Wednesday, March 01, 2017

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen


First Line: It had been unusually hot all summer.

World War II has come to the great estate of Farleigh Place, home to Lord Westerham and his five daughters. A large portion of the country house has been commandeered by the Army. While Lord Westerham blusters about being shut away in the most inconvenient wing of the house, oldest daughter Livvy is living at home with her small son while her husband is abroad with the Duke of Windsor. Second eldest Margot is pursuing fashion design in Paris, which is under German occupation. Middle daughter Pamela is working at Bletchley Park, and while eighteen-year-old Diana complains to anyone who'll listen about missing her debutante season, the youngest, Phoebe, tries not to miss a thing that's going on at the estate.

And there's plenty going on. A soldier falls to his death on the property when his parachute fails to open, but inconsistencies found on the body raise the suspicions of MI5. Family friend Ben Creswell is sent on a covert mission to find out if the man was a German spy. Ben soon finds himself following a trail of spies and traitors, and with the help of Pamela, he hopes to avert disaster.

Rhys Bowen has painted a broad canvas, and it's filled with action, suspense, and the period detail and fascinating characters that she's known for. With a length of almost four hundred pages, I am happy to report that I wanted it to go on for at least another hundred. There are many characters in this story, and although I didn't have a speck of trouble keeping them all straight, inevitably one or two whom I was most interested in got (what felt like) short shrift.

Two of the period details that I really appreciated were Bowen's giving readers a feel for living in an English country house during the war, and how there were so many clandestine agencies at work in England-- and they were all trying to keep what they were doing secret from all the other agencies.  

Even though there's not really anything trailblazing in In Farleigh Field, it is such a joy to read that it doesn't matter. Danger. Spies. Traitors. Romance. Everything combines for an absorbing read that is finished much too quickly. Readers can pit their skills at playing Catch the Spy and form their own close attachments to one or more of the characters. My favorites? The youngest daughter, Phoebe, and her partner-in-crime Alfie, a young Cockney boy evacuated to Farleigh Place due to the Blitz.

Are there any fellow fans of Susan Elia MacNeal's Maggie Hope series reading this? I think you'll love In Farleigh Field (and so will most of the rest of you)!
       

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
ASIN: B01HBKAYMA
Lake Union Publishing © 2017
eBook, 398 pages

Historical Mystery, Standalone
Rating: A
Source: Net Galley  


 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry D. Sweazy


First Line: The farm-to-market road was vacant, the day's traffic settled and tucked away as the big red sun dropped below the horizon.

Sonny Burton now has only one arm, thanks to Bonnie Parker. Losing the shoot-out with the infamous Bonnie and Clyde in such a way meant his retirement from the Texas Rangers, and he's finding it hard to acclimate to his new life.

Then Aldo Hernandez, a hospital janitor, asks for Sonny's help. Aldo's young daughter has gotten mixed up with two brothers who are involved in a series of robberies. He knows that type of life means death, and he wants his girl back before that happens. Sonny agrees to help, but he finds his attention divided. You see, someone in the area has started killing young women and leaving their bodies out in the fields for the crows to feast upon.

Having really enjoyed Larry Sweazy's Marjorie Trumaine mysteries set in 1960s North Dakota, I didn't hesitate to pick up A Thousand Falling Crows. It's one of the best decisions I've made so far this year. Sweazy's lean, poetic writing style is so evocative of the Depression and the Dust Bowl that I felt as though I were following along with Sonny every step of the way. 

Sonny Burton is a sort of Everyman, struggling with all the changes in his life, with loneliness, and with his lack of relationships. He's a man without a safety net, and just as we see him reaching the end of the long, dark slide that leads to eating his gun, two things happen: Aldo Hernandez reaches out for help, and so does Blue, a mangy stray hound with a broken leg.

Sweazy has written the compelling story of a lonely man who finds a reason to get busy living. As he tracks down Aldo's daughter, Carmen, we see her life from her point of view. As he is forced to live with Blue, we see him coming out of his shell of loneliness. The excellent mystery the author has crafted almost comes as an afterthought in my mind because of the strength of the book's characters and setting.

And above it all is a Greek chorus of crows, letting us see it all from their vantage point. If you haven't sampled Larry D. Sweazy's writing, I hope you change that as soon as you possibly can. I did, and now I want to read everything he's ever written. 
 

A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry D. Sweazy
ISBN: 9781633880849
Seventh Street Books © 2016
Paperback, 280 pages

Historical Mystery, Standalone
Rating: A+
Source: Purchased from Book Outlet.  


 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Deborah Crombie & Charles Todd at The Poisoned Pen!




When it was time to hop in the Jeep and head on over to The Poisoned Pen, I had to wonder what the turnout would be like for Deborah Crombie and the mother-son writing team of Charles Todd. You see, it was raining, and I never know how Phoenicians are going to jump when rain is on the menu. I was thinking that, with such a stellar lineup, most people weren't going to let a little rain keep them away from my favorite bookstore. I was right. It was another event when Poisoned Pen staff members had to keep bringing out more chairs.

Many people who only occasionally come to The Poisoned Pen do not realize that the authors are in another room busily signing all the mail order books before the event begins. Sometimes the piles of to-be-signed books are huge, so this means that host Barbara Peters has to chat with us for a few minutes. I never mind because she always has something interesting to say. This time it was what Scottsdale was like in 1950, the year that Barbara moved here. Scottsdale had not been incorporated yet. There were only two paved roads, and you had to take a buckboard from Sky Harbor Airport to the Camelback Inn. Needless to say, Scottsdale and the entire metropolitan area has experienced unbelievable change since then!

Barbara had taken the Todds around on a tour of some of the museums in the area, which is when she discovered that Caroline Todd has a penchant for buying jewelry in museum gift shops. While Peters was talking, I was cognizant of Mark Pryor, who had flown in from Austin, Texas, the day before to interview Ian Rankin ("It was a mob scene, and we sold out of books!") and of Jenn McKinlay who was sitting behind me. She was there for fellow Jungle Red writer Crombie. 

L to R: Caroline Todd, Charles Todd, Barbara Peters, Deborah Crombie

When the event for Rankin was mentioned, David Todd (yes, David is his real name) said, "I attended an event for Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. That was so much fun!"

Talk swiftly moved to books, beginning with the Todds' Racing the Devil, the nineteenth Ian Rutledge mystery. "Racing the Devil has one of the most chilling villains I've ever read!" Peters commented. Then it was Crombie's turn to introduce Garden of Lamentations. "It's a locked garden mystery," she said. "How many of you have seen the movie Notting Hill?" Several of us raised our hands. "So you're a bit familiar with the private gardens in London that only residents have access to. I just want you to know that Cornwall Garden does not exist. I walked all over to find the perfect garden in which to set the book, then I decided to create my own and plop it down where some ugly council flats are.

Deborah Crombie
"I also want to apologize to all of you," she continued. "I know it's been much longer between books!" (Many heads were nodding agreement in the audience.) "When I was finished, I turned in a 650-page manuscript. My editor told me, 'You do know that this could be two 300-page books?' I did realize this, but I liked the interweaving of the stories and wanted to keep it as one book.

"This is the first time that I've written a book with two separate cases that do not mesh, although I do feel that they mesh emotionally."

Caroline Todd said, "I received an early copy of this, and I loved it!" We then discovered that Caroline likes to send messages to authors that mark her progress through their books. "She's a mad texter!" Crombie laughed.  

"You'll find as you read Garden of Lamentations that lots of things were done in the upper echelons of the Metropolitan Police to save face," Crombie said. "I also loved the references to yummy mummies!" Peters commented. Crombie laughed. "Yes, areas like Notting Hill are very posh places to live, and you see them everywhere." (For those of you seeking to increase your British slang vocabulary, a yummy mummy is a slang term used in the United Kingdom to describe young, attractive and wealthy mothers with rich, high-powered husbands.) 

Caroline & David, who write as Charles Todd
Back to Racing the Devil, it's November 1920 for Inspector Ian Rutledge. Caroline told us that the timeline of the books has deliberately been taken very slowly because of Rutledge dealing with his problems. ("Shell shock" then would be referred to as PTSD now.) If each book had represented a year in Rutledge's life, the series would've taken him into the 1930s and a very different world. The way the Todds write, he solves a new case every six weeks or so.

David told us that it depends upon the case as to Hamish's involvement. "If the case has something to do with the war [World War I], Hamish is involved more," Caroline said. The Todds found themselves on several mountain roads in the south of France that had no guard rails-- including the stretch of road where Princess Grace of Monaco and her daughter had their accidents-- and during one period of travel on these treacherous roads in a heavy mist, Caroline said, "Wouldn't this be a great place for a murder?" This is why part of Racing the Devil takes place in France.

This led to David researching automobiles of the period. He and his mother have had readers write and tell them that they've gotten the driving times and the number of times they'd have to stop for petrol wrong. They are very well aware of this without being told. "The books aren't always true to life because all these stops slow the book's momentum to a crawl," Caroline said. A brief and interesting conversation about the early days of the automotive industry ended with Caroline admitting that they had friends in the Rolls Royce club upset with them because they were crashing these classic cars in the book. 

Available Now!
Many people in the audience were shocked when they learned that the Todds had written the entire book not knowing the identity of the killer. (Doesn't seem possible, does it?)

The Todds have it written into their contract that they do not have to turn in an outline of the next book, just a one-paragraph description--"Some of our best fiction," David said deadpan. He went on to mention a staple of crime fiction, the red herring. "If you don't make red herrings, it's amazing how they appear, and if you don't know how it ends, doesn't that make the book more fun to write?"

Caroline thinks not knowing the identity of the killer as the book is being written is a good thing. "If you don't know the killer, then he's just another character in the book, and there are no giveaways in descriptions and the like." She then spoke of their perfect proofreader, her husband the chemical engineer. "He's brilliant  with all the little details. Two-thirds of the way through reading the manuscript, he'll say, 'You're not going to be able to finish this.' When he finishes reading the manuscript, he says, 'I don't know how you did it!' I think that if he doesn't know, no one else will."

Caroline Todd
Jenn McKinlay had a question for the Todds: "Do you ever fight?" "All the time!" they replied.

"You did something really fun in this book," Crombie interjected. "We've known all along that Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford [the main character of the Todds' other series] know someone in common-- Melinda Crawford-- but in this book Rutledge and Melinda actually mention Bess and Bess gives him a piece of information that helps him solve the case!"

"But don't expect them [Rutledge and Bess] to get married!" Caroline said quickly. "Our publisher wants Bess and Simon to get married. Bess will decide in her own good time!"

This reminded Peters of a piece she wrote for Left Coast Crime involving Laurie R. King. Peters asked King why her Kate Martinelli character was a lesbian. King replied, "I wanted Kate to be able to work with men with no chance of romance."  Crombie knew what the others were talking about. "I never meant Duncan and Gemma to be together." 

Following this was a brief foray into one of Crombie's book titles, Leave the Grave Green. "I have always-- always-- called it Leave the Grass Green!" Barbara Peters lamented. "That's okay," Crombie replied. "My publisher calls it 'the fertilizer book'!" The reason why I include this little snippet is because I'd had an earlier conversation with someone else in the bookstore who admitted to needing caution when typing the title of Crombie's latest. I was relieved to learn that I'm not the only one whose typing fingers try to leave out the first "t" making the title "Garden of Lamenations" (which makes me itch to find something to use my laminator on).

Available Now!
David Todd also enjoyed reading Garden of Lamentations. "Everyone in the book seems to be at cross purposes," Crombie said, to which he remarked, "Gemma is feeling out of the loop, and Duncan can't tell her what's going on."

A fan mentioned Melody and Doug, two other characters in Crombie's series. "I love writing about them not getting together!" Crombie laughed. 

Another fan asked what was next for the Todds. The next Bess Crawford book, A Casualty of War, will be released in September. In August, they're going to Manchester and Hadrian's Wall for research. 

"Have you ever thought of setting one of your books during the Peace Conference?" Peters asked. Caroline replied, "We looked into it, but there's so much going on that it would be hard to focus on a murder."

The Todds have written a short story about Hamish, "The Piper," but it's only available in digital format right now. They're working on getting it in print. (Speaking of differing formats, Peters mentioned that The Poisoned Pen now has the capability to sell audiobooks. Just go to The Poisoned Pen website, scroll down to the bottom of the first page, and the last item on the right hand sidebar has the information you'll need if you're interested.) Talk of audiobooks reminded the Todds that they'd just re-signed their two audiobook readers.

L to R: Barbara Peters and Deborah Crombie

What's next for Deborah Crombie? "Duncan and Gemma had three scenes together in this entire book," Crombie said. "This next time, I'm sending the entire family to the country, and they will all work together to solve one crime. I've been fascinated with Melody Talbot's family, so Duncan and Gemma will be going to Melody's parents' country home for Guy Fawkes weekend. It will have something to do with a well-known female chef... and I'll have you know that I am determined not to get into another multi-book storyline!"  

When asked, Deborah admitted that she's "always wanted to set a book in the Cotswolds, but I love London so much that I've never had a problem with ideas for it.

"The landscape is a character in both your books," Peters said, looking at Crombie and the Todds. "HarperCollins hired topographers to do maps showing where our books are set,"David said. "Just go to Charles Todd Map." 

David Todd
Another fan wanted to know if the Todds had ever thought about setting one of their books in Hay-on-Wye, the UK's "booktown." "No, I'd spend too much time in the bookshops!" Caroline replied. "We won't set one in Eton, either," said David. "I'd spend too much time in the antique shops!" 

When asked why they all set their books in England, the answer was simple: all three are Anglophiles. 

"I was married to a Scot for several years and lived in the UK. Besides... if Lee Child can write about America, we can bloody well write about England!" Crombie exclaimed to an appreciative audience. 

Another fan question concerned Wren, one of Crombie's characters. "Which came first, the character of Wren, or your granddaughter, Wren?" "The character," Crombie said. "I've dedicated the book to my granddaughter."

Another wanted to know about how the Todds' writing partnership works. "Very interestingly," David said. "We started writing when I was living in North Carolina and my mother was in Delaware. We work scene by scene. Thank God for email and the phone companies dropping long distance charges! We work each scene until we're comfortable with it. Now I can't tell which sentence is mine and which is hers."

"And no, David does not write all the war scenes," Caroline stated. "He's had to learn his fair share about interior design and clothing!"

What are these writers reading and recommending now?

Deborah Crombie: "Elly Griffiths' and Terry Shames' latest books, and The Devil in the Kitchen, which is a memoir by the first British chef rock star."

David Todd: "Swiss Vendetta and War of Nerves, which is about nerve gas." 

Caroline Todd: "Lori Rader-Day's The Day I Died. I really enjoy Anne Cleeland's books, and Ragnar Jonasson's mysteries set in Iceland." 

If you'd like to watch this event in its entirety, go to The Poisoned Pen's Livestream channel and enjoy! 

A small percentage of a very appreciative audience!