Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine Mathews

Review: Death on a Winter Stroll by Francine MathewsDeath on a Winter Stroll (Merry Folger #7) by Francine Mathews
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: holiday fiction, mystery
Series: Merry Folger Nantucket Mystery #1
Pages: 288
Published by Soho Crime on November 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

No-nonsense Nantucket detective Merry Folger grapples with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and two murders as the island is overtaken by Hollywood stars and DC suits.

Nantucket Police Chief Meredith Folger is acutely conscious of the stress COVID-19 has placed on the community she loves. Although the island has proved a refuge for many during the pandemic, the cost to Nantucket has been high. Merry hopes that the Christmas Stroll, one of Nantucket’s favorite traditions, in which Main Street is transformed into a winter wonderland, will lift the island’s spirits. But the arrival of a large-scale TV production, and the Secretary of State and her family, complicates matters significantly.

The TV shoot is plagued with problems from within, as a shady, power-hungry producer clashes with strong-willed actors. Across Nantucket, the Secretary’s troubled stepson keeps shaking off his security detail to visit a dilapidated house near conservation land, where an intriguing recluse guards secrets of her own. With all parties overly conscious of spending too much time in the public eye and secrets swirling around both camps, it is difficult to parse what behavior is suspicious or not—until the bodies turn up.

Now, it’s up to Merry and Detective Howie Seitz to find a connection between two seemingly unconnected murders and catch the killer. But when everyone has a motive, and half of the suspects are politicians and actors, how can Merry and Howie tell fact from fiction?

This latest installment in critically acclaimed author Francine Mathews’ Merry Folger series is an immersive escape to festive Nantucket, a poignant exploration of grief as a result of parental absence, and a delicious new mystery to keep you guessing.

My Review:

The Nantucket Stroll sounds like a lovely holiday tradition. Setting this mystery at the time of the 2021 Stroll, just after the President’s own traditional visit with his family, the first visit and first ‘regular’ Stroll as everyone hopes the worst of COVID has passed grounds the mystery into the here and and the now.

(No, the President, whose identity is screamingly obvious – and also quite real as he and his family did visit Nantucket for the 2021 Stroll and do have a family tradition of attending – is not an actual part of this story. But the Secretary of State, who is very much and very obviously fictional – certainly does.)

After the President and his Secret Service detail leave the island, Police Chief Folger faces not one but two invasions. There’s the Secretary of State, her husband, his restless, shiftless adult child of a son, the Secretary’s security detail, her staff, her childhood on the island and her husband’s big ego and bad memories of the place.

Pretending that they are on the island for a happy family vacation is just a bit of a stretch.

Then there’s the even bigger incursion from Hollywood filming a direct-to-streaming TV series on the sprawling estate of THE local tech billionaire. Between the director, the co-stars, the producer and chief financial backer and all the other members of the cast and crew – not to mention their egos and outsized personalities, the horde at the property known as Ingrid’s Gift is even bigger than the gang that SecState brought home with her.

Not that all is exactly well in either of the invading “armies” but their problems are not Merry’s problem – at least not until the first dead body turns up, with links to more of the visitors in both parties than could possibly be explained by the long arm of coincidence.

Which Police Chief Folger, being a very good cop, does not believe in. At all.

Escape Rating A+: In spite of its small-town setting, Death on a Winter Stroll is not a cozy mystery, even though it’s a setup that could easily lend itself to one. But Merry Folger isn’t a cozy sort of person – and I like her a lot for that – and the murders she has to solve, at least in this outing – are far, far from cozy. Not so much the murders themselves – as cozies manage to cozy up all sorts of ways that people shuffle off this mortal buffalo. But the motives for these murders and the slime that is revealed in their investigation are simply not the stuff of which cozies are made.

But if you like your murder mysteries seasoned with the nitty-gritty of real life and real people – even really disgusting people – Death on a Winter Stroll is absolutely excellent. And Merry Folger is a terrific avatar for competence porn. She’s very human – not superhuman – but she’s extremely good at her job and not afraid to display it – especially to people who think she’s less-than because she’s relatively young, because she’s a woman, because she’s a small-town police chief and not a big city cop or federal agent – or just because they’re assholes used to throwing around their power and privilege.

Death on a Winter Stroll turned out to be a one-sitting read for me, I sunk right into it and didn’t emerge until I was done three hours later. I was completely absorbed in the mystery, the setting and the characters, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything at all, in spite of this book being book SEVEN in an ongoing series that began with Death in the Off-Season. Whether it’s because this is the first post-pandemic book in the series, or whether the author is just that good at keeping things self-contained, I got what I needed about Merry’s past – including the loss of her grandfather to the pandemic – without having read the previous books.

Howsomever, I enjoyed this so damn much that I am planning to get them all. This series has all the hallmarks of an excellent comfort read, and I need more of those. Doesn’t everyone these days?

In addition to liking Merry as a character, and being able to identify with her in all sorts of wonderful ways, I appreciated the way that the mystery in this story worked, and that it dealt with real, important and ugly issues without either sensationalizing them or trivializing them.

One of the things that also made this story work for me is that the red herrings were more than tasty. There was one character who started out in a hole – or at least a whole lot of suspicion – and couldn’t seem to stop digging himself deeper. It would have been an easy solution to make him the murderer – or to have the cops attempt to pin it on him. The actual solution was much more devious and it was great the way the investigation didn’t fall into the trap of zeroing in on the obvious suspect first.

There was both compassion and redemption for a lot of the people who got caught up in the mess. None of the solutions were easy, most of them included a lot of pain and either past or present trauma. But the characters felt real, Merry and her family, friends and colleagues most of all.

In short, I loved this mystery, am so, so glad that I joined this tour and was introduced to this author, and can’t wait until I have the chance to dive into the rest of the series. And I’m utterly gobsmacked that the author also writes the Jane Austen Mysteries as Stephanie Barron. I think I hear my virtually towering TBR pile piling up another turret!

About the Author:

Francine Mathews was born in Binghamton, New York, the last of six girls. She attended Princeton and Stanford Universities, where she studied history, before going on to work as an intelligence analyst at the CIA. She wrote her first book in 1992 and left the Agency a year later. Since then, she has written thirty books, including six previous novels in the Merry Folger series (Death in the Off-SeasonDeath in Rough WaterDeath in a Mood IndigoDeath in a Cold Hard Light, Death on Nantucket, and Death on Tuckernuck) as well as the nationally bestselling Being a Jane Austen mystery series, which she writes under the pen name Stephanie Barron. She lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips

Review: One-Shot Harry by Gary PhillipsOne-Shot Harry by Gary Phillips
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 274
Published by Soho Crime on April 5, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Race and civil rights in 1963 Los Angeles provide a powerful backdrop in Gary Phillips’s riveting historical crime novel about an African American forensic photographer seeking justice for a friend—perfect for fans of Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and George Pelecanos.
LOS ANGELES, 1963: African American Korean War veteran Harry Ingram earns a living as a news photographer and occasional process server: chasing police radio calls and dodging baseball bats. With racial tensions running high on the eve of Martin Luther King’s Freedom Rally, Ingram risks becoming a victim at every crime scene he photographs.
When Ingram hears about a deadly automobile accident on his police scanner, he recognizes the vehicle described as belonging to his good friend and old army buddy, a white jazz trumpeter. The LAPD declares the car crash an accident, but when Ingram develops his photos, he sees signs of foul play. Ingram feels compelled to play detective, even if it means putting his own life on the line. Armed with his wits, his camera, and occasionally his Colt .45, “One-Shot” Harry plunges headfirst into the seamy underbelly of LA society, tangling with racists, leftists, gangsters, zealots, and lovers, all in the hope of finding something resembling justice for a friend.
Master storyteller and crime fiction legend Gary Phillips has filled the pages of One-Shot Harry with fascinating historical cameos, wise-cracks, tenderness, and an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of a plot with consequences far beyond one dead body.

My Review:

One-Shot Harry is a fast-paced, noir-flavored, tautly written historical mystery set amid the turmoil of the summer of 1963 as Los Angeles was gearing up for Martin Luther King Jr.’s impending visit to the city.

Harry Ingram, a black Korean War vet who manages to keep his PTSD at bay by viewing life distanced through the lens of a camera, makes his living covering the crime beat for whoever will pay for his pictures – and occasional reporting – in LA’s black community. Which means that he mostly sells to the local black daily newspapers and the various magazines that served the community – back in a day when people still mostly got their news in print.

Between the pictures, and his side hustles as a process server and occasional fill-in member of one or more local jazz bands, Harry manages to pay the rent and not wonder too hard about where his next meal is coming from – but it’s a precarious living.

A livelihood that Harry puts at risk – along with his life – when an old army buddy returns to town, returns to the local jazz scene – and gets himself killed in an accident that might have been anything but.

Harry just can’t let it go. He and Leo had each other’s backs in Korea – in spite of the color line – and Harry feels like he has to have his old friend’s back one last time even if Leo isn’t around to see it. Because Leo isn’t around to see it.

Which gets Harry in way over his head – nearly six feet over his head. If the men hunting him even leave enough of him to get either identified or buried. Unless he gets them first.

Escape Rating A-: The description of the book doesn’t do this one justice. But it gives me a starting point to use to talk about the book and why it worked so well for me – especially after yesterday!

This is the kind of story that would have fit in extremely well with the male-centered, noirish thrillers that were very much in vogue in the 1960s when this story takes place. Series like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct, among many others. But Harry’s story would have gone unpublished in his own time just as crimes against the black community would have been shoved under the carpet – hard – as Harry himself nearly is.

But what makes this story so compellingly readable is the combination of Harry’s character and the way that his pursuit of just a sliver of justice for his friend drives him forward. He’s every doggedly determined lone wolf blundering through an investigation that he’s not trained for, faces repeated roadblocks but just can’t let go. At the same time, his constant – and sometimes painfully reinforced – acknowledgement that the forces of law and order are arrayed against him because of his color, and that even if he’s technically right he’ll be judged wrong, feels real and true and unfortunately not all that historical at all.

The historical part of this mystery reads like it sits on the splintered crossroads between “the past is another country” and “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The institutionalized racism that Harry faces and has to work around is just as entrenched today as it was then – and all too frequently just as overt as well.

So the historical setting feels real and presents a clear and present danger, but what drives the story is Harry’s dogged determination. What makes it so compelling to follow, is that it isn’t just a cracking good mystery, it’s also well told and tightly edited in all the best ways to make the pace unrelenting.

(Upon reflection, part of what made yesterday’s book such a slog is that it sincerely needed someone to perform exactly this service. The bones of a good thriller were hidden under a lot of verbal flabbiness. I digress.)

The one thing keeping One-Shot Harry from being a sure shot at a full A grade is the ending. For a mystery to end satisfactorily, good needs to triumph and evil needs to get its just desserts. The perpetrator(s) need to be punished. Harry doesn’t exactly triumph at the end of this book – although from his perspective it could be said that his survival is triumph enough under the circumstances.

The men who committed his friend’s murder get exactly what they deserved. But it feels like punishing the puppets for what the hands up their asses did. They were tools, literally as well as figuratively. The owner of those hands walks away unscathed, because he’s white and rich and powerful and he has all the friends in high places to make sure nothing ever sticks to him. Harry doesn’t have a chance to bring him down and they both know it.

But there’s no catharsis for the reader in that acknowledgement or that ending. Very much on the other hand, that ending may not be satisfying but it is a whole hell of a lot more historically plausible. Harry really doesn’t have a chance to bring this bigwig down – at least not yet.

Harry’s “one-shot” at Mr. Big in this story doesn’t have to be his last. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger, but it isn’t closure either. It feels like Harry will be back and that this is just the start of what will hopefully be a long and eventually successful vendetta.

I certainly hope so because I can’t wait to read it.

Review: An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten

Review: An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene TurstenAn Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten, Marlaine Delargy
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, short stories, thriller
Pages: 272
Published by Soho Crime on October 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Everyone’s favorite octogenarian killer is back in this new collection of stories by Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten that is sure to have you in stitches.
Eighty-eight-year-old Maud is never looking for trouble, but it always seems to find her. First, a woman in her building met an untimely end: tragic. Then, just recently, a dead body mysteriously appeared in her very own apartment, prompting an investigation by the local Gothenburg authorities. Such a strange coincidence. When it seems suspicion has fallen on her, little old lady that she is, Maud decides to skip town and splurges on a trip to South Africa for herself.
In these six interlocking stories, memories of unfortunate incidents from Maud’s past keep bubbling to the surface, each triggered by something in the present: an image, a word, even a taste. When she lands in Johannesburg at last, eager to move on from the bloody ordeal last summer, she finds certain problems seem to be following her. Luckily, Maud is no stranger to taking matters into her own hands . . . even if it means she has to get a little blood on them in the process.
Don’t let her age fool you. Maud may be nearly ninety, but this elderly lady still has a few tricks before she’s ready to call it quits.
*Includes cookie recipes*

My Review:

While neither as smooth nor as famous as “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” there has been a progression in this week’s reviews. First there was a book about “real” ghosts. Then fake ghosts being investigated by elderly lady amateur detectives. Today we have a story about real detectives investigating an elderly lady who might just be a serial killer. With fatally delicious cookie recipes.

Just like the previous trip through Maud’s murderous memory, An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good, the detectives who visit Maud are more of a catalyst than they are an integral part of the story. Inspector Irene Huss and Detective Embla Nyström still can’t quite get their minds around the idea that 88-year-old Maud might have been the murderer of the man who was found dead in her apartment over the summer. But they also can’t dismiss their instincts that say that Maud did it, no matter how frail and dotty a persona she projects.

That the detectives are still sniffing around Maud’s apartment makes Maud a bit apprehensive. I’d say nervous but Maud doesn’t seem to get nervous. Maud just removes whatever problem has come her way. But when the problem is two police detectives, she’s better off removing herself from their jurisdiction rather than employing her usual methods.

So Maud takes herself off, at 88 going on 89, on a luxury trip to a place she’s always loved. It’s been five years since her last, somewhat more economical visit to South Africa, so this time she’s going to go first class all the way. After all, she can afford it and she has no one to leave her money to, so she might as well spend some of it while she’s still capable of the trip.

The story of this elderly lady who truly must not be crossed isn’t so much a single story as it is a collection of memories. As Maud naps on the very long series of flights from Sweden to Johannesburg, her mind drifts back into the past, to the very first time she took care of business in her own inimitable-if-not-yet-deadly style when she was only eleven.

By the time that Maud eliminates her rival for a full-time teaching position, we see that Maud’s course is firmly set. She sees a problem – and she gets rid of the problem. She plans, she executes, and well, she executes someone who is in her way. Sometimes by way of a well aimed icicle, and sometimes by way of a not-so-nice recipe for cookies.

Maud gets things done.

But her trip to South Africa, besides causing her in-flight trips down memory lane, also gives her a chance to think about what she wants from the rest of her life, however short or long that might be. And it puts her in the way of one last good deed, by carrying out one more bad one.

Escape Rating A-: As with the previous book, Maud’s adventures are short but not exactly sweet. How could they be when Maud’s tried-and-true method of solving problems is to eliminate the cause of the problem – permanently.

Which makes Maud a bit of a guilty pleasure. On the one hand, I hope to be that healthy, spry and self-possessed at 88. On the other hand, Maud is a successful serial killer, not exactly a hobby to aspire to. If that’s what it takes to keep oneself young there’s a serious problem with the collateral damage. Maud is kind of like a picture of Dorian Gray that inflicts its damage on other people instead of a portrait.

I’m waxing a bit hyperbolic because of my internal conflict – although Maud has none. And probably doesn’t have a conscience either. There’s so much about Maud that’s admirable, and enviable. Her head is a very entertaining place to be. But she kills people who get in her way. Regularly. Some of them deserve it. And some are just in Maud’s way – until they aren’t.

The Ducote sisters from yesterday’s book are probably better role models for what one would want to be in their 80s. But having a drink or a meal with Maud would be fascinating – at least after I’d checked everything over for poison.

Review: Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

Review: Clark and Division by Naomi HiraharaClark and Division by Naomi Hirahara
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Pages: 312
Published by Soho Crime on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set in 1944 Chicago, Edgar Award-winner Naomi Hirahara’s eye-opening and poignant new mystery, the story of a young woman searching for the truth about her revered older sister’s death, brings to focus the struggles of one Japanese American family released from mass incarceration at Manzanar during World War II.
Twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manzanar, where they have been detained by the US government since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, together with thousands of other Japanese Americans. The life in California the Itos were forced to leave behind is gone; instead, they are being resettled two thousand miles away in Chicago, where Aki’s older sister, Rose, was sent months earlier and moved to the new Japanese American neighborhood near Clark and Division streets. But on the eve of the Ito family’s reunion, Rose is killed by a subway train.
Aki, who worshipped her sister, is stunned. Officials are ruling Rose’s death a suicide. Aki cannot believe her perfect, polished, and optimistic sister would end her life. Her instinct tells her there is much more to the story, and she knows she is the only person who could ever learn the truth.
Inspired by historical events, Clark and Division infuses an atmospheric and heartbreakingly real crime fiction plot with rich period details and delicately wrought personal stories Naomi Hirahara has gleaned from thirty years of research and archival work in Japanese American history.

My Review:

This story is a reminder that, for all its midwestern friendliness, Chicago is still as Carl Sandburg so famously put it, the “City of the Big Shoulders”, and it can turn a cold, cold heart towards anyone it deems an outsider. It’s why Chicago, to this day, is considered one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., along with the New York City/North Jersey/Long Island metroplex, Milwaukee (which is close to becoming part of greater Chicagoland every day) and Detroit.

The biggest part of this story is about the Japanese-American experience in Chicago during World War II, as seen through the eyes of Aki Ito, a young Nisei woman from California by way of the Manzanar Relocation Center (read as political double-speak for concentration camp) who arrives in Chicago in 1944 with her parents to discover that her older sister Rose died the day before, crushed under the wheels of one of Chicago’s famous “El” trains. Rose’s death is ruled as a suicide, but Aki is determined to prove that her idolized older sister was murdered.

But Clark and Division is not a murder mystery, although it is being promoted that way. And not that there isn’t something to investigate in Rose Ito’s death. But Aki doesn’t so much investigate as obsess and flail around. Rose’s death drives Aki, but the investigation of it does not drive the story.

What does drive this story is Aki’s exploration of and adaptation to a city that does not want either her or her people to become part of it. Except that they are and they have, and Aki’s journey is to discover herself and how she fits into both her own community and this strange and unwelcoming place as she learns to live her life out from under her sister’s long and rather brilliant shadow.

Escape Rating B: It’s hard to figure out where to start with this one, because there were so many interesting parts to this story, but none of them quite gelled into a whole. Or at least not into the whole that I was expecting. Which means I ended up with a ton of mixed feelings about this book, because I wanted to like it and get wrapped up in it way more than I did.

One of the reasons the whole is not greater than the sum of its interesting parts is that there is so much that happens before Aki gets to Chicago, and there’s not enough time or space to go into any of it in nearly enough detail. That the story begins with Aki’s childhood in Tropico, California, where her father is successful and respected is a necessary grounding because it makes the transition to Manzanar and the later move north to Chicago and down the socioeconomic scale all that much more traumatic. But we don’t get enough depth in either of those parts of the story so it compresses the time we have with Aki in Chicago where the mystery is.

Also, the story is told from Aki’s first person perspective and it all feels a bit shallow. Not that she’s shallow – or at least no more shallow than any other woman her age – but rather that we only skim the surface of her thoughts and feelings. Too much of what happens to her in Chicago reads like more of a recitation of what she did than an in-depth exploration of what she thought and felt. Although I certainly enjoyed Aki’s description of working for Chicago’s famous Newberry Library in the 1940s.

The portrait drawn of the Japanese-American community in Chicago during the war years, along with the crimes, both to her sister and to her community, that Aki looks into/flails around at are based on historical events, but the story isn’t enough about those crimes to fit this into the true crime genre, either. Although the parts of the story that wrapped around the history of Chicago were fascinating and I wish the story had gotten into more depth there.

And that may sum up my feelings about this book the best. I wish there had been more depth to the fascinating parts. There are clearly entire libraries of stories that could flesh out this piece of forgotten (willfully forgotten in the case of the “relocation centers”) history. I just wish this had one of them.

Review: Slough House by Mick Herron

Review: Slough House by Mick HerronSlough House (Slough House, #7) by Mick Herron
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: espionage, mystery, thriller
Series: Slough House #7
Pages: 312
Published by Soho Crime on February 9, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Brexit is in full swing. And due to mysterious accidents, the Slough Houses ranks continue to thin. The seventh entry to the Slough House series is as thrilling and bleeding-edge relevant as ever.
A year after a calamitous blunder by the Russian secret service left a British citizen dead from novichok poisoning, Diana Taverner is on the warpath. What seems a gutless response from the government has pushed the Service's First Desk into mounting her own counter-offensive—but she's had to make a deal with the devil first. And given that the devil in question is arch-manipulator Peter Judd, she could be about to lose control of everything she's fought for.
Meanwhile, still reeling from recent losses, the slow horses are worried they've been pushed further into the cold. Slough House has been wiped from Service records, and fatal accidents keep happening. No wonder Jackson Lamb's crew are feeling paranoid. But have they actually been targeted? With a new populist movement taking a grip on London's streets, and the old order ensuring that everything's for sale to the highest bidder, the world's an uncomfortable place for those deemed surplus to requirements. The wise move would be to find a safe place and wait for the troubles to pass.
But the slow horses aren't famed for making wise decisions. And with enemies on all sides, not even Jackson Lamb can keep his crew from harm.

My Review:

In case you’re wondering, “Slough” should be pronounced the same as “Slow” – even though it technically isn’t. Because the “slow horses” that used to race in the spy games at Regent’s Park – home of Britain’s security services – now plod along at Slough House, still on the payroll but just marking time. Until they retire, or die. Or just fade away.

As this story opens, they’re dying. Alone. One by one. In accidents. Or in circumstances made to look like accidents.

But, as an old master of the spy game, Ian Fleming, once said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” Jackson Lamb, while he’s not nearly as suave as Fleming or the character he created, is definitely a master of the spy game and well aware of this dictum – even if he doesn’t always show it. Or show much of anything except contempt for the entire human race – himself included.

He’s also the manager, or the general factotum, or the head inmate, or all of the above, of Slough House. He knows, even if neither the reader nor the ranks of his slow horses do, that some enemy is taking out his agents.

He just needs to figure out who the enemy is who is authorizing these actions – and make them stop. Even if the enemy is someone who is supposed to be on the same side. Especially if that person is supposed to be on the same side, because that makes it treason.

Escape Rating A-: Slough House is an ironically slow-building thriller – but that situation is also utterly fitting for the title and especially for the characters and set up.

A set up which at first seems like a combination of the TV series New Tricks and the movie RED, but upon reading doesn’t quite fit into the mold of either, although there are elements of both.

The slow horses of Slough House aren’t so much retired as they are exiled. Slough House is kind of a “last chance saloon” for agents who have screwed up badly but who are too young to retire and perhaps know too much to be let go of, but are safe enough to keep corralled together and just might, occasionally uncover something real out of the busywork they usually end up doing. After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And as far as Regent’s Park is concerned, the slow horses are consigned to the same scrap heap as those relics would be.

From the perspective of the racers at Regent’s Park, the situation is designed to keep those slow horses docile and dreaming of a potential return to Regent’s Park and “real” spywork – a return that will never happen.

Jackson Lamb, on the other hand, is far from docile. Or, frankly, even domesticated. Instead, he reads like a variation of Daniel Hawthorne from The Word is Murder, only even more egotistical and enigmatic and considerably less savory or salubrious. It’s pretty clear that he’s been assigned to run Slough House not because he’s not good at the spy game but because he’s really, really bad at making nice or playing office politics.

I suspect that there is a lot more about Jackson Lamb, the denizens of Slough House, the relationship between Slough House and Regent’s Park and the entire setup in the previous books in the series. But I haven’t read them and didn’t feel the lack. I mean, I’m intensely curious about the whole thing but didn’t feel like I was missing anything I needed in order to get firmly stuck into this story.

As much as the setup intrigued me, and as ill assorted as Lamb and his band of misfits are, I picked this up because I was very interested in just how the whole concept of a 21st century spy thriller would even work without the 20th century staple of Cold War maneuvering to underpin the whole structure.

The answer turned out to be really, really well, but not in a direction that I was expecting – which made it even better.

Because this turned out to be a kind of “who watches the watchers” story that plays into 21st century realities when too many of the watchers are much too busy watching the people on their own side to pay attention to operatives and operations preying on them from without.

It’s also a story about just how greasy the skids are at the top of the slippery slope of corruption, and how easy it is for even people with the most honorable of intentions to find themselves halfway down that slide before they are even aware of the incline. Something that is clearly going to be the fodder for future books in the series.

Not that there weren’t plenty of “bad actors” (for plenty of definitions of “bad” and “actors” and absolutely for “bad actors”) in this book, but Bad Actors is also the title of the next book in the series. And I’m more than curious enough to see what happens to the “slow horses” next!

Review: Hunting Game by Helene Tursten

Review: Hunting Game by Helene TurstenHunting Game (An Embla Nyström Investigation #1) by Helene Tursten, Paul Norlén
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Embla Nystrom #1
Pages: 288
Published by Soho Crime on February 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first installment in Helene Tursten’s brand new series featuring the strong, smart Detective Inspector Embla Nyström.

From a young age, 28-year-old Embla Nyström has been plagued by chronic nightmares and racing thoughts. Though she still develops unhealthy fixations and makes rash decisions from time to time, she has learned to channel most of her anxious energy into her position as Detective Inspector in the mobile unit in Gothenburg, Sweden, and into sports. A talented hunter and prize-winning Nordic welterweight, she is glad to be taking a vacation from her high-stress job to attend the annual moose hunt with her family and friends.

But when Embla arrives at her uncle’s cabin in rural Dalsland, she sees an unfamiliar face has joined the group: Peter, an enigmatic young divorcé. And she isn’t the only one to take notice. One longtime member of the hunt doesn’t welcome the presence of an outsider and is quick to point out that with Peter, the group’s number reaches thirteen, a bad omen for the week.

Sure enough, a string of unsettling incidents follow, culminating in the disappearance of two men from a neighboring group of hunters. Embla takes charge of the search, and they soon find one of the missing men floating facedown in the nearby lake, his arm tightly wedged between two rocks. Just what she needs on her vacation. With the help of local reinforcements, Embla delves into the dark pasts of her fellow hunters in search of a killer.

My Review:

A couple of years ago I reviewed Who Watcheth by this author for Library Journal. It was my first “real” dip into scandinavian noir, and I found the story really compelling, as well as a bit creepy. But I really enjoyed the main character, Inspector Irene Huss. Enough so that I picked up the short story collection An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good to get just a bit more of her. (She is not the elderly lady of the title, she is investigating the elderly lady of the title).

Inspector Irene Huss’ series has ended, but the author has begun a new series, and I decided to pick it up – from the beginning this time. And so we come to Detective Inspector Embla Nyström of the mobile crime unit, on her annual vacation at her uncle’s hunting cabin.

The moose isn’t the only creature being hunted. So when the human bodies start piling up, Embla finds herself back on the clock, investigating a group of men she’s known – and mostly respected – all of her life. Along with one charmer who might just be a bit too good to be true.

Only because he is.

Escape Rating B+: This isn’t so much of a whodunit as a whydunit, as has been pointed out by multiple reviewers. It is a bit obvious who must be the killer. There’s only one newcomer to this rather tight-knit group. If one of them had been a serial killer, the dead bodies would go back decades. And they don’t. Mostly.

The group, with the exception of 28-year-old Embla and the newcomer, are also middle-aged if not older. For the most part, they are successful and well-to-do. Embla and her uncle are definitely not in the same financial strata as some of the others. (Or come to think of it, I don’t think they are. We don’t actually know enough about her uncle’s situation to be certain. He does, after all, own a house in town AND a hunting cabin.)

Embla is a cop. And a good one. She’s just multiply conflicted on this case.

Not just because she knows everyone well, except that newcomer. On the other hand, she gets to know the newcomer in the biblical sense, creating yet more conflict. And this case echoes back to an unsolved and unresolved trauma in her own past.

She knows there’s something wrong, but has a difficult time putting all the pieces together. Just as with the issue in her own past, the criminal is acting out of his own unresolved trauma. This is a case that just isn’t going to be solved without digging into a whole lot of the dirty laundry of everyone involved.

Embla is an interesting character, and she’s going to be good to follow for a series. On the one hand, she is a bit of an outsider in this group. By the time the crimes start occurring, she’s both the only woman, and with the exception of the newcomer, the only person under 40.

Her profession makes her suspect everyone and everything, and at the same time it sets her apart, making some of the party members suspicious of her, because she’s a young woman in a man’s job, and in authority once the moose hunt turns into a manhunt.

As a championship boxer, she’s a woman used to and capable of taking care of herself – a skill that turns out to be necessary in the course of the story. One of the unusual things we see is that in her own small team, while she’s not the leader, she is the muscle. We don’t often see that in fiction in a mixed gender team and it’s refreshing.

Her past trauma makes this case more poignant for her, and provides avenues for the author to explore in future entries in the series. That this case is wrapped up entirely in a hunting trip and the hunting culture of Scandinavia may put some readers off. There’s a lot of detail about the process of hunting and the annual hunts. I found it interesting – not that I’d want to do it myself but just how much tradition and culture are still wrapped around it.

I certainly enjoyed Hunting Game more than enough to want to read the next book in the series when it’s translated into English. I like Embla and her team and want to see how they go.

Review: An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten

Review: An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene TurstenAn Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten, Marlaine Delargy
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: mystery, short stories
Pages: 184
Published by Soho Crime on November 6, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Maud is an irascible 88-year-old Swedish woman with no family, no friends, and…no qualms about a little murder. This funny, irreverent story collection by Helene Tursten, author of the Irene Huss investigations, features two-never-before translated stories that will keep you laughing all the way to the retirement home.

Ever since her darling father’s untimely death when she was only eighteen, Maud has lived in the family’s spacious apartment in downtown Gothenburg rent-free, thanks to a minor clause in a hastily negotiated contract. That was how Maud learned that good things can come from tragedy. Now in her late eighties, Maud contents herself with traveling the world and surfing the net from the comfort of her father’s ancient armchair. It’s a solitary existence, but she likes it that way.

Over the course of her adventures—or misadventures—this little bold lady will handle a crisis with a local celebrity who has her eyes on Maud’s apartment, foil the engagement of her long-ago lover, and dispose of some pesky neighbors. But when the local authorities are called to investigate a murder in her apartment complex, will Maud be able to avoid suspicion, or will Detective Inspector Irene Huss see through her charade?

My Review:

I picked this up because I loved the title. And because I read one of the author’s previous books in her Inspector Huss series (Who Watchetch) and liked it very much. So I was hoping for more of the same, both in the style and of the character.

And I was in the mood for a mystery. I got a tiny taste of Inspector Huss – but I’m not so sure about the mystery – because we always know whodunit.

Mostly, I got a variation on Arsenic and Old Lace, with a much smaller cast and no lace. Also, the old lady administering the equivalent of the arsenic isn’t nearly so lovable. – but she’s twice as irascible.

She’s also much better at hiding her tracks.

There’s a part of me that wants to be Maud when I’m her age. After all, she’s in her late 80s in these stories, and is perfectly capable of traveling around the world by herself at a whim, as well as able to climb through her own apartment windows in order to cover up a bit of murder.

I’d want the first part but not the second. Maud’s answer to taking care of situations that bother her is just murder. And she doesn’t even seem to have much of a conscience about it.

Great health, lousy ethics. Not that the people that we see her eliminate aren’t due for a bit of trouble, but murder seems a bit drastic. Most of the time.

The stories in this collection that are the most interesting are the two at the end, The Antique Dealer’s Death and An Elderly Lady is Faced with a Difficult Dilemma, because they show the same crime from two rather different perspectives.

In The Antique Dealer’s Death Inspector Irene Huss is called to Maud’s apartment, The elderly lady has found a dead body stewing in one of the unused rooms. We see Maud at her best, pretending to be confused and frail, but by this point in the collection we know it’s an act.

The police, however, do not. They take the old lady’s behavior at face value, which is always a huge mistake. Maud’s behavior can never be taken at face value. We watch both the police and even an amateur detective who gets roped into the scene fix their sights on the dead antique dealer having an accomplice who killed him and scarpered when they attempted to rob the old lady. And we know they are all barking up the wrong tree – or scaffolding.

But in the companion story, An Elderly Lady is Faced with a Difficult Dilemma, we see Maud in all of her excellent health, equally excellent planning, and slightly sociopathic glory as she discovers the antique dealer in the process of robbing her and decides not just to kill him but also how to fool the police.

As she does, and does well. The Inspector does figure out at the end that the only logical conclusion to the crime is that Maud did it, but she is also aware that there is no way to prove it.

Maud is just too good when she is up to no good.

Escape Rating A-: Lesson to be learned, never take an old lady for granted, she may be more than she seems. Maud’s “adventures” make for grisly fun, and a quick read if you’re in the mood to dip into a bit of Scandinavian noir.

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara CleverlyFall of Angels (An Inspector Redfyre Mystery) by Barbara Cleverly
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Redfyre #1
Pages: 384
Published by Soho Crime on May 15th 2018
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Great Britain, 1923: Detective Inspector John Redfyre is a godsend to the Cambridge CID. A handsome young veteran bred among the city’s educated elite, he is no stranger to the set running its esteemed colleges and universities—a society that previously seemed impenetrable to even those at the top of local law enforcement, especially with the force plagued by its own history of corruption.

When Redfyre is invited to attend the annual St. Barnabas College Christmas concert in his Aunt Henrietta’s stead, he is expecting a quiet evening, though perhaps a bit of matchmaking mischief on his aunt’s part. But he arrives to witness a minor scandal: Juno Proudfoot, the trumpeter of the headlining musical duo, is a woman, and a young one at that—practically unheard of in conservative academic circles. When she suffers a near-fatal fall after the close of the show, Redfyre must consider whether someone was trying to kill her. Has her musical talent, her beauty, or perhaps most importantly, her gender, provoked a dangerous criminal to act? Redfyre must both seek advice from and keep an eye on old friends to catch his man before more innocents fall victim.

My Review:

I keep wanting the author’s name to be Beverly Cleverly, but it’s not. Fall of Angels, however, is a very clever little mystery, filled with interesting characters and tempting red herrings – and a few flaws.

I picked this book up because I was looking for something a bit less weighty than the rest of my books this week. But while it is a bit shorter, after finishing it I’m not so sure that it was actually lighter, at least not in the end.

It feels as if there are two books in one in Fall of Angels, one a rather lightweight between-the-wars mystery, and the other an exploration of the suffragist movement in England in the post-WWI era counterpointed by the rise of misogyny as backlash to that same movement – with a few other even darker things thrown into the not completely well-stirred soup.

I’ve mixed my metaphors. Let me explain.

This is the first book in a new mystery series featuring Detective Inspector John Redfyre of the Cambridge CID. That part of the story feels like an homage to the classic mysteries of the era, with the attitudes of the principals updated a bit to appeal to 21st century readers. Redfyre feels like a combination of Lord Peter Wimsey and the TV version of Jack Robinson from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Like Wimsey, Redfyre is from the upper-crust, although exactly how is not specified. So throw in a bit of Campion for spice on that score. Likewise, Redfyre is university educated, but Cambridge rather than Wimsey’s Oxford – although Campion was also a Cambridge man. Also like Wimsey, Redfyre served as an officer in the Great War, but seems to have come out relatively unscathed, at least in comparison with Wimsey’s horrific bouts of PTSD.

In his actions, Redfyre reminds me of Phryne’s Jack Robinson – the TV version and not the one in the books. They are both police officers, and even both have the same rank. And they are about the same age, somewhere in their 30s, and both came out of the war relatively unscarred. They are also both methodical investigators, and they are both above reproach as officers. And they are both rather handsome – but handsome is as handsome does, and they both do quite well.

The investigation that Redfyre finds himself in the middle of is dark and deadly. A young female trumpet player is receiving deadly poison pen letters, and an attempt is made on her life after a Christmas concert at the college – an attempt that Redfyre witnesses due to machinations on the part of his redoubtable Aunt Hetty.

As he investigates, he finds himself following a trail of bodies, all of young women who in one way or another challenged the status quo. A status quo that kept most women on their Victorian pedestals and subservient to or chattels of the men in their lives – even after all the changes wrought by the war.

Redfyre discovers that all the victims are members of an unnamed group of women’s suffragists who want universal female suffrage and so much more, and are willing to use rather underhanded means to reach their goals.

While those underhanded means fall short of murder, someone is willing to murder them to stop them from taking what he sees as places that are rightfully and properly reserved for men.

It’s up to Redfyre to figure out whodunnit before the killer gets to his Aunt Hetty’s name on his murder list.

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed feelings about Fall of Angels. I liked John Redfyre, his “beat” in Cambridge, and what looks to be his cast of regulars.

The between-the-wars period is always interesting. The way things used to be was the first casualty of the Great War, and most people are aware that whatever happens next is going to be very different. It is also the period called the “Roaring 20s” when everyone was celebrating hard to forget the war. That it all comes crashing down at the end of the decade is not yet on the horizon in 1923 when this series begins.

University towns, and Cambridge is certainly that, are also hotbeds for mysteries. The college brings in lots of outsiders, and the town vs. gown conflict is ever ready to produce criminal activities, whether violent or not. And the faction rivalry results in a lot of conflicting pointing fingers once the deed has been done.

So there’s a lot to like. But the crime that Redfyre has to solve in his initial outing feels anachronistic, or at least his attitudes do. Or both.

Not that there were not plenty of women agitating for universal suffrage after the war. They were eventually successful in 1928. But much of what this nameless group is proposing feels too serious for the story, while their actions to achieve their ends seem almost farcical. It felt like it should either be melodrama or drama, but not both at the same time. Other readers may feel differently.

So for me, the blend did not quite work. But I liked Redfyre enough that I’ll probably come back for the next book in the series, just to see how things turn out.

Review: Who Watcheth by Helene Tursten

Review: Who Watcheth by Helene TurstenWho Watcheth by Helene Tursten, Marlaine Delargey
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Series: Inspector Huss #9
Pages: 304
Published by Soho Crime on December 6th 2016
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He watches the women from the shadows. He has an understanding with them; as long as they follow his rules, they are safe. But when they sin, he sentences them to death. A woman is found dead in a cemetery, strangled and covered in plastic. Just a few days before her death, the victim had received a flower, an unintelligible note, and a photograph of herself. Detective Inspector Irene Huss and her colleagues on the Goteborg police force have neither clue nor motive to track in the case, and when similar murders follow, their search for the killer becomes increasingly desperate. Meanwhile, strange things have been going on at home for Irene: first the rose bush in her garden is mangled, then she receives a threatening package with no return address . . .

My Review:

The title of this suspense thriller is a play on a very old Latin quotation: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” That meaning is only part of the story in Who Watcheth. In this case it also carries the connotation of watching from the shadows. In other words, stalking.

And while the stalker from the shadows forms the bulk of this case, in the end, the question of “who guards the guards?” is the one that is left hanging in the reader’s mind, quivering with possibility. And tragedy.

The story here is one that has been told before, in multiple suspense thrillers. There’s a serial killer on the loose. At first the police, in the person of Detective Inspector Irene Huss, don’t know that the murders of women in their 40s are connected. But as the bodies begin to stack up, the investigators hunt both backwards and forwards, to see if they can determine where the crime spree began, and try to zero in on the man the newspapers are calling “the Package Killer” for the way he leaves his victims neatly bundled up.

The conundrum for the investigators is that the killings appear random. The victims are roughly the same age, and are all unmarried, but otherwise they don’t seem to have much in common. It’s begins to seem as if they all work or at least shop at the same mall, but then, so do thousands of other people. It’s not much of a link.

And it doesn’t help them even when they zero in on a possible suspect. Daniel Borjesson is seriously creepy, but creepiness alone is not a crime. Unfortunately. He gives everyone who deals with him a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and with good reason. But as much as the man touches off every single investigator’s gut instincts, no one can find a real connection between Borjesson and any of the victims, nor can they find any evidence that the man has access to either the car necessary for transporting his victims or the secure and out-of-the-way premises required to prepare his “packages” so meticulously.

Cop shop politics and the bureaucratic obsession with finances force the detectives to let him go. Their mistake is going to be extremely costly in the end. But for whom?

Escape Rating B+: This is a chilling thriller. It is also a very compelling read. I kept going long after the lights were out, which is a mistake. While this isn’t gory, the atmosphere of creeping menace makes for a tough read when the only light in the house is your iPad. But I absolutely had to finish.

This is the 9th book in the Inspector Huss series and is also part of the current wave of Scandinavian crime fiction. My exposure to that particular wave consists of seeing a few Wallander episodes, and this was my first introduction to Huss, but I still enjoyed the book a great deal, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not having read the rest of the series.

On that other hand, the atmosphere of the cop shop and Huss’ relationship with her family reminded me surprisingly of the J.D. Robb In Death series. The investigator’s personal life does find echoes and resonances in her cases, and there are bits about the cop shop and the group dynamics that felt similar across time, place and culture.

In the end, whodunnit is not a surprise to the reader. Much of the compulsion in the narrative revolves around putting the pieces together, and whether the detectives will manage to do so in time. Before the killer strikes again.

And the ending is a stunner.