What we've been reading lately

Welcome to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association redesigned Killer Books page. Below, you will find selections from members' blogs and webpages that post mystery reviews. If you've read the book discussed, or would like to, we welcome your comments.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Talking to the Dead, by Harry Bingham

This review was submitted by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon
www.mbtb.com; books@mbtb.com


Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham
Delacorte Press, 352 pages, $26

Fiona Griffith is a bottom-of-the-ladder detective constable on the Welsh police force. You know there's something different about her from the get-go. The book begins with her interview to join the police. That section ends with, "And just five years ago, I was dead." Later she talks about being on "Planet Normal" when things go well. Hmm…

Obviously there is a gimmick to this book. Fiona has something psychologically off kilter, and we don't learn what it is for quite a while. Harry Bingham does a great job building up the tension until the big reveal.

Fiona, "Fi," is a more accessible Welsh version of the tough women heroes created by Carol O'Connell (Kathy Mallory) and Stieg Larsson (Lisbeth Salander). Fi is smart (philosophy degree from Cambridge), meticulous ("I like things orderly. I's dotted, T's crossed."), and has some hidden yee-haw attributes, which are revealed periodically.

Fi's bosses don't know what to make of her. Other detectives are obviously wary of partnering with her. She tries really hard to follow the rules, but sometimes doesn't succeed. It's just that when an idea strikes, she's carried away with it. And it's not that she doesn't know she's going off base, because she concocts schemes to hide what she's doing. Since she is the narrator of the story, we get to hear the wobbly wheels turning in her head. And it's a treat.

After Fi manages to insert a toe in the doorway of a big case, the rest of her uncaged personality soon follows. A prostitute and her young daughter are found murdered. It would be a more mundane case, except a bank card bearing the name of a local magnate is found with the body. Too bad that man is also dead. Like a dental tool probing a cavity, Fi chips away to find the decay within the community.

Bingham achieves a great balance between character and plot. It's easy to be intrigued by Fiona's mysterious past and admire how she comes up with insights into the case. Bingham also has a great feel for describing her moments of revelation or emotional catharsis, and it's hard not to give a silent "whoo-hoo" or "aww" in support.

I want this to be a series. I want the next book in the series. I want it now.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

Submitted by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon, www.mbtb.com

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson
Random House, 480 pages, $15

A place NOT on my travel bucket list? North Korea. Especially after reading The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Fiction is not stranger than fact, although Johnson certainly depicts North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in an unflattering light and wearing the quirks and eccentricities of a leader with unlimited power. Johnson, in an interview with author Richard Powers added to the end of the book, said that if he had written about some of the odd things Kim had done for real, it would have made his book into a comic parody.

Pak Jun Do (not his real name) dominates the first half of the book. Commander Ga (not his real name either) tells his story in the second half.

Although Pak is the son of the head of the orphanage, he is treated as an orphan. As a boy he was responsible for naming the orphans after North Korean martyrs before sending them off to miserable fates. He, too, adopted the name of a martyr, Pak Jun Do. While he grew up with his real father in the orphanage, he was often mistaken for an orphan. Pak's denials become more rote and meaningless, as people throughout his life continue to mistake him for one. His mother, he remembers -- or is it fantasy? -- was an opera singer. Eventually, his real early life fades into the background as he's forced to end one life to create another identity. The backdrop for Pak's story is the North Korean Communist state and its "Big Brother" mentality. In his desire and search for identity, he is forever at the mercy of the state.

The first half of the book concerns the ups and downs of Pak's life. Pak’s role as a kidnapper, language school student, spy agent on a fishing ship, and prisoner in a North Korean gulag highlights Johnson’s thesis about the arbitrary fate of a North Korean citizen. Most of it is spent avoiding notice. Once having attracted notice, however, the capricious nature of the state can elevate, honor, and award a citizen or throw him into a hellhole without mercy or reason. Pak finds himself on such an up-and-down journey.

In an interlude worthy of the best comically improbable situations of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, Pak and some newly minted acquaintances journey as representatives of North Korea to Texas. From barbeque to dogs-as-pets, it's America through the eyes of a travel virgin, and it's touching and bizarre, bizarre because of both the Koreans and the Texans. To honor Johnson's intentions, it's obvious that this is just a small part of the tender and terrifying story that is Pak's journey.

The second part of the book tells the tale of Commander Ga, war hero, taekwondo champion, and Director of the Prison Mines. Is it really Commander Ga or Pak in another incarnation? Ga's wife, Sun Moon, is a famous actress and the pet of "The Great Leader," Kim Jong Il. In the first part of the book, the genesis of Pak's fascination with Sun Moon is described when the captain of the fishing ship crudely tattoos her portrait on Pak's chest. Eventually, Pak laments that the only image he can see is a reverse image in the mirror; he can never see the true Sun Moon. The thought of her soothes him through onerous times. But if Pak has mysteriously become Commander Ga, is he now a tool of the state or has something extraordinary happened to him? In slowly uncovered stages, Johnson reveals the metamorphosis. The answer is not supernatural or outrageous, but Johnson's narrative has a fantastical touch to it.

Although the story bounces around among the first-person narratives of Pak, Ga, and an anonymous police interrogator, and state-scripted declamations blasted from speakers to the North Korean population, the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work.

The orphan master's son may not have his own name, but in the end he has an identity.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Killer Books: Karin Slaughter, CRIMINAL

CRIMINAL, Karin Slaughter, Delacorte, 2012, $27.00

CRIMINAL is the latest in the Will Trent series from Karin Slaughter. (The others are Triptych, Fracture, Undone, Broken, Fallen, and Snatched.) The "emotional autopsy" it offers of dyslexic and scrappy investigator Will Trent rips open many of the part-healed wounds on this long-running character. Cutting new ground for the series,  CRIMINAL rocks back and forth between the 1970s -- when Slaughter's female leads Amanda Wagner  (Will's boss in the "now" of the series) and Wagner's partner Evelyn Mitchell were among the handful of women pioneers in the city's rough, racist, and blatantly sexist police force -- and today, when Amanda's abrupt orders and detours forced on Will suggest she's punishing him. Or protecting him.

For more than 400 pages, Slaughter spins a two-generation epic of the Atlanta investigators. Her taut narrative paints with a knife tip the look of harrassed and tortured women, then and now. With consummate craft, Slaughter opens a window into Amanda Wagner's past, her naive embrace of police work, her father's near-unbearable pressure to protect her in the force -- yet keeps the present-day female head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation shuttered, mysterious, and nail-bitingly frustrating to Will as he staggers around the edges of a serial murder sequence that he knows far too well -- it matches what he's seen and investigated years before. Matches it exactly. So why won't Amanda Wagner let him work the case?

Ramping the tension further is the question of whether Will's survival from a nightmare infancy and a harsh childhood has room in it for emotional attachment to a young doctor, Sara Linton, who seems to be more easily allowed into his boss's life than his own.

Remember those fat novels that took you through generations of family in the Australian Outback? CRIMINAL has just as much emotional resonance -- in only two time periods, forty years ago and now. And you know the endless sexual harrassment faced by officers Rizzoli and Isles in Tess Gerritsen's books and in Patricia Cornwall's forensic epics? CRIMINAL digs deeper by calling up the vicious anti-women stances of "men's work" in the 1970s, when Civil Rights legislation allowed women a way to squeeze into the openings being demanded for men of color.

Most of all, most important, CRIMINAL provides a tense rapid pace, sharp twists of plot, and characters whose hope of redemption depends squarely on whether the crimes taking place can be solved and the criminals successfully brought to justice.


Beth Kanell, Kingdom Books, Waterford, VT, http://kingdombks.blogspot.com


Monday, July 2, 2012

Fun House and other reviews

Fun House – John Ceepak Series by Chris Grabenstein
Available in Hardcover - $25.00 – Pegasus Books
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com

 
          Although it has been two years since the last installment of the John Ceepak mysteries, I'm happy to say that it was worth the wait.
          This time, Danny Boyle and Ceepak face some of the most desperate characters ever. No, not criminals … reality show contestants! Sea Haven, NJ is hosting the TV show "Fun House" sort of Jersey Shore meets Big Brother. The contestants are rude, loud and obnoxious – definitely good for ratings if not the peace of Sea Haven. When a contestant is killed it falls to Ceepak and Danny to both protect the rest of the contestants and solve the crime.
          The mystery is well-crafted and Danny's observations are as funny as always. Chris has another winner, the only bad new…it's anther two years until the next one.
 
Dear Mr. Holmes – Holmes on the Range Series by Steve Hockensmith
Available in Trade Paperback - $9.99 – Createspace
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com
 
          I was a big fan from the debut of Steve Hockensmith's "Holmes on the Range" novels. Let's face it, stories of two cowboy brothers in the 1890s who solve crimes by emulating their hero, Sherlock Holmes, and whose adventures are almost always hilarious, doesn't get much better than that for me.
          In fact, I only ever found two disappointments. The first being that the author ended the series after only five books. The second was that I had missed the short stories that preceded the novels and were published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Fortunately for all of us who missed those, we have a second chance at some of them in Dear Mr. Holmes, a collection of seven short stories previously published in magazines and starting with "Old Red's" and "Big Red's" first story. They are all in the form of letters sent by Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer to various publishers and even to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
          These stories cover the span of "Old Red's" "Holmesifyin" adventures including some references to the stories in the novels. As in the novels, the stories become less cowboy oriented, but Old Red always proves that even if you take a cowboy out of the West, he's still a cowboy. They are as excellent and entertaining as any of the longer stories and should not be missed by fans of the Amlingmeyers. If you're not already a fan, these stories are an excellent introduction for you and are sure to make you a fan.
 
 
 
 
As the Crow Flies – Walt Longmire Mystery by Craig Johnson
Available in Hardcover - $25.95  - Viking Books
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com
 
          Absaroka County Sheriff, Walt Longmire, is planning his daughter's wedding when he learns that the location she chose for the ceremony on the Cheyenne Reservation has just been usurped by a tribal elder. So he and best friend, Henry Standing Bear, need to find a replacement location. During their search, Walt witnesses a woman and her infant son fall from a cliff, but was it an accident? Since the death occurred on the Rez, it isn't in Walt's jurisdiction, but the head of the Tribal Police is new to the job and doesn't want Walt's help even though she knows that she needs it. So Walt helps with the investigation while Henry concentrates on the wedding plans. Complete with mystery, adventure and humor, As the Crow Flies is book number eight and a welcome addition to Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire Series.
          On June 3, 2012 the show "Longmire" premiered on A&E TV. Although the plots are not taken directly from Johnson's books, the series is remarkably true to the books with strong characters, beautiful scenery and good mysteries.
 
Books you might have missed…
The Alto Wore Tweed – Hayden Konig Liturgical Mystery #1 by Mark Schweizer
Available in Trade Paperback - $12.95 – SJMP Books
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com

 
          Hayden Konig is the police chief of St. Germaine, NC. He is also the organist/choir director of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church; but, what he wants to be is a mystery writer. To this end he purchased Raymond Chandler's typewriter in the hope that through it he might receive inspiration. It didn't work! Hayden's stories are terrible yet at the same time hysterical. For that matter the murders that occur in his real life job as police chief are equally hysterical. Author Mark Schweizer has an ecclesiastically twisted sense of humor in this series that he calls the "Liturgical Mysteries." There are several books in the series and each contains two stories … one Hayden writes and one that he solves. Every page has a chuckle and every chapter a belly laugh. Highlight recommended both the mystery and the humor.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Simple Murder

Recommended by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, MI, www.auntagathas.com:



A Simple Murder, Eleanor Kuhns, Minotaur, $24.99.
Winner of the new contest set up by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books, this is an unusual novel in it's setting and time period, but in every other way it is an absolutely classic traditional mystery.  Set in a Shaker community in Maine in 1796, the main character is a traveling weaver and former soldier searching for his runaway teenage son. 
  
The Shakers were a "charismatic Christian" sect formed as an offshoot of the Quakers, sharing some of their more advanced concepts like equality between the sexes and pacifism.  Because the Shakers didn't actually reproduce, they have now practically died out. However, back in the 1700's the communities were vital ones, as they took in children (and other lost souls, no questions asked) via adoption or abandonment.  In this way, the main character's son, David, has come to be a part of the Shaker community. 
 
Kuhns comes at her story in a very gentle way, but the number of killings contained within the plot prove her to be every bit as ruthless as Agatha Christie, who frequently had a very high body count.  Also like Mrs. Christie, Kuhns seamlessly blends the social setting and characters she is writing about into her mystery. 
 
Because Rees, the main character, has had some experience both in the army and during his travels unmasking killers, he is asked to lend a hand when one of the Shaker sisters is killed.  The murder seems to point to someone within the community, but for the life of him Rees can't connect the sister's death with a growing string of deaths and mysterious disappearances, nor can he figure out how she was killed on the quiet Shaker grounds with no one hearing anything.
 
His "assistant" is one Lydia Jane Farrell, who has left the community for unknown reasons, but who can provide a bridge between Rees and the Shaker sisters, many of whom are unaccustomed to talking to outsiders.  While Rees is treated with generosity by the Shakers – he's given room and board as well as a place to set up his loom and work – he's also treated with a certain wariness, as, like all good detectives throughout mystery fiction, he is an outsider.
 
Lydia Jane proves an intelligent and fearless assistant, though she becomes emotionally involved as she knows almost all of the victims.  The other main thread is the reuniting of Rees and his son, who resents him for leaving him alone after his mother died with his aunt and uncle who, it becomes clear, have not treated him with all the loving kindness one would hope for.  The writing about this father and son is wonderfully well done.
 
While this is a very traditional mystery with an actual summing up by the main character at the end, it also seems to be organic in the way the story unfolds so inevitably, each plot point and character growing from another.  It all seems completely natural in every way, and I think some of the reason for that is the exquisite insight the talented Ms. Kuhns has into her characters. 
She's set the book up as the first in a series, one that doesn't seem as though it will continue in the Shaker community, but the threads she leaves hanging at the end of this first novel are tantalizing ones.  This is an enjoyable and thoughtful read, and I'd certainly be more than willing to follow Rees on his next investigation.
 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Skeleton Box Review



Recommended by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, Mich., www.auntagathas.com:

The Skeleton Box, Bryan Gruley, Touchstone, $25.00.
I guess I believe in doing my best, trying to be a good guy, be nice to my mom, take care of the people I love.  Is that good enough?

One of my favorite things about selling books is watching an author grow not just career-wise, but grow as a writer.  Each book of Bryan Gruley's is better than the last, and this third in his Gus Carpenter series really hits it out of the park. 

His first novel, Starvation Lake, established Gruley's character.  Gus has come back to Starvation Lake from a big time Detroit paper to run the tiny Pilot.  The balance of kinship, friendship, and community ties and history are finely drawn in the first two novels (the second is The Hanging Tree), but in this third installment Gruley goes to the heart of the matter: family.

Usually a book that has lots of hockey in it isn't one that will make me cry, but this book really got me.  The amount of hockey in the books (a personal and life long passion of Gruley's) has been declining, just as Gruley the storyteller amps up his game.  This one has the least amount of hockey, and there's a redemptive quality to it.  It also is tied into the essential story line, so the book without the hockey wouldn't make sense.  And that's how it should be.

Hockey of course gives a specific flavor and zip to the stories, and a real note of authenticity.  In this book though, the true focus is on Gus's mother.  Gus speeds to his mother's house in the opening scenes to discover that her best friend, Phyllis, has been attacked and rushed to the hospital; his mother in a state of shock.

Gruley unsentimentally lays out his mother's increasing memory related struggles; she has good days and bad days, but the death of her best friend begins to bring the past to life, as does her friend's last word.  Gus' love for his mother is clear; she pushes him to investigate more.  Helping Gus is his crusty ace reporter, Luke Whistler, who hustles the story for all he's worth.

It becomes evident early on in the story that whatever happened to Phyllis is related somehow to the Catholic Church and the long ago disappearance of a nun.  Gruley bases the bones of his story on a true incident (see Mardi Link's fine Isadore's Secret) where a nun disappeared and a long cloud of suspicion settled in over the parish.  While Gruley utilizes the bare bones concept, there the similarity ends.  Like any good story teller, he twists the narrative to suit the needs of the story he has chosen to tell.

What's really powerful and moving is the connection not only between Gus and his mother, but his mother's connection to her long time best friends, both of whom are now dead.  As Gus races toward a resolution, one his mother has nudged him into finding, he discovers things even she didn't know, though the ultimate revelation really belongs to her.  The way Gruley honors this character without hitting the reader over the head with it is really well done.

The details of life in Michigan – down to the Better Made potato chips served up at the local bar – add lots to the story.  So do the hockey details, which are just enough, and just specific enough, to give you a real flavor of the ice.  This is a wonderfully told story and a moving novel.
 
 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Curse of the Jade Lily

Curse of the Jade Lily, David Housewright, Minotaur, $25.99.
"You became Batman."
"Hardly."
Donatucci snorted.  "Everything but the cape and the car," he said.  "Tearing around, working with the cops; sometimes working against the cops; doing good for goodness sake…"

Miss Robert B. Parker?  There's really no need – give the excellent David Housewright a try to fulfill your Spenser jones.  All things being equal, Housewright would be as well known a quantity as Parker, as their skillsets are not only similar but similarly enjoyable.  Housewright's central character, Rushmore MacKenzie (though he goes by MacKenzie, and can you blame him?)  lives in St. Paul rather than Spenser's Boston, and he has no sidekick, but other differences are less discernible.

This is far from a cut as I've enjoyed Parker's novels and his great creation as much as anyone.  And Housewright's novels, while perhaps slightly more complex than Parker's, have a wisecracking tone that's very comfortable and familiar.  MacKenzie  is so much the "White Knight" that he doesn't even charge his clients anything.  He doesn't need to – he's independently wealthy thanks to a long ago insurance settlement.  He doesn't like to work, but he likes to keep busy, and when he sees a wrong, a good way to keep busy is to right it.

While in this novel MacKenzie has been sought out by a paying client, that isn't usually the case.  He's approached by the very insurance agent who made the original payout to him, on behalf of a new Minneapolis art museum.  A priceless treasure known as the Jade Lily has been stolen and for a museum this new, publicity about a high profile theft can be nothing short of a disaster.  And – oh yeah – the artnappers have asked that MacKenzie – much to the insurance guy's disgust – be the go-between. 

MacKenzie reluctantly accepts – he likes the young museum director and the forensic art expert who authenticated the lily – and then he's off on a convoluted path involving double crosses, Bosnians, rich guys, competing artnappers, and multiple claims of ownership of the Lily.  MacKenzie's clear sightedness and quick action can get him into trouble but mostly it helps him cut through an enjoyable thicket of tricksters and con artists.

Housewright's wit is every bit as sharp as Parker's, and as I read along, I was chuckling to myself over bits of dialogue and acerbic observations on MacKenzie's part.  While this book doesn't have the emotional resonance of some of Houswright's earlier titles – notably Tin City, A Hard Ticket Home or Madman on a Drum- it still has the snap and crackle of great storytelling.  I can't think of a better way to spend a couple of evenings than curled up with a new David Housewright novel.  Check it out for yourself.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Midnight in Peking

Midnight in Peking, Paul French, Penguin, $26.00, reviewed by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, Mich. www.auntagathas.com:

The best true crime books have a few things in common.  One is a vivid setting, one that's well described and felt.  Even better is an unusual setting – in this case, the setting is Peking right before the Japanese took over in 1937.  Another thing is a sense of outrage at what happened to the victim portrayed in the book – and the victim needs to be portrayed, not just presented as a dead body.  Just like in a fictional mystery, investment in the victim is investment in the outcome of the story.

Also the very top notch true crime books don't spend too much time in the courtroom.  Anyone can go to a courtroom and take notes, not everyone can craft a narrative that's compellingly told.  Paul French rarely dips a toe into the long ago courtrooms of China. And Mr. French does one more thing I'm a big fan of (and it's rarely done) – he structures his book like a whodunit.  The reader doesn't know whodunit it until the end of the book, and like any good whodunit, it's a jaw dropper.  Books sharing this characteristic would include Edward Keyes' The Michigan Murders and Kate Summerscale's instant classic The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.  Like Summerscale, French sets his book in the past, and like Summerscale, he gets some of the  juice of a good crime story by making the reveal of the murderer almost unbelievable.  If it was fiction, you would probably set the book aside in disgust.  But that's the beauty of it all: it's true.

And it's a story you feel might be better known, because it's so terrible.  One night in 1937 a young Englishwoman living in Peking is found brutally murdered – so brutally, that it makes almost no sense unless the killer was completely psychopathic.  As French begins to roll back the layers of Pamela Werner's life, it emerges that she's the spoiled only daughter of an often absent academic father, a girl whose mother died before she could even remember her.

As Pamela grew, she grew wild, getting kicked out of several schools.  When we join her, she's been sent to a strict boarding school by her father in hope of changing her life direction.  In the book, the reactions of her friends at school and at home are the same:  "That's Pamela?"  The school girl Pamela looked her age (19), dressed in a drab school uniform; the at home Pamela was all decked out in fancy clothes with an up to the minute hairstyle.

Her father was devoted to her, and one of the things that propels this book is his grief.  It's sometimes impotent grief, as the contentious Edward Werner had burned many bridges throughout his professional life.  As he reached out to the authorities, again and again, he is frequently rebuffed.  It's heartbreaking.

The two policemen investigating the case must work in an uneasy partnership – one is a Chinese, Colonel Han, and one is called in from out of town, an Englishman, Dick Dennis.  As they can bridge essentially two cultures, they actually make a good team.
 
All of foreign Peking lived in a separate area of the city, the Legation quarter, and Pamela and her father were no exception.  This quarter was literally surrounded by a wall – though Pamela made her way freely all over the city on her bicycle.  In fact, on the night in question, she'd gone off on her bike to meet a friend and go skating.

As Han and Dennis run into walls of things they are not supposed to ask and people they are not supposed to talk to, their investigation stalls.   When they finally throw in the towel, the specter of the invading Japanese is more on the minds of most people than the death of one young girl.  It's up to her father to set things right.

French's portrait of 1937 is a vivid and layered one, revealing all the different levels and classes of Peking society, from the upper class foreigners in the legation to prostitutes and madams and aimless white Russians, drinking their lives away.  At the same time the portraits of Pamela, her father, Han and Dennis are just as finely drawn.  And he doesn't waste time telling the story – it moves at a brisk pace. 
It's a heartbreaking tale, and a rich portrait of a very specific, very tragic time.  This is a beautifully done and intelligent book.
 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Killer Books Recommendation

This review is presented by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon, www.mbtb.com:



House of the Hunted, by Mark Mills
Random House, 320 pages, $26
ISBN: 9781400068197

Mark Mills' books are very polished and suave. This book, from our modern retrospective viewpoint, feels like the encapsulation of an aesthetic from a time decades past. A time when spies played at clever games and had to think on their feet, a time when technology hadn't taken over. The story is set on the brink of World War II and is a prelude to the Cold War. Mills' characters dance through layers of subterfuge to define the shifting alliances and allegiances of the countries or causes they represent.

Tom Nash was a spy in the Soviet Union for Great Britain. He was a trained killer and infiltrator. Until he gave it up. After a short burst of storyline in Russia, we next see Tom sixteen years later on the south coast of France, living in bucolic happiness, retired from the spy business, awaiting a celebratory reunion with some of his nearest and dearest friends: Leonard, a former fellow spy and current bureaucrat; Venetia, Leonard's wife, and Lucy, Leonard's stepdaughter; Yevgeny and Fanya, art dealers; and Barnaby, an old schoolmate. With the addition of a few new acquaintances, they are the assortment of louche, disappointed, ingenuous, dissembling, beguiling, and weary characters of Mills' play.

Then someone tries to kill Tom in his own home, and the game is back on.

Tom Nash has given up his cold spy persona for that of a warm human being and worldly ex-pat Brit, so the murderous attempt throws him. Soon after, he must attend a dinner he is hosting:

Tom struggled to engage with any of it, a stranger at his own feast, almost an impostor, only there because he had somehow managed to cheat his destiny less than twenty-four hours previously.

It is Mills' overlying, constant quiet tone that keeps it from being labeled a "thriller" or a "spy adventure," even though there is quite a lot of action. It feels as though this book might have been written in the 1940s or '50s. At the same time, there are some characters, e.g., Lucy, who are clearly cinematic -- added for the benefit of any future movies, perhaps. While I can't say that it was a surprising book, it is thoroughly entertaining, the characters are well-described, and I now desperately want to vacation at La Rayol. There are clever flourishes and sincere moments.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

One Red Bastard


One Red Bastard, Ed Lin, Minotaur, $25.99.  
Recommended by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, Mich., www.auntagathas.com:

"…You have to suck at it for years until one day your experience pays off and you reach a point where you know what you're doing. "     "It's like everything else, then, isn't it?"

I was a big fan of the first book Minotaur published by Ed Lin, Snakes Can't Run, and I enjoyed this one maybe even a little bit more.  Lin's central character, Robert Chow, is a Chinese American Cop in New York City's Chinatown circa 1976 (Carter and Ford are battling it out for the presidency).    Robert has a good backstory – he's a Vietnam Vet, he was a drunk but is now sober, and he is now feeling his way through his job, hoping for a detective's gold shield as well as trying to figure out  his relationship with his girlfriend, Lonnie.

Lin's deceptively simple prose is actually very vivid.  Here's his description of Lonnie's dad, when encountered by Robert for the first time:  "I was a little taken aback to find that Lonnie and Paul's dad was a fairly small guy, barely five feet tall.  In my imagination, he was a hulking linebacker brandishing a belt.  In reality he was a thin man in his late-fifties and his hair had thinned out to black streaks smeared over the top of his head like skid marks."  Reading that brief description, you won't forget this man.  All of the sidebar characters are this well delineated, making reading this actually very short book a very rich experience.  This distinctive prose is only part of Lin's charm, though.

Lin is very interested in this novel in the different strands of the Chinese Communist party – the kick off for the plot concerns the advance man for Mao's daughter, Mr. Chen, who is murdered while he's in town.  Robert becomes obsessed with Mr. Chen's death because his girlfriend is the prime suspect: she was the last one to see him alive, after she'd interviewed him for her wire service.  Lonnie is being followed everywhere by detectives from Manhattan South and it's driving Robert crazy.

The total setting for the novel is a very full one – the police department and the inner workings of the communists in New York, as well as the many ties Robert has to his community and family.  Lin is very interested in the way systems work – how does the police department work?  How do community and political ties work?  What ties are the most important, or are they interwoven?  Robert's obligations of family and duty often butt up against each other, just as they do in everyone's life.

Such concerns are seamlessly integrated into an absorbing story – as Robert follows the clues that lead him to Mr. Chen's killer, some of his actions seem questionable after the fact.  Lin's gentle moral prodding about the way the police department works will get you thinking.  It gets Robert thinking as well.  It's part of what makes him such an interesting character, one you want to follow further.

The sly humor that's a backdrop to the whole story doesn't hurt, either.  Some of the observations about the Chinese culture are so wryly and beautifully observed that they stick with you.  Since the books are set in 1976, it truly is like entering another world.  The time remove just adds another layer of "otherness", but since it's the recent past, your own memories may step in as you read, adding to the total experience.  Lin is an original, gifted writer with an offbeat slant that lets you look at the world maybe a shade differently.  Any writer that can achieve that is well worth a look, in my opinion, and it's the main reason I enjoy reading.  So remember this name:  Ed Lin.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

From Murder on the Beach:

The Professionals
By Owen Laukkanen
Reviewed by Sue Wilder

Four friends who recently graduated college and are
not able to find jobs decide to become professional kidnappers. They are
ingenious in that they kidnap prominent businessmen and demand
relatively modest ransoms which are easily paid. They release their
victims unharmed and move on to another town.
Nobody pursues them since the kidnappings are not reported,
until a kidnapping in Michigan. Their victim is connected to the Mob.
The action escalates as the gang is chased by the Mob, local law
enforcement and the FBI. Despite the danger, the gang hangs in, intent
on "earning" enough to "retire" from the business.
Mr. Laukkanen has created a strong cast of characters, each
driven by very distinct goals. The risk factor continues to rise as the
gang is pursued cross country. Despite the danger, the four friends,
like gamblers, think they can make their luck hold out just a little bit
longer.
The reader is swept along for the ride. The Professionals is
a well written thriller with a high level of tension. The ending is a
real AHA!
Fans of Thomas Perry, Marcus Sakey and Robert Crais will
welcome this first novel from Mr. Laukkanen and hope that the next one
is not far behind. Highly recommended. Putnam, 25.95

Boca Daze
By Steven M. Forman
Reviewed by Stephanie Saxon Levine

Although this is the third in Steven M. Forman's series featuring P.I.
Eddie Perlmutter, aka The Boca Knight, it is the first one this reader
has read. And what a delightful way to begin! Boca Daze starts off at a
lightening pace, and carried this reader along racing through the pages
in great suspense.
Eddie, an ex-Boston cop who came to Boca Raton looking for a
peaceful retirement, found life in South Florida anything but placid. As
a result of his heroic deeds in the first book, a newspaper gave him the
title "Boca Knight," which he used, after adding an "s," as the name of
his detective agency. Eddie is well-known by his honorific to many South
Floridians.
Now, in book three, a criminal from his days in Boston asks him
for a favor, a bag lady's mumblings lead to murder, and a simple
investigation brings Eddie and his partner close to death. How's that
for peace and quiet in paradise?
Forman captures the essence of Boca Raton and its environs
--at least from this nine-year transplant's point of view -- showing the
seamy side as well as the glamour. As good as Forman is at capturing the
setting, he's even better at creating believable characters and serving
up a fast-paced and suspenseful plot.
All this comes together with humor added in good measure,
making Boca Daze a thoroughly enjoyable read. It isn't necessary to
have read the earlier books to follow the story, but, this reader, for
one, plans to do so. Forge 1st Edition, signed: 25.99

--

Joanne Sinchuk
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore
Pineapple Grove
273 NE 2nd Avenue
Delray Beach, FL 33444
Phone: 561-279-7790
www.murderonthebeach.com

And She Was

Submitted by Barbara Tom, Murder by the Book, Portland, OR
www.mbtb.com

And She Was
Alison Gaylin
Harper Originals, $5.99

Winner! This is Gaylin's fifth book and the start of a second series.

Brenna Spector has hyperthymestic disorder (like demi-celebrity Marilu Henner). That means that she can recall every day of her life in excruciating detail from the age of 11 onwards. She can remember with all her senses the highs, lows, and mediocrities of her life. She can remember how happy her ex-husband made her, which means she can never truly let go of him. The mostly upside of the disorder means she is an extraordinary private investigator. In fact, Brenna has started to link two cases of disappearance, one about a decade earlier and the other, a recent case.

Because Brenna also peripherally investigated the disappearance of six-year-old Iris Neff from her neighborhood ten years ago, she has met several of the people who now pop up in her current investigation. Carol Wentz has disappeared, and her husband, Nelson, an odd-duck of a man, wants Brenna to find her. Carol lived in Iris' neighborhood and was one of the last people to see Iris. In trying to find Carol, Brenna tries to find Iris' mother, Lydia. She, too, has disappeared. Then a series of seemingly unrelated deaths turn out to share a tenuous link, and the link is Iris, Lydia, and Carol. Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar, or is there really something there worth investigating?

What would romantic suspense be without romance? Professor-ish homicide detective Nick Morasco is the window dressing. Brenna's assistant, the oafish but brilliant Trent, provides the levity. Brenna's daughter, Maya, provides the illusion of teenage angst. And Brenna's missing sister, Clea, provides the reason for the next book.

Nicely paced, well written, good disease/disorder-of-the-week -- a few years ago it was M√ľnchausen-by-proxy -- and just enough character depth to get readers going without drowning in detail. Well done!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Available Dark

Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand, Minotaur, $23.99.
Recommended by Jamie Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, MI, www.auntagathas.com:

 
In her first appearance, Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand's protagonist Cassandra Neary provides this memorable self-portrait:
 
I caught a glimpse of myself in a dark window: a gaunt Valkyrie holding a spear taller than I was, teeth bared in a drunken grimace and eyes bloodshot from some redneck teenager's ADD medication.
 
"Hey ho, let's go," I said, and went.
 
Neary has many of the qualities more expected in a male noir protagonist. She's violent, bad tempered, substance abusing, cynical, haunted, corrupt, but yet able to tell the difference between right and wrong at the crucial moment and equally able to act decisively on that knowledge.
 
Above all she's a survivor, who despite her punk motto No Future, has found herself stubbornly living on. A devastating rape and the collapse of the New Wave into the Reagan years have left her barely functional, working (unhappy wretch!) in a bookstore, unable to connect with anyone or anything.
 
In Hand's second mystery Available Dark, Cassie having to some small extent achieved redemption, not to mention cash, from her first adventure, finds the past reaching out to shove her into a perilous future. Her signal artistic achievement, a long out of print book of photographs called Dead Girls, a punk era chronicle somewhere between Cindy Sherman and Weegee, has developed an underground life of its own, becoming a sort of loadstone that attracts morbid, artistic and dangerous people into her life. On the strength of its continuing reputation she's asked by a series of shady middlemen to travel to Helsinki in order to evaluate some one of a kind photographs being sold by a decadent, former superstar fashion photographer.
 
At the same time another powerful force compels her northward as she's anonymously mailed her own old photograph of Quinn, the man described as "the only person I ever really cared about," who she hasn't seen in decades, the envelope postmarked Iceland.
 
She consents to embark on the grand tour of cold, stopping in Finland to be floored by the pictures, which, though morbidly suggesting serial murder and ritual killing are also stunning works of art. She then surreptitiously flies to Iceland on her employer's dime, hoping to find Quinn.
 
It's in Iceland that both the writing and the action crank up. Everyone involved with the Helsinki photographs seem to be getting killed, and when she finally encounters Quinn and his own group of shady associates, it's obvious they're also knee deep in the whole bloody affair.
 
Hand's descriptions of Iceland are especially powerful – a country whose economy is as bleak as its landscape, a noir world of paganism and black metal where no one can be trusted and the very climate is deadly. It all ends in a violent resolution in the middle of frigid nowhere which reveals who the real criminals of the contemporary world are.
 
Available Dark is as lean and fast moving as its protagonist, but with a strong, meditative ballast and a stark view of the nature and even attractiveness of evil. The northern setting, though undoubtedly trendy these days, is an integral part of the book, the end result leaving the reader anticipating another visit from Cassandra Neary.
 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

reviews

The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
What a great thriller! Debut author Owen Laukkanen is sure to become a
legend with his fast paced and unique style.
Four recent college graduates are very frustrated when they find
themselves with plenty of education but no job. They joke about
robbing banks or perhaps kidnapping. The second option becomes a
reality when they find how easy it is to find a ?mark? via the
internet and demand a small enough ransom that the family will pay it
quickly and not call the police. Although they swear it is just a
temporary situation, the easy money and greed keep them in the racket
for two years. Things suddenly get much more complicated when they
kidnap Terry Harper whose wife pays the ransom but his ego will not
let him be victimized so easily and he reports the crime to the
police. Next, the foursome fail to do enough research on a victim and
kidnaps, and in a moment of panic, kills Donald Beneteau, a huge
figure in organized crime. The result is they have law enforcement on
their tail, as well as some ruthless organized crime thugs hired by
Beneteau?s family.
The amateurs are forced to become professionals with the action never
stopping and becoming increasingly explosive until the ultimate brutal
and final confrontation.
The Professionals will be released on March 29, 2012 and we have
signed copies on order. Owen is working on a second novel. He is
definitely worth waiting for!
-- Bunny Hand, Mysterious Galaxy San Diego

G.P. Putnam?s Sons , $24.95.

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
The wars of New York City are heating up 1845. Nationality, religion
and sibling rivalry all play starring roles in this intriguing
historical mystery. Author Lyndsay Faye writes a gritty and compelling
fictional story that clues the reader into the fledgling days of the
New York City police department and the political and social issues of
a turbulent time in American history. The Gods of Gotham is a great
addition to the personal library of anyone who enjoyed The Gangs of
New York.
-- Nicole Porter, Mysterious Galaxy Redondo Beach

Amy Einhorn Books, $25.95

-- Maryelizabeth Hart

***********************************************************
Mysterious Galaxy Books
San Diego, CA
Redondo Beach, CA (October 2011)
http://www.mystgalaxy.com
http://www.facebook.com/MysteriousGalaxy
http://twitter.com/MystGalaxyBooks
***********************************************************

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Killer Book: The Night She Disappeared

Submitted by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon (www.mbtb.com)
Submitted by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon (www.mbtb.com):


The Night She Disappeared by April Henry
Henry Holt, ISBN 9780805092622, $16.99


We know Portland author April Henry from her adult books and because of her makes-us-laugh sense of humor. She has co-authored other young adult books, but this is her first solo YA venture.

This is a different kettle of fish than Henry's adult books. It's serious and thriller-intense. Kayla Cutler, a 17-year-old girl, disappeared while delivering pizza. Her coworkers and classmates, Andrew "Drew" Lyle and Gabriella "Gabie" Klug, become involved even though they know next to nothing about either Kayla or her disappearance.

Drew is trying to earn enough money to keep a roof over his head. In the brief scenes in which she is introduced, it's obvious that something is wrong with Drew's mother, and his father is nowhere to be seen. Henry draws out Drew's story over the course of the novel, until his plight is finally revealed. It could be maudlin, but Henry does a good job making it moving instead.

Gabie is the daughter of two high-powered surgeons. She's smart, independent by necessity, and down-to-earth. Gabie had switched shifts at Pete's Pizza with Kayla. It was Kayla who was working the night that Drew took a phone order from a man who wanted to know if Gabie was working that night. Drew didn't answer his question, and Kayla took the delivery. And disappeared. The police and Kayla's family do everything they can to find her body and her killer. Gabie, on the other hand, has a vague feeling that Kayla is still alive.

Gabie and Drew struggle to come to terms with Gabie's intuition and the opposing evidence the police have found, including a young man they suspect of being the killer.

It's not just a book for young adults, old adults can enjoy the tension and characterizations as well. Henry is a good storyteller, and she fashions her plot well.

Review of Helpless by Daniel Palmer

Helpless

By Daniel Palmer

Reviewed by Tracy Allerton
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore
www.murderonthebeach.com

Helpless, Daniel Palmer's second novel (after last year's best-seller Delirious), once again explores the ways that modern technology can be used to destroy the lives of innocent men. It's a page-turner of a thriller that builds to an exciting climax and fitting denouement.

          In this story, Tom Hawkins, 43, is a former Navy SEAL who now works happily as the coach of the girls' soccer team in his hometown high school. Not so happy is his personal life: He is bitterly divorced from his high-school sweetheart, Kelly, and distressingly estranged from his teenage daughter, Jill -- a star player on the team.

          When Kelly is killed after fleeing from an intruder in her house, Tom is suddenly thrust into the role of full-time dad. He and Jill take tentative steps toward reconciliation, until Tom is branded as a sexual predator by a sly cyber-bullying campaign. An anonymous blog accuses him of sleeping with a schoolgirl teammate of Jill's, followed by the discovery by police of under-aged porn images on his work computer. These events put him in the sights of FBI special agent Rainy Miles, who investigates cyber crimes against children. Despite Tom's protestations of innocence - and her growing attraction to him -- Rainy is determined to bring him to justice.

          Things for Tom become increasingly desperate as he fights to clear his name and discover the truth behind Kelly's death and these personal attacks. It seems that his problems are tied to a dark secret from his final days in the Navy, and he   must utilize all of his knowledge and military training if he and Jill are to survive. Kensington, 25.00

--    Joanne Sinchuk Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore Pineapple Grove 273 NE 2nd Avenue Delray Beach, FL  33444 Phone: 561-279-7790 murdermb@gate.net www.murderonthebeach.com

Review of Chalk Girl

The Chalk Girl

By Carol O'Connell

Reviewed by Sue Wilder
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore
www.murderonthebeach.com

A school class trip to Central Park on a beautiful spring day turns to mayhem when a plague of rats descends on the park. The teacher keels over from a stroke and Coco, a small red-haired girl who was not part of the group, disappears into the ramble area of the park, pursued by a predator.

            Detective Mallory and her partner Riker are called to the scene. They find Coco who has a patch of blood on her shoulder, claiming that her uncle turned into a tree. When they look up, they see a burlap bag hanging from a tree. The bag contains Coco's uncle and is the first of three bags found in the trees. When Mallory and Riker investigate the connections of the victims, they follow a trail stretching back to unreported crimes and buried secrets from fifteen years ago.

            Mallory is known as "the machine" in the squad room. She is extremely bright, obsessively organized, and technologically adept. Mallory is also a damaged personality from childhood which makes her a perfect match for Coco who suffers from Williams syndrome. Mallory tends to follow the money trail in her investigations, which in this case takes her into the upper echelons of New York City's police and political circles.

            The Chalk Girl is intricately plotted. Ms. O'Connell expertly weaves the threads of the current crimes with those of fifteen years ago. The characters are expertly drawn, their motives excellent catalysts for their actions.

            Mallory is one of the most fascinating characters in crime fiction. Before Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo series, there was Mallory. The award winning Mallory's Oracle was the first in the series. Driven by her own unique sense of justice, Mallory brings her cases to a satisfying close.

            Highly recommended to fans who like their protagonists dark and fearless and their stories mentally challenging. Difficult to put down.PUT 25.95 

--    Joanne Sinchuk Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore Pineapple Grove 273 NE 2nd Avenue Delray Beach, FL  33444 Phone: 561-279-7790 murdermb@gate.net www.murderonthebeach.com

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bent Road by Lori Roy

Bent Road, Lori Roy, Plume, $15.00.

This is Lori Roy's first novel, and it's nominated for an Edgar.  It's a very assured storytelling voice for a first timer, with an excellent sense of place, and a complex and creepy story.  One of the words I'd choose for this book is "atmospheric" since, sometimes almost unfortunately, as a reader you can picture all too well the tiny Kansas farmhouse where the plagued Scott family lives.

The central family, Celia and Arthur, and their children, Elaine, Daniel and Evie, have come back to rural Kansas after fleeing Detroit in the wake of the '68 riots.  While the year is never specifically referenced, it's made clear by a few details – the memory of the pillbox hats Celia used to wear to church in Detroit for example.  And Detroit seems an entire world away from the rural Kansas Arthur has returned his family to, and it's a world the rest of the family frequently misses.

It's apparent when they return that there are many currents under the family surface.  There is Arthur's sister, Ruth, who seems unhappy with her husband, Ray; there's a missing sibling, Eve, who no one will talk about; and there's the grandmother, Reesa, who seems a little unreceptive to her daughter in law. As Celia thinks to herself , "In Kansas, she doesn't know how to care for her children."  The parameters are so different.
Evie, the tiny little blonde fairy child of the family, becomes obsessed with her Aunt Eve, who she thinks has simply moved away.  She loves the beautiful dresses that her aunt left behind in her closet, and likes to sit in her room at her grandmother's house and look at them.   She's so small for her age none of the other kids will be friends with her.  Daniel, who feels his place as the son of the family has been supplanted by his sister's boyfriend, Jonathon, is trying every way he knows how to grow up but so many things confuse him.

When Aunt Ruth moves in with them after an especially unpleasant confrontation with her husband Ray, the dynamic of the family shifts again.  Celia is glad to have the company; Arthur feels protective of her; and Evie feels if only Aunt Ruth wasn't around, somehow the magical Aunt Eve would come back.  Ruth's sweet spirit has been sapped by twenty years of abuse, a cycle only broken with the return of her brother's family and the boiling to the surface of the family secrecy surrounding Eve.

Things are accelerated by the disappearance of a tiny blonde neighbor girl, one who looks very much like Evie, and apparently her missing Aunt Eve as well.  Somehow in the minds of the town Uncle Ray is responsible for all of these mysteries; in the minds of some of Daniel's new school friends, it's a mysterious black man, escaped from a nearby mental asylum.
 
The two central scenes of the novel involve violence, but they are spaced far apart, so Roy sustains the suspense with the tension of her storytelling style.  Not all the threads end in horror – sometimes the knocking outside in the dark is just a cow, for example – but sometimes, it's not.  It's not knowing when it isn't that sustains the tension of the book.

The most memorable  scene in the novel concerns the death of a cow; it's heartbreaking, and affects each family member.  The final violent scene is also heartbreaking, and affects each family member, but by that point in the story the violence is a welcome and needed relief.  My desire to ever go to Kansas has been severely undermined by reading this story, but except for the tumbleweeds, this Midwestern farm landscape could be in Wisconsin or Illinois or Ohio or Michigan.  It feels very familiar in one way, and horribly alien in another.  This is a book about long buried secrets and what they can do to a family and community; and when an author makes one of the villains a catholic priest, and one of the most memorable victims a cow, there's something original at work.  I'm more than interested to see what Roy's second novel shapes up to be.