Author Archive for Agatha – Page 2

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.

Chevy Stevens: Never Let You Go

When Robin asked me to write a review of Chevy Stevens’s new book in advance of Chevy’s appearance at the store, she wondered if I’d have to reread the book in order to refresh my memory. But, despite the fact that I’d devoured Never Let You Go  back in early September, and have read many mysteries since, the answer was an emphatic no. Believe me, consuming one of Chevy’s books is such a powerful and enthralling experience that you’re not going to forget it anytime soon.

In a thriller the initial setup is crucial, and as usual in her work, Never Let You Go has a compelling hook that lands the reader into her hold. There are two lines of narrative, one told in the voice of Lindsey in 2005, a young and somewhat naive wife trapped in an abusive relationship. At a vacation resort her Machiavellian husband Andrew pulls a power trip that endangers their daughter Sophie, making Lindsey realize once and for all that she and Sophie must escape from him.

Flash forward to 2016 where Lindsey and Sophie have rebuilt their lives on an isolated Canadian island. Unfortunately Andrew has gotten out of prison, mysterious and vaguely menacing things have started to happen, and the drastic measures Lindsey used to get Andrew incarcerated in the first place haunt her in more ways than one.

As we learn how she escaped from her previous hell we also see the fresh one developing around her. Then there’s the narrative from teen Sophie, who doesn’t really remember her father, has been surreptitiously corresponding with him in prison, and is rebelliously sympathetic to his attempts to forge a relationship now that he’s out.

The result is very hard to put down. Stevens knows how to twist a plot without tying it into implausible knots and the unexpected ending makes you wonder how you didn’t see it coming rather than filling you with a desire to throw the book across the room. In a thriller landscape infested with zombie Gone Girl on the Train clones, she stands out because of the deep humanity of all her characters, as well as the sincere empathy she brings to even the most horrifying scenarios. The result is a book that is sensational without being sensationalistic, one that, like many classic “women in peril” mysteries, is, in fact, a commentary on the relative powerlessness of women in society. You’ll race through Never Let You Go, but it will reverberate for a long time. (Jamie)

Vicki Delany: Elementary, She Read

This is a charming book, and Vicki Delany is a total pro at telling a story. Brisk, entertaining, and memorable – the whole package. As far as cozies go, she’s top of the line. The set-up is great. Main character Gemma Doyle lives on Cape Cod and owns a Sherlock Holmes themed bookshop and teashop along with her uncle, who is the real Holmes buff but more of a silent partner as he’s off on collecting trips. I’ve read books about bookstores before that I found pretty unrealistic, but Cape Cod is a tourist area and because Gemma’s shop sells more than books, I could believe that she was briskly selling lots of decks of Sherlock playing cards, figurines and other tchotchkes.

As the book opens, the shop is busy with a bridge group on a tour, who swarm the tearoom and the shop. Gemma notices a woman who doesn’t seem to belong come in and then loses sight of her as she waits on customers. The woman disappears but when the crowd clears, Gemma finds a bag with an apparently almost priceless copy of a 19th century magazine with an original Sherlock story in it. She locks it in her safe and from there her troubles begin.

Gemma, who has the deductive reasoning powers of our hero, figures out where the mystery woman must be and tracks her to a local motel, but when she finds her, the woman is dead. Gemma becomes prime suspect #1 and the main investigator is a former boyfriend. Things go from bad to worse as Gemma’s house is trashed, the police continue to show up at her home and business for questioning, and she feels she’s being followed. When her ex is taken off the case and the officer in charge clearly thinks Gemma is the guilty party, Gemma takes things into her own hands.

She repeatedly says to herself that the police have greater resources than she does but she can’t help herself and finds her way nimbly through a thicket of clues. The story, the surrounding characters, and the Cape Cod setting all make this a more than delightful read. It feels like a set up to a nice long-lived series, and I hope it is.

Jane Harper: The Dry

The DryTwo things to keep in mind when reading The Dry:

  1. It’s an awesome book to read in the cold, cold winter, as it’s set in the burning draught of Australia as meticulously delineated by Jane Harper.
  2. If you start reading it early in the evening, forget about getting any sleep. You won’t be able to put it down.

This is a wonderful first novel, featuring Melbourne financial detective Aaron Falk, who has returned to his tiny hometown of Kiewarra for the most tragic of reasons: his boyhood friend, Luke, has apparently killed his wife and toddler son in a murder-suicide. Aaron has gotten a note from Luke’s father demanding his attendance at the funeral. As he arrives, it’s like he’s walking into a terrible steam bath. Harper wraps the suffocating heat around him like a blanket and he’s plunged into the tiny church where the funeral is being held, surrounded by his long ago neighbors and frenemies.

Kind of like the frog in the water that’s boiling but doesn’t realize it until it’s too late, Aaron eases back into Kiewarra despite some terrible past memories and the fresh new grief of losing his old friend Luke. In a room over the pub he’s visited by the local cop in charge, who asks him to unofficially look into the case with him, as he feels something is off.

Unlike many contemporary detective novels, neither Aaron nor the local, Raco, are the tormented type. Yes, Aaron has some baggage that makes him a bit standoffish, but he and Raco are both are at heart good, decent men who want to discover the truth because that’s what’s right. This is almost a western, and they may as well be wearing the white hats of the good sheriff.

This novel is far from corny, however, and Harper uses the setting—the dry, hot landscape—to her advantage as she tells her story, winding it in as part of her plot. That’s a trick only some of the very best writers can pull off (Kent Krueger and Julia Keller both come to mind) and Harper is a very powerful writer. As she interweaves the past and present, creating an incredibly painful backstory, she’s also laid the groundwork for a true mystery with a solution that is a surprise in one way and in another way, it’s not, as she’s set it up so well.

I often feel mysteries can get away with a good story and decent characters. That’s a good read. When all the elements—prose, plot, setting and character are present—that’s a great read. The Dry is a great read. Don’t miss it.

Doug Allyn: The Jukebox Kings

Doug Allyn has long been known as one of the masters of the modern mystery short story—it’s probably harder to find an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine that doesn’t have an Allyn story in it than to find one that does, and it’s a rare year that he’s not nominated for an Edgar award. But he’s also a fine novelist as well, my personal favorite being the the Mitch Mitchell series, which feature a female Michigan based deepwater diver.

The latest exhibit of his mastery in the longer form is called The Jukebox Kings. It’s not so much a mystery as a crime novel, a story of the rise of a gangster in the Little Caesar tradition. Mick Shannon is a boxer, fresh out of prison, who, after losing a tough fight, finds himself deeply in debt to the mob, in the person of Moishe Abrams, an extremely dangerous relic of the Purple Gang era, who still controls jukeboxes and collections in the black parts of Detroit. Things get rough quickly, and soon Mick finds himself taking the place of Moishe in an extremely fraught environment.

At first the book is reminiscent of early Elmore Leonard (not the worst thing to be reminiscent of!) in its portrayal of a tough, canny protagonist dealing with the changing Detroit of the early sixties. Allyn puts his own stamp on it by introducing another element of his expertise, music.

Mick seizes a tiny music studio from a deadbeat then dead client, and proceeds to learn the ins and outs of the exploding Motown scene with the help of Martika, a savvy and attractive soul sister who happens to harbor a performing talent herself. The synergy between the studio, the jukeboxes that play the products of the studio and a soon acquired nightclub creates a new and successful operation, but also one that attracts the attention of the new look but just as brutal Mafia whose “takeover and acquisition” strategy Mick and his new associates must resist.

There’s plenty of action, atmosphere and snappy dialogue in The Jukebox Kings, as well as an insightful look at the music business and a changing Detroit. The long sweep of the story, which reaches from the Supremes to rap, must have been liberating for an author used to a more restricted form. Although Mick is a violent man who turns to violent means when necessary, he’s a sympathetic character and his story is a winning one.

Laura Joh Rowland: The Ripper’s Shadow

Laura Joh Rowland is well known to mystery fans as the author of the Sano Ichiro mysteries set in 17th century Japan. She’s also taken on Charlotte Bronte in other novels, and here she creates a new character, photographer Sarah Bain, who lives in Victorian London at the same time as Jack the Ripper. While there are many, many books about Jack the Ripper—the fact that he was never found will always be fuel for speculation—he’s almost like Sherlock Holmes in that the permutations and impressions of his life (and crimes) are varied and plentiful, and the interpretations can range from the dull to the nutty to the creative. Rowland goes for the creative.

She creates a central tent pole character who is interesting, flawed, and human at the same time. Sarah is a female photographer struggling to make ends meet on her own, and has found a path to success taking naughty photographs of prostitutes. The photos were the idea of one of the women, but when the women start to die at the hands of the Ripper, Sarah feels her photographs are the reason why. Interweaving fact and fiction, Rowland of course posits a solution to the crimes, but that is almost a McGuffin. To me the real interest of the novel lay in the characters which Rowland chooses to surround Sarah.

They are a varied and disparate lot, yet they seem to have a common thread—some horrible, painful pasts or innate character traits that make them societal outliers. There are the Lipskys, who Sarah meets when she goes to photograph their dead child; Jews expelled from Russia, their painful past can almost be assumed. There’s young Mick, who cadges his living on the streets but takes a liking to Sarah, who ends up feeding him on a pretty regular basis. There’s the dashing Lord Hugh whose secret is that he prefers men to women; in Victorian London, of course, this was an illegal lifestyle choice that could result in prison. And finally there’s the lovely actress and model Catherine, who has posed for Sarah and who the little band unites around in a kind of protective custody arrangement.

As this group searches for the Ripper, Sarah is afraid to reveal the reason for her alarm to the police, fearing her photos could get her arrested. As she hides this essential fact she becomes a target of the investigation herself and finds a frenemy in one PC Barrett.

As Rowland takes the reader on a tour of many of the seamier parts of London, you can almost smell the city as Sarah and crew take their stations in the fog, protecting prostitutes and hoping to catch the Ripper. Sarah’s lonely present is assuaged by her new band of companions, and it’s the growing friendship between all of them—as little bits of their pasts are teased out throughout the narrative—that give this novel real charm. It certainly felt to me like it was set up for a sequel, and I hope it is, as these are characters I hope to revisit.