Sunday, February 26, 2017

Heads Up: Emelie Schepp, MARKED FOR REVENGE, and Bill Pronzini, THE VIOLATED

I won't be posting full reviews of these two books coming out in the next week or so, but want to mention them -- and the reasons for my choices.

Emelie Schepp lives in Sweden, and her "Marked" trilogy is being adeptly translated -- the second book, MARKED FOR REVENGE, was moved into English seamlessly by Suzanne Martin Cheadle (it's hard to even tell it was translated). It's suspense, with high stakes; the protagonist, prosecutor Jana Berzelius, is investigating the international drug trade and child trafficking in Sweden.

My problem with it is really my own ... I find graphic child abuse really hard to read. I read all of the first book in this series, Marched for Life, and couldn't bear to reframe it as a review. As soon as I started reading the second book, MARKED FOR REVENGE (release date February 28), all the emotions from the first book rolled back at me. I've skimmed book 2, and it's brilliantly plotted and tightly written. But again, the level of abuse and violence is so far outside my comfort zone (which is pretty wide really ... I have read and enjoyed most of Andrew Vachss and Carol O'Connell, for example, as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) that I'm not going to spell it all out. If you're into it, you can see reviews elsewhere. Sorry.

For a very different reason, I'm not going to present THE VIOLATED, the March 7 release from Grand Master of Mystery Bill Pronzini. This one's an audacious attempt at narrating the investigation of a serial rapist's career and murder from multiple points of view. I thought the technique took the book into being very flat, and the tension never rose the way a good work of suspense should. Not did the character acquire enough depth. Even the California setting didn't quite come to life. I can't recommend it -- but that said, Pronzini is generally marvelous, and if you haven't yet read any of his books, do try some of the others. I'll be watching for his next book, figuring that he too knows this one didn't work out as well as he'd hoped ... so he'll create a major winner on the next round.

Obviously, if you're a Pronzini collector, you'll pick up a copy of THE VIOLATED anyway. Go for it.

British Spies Who Break Your Heart, from Mick Herron, SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron has done it again -- written an espionage novel where the characters might as well be members of your own family. (Maybe they are, and Herron just changed the names.) It's the fourth in his Slough House series of British "spooks" who've made major mistakes in their careers and have ended up in a painfully humiliating backwater of spydom, headed by the unpleasant, unclean, and constantly flatulant Jackson Lamb.

And if SPOOK STREET were just a riff on this situation, the misery of being labeled a career failure with no way to regain a decent spying slot, or the black humor of a physically disgusting boss in a falling-down building, well, who'd want to read it?

But instead, it's a vivid and achingly sad (and also terrifyingly funny!) mingling of the once cream of the crop, still smart and savvy but isolated, with their humanity way out in front of them. There's Louisa Guy, expecting (with mixed feelings) a sexual come-on from one of the younger men in the group, River Cartwright; the midlife stylish Roderick Ho, a genius on a computer but a disaster at reading his colleagues; the new and apparently both crazy and dangerous colleague JK Coe, whose PTSD seems to live in his fingers, which keep fingering an invisible piano in an effort to drown out what he remembers. And more.

The thing is, they all care about each other. Well, maybe not Coe -- he's too new to matter much -- but all the others hiss and spit and in the long run would lay down their lives to save each other, as dry-drunk Catherine Standish did in an earlier book of the series, and River Cartwright has, too. Even Jackson Lamb himself somehow cares, if only to spite the other Secret Service teams: If you're one of his "joes," he won't let you drown. Much.

So in spite of their frequent mistakes and bad language, the washed-up spies of Slough House grabbed a bit of my heart long ago. In this fourth title, the office sniping and insults fall way short of the disaster that's taking place: River Cartwright's once-famous grandfather, who still know enough to sink the Secret Service (which is one reason River is at Slough House, not out on the street), has dementia. At what point will the mainstream spy network discover this fatal failing? Will someone try to take advantage of the elder Cartwright (known mostly as the O.B., which does not stand for Old Boy, but Old B--, well, you know)? Or will he be mercifully executed before he can spill his dangerous old secrets? That's River's problem in terms of his aging grandfather. A very big problem.
Louisa had said: Yeah, I wasn't actually suggesting they'd have him murdered, though I can see you've put some thought into that.

But how could he, his grandfather's grandson, not have done?

And what really worries me, River had wanted to tell her, is that he's always loved telling stories. Even now, visits meant sitting in the O.B.'s study, sharing a drink and hearing secrets. That these had grown confused, frequently petering out down lanes that led nowhere, didn't mean they were no longer secret, and the thought of the O.B. on his daily pilgrimage round the village -- butcher, baker, post office lady -- weaving for all the same webs he'd spun for River, had kept him awake two nights on the trot.
It turns out River's right to be concerned, and nearly too late, as Jackson Lamb soon finds himself identifying a former spy's body for the police ... but who has shot whom? And what does all of this have to do with River's missing mother, and his unknown father? Not to mention the terrorism that starts the plot spinning?

By the time everything is "sorted," we know a lot more about each of the Slough Horses, especially River, but also the inimitable Catherine Standish, and even the mysterious JK Coe.

I don't know how I'm going to wait an entire year for the next in this series, from Soho Crime.

Can you jump directly into SPOOK STREET without having read Slow Horses, Dead Lions, and Real Tigers first? Of course you can. Mick Herron is an amazing storyteller, and you'll be just fine.

Besides, your heart won't clench up nearly as hard that way -- because the more you get to know Mick Herron's desperate group of failed spies, the more you'll care about them. I do.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Third Linda Wallheim Crime Novel, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, from Mette Ivie Harrison

There's a marvelous uncertainty about jumping into a crime fiction series as a reader, not starting with the first book. Will the experience be more powerful because the author has grown in the process of writing earlier books in the series? Or lack resonance because you as the reader don't really know what's developed in the protagonist's life before this book? Or will it be sort of neutral -- because the author is skillful enough to paint the important details of the past without being long-winded, so it doesn't matter whether you've read the earlier books or not?

An example of a series where it's important to read in sequence is David Downing's John Russell espionage series, set in Berlin, Germany, during the Second World War. Russell and his lover Effi Koenen, an actress uneasily performing for the German High Command as John forcibly serves British, American, Russian, and German needs, grow and change in their priorities and goals across the series (and across the war). Start with Zoo Station and savor the author's process, the characters' journeys, and the plots that stand alone in each book, yet dovetail smoothly into the war's history.

A parallel crime fiction series with a very different feel is another Second World War series, the Billy Boyle investigations, written by James Benn. Boyle, new generation in a family of Boston cops, works secretly for General Eisenhower as a detective, and although subsequent books sketch in deftly some of the adventures Boyle and his friends experienced in the earlier ones, his development is the kind you'd expect for a police detective growing more skillful and more dedicated over the years -- it's enjoyable to enter the series at any book, and even to skip around among them. Benn frames each as its own special world of risk and intrigue.

Where in this set of considerations should we place the books by Mette Ivie Harrison? Her third in her Linda Wallheim series, like the other  two (The Bishop's Wife, His Right Hand) exposes the protagonist to a disturbed family situation that she feels obligated to address -- because she is the wife of a leader in the family's religious community, the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka LDS). FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES sees Linda Wallheim grapple with another of the reasons that she finds her church difficult: its history of plural marriage and the fragments of existing cults that still cling to that tradition. Wallheim's earlier "amateur sleuth" investigations have involved the duty of spouses to each other, and the acceptance (or rejection) of same-sex love when family members reveal they no longer fit the church's doctrines.

In a sense, Harrison's series resembles Benn's -- the protagonist does not rely on her emotional or mindful learning from earlier books as she goes along, and Harrison's adept portrayal of the church she herself loves supports each book's plot well. When friction arises at the start of this third book, Wallheim is horrified by what she hears from her son Kenneth as he reveals details about a new girlfriend:
There was a long pause and I realized we weren't done with the difficult part of the conversation. "We met at a former Mormons group. We call it Mormons Anonymous."

Mormons Anonymous -- like Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous? As if my religion were some kind of addictive behavior that you had to recover from?
Harrison has been open in sharing some of her own struggles with that church. Having experienced a profound loss of faith and then a restoration of it, she is a member in good standing in the LDS. Her website admits that her first crime novel was part of her struggle with how to face the conflicts in the group. She is careful to note the differences between her own faith journey and Linda Wallheim's; still, she is clearly still tugging at the most painful issues of the mainstream LDS structure, and showing some of the issues through her fiction.

Wallheim stumbles, through wanting to help her son, into a group that's living with plural marriage -- the usual form, multiple wives (and children) to one powerful husband. She's soon aware of dysfunctional undercurrents in the situation, and overdoes her involvement.

When the plot blossoms into a death, possibly a murder, Wallheim makes an enormous error of judgment (and making an error of judgment is of course classic in an amateur sleuth plot): She goes along with not calling in the police.

And here, as a mystery reader, I found myself in deep disagreement -- I could not "buy" that this experienced wife of a dedicated church leader would jeopardize her marriage and commit a crime herself (helping to cover up the death) for the sake of holding this terrible family together.

My flaw? Or the book's? I'd love to hear from other readers on this issue.

However, my reaction changes how I feel about the series: If you are new to it, start with the first two books, please! You'll have a good chance of bonding to this smart, questioning, impromptu investigator and grasping the love and (overblown?) sense of responsibility that drive her into the sleuth role. And in that case, you'll definitely want to have book 3, FOR TIME AND ALL ETERNITIES, to fit into the arc of narrative and the important changes to Wallheim's own family.

I'd suggest not jumping into book 3 without the others ... I think it won't stand well on its own, but may well be critical to read before we all have the chance to savor Harrison's fourth book in the series (which is doubtless mostly written at this point). Like Louise Penny's books, there's clearly an overall progress through the series -- and I want to enjoy every bit of it. From Soho Crime, another must-read series.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Grit, Violence, Dark Losses - and Somehow, Love, in David Putnam's Fourth, THE VANQUISHED

Placing his Bruno Johnson series within a network of friends who've worked the worst police beats in Southern California guarantees that David Putnam's suspense fiction will continue dark and violent. The third in the series, The Squandered, was a really good read, with plenty of unexpected twists. Brotherly friendships and the intensity of police work made the novel unusual and I liked it.

Number four in the series, THE VANQUISHED, hits a lot of the same buttons. But this time Bruno and his wife Marie find their Costa Rica haven -- where they are hiding the abused kids they've rescued -- is under threat from old enemies in an outlaw motorcycle gang. With the kids at risk, Bruno charges back to California to straighten things out. Soon Marie's at his side.

And that's the one drawback of this one ... the Bruno/Marie pairing doesn't leave much room for the police brotherhood that I liked in The Squandered. But there's no question that THE VANQUISHED is a page-turner, jammed with threat and danger.

Putnam has the solid investigative past himself to make the twists in his book authentic, and that's good. But I missed the redemptive notes of the earlier book. If you pick up THE VANQUISHED, let me know what you think. A must-own for those who especially appreciate the wild motorcycle world, too. Published by Oceanview.

FBI Profiler Series from Elizabeth Heiter, STALKED (#4)

It may take a while before FBI suspense fiction written by women catches up in terms of publicity with what the taller sex is writing -- Elizabeth Heiter's "The Profiler" series ought to speed the process along, though. The fourth in this series, STALKED, takes profiler Evelyn Baine into new terrain in several ways: (1) She's tracking a vanished teen, Haley, in a time period well past when such cases usually end badly. (2) She's got to liaise with a prickly local police force in order to enter the case, and that's downright hard. (3) Her romantic relationship with former Hostage Rescue Team operator Kyle McKenzie is out in the open at last -- but also under immense stress, as Kyle faces the possibility that he may never be physically able to return to the HRT job that's the center of his self image.

And as Evelyn's own case heats up, becoming more dangerous, the pain she's inadvertently causing for Kyle could cripple her investigative instincts.

Set in the DC area, STALKED twists the assumptions around lost teens into new versions, ramping the suspense. (Lee Child and Tess Gerritsen are among the suspense authors praising the series and verifying that Heiter has her Bureau facts right.) And when the questions around Haley start interlocking with issues of possible human trafficking on a nearby college campus, the book becomes a must-read, a true page-turner.

Recommended -- and for those as intrigued as I was, the preceding books in the series are Hunted, Vanished, and Seized; the paperback original's publisher is MIRA.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

San Francisco Police Suspense from Jonathan Moore, THE DARK ROOM

A couple of weeks ago, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released Jonathan Moore's newest crime novel, THE DARK ROOM; there should still be plenty of time to collect a first printing of this powerful and intricately plotted investigation. Moore's third book, The Poison Artist, is also set in San Francisco, that city of fog and back alleys that forms such a powerful backdrop for pain and loss.  In Moore's hands, the city itself is an enabling force -- one that investigators must confront.

In THE DARK ROOM, we meet Gavin Cain, an SFPD homicide investigator. He's in the midst of witnessing an exhumation when a phone call drags him away at top speed: The city's mayor is being blackmailed about what looks like violent and sadistic sex games from his past. And Cain's task is to stop the possible release of dirty information about the mayor, as well as protecting him and his family -- against a very angry blackmailer with a ticking clock.

Complicating the investigation, for Cain, are threads that lead from it toward his own secret: He's become the committed lover of a former crime victim, whose chance at resuming normal life depends on his ability to protect her from further threats. Soon the cases inevitably cross, and the tension ramps up exponentially.

Despite the emotional risks involved, Cain's investigation is at heart a skilled and multipronged one, so that THE DARK ROOM is also an adept police procedural. Here's Cain thinking things through and prioritizing:
Cain stopped at a light on Santa Cruz Avenue, put his phone on his knee, and began to dictate a note to himself. This didn't require any real precision. He just spoke in a free flow of thoughts.

Thrallinex. Benzyldiomide.

Redding thought the drug was the key, and he might be right. In an hour, the ME could tell Cain how it compared to a hypnotic like Rohypnol, what a dozen pills would have done to the girl. Then there was the dress. When it came to high-end fashion, he had no idea where to begin. He'd been wearing the same suit three days running, and knew switching ties and shirts wasn't fooling anyone. But every problem had an entrance. Maybe a clerk in one of the shops around Union Square could poin him in the right direction.

The '84 Cadillac Eldorado was something he might be able to work with, though. No one had to register a dress. Pills got passed from hand to hand. But cops know how to find cars.
It's clear that the city's mayor has a dark past that's made him vulnerable. But it's the present that matters most, and Cain's hampered by the mayor's refusal to open up -- and tangled in the dodgy information that the mayor's family ekes out to him.

Intense pace, taut plotting, an investigator who gambles his own life to save others -- it all adds up to one heck of a good thriller, with a highly satisfying ending. Count this as a little darker than Michael Connelly in terms of plot, and a bit less dark in terms of how haunted the investigator is, but with the same gift of compelling storytelling and, of course, overlapping terrain.

Finally, there's a note from the author that makes it clear THE DARK ROOM is effectively the prequel to another book that Jonathan Moore had already written, called The Night Market. Its publication will follow this one (scheduled for January 2018). Count me among the people who will be preordering a copy.

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

Paranormal Suspense, YA Style, from Jon Land and Heather Graham, THE RISING

Several mystery and thriller authors have woven paranormal threads into their work in recent years, and it often works well to highlight the powerful forces that move people into evil -- and sometimes the ones that help them survive, instead. John Connolly's series set in Maine, with Charlie Parker taking his best shot against deep old cunning spirits that hate life, provides a haunting rationale for the worst and the best in his terrain. Canadian Vicki Delany provoked heightened Gothic suspense in More Than Sorrow, and Carsten Stroud used hauntings and history to accentuate the wicked cruelty of plantation slavery in his bizarrely compelling detective trilogy set in and around Niceville.

In THE RISING, suspense author Jon Land turns from his mildly spirit-struck Texas Ranger series featuring Caitlin Strong (most recently in Strong Cold Dead) to partner with romance author Heather Graham -- rather unfairly described as a team of two thriller authors, since Graham's main strengths are in he-she tangles interwoven in her plots, as well as straightforward vampire and haunting threads. But unexpectedly, the duo's progeny turns out to be a sci-fi suspense offering featuring a pair of high school students destined to fall in love -- Alex Chin and Samantha (Sam) Dixon. Fair warning: Just a few pages into the book, it's clear there are space aliens involved, as well as an obscure NASA program. If you can bear to read further, there's an enjoyable page-turning suspense romp ahead, as Alex (an apparently White smart baby adopted by Chinese parents) struggles, with Sam's help, to locate and stop an alien invasion, armed with the basic skills of high-school geeks.

That said, brace for relatively "young adult" language and pacing in THE RISING. Here's an example:
Alex followed Sam's gaze to the black piece of fabric jewelry, which looked shiny as steel. She had straightened out the one she'd unfurled from his father's wrist.

"See?" she whispered.

But then it snapped back into place with a whapping sound.

Alex took it from her grasp and slid the thing that looked like a slap bracelet into his pocket. He lingered over his mother for what seemed a very long time, before pressing her eyes closed, sobbing and sniffling loudly. ...

"I'm sorry, Alex, I'm so sorry," [Sam] said, easing a hand to his shoulder, which felt hot and hard as banded steel.
Compare that to Land's more usual style, from Strong Cold Dead:
Jones unfolded the picture he was holding and held it so Caitlin could see a tall, gangly young man with a bad case of acne.

"Holy sh**," Caitlin said, not believing her eyes.

"Recognize him, I see."

"I spitted him yesterday bird-dogging a protest outside the Comanche Indian reservation near Austin."

... Jones looked down at the picture. "On a major terrorist suspect yesterday, because he happened to be in the same place as you. Then again, nothing just happens when it comes to Caitlin Strong, does it? You are a genuine force of nature, Ranger."
If you're collecting Land -- or Graham -- you'll want THE RISING for your shelf. Otherwise, mystery fans may want to stick with Land's basic Caitlin Strong series instead, in order to keep the wild suppositions within the range of the way every deadly crime haunts its environment and its people. On the other hand, those gathering the YA (young adult) books of mainstream crime authors like Harlan Coben will appreciate this divergence of Land's -- it's really a YA tease wrapped up in adult covers, and it's fun to go along for the ride.

NEXT: Straightforward California crime fiction from Jonathan Moore, and the newest British spy delight from Mick Herron.

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

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Excellent Thriller Series from Stefanie Pintoff, CITY ON EDGE

One of the holiday gifts I received -- and immediately dove into -- is the second book in Stefanie Pintoff's Eve Rossi thriller series CITY ON EDGE. What a treat!

Pintoff may not yet be a familiar name for suspense readers, but she's earned her stripes, starting with the Edgar Award for Best First Novel for her debut, In the Shadow of Gotham. That began a series featuring New York Police Detective Simon Ziele, set in 1904.

Pintoff's move from this "historical mystery" series into pure suspense set in today's Big Apple began with last year's Hostage Taker. Eve Rossi charged into crime-solving with a quirky and dangerous team of her own: the Vidocq Team, made up of convicted yet brilliant criminals whose methods of gaining information are unorthodox but rapid and effective.

As an FBI Special Agent with major psych skills of her own, Eve Rossi's first challenge in CITY ON EDGE is to persuade the key Vidocq members to commit to action on behalf of a kidnapped child. Shouldn't be hard,, right? Except it's the little daughter of the city's own police commissioner, and Rossi's team has plenty of reason to dislike and mistrust this leader of a very different kind of force.

The cunning and exhilarating setting for the power plays of both the commissioner and the kidnapper -- and Rossi -- is the annual Thanksgiving parade in the city. Yes, the one known to oldtimers as the Macy's parade, with the ginormous balloons of kids'-world characters and the floats where Christmas characters like Santa interact with a crowd of millions.

The pressures on Rossi are intense and escalating, and in her new field of thriller writing, Pintoff pushes the "ticking clock" with skill. Most compelling is Eve Rossi herself. Suddenly wealthy through the death of a family member (a death she hasn't yet been able to resolve), Rossi has the kind of independence of Carol O'Connell's Mallory, although she's far more able to interact with people (including criminals). And like Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme, she's turned her newly acquired mansion into an advanced crime-solving lab and headquarters. The quirk of her team composition means if one of them gets on the wrong side of the city police, a long rap sheet works against the situation. How she manages her FBI creds in all this -- that's what Pintoff sets into action, and the book is a true page-turner.

Tightly plotted, loaded with explosive surprises, CITY ON EDGE is a classic and classy thriller well worth reading. And although Pintoff doesn't yet bind us to Rossi personally as intensely as she might, I'm more than willing to ride with the series, expecting it to deepen and become one of the powerful and memorable ones as Pintoff continues to push Rossi into the treacherous waters of her career.

NEXT review: What Jon Land's been up to with Heather Graham. Seriously.

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Cozy Comforts of Mystery Authors Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero

Welcome, Barbara Ross and Liz Mugavero, to the Kingdom Books review blog today! It's December 27, release day for the latest New England mysteries for each of you. Congratulations! Yesterday (scroll down, readers ...) we were excited to share reviews of your new titles, ICED UNDER (Barbara Ross) and CUSTOM BAKED MURDER (Liz Mugavero). Now let's settle in for a some post-holiday hot chocolate or a cappuccino together, and do some author chatting.

Your mysteries are releasing on the same date this year, December 27 -- just two days after the merriment of Christmas. You have the same publisher, Kensington, but you live in very different parts of New England. How on earth did you meet each other? Any memories from your early writer-to-writer friendship?
Barb: We met at Seascape, a lovely and instructional writing retreat run on the Long Island Sound in Connecticut by Roberta Isleib (Lucy Burdette), Hallie Ephron, and S. W. Hubbard. After that we kept in touch via Sisters in Crime New England and the New England Crime Bake. Find your tribe, is my best advice for new writers.
Liz: Before Seascape, I remember seeing Barb at many Crime Bakes over the years. She was one of The Published - a real author! And it’s so true - finding your tribe is the most important thing for a writer to do.
What are the special challenges of writing a mystery series? How do you cope with them?
Liz: There are so many! Understanding how my main character needs to grow in a way that makes sense based on where she’s been and what she’s experienced is something that’s top of mind for me. Also, making sure my plot has no holes, that the mystery makes sense and the clues are strategically placed - that keeps me up at night.
Barb: Argh—for me it is first drafts, letting my imagination flow and not judging myself too harshly. And because we both write amateur sleuths, there’s the ever-present problem of “why is she investigating this time?”
What made you choose to write in the "cozy" subgenre of mysteries? Or do you prefer to talk about your book as an "amateur sleuth" mystery, or a "traditional"?
Barb: I have fully embraced the word “cozy,” even though I know other writers shy away from it. It’s true that cozy mysteries never get the big awards or reviews, but they do have a dedicated following. And, it suits me. I don’t go to my desk everyday thinking, “Drat! Another day when I can’t torture animals or children.”
Liz: I’ve embraced it also. As long as I feel like I’ve done a good job with the story, the mystery is solid and the book has a deeper message despite the lighter feel to it, I’m happy.
Your mysteries all take place in and around one small town. Do you think of this place as fictional, or do you rehearse in your mind the layout of the actual New England town you already had in the back of your mind when you started your series?
Liz: My town is fictional, but it’s a hybrid of a couple of towns. I picked and chose the parts of each that worked for me, then added what else I needed to make it a town I would want to spend time it. But I keep the general location real - it’s eastern Connecticut.
Barb: Sort of half and half. Busman’s Harbor is a highly, highly fictionalized version of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where my husband and I own a home. I’ve moved a lot of things around, but whenever my sleuth, Julia Snowden, leaves Busman’s Harbor, I Google map the distance from the real Boothbay Harbor.
People across the world, I discover, have a Normal Rockwellian, Currier & Ives archetype of New England in their heads. Those of us who live here know it’s a real place with real crime and real problems, but the classic New England-based cozy both plays into and against that archetype.
Readers of this kind of mystery series need to bond with the sleuth and celebrate the person's changes -- and the solving of the crime somehow affects those changes. Do you have a long-term arc of character development in mind for your series? Or do you feel you are "reading along" with the rest of us, discovering your protagonist's growth as you write?
Liz: I usually try to think about the character arc in a 3-book span, since that’s usually the length of the contracts. I know what’s happening in the immediate book, then based on that I think about where it would make sense to take Stan’s growth next.
Barb: I had a definite, planned arc for the first three books in the series. The fourth through sixth have been more book to book, and I haven’t enjoyed that as much. So if I’m lucky enough to get three more, I’ll go back to an overall arc for the three.

Don't spoil the suspense for us -- but tell us one "device" of plot or location or clue in your new book that especially tickles you as the author ... so we can watch for it and enjoy it from your perspective as well as our own!
Barb: Fantastic question! In Iced Under, the detective investigating the murder keeps asking one question over and over. It turns out to be the right question in the end.
Liz: Oh, this is a tough one! I would say it’s important to really pay attention to the people around you and not take everything they say or do at face value. If someone is suffering they sometimes try to hide it, but if you look closely you might be able to pick up on a cry for help.
What's the most important thing we readers should pick up on from your latest book -- whether it's handling a challenging romance, or dealing with a dead body?
Barb: Iced Under is a book about family—how it’s complicated and operatically difficult, but ultimately worth the effort.
Liz: There’s a few things going on in Custom Baked Murder. Family is definitely a key component, and how to deal with them. If you don’t typically have a great relationship, murder can make it worse! Also, dealing with serious issues that sometimes people don’t think will surface in a small, cozy town where everyone knows everyone—or thinks they do.
We know you must be partway through the next book in your series. Any hints or draft title that you'd like to share with us?

Liz: Purring Around the Christmas Tree, the sixth Pawsitively Organic Mystery, will be out in late 2017.

Barb: Stowed Away, the sixth Maine Clambake Mystery will be out sometime in late 2017, assuming I make my deadline of March 1. (Ulp.)

Thanks, Barb and Liz! This has been great fun -- and getting to know you and your writing process makes it even more enjoyable to read your newest books. 

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