Author Archive for Agatha

Elly Griffiths: The Chalk Pit

This is a wonderful outing from Elly Griffiths. I enjoyed the last one, The Woman in Blue, very much, but my daughter pointed out after she read it that it was “transitional.” I asked her exactly what did that mean, and she explained the characters were all in transition, neither here nor there for that particular installment. Thinking about it, I agreed with her completely, and this one – where the characters seem to have found landing spots for the moment – feels like a stronger book.

In it, Ruth and Nelson have gone to their romantic corners – Nelson is back with his wife and Ruth is alone. Cathbad is settled (and regrettably, not much in evidence), Tim is gone, Cassandra and Clough are happy parents, and Nelson has a new boss. He thinks to himself “Yes, not content with giving him a tangled love life and a stressful working life, God has now delivered the greatest blow of all. Nelson has a woman boss.”

Nelson is no sexist, far from it, but Jo, his boss, is portrayed by Griffiths as a kind of eager combo hipster/new age hippie who tries to meet each employee on their own terms and fails miserably. Not since the great Ngaio Marsh has a writer been so deft at swiftly explicating a character to such great comic effect, though it’s more of a gentle drubbing than a sharply cruel one. This is the kind of thing, among others, that sets Griffiths’ novels apart – the sharp clear humor of her writing and world view shines through on every page.

Ruth, meanwhile, has been asked to consult on an underground site for a possible future restaurant where bones have been found. Archeologist Ruth is to determine whether they are old or new, which, if they were new, would halt any possible construction. These novels, set in Norwich in the UK, always include a swath of history as well as the local landscape. In this novel, with constant references to “going underground” and underground societies – there’s even a character named Bilbo – the local landscape, it becomes clear, is composed of chalk, and there are countless underground tunnels connecting much of the city.

Like another author I very much admire, Deborah Crombie, the whole situation created by Griffiths is so enjoyable that when crime eventually intrudes it’s almost jarring, but intrude it does, as homeless men are found stabbed, a homeless woman disappears, but it’s not until a housewife and mother of four goes missing that the investigation really heats up.

Griffiths is enough of a traditional mystery writer that she includes a red herring or two, but she’s newfangled enough that her characters are so indelible they seem absolutely real. Ruth Galloway is certainly one of the greater creations in mystery fiction in the last decade or so. Her human foibles coupled with her strength and intelligence, not to mention her status as a single mother, make her seem so “real” it would not be at all surprising to meet her in the flesh. What an achievement!

And so is this book, which ends with a breathtaking chase and capture that’s made more memorable by a few reveals about the characters as well as some tying up of personal loose ends for some of them. This is absolutely one of the best mystery series being written at the moment.

Steve Hamilton: Exit Strategy

Steve Hamilton’s Exit Strategy, the second book in his Nick Mason series, begins with the kind of slam-bang bravura action sequence that we’ve come to expect before the credits in a James Bond or Bourne movie. Nick must infiltrate a heavily guarded eighty-two-story building, elude or incapacitate at least a dozen Federal Marshals, eliminate a prospective witness and then escape before the big explosion. Adding to the degree of difficulty is Nick’s reluctance to kill innocent people.

Exit Strategy is built around several expertly dramatized set pieces like this, where Nick must rub out targets who are heavily guarded by professionals on high alert.  Action sequences may seem basic, but their actual execution takes a very adroit hand to delineate who is doing what to whom. You have only to read a bad thriller or watch a bad action movie (no names please) to see that pacing, sure description and accuracy are crucial, and the lack of them excruciating.

But what Exit Strategy has that many otherwise fine thrillers lack is the human element. Human beings aren’t actually killing machines, and there’s always a cost to violence, the effect of which is charted in superior crime fiction. As Nick reflects:

You kill one person, it changes you. You kill five… it’s not about changing anymore. It’s who you are. 

Becoming “The Angel of Death” makes you necessarily less of a man, with the result threatening the human connections that surround us all. This interior drama is expertly painted as well, with the character and motivations of even the most despicable characters clear and credible.

Obviously, Hamilton walks a fine line in this series. Nick may be a reluctant hitman in the same way that Steve’s other series character, the beloved Alex McKnight, is a reluctant private eye, but he’s a hitman all the same.  He isn’t doing these things for money or pathology or even truth, justice and the American way, but because he’s been forced into it by kingpin crime boss Darius Cole. Cole fixed it so that Nick was released early from prison, mobile but not free, and keeps him in line by threatening his family, particularly beloved daughter Adrian.

Ultimately it’s his paternal desire to see her grow up (usually from a distance) that’s his motivation to pursue an unholy trade. As the book continues he’s also motivated to seek revenge on taskmaster Cole and somehow forge the titular “exit strategy.”

The Noir is deep in this one, as the corrupt authority figures seem to outnumber the honest ones, and the police, feds and even the Army seem essentially powerless in the face of evil. And just when it seems like Nick might find his way out of his maze, there’s another turning that may leave him as trapped as before. In the hands of a lesser writer it all might get too grim, but from the gifted Steve Hamilton Exit Strategy is crime fiction of the highest quality. (Jamie)

Candace Robb: A Twisted Vengeance

The second novel in Candace Robb’s Kate Clifford series finds the feisty Kate dealing with her mother moving in next door, bringing along with her some “beguines” or women who live a religious life but not in a convent. They devoted themselves to charitable work. Kate is wary of her Mother’s newfound earnest faith and of her mother in general, and with good reason, as Robb teases out more of Kate’s family backstory throughout the book.

Kate has an assorted household that includes a giant, earless baker and former soldier, Berend, and two wolfhounds who accompany her everywhere. She also has a tumble of children, none of them hers, but all of them with ties to her family. She loves them all and it makes for a busy, active household.

The year is 1399, and Kate lives in York, so she’s right in the middle of a civil war – a conflict Robb does not overly impose on her story, but instead makes it a reason for the uncertainty, violence and chaos that shroud the city. Like a good noir novel, no one can be trusted, which makes Kate’s detective work all the more difficult. I’ve always thought of Robb as an historical novelist, certainly, but she also owes a debt to her fellow West Coaster Ross Macdonald, with his dark look at families and general noir viewpoint.

The book opens with one of the beguines being dragged out of bed and violently attacked – she’s recovering but won’t speak – and somewhere, there’s a man she’s stabbed. When the body count rises, so do tensions, and the central narrative thread lies between Kate and her mother. Their wary coming together is the story of this strong, emotionally moving novel, and the action scenes are pretty terrific too. Kate wields a mean arrow.

Michael Palmer and Daniel Palmer: Mercy

Every now and then I have a teeny tiny “free reading” window—when I’m not reading books for Mystery Scene or for the store newsletter or by authors who are nice enough to come and visit us—so when I unpacked a recent shipment and found a new Michael Palmer paperback during this last such free reading moment, I practically squealed with delight. I love these books and have found that since Palmer’s death, and the pick-up of the series by his son, Daniel, there has been no let-up in quality or change in style or storytelling. Unlike his Dad, Daniel himself is not a doctor, but the medical details seem absolutely real.

In this outing, Dr. Julie Devereaux, an advocate for death with dignity, is reveling in her life as a cordially divorced mother of a tween boy looking forward to her upcoming marriage to Sam, who has introduced her to the pleasures of motorcycle riding. An ER doc, she finds the motorcycle riding relaxing. However, as any soap opera viewer or reader of mysteries knows, whenever a character feels they have “everything they ever wanted,” that’s when the trouble starts.

And you’ve probably guessed the trouble—Julie’s out riding with her beloved Sam when they get into an accident and Sam is horribly injured, though not killed. Not only is her world shattered, but her views on death with dignity are put to the acid test. Julie’s personal agony and several cases she’s involved with, also involving critically ill or injured patients, illustrate the dilemma of the book. To spice things up, many of these patients seem to be dying of the same rare heart condition: all of them were almost literally frightened to death.

As in every Palmer novel there’s some big bad happenings inside the upper echelons of the hospital that also play into the story, a typically rousing Palmer thriller that involves intrigue, suspense, a creeping killer, a hero or two and a not unexpected though well earned conclusion. These books are to be read for the joy of pure storytelling. I hope this father and son collaboration continues for many years to come.

Lori Rader-Day: The Day I Died

This is one of those thrillers that gets inside your head and leaves you thinking after you finish it. Lori Rader-Day’s book isn’t as much terrifying as psychologically detailed and often heartbreaking—which is the kind of thriller I like. The main character is Anna Winger, and the book opens with the chilling scene of her “death.” And while what she’s doing can be called “living” you might beg to differ.

Because of fear (she’s hiding from someone and it’s pretty clear early on that it’s probably an abusive husband) she’s made her life as small and controllable as possible. She’s a handwriting analyst at a very high level—she can basically work from anywhere, and she has a contract with the FBI. She lives in a tiny podunk Indiana town with her son, Joshua. Joshua is 13, so he’s doing his best to make his mom’s life hell.

As you read, you’re kind of on the mom’s side, here—the kid is definitely hanging with the wrong crowd, lying about skipping school and ultimately, disappearing. But I think a really good writer can show both sides. Sure, the kid is up to no good, but on the other hand, his mom has made him move with such regularity he has no friends, she is out of contact with any kind of family—and he’s starting to ask—and the kind of claustrophobia most 13-year-olds feel being stuck with a parent at breakfast must really be nothing compared to being stuck with only your parent all the time.

But as Anna’s carefully constructed world begins to become unglued, she must change. She’s called in by the local sheriff to consult on the case of a missing toddler (everyone assumes the mother is the guilty party, and Anna is not convinced) and she’s asked by a neighbor for help. Her world is beginning to crack and let other people in. When her son goes missing, she’s all in—she has to go back and confront her past.

I think one of Rader-Day’s strengths as a writer is the unexpected in terms of character. She’s not writing in black and white but in shades of grey. With the exception of the ultimate villain, you can kind of see everyone’s point of view to a degree. I also loved the handwriting analysis portions of the book—they gave Anna an excuse to be involved and they give her extra insight. Even the doubtful sheriff begins to come over to her side.

Anna is an indelible character—and Ms. Rader-Day has created an indelible novel.

Nicholas Petrie: The Drifter

While I am not very interested in the mechanics of violence—i.e., action scenes—Petrie is pretty good at them. This lean, mean, stripped down novel about an Iraqi war vet with serious PTSD grabs you from the start as he climbs under a porch to remove and subdue a large, smelly and hostile dog. It’s unclear why he’s under the porch, who the little boy on the porch is, or why exactly he has to remove the dog, but as the book progresses the whys and whos come into focus.

It becomes clear that the main character—the drifter of the title—Pete, is living in his truck because he can’t bear to be indoors and he’s repairing this particular porch because it belonged to a fellow vet who committed suicide. He feels he let his friend down and is trying to make it up to him.

While he’s working, he finds a suitcase full of money and plastic explosives under the porch, and the question becomes—did it belong to his friend? Does the wife know about it? Does anyone else know about it? Some sinister questioning from a man with a scarred face who happens to drive by the house puts a rest to that question.

It becomes clear who the real couple in the book is early on: Pete and the dog. To get the dog out, he’s tied a stick in his mouth so he can’t bite, but as Pete hand feeds him and lets him sleep in his truck they become friendly and eventually one of the more pressing questions I had when reading this compelling thriller was, when was Pete going to give the dog a bath?

As the plot threads tighten and Petrie uses some clever sleight of hand to reveal the identity of the criminal mastermind behind the money and plastic explosives, it’s hard to stop reading this book. It’s well written and well constructed, and Pete and the dog will stay with you long after you finish reading.

We had Petrie’s professor in the store for an event and he bought one of Lee Child’s books, as he said Nick cited him as an influence. The professor seemed confused by this. No mystery reader will be, however. Pete has threads of Jack Reacher hanging all over him. This is a terrific debut.

G.M. Malliet: Devil’s Breath

I can’t say how delighted I am that G.M. Malliet is continuing to write her Max Tudor mysteries. With actual British writers turning to the really dark and really scary, it’s American Malliet who has assumed the Golden Age mantel with this series. It’s pure joy to read one of these novels, start to finish.  The structure and format won’t be a surprise to any devotee of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, but the way the characters are turned into fully human beings makes them utterly contemporary.

In this outing, Max, along with being the vicar of Nether Monkslip, devoted husband to Awena and doting father to the fabulous Owen, has returned to his roots with the MI5 and has taken on an actual assignment. He receives the news that he’s replacing, and will be working with, a former paramour with some trepidation but that is instantly resolved when said former paramour turns out to be about nine months pregnant.

The case involves drug smuggling, and it’s suspected the smuggling could most easily take place on board a luxury yacht. On just such a yacht is a party of Hollywood types and upper crust hangers on, out on a pleasure trip, when one of them (a famous movie star now getting a bit long in the tooth) turns up dead. The two cases merge and Max takes on the job of not only looking into the drug smuggling, but into trying to discover more about the dead woman, Margot Trent, in hopes that will lead him and the police to her killer.

At his side, as usual, is the Shakespeare quoting DCI Cotton, but the book belongs to Max and the Hollywood contingent as, true Golden Age style, he interviews each possible suspect in turn. The book even comes with a guide to the cast of characters at the beginning, a la Agatha Christie. Mallet’s delicious turn of phrase as she indelibly portrays each character are one of the true joys of reading any of her books—she swiftly exposes each, warts and all, and then unexpectedly brings you on the side of the victim who throughout has been portrayed as selfish and vain but who somehow remains sort of likable.

That, to me, was the biggest turn of the plot, though the solution was suitably tricky with a dash of Golden Age coincidence thrown in for good measure. These books are satisfying in every particular, and it was a read I enjoyed more than I can say. I hope Max Tudor will not take as long to return as he did this time around.

Author Interview: Lori Rader-Day

Lori Rader-DayWhen you read Lori Rader-Day’s new book, The Day I Died, it should be obvious why she’s regarded as an up and comer. Her first two books, The Black Hour and Little Pretty Things, garnered plenty of attention and award nominations. This one stays with you long after you finish reading it – and Lori was nice enough to answer some questions about it.

Q: I saw in the back of this book that you’ve been thinking about writing it for 10 years. What part of this story came to you first? What compelled you forward to work on this for 10 years?

A: I didn’t think about writing it for ten years. Over the course of ten years, I wrote it! It was a short story in 2007; by 2009, it was a full novel draft. The problem was that I was not yet a novelist. Writing that draft taught me all the pitfalls of novel writing. When I put it away and started what became my first published book, The Black Hour, I was so much more comfortable with the process and the shape of a novel-length project. And then I wrote my second novel, Little Pretty Things. After that, I had to decide what came next. I could have let the draft of what is now The Day I Died languish; it wouldn’t have killed me to let it go and write something new. But I felt as though the problem with that draft hadn’t been the story or the character or the set-up, but me. I hadn’t been a skilled enough writer at the time I attempted that book. I wanted to give that story and that character a chance.

Q: Did you always know you were a mystery writer, as opposed to some other type of writer?

A: I had to be told, actually! In 2008, I won a fellowship to a retreat hosted by Midwest Writers Workshop. When I arrived, I found I had been placed in the mystery group, as opposed to the fiction group. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Before then, I had no idea what I was writing was a mystery. The instructor of our group at that retreat was Terrence Faherty, who showed me the direction I should go, and he saved me a lot of wasted time. He told me about Bouchercon, which was in St. Louis in 2011, which is where I joined Mystery Writers of America and really started getting involved in the mystery community.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to be put in the mystery group. I had always loved reading mysteries—I just hadn’t ever tried to write one. Not on purpose, anyway.

Q: I have noticed, having met several people who write scary psychological thrillers, as you do, that they seem to be especially empathic. What is it, do you think, that allows you to put yourself into a situation you yourself may not have actually experienced?  

A: Empathy is a particularly useful writer’s tool, so the best writers of any genre are probably empathetic. We also use our own experiences to fuel our stories, even when the plots have nothing to do with our lives. We use our memories of experiences to give our characters their experiences, which then gives the reader hers. For instance, in my first book The Black Hour, the main character had been injured in an act of campus violence. I heard from many readers that they thought Amelia’s pain was real. One book club reader who had chronic pain herself said I got it right. But I’ve never been shot. Nor do I want to do the research. I used my own recovery from having my spleen removed (long story) to give me those pain details. I’ve never been the victim of domestic violence, but can I imagine betrayal by someone I should be able to trust? Of course.

Q: I was interested throughout the novel in how you talked about the main character making her world smaller and smaller. Was this something you especially wanted to explore?

A: Her world starts out the smallest it has ever been. When we meet Anna Winger, she is leading a narrow job centered around her son and her work. All other distractions have been blocked out. Throughout the book, though, she starts to connect: to her neighbor, to the mentor who helped her get started in handwriting analysis who she’s only met in person a few times, to the sheriff who seeks her help now and other members of her new community. I wanted the help Anna gives to the sheriff to take her to a place where she has to change, to where she has no choice but to let others in.

Q: One of the more interesting parts of the book is the fact that the main character is a handwriting analyst.  How did that profession present itself to you, and how much do you know about it?

A: I discovered handwriting analysis at a library. I was there trolling for inspiration for a new short story and found it. I’m no expert myself, but I used some research to fill in the gaps and to extrapolate what Anna needed to notice throughout the book. Once I figured out that Anna would be paying attention to every shred of handwriting she could find, I had fun with inserting more chances for her use her expertise.

Q: Does this book feel different to you than other books you’ve written?  Do you feel you grow as a writer with each book?

A:I hope that’s what is happening, though growing as a writer doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing gets any easier. In some ways, it’s more difficult. You expect more of yourself and so do other people. The Day I Died is different in that it’s about a mother, something I am not. My approach, of course, was very different. In the end, what I was hoping was not so much that this book would be different but that it would be the same. Since I wrote it first, I was worried it wouldn’t be what my readers had come to expect from me.

Q: What mystery writers (or other kinds of writers) have influenced you? 

A: My early favorites were Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Lois Duncan. Of course as soon as I discovered Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark, it was all over for me. I also love writers like Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) and T.C. Boyle (World’s End). My favorite crime novels of all time are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, it is) and The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.

Q: Can you name a book that was a “transformational read” for you? One that turned you on to reading, or changed your life as a reader or writer? 

A: I was always a reader, but the writer who made me want to be a writer first was Beverly Cleary. Ramona forever.

Q: Finally, what’s next for you?

A: I’m revising my next novel for William Morrow for release in 2018, an as-yet-untitled murder mystery that takes place in a dark sky park—a place kept free of light pollution so that visitors can see the stars the way nature intended. It’s set in Michigan, as a matter of fact! I borrowed the very real Headlands park up near Mackinaw (City, ed.) but changed some details and names. I’ll soon be striking out on a new story but haven’t decided what that will be yet.

 

Deborah Crombie: Garden of Lamentations

I look forward to few novels more than I do those of Deborah Crombie, whose Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid books have become one of my favorite series. As the series has progressed and the working partners became marital ones, I also have become a fan of these characters who are good, decent human beings dealing with life as it comes at them. They are a family of five with all the chaos that entails and juggling family and work is not always easy. In this novel, Gemma and Duncan seem a bit estranged.

Originally, the two worked together, with Duncan outranking Gemma, but now they are equals in rank and they no longer work together. In this novel, as in the previous several, each one has their own case they are pursuing and the two don’t mix. Crombie, who obviously is a big fan of order and structure, is able to nimbly navigate this complex plotting structure with ease.

Gemma’s case concerns a nanny who was found dead in the private, shared garden behind the house where she lived and worked, so in this scenario, Crombie creates a locked room mystery of a sort as Gemma and her temporary boss, Boatman, who has requested Gemma as she has a tenuous personal connection to the victim. This story really captivated me as Crombie delves into the lifestyles and personalities of the families surrounding the garden area. For those not familiar either with London or the movie Notting Hill, the garden is a fenced, locked one, accessible only to the neighbors whose houses back up to it.

Duncan’s case is more complex and has threads tied to the past several books, and involves police corruption at the highest level. Duncan is mostly working in the dark as he tries to figure out why his old boss, Denis Childs, who had disappeared and reappeared, requesting a meeting, and who warns him to be careful has given him this warning. Duncan is worried and doesn’t share his worries with Gemma, thus straining their relationship, and when Childs is conked on the head and is in an induced coma, Duncan is really on his own.

He gets to work with his old mates, Melody and Doug, on the sly, as they use their various skill sets and connections to figure out what’s happening. In the last book, the story was set off by a bomb blast in St. Pancras station. Melody was a witness and it’s clear she is probably suffering from PTSD. A working knowledge of that novel (The Sound of Broken Glass) helps to navigate this one. The wrap-up of both cases is both satisfying and surprising.

Crombie is at all times a complex, intelligent writer, who uses her rich characters and settings and complex situations to create truly memorable novels. She weaves her stories back and forth through time in some cases (Duncan’s, here) and interweaves her different plot lines, integrating them with the character’s personal lives. This is the bravura work of a master of her craft.

Stephen Mack Jones: August Snow

As I started this book I have to admit I was a tad suspicious – the author is a poet and a playwright, not always the recipe for creating a down and dirty private eye novel. But as I read this novel set in Detroit’s Mexicantown and featuring half African American, half Mexican ex-cop August Snow, I found instead that the book fitted neatly in with work by Loren Estleman and Steve Hamilton, being a refreshingly straightforward, if gritty, private eye novel and making no bones about it.

Like David Housewright’s Minnesota P.I. Mackenzie, who has a ton of money at his disposal, so does August Snow, who won a settlement against the Detroit Police Department and is using the money in his own way to recreate the warm Mexicantown neighborhood he fondly remembers from his childhood. He’s been on the run – more or less – for a year and is back home, settling into his life in Detroit, when he gets a call from an old client, one who helped cause much of the ruckus that got him on the outs with the Detroit cops. Reluctantly, he makes the trek across town to the woman’s Grosse Pointe mansion to see what he can help her with.

He turns down her request to look into possibly shady happenings at the wealth management firm and bank she owns, but when she’s discovered dead shortly after they’ve talked, August, being the true white knight private eye hero, thinks there’s something wrong about her apparent suicide and can’t get it out of his head.

The back and forth of the street characters and hackers August deals with, contrasted with the ultra wealthy banker types, creates a good back and forth dynamic as the book unfolds. And even the name of this detective – August Snow – summer, winter, two opposites in the same name – helps define the way he’s able to straddle the street, the FBI and police and his wealthy clients.

I thought this book took a bit of time to get warmed up – as though Mack Jones was finding his footing and establishing his bonafides, but once he gets rolling, this is a wonderfully plotted P.I. novel, full of action and great characters. As readers we also meet the one of the few African American private eyes on the scene, so this is a welcome book and I hope the start of a series. There just aren’t enough books like this one being written at the moment.