Sunday, April 23, 2017

Scottish Noir from T. Frank Muir, THE MEATING ROOM

I've enjoyed the very dark and well crafted St Andrews, Scotland, mysteries of T. Frank Muir; two of them came my way via Soho Crime (Hand for a Hand; Tooth for a Tooth). I've no idea why the latest to cross the Atlantic, THE MEATING ROOM, came out from Academy Chicago (Chicago Review Press) this month, but I grabbed the book and dove right in, checking out the investigation led by DCI Andy Gilchrist.

And it's a doozy. A wealthy property developer, Thomas Magner, loses his business partner to apparent suicide, at the same time that the partner's family is murdered. The connection looks obvious -- the suicide is remorse driven, right? But Gilchrist's partner DS Jessie Janes raises some initial doubts, and soon Gilchrist has his own. Still, it's hard to investigate Magner because any added attention to him looks like bias: He's already been charged with multiple sexual assaults. When the women who'd accused Magner begin either recanting or dying, Gilchrist and Janes race the clock to find both evidence and witnesses they can count on.
Back in the Office, Gilchrist's mobile rang -- a number he did not recognize.

He made the connection.

"DI Smith here, sir. Sorry to trouble you again, but I thought you should know that they're dropping like flies."

Gilchrist understood immediately. "Who is it this time?"

"Abbott, Warren, and Williamson. All by phone again."

"Reasons?"

"More or less the same. Jenna Abbott said she didn't want to go to court or even give her testimony. ... Change of heart."
Alert readers will know, early on, that the unfolding crimes are likely to increase in graphic gruesomeness. (The title also suggests this.) So, reader beware ... it's going to be tough. But Muir's deft exploration of how his investigators will react to the increasing pressure on them (including in Andy Gilchrist's private life) ramps the suspense up swiftly, and I didn't want to put the book down until the finale. Scottish aspects? Not many -- mostly a good modern British-style crime novel, well paced and well written.

Read one Muir, and you may well want to read some others -- but you don't need to cover these in sequence. Good stuff.

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

Exploring Immigration Through Crime Fiction, MIGUEL'S GIFT, Bruce Kading

Bruce Kader's first novel, MIGUEL'S GIFT, takes place mostly in the 1980s -- a good way to distance the issue of illegal immigration and enforced deportation from today's difficult political climate. At the same time, this crime novel, told mostly from the point of view of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) agents, offers a fascinating view of the issues that have become today's fuel for flame.

Joining the INS in Chicago in the late 1980s without having taken the "old boys" route through Border Patrol first, Nick Hayden has the rookie cards stacked against him. Idealistic and "overeducated" for the job, Hayden really wants to fit in anyway. His enthusiasm and remain edgy and uncertain.

Still, he's almost managed to fit in with the investigative teams, when the recruitment of an inside agent among the "wets" (illegal Latin American immigrants) and his own commitment to the man at risk derail his confidence in the work. But he's been harboring some odd doubts anyway -- some from a secret past of his own. They show up in his subconscious, long before he meets Miguel Chavez:
Hayden usually didn't remember his dreams and made little effort to do so. To him they were mere flights of the imagination, not to be taken seriously. But there was one dream he'd begun to have almost every week, and it disturbed him. It would always begin in a desert, the sun blazing through a cloudless sky -- the peaks of dry, craggy mountains looming hazily in the distance. Several figures in brown robes, like those of Franciscan monks, shuffled slowly along a sandy path. ... Nick, from a distance, would call out to get their attention, but they couldn't hear him.
Kading's own pre-novelist career as a federal special agent took him into the INS, the EPA, and the FBI (what a combination!).  So I was fascinated by the emotions and choices he provided for his fictional agents. Knowing some people who work on this side of today's enforcement issues also kept me glued to the pages, even when the writing was a bit too much "telling" instead of showing, and conversations felt overly predictable. I found the mild suspense of the novel was heightened by my curiosity over how Kading would bring about the climax and where his protagonist would end up -- as well as Miguel and his family, of course!

So I recommend this book strongly as an emotionally honest way to look at both the human and the criminal sides of immigration crime. It's not always a strong book, but it's a much-needed one, and I'm glad it came my way -- from Academy Chicago, an imprint of the Chicago Review Press.

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Maine Mystery, TIGHTENING THE THREADS, from Lea Wait

Lea Wait crafts two mystery series from her Maine home. The darker of the two is her Mainely Needlepoint series -- still an "amateur sleuth" type, as needlepointer Angie Curtis doesn't mean to become an investigator. But when her friend and fellow needlepointer Sarah Byrne suddenly discloses how she chose the seaside town for her new home, after leaving behind Australia, Angie can't help feeling intrigued. A mysterious family connection revealed? A possible fortune in artwork for her friend? TIGHTENING THE THREADS takes an ominous cast early on, and the complications multiply.

When Sarah is suddenly accused of murder, as well as fabricating her new family connection, Angie can't resist stepping into the scene of the crime. But who could plan a deliberate murder within an old-time lobster bake among family members? And among all the possible people who could profit from this death, how can Angie prove Sarah's not responsible?

Angie's also the perfect investigator for this crime because it involves rediscovering family. Readers of the series know that Angie's newly returned to her Maine roots, but even so, she still doesn't know enough about her mother, and nothing at all about her father. She's a witness to the moment that sets Sarah up, ironically, as the potential killer-for-profit when artist uncle Ted Lawrence announces the connection:
Ted wasn't finished. Ignoring Michael's outburst, he continued.

"As I said, we can get into the particulars of Sarah's story, and her journey to find us, later this week. But for now, just know that I believe with all my heart that Sarah is my niece. And that, because I knew questions would be asked about such an amazing story, I convinced her that we should have DNA tests. And, yes, they proved that, despite her name and accent, she is a Lawrence. I might add that during the few months I've known her she's more than proved herself worthy of our family. Sarah" -- he raised his glass -- "I drink to you, and officially in the presence of my children, welcome you to our family."
Wait's adroit twisting of the family reunion hides other complications, and her protagonist, with dogged Maine persistence, begins to uncover more motives, more opportunities, and more methods that could be involved in uncle Ted's sudden demise.

Although this is Wait's darker series, it's never gruesome ... even as I shuddered at moments as the seaside family home turned into the backdrop for old resentments and long-nurtured malice. Convincing and swiftly paced, TIGHTENING THE THREADS continues Wait's strong set of titles (this is the fifth in this series), and it's clear there are more surprises ahead in sleuth Angie Curtis's new life in her grandmother's home town.

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Brief Mention, EXECUTIVE ORDER, Max Allan Collins with Matthew V. Clemens

The third in the "Reeder and Rogers" government espionage series is a winner! Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens have spun a page-turner that opens with the death of four US agents as Russia invades yet another small nation -- then security contractor Joe Reeder finds himself in direct contact with the US President, on a mission to figure out why the agents turned up there in the first place.

EXECUTIVE ORDER races the clock as Reeder and his FBI ally Patti Rogers struggle to sort this out, alongside an apparent murder of the Secretary of the Interior. Collins and Clemens set the adventure in the not too distant future, a clever way to allow a few extra scientific discoveries and a heap of intervening history. But the dark forces moving against the President -- and Reeder and Rogers -- are motivated by a familiar urge: "What [Lawrence Morris] and all of the loyalists enacted was part of their overall mission to restore the greatness that President Harrison had so recklessly squandered."

Half the time I thought I'd accidentally turned on some current news in this thriller; the other half, I reminded myself that it's the reader's job to let go of preconceptions and ride the flow of fictional events without too many questions. I had a really good time reading this -- I'd say it's pure escape fiction at its liveliest, except, of course, the themes of conflict within the federal government are serious and a real threat in our own time.

Hope we can create as good a resolution to today's stresses and chaos as Collins and Clemens do in EXECUTIVE ORDER.

You don't need to read the two earlier titles in the series first -- Supreme Justice  and Fate of the Union -- because the authors carry the plot just fine. But it's fun to recognize some side mentions and if you're enjoying the pace and action, the other two belong on your shelf, too.

No full review here because Clemens has become a friend. Also the book publisher is Thomas & Mercer, in paperback original form, which makes it tough to recommend for collecting. Pick up a copy for the fun of it, though!

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Snappy Plotting, Smart Amateur Sleuth, in Sara Rosett's New MOTHER'S DAY, MUFFINS, AND MURDER

Texas mystery author Sara Rosett writes both "cozy" mysteries and a "heist" series -- and she's a tight, clever writer with a great eye for character and believable twists.

MOTHER'S DAY, MUFFINS, AND MURDER is way better than the slightly silly title suggests. Set at a Georgia elementary school where freelance home organizer Elly Avery often volunteers -- backing up the great teachers and staff who nurture her two kids -- the book opens with a hectic scene during one of the last weeks of the school year, when teachers, parents and enthusiastic students race around outside, enjoying special events and meals. Elly's one of the lead organizers for parent support (from gamekeeping to muffins to meeting the barbecued lunch caterers), so she's in and out of the office and classrooms, well, almost all day long.

Which makes her one of the first to know when another visitor spots a woman's body stuffed into a storage closet, followed immediately by a fire drill that keeps Elly from immediately reporting the discovery to the police. By the time things are running normally again for the kids, the body's gone.

But that's just the start of Elly's discovery of a series of uneasy and ultimately very dangerous interactions happening among the school's staff. Unlike many an "amateur sleuth," Elly Avery makes smart decisions and takes good care of herself and her kids (her husband's away on a military operation). And that makes it a pleasure to ride along with her as she unfolds the layers of deception at the school, mostly staying out of clear danger until the book's well-paced and intense finale.

Hard to believe this is the first I've read from this accomplished author. Trust me, I'll be looking for more! I've already checked out her website: http://www.sararosett.com. MOTHER'S DAY etc. (the only thing I wished changed was the book title) is published by Kensington and came out a couple of weeks ago. Worth grabbing a copy for the summer reading stack!

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

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Who's Looking for an Instant Mystery Bookstore? Our Collection's Available


Today is the official date of closing Kingdom Books as a mystery collector's paradise. When Dave and I met (and yes, we soon married) 15 years ago this month, we decided to create the kind of mystery bookstore we'd want to step into: full of books in prime condition, many of them signed by the authors, and ranging from Sherlock Holmes pastiches to hard-boiled crime to police procedurals and traditional amateur-sleuth mysteries ... and including a wide time span, from the classics (Tey, Christie, Upfield, Hammett) to the newest strong mysteries in this week's New York Times book reviews. And, of course, in our own book reviews.

The book reviewing will continue -- I can't stop reading mysteries, and I enjoy putting them into perspective for other readers to consider.

And we have a few items we're letting go of in a little eBay "store" online (click here if you're curious).

But the signs are down, the door is shut, and slowly the books are moving from the shelves into boxes.

If you've dreamed of opening a mystery bookshop, or want to instantly add a wonderful mystery wing to what you have, let us know! We have about 2500 books available, as a single lot only; we're glad to send you the list. About half are signed, and they are all in lovely condition (fine and near-fine, first editions, for the most part).

We're not going away, and we're not sad (well, maybe a little sad). There are some great adventures ahead, and we both will be writing more, in our new life pattern. Stick with us for later discoveries! And, of course, tap your e-mail address into the white box on this page to get the fresh book reviews without any effort. I've got a long list of great titles to describe in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

[In case you wondered -- this is not an April Fool post -- despite the date.]

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

If You're Missing Father Brown, Check out THE DAY OF THE LIE from William Brodrick

American readers may not have crossed paths with British author William Brodrick before this -- but Overlook Press is bringing out the fourth in his Father Anselm series at the end of this month (March 28), with more of the series to come. And that's a great treat for those of us who cut our mystery teeth on G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories -- as well as for readers intrigued by the frictions of Europe's small nations and large conflicts.

THE DAY OF THE LIE takes Father Anselm out of his monastic retreat, to assist an old friend in danger -- spiritual more than physical, it seems. At least, Father Anselm's Prior already seems to know more than Anselm about John Fielding's troubles and guilt. And for much of the book, that's the very human strand that will keep Anselm pursuing the truths of a dangerous time in Eastern Europe, and the path of a woman named Roza, who'd been a revolutionary all her life. In fact, it's Roza's reappearance in John Fielding's life that pulls the old friend to Anselm's door, with a desperate request: "I need a lawyer."

That makes more sense than you might realize if you didn't already know that Anselm had abandoned a career at the bar to become a monastic priest. Anselm's the one that John needs -- but at first the priest is sure his Prior will say no to the request. After all, you join a monastery in order to stay within its walls, right? But the Prior is prepared -- and ready to warn Anselm about this sleuthing action he's about to tackle:
"I want you to be vigilant, Anselm," began the Prior, watching where he was putting his feet. Branches had fallen during the recent bout of high winds. ... "I don't wish to offend you, but regardless of your many years in the criminal courts, you have no experience of the place to which you are going and the dangers it holds. Nor is it a prison cell where you're protected by that strange respect which even the most violent men hold for representatives of the law ... You'll be entering the world of Otto Brack, this frightening man who learned how to bring about evil by exploiting someone who is good, laying -- in part -- the evil at their door. I have never come across that before. You must take special precautions."

Anselm was unnerved by the Prior's declamatory tone. It was reserved for funerals. He was surprised, too, but the warning. The plan was to fly to Warsaw, open a file, have a quick read, eat some pickled cucumber, drink himself senseless, and then come home. The chances of mishap were remote. He said so.
Of course, Anselm's error of misjudging the danger comes from a lack of information, and it seems very unfair that the Prior won't or can't share what's already been exposed by John Fielding. But there it is, and soon Father Anselm is on his way to a land drenched in the tragedies of centuries of violence and injustice. And yes, evil. With strange roots, though.

Brodrick's writing has won much acclaim, especially for the first in this series, The Sixth Lamentation. He has his own experience as both an Augustinian friar-in-training and barrister to draw on. And he has a complex and intriguing tale to tell, saturated with violence and regrets.

Patience is required for THE DAY OF THE LIE, though, as some of the narrative is jerky, and references to characters sometimes aren't clear. Jumps in time and place add to the dislocation. Still, the compelling story makes it worth putting up with the book's flawed movement, and the pace is rapid and intense, with characters worth caring about. I'll be looking for the others in the series -- and hope Overlook will quickly make them available.

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

Murder in Small-Town Indiana, WHEN THE GRITS HIT THE FAN, Maddie Day

Ready for a "cozy" mystery that keeps things stirred up but will send you to the kitchen, instead of into bad dreams? Maddie Day's "Country Store Mystery" series is prepped just right, off the breakfast griddle and into the sort of amateur investigation that rings true to small-town life.

In the third book in the series, WHEN THE GRITS HIT THE FAN (release date March 28), restaurant owner Robbie Jordan ought to have a peaceful winter season for her mostly breakfasts shop, Pans 'N Pancakes. It's not tourist season, and the nearby Indiana University campus doesn't directly affect her, but she's just started hosting the Sociology Department dinner gatherings, which ought to help with cash flow.

In classic cozy fashion, the book opens with a gathering where it's clear that a lot of people have reason to dislike Professor Charles Stilton, whose specialty appears to be mean comments -- when he's not baldly stealing the work of his graduate student or emotionally abusing his wife and son. So to readers of the genre, it's no surprise that Robbie Jordan and her friend Lou, the graduate student whose work was stolen, find Stilton dead the next morning. But author Maddie Day (one of the pen names for New England author Edith Maxwell, who has some Indiana roots) knows how to liven the story with unusual twists -- from local family secrets to revelations in the restaurant's old upstairs rooms to the kinds of stress that thrive in academia.

Robbie Jordan's experience (see the two previous titles, Flipped for Murder and Grilled for Murder) in helping sort out crimes for her friends means several of the presumed suspects lean on her right away. She hears things the police don't necessarily, because she's becoming part of the town herself. For example, there's her not-so-casual questioning of the library assistant, Georgia, who's been accused of being the killer:
I pulled my scarf closer around my neck and turned on the bench to face Georgia. "I keep thinking about the murder."

She winced and averted her eyes.

"I wanted to ask if you knew about any other people, locals, who had a beef with Charles. I can't picture any of the so-called persons of interest actually killing him -- my friend Lou, her department chair Zen Brown, Maude, Ron. None of those make any sense. And definitely not you."

"You know, Charles was very charming in public. From a distance. I think a lot of folks liked him thought he was smart and a nice guy, but if you had any close dealings with him, whoa. Watch out. He'd stab you in the back."

"That sounds bad."

"I've seen him in action." She glanced at me. "Not a pretty picture."
The pace is smart, chatty, and steady, and whips into high tension in the last few chapters, as Robbie's persistent defense of her friends plus her ability to put the facts together take her into the sights of the killer.

A good read, with plenty of rural Indiana color and lots of food and wine chatter -- and of course, a handful of recipes at the end, including one for Grits with Cheese that I just might have to try soon.

I'm posting this review a bit early to make room for readers who like to preorder, but also because it's a busy season for the author. She has three very active "amateur sleuth" mysteries, and her next book, Called for Justice (a Quaker series), comes out in a couple of weeks under the Edith Maxwell author name. Great fun to follow all her books at once; for lists and news, check out her website here.

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


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ninth Inspector Shan (Tibet) Crime Novel from Eliot Pattison, SKELETON GOD

Eliot Pattison's first book in the Inspector Shan series, Skull Mantra, earned him an Edgar Award. The series has consistently grown deeper and stronger each year, and now the ninth book SKELETON GOD, pits Shan against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet with tremendous risks: that he might lose his hard-won visits with his imprisoned son Ko, and that he might lose his life -- for the sake of the people and heritage of this rough land.

Shan's situation as the book opens seems mildly perilous but better than many he's already navigated: He wears the hated Chinese uniform of a local constable in the rural town of Yangkar, as part of a deal he's cut with the powerful Colonel Tan, his nemesis from preceding years. Although the Tibetans who've returned to live in the re-manufactured town don't trust him (prejudice works both ways), he at least has some professional standing, and most importantly, Ko is to visit him without shackles, for a few days every three months. When murders and devastation infect his town and he can't stop the killings and destruction, Shan fears he'll never see Ko after all.

But just when it looks like, against the odds, he'll have his son's companionship, Colonel Tan bulldozes into the town, angry at the chaos, grimly admitting to Shan, " I gave you the quietest post in my county, so remote no one would ever hear your howls of desperation."

Shan's passion for the old Tibetans and his embrace of their spiritual life and rituals mean he can't walk away (and if he did, how would he see Ko?). He faces Colonel Tan as both of them realize they have a joint enemy in the powerful "heroic" veteran General Lau, who despises them.
"Karma," Shan said at last. "It's like divine justice. That's the only kind that will ever reach General Lau."

Tan cocked his head. "Surely Lau is not implicated. Don't even bother to suggest it. Lau would never kill soldiers. He just sees some kind of opportunity in this. He's bored in retirement. He found a diversion."

Shan looked longingly out the window toward the café where his son sat. He wanted so to be there with him, to take him home, to walk with him on a quiet mountain path, to rejoice with him in his temporary freedom and begin the list of activities he had planned for his visit. He glanced at his watch. "Give me a couple hours of your time," he said instead.
A pair of misplaced Americans, hidden histories of the town's past and the violence of the Chinese takeover, revelations of what Shan himself needs to learn -- all these are in play as, layer by layer, the careful investigator peels back the secrets around him and earns the trust of some of his neighbors ... and the dangerous enmity of others. Is there a treasure hidden on the Ghost Plain nearby? What remnants of the ancient Tibetan medical school may linger in the people around him? Can Colonel Tan still exert enough power to protect Shan against other Chinese military manipulations?

This is a highly satisfying book, where the small links and clues accumulate and are at last organized into a twist of plot that surprises even the investigator. The book's resolution is emotionally fitting as well. Consider what it may mean that a yak has been ransomed from death, and a raven persists in flying over the mountain that guards the secrets of the past.

As the author says in his end note, "The shadow that settled over Tibet decades ago sometimes makes writing novels set in that land feel like searching for jewels in a dim cave. ... The shadow may exist, but dig a little deeper and brilliance can still shine through."

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

World War I and the Werewolves and Priests ... Book II of Tarn Richardson's Darkest Hand Trilogy

I swore I'd never read those crazy books that mingled crime fiction and the paranormal -- until I picked up one of John Connolly's and realized the hauntings and lines of evil portrayed were really good metaphors for the kinds of crime that even rural areas find poisoning the well of life from time to time. And then I more or less tripped over Tarn Richardson's first book in his "The Darkest Hand Trilogy," The Damned. As I wrote in my review of The Damned last year, Richardson's choice to use an enduring Catholic Inquisition, warrior priests, and accursed werewolves turned out to be an apt way to portray the blood-soaked years that made up World War I.

Now the second book is available: THE FALLEN. Crusading inquisitor Poldek Tacit suffers the most horrific tortures of the Inquisition as the book opens -- while the dark forces he once battled are in motion from within the heart of the Vatican, laboring to be sure the killing grounds are truly saturated with the blood of Europe's finest generation.

As Tacit reflects on the secrets and maneuvers that resulted in his imprisonment -- for preventing carnage at a "Mass of Peace" in Notre Dame attended by international peacemakers -- he's well aware that if he'd been true to his depressed, angry, despairing self, and less susceptible to a nun's kindness and integrity, he might not be in this plight.
In a world fuelled by hate, at the end it was a love Tacit thought he never could feel again, this time for Isabella, which brought salvation for him and save Isabella. Making sure she was out of harm's way, Tacit had bounded alone into the Mass for Peace and blasted Cardinal Monteira from the pulpit just moments before he had slipped the stinking wolf's pelt over his head and transformed into a bloodthirsty werewolf. Tacit wondered if he could have done anything differently to save himself, to avoid arrest. ... No, he would have changed nothing.
Meanwhile, Isabella too is examining the events and catching up with their causes, in the company of a young officer and his partner, less tortured but also in danger:
"Stop!" she said. "Stop! ... You're telling me great swathes of people have sided with the Devil? That it originates from within the Vatican? That they are attempting to see his return to the world? ... I will not believe it for a moment!"

"And that is why they are allowed to grow, fester like a disease in a wound. For long we have investigated. They are preparing his domain. But he will only return when the world is truly ready, and his lieutenants are in place ... they must be stopped."
Fear not, the Poldek Tacit/Isabella romance never has a chance to heat up the way that a certain vampire series did a decade ago. THE FALLEN swiftly turns into a series of battles on the Italian front of the First World War ("the war to end all wars") that author Tarn Richardson notes (at the book's end) have been seemingly forgotten -- yet were held in extreme conditions and cost the lives of almost half a million men.

The abrupt, short chapters of the book -- there are more than a hundred -- fit this battle-by-battle crushing force of history well. And Richardson's use of his alternate history makes more sense out of the insistent killings than any dry narrative could. Tacit's determination to stop the forces of evil swiftly leads to his own position as a piece to sacrifice in the game. Can he make the sacrifice effective enough, worth the dying?

When I finally came up for air after reading this, I felt like I understood the cost of that war much better. Horror is sometimes the truth of those millions of deaths, isn't it? I'm looking forward to next year's finale. Meanwhile, I have a satisfyingly different point of view from which to look at some other powerful World War I narratives again, from those of Charles Todd's guilt-haunted mysteries to the heartbreaking clarity of Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy.  And, of course, some nonfiction on the Great War -- even if that's not as strong a historical narrative as Richardson's own. From Overlook Press, publisher once again of the uncannily insightful.

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