Protocol, by Kathleen Valenti****

Protocol“It was all so clear. She’d been so stupid…Cue the flying monkeys.”

The Maggie O’Malley series has taken wing. Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I was invited to read free in exchange for this honest review. In a crowded field, Valenti stands apart. Her snappy wit and precise pacing combine to create a psychological thriller that’s funny as hell. I didn’t know it could be done until I saw it here.

Maggie’s career is off to a promising start when she is recruited to work as a researcher for a major pharmaceutical firm. It’s a perfect chance to make the world a better place, and the beefy salary lets her take care of herself and send desperately needed funds to save her ailing father’s restaurant. It seems too good to be true, and we know what that means.

She’s barely through the door when she receives a mysterious meeting reminder on her refurbished new-to-her cell phone. Who is this person, and why would she meet her? And then, quick as can be, she sees the woman she is supposedly about to meet, die. Since the meeting reminder vanishes from her phone once it’s played, and since the reminder itself isn’t sinister, the police brush her off…until it happens again. Eventually, of course, she herself becomes a suspect.

This is a page turner, and we look over Maggie’s shoulder all the way through, wondering whether this friend or that one is to be trusted. Which date is a godsend, and which one is a snake in the grass?

The most notable difference between this story and others is the way Valenti sets up what looks like an error either on the part of the author or stupidity on the part of the protagonist, and then on the back beat, we see exactly why that was there, and that she anticipated our reaction all along. She does it over and over, and it’s hilarious. I feel as if the author is speaking to me as I read, howling, “Gotcha again!” It’s zesty, brainy writing. Valenti is the new mystery writer to watch.

This book is for sale now, and I recommend it to those that love funny female sleuths.

Southern Fried, by Tonya Kappes***

southernfriedThis fetching little cozy mystery is the second in a series, but I didn’t read the first one, and I was able to keep up with it finer than frog hair. You might could, too. I am grateful to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I received absolutely free of charge in exchange for this review. But don’t you worry none, cause you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Sheriff Kendrick Lowry, and she tells us the whole story in the first person. The problem starts when Myrna finds Owen in the greenhouse on top of her prize tomatoes. Why did he have to go and die there? She says it took her months to get them that plump, and if you’ve ever grown great tomatoes—an impossible feat in Seattle, I am sorry to admit—you know it’s true.

Sheriff Kendrick, locally known as “Kenni”, is assisted in her law enforcement activities by Poppa. Poppa was the sheriff around these parts, but he’s dead now, and his ghost can only appear when she has a case to crack, so in a strange sort of way, this murder is a blessing in disguise. The local stigma against a woman as sheriff in this small Kentucky town is offset by the venerable family tradition Poppa cultivated before he departed.

I believe my favorite part is the day following the discovery of the body, when Lowry arrives to find the crime scene tape destroyed and Myrna moseying around the greenhouse like nothing ever happened. You know this happens in real life, but you never see it in fiction, except here. I also love the part when someone suggests the sheriff call for backup, and she notes that her deputy is out of town, and so exactly who is she supposed to call? Again, fictional cops always seem to have unlimited resources in even the most unlikely situations, and Kappes leaned hard on my funny bone. What a hoot.

A lot of this book doesn’t make much sense, but then it doesn’t have to. It’s a romp. However, if a couple of inconsistencies had been cleared up and a hot-stove issue hadn’t been grazed, it would be better still.

Would anyone kill for an okra recipe, for example?  (I was told as a child that okra tastes like a bowl of warm snot.) Because there’s so much camp in this very funny story, I can’t tell whether I should be suspicious of this as motive or not; in the real world I don’t see it, but in this story, I feel as if anything goes.  And while I love the feminist spirit in the sheriff’s assertion that she doesn’t cook anything, period, later she goes to try out the secret recipe and I find myself wondering how she knows how to glaze a cast iron pan. This woman doesn’t even know how to boil water, and yet a fairly obvious cooking skill that nobody puts into a recipe seems to present no problem at all.

But these are just li’l thangs.

Despite the occasional feminist overtones, there are some tired devices and stereotypes that are harder to disregard. Why does half the story obsess with her crush on her deputy? It’s kept light, but the notion that a woman is nothing without a man, while not openly asserted, seems to float in the air. I would have liked to see more women, especially older women, depicted in a positive light. It seems as if every story that features a heroic young woman has to also feature an impossible mother, and so I moaned when she introduced her momma. And there’s the “cat fight”, which while there’s no denying that the narrative is straight-up hilarious, is also a stereotype that suggests women can’t get along once you put us in a room together.

The thing that knocked a star off what would have been a four star review is the place where her Poppa’s ghost notes that when he saw Deputy Finn carry Kenni’s drunken, unconscious body to her bedroom and put her in her bed, he had feared the deputy was about to “take advantage” of her.  The word is rape, and it’s never funny. The deputy didn’t, but the suggestion, accompanied by the euphemism, left an after-taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite get rid of.

If you can get past these brief but clear obstacles, you will get a lot of laughs out of the main thread here. Kappes has a raucous sense of humor, and I had immersed myself in too many dark stories. I was ready for a good laugh, and this title provided several.  But unless your pockets are deep or your interest great, I recommend you get this one cheaply when you can, or at your local library if available.

The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel*****

theroanokegirlsAmy Engel makes her debut as a writer of adult fiction with this title, having begun her career writing fiction for young adults. The Roanoke Girls is smoking hot, a barn burner of a book, diving into some of society’s deepest taboos and yanking them from the shadows into the bright rays of Kansas sunshine, where the story is set, for us to have a look at them. It’s not available to the public until March 7, 2017, and frankly I don’t know how you are going to wait that long. I received a DRC for this title from Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the purpose of a review.

Lane grows up in New York City, raised by a mother that shows no sign of warmth or affection, a woman that seems to either cry or sleepwalk through most hours of most days. When she hangs herself, Lane bitterly wonders what took her so long. But then a surprise comes with the social worker assigned to her case. It seems there are grandparents in Kansas, who not only are willing to have Lane, but that actually want her.

Soon Lane finds herself being driven up the private drive to Roanoke, the family manse, a rambling, welcoming hodgepodge of a house, complete with a same-age cousin waving with manic joy from the front porch. Allegra is spoiled, and now Lane will have all the same luxuries. The ostensible farm on which they live is more of a gentleman’s farm, as it happens; the real money comes from oil. And so Lane, who has scraped for every scrap of clothing and food alongside her struggling mother for 16 years, suddenly has the whole world at her beck and call. Allegra takes her to their grandfather’s study and shows her where all the credit cards are kept, and she assures her this is not something they are sneaking or stealing; it is assumed that if they want something, they can buy it.

It seems almost too good to be true…and it is.

There is so much simmering just below the surface, unspoken but thick and almost tangible. Take, for example, the portraits of the Roanoke girls that have gone before them, whose photographs line a main hallway. The collection begins with Grandfather’s sisters, continues with their daughters, the mothers and aunts of Lane and Allegra. What has become of all of them? Allegra explains:

“Roanoke girls never last long around here…In the end, we either run or we die.”

Lane’s picture isn’t included among those in the hallway, and she isn’t sure she wants it there. And as time goes by and the contours of the family’s pathology become clearer, Lane decides it’s time to save herself, and she hits the road, covering her tracks to the best of her ability. She stays away until ten years later, when her phone rings. Her grandfather tells her that Allegra has vanished; they need Lane to “come home” to help the family search for her.

Lane’s interaction with her grandfather is mesmerizing. When he calls her with the news of Allegra’s disappearance, the first thing she asks is how he got her number. Yet once she is back in the Roanoke house, she recognizes that

“…behind the secrets and the horrible truth, under the shame and anger that beat like a heart, there still lives a terrible kind of love.”

The fascinating, intimate narrative Engel weaves is a thing that can’t be taught. There’s no degree, no series of workshops that gives a voice such clear authority. She plays out the story’s thread in careful increments, and the bone-c hilling tone is heightened rather than lessened by the fact that we have a very good idea of exactly what happened to Allegra. I know whodunit halfway through the book, but it doesn’t matter. The author binds me to Lane’s story in a way that is completely undeniable, and I have to see this thing through with her. Toward the end of the book, instead of commenting to myself about aspects of the book or particularly compelling passages to quote, I’m engaging with the text itself. More than once my notebook simply says, “No.”

The reader should know that there are triggers all over the place. Those that are in a sensitive place may want to have someone else read the book first and tell you whether they recommend it to you. But for those that want a chiller of a mystery, and for those that care about women and the ways that society turns people into products for consumption, this is a must read. Or you could just read it because it’s brilliant, and no one else is writing anything like it.

The Postman Always Rings Twice****

thepostmanalwaysringstwiceWell, they do say karma’s a bitch.

I fell heir to a first edition hard cover copy of this classic 1934 crime fiction. It’s too well worn to be a collector’s item, so instead of selling it, I decided to just enjoy holding a book in my hands that could have been held, hypothetically, by my great-grandparents. I think I enjoyed the crispy yellow pages and the old school print more than I enjoyed the story itself.  With wide margins and plenty of dialogue, it was a quick read, and before the weekend was over I’d finished it.

Our protagonist, Frank, is a drifter that does odd jobs and occasional crimes as he travels through Mexico and the Western USA; the story itself is set in California. He comes to an out-of-the-way place where a Greek immigrant and his wife run a small roadside restaurant. The owner is interested in expanding the business to include car repair, and hopes that a free meal and a bed for the night will lure Frank to stick around and work for him. Instead, Frank stays and finds a white-hot attraction to Cora, the owner’s wife. The two of them make love like cats in a pillowcase, snarling and biting and tearing at each other, and they like it so well that they decide to kill the Greek guy so they can do it together forever.

Those that don’t follow history may not know that at the time this story was published, U.S. xenophobia toward immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was at its pinnacle. Jim Crow and the Klan had silenced any open dissent from African-Americans with a reign of terror, but it was somewhat commonplace for Caucasians, who were by far the largest group in terms of population and certainly in terms of power and money, to make nasty assumptions and references about people from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the surrounding area.

So it’s within that context that Cora declares that although her husband Nick loves her and treats her really well, he repulses her because he’s “a little soft greasy guy with kinky hair”. He wants her to have his baby, and she doesn’t want to touch him. She’d hate to go back to turning tricks, but she would far prefer to be with fair, blonde-haired Frank than Nick Papadakis.

The story arc here is flawless, and I can see how it became a classic, but it has many aspects that haven’t aged well. There are nasty remarks about Mexicans; Cora urgently wants Frank to know that she’s white, even though her hair is dark. She isn’t “Mex”. And although I understand that some people do like rough sex, I had to take a deep breath when Frank became aroused and showed it by blacking Cora’s eye for her.

Right. So you see what I mean.

The way the story is plotted is ingenious, and the characters are consistent all the way through; the ending is brilliantly conceived and executed.

For me, though, one reading is enough.

Just One Evil Act, by Elizabeth George *****

justoneevilact Barbara Havers has gone in over her head, and the morass into which she has slogged out of love and friendship is only getting deeper.

I’m a long time fan of Elizabeth George, a writer I would never have tried on my own initiative, preferring stories that star working class heroes, but one of her early works was given to me at Christmas one year, and I was sucked in by her combination of palpable settings rendered in a painterly fashion, and what at times is intense, tightly plotted crime fiction.

Every writer who maintains a successful mystery/crime/detective series of any length faces a conundrum, sooner or later. For the sake of a good story, they’ve already been forced to twist the real lives of their police officers (or their whoever) to make them more exciting, but in the beginning, it’s easier for the reader, who also wants a good yarn, to buy the premise. Sure, someone might become a hostage, or be forced to dig their own grave while the minutes tick by and we wait for the cavalry to charge in and save the protagonist. Certainly, a person could be pistol-whipped and stuffed into the trunk of a car.

But to no one will these things happen over, and over, and over. Eventually even the most faithful reading audience will roll their eyes and say, “What, again? Oh, I don’t think so.”

There appear to be two successful ways around this, and the author can utilize one or both and if they are skillful, they can keep their series going strong. Noteworthy writers like Sue Grafton, James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, GM Ford, and a host of others have carried them off well.

One way to keep the string going is to create stories that are not only thrillers or mysteries, but are more novel-like in many ways. The protagonist’s personal life is further developed, and if this is done successfully, it gives us still more buy-in to the mystery plot into which it is woven. And here, George has been more successful at some times than others. There is always the danger that in presenting us with the protagonist’s deepest emotions, the story can turn into a soap opera. Mystery readers don’t need the corn. They’ll pass on the series if the writer crosses a line or is not credible. But referring back to most of the writers in the list above–and if you love a good mystery series, you can probably name others–it’s clear that it can be done.

The other way to keep the string active without burning out the protagonist is to further develop secondary characters and turn them into protagonists themselves. I have been greatly cheered to see George develop both Winston Nkata and Barbara Havers in this manner; this particular book has original protagonist Thomas Lynley working in the shadows, and his life pops up from time to time as well in ways I found appealing, but the chief protagonist of this work is Barbara Havers.

And Havers is beyond question a working class protagonist. She came from no money whatsoever, and her only living family is her mother, who is in a care home and partially dependent upon Barbara, whom she does not even recognize any longer. It’s one lonely life. What do such people do? They may become self-absorbed or clinically depressed, or both. Or they may get by with a little help from their friends.

And this is the crux of this particular episode, #18 in the Lynley series. (No ARC here; I got my copy from the library, but would otherwise have requested it at Christmas.) Havers has long had a friendly relationship with Lynley, her former partner. He’s a lovely bloke, but he doesn’t come from the same side of the tracks as she does, and there are definite limits to their friendship. His love life, and hers if she had one, are not up for discussion.

Her closest friend is her neighbor, Taymullah Azhar, and his daughter, Hadiyyah, a precocious nine-year-old who has become nearly a surrogate daughter to Havers. The two of them are often the bright spot at the end of a long, often thankless day at work.

When Hadiyyah is kidnapped, Havers is beside herself. She has to help. When her boss tells her that she is to stay away from this investigation, from which she has absolutely no professional distance, she looks for ways around the order. She can investigate when she is off-duty, right? Except she uses her police credentials to open doors. Well, she probably would not be the first.

But again, and again, and again she pushes the margin of what she may do and keep her job. The result is a tightly packed psychological thriller that at times kept me awake. Was that really 700 pages? It surely didn’t seem that long!

Because it is so easy to relate to Havers, the reader is likely to feel that frustration, the one we felt when we went to the horror movie at the local theater. You know the scenario I mean: the two youngsters are out on a date and they’re caught in the rain. There is no shelter anywhere in sight except for a house that appears to be empty. The rain pours down, and the background music takes on minor strains. We say to the teenagers, “Don’t go in the old dark house! Don’t do it! Better wet than dead. Don’t turn that doorknob!”

And here we are. Havers does, metaphorically of course, go into that house, the one with no lights and things that go bump in the dark. And all sorts of interesting ethical issues bump up against her.

When is lying to your boss justified? Well, that’s not so hard…but what about lying to a friend? What if, in lying to one friend, one may save the life of another…but the life of the friend to whom you have lied may be damaged? When should journalists be called in, even if they cannot be trusted not to assassinate the character of an innocent individual while carrying out your important mission? What if there does not appear to be any other way to save a life? To stop a killer?

I was surprised to read some fairly vicious reviews of this novel. I loved it, for the outstanding manner in which setting was incorporated so palpably without slowing the course of the plot; for the development of characters (and Isabelle Ardery, boss back at Scotland Yard, is another). And I enjoyed the ambiguity of the questions it raised.

Immensely satisfying, and highly recommended.