August 2010 Mystery Reviews
 

 

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Abandoned by Cody McFadyen

Publisher: Bantam

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader 

McFadyen brings back his supercast of FBI profilers in this 4th outing that manages to surpass what has come before.  This time around, Special Agent Smoky Barrett and her crew are thrust into the hunt for the latest serial killer in the most unusual circumstances when during the wedding of one of their own, a woman who has been missing for years is literally thrown onto their path.  But getting answers out of her won’t be easy, as her trauma is so deep as to have left her speechless and far from sane.  But one thing is certain to these agents, she’s not the first woman this madman has held captive, nor is she the last.  And so in a search for the killer that’s filled with more than a couple of twists and turns, McFadyen takes these superstar profilers down a trail of an entirely new kind of madness that might just leave them unable to find the answers in time to save the next target: one of their very own.

In his first three outings, McFadyen did a more than stellar job of profiling not only madness of the killers, but also of the profilers that track the worst of the worst.  And in this fourth outing, he does it even better. 

While the challenge to understand the psychoses that drives the worst killers is still there with its full-blown, convincing revelations, he now brings out even more the humanity that lies with those that track them.  Most of the hardcore graphically violent scenes, thankfully, are left out this time, leaving it up to the reader to fill in the missing parts, making it a bit easier for those of us with a squeamish stomach.  However, not only do the intelligent insights remain, but even better, fans will find a much more compassionate and softer cast of characters – especially in the main character- Smoky Barrett.  She now becomes a fully realized woman with a depth and heart that has been a bit lacking up until now - an improvement that makes this one shine and infinitely of more interest than what’s come before. 

This is a challenging, intelligent thriller that proves McFadyen has the chops to do it up right without the violence he once relied on to make his books come alive.  Refreshing and real, this shows much promise for what’s to come with his newfound focus on characters instead of graphic gut-spilling.  A top-notch thriller, this is highly recommended.  

 

 

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

Jane Austen devotees will enjoy Lynn Shepherd’s revisiting of Mansfield Park and its upper-crust, rule-dominated denizens whose silk empire-waisted dresses and carefully brushed formal coats belie the serious emotions brimming under the surface of these young men and women.  In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Miss Fanny Price lacked the spiritedness of other Austen heroines, inspiring Austen’s own mother to call the character “insipid.”  Shepherd imagines orphaned heiress Fanny as being very different from the meek colorless girl portrayed by Austen, making her instead a proper villain.  Shepherd’s version maintains the outward appearance of downcast eyes and agreeable manner, but her Fanny Price uses her properly phrased words to cut the hopes of others like a well-sharpened knife. 

Fortunately, those who populate Miss Price’s well-appointed world retain their likeability even as they remain bound by good manners to refrain from expressing their emotions even as they burst with love, seething, and grief.  Henry Crawford and his sister Mary have agreed to oversee the landscaping renovations, putting them into almost daily contact with Fanny Price and her cousins Maria, Julia, and Edmund.  Julia, the youngest at fourteen, is not yet “out” in society but her elder relatives are in the middle of leisurely planning Fanny’s expected marriage to her cousin Edmund Norris.   Fanny enjoys throwing the facts of her wealth and prospective husband around, while her peers can barely respond without the fear of causing a scene.  When Fanny’s body is found in the woods, the question devolves from “Who wanted to kill her?” into “Who didn’t?”

Shepherd’s language isn’t quite as precise and elegant as Austen’s original sentences, but her willingness to speed the plot along with a little murder and intrigue will make Murder at Mansfield Park more palatable to readers who normally don’t enjoy Jane Austen.  For those who do read Austen with well-controlled passions, Murder at Mansfield Park will serve inside references, treasured characters and a breathtaking atmosphere perfect for a perfect accompaniment to tea and dreams of high English society.

 

 

A Small Death in the Great Glen by A. D. Scott

Publisher: Atria  ISBN-10: 1439154937

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Easily one of the best books of the year for British Empire followers or Mad Men devotees, A Small Death in the Glen captures the era of awakenings in a 1956 Scottish newsroom in which the staff members slowly begin to document the little details as carefully as Alexander McCall Smith in the Isabel Dalhousie series.  Scott perfectly captures both time and place in this exquisite tale.

The titular “small death” refers to young, frail Jamie, whose body was found in the cold river.  As details leak out in the insulated town, the local people virtually shake with grief at losing their belief in their innate safety and even the traveling tinkers grow angry even while they attempt to remain in their preferred status as outsiders.

Just eleven years after World War II’s end, the Italian Corelli family and displaced Polish immigrant Peter Kowalski have made the small stoic Scottish outpost their own.  The Corellis’ café brings warmth even with its servings of ice cream to the Scots while Peter regains a sense of family after losing his own in Poland’s horrific fate. Unfortunately, young Jamie’s tragic end impacts the carefully laid foundations of immigrant lives as they begin to shift among the finger-pointing and disbelief of the natives once a Polish refugee escapes from a Russian ship the very same night that Jamie died. 

Fortunately, Scott slowly reveals each entangled story while buttressing each with the professional and personal lives of the four newspaper employees that seek to join in the investigation of the boy’s death.  These four creators of the small Highland Gazette guarantee countless future anecdotes of hard won wisdom and heartfelt determination if this develops into a multi-volume series as promised.

Don McLeod’s life is tied up in the little paper even after he was rejected for the position of Editor-in-Chief.  Still, as Subeditor, he carries weight and his entrenched history makes him one of the locals.  Also one of the locals, twenty year-old Rob McLean chomps at the bit for adventure as the paper’s primary reporter.  Joining him in minority status is typist Joanne Ross, a former WWII motorcycle dispatch rider, mother of two and the battered wife of a soldier who has yet to accept peace.  Bringing the group together is Editor John McAllister, a newcomer who frequently exhorts his staff to transform their sleepy local paper into one of real interest.  Even while he preaches objectivity, Jamie’s death turns to have a very personal impact on even him.

Scott’s gentle movement into the placid external world of the internally passionate Scots explores the beginning of the mid-century progressive movements while simultaneously creating an intimate portrait of a town hopelessly clutching its innocence.

 

 

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

Publisher: Harper  ISBN-10: 0061791776

Reviewed by Joseph Obermaier,  New Mystery Reader

There is a thrill that comes with losing yourself in a well-crafted English mystery.  The elements are all well-known.  Set the story in one of those dark, brooding hamlets filled with schemes, family secrets, and murder that seem to cover the English landscape.  Fill it with authentic, vibrant characters from a different time and place and brought to life through beautiful, inspired descriptions.  Make sure the plot is silky smooth, flowing effortlessly from one twist to the next, never revealing too much, but always luring the reader deeper into the tale.  And the language that ties it all together has to evoke a charm that lasts until you reluctantly, unhappily reach the end of the book.   So it is with Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead.

A Duty to the Dead is the superb start of a new historical series from the mother and son writing team Charles Todd, author of the Inspector Rutledge mysteries.  It is 1916.  Our heroine, Bess Crawford, is a World War I nurse who has served in the field and is now serving on the hospital ship Britannic.  She grew particularly close to one of her patients, Arthur Graham, and just before he passed away, she promised to deliver a final message to his brother back home: “Tell Jonathan I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.”

When the Britannic is sunk by a mine, she breaks her arm and is sent home to England to recover and await her next orders.  Believing strongly that “a duty to the dead is a sacred thing,” and despite having delayed in doing it, Bess sets off to Arthur’s family home in Owlhurst, Kent to deliver the cryptic message.

Although she doesn’t understand the message, Bess is sure that Arthur was bothered by some family issue that he anxiously wanted made right.  Arriving at the Graham house, she is troubled that neither the brother Jonathan, nor any of the other family members gives the message any import.   When it looks as if that the family may not honor Arthur’s wishes, Bess can’t help but poke around to see if she can ensure that whatever it was that must be “set right” will be.  Bess’s sense of duty leads her to probe too deeply and she is soon swept up in a long buried family secret.  She must discover the truth, though that may prove even more dangerous than the war.

Bess Crawford is an intriguing heroine.  Spirited and gutsy, she is not the usual upper-middle-class young woman, but not so much that she comes across as anachronistic.   While she admits the unresolved feelings she has for the late Arthur may be affecting her judgment, she isn’t a woman in search of romance.  It is her sense of duty that leads her to get involved in the problems of others.  She is a trained nurse in wartime, trying to cure not only physical wounds, but also alleviate mental suffering as well.  We believe she has seen the horrors she describes.  And because of that, we accept that she would insert herself into this mystery, to help end suffering and to set things “right.”

Through her, we get to experience life in World War I England.  While the war is largely in the background in this book, its presence weighs heavily over all the characters.  The mystery never gets lost in all the history, though.  The War and its effects never smother the intrigue.  The solution is smartly conceived, and will keep you guessing until the end. 

Simply put, this novel works.   A Duty to the Dead is a welcome old-fashioned mystery and a brilliant start to a character with plenty more to discover in future books in the series.  I, for one, can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

Vanished by Joseph Finder

Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks ISBN: 0312946511

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader  

Joseph Finder has consistently been putting out fast-paced, intelligent thrillers for several years and his latest effort - “Vanished” - is another excellent novel.

“Vanished” opens with the sudden abduction of financier, Roger Heller. Immediately on the case is his brother, Nick Heller, a former Special Forces member and high-powered intelligence investigator. Nick quickly realizes there are two vanishings - the abduction of his brother and the disappearance of 9 Billion Dollars from a cargo plane bound for Baghdad. Could these two vanishings be related?

As Nick delves deeper, an unflattering picture of his brother, Roger, is formed. He finds out that Roger was on the Homeland Security DO NOT FLY list and that he may have also been blackmailing one of the world’s largest military contractors, Paladin Worldwide.

Using high-tech gadgets and relying on his close confidants as well as his prior Special Forces training, Nick Heller gets out of one precarious situation after another. However, what he uncovers may turn everything he knew about his brother and his own personal family history on its’ ear.

“Vanished” is filled with engaging and interesting characters and the nail-biting situations keep rolling along throughout this novel. I love the fact that Nick Heller is referred to as a “private spy” (as opposed to Private Eye) for he is truly a unique character. Joseph Finder knows how to develop a plot and keep the pace going - while never “dumbing-down” the material. Nick Heller is reminiscent of Ludlum’s Bourne character and I hope we see him again!

 

 

 

Tears of Pearl by Tasha Alexander

Publisher: Minotaur  ISBN: 0312383800

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Lady Emily Hargreaves savors her exotic honeymoon with her wonderful husband, Colin.  Yet, when a party-goer discovers an English-born member of the Sultan’s harem murdered during a party in Constantinople, Emily happily returns to her detecting work after the British and Ottoman governments request her unique skills as an English female detective.  Colin, as an investigating representative for the Crown, and Emily make a bet on who will solve the crime first.

Although not entirely welcome, Emily has the advantage of being allowed to enter the harem to question the other members and the more powerful women in the hierarchy.  Her explorations add a matter-of-fact description of the restrictive but sumptuous lifestyle of these kept women with plenty of details about the Victorian-era Turkish society.

Fellow intrepid travelers include Sir Richard St. Clare, who works in the British embassy and bears the tragedy of losing his young daughter to slave traders years before.  When his diplomatic papers disappear, Sir Richard’s mental health deteriorates and Emily and Colin must help him as well, especially after his remaining child Benjamin becomes the leading suspect for the harem member’s death.

Emily, also seen in A Fatal Waltz, makes a confident, assertive protagonist who routinely steps out of bounds as a wealthy noblewoman in a foreign land might.  No ingénue, Emily’s marriage is her second and she intends to maintain her independence and adventurous lifestyle.  Colin, devoted as a like-minded newlywed, encourages her efforts when not trying to return her to their quarters for romantic afternoons.

While the honeymooning couple clearly has sex whenever possible, Alexander alludes to it without details so that book clubs will be able to avoid graphic discussions of their spirited relations.  Although Lady Emily’s a clearly fictional character, there are references to real female travelers of the age, which might entice readers to learn more about this inherently interesting group of women who left comfortable society behind in order to lead a life with fewer restrictions and unending adventure.

 

 

 

The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum

Publisher: Mariner Books ISBN-10: 054733611X

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

The newest book by one of Norway’s premier crime writers is not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as ‘why? 

Jonas August Lowe, an only child, is missing: only for a few hours, but that’s long enough.  He is found dead in the woods by a couple of walkers: one a sensitive woman trapped in a barren marriage, the other her husband, who revels in the notoriety of finding a murder victim.  He horrifies his wife by taking pictures of the dead child, and this single soulless act sets her on a path that the reader hopes will take her to a life worth living.

Early in the story we become aware of who the killer must be.  The police are suspicious also, but handicapped by legal requirements; they can’t just go knocking on the doors of men they know to be capable of such crimes. 

A fortuitous find gives them the DNA sample that locks up the killer.  That solves the question of who killed Jonas, but Edwin is still missing, and the confessed killer is adamant that he knows nothing of the other missing boy.  Months pass, no progress is made, but then another accidental find reveals Edwin’s fate and gives the reader some skin-crawling moments.  Both cases are hard on the police in charge, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant, Detective Jakob Skarre. 

Fossum tackles the unsavoury topic of pedophilia with a delicacy of touch that helps the reader get past the horrific nature of the crime to look into the motivations behind it.  She walks the tightrope between excusing a crime and understanding why it occurred with a sure step, and without descending into graphic and gratuitous detail.

Fossum’s writing has the both spare structure of George Simenon and the complex characterisations of P D James.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Swan for the Money by Donna Andrews

Publisher: Minotaur Books  ISBN-10: 0312377182

Reviewer: Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Black swans, coal-colored vampire horses, horrific all-black interior décor, and murder all shadow the usually colorful world of rose shows in Swan for the Money.  Meg Langslow has the gift of organization but little real knowledge of roses, complicating her agreement to produce the Caerphilly Garden Club’s first rose show.  After ill-timed treatments of manure at the show’s first venue proves unbearable, all of the events take place on the large estate owned by garden club member Philomena Winkleson.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Winkleson’s rules are unbending, emphasizing once more why almost no one in the club can stand to be around her.  The change in venue proves deadly for one poor garden club, when Meg discovers Mrs. Sechrest lying prone in a field of fainting goats.

In Mrs. Winkleson’s world, black, white and a touch of grey are all that is allowed and she even raises designer animals that fit her color scheme.  After Mrs. Winkleson boldly calls the rose show’s entrants to explain that only black and white roses are allowed, Meg loudly reminds her that was idea voted down by a vote of 47-1 and that colored roses remain welcome in several categories.  Mrs. Winkleson collapses, leading to curiosity but with little concern since the irritable woman treated everyone horribly, including her poor, ever-present butler whom she selfishly renamed because she didn’t like his Russian moniker. 

While Meg investigates (carefully avoiding the police investigation unless asked), she encounters the shy Mr. Darby, who takes care of the animals, and Mrs. Winkleson’s highly detested and insufferable nephew, who circles the estate like a vulture waiting for its next meal to die as he dreams of his eventual inheritance.  Navigating the estate proves to be like finding one’s way through a maze and Meg makes many new discoveries on her way to finding out who killed Mrs. Sechrest and poisoned Mrs. Winkleson.

With the possibility of animal mistreatment, the abuse of potential American Rose Show official rules, an estate full of competitors and a poisoned character whom no one likes, Meg has her hands full in this enjoyable black and white-themed mystery whose solution is anything but.

 

 

 

Breathing Water by Timothy Hallinan

Publisher: Harper Paperbacks  ISBN-10: 0061672254

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader 

No less an authority than Raymond Chandler once wrote: “Any approach to perfection…demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The coolheaded constructionist does not come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, and an acute sense of observed detail….The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply will not be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis.” Chandler was as qualified to comment on his trade as anyone ever was, but he never read Timothy Hallinan. The third book in Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series, Breathing Water, comes as close to capturing all of Chandler’s demands as anything you’re likely to read this year.

Hallinan weaves two unrelated stories—and one smaller, but no less important subplot—into a fabric strong enough to support a diverse cast in an unfamiliar environment. The book opens with the story of Da, a peasant girl whose village was destroyed for a golf course. She escapes to Bangkok, where she falls under the influence of a man who is essentially a pimp for beggars, doling out street corners to his stable and collecting his take. He essentially owns them, and their props: Da is given an infant to raise her appeal for the foreign tourists.

In the larger story, Rafferty is involved in a card game set up by a casino to learn how to catch card cheats. No one expects Khun Pan to show up. Pan is a powerful figure in Thailand, a former dirt poor peasant who worked his way up through protection rackets and brothels to become a “respectable” businessman, at least on the surface. He taunts Rafferty, who unwisely rises to the bait. A showdown results in Rafferty winning the right to write Pan’s biography. Within twenty-four hours, he has been threatened with death both by parties who want him to write it, and those who don’t.

Hallinan links the plots through strong character development. All of the characters—good, bad, and uncertain—are fully realized, which makes their actions more flexible because each character can have multiple, sometimes conflicting, motivations. Pan is an enigma. Champion of the poor, or their ruthless exploiter? Depends on the context, or on who’s talking. His actions can be interpreted either way.

Too many thrillers neglect what Hallinan seems to know intuitively: It’s the characters, stupid. He never makes you care about them; you just do. The love and affection among the members of Rafferty’s little family is obvious, despite their sometimes sharp tone. This makes his task more urgent than the power struggle he has set off in the Thai ruling class, because everyone can relate to it. Governments come and go, but families are irreplaceable.

Poke’s friend Arthit is back, squeezed between his police superiors and advance of his wife’s multiple sclerosis. Their scenes are beautifully realized and heartbreaking without ever becoming maudlin. Hallinan pays his readers the ultimate tribute by trusting in their ability to understand what they see without explanation. Watching Arthit struggle between what he wants to do and what Noi needs him to do is painful.

Hallinan’s love for the Thai people and distaste for their economic and political systems form an uneasy co-existence. Each defines the other through their close juxtaposition, again allowing him to generate emotion without resorting to melodrama. His writing is well past describing rain storms; he is a master at evoking the feeling of being rained upon.

A Nail Through the Heart was a revelation, yet The Fourth Watcher was a leap forward. Breathing Water takes another step. It’s a book you’d be sorry to finish if you weren’t so emotionally exhausted by the end. Look for it on award lists at the end of the year (refers to Hardcover edition).

 

 

 

Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

Publisher: Vision ISBN 978-0446561959

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

Nine Dragons is Connelly’s best book since The Poet.  If you are a follower of his, you know the depth of that statement. If you’re not, then get busy.

The last ‘real’ Harry Bosch novel was The Overlook, written over 2 years ago, itself an extension of a serialization he did for the New York Times, and was pretty much a place-holder. Granted, Connelly’s place-holders are better than the great majority of what gets passed for quality fiction these days, but still.

Then, Bosch was a co-star in The Brass Verdict, primarily a Mickey Haller book, and a vehicle for establishing an interesting connection between Connelly’s two most popular characters.

And now, Nine Dragons.  Connelly leaves nothing on the table with this one, folks. It’s all Harry, all the time, and we’re telling you now, you’d best have a few hours to spare once you get to the halfway point, because you’re not going to be able to stop.

As we begin, Harry is called in to investigate the murder of a shop keeper that he by chance has some history with. As the case progresses, we find that his partnership with Iggy Ferras, first set up in The Overlook, is strained to the point of dysfunction. Dysfunction is a big part of what seems to be on Connelly’s mind here, and it’s explored on many levels.

We also gain insight into Harry’s life as a father. You’ll remember from Lost Light that Harry found out about his then 4-year-old daughter, Madeline, born in Vegas after he and Eleanor Wish ended their short-but-productive marriage. Turns out, he’s been making regular trips to Hong Kong, where Eleanor had moved with Madeline to be a Casino’s ‘celebrity gambler’ there.

The investigation progresses, and evidence leads Harry to the murky world of the Triads, the organized criminals that control much of the commerce of Hong Kong emigres in Los Angeles, and their enforcer, one Bo-Jing Chang.  Harry brings all of his famous certainty to bear on Chang, with lots of circumstance, but lacking in hard evidence.  In an attempt to get a quick translation on some Chinese writing, he picture-messages his daughter with that writing.

Following a thinly-veiled telephone threat to back off the case—which of course convinces Harry he’s on the right track—he then receives a shocking video-message from Madeline, showing her bound and gagged, a clear victim of kidnapping. 

That stunning development sends Harry on a knight’s-errand to Hong Kong to rescue his daughter. He’s certain his transmission of those Chinese characters is responsible for her capture, and that Bo-Jing Chang is behind the whole thing.

Connelly’s skill at ratcheting up the tension with each successive event is at its peak in Nine Dragons and he knits the inter-continental developments together with precision.  In Hong Kong, he is re-united with Eleanor Wish and her bodyguard Sun Yee, and the action reaches a fever-pitch. The body-count is both high and significant, intensifying the importance of the stakes involved.

So far, we really haven’t told you anything you won’t read on the book flap, and we’re gonna stop there.  Because NONE of that will prepare you for what is about to happen.

But there’s still a lot to talk about.  Like, for instance, Connelly’s development of Bosch as a character.  After nearly 20 years and more than a dozen Bosch novels, we think we know Harry. Guess what? We’re wrong. We see sides of him here that are totally logical and completely unexpected. Emotions revealed in Nine Dragons will both shock and please, as the author brings depth to shades that we sometimes found even annoying at times.  That’s something that can only be done with forethought, as if Connelly’s been planting these seeds for years, and is now ready to harvest the crop. The result is a novel that has an effect on Harry’s status quo beyond expectation.

Besides dysfunction, family matters are also clearly on his mind.  Bosch’s reflections, related in third person by Connelly’s eloquent prose, will hit nerves with any parent.  We all know that parenting is an art of love, not a science of fact, and that all the best intentions in the world do not guarantee success. Or even love returned.  Connelly gives a full flushing to these ideas, and the result is without a doubt the most gripping crime fiction of the year.

 

 

 

Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

Publisher: Random House  ISBN-0812979367

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

Detective Darko Dawson remains haunted by the disappearance of his mother in her hometown of Ketanu, Ghana, permanently ending her little boy’s childhood when he was only twelve.  With a well-timed dream and an inexplicable murder, Darko returns to Ketanu with a mix of memories and grown-up observations.  Darko’s present has the potential to echo his past, but he’s obviously a resilient man dedicated to his family and his profession.  Distracting him from his personal problems is the case at hand, the murder of a lovely young woman dressed in blue and white and carrying AIDS prevention literature.  Gladys, well-known in her community, planned to be a doctor and interacted with the local healer, the oft-married priest, and admiring men who hoped to win her affection.

Filled with different forms of power from witchcraft to shrine priests who claim to speak to gods to Darko’s own ability to hear when others are lying, Wife of the Gods features many different beliefs in a country ranging from the modern city of Accra to the small impoverished town of Ketanu and village of Bedome.  In spite of Darko’s intention to represent himself as the professional big-city investigator, there’s still a bit of physical fighting when his frustration with the slow-paced and sometimes brutal old ways boils over, making this a journey he needs to take to become the methodical, patient man he wants to be.

Set in the African country of Ghana, Quartey’s personal affection for the culture and kindhearted people show through even as he struggles to understand the continuing belief in witchcraft and fetish priests in some rural areas.  Quartey’s work has garnered comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith for his easy descriptions of an African culture, but Quartey’s passionate characters create a slightly more rushed feel rather than the easygoing pace of the No. 1 Detective Agency’s Botswana.  This debut shows much promise with its vibrant descriptions of the dense forests, rattling tro-tros for transportation, and unique customs—all offering danger mixed with beguiling beauty to the dutiful, determined Detective Dawson.

 

 

 

 

Redemption by Laurel Dewey

Publisher: The Story Plant  ISBN-10: 0981956874

Reviewer: Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Jane Perry, a recovering alcoholic, is trying to make it on her own as a Denver PI after her last case as a Denver homicide detective hit the headlines and almost cost her her life because of her tendency towards excessiveness.  But times are tough and getting the money-paying cases isn’t as easy as she thought, so when an older woman approaches her about the recent disappearing of a young girl miles away with the claim that the culprit is the man who killed her granddaughter years before, while wary, Jane takes on the case.  Following a trail from Denver to California, she’ll find the connection does indeed lie with the man previously charged, now free on a technicality, who is still a member of a fanatical religious sect with some questionable practices. So as the two women go on the road trip of their lives, they will not only find a killer, but perhaps a shot at the redemption they thought they’d never find.  

The aspects that made Dewey’s first in the series such a heart-rendering and compelling read, her character having been the ultimate fallen and broken hero, is something that seems to be missing in this latest.  While Jane Perry’s walk away from the booze and into the light of recovery is definitely laudable, at times the other characters’ encouragement sounds like nothing more than perhaps a softer and gentler lecturing that ultimately holds the same type of dogmatic phrasing as that they’re battling against.  And, by the end, it seems neither one is able to hold up a cup of water that doesn’t begin to evaporate when put under too bright a light.  

Too much of this read sounds like an overwrought treaty on self-forgiveness and self-acceptance than a mystery, which, if done more subtly, might have worked, but in this case is just a bit too self-righteous and self-aware to quite hit that mark. So, while this is difficult to say about this ambitious book on recovery, the words of more than one creative writing teacher, “show, don’t tell,” might be a bit of advice that Dewey could consider next time around.       

 

 

 

The Hornbrook Prophecy by Robert Wickes

Publisher: Crystal Dreams Publishing ISBN 978 15914634 2 9

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

This is one of those very difficult books to review which readers get from time to time.  It’s clear the writer passionately believes in his premise, and after you’ve read a few chapters, I’d be surprised if you, too, don’t think “Hey, he’s right, these figures add up to potential disaster!”

Anybody with a basic pocket calculator could come up with the same numbers the independent senator from Washington does, but it seems only Joseph Hornbrook himself sees the approaching train wreck for the national economy.  Despite his speech to his fellow senators that to pass the President’s newest tax bill will lead to economic disaster, Hornbrook finds himself about as popular as a hornet in a jam jar. He goes back to his home state to lick his wounds and await what he sees as the inevitable bankruptcy of the country he loves.

Meanwhile a handful of other far-sighted people begin to see the coming storm.  When the tax bill is passed and the Dow crashes, Eagle McCall, half Irish-American and half Blackfoot, tips off his sister and brother in law that now’s a good time to get out of Dodge and head for the hills—specifically, Eagle’s ranch in Washington.  Packing up their kids and a neighbor’s son, Laurel and Tom Warner begin a perilous journey to what they hope will be safety, as civil disorder spreads like wildfire.  They quickly learn the truth of the aphorism that “no society is more than three meals from a revolution”.

Back in Washington, the President and his inner circle are moving further and further away from their job descriptions, and imperilling the very foundations of the country.  In Alabama a dedicated young black Lieutenant Governor struggles to save his state from corruption and mayhem.  The head of the armed forces is placed in an untenable situation and forced to make decisions that will echo for generations to come.

There’s a lot wrong with this book.  The characters are often stereotypes; the language is sometimes stilted, and the physical layout of the book is lacking.  Mr Wickes badly needed an editor and a designer to advise him on such things as typography and layout and not using CAPITAL LETTERS when what he really wanted were italics, or putting lots of words in quotes that didn’t need to be set off that way. Such things slow down the flow and make the narrative stumble.

That said, Wickes has written a thriller that’s all too plausible and that keeps you reading even when you’re feeling irritated by the defective structure.  Wickes clearly believes his premise and conveys it to the reader.  Perhaps it’s time we all wrote to our representatives in Washington and reminded them of Mr Micawber’s dictum about income and outgo?

 

 

Devil’s Trill by Gerald Elias

Publisher:  Minotaur Books ISBN:  978-0-312-653506

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader

If you are a violin music fan, a musical mystery buff, or just enjoy tales out of the ordinary, Devil’s Trill by talented author Gerald Elias is one book you won’t want to miss.  A violin with a dark history is stolen at a concert where it is supposed to be played by a child who has won a violin playing competition.

Blind violin teacher Jacobus is in attendance of the concert for motives of his own when the violin is stolen.  His old friend Nathaniel who is hired to recover the violin asks his help. 

Jacobus’ sarcastic and caustic style of speaking soon has his enemies naming him as the thief. People say they are afraid of him and the policeman charged with investigating the theft seems to believe they have good cause when another teacher he was the last to see is found murdered with a string from his own violin.

This is a tale that pulls the reader along, giving insights into the world of musical competitions and just how unpleasant they can be when there are people who will do anything to win.  A tale that also introduces the reader to classical music and the time and effort required to master the violin. 

I’m pleased to highly recommend this tale as an interesting read with lifelike characters whose personal motives drive the story.  A very worthwhile read with lots of action.  Enjoy. I sure did.

 

 

Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Publisher: Bloomsbury  ISBN-10: 1608190471

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Set in 119 A.D., this enjoyable mystery from the Roman Empire is a reminder that family squabbles and financial troubles transcend time and cultures even if this particular family lives in a luxurious house with numerous servants and full-bodied, locally-made wine.

Roman medicus (doctor) Gaius Petreius Ruso leaves Britannia after receiving a two-line note from his brother Lucius pleading for him to come home to Gaul.  Accompanied by native Briton Tilla, Ruso immediately walks into trouble when he’s unexpected, unwanted and his female companion’s strange ways make her even less welcome in Ruso’s social-climbing step-mother’s environment. 

Ruso’s return is further darkened when he discovers that his brother and obsessively-remodeling step-mother have immersed themselves in debt, his sisters are senselessly spoiled and clamoring for dowries, and a dangerous new religion touting one god and eventual resurrection has spread to the family farm.  As head of the family, Ruso becomes irretrievably responsible for his family’s debts and mounting problems so he tackles the significant obstacle of money before they all end up in poverty—which is when the real trouble starts.

Deciding to meet with his brother’s main creditor at the family home, Ruso is pleased to find that Severus agreeable to working out a truce.  Unfortunately, Severus suddenly expires after muttering that he’s been poisoned.  Steadfastly scrupulous, Ruso reports the poisoning and then, since there is no Roman police force, undertakes the investigation to clear his name of murder.

Ruso and Tilla are well-matched; each is intelligent, resourceful, and with an innate tendency to keep one’s own counsel, which sometimes causes relationship problems for them but creates exciting situations in the story.  The mix of gladiators and the Romanization of other cultures add depth to the family drama and Ruso’s plight makes him sympathetic as he struggles with the needs of so many while wrestling with his own future.

 

 

The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta

Publisher: Minotaur Books  ISBN-10: 0312389574

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

The Silent Hour, Michael Koryta’s newest Lincoln Perry mystery, serves a dual purpose. Those who are already Koryta fans will not be disappointed; those who are reading him for the first time will become fans. A win-win for all concerned.

Private investigator Perry knows better than to take Parker Harrison’s case. Harrison sends letters; Perry throws them out. Even when Harrison drops in uninvited, Perry almost gets away clean. Harrison’s a convicted murderer, but the case isn’t about that. He wants Perry to find the husband and wife who sponsored his parole and let him live with them. Their unique home has been deserted for twelve years and Harrison wants closure.

Perry looks at the house and is as intrigued as Harrison expected. He’s about to jump in with both feet when he learns Harrison omitted certain critical facts. The rest of the book is a contest to see how deeply Perry will become involved as events coerce him, or well he can stay away. It’s an interesting way of building tension, watching Perry move away and back again as what he learns interacts with previous experience, almost Hamlet-like in his indecision. It could become tedious in the hands of a lesser writer. Koryta makes it a strength.

Koryta is a no frills storyteller, whose prose is lean, not sparse. Descriptions are used as necessary, never more than is needed, and always spot on. The plot builds in layers, each twist or piece of new information adding complexity, never so much that tracking the story becomes a chore. Surprises are unexpected, never unprepared, and everything makes sense eventually. Facts find Perry without haste, and rarely when he needs them most; the reader will hang on every word, looking with him for the key that makes sense of it all.

The characters are diverse and complete as the plot. Parker Harrison tells what he wants and no more. He alone decides how much to parcel out using his own code; no point in arguing. How much to trust him while knowing he’s holding back is key to the suspense.

Pittsburgh private eye Ken Merriman re-engages Perry into the case. His story makes sense, but is still vague enough to welcome scrutiny. Pennsylvania cop Graham is, gently put, an arrogant ass who throws facts around like they were manhole covers. He has his reasons. How valid they are, and how potentially damaging, also ties the threads of the story closer together.

If there’s anything about The Silent Hour that isn’t just right, it’s the dialog. It reads a little stiffly in places, but not so much to take you out of the story, and probably not noticeable to anyone but a dialog fanatic. (This dialog fanatic is also from Pittsburgh, and finds it hard to believe Clevelanders speak with such consistently impeccable grammar.)

Fictional PIs are the natural evolution of the classic Western loner. Their stories have been the mainstay of American crime fiction for over seventy years. From Hammett and Chandler through Macdonald, Spillane, Robert Parker, Crais, and Lehane, private eye stories have been the perfect vehicle for weaving crime stories and social commentary. Some argue it’s a dying genre. They probably haven’t read any Michael Koryta.

 

 

 

 

The Siege by Stephen White

Publisher: Signet  ISBN-10: 0451228480

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

In this latest, White takes quite a bit of a departure from his Boulder, CO series featuring psychologist Alan Gregory and detective Sam Purdy, the successful team of crime fighters that fans are used to seeing battling serial killers and other above-averaged intelligent killers whose crimes are more often committed a bit closer to home.  But have no fear, while Gregory may be kicking up his heals in Boulder, Sam Purdy takes up the slack when he dives head-first into the kidnapping of his girlfriend’s daughter during her weekend engagement celebration in Miami with the wealthy in-laws. 

With his partner too pregnant to travel, Sam is representing his soon-to-be family in Miami in a trip that soon turns deadly when he’s discreetly approached by the groom’s wealthy mother who desperately needs Sam’s help after hearing of her daughter-in-law’s abduction miles away. So Sam heads out to the ivy-covered campus of Yale University where a group of young, high-profiled students are being held by an unknown assailant in the tomb of one of Yale’s secret societies. 

And as one by one the students exit the tomb and are either killed or released, the pressure is sky high to figure out what the kidnappers want, and why.  But with the kidnappers’ continuing silence to authorities, their only contact being with the powerful parents of the kidnapped students who, under threat, refuse to share the communications, securing the release of the slowly dwindling number of students seems near impossible.  And so as each moment ticks by, and with the death toll rising, it will be up to Sam and a couple of unconventional U.S. agents to figure out how to save those who remain. 

Usually when coming across a book that in any way shape or form relates to terrorism, I’m quick to put it in the “this will only be read if all else somehow burns in a fire and this is all that’s left” pile.  But, as a great fan of Stephen White, I decided to open my mind a bit and see what kind of tale he could spin within this setting. 

I’m glad I did.  Admittedly, as already confessed, I have little to compare this to, but I’ve certainly read enough books of any sort to know when good is good, and this is good.  Actually, quite often, it’s even better than good.  The motivations and planning behind this brilliant kidnapping plot are revealed at the perfect pace, each detail exposed with perfect timing.  There’s even an unexpectedly sweet romance between the war-torn agents thrown in that actually pulls the many plot devices even closer together.  And then, best of all, there’s the final denouement, one that has been well-thought out, and one that deserves to be thought about long after the book is finished.  Never thought I’d like such a book, so when this comes with my wholehearted recommendation, you can believe it’s got to be great.