Archive for Reviews – Page 3

Julia Keller: Fast Falls the Night

I have a real respect for writers who pull off the feat of condensing a book into the space of a single day. One of my favorite mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), takes place in the space of a single night, and while Ms. Keller is far removed from Ms. Marsh in time, theme, setting, and protagonist, they share a knack all good storytellers have. I think it’s a matter of pacing, the right amount of being invested in the characters, and some sort of indefinable magic. Marsh’s stories are lighter and more optimistic than Keller’s, who sets hers in a far more brutal time and place.

It’s sad to think that 21st century West Virginia is more brutal than post-WWII London, where Marsh set her novel, but there it is. Keller’s central character, prosecutor Bell Elkins, is weary: weary of her non-stop job, and weary of the opioid crisis that’s overtaken her little town of Acker’s Gap. As the novel opens, there’s an overdose in a gas station bathroom and things go from bad to worse as overdoses and fatalities pile up, apparently from heroin laced with another, even more deadly, drug.

Balancing theme with narrative impetus – something that’s aided by the short time frame – Keller’s book is never didactic or preachy. She gets her message across just fine by showing, not telling. It’s clear the overtaxed law enforcement, paramedic and medical personnel can’t respond to every crime. They have to overlook the small in favor of the big and as overdoses pile up, it’s all they can do to keep up and simply react.

Keller isn’t a storyteller without complexity, however, and within the pages of this novel are Bell’s character, working relationships, family and romantic life as well as the story of a young officer named Jake. His possible romance, his life and the way he puts the pieces of the drug stories together take on an almost epic turn within the tight confines of this well paced and constructed novel.

There’s a tight balance in this book between message – the opioid crisis, or the “Appalachian Virus”; narrative, and character. Significant events take place in Bell’s life as well as Jake’s but they are wrapped up in the story, and that’s as it should be. Novels are stories: the characters keep us invested, the prose speaks to our hearts, and the situation (in this case) breaks them. I’ve loved all of Ms. Keller’s books, but brutal as this one is, it is probably my favorite, a true achievement of style and substance.

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Fred Vargas is an interesting combination of very traditional and very – untraditional. Her set-up is traditional – Parisian Commissaire Adamsberg has a homicide squad that breaks down in traditional police novel form, with each character in the squad adding something to the story. But Adamsberg himself is extremely untraditional, with deductive methods that border on magical realism. In this novel, the story opens with an elderly woman struggling to the mailbox to mail a letter. Alas, she collapses before she can mail it, but a good Samaritan who helped her until an ambulance arrives later finds the letter in her pocket and mails it.

“Adamsberg put down his fork with care, acting cautiously as he did whenever a barely formed idea, the embryo of an idea, a tadpole of an idea, began slowly swimming up to the surface of his consciousness. At moments like this, he knew, you should not make a sound, because a tadpole will take fright and dive down to disappear forever.” A Climate of Fear, Fred Vargas

A few days later the good Samaritan reads in the paper that the elderly woman has died and she’s disturbed enough to go and tell the police that she’s mailed the letter. The police, especially Adamsberg, aren’t quite convinced that the woman’s death is the suicide it appears to be, especially as they find a curious symbol written near the body, so they seize on the clue offered them by the woman, who remembers the address on the letter. As more bodies begin to appear with the same symbol written nearby, the case of the apparent suicide turns into a full-fledged murder investigation.

There are two threads to the story – an expedition to Iceland several years back which went horribly wrong – and the discovery of a Society for Robespierre, where the hundreds of members dress in revolutionary garb and recreate the speeches of the time. Adamsberg’s investigation style is not linear. He’s guided by feelings, small signs and his reading of human nature as he attempts to untangle what he thinks of to himself as a giant piece of seaweed with many tangled threads.

His squad are frequently confused by his investigative style but go along with is it as he gets results. The case takes him to the French countryside (where he meets, among others, an old lady who smokes a pipe and lives with a wild boar), Iceland, and deep into the Robespierre group as the police interview many of the members who all assume the personalities of the particular historical figure they portray. As an interesting aside, the members of the society are made to change parties now and then so they don’t become entrenched in their viewpoints – not a bad idea, it seems to me.

While this meticulous plot requires a great deal of set-up, the pay-off is well worth it, with the complex threads tying together nicely at the end. While the writing is lovely, I think the main joy of this particular series is Commissaire Adamsberg – a quirky, original mind who works in mysterious ways.

Andrew Michael Hurley: The Loney

One of the things that make England such a haunted place is its sheer antiquity. The great ghost story writers of that country are often possessed by the fear that the spirits of the old, pre-Christian ways will manifest themselves darkly in our bright modern world. Such is the slowly dawning terror of Andrew Michael Hurley’s magnificent new chiller The Loney:

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

“There” in this case is the Loney, a wild and barely habited stretch of coastline in Lancashire where the narrator, his family, his parish priest and a few other members of the congregation would travel at Easter.

It was our week of penitence and prayer in which we would make our confessions, visit Saint Anne’s shrine, and look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter.

The novel begins with the narrator (we never learn his real first name) hearing the news of a landslide in the area that caused an old house to slide down the cliff, and more disturbingly, of the baby’s skeleton found in the wreckage. Thus the story begins, revolving around a single still supernatural point, switching from the past history leading up to it and the present moment where it still reverberates.

It’s a hypnotic, richly realized work, with many strong ingredients. The narrator’s hyper-religious mother, obsessed with finding a miraculous cure for his mute older brother, is the propulsive force that pushes them into a return to the Loney, dragging along the new parish priest who has replaced the longstanding old one who died under mysterious circumstances. As in any good Gothic, the bleak and ancient landscape is itself a character, one with a dark tide that pulls toward oblivion as strongly as the stormy waves on the beach. The locals are sullen and threatening, their traditional customs strange and unsettling, and the weather awful as the modern world seems more and more distant.

The book has a slow and powerful sweep powered by the finely fashioned prose, creeping evermore creepily, much more like the classic Victorian and Edwardian writers Sheridan Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins or M. R. James than modern shocksters like Stephen King. The denouement is also very old school, with no exploding heads or rubber monsters, but a much more sinister sense of doom and discomfort, which in the end is far more effective.

It’s hard to categorize “The Loney,” to pigeonhole it as a Gothic, Ghost or Horror story, because it’s all that and more. What’s easy to say is that it’s a remarkable debut, a real dream of a nightmare that will haunt long after the last page. (Jamie)

Ingrid Thoft: Loyalty

I have heard the buzz about Ingrid Thoft for awhile now and finally got around to picking up this first novel in her series, and boy, is the hype justified. The central character, a female P.I. who works for the family law firm, bears some similarity to the kick-ass Kalinda on The Good Wife, one of my all time favorite TV characters. Josefina “Fina” Ludlow also has a passing resemblance to Spenser, and as this series is set in Boston, that seems only right. The family law firm is run with an iron fist by her father Carl and staffed by her high powered brothers. While Fina found the law wasn’t for her, she found investigative work was. It’s very much put to the test in this first outing. She runs a business “separate” from the family law firm, but they bring her most of her clients.

Unfortunately, her skills are needed when her sister-in-law disappears, and while her brother seems not that troubled by her disappearance, Fina increasingly is, and the outcome (this is a mystery novel, after all) is predictably tragic. When her brother becomes the prime suspect in what’s pretty clear is a homicide, Fina is also trying to help out her now-grieving teenaged niece who is resisting all attempts at either help or emotional support.

“The next hour of canvassing was like a greatest hits tour for the worried well. Yoga, Pilates, massage, energy healing, and Rolfing specialists occupied space next to an optometrist, nutritionist, and a variety of MDs. You could have your aura checked, get your spine realigned, and have a colonoscopy, all without moving your car.”
― Loyalty, Ingrid Thoft

There’s a parallel story involving a businesswoman whose business, it becomes clear, is that of a high class madam. The madam is dealing with an incapacitated husband and a son who has moved back home because of a trauma that’s only identified later in the novel.

Thoft’s brisk, entertaining, matter of fact and frequently humorous storytelling style makes this novel a great read. Her skill at weaving together disparate plot threads is indeed reminiscent of the great Robert B. Parker. She also grounds and creates her character and the entire Ludlow family, setting the stage nicely for future installments, of which I hope there are many. This is a fantastic series.

Theresa Schwegel: The Lies We Tell

Theresa Schwegel is a brilliant and underappreciated writer (despite an Edgar win for her first novel, Officer Down). She is a difficult writer, though, and refuses to sugarcoat anything. She also writes her novels in first person, present tense, which some people find off-putting. That said, she’s one of the more original and vivid writers in mystery fiction. Everything she writes is memorable and worth a look, and this novel, her sixth, is no exception.

Most of her novels concern female police officers, and so does this one, though with the twist that the officer in question, Gina Simonetti, is dealing with the beginnings of MS and hiding it from her employer. Schwegel tackles health care as a central theme and it’s deftly woven through her plot, touching on Gina’s health, the case Gina becomes invested in, and the thread of easy access to and misuse of prescription drugs.

As an opening salvo, Gina chases down one Johnny Marble, who has apparently beaten his elderly mother when he shows up to visit her in the hospital. During the course of the chase, Gina’s MS prevents her from doing anything but falling on top of Marble, who takes her gun and escapes. For this reason, Gina becomes desperate to find him and find a way to neutralize his testimony, so that the “Job” will not discover her debilitating illness.

Gina, along with being a strong, kick-ass woman, is also a stubborn one, who is resisting her new health reality while trying to work full time as well as take care of her brother’s 2-year-old, who has now lived with Gina long enough to call her “mama.” The complex plot weaves together a heartbreaking story of the elderly woman in the hospital, Gina’s struggles managing her single mom status along with her hopes of retaining custody, and her attempt to lead an investigation under the radar as her search for Johnny Marble intensifies.

She has some under the radar helpers, and stubbornly resists that help, but in the end, she’s forced to take it. As the novel is told from Gina’s point of view, the picture of Gina that an outsider might glean is only absorbed slowly. When a story is being related in the first person, the reader sometimes second guesses behaviors and actions the character takes, and has to form their own opinion of that character. That’s the difficult part of Schwegel’s writing, and it’s also the brilliant part as the reader is forced to assume an almost active role in the story she’s telling.

The references and social concerns are up to the minute, and health care, while not a sexy topic, is certainly an important one. The casual use of pills and applications of prescription drugs is troubling, but realistic. Fortunately for the lucky reader, these concerns are wrapped in the package of a hard to put down thriller. I can’t recommend checking out this author more highly.

Rhys Bowen: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Note: if you aren’t completely up to date on the Lady Georgie series, this review does contain some spoilers. If you skip it, rest assured this installment is just as much fun as all the others.

Rhys Bowen’s Lady Georgie series is about the most fun you can have “between the covers.” Ever since the publication of Her Royal Spyness (2007), Bowen has trod the delicate line between humor, character development and great plotting to provide one of the more completely enjoyable series in the mysterious universe. Lady Georgie, for the uninitiated, lives in 1930’s London and is 34th in line to the throne. She’s impoverished but does get assignments from the Queen to do a little “family” spying – at the time, Queen Mary’s greatest worry was the Prince of Wales’ relationship with Wallis Simpson.

By this installment, Georgie is engaged to the dashing Darcy and happily spending time with him at the family castle in Ireland when he’s called away on a mission (he is a spy). At loose ends, her troubles are apparently over when she gets a pleading message from her dear friend Belinda who is waiting out an unwanted pregnancy in Italy. She stops by the Palace on her way to Italy to have tea with Queen Mary and request a release from the line of succession so she can marry Darcy (he’s a Catholic and he’s Irish). When the Queen finds out where she’s going, she quickly asks Georgie to join a house party at a villa near her friend. The Prince and Wallis will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Wallis has obtained a divorce.

A good bit of the humor in the books comes from Georgie’s troubles with her maid, Queenie, who is hopeless at ironing, hair, make-up – all the things a ladies’ maid at the time was supposed to be an expert at. But there’s something endearing about Queenie. She’s found a berth with a cousin of Darcy’s in the kitchen and it seems to be suiting her, so Georgie takes off, maid-less and unchaperoned (to the Queen’s horror) to the continent.

Arriving in Italy, it takes some time for her to track down Belinda, who has taken up residence in a Swiss clinic. Georgie eventually makes her reluctant way to the house party, which is hosted by an old boarding school friend who has married really well. The house party appears to be made up of wildly disparate people, including several German officers (it’s 1935 and Hitler is in power), as well as Georgie’s mother. Never very maternal, her mother is nevertheless strangely delighted to see Georgie and asks her to help her out of a spot of blackmail.

Of course, there’s a murder as well as a frighteningly efficient ladies’ maid named Gerda who is on loan from the mistress of the villa. The light tone is kept throughout and as is usual with a Lady Georgie book, I was often laughing aloud as I read. All is resolved at the end and it seems we happy fans have a wedding to look forward to in the next installment, and possibly three of them. If you want to know who the other two weddings belong to, you’ll have to read the book!

E.J. Copperman: Written Off

E.J. Copperman, Jeffrey Cohen’s alter ego, has written, as either Copperman or Cohen (or both) now five series (with a sixth to debut in August of this year), all of them well crafted and enjoyable, and two of them, his Asperger’s detective series and this one, ranking among the very best cozy series ever, in this humble reviewer’s opinion. For me the apex of cozy begins with Charlotte MacLeod, spreads quickly to Sharyn McCrumb’s peerless Elizabeth McPherson series, and trickles down to include writers like Dorothy Cannell and Donna Andrews and continues onward from there. There are many contemporary cozy series I both admire and enjoy, but Cohen/Copperman is top of the pile.

Like Cohen’s Asperger’s detective series, this one – he’s calling it the “Mysterious Detective” series – has an insanely great set-up. The main character, Rachel Goldman, writes cozy mysteries featuring a detective named Duffy Madison, who works as a consultant to a prosecutor’s office. One night, as Rachel is at a book signing, a man turns up who says he is Duffy Madison. Not only does this Duffy Madison hold the job Rachel created for him in her books, but he appears to have sprung into existence four years ago – the same time Rachel’s first book was published. Rachel (and her bookstore friends) thinks he’s nuts, but he insists he has an important case he needs to discuss with her, and reluctantly, she agrees.

The case involves two dead mystery writers and one missing one, and ever so reluctantly Rachel is drawn into the story, especially as it seems she might be next on the killer’s list. Cohen/Copperman, after so many books and series, is really top of his game as a pure mystery writer – plot, setup, clues, suspects – all expertly and enjoyably handled. Oh, yeah, he’s also very funny, which in a cozy series, is seriously important. Sure, it’s a bit meta to have the main character be a mystery writer and the detective a character she’s actually created, but this book has a lovely energy, focus and narrative drive that just can’t be beat. And like the very best mystery stories, this one ends with a little cliffhanger for the next book. Seriously, if you love cozies or just funny, well written mystery novels, don’t pass this one up.

James R. Benn: Billy Boyle

We sell a TON of James R. Benn titles, often this first one, Billy Boyle. Billy is an Irish cop circa 1942, when he’s drafted. His uncles, who lived through WWI, don’t like the idea of Billy going overseas so they pull some strings, getting him assigned to a “cushy” desk job with cousin Ike (a.k.a. Eisenhower). While I usually dislike historical novels featuring real people, cousin Ike (other than getting Billy over to England) only plays a small part in the story, so I was OK with it.

Billy, fresh from the states, is unsure what to expect. He’s put up at the Dorchester hotel (in an attic room, obviously previously used for servants) and is quickly introduced to the people he’ll be working with. Among them are the glamorous Daphne, a WREN far more capable than her assignments, and a courtly and melancholy Polish Baron named Kaz who has lost his family to the Nazis.

As Billy arrives, the Allies are set to launch Operation Jupiter – basically a plan to get the Nazis out of Norway – when there’s an unexpected suicide, which of course turns out to be murder.

Benn capably sets up a locked room mystery situation – the murder could only have been committed by someone at the Dorchester, which is filled with Norwegian officers. Daphne comes up with a plan to get Billy (and herself) where she needs to go, and she, Kaz and Billy set off to far flung parts of Britain in their quest to uncover a killer. On the way they stop at Daphne’s home, a lovely country estate, where Billy is more than smitten with Daphne’s sister, Diana.

The trio splits up to do their investigating, Billy heading out to speak with one of the Norwegians getting ready to go overseas to take part in the secret operation to liberate Norway from the Nazis. When Billy returns to meet up with Daphne and Kaz there’s a death so jaw dropping that finishing the novel gains even more urgency. Billy, a rookie cop back home, has been elevated to playing a real detective and he’s finding it challenging but, with his Dad’s voice in his head advising him on what to do, he perseveres and discovers the culprit.

A secret operation of Billy’s own puts paid to the murderer, but he’s plagued with the idea that his actions have cost lives. Benn is really expert in highlighting these wartime dilemmas, of which that last is the largest: how to balance the greater good with the cost of some (or many) lives figuring into the equation (I was reminded of the excellent movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, which takes the same thing into account. Benn’s book predates the film by several years).

Benn is a lively storyteller, nicely balancing character, a dash of romance, a well drawn wartime setting and a terrific plot. This is thankfully already a lengthy series, and I can’t recommend starting with this novel more highly.

Cara Black: Murder in Saint-Germain

“You’re a pest… A real nuisance in heels.”

Nancy Drew has grown up, and she wears Louboutin pumps and rides an unreliable pink scooter around town. Cara Black’s Aimée LeDuc is living her most feminist adventure ever, as she juggles maman duties with a full time (and fully dangerous) job, one that finds her jumping over rooftops, scrambling through sewers, and generally the object of the attention of many bad guys. While at home Aimée is happy with baby Chloe, she’s alienated from her baby’s father, as well as from the critically injured Morbier, her protector and stand in father who lies in the hospital, dying, asking for her.

In the world of work, she’s juggling a case at the École des Beaux-Arts and a request from her old friend, Suzanne, who is sure she’s seen one of the most terrible humans alive on the streets of Paris. Thing is, she’s sure this man, who tortured, raped and killed little girls in Bosnia, was killed in a bombing. Aimée isn’t sure whether to believe Suzanne or not but she agrees to look for him while running computer checks at the Ecole in her slightly less alarming job.

As everyone from Rene to Chloe’s father, Melac, warns her to stay away from Suzanne’s case, Aimée just can’t, especially when some of Suzanne’s other contacts start dropping like flies in ways that could almost be accidents. Aimée is sure they are not (even a mysterious death by bee stings) and plunges on.

As always one of the great pleasures of a Cara Black book is the true sensation of being in Paris, as Aimée scoots here, there, and everywhere. The plot is suitably complex and the reason this ghost must be caught more than chilling, lending an urgency to Aimée’s investigation. The bits of Aimée’s personal life that sneak in – her relationships with Melac and Morbier and less troublesomely, with Chloe, lend the book and the proceedings an emotional grounding. I found Aimée’s believable juggling of her baby and her job one of the more resonant aspects of the novel. This is another wonderful installment in a deservedly long lived series.

Karen Dionne: The Marsh King’s Daughter

Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish, and it’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. This novel, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is indelible in every way: setting, story and character. Dionne frames her novel with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Marsh King’s Daughter, and opens with a woman named Helena relating, in first person, that she’s a kidnapping survivor.

The scenario seems all too tragically familiar – Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, even the movie, Room – but as Dionne fleshes it out it becomes very much her own story. Helena is the product of an abduction. She grew up in a remote area of the UP in a tiny cabin with only her mother and father. As it’s the only life she knows, it takes her a long time to puzzle out quite what’s wrong about it.

But flash forward to when Helena is a grown, married woman with two daughters of her own, and she learns that her father, the “Marsh King” of the title, has escaped from prison. When the cops show up on her doorstep at the same time as her husband, who has no idea of Helena’s backstory, his first impulse is to get the girls in the car and get out of dodge. Helena refuses to go with him – this is her quest, but she fears she’s lost her husband forever. Trust is not a concept she’s familiar with, and as the story evolves, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The story weaves together the past and the present, so we learn of Helena’s childhood where her mild mother was very much a background figure to the devotion and kinship of Helena and her father as he teaches her to hunt and survive in a remote area with no running water, electricity, or any means of communication. Everything the tiny family has is a product of their hard work, from the leather Helena’s mother softens and makes into gloves and hats to the snowshoes made by Helena’s father. Helena’s only frame of reference for the world are an old stack of National Geographics.

In the present she’s hunting her father in the wilderness they both know so well, and it’s clear that while he’s an expert woodsman, so is she, thanks to his training. They are lethal equals, and Helena’s task is made more urgent when she starts finding bodies.

In the past, while the young Helena clearly loves her father and loves the things he teaches her, she’s also subjected to beatings and punishments (being locked in a well, for example) and her mother is basically being raped every night, with Helena being a product of a rape. These things are only clear to Helena as she gets older, however – when she is a young girl she holds her mother in contempt.

This story could be set nowhere else but the UP, and Dionne is an amazingly evocative and vivid writer describing her setting. While I grew up in Michigan and spent my summers “up north,” entering the UP always felt like I was going to a different country, and Dionne is expert in portraying that feeling.

As Helena grows older and becomes ready, naturally, for the next phase of her life, her growing rebellion and strength makes her father angry and leads to a showdown. As the two of them in the present race toward one another for another show down, it puts this intimate story on an almost epic scale. Everything about this novel is perfect: the writing, which is not too flowery but is memorable and clear; the characters – Helena and her parents will stay in my mind for a very long time; the vivid setting, and finally, the story that doesn’t let up. If there’s a better novel written this year I would be very surprised. Don’t miss it.