A Serpent’s Tooth is possibly the oddest book in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. While it has all the elements of humor, action, and strong characterizations, the tone does a a major, though seamless, shift to extremes. In a lesser authors hands this book would fall apart, but in Johnson’s it may be a landmark book in the series.
Taylor Stevens’ Vanessa Michael Munroe is an informationist, able to obtain the information you need, no matter how clandestine, if the price is right. If you haven’t read about her you’re missing out. Steven’s has a knack for placing her protagonists in plots that challenge their internal conflicts as well as their physical, like no other in the field. Her latest, The Doll, is further proof of her talent.
The book hits the round running when she is kidnapped from the Dallas streets and taken to Croatia. There she is brought before a creepy shadowy white slaver, The Doll Maker, who feels Munroe owes him for something she did in her past and must deliver one of his “dolls”, Neeva, to a client in France. If she doesn’t take the assignment they will torture and kill Logan, her lover whom they have also kidnapped, who runs Capstone, a Black Water type organization
The book skillfully follows two story lines. The main one has Munroe on her road trip with Neeva, that includes many action packed stops as she tries to figure out a way of being in a situation that goes against her principals, and why she was picked to do it in the first place. She uses the gritty side of the European locales to ground the story with skill. We also get the Capstone team in their search for Logan, giving Stevens a broader canvas to work with. Usually regulated to her lone wolf character, she seems to relish sketching out the characters that work as a team. It also allows her to use her sense of humor more often.
That said, as always, it is Munroe who makes these books tick and Stevens pushes her further than ever before. Vanessa has always had the ability to shut down her emotions to do the job with cold professionalism, but here she is given a moral dilemma where she must deal with them. She’s forced to really think about how much Logan means to her, and if loving Logan is right for her. All of this is expressed through action and terse dialogue; like the fantastic discussion Munroe has with Neeva on how to survive.
The Doll builds on a body of works that puts Taylor Stevens in the company of Jeff Abbott, Lee Child, and her hero Robert Ludlum. She knows how to turn a phrase, whether it is Munroe’s actions or speech, entwining her in a well-paced plot that challenges her on all levels. With Vanessa Michael Munroe, Stevens has given us an unpredictable heroine who goes places we never imagined. The only thing you can be sure of, it won’t be boring.
A Serpent’s Tooth by Craig Johnson
The success of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series that began with The Cold Dish continues to grow after A&E’s hit show Longmire introduced new fans to the Wyoming sheriff. As the Crow Flies marked the series’ highest debut on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, in his ninth Western mystery, Longmire stares down his most dangerous foes yet.
It’s homecoming in Absaroka County, but the football and festivities are interrupted when a homeless boy wanders into town. A Mormon “lost boy,” Cord Lynear is searching for his missing mother but clues are scarce. Longmire and his companions, feisty deputy Victoria Moretti and longtime friend Henry Standing Bear, embark on a high plains scavenger hunt in hopes of reuniting mother and son. The trail leads them to an interstate polygamy group that’s presiding over a stockpile of weapons and harboring a vicious vendetta.
The Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver
It was a “million-dollar bullet,” a sniper shot delivered from over a mile away. Its victim was no ordinary mark: he was a United States citizen, targeted by the United States government, and assassinated in the Bahamas.
The nation’s most renowned investigator and forensics expert, Lincoln Rhyme, is drafted to investigate. While his partner, Amelia Sachs, traces the victim’s steps in Manhattan, Rhyme leaves the city to pursue the sniper himself. As details of the case start to emerge, the pair discovers that not all is what it seems. When a deadly, knife-wielding assassin begins systematically eliminating all evidence-including the witnesses-Lincoln’s investigation turns into a chilling battle of wits against a cold-blooded killer.
The Doll by Taylor Stevens
Haunted by a life of violence and as proficient with languages as she is with knives, Vanessa Michael Munroe, chameleon and hunter, has built her life on a reputation for getting things done—dangerous and often not-quite-legal things. Born to missionary parents in lawless Africa, taken under the tutelage of gunrunners, and tortured by one of the jungle’s most brutal men, Munroe was forced to do whatever it took to stay alive.The ability to survive, fight, adapt, and blend has since taken her across the globe on behalf of corporations, heads of state, and the few private clients who can afford her unique brand of expertise, and these abilities have made her enemies.
On a busy Dallas street, Munroe is kidnapped by an unseen opponent and thrust into an underground world where women and girls are merchandise and a shadowy figure known as The Doll Maker controls her every move. While trusted friends race to unravel where she is and why she was taken, everything pivots on one simple choice: Munroe must use her unique set of skills to deliver a high-profile young woman into the same nightmare that she once endured, or condemn to torture and certain death the one person she loves above all else.
Driven by the violence that has made her what she is, cut off from help, and with attempts to escape predicted and prevented, Munroe will hunt for openings, for solutions, and a way to strike back at a man who holds all the cards. Because only one thing is certain: she cannot save everyone. In this high-octane thriller for fans of Lee Child, Stieg Larsson, and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy, Vanessa Michael Munroe will have to fight fast, smart and furiously to overcome a dangerous nemesis and deliver her trademark brand of justice.
Mission To Paris by Alan Furst
Late summer, 1938. Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl is on his way to Paris to make a movie. The Nazis know he’s coming—a secret bureau within the Reich has been waging political warfare against France, and for their purposes, Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence. What they don’t know is that Stahl, horrified by the Nazi war on Jews and intellectuals, has become part of an informal spy service run out of the American embassy. Mission to Paris is filled with heart-stopping tension, beautifully drawn scenes of romance, and extraordinarily alive characters: foreign assassins; a glamorous Russian actress-turned-spy; and the women in Stahl’s life. At the center of the novel is the city of Paris—its bistros, hotels grand and anonymous, and the Parisians, living every night as though it were their last. Alan Furst brings to life both a dark time in history and the passion of the human hearts that fought to survive it.
Ace Atkins has gotten to be one of MysteryPeople’s good friends. Not only is he one of the best writers currently out there (Edgar nominated in the past two years), he’s a great supported of the genre, bookstores, and all around good. At 7PM, May 31st, between our annual Shiner Bock and BBQ get together, I’ll be moderating a Q&A with Ace for his signing of two new books, The Broken Places with his original series character Quinn Colson and Wonderland, his second book that continues Robert B Parker’s Spenser series. To get an idea of the discussion, here’s a quick interview we did recently.
MysteryPeople: Do you think Quinn has changed any since The Ranger?
Ace Atkins: Perhaps a bit more understanding? Ten years as a U.S. Army Ranger can harden a man. But returning home, being with his family, and seeing problems on home soil humanizes him a bit.
MP: A tornado plays a major part in The Broken Places. Since that is a disaster many have experienced and all have seen on the news, how did you approach writing it?
AA: A tornado touched down maybe a mile and a half from my farm two years ago. After tearing through a small community called Pine Flat, it skipped over to Smithville, Mississippi. The entire town of Smithville was destroyed. The story of Jericho is probably only half of what happened to Smithville. That entire town was destroyed and has yet to recover. A year later, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal published a retrospective of the tornado that included wonderfully written first-hand accounts. I owe a lot to that reporter, Kristina Goetz.
MP: In this series you tackle a subject some authors try to avoid, religion. Can you write about the South without dealing with it?
AA: I am not what I would call a religious person. But as a Southern writer, you can’t avoid religion. It’s in every aspect of Southern life, whether it should be or not. Every political campaign in Mississippi tries to show their candidate is more of a Christian than the opponent — often overshadowing the real issues. Some of the religion is true and genuine, too. And as a writer, you must write about both.
MP: Country songs and musicians, both old and new, get referenced frequently in the book. Does the form have a particular influence in this series?
AA: Music has played a huge role in my writing since my very first novel, Crossroad Blues. I’ve learned a lot about writing from musicians I admire — from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash. When I first started writing The Ranger, I wanted it to read like/sound like a Johnny Cash ballad.
MP: One of the main characters in Wonderland is Sixkill, the Cree and PI in training who Parker introduced in his last Spenser novel. Did you feel like you had more license with this character than some of more established ones in the series?
AA: That’s a great question. Yes, in some ways I think I am able to complete the idea of a character that Parker created in his last work. There is not much to discuss about Hawk. Hawk is Hawk. And I wouldn’t try and tell you anymore about him. Sixkill has lots to tell me and readers. And is the perfect character to complement this stage of Spenser’s career.
MP: Wonderland reminded me of me of one of your favorite Spenser books, Early Autumn, in by having Spenser mentor somebody, you learn about him and his code. What did you want to get across about who Spenser is?
AA: Spenser taught Paul how to live his life on his own terms. He’s teaching Sixkill the same lessons but compounded by making a living and surviving in a violent world. One does not become Spenser or Hawk overnight. He is a work in process. Spenser is passing down his talents and skills. For him to want to work with Sixkill tells us more about Sixill than Spenser. Spenser is not a man to waste his time.
MP: After writing in the world’s of Spenser and Quinn Colson what similarities have you found in Boston and Mississippi?
AA: Ha! Actually many. Deep religion. Dirty politics. You don’t step on a man’s honor in the deep South or South Boston. Southerners and people from Boston all come from the same place pretty much.
Reed Farrel Coleman’s Onion Street, is our Pick of The Month for good reason. Both well plotted and poignant, it takes Reed’s Moe Prager character and gives us his coming of age in 1968 through an involving mystery. We got a chance to ask Reed a few questions about the book, the Sixties, and Moe, for a fun and interesting MysteryPeople interview.
MysteryPeople: In the Moe series, he refers to his past, but there isn’t much detail. Were you waiting to do this book?
Reed Farrel Coleman: I never planned the books in the series. I never sat down and said, “This is going to happen then,” or “Such event will be revealed in book 7.” It’s just not my nature to write that way. I wrote the Moe books as a kind of reflection of where I was in my life and where I had been. That is not to say they are strictly autobiographical. They aren’t. I just liked seeing where I was, the world was, and what I felt like exploring at any given time. Having said all that, I knew there were only going to be nine books in the series and that next year’s The Hollow Girl would be a book that took place in the here and now. It occurred to me that I had never really explored Moe’s becoming an adult. I thought the time had come for that because I’d just watched my children pass through that stage and I was nostalgic for that time period in my own life. It was a dangerous thing to do, to tackle a prequel and the 60s because they are often done so badly. But what the hell, right?
MP: Onion Street and Walter Mosely’s Little Green, which also deals with the late sixties counter culture, both came out this week and other crime fiction writers of your generation like Libby Fischer Hellman (Set The Night On Fire) and Edward Wright (From Blood) have used it lately for their novels as well as Robert Redford in his new thriller. Other than it being a the time period of Moe as a young man, what prompted you to look at that era?
RFC: Well, I think most things written about the 60s focus too much on the incredible chaos of the times and not the lives of the people who actually lived through them. I lived through them as a child and as a young teen, so I tried to see that time through the eyes of my older brothers and their pals. It also made me go back and look at Brooklyn not through my world wearied eyes, but my fresh eyes. I wanted to remember Brooklyn as I first saw it, long before it became the coolest place to live. Do you know that in France when they think something is hot or chic, they call it Tres Brooklyn or very Brooklyn. That was unimaginable to me in the Brooklyn I grew up in. I wanted to look at that world.
MP: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the period?
RFC: Great question. As I was telling my kids recently, just in the first 6 months of 1968, the following events happened: the Pueblo Incident, the Tet Offensive, Apollo Missions 5 & 6, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. 6 months! Are you kidding me? Yet in spite of that, my dad got up every morning and went to manage his grocery store. My mom still shopped and cooked and sent us off to school. My brothers went to college and I went to PS 209. I played stickball after school. Life went on. That was the thing. Life went on. Not everyone wore love beads, granny glasses, bell bottoms and long hair. Life shouldn’t be reduced to cliché and neither should books.
MP: I thought Lids, the burnt out prodigy turned drug dealer who helps out Moe, is one of your best supporting characters. He seemed so painfully real. Was he inspired by some of the people you grew up around?
RFC: I went to high school with some totally genius kids who never seemed very happy. I mean, is anyone very happy in high school? In any case, it was easy for me to remember those kids and extrapolate a character like lids. Lids, by the way, for those of you who didn’t live through the 60s, was a term for an amount of marijuana. You bought lids, not ounces or nickel bags. Research. I swear. I was too young to know that myself back then.
MP: Many of the Moe books take place in recent history. What is a key thought to have when writing about a period the reader may have lived through?
RFC: As I referenced earlier, make it about the characters’ lives, not about the historical touchstones. Don’t be heavy handed in your depiction of an era. Allude to it without shoving it in your readers’ faces. In the early books I did this by having Moe make predictions about the relevant new technologies and always getting it wrong. I do it in Onion Street as well. I think I learned that lesson because I grew up reading a lot of sci-fi and many of the predictions those writers made were totally erroneous.
MP: Can you give a hint about what you have in store for Moe in the last book?
RFC: I’d be glad to. In The Hollow Girl, Moe is in a bad way. A woman out of Moe’s past hires him to find her missing daughter, but he’s not convinced she’s even missing. As Moe tries to pick up her trail, he confronts some hard questions about his past and about the rest of his life. I dare not say more. I can tell you I think it will be a fitting end to the series.
Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series has gotten to be one of my current favorites, right up there with Walt Longmire and Moe Prager. Following the army ranger-turned-sheriff of his hometown of Jericho, Tibbehah County, the books are influenced by the Southern set action films of the Seventies that starred the likes of Burt Reynolds, Joe Don Baker, and Bo Svenson, but updated for today. In his latest, The Broken Places, he aims for an all out blockbuster.
The book starts out with an exciting prison break, partly on horseback. The three prisoners are out to get back the money from the armored car robbery they pulled; their destination, Jericho.
It isn’t as if Quinn has enough trouble. Jamey Dixon, a convicted murder has returned to town after pardoned by the outgoing governor, setting up a church in town. Ophelia, the daughter of one of his supposed pressures Quinn to put back in prison. As much as he’d like to, the situation becomes complicated when Dixon becomes involved with his sister Cady. Dixon is also the reason those convicts are headed to Jericho.
What comes across in this book is Atkins skilled hand at delivering a strong piece of entertainment. Fans of the television show, Justified, will love the convicts as well as Quinn’s nemesis, town kingpin Johnny Stagg. Their dialogue is ripe with humor, Southern homilies, and menace, often all at the same time. Atkins gives us some well placed action set pieces. A standout is a chase on four wheelers through the woods. If it wasn’t enough, we even get a tornado. None of this feels like an onslaught, there is a flow to all of it. Even moments with Quinns’s friends and family are weaved in for a perfect balance of character, plot, and honest looks at faith and redemption. By the end it has a feel of a solid action film crossed with a Johnny Cash song.
The Broken Places is further proof of Atkins talent. He takes to a world off a rural route that sits between a classic hard boiled novel and the realities of current small town America, breathing life into it with detail and dialogue. It’s a story of white hats and black hats, but everybody’s brim is a bit worn and dirty. The Broken Places is escapism at it’s smartest.
Our next History Of Mystery Class takes another look at James Crumley with his first private eye novel, The Wrong Case. It features his ne’er do well Montana detective, Milo Milodragovitch, who takes on the case of a missing grad student, mainly because he’s enamored with the red headed sister who hires him. Crumley subtlety parodies the genre as he embraces it fully.
The Wrong Case is a full-on seventies crime novel. It has the feel of Sam Pekinpah directing a Chandler tale, with a Hunter S.Thompson view of America. Crumley’s modern west is filled with barflies, sons of the pioneers, and hold out hippies. It is the last chance of American freedom a time is fading fast.
The discussion starts at 6PM, Sunday June 2nd on our 3rd floor. Copies of The Wrong Case are 10% off to those who attend. We’ll be taking a break in July, but will be back in August.
Devil In A Blue Dress- The one that started it all. Easy Rawlins gets pulled into being a private eye, when to make ends meet he’s hired to find a missing white woman who frequents black clubs. Everything we associate with the series, the jazz poet prose style, blunt look at race relations, and one of the most vicious sidekicks to hit the page, Mouse, is here.
White Butterfly- Plot, prose, and politics blend beautifully in this third Easy novel that have the police forcing him to track down a serial killer in Watts. great suspense and action are delivered as Mosely looks at the subtleties of individual and institutionalized racism.
Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned- Mosely’s first contemporary novel and first to feature Socrates Fortlow, a homeless, ex-con struggling to get a job, protect his own, and find dignity on the South Central streets. Told as a collection of vignettes, in a tight and terse style, the heart break and hope are earned in this book.
Fearless Jones- Mosely gets a chance to show off his humorous side in this first of three novels featuring Paris, a meek used bookstore owner, and his brave-to-the-point-of-stupid buddy, Fearless Jones. Set in 1950′s Watts, these are great for readers who were disappointed that Easy Rawlins didn’t spend enough time n the post war era.
The Long Fall- The first book with Leoniod McGill, ex-boxer and private detective, trying to turn over a new leaf after years of operating on the shady side. A unique case challenges his newfound morality as he hits the streets of modern New York. Full of danger and great dialogue, this launched a great new series.
Other books could be on this list, RL’s Dream, Bad Boy Brawley Brown, Little Scarlet, and any of the Fearless Jones series. Mosely’s is an incredible body of work where the quality matches the quantity.