too deep to keep themselves safe.

Let the awkward first few pages slide by, and follow the chase into the complicated crime and highly specific Korean negotiations that follow. This is a great page-turner, and at the same time a classic military-based mystery, packed with action and intrigue.

Oh yes, do get the rest of the series as soon as you can. I've rarely found a series with such diverse plots. And having a small taste of Korean culture in the past, I find the setting and motivations in Limón's books addicting, and the plots highly readable. Thanks to Soho Crime as well as the author, for keeping this one rolling.

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

Long Effects of Evil in BLOCK 46, Johana Gustawsson

US cover
Sometimes the movement of a good (or great) crime novel from Europe to the United States takes a while. Then again, some of them never come across the ocean. Still, the three-year transit for BLOCK 46 from French crime writer Johana Gustawsson was too long a wait for such a blockbuster of a novel.

UK cover
Like the generation-long effects of abuse and murder in the Irish "Troubles" so hauntingly portrayed by Stuart Neville, Gustawsson's terrain of Nazi terror creates people and events steeped in evil. But this author doesn't simplify in any sense -- while the serial killer in BLOCK 46 seems to reenact some trauma of Buchenwald's killings, the novel is told from three voices: his, and those of two women.

Emily Roy, a top-tier Canadian criminal profiler who works for the British police force, demands detailed support services and instant access to crime scenes and information. Considering that she's working on a killer who has already piled up three bodies in two nations when the book begins, she needs every crumb of information and insight possible.

Alexis Castells, a close friend of the first adult that the serial killer tackles, can't walk away from the murder of jewelry designer Linnéa, who at first is the lone victim in Sweden. Haunted by an earlier crime she's been unable to finalize emotionally, Alexis determines to tag along with Emily -- who, surprisingly, allows her into the pursuit process.

The book's three-voice construction is brilliantly balanced by Gustawsson. Her details of torment at Buchenwald -- the "camp" where her own grandfather suffered -- are acute and perceptive, but also rapidly exchanged for the more civilized scenes in London and Sweden as the investigation takes place. As reader, I found myself eager to return to Emily and Alexis and the assorted police officers they're teamed with. And yet after a few pages in their company, I was also ready to look again at the cold, bitter, twisted landscape and events in the concentration camp, wanting to know how (or whether) Erich Ebler, a medical student imprisoned and debased in the camp, was surviving.

BLOCK 46 was a huge hit in Europe; the author's website exposes interviews and background that fascinate almost as much as the book. Like this:
These places define me as a woman and writer: I'm not only Marseillaise and French, but I am also a Londoner and an aspiring Swede! I arrived in London in 2009, after seven years in Paris. At the time, I was a journalist, freelancing for French magazines. I immediately felt at home in this city of various villages steeped in history, great parks and ancient pubs, all mixed with a cosmopolitan culture that inspires you. Hampstead is my favourite part of town. It is truly a haven that feels just like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead. As for Sweden, it was my husband who brought the Scandinavian influence to our family. He introduced me to the rough beauty of the west coast, the Nordic folklore and the divine  chokladbollar !
Well done, Orenda Books, in bringing this debut crime novel across "the Pond." I will be watching for the next installment.

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

Sunday, October 01, 2017

New Thriller from Paul E. Hardisty, RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD

The third in Paul E. Hardisty's Claymore ("Clay") Straker series, RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD, is now available, and it's a double whammy of a book: a South African soldier thriller set in the gory battles of 1971, coupled with Clay's 1996 effort to clean up his past by testifying to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both carry their own freight of terror -- and appalling risk.

Deepening the plot are Clay's deep and desperate love affairs -- one that builds during his efforts to untangle the corruption and possible biowarfare experiments during 1971 (at what point should loyalty to brother officers be tested against moral and ethical horror?), and another that continues in 1996 in his effort to merit the love of a woman we've met with him in the two preceding books in the series, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, which was short-listed for the 2015 John Creasey "New Blood" dagger from the Crime Writers Association (CWA), and The Evolution of Fear.

RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD -- and how can one read the title without also hearing an echo of "Requiem for the Dead"? -- can be read without the preceding books. In fact, its attachments to them barely affect this newest book, except for reinforcing Clay's motivation to give his testimony. The new title is a compulsive page-turner. Clay's earliest experiences of doubt toward the men he fights with -- his brothers in war, and the officer who in most ways is his father -- build ferociously through firefights and danger. The occasional glimpses of his future, layered into the story, give the reader confidence that in some form, Clay will survive. But the degree to which he'll compromise his integrity is in doubt at all moments, as he finds himself caught up in brutal experiments that reflect especially the racism of his country and his time.

I mostly raced through the book, eager to discover how Clay would confront his present and past, and to explore the dangerous terrain (human and geographic) of this thriller. Somehow, though, the whole time, I thought the biowarfare aspect would turn out to be fictional. So there was added shock and horror to learn in the author note that Hardisty based Clay's quandary on a real episode in the machinations of the South African apartheid government in 1981. Guess it just goes to show that truth can indeed be as dreadful and terrifying as fiction ...

Lee Child readers, espionage fans, and those savoring the new opportunities of this decade to enjoy global crime fiction will appreciate RECONCILIATION FOR THE DEAD. I expect to read it again, for the pleasure of this skilled author's layered plotting that tests the human heart and soul along with the capacity to navigate a battlefield and a crime. Highly recommended -- but leave time for this one, because it's worth savoring. And the powerfully drawn scenes and conflicts linger in my mind. Perhaps they will in yours, too.

All three titles are from Orenda Books.

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Scandinavian Mystery, New from Vidar Sundstøl, THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING

If you started your Scandinavian crime fiction with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series, Vidar Sundstøl's mystery novels, deep and layered and rich with character, may provide a very different approach to Norway's singular history and culture. The latest from this award-winning author -- winner of the prestigious Riverton Prize for the Best Norwegian Crime Novel -- feels at first like a traditional "retired police officer" investigation. Max Fjellanger's odd compulsion to attend the funeral of fellow police officer he hasn't seen in more than 30 years, takes him to Eidsborg, a village noted for its impressive "stave church." And now it's also the source of an enduring disquiet that haunts Max and may have resulted in three untimely deaths. That is, in murder.

But can Max prove the interrelationship of the deaths, spread as they are by time, profession, gender? What ties them together has something to do with the church and a family of local sheriffs. And most of all with a haunting carved "saint" or possible ancient idol that sits in the church and has links to the village's ancient pre-Christian past.

The layering of such diverse forms of mystery -- those of vindictive or punitive death, possible suicide, cheating lovers, mystic beliefs, and family traditions of danger and threat -- is key to Sundstøl's writing. Fortunately for American readers, the University of Minnesota opted to publish over the past few years his Minnesota Trilogy: The Land of Dreams; Only the Dead; The Ravens. The dark human evil present in those volumes brings the same shudders as the classic story "The Most Dangerous Game" -- crossed with the suspense of Edgar Allen Poe. In fact, the middle volume Only the Dead may be the strongest and darkest full-length novel ever of hunting gone mad, and I plan to re-read all three books periodically, to recall how complex and probing a crime novel can become.

The press connection with the Sundstøl novels (with skilled translator Tiina Nunnally) is clear in the Minnesota Trilogy, which links crimes in that wild American landscape and its earliest inhabitants, with the lives of Norwegians who arrived as settlers, prepared to displace Native peoples by force as needed, forging their own connection with the Minnesota landscape.

It's less obvious how THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING fits the press, except that clearly there is a heartfelt connection between Minnesota and Norway -- and Sundstøl sweeps sideways into that relationship through Max Fjellanger, whose confused defeat as a young law enforcement officer in Eidsborg led to his emigration from Scandinavia, to the United States. The bittersweet pain of a loving but childless marriage there and the death of his beloved wife carries Max into an impulsive trip to his "birth country" where the losses of his adult life began.

The book's title refers to a space in the wildest segment of the hillside adjoining Eidsborg's famous and ancient church, a space where it is claimed that "the devil" once dropped his wedding ring -- causing nothing to be able to grow again where the ring had landed.

In the community life as Max explores it, however, that location in the woods may have something to do with sustaining a dark and mystic practice that has more to do with primitive roots than with community as Max finds it today. University librarian Tirill Vesterli, eager to put her dream of becoming a detective in motion, soon links up with Max while supporting his research, with Max quickly realizing he has a valued new colleague in his risky investigation:
Possibly a little eccentric, but definitely compos mentis. And clearly sharp-witted.

"Do you have any idea what you might be getting involved in?" he asked.

She nodded eagerly.

"Then why are you doing this?"

"Because the truth is out there, even though we can't see it."

Max Fjellanger leaned back and took a sip of his white wine. That was the right answer. The truth had always been his lodestar -- the thought that it was out there somewhere, no matter how difficult it might be to see. Precisely as Tirill had just said.
Max hears the story of the devil's wedding ring from a local criminal named Tellev Sustuglu, who claims he heard the tale himself in prison -- a tale that emphasizes that the past is not necessarily dead, and neither are some of the dark personalities who have shaped the criminal events that once took place, even a generation earlier. Or more.

Sustuglu wraps up his tale by saying, "And they say a place like that still exists in the woods above the Homme farm. I've never seen it personally but ... So maybe you'll understand now why I won't say anything against [former sheriff[ Jørgen Homme in public, even though he's been dead for years. That man was from another world."

Max's confusion over this statement of "facts of the case" grows more intense -- as does the risk of his life, and Tirill Vesterli's.

Sundstøl spins a well-wrought, intelligent, and intense modern mystery with archaic roots, and much to offer about the roots of crime itself. THE DEVIL'S WEDDING RING gets a place on my "hold for reading again soon" shelf, with the books that enchant me because they also teach me about writing, about a really good story, and about how to comb out the complexities of the human spirit.

(And thank goodness for the University of Minnesota Press!)

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Powerful Trilogy by Tarn Richardson Concludes -- But Only in the UK So Far

Every now and then, a moment comes along when readers can make a huge difference in getting a good book published. This is one of them -- because the third volume of Tarn Richardson's stunning "The Darkest Hand Trilogy" has been published in the United Kingdom. But not yet in the United States. Overlook, the US publisher for the series, needs to see sales jump for the first and second books, and to hear from readers who want the third one NOW ... instead of in 2018, which is when the title is tentatively pushed back to, in the Overlook Press schedule.

Which of course immediately raises the question, why do you want these powerful World War I crime novels for your shelf, and how will Tarn Richardson's work pull readers into the desperate and dangerous adventures of rogue Catholic inquisitor Poldek Tacit?

Let's back up a bit -- to the three premises of the earlier volumes, The Damned and The Fallen. Poldek Tacit was raised by the Catholic Church to be one of its inquisitors, and that's premise number one: that the most powerful religious structure of modern history, one that still has its own city and its annointed God-listening leader, could have maintained a hidden force to fight evil and the inevitable corruptions of the faith that it brings: the Catholic Inquisition, a corps of dedicated trained experts in exorcising demons, battling Satanic forces, and preventing any earthly appearance of the AntiChrist.

Premise two, which calls for an almost equal suspension of disbelief -- or perhaps more realistically, for accepting an unusual metaphor for what a powerful church might bring into existence -- is that the church Poldek Tacit serves has created a dreadful half-caste of former humans that live in the dark places of the world and take the form of flesh-hungry werewolves. Starved and tormented though these half beasts may be, they still may have human emotions and loyalties. And Poldek finds himself in league with one such werewolf, Sandrine, whose loving loyalty toward a former soldier of the world war brings her into the fight against the surging evil in the world.

Premise three is the most outrageous, but the most compelling, despite its "paranormal" slant: that there might exist with the Catholic Church and among its priests and bishops a corps of power-hungry, devil-eager men, known as The Darkest Hand, determined to bring about the re-emergence of the AntiChrist, and thus the End Days of the World -- and that the otherwise irrational mass carnage taking place in the years of World War I, the Great War, is actually an intentional sacrifice of the innocent and brave, a killing spree intended as a worship effort toward the leader of the forces of evil.

If you've been reading the surging amount of World War I crime fiction (and literary fiction) being published, this leap of metaphor may begin to make astonishing and uncomfortable sense. How could we explain in any rational way how so many nations in Europe plunged into killing so many young men in such horrible ways? The "shell shock" that plagues Charles Todd's detective protagonist Ian Rutledge comes across as a probably very rational reaction to trench warfare, poison gases that made the act of breathing into a short path to death, and gruesome bayoneted killings where people walked or "swam" among body parts and their detritus, struggling to reach safety.

[Spoiler alert] At the end of the second volume, The Fallen, not only have we seen the forces of goodness fail and fall, but dark hero Poldek Tacit himself tumbles from the heights into certain death below -- we stagger with grief, along with his beloved Isabella and his close friends. Although Poldek has his own confusing inner spirits that shout evil to him, his actions are reliably those of a strong warrior for the good, and his loss is terrible.

But readers of the first two volumes won't be surprised when they meet Poldek again in the third, THE RISEN. As with the fall of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, we long to find a loophole to the contract with disaster. And although Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series remains dead in body after the sixth title, he's not the protagonist of the series -- it's Harry who must survive to the next book. Similarly, it's hard to picture a third volume here without Poldek in some form.

But like Graham Greene's whiskey priest, or even Le Carré's George Smiley, there are enormous flaws in Poldek Tacit. And the closer the series gets to an actual rising of the AntiChrist, the louder the invasion of Poldek's soul and mind becomes.

Meanwhile The Darkest Hand assembles its final plan. Javier Adansoni, within the Vatican, defines its reasoning:
"We have done what needed to be done. To persevere. To triumph. Ask yourself, would any other faith not do as we have done to ensure its continuance? Are we so different from other religions who try to enforce their creed upon others? No! We are simply better prepared and better provisioned for the task."
The group's members explain to each other how they have trapped and tormented Poldek Tacit over the years -- although they don't at first realize he may have survived their attacks.

Meanwhile, Tacit's re-entry into his own small counterattacking force of four people -- Tacit, Isabella, Sandrine, and Henry -- breathes some hope back into their effort. But first they need to figure out what the other forces in play are up to, especially those of the priest-turned-wolf Poré, who appears to be on the side of the Darkest Hand in some confusing way. Poldek Tacit begins to wrestle with the details:
But all he could say was, "I need more to go on. More than Seven Archangels!" And then he paused and said, "Unless ..."

"Unless what?" asked Henry, sitting forward, his eyebrows arched. He recognised the keen light in Tacit's dark eyes, a look always adopted when the Inquisitor had discovered a vital clue. He was pleased to see it. It meant that this feral distant man, the one who seemed so remote and indifferent to all they had told him, was now snagged by its mystery.
From here, THE RISEN becomes a race against the clock and against the forces of The Darkest Hand, as the team presses all its resources -- and recruits a few more -- into stopping the rituals and slaughter that are swiftly opening a portal to the End Times of the world.

The final stunning twist to the actions of evil makes a bitter sense out of another terrible aspect of the years 1917 and 1918. But for that, you'll need to read THE RISEN, which ends with an author note reminding us that "World War One was responsible for the deaths of 10,000,000 soldiers and 7,000,000 civilians and achieved no tangible benefits to mankind other than in the science of medicine. It resulted in the annihilation of an entire generation of young men, bankrupted nations ... eventually dragged the world into a second world war."

Is it outrageous to apply this to the times in which we live today? I think the fit is frightening, as our nation jockeys for dominance with another nuclear power, wrestles with the costs and pain of diversity, struggles to assert moral value during terrible choices. Tarn Richardson's series is a darned good read, jammed with suspense and the efforts that are required to remain humane during dark times. It is, painfully, more than fiction, I fear.

Now, to circle back to where this began: To get your third volume, THE RISEN, you have several options. You can, of course, spend extra funds to import a British copy. Or you can take direct action here: Make sure you've purchased -- and that Overlook knows you have -- the first two volumes of the trilogy. Then tell the publisher you want the third volume, THE RISEN, as soon as possible. Here's an e-mail for the press:

The Overlook website is and its Facebook page is here

Let's see what we can do to move THE RISEN onto US bookstore shelves -- and our own.

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Newly Released Father Anselm Mystery, A WHISPERED NAME, William Brodrick

Who are your favorite British mystery authors? Most readers will have one or two they quickly name. American readers may not yet have William Brodrick on their "short list" -- yet he won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger award in 2009 for his novel A Whispered Name and is noted for his Father Anselm series, in which a monk with a past as a lawyer (barrister in England) is sent by the Prior of Larkwood Priory to sort out crises that blend both crime and conscience.

 British readers, clearly, have already had access to A WHISPERED NAME -- now, thanks to Overlook Press, this title just arrived for U.S. access, released this week. If you haven't yet read one of the other Brodrick "amateur sleuth" novels featuring this Augustinian friar, it's still easy to slide into A WHISPERED NAME. Brodrick swiftly sketches in the boundaries and blessings of life at the Priory, including the unexpected assignment that Anselm has for working with beehives ... and then the inevitable out-of-Priory mission he gets, to resolve the blowback from a court martial that took place a generation earlier, in France.

In the process, Brodrick paints the grim reality of young, unformed men attempting to obey orders and fight what seems an endlessly losing battle across what was once a kind and cultured landscape. The particularly delicious twist to the plot here is that one of the priory's founding fathers, Herbert Moore, appears to have some responsibility for a wrongful death -- or at least one that should not have been allowed -- from a firing squad.

Brodrick reveals what took place through two timelines: Anselm's as he pursues the mostly hidden history and secrets of the long-ago court martial (some nice archival work here to admire, as well as emotional insight), and Herbert's as a young officer not skilled in reading the subtext of the court martial and plunged into agony by trying to do "the next right thing."

I found the narration a bit uneven at first -- as I felt with another Brodrick book, this seemed somewhat over-revised in early chapters -- but once the story began to flow, I was entranced, and by the ending, felt both satisfied and uplifted in a way that mystery novels rarely provide. 

A note for readers who've explored Chesterton's Father Brown mystery stories: Brodrick's Father Anselm is far more sophisticated than Father Brown, in ways of the world, issues of law, and the emotional and moral changes a person goes through in the processes of maturing and making a commitment to living in a dedicated community.

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


The Horror of Bullying, Violent Crime, in a Page-Turner from Eric Rickstad, THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS

As I write this, the final episode of a serial drama on the Unabomber, a mail-using terrorist whose bombs murdered innocent unconnected people over two decades, has just aired. It's clear that there are humans -- shudder -- who will use any means to exert power over others, whether to make a point or to watch the effects of threat, torture, and death on others. Crime fiction, I think, helps us to box this into a "story" so that we can set the knowledge aside and go on with our lives.

Into this comes this week's hot release, THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS, from Eric Rickstad. This award-winning author who lives in Vermont mines the forms of terror that can occur in small rural communities, weaving them across the lives of people who care deeply about keeping each other safe ... in this case, Detective Frank Rath, his colleague Detective Sonja Test, and Frank's niece, long his adopted daughter, Rachel. The release from prison of the murderer who killed Rachel's parents triggers a situation of danger and threat for Frank and Rachel, and only proof of the violent psychopath's continued crimes will gain any kind of peace of mind or safety for these valued members of their community.

Rickstad is a flawless storyteller and an expert at raising suspense through small images, sudden plot twists, and believable crises. In THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS another powerful thread is Rachel's now-adult awareness of what happened to her parents, as she obtains access to the file on their murders:
The profound and profane violence did not crush Rachel; the photo of her parents alive, beaming, coddling their swaddled baby between them, did. They were radiant. They were young. Scarcely older than Rachel. In their twenties.

Rachel forced herself to memorize the photos ... The images would never let her forget.
Macabre and slow revelations pile up for the characters that Rickstad paints so well. By the time the book's speeding toward its dark conclusion, there's no putting it down. Keep in mind, this is a sequel to The Silent Girls and the e-release Lie in Wait; also, a reminder for Vermont-familiar readers -- the place names are sort of random, not connected geographically with the actual named locations in Vermont, although heavily based on the Northeast Kingdom.

Don't miss the Author Note on this one -- because Rickstad reveals what started him on this track, with images I may never be able to forget, either.

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

Noir Crime Fiction from Tod Goldberg, GANGSTER NATION

I've always been tickled by those stories of really terrible criminals who set aside one part of their life in which to be nice -- even, to be generous, kind, loving. In some versions, I can hope the "good" part will gradually leach into the awful part and transform someone. Certainly that was one idea about Whitey Bulger during the long hunt for him and the discovery that he'd been living as someone's almost unnoticeable husband in a small ordinary-seeming retirement world. Real life, though, proved he hadn't changed underneath: still the brutal criminal who had no hesitation about killing, maiming, violating the social contract in the most violent ways.

Enter Rabbi David Cohen in GANGSTER NATION, the eagerly awaited sequel to Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg. There's no secret for readers about Rabbi David Cohen's original identity: He's a Chicago hitman named Sal Cupertine, who made one of the great escapes from capture, through plastic surgery and into a new life. Tenderly, Goldberg reveals the rabbi's attachment to his new life of attending committee meetings, listening to marriage problems, escorting families through their teen's bnei mitzvah processes and ceremonies. As he reflects on how uncomfortable he feels about solemnizing a marriage -- knowing that if his identity ever comes to light again, the married couple will feel unmarried and even besmirched -- it's tempting to wonder whether Sal has actually transformed, changed into a new person inside as well as outside.

Stop right there. Consider how this rabbi figures out how to get "Temple Beth Israel" through a tight funding period:
If someone missed two [tuition] payments, the Temple would start getting liens right away, none of that Fair Debt Reporting crap, the Temple getting every family to sign contracts allowing property liens, never mind the public shame aspect. Worst case scenario, David figured if someone had to accidentally get electrocuted at home to get their life insurance to pay the debt, well, then he'd go and f*** with their pool light. It hadn't come to that, thankfully, because the nice thing was that everyone was rich as f*** these days.
Count on a dark ride through this lively page-turner, and expect more than the usual share of violence (although not especially gory and without kiddie porn, thank goodness). Obviously there are plenty of grim chuckles too (especially if you've been part of an organized religion scenario), and a few heart-jerking moments of family love, distorted of course by gangster ethics.

Just released by Counterpoint, tightly written, and a good one to add to your noir shelf -- as well as any collection that favors Chicago or Las Vegas or Jewish dark fiction.

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