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The Law of Angels by Cassandra Clark

Publisher: Minotaur

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Set during the tumultuous reign of English King Richard II, Abbess Hildegard wishes nothing more than to make her new rural outpost and its handful of nuns into a self-sufficient refuge.  Instead, her haven becomes a casualty in the battles between the medieval Plantagenets pitting Yorkists against Lancastrians.  Rather than allowing for any ungodly sulking, Hildegard’s prioress sends word of both a secret mission and also two young girls to be Hildegard’s temporary wards. 

One of the girls, chatty and frivolous Petronilla, overshadows the secretive hooded Maud who travels beside her.  In spite of the periodic outbreaks of fighting among soldiers and other partisans, the group looks forward to arriving in town during the preparations of an annual religious celebration promising adventure and distraction.  Rather than providing only a sense of wonder for the travelers, the atmosphere of bright colors, intense smells, and cheery sounds mask a series of murders centered around the diligent craftsmen behind the planned pageantry.

Because of the Yorkist setting, Hildegard and her companions support King Richard II over the highly romanticized figure of John Gaunt prominently described by Jean Plaidy and other novelists.  While Hildegard tries to maintain her focus on God and helping others, the struggle for the throne bleeds into her own life, endangering her secret mission and those around her.

Fortunately, Hildegard’s combination of worldliness and modern-era compassion aids her in her quest to follow the Prioress’ orders, help the wards in her care, and investigate the increasing number of deaths marring the Feast of Corpus Christi celebration. 

Author Cassandra Clark succeeds in detailing the difficult elements of both normal daily 14th century life and for Englishmen and women caught in the middle of the ongoing fighting between two resolute factions.  She also provides context for the 16th century English Reformation, gently showing the differences between Catholic orders, especially during the Great Papal Schism.  To aid readers in untangling the historical themes, Clark includes a short timeline at the back of the book but casual readers of English history may wish to find a family tree or additional background on these fascinating figures to aid in understanding.

Dense but colorful, Cassandra Clark’s The Law of Angels proves that Hildegard succeeds as a worthy successor to Umberto Eco’s religious sleuth, Brother William of Baskerville.

 

 

 

 

Ashes Of The Earth by Eliot Pattison

Publisher: Counterpoint Berkeley

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

The community of Carthage is clinging to a precarious existence in the aftermath of the almost total destruction of the United States, and apparently the rest of the world.  Ruled by a council of elders and headed by Lucas Buchanan, Carthage has all the least-appealing characteristics of the early Bay Colony theocracy—except that there’s no longer any religion. 

Every aspect of daily life is closely controlled, and people like former teacher Hadrian Boone who want to educate the young, who support the freedom of thought, and who don’t accept the absolute rule of Buchanan are treated harshly.  Assigned to mine old latrine pits for fertilizer as a punishment, Boone runs further afoul of the ruler by salvaging a few pages of some books, books with maps of what once existed.  Threatened with exile to the wild lands, Boone is given the chance to redeem himself—by spying on Jonah Beck, the old man who is one of the few left alive with the knowledge and power to do things like build bridges and basic machines.  The Governor needs Jonah’s work to continue to hold power, but he wants to know what the old man is up to, what he thinks, where he keeps his secret journal.

It doesn’t take much effort for Boone and Jonah to lay some false trails for Buchanan to see and follow, meanwhile pursing their own agenda, but when the old man is killed, Boone’s life is precarious indeed.  Other deaths happen, and they aren’t always what they seem.  Something’s going on, and Boone is determined to find out what.  For one thing, something is afflicting the young people, and causing them to commit suicide in pursuit of material goods they believe to exist ‘on the other side’.  They can’t grasp that these goods only exist in the past, and aren’t attainable now.  Someone or something is causing the phenomenon; if it isn’t stopped, the remnant population will not long survive.

Boone begins to find out about the world outside Carthage.  He discovers that the exiles and castouts who live in the forest aren’t in such a parlous state as the rulers have always claimed.  They eat better than the people of Carthage, and they’re in better spirits.  The exiles have made common cause with the First Bloods, what used to be called American Indians.  They seem to be building something better than the society at Carthage, but all this could be under threat by Buchanan and his hired guns.  Boone and his few brave allies don’t have long to find a murderer and expose a nasty bunch of villains.

The main premise of this post-apocalyptic work of future fiction is that no matter what else changes, no matter how devastating a disaster might befall mankind, you can always count on the old sins to surface: greed and power-lust the chief among them.  Grim, but well done.

 

 

 

 

Crunch Time by Diane Mott Davidson

Publisher: William Morrow

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

Goldy Schulz is back in another adventure packed with great food and murder. Goldy has a heart of gold and offers her longtime friend Yolanda Garcia a job in her catering business. Yolanda and her eccentric Aunt Ferdinanda have a bout of bad luck starting with their rental house burning to the ground and not by accident. Shortly after they move in with Ernest McLeod, former cop turned private investigator, he disappears and later is found dead of a gunshot wound and his house burns to the ground. Homeless for the second time, Goldy offers her house to Yolanda and Ferdinanda and of course they bring trouble right to Goldy’s doorstep. With her family in danger, Goldy has to juggle a busy catering schedule with her own special way of investigating a murder.

Crunch Time is the 16th book in the Goldy Schulz caterer series. As in all the books in the series the recipes in Crunch Time are excellent. Diane Mott Davidson provides enough background that a reader can enjoy this installment without having read the others in the series. There are a number of subplots and secondary characters in this book that can be hard to follow and confusing when the pace picks up. Like many series that have enjoyed a long run this one has had its “ups and downs” but avid fans of Goldy Schulz hang in there despite the highs and lows. Crunch Time is a good cozy mystery with some funny moments but is not one of the stronger books in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

SPIRAL by Paul McEuen

Publisher: The Dial Press

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

Towards the end of World War II a chilling rumor began to spread about Japan and plans they had for avenging the Atomic Bomb attacks that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  A biological weapons unit, known merely as Unit 731, operated under the official heading of the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army.  This was a mere shroud for the actual intent of this deadly Unit --- the destruction of the western world.  Certain Japanese officials believed their only chance of winning the war was through the use of biological weapons. 

This enormous operation, rivaling the United States own Manhattan Project, used thousands of Japanese citizens as test subjects --- most of whom were sacrificed for the greater good.  This subject matter has been the muse for many works of historical and speculative fiction, the most recent of which is the debut novel by Professor of Physics, Paul McEuen.

SPIRAL details the WWII exploits of Liam Connor, former British army officer and Ph.D. who established a reputation as a biology prodigy.  When he has the opportunity to interrogate a Japanese prisoner aboard the USS North Dakota in the end of the Pacific conflict of 1946, he is introduced to the horrific premise of a fungal pathogen known as Uzumaki that could be transmitted via human hosts and effectively wipe out millions in a short period of time.  Liam Connor helps to thwart the biological warfare group known as Unit 731 and assist the American military in mopping up the Pacific part of WWII and close out the war to end all wars.

SPIRAL then jumps to present times, where a senior-citizen named Liam Connor is a highly respected Professor, Nobel laureate and expert in nanoscience at New York’s famous Cornell University.  However, when he is found dead at the bottom of one of Ithaca, New York’s famous gorges, his death is ruled a suicide.  Both his granddaughter, Maggie, and his prodigy and fellow Professor of nanoscience, Jake Sterling, find it impossible to believe that an eighty-six year-old man who was enthusiastically working on new research projects would take his life for no good reason.  Maggie and Jake’s suspicions are well founded as they begin to decode secret messages that Liam left behind --- all of which point to secrets from World War II and the fact that he may have brought back the Uzumaki pathogen with him and secretly housed it all these years later.

It is at this point where the novel takes a bit of a turn from scientific research into cat-and-mouse thriller as Maggie, her son Dylan and Professor Jake Sterling are hunted by a brutal Japanese female assassin.  To make matters worse, she may be in league with a nefarious Japanese war criminal who has never forgiven the U.S. for devastating Japan with their A-Bombs over a half century earlier and plans to have the last laugh via the release of Uzumaki on North America.

Paul McEuen impresses early in his debut fiction novel and SPIRAL shows clear evidence that he knows his stuff.  The latter half of the book seems to lag a bit and his writing weakens when things devolve into standard thriller action and overly sadistic villains.  The theme though remains interesting throughout and the novels that have depicted Unit 731 are always frighteningly vital due to the fact that biological warfare is a plausible subject and one where there is little defense.  Thank goodness we have masters of Physics like Paul McEuen and his fictional counter-part, Jake Sterling, on our side.

 

 

 

 

Night On Fire by Douglas Corleone

Publisher: Minotaur Books        

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If hard-drinking, easy-loving lawyers are your thing, you’ll like Kevin Corvelli.  Kevin was drinking his way through the evening in a sea-side bar at a Hawaiian resort and lazily pursuing a woman of mature charms when a striking young woman having a public fight with her new husband caught his eye.  He briefly wished the young woman would take the place of his current prey, but then staggered off to bed with his cougar.

Later, wakened by a fire, Kevin rescues his bedmate and another hotel guest, a young boy who can’t find his grandmother.   As they huddle on the sidewalk and watch the firemen arrive, Kevin again sees the young woman, this time crying her eyes out against a masculine chest—but not her husband’s. 

The next morning, Kevin learns that the young woman is named Erin Simms, and that she’s in desperate need of a lawyer.  Her husband and the young boy’s grandmother both died in the hotel fire, the police are thinking arson, and they see Erin as a do-it-yourself rich widow.  Kevin takes on the role of her defender, but figures he’ll have to find the real killer if he’s going to get his client off. 

By the time the trial starts, Kevin has uncovered a lot of useful information, including some dubious financial shenanigans by the dead Trevor Simms, but he hasn’t been able to pin the murder on anyone.  He’s cross-examined the prosecution witnesses ruthlessly, including the dead man’s girlfriend, as witness his admission  “…if it would assist me in winning an acquittal, I wouldn’t hesitate to paint her as a backstabbing harlot with the morals of a cable news commentator.” 

Corvelli is far from the most likeable fictional lawyer you’ll meet this year—but if you were up on a capital charge, you’d probably want him defending you.  Like many other recent books, this one is written mostly in the present tense, perhaps with the idea of making the drama more immediate.  Doesn’t work for me, but I did like some of the snappy patter between Kevin and his antagonists—which is almost all the other characters in the book.

 

 

Dead by Midnight by Carolyn Hart

Publisher: William Morrow

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good for New Mystery Reader

Annie Darling happily inhabits her cozy neighborhood book store, Death on Demand, where she surrounds herself with like-minded mystery enthusiasts, good coffee and an ample supply of fresh mysteries and stellar classics.  Somehow her devotion as Death on Demand’s owner has carried into amateur sleuthing and Annie once more needs to investigate her neighbors in order to solve murders that hit much too close to home.

In Dead by Midnight, Annie hires Pat Merridew after her boss, Glen Jamison, fires her after years of dedication.  Glen’s new wife, Cleo, has decided that Glen’s law firm needs a fresh look—including a young, vibrant secretary who lacks experience but projects a younger image for the firm.  Although bitter at first, Pat settles in at Death on Demand, making her subsequent suicide much too puzzling for Annie to accept.

Annie’s investigation takes her into the Jamisons’ personal lives, fraught with mixed feelings about the new step-mother, while also delving into the familiar habits of recurring characters that add life to Hart’s books.  While Annie tackles the serious issue of murder, her quirky mother-in-law has markedly added new inspirational cat posters for display and sale in Death on Demand.  While these sometimes hilarious posters first bother Annie, she begins to cite specific expressions and accompanying comments at appropriate times in her investigation, showing Carolyn Hart’s mastery of unexpected integration of disparate elements and leading to unrepentant chuckles.

Dead by Midnight is Hart’s 21st Death on Demand mystery, and she also writes the popular sweetly supernatural Bailey Ruth novels, both solid examples of enjoyable cozy mysteries.

 

 

 

Fallen Angel by David Hewson

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader 

Nic Costa is an investigator in the Cabria in modern-day Rome, He is a medal-winner for his dogged pursuit of justice – perhaps because of his almost obsessive dedication to the job. It is this dedication that causes Costa to run toward the sound of screams from the ghetto rather than enjoy his vacation.

Malise Gabriel was an English academic lecturing in Rome. Gabriel falls to his death while apparently sneaking a cigarette on an unsafe balcony of an apartment building. The cause of the fall appears to be a collapse due to renovations taking far longer than should have been allowed.

Costa can’t let the case rest. The image of Gabriel’s daughter – covered in her father’s blood at the accident scene – haunts him. The words of her brother about the girl being safe now trouble the investigator.

The brother has a reputation with the police as a drug dealer. The building was unsafe. Is the indifference of the building inspectors and narcotics investigators due to the stifling heat of the Roman summer or are they missing something? The fun of the novel is in watching these answers unfold as Hewson takes the reader on a detailed description of the people, politics and sights of Rome.

 

 

A Gentleman of Fortune by Anna Dean

Publisher: Minotaur

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

Miss Dido Kent returns in A Gentleman of Fortune: Or, the Suspicions of Miss Dido Kent, to thanklessly investigate a new mystery in the countryside of early nineteenth century England.  With her upper class status, Dido inhabits a world of strict manners and delicate clothing familiar to readers of Jane Austen.  Unlike most of Austen’s heroines, Dido’s years as an ingénue are long past as she is a thirty-five year old single woman who manages to pursue her own interests with an occasional romantic distraction. 

In the second installment of the series, Dido’s impassioned nature compels her to investigate the seemingly natural death of Lady Lansdale, a reclusive woman who lived in her cousin Flora’s neighborhood.  Inclined to believe the death was natural, Dido realizes that the poisonous rumors started by a jealous local woman may cause the woman’s lovesick nephew and heir to be hanged, whether guilty or not.  Fortunately, Dido uses her vacation to ingratiate herself with the young men including the new Lord Lansdale and women such as the mesmerizing and mysterious new Lady Carrisbrook who live in the well-landscaped homes in the area, all attending elegant parties and dinners while Dido familiarizes herself with those who may have wished the poor lady any harm. 

Anna Kent creates a nice, suspenseful mystery in which she adds additional information through the inclusion of Dido’s periodic letters to her sister Eliza, leading to an unexpected resolution.  The romance between Dido and Mr. Lomax, introduced in Bellfield Hall, remains stilted with Dido’s refusal to completely abandon the era’s verbal dancing around issues.  Those who enjoy Austen’s original work or other, later examples such as Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park should investigate A Gentleman of Fortune.

 

 

The Bone House by Brian Freeman

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Freeman hits his readers of his first stand-alone novel with the force of an atomic bomb.  It begins simply enough, if simple is the right word, when a small-town teacher accused of seducing one of his teenaged students results in dismissal.  When that happens to Mark Bradley, his independent and beautiful wife Hillary stands by his side, no questions asked.  But when a trip to Florida for a national dance competition culminates in the death of the accuser's sister and fingers are once again pointing Mark Bradley's way, doubts begin to set in. 

And with all trails leading back to Door County, a beautiful and remote part of Minnesota, the Florida detective following the case, Cab Bolton a man with his own secrets, will find himself caught up in betrayals and lies that reach back years.

There are many things to love about Freeman's latest, but perhaps the biggest thing is his explosive ending.  Revealing secret after secret, the shocking repercussions of the past that he throws out with amazing speed and dexterity will astound readers, especially those who thought they had it all figured out.  Who can complain about an ending involving a dark and stormy night, electrifying secrets finally revealed, and the ghosts of the past coming back in the worst ways possible?   Freeman connects his many threads masterfully, and the end result is nothing short of astounding.  But be prepared, if you start this one, you won't be able to stop, with the last few chapters tempting one to read ahead to find out how all is resolved.  And if you find yourself wanting to see these characters again, you will find yourself hoping, as I did, that Freeman plans to bring them back.