December Hardcover Mystery Reviews


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Set the Night on Fire by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Publisher: Allium Press

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

In this latest with the title taken from the Door's hit, Hellmann weaves a tale that alternates between the era when the Doors ruled the airwaves, and today, in what is her best novel yet. 

Decades ago,  a group of young adults met up at a rally, one of the many taking place during the turbulent 60s, and one that would set them on a course that would change their lives forever, and for some, one that would eventually result in their deaths years later. 

Hellmann begins her story with Lila Hilliard, a single, successful woman who has made her way quite well in the white collar world of finance.  Living her life as mostly a drone for "the man" has left her as what some might consider a cold fish.  But when her father and brother are killed in a suspicious fire during the holidays, she finds herself caught up in a web of old secrets and mystery that will shake her well-ordered life to the very core and leave her forever changed.  Looking into her family's death she'll find that nothing is as it seems, and her father's past that has coming knocking on her door with murder in mind involves a past filled with idealism turned to murder and idealists turned to killers who will do nothing to stop the truth from coming out.

This wonderfully written roller-coaster ride will make a fan out of anyone who hasn't read this author before.  And if you've always wanted an inside look into the 60's generation, Hellmann excels at providing a sensitive, yet realistic, look at this turbulent time.  With compassion, reflection, and just enough objectivity, she adeptly balances the idealism of the era with how it sometimes got it all wrong despite the best intentions.  This novel, as far as I'm concerned, is the best mystery to date in its treatment of that gone-by era that is far from forgotten.  A beautiful, suspenseful, and altogether amazing novel, this is one that shouldn't be missed.




Mr. Hooligan by Ian Vasquez

Publisher: Minotaur Books       

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Riley James is the main protagonist of the story. Riley James is not the stuff of heroes. Rather, he is a low level criminal with aspirations of marriage and escaping the criminal life in the streets of Belize City. In debt to the infamous Mosantos brothers, Riley is making his last smuggling run to pay off the debt and be free to run his bar and marry his recent love.

However, the last run does not go smoothly. The load is high jacked. When the Mosantos order him to go with two Mexican killers to recover the load, he has little choice. Watching his friends being killed, Riley resorts to murder for the second time in his life. He kills the hired killers, but not without being wounded and running the risk of the Monsantos’ wrath. He will have to tread lightly and skillfully to free himself.

Vasquez is an award winning-writer and shows those skills in this work. Riley is a likeable scoundrel. While the reader can hope for his redemption, there appears little chance of him walking the straight-and-narrow path. The plot and subplots make for interesting reading.



Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by  Don Bruns

Publisher: Oceanview Publishing

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If this were a movie trailer rather than a book review, it would probably start off “Those lovable losers are back! Yes, the merry misfits Skip and James have returned to amuse and amaze you…”

Once again James has a new scheme for making money, which he needs in order to replace the old white box-body truck that got blown up in the last adventure.  The carnival’s in town, and Moe Bradley, owner and operator of “The Moe Show” wants to hire the inexperienced private eyes to lurk around the show and discover who’s sabotaging the rides.  Simple, right?

James conveniently overlooks his more responsible partner Skip’s reservations—such as, isn’t this apt to be dangerous if there’s someone out there determined to drive Moe out of business?  And why would a knockout girl like Angie fancy James?  And, later, “Why would a rich guy like Moe pay $2000 to a couple of schnooks when for the same money he could hire a professional private eye?”

James is not seeing the world clearly, he’s been entranced by Moe’s helper Angie, so before you can say “Cotton candy rots your teeth”, Skip and James are living in an Airstream on the fairgrounds and trying to snoop discreetly.  This is harder than they expect, since everyone at the carnival seems to know why they are there. 

The story is peopled with a variety of strange characters, including Winston Pugh Charlemagne, who runs a moth-eaten petting zoo, and Kevin Cross the shooting gallery guy, who combines hard-drinking with paranoia, a potentially lethal partnership.

With the help of his intelligent (and strangely devoted) girlfriend Emily, Skip uncovers the plot behind the plot, but this is of questionable usefulness when he’s hanging 70 feet off the ground from a terminally damaged Dragon car.

Once again author Bruns pulls readers into a Skip and James adventure and makes them keep turning the pages despite thinking, “What a pair of goof-ups; why does Skip put up with James and his hare-brained schemes?”



Low Country by Eric L. Haney

Publisher: Berkley Books

Review by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Kennesaw Tanner was a soldier who served with distinction until being recruited by one of the U.S. covert agencies known by its initials. After some years with that agency and nearing time to retire, Tanner spoke against some military practices and forced to resign.

Now in the coastal Low Country of Georgia, Tanner makes a living investigating or otherwise solving problems for clients.

When he is asked to investigate the apparent suicide of a young girl, he can’t turn it down even though it means invading the close-knit community of Panther Creek in a neighboring county. Panther Creek is the kind of place even the deputies don’t want to go into after dark.

The reader is treated to not only a good mystery, but served a heaping helping of the food, people and culture of the Low Country. The book is all-in-all an enjoyable read.




Third Degree by Maggie Barbieri

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Based on the cover, I didn’t think I’d enjoy this latest from Barbieri.  But I was wrong.  Far from being your typical chick-lit as implied by the cover, this ended up being a hysterical romp through one of America’s nicest communities .

English Professor Alison Bergeron is not only sweating the summer away because of the heat; the rapidly approaching new year of teaching; the sudden disappearance of her best friend, the Catholic college’s priest where she teaches; but also her indecision over her boyfriend’s insistent proposals of marriage.  So when she witnesses a fight that results in a death in her favorite coffee shop (which just happens to serve the worst coffee in the village), she’s more than happy to distract herself by nosing into the investigation.

The victim, a blogger who managed to piss off everyone in the village on a daily basis with his shots to the hearts and reputations of most people with businesses there, had many enemies.  But considering the fact that if he hadn’t died as a result from the blow to the head during the fight with the leader of the local waste management company, the bomb planted in his car would have surely done the trick, making this one crime that is far from being as cut and dried as it might seem.  And also one that provides a puzzle that Alison is more than happy to sink her teeth into, if only for a distraction from the things she should really be worried about.

In this latest, Barbieri uses humor in unexpected and intelligent ways to create a laugh out loud mystery that will charm and delight just about anybody.  Finding out who did what isn’t nearly half as fun as the traveling down the road it takes to get there.  Barbieri has created a heroine that while having a maid, a dog walker, living in a rich community, and having the perfect boyfriend, still manages to come off as someone we can all relate to.  Her inability to remain standing with a full cup of coffee for more than a few seconds, and her ability to run into things that could easily be avoided, being a huge part of her charm.  I like this character, a lot, and look forward to seeing her again.



The Athena Project by Brad Thor

Publisher: Atria Books

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader

Brad Thor has been called ‘the Master of thrillers’ and THE ATHENA PROJECT should safely give him his tenth consecutive best-seller.

Within the pages of THE ATHENA PROJECT, Thor has produced his most ambitious outing to date.  His novels are always pulse-pounding thrill-rides that clearly show his in-depth knowledge of the workings of government.  More importantly, Thor’s personal knowledge of the inner-workings of the U.S. government and the realization of just how prone to attack we are by our enemies provides extreme credibility to everything he writes.

THE ATHENA PROJECT deals with real events, conspiracy theories and government cover-ups that include:  The Denver International Airport (DIA) that houses an alleged U.S. Government secret beneath it; and, The Philadelphia Experiment – the naval military experiment that took place during WWII whereby scientists working for the U.S. Military (borrowing techniques from a think tank that included Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla) attempted mass teleportation of military personnel and warships.  Also, German General Hans Kammler, who was at the forefront of the Nazi secret projects that allegedly were 6 months away prior to the end of WWII of developing weapons that would have changed the outcome of the war!

These are just the tip of the iceberg of the real events that shape Brad Thor’s THE ATHENA PROJECT.  What is even more interesting is that Thor moves off his regular central character, Special Agent Scot Harvath, and focuses on a group of four females who are members of the group codenamed The Athena Project and operating under the U.S. Delta project.  These four women --- Gretchen Casey, Julie Ericsson, Megan Rhodes and Alex Cooper --- comprise Delta Company’s best and brightest female agents and were originally introduced in Thor’s last novel, FOREIGN INFLUENCE.

Scot Harvath plays a secondary role in this novel and does pop in from time to time.  But this novel belongs firmly to The Athena Project as they undertake the deadliest and most vital mission of their careers.  They are originally tasked with apprehending an Italian arms dealer named Nino Bianchi and turning him over to Scot Harvath and his team. 

Bianchi has had dealings with some really bad guys who are at the top of the terrorist list and major threats to the security of the U.S. and their allies.  Some terrorist attacks that occurred in FOREIGN INFLUENCE led them to Bianchi and his cohorts --- but the big picture game-plan they have in mind could cripple the U.S. and the Western World. 

Following the successful apprehension of Bianchi in Venice, The Athena Project operatives are sent to Zbiroh Castle in the Czech Republic.  There was allegedly an underground facility located beneath the castle that held the secret Nazi projects spearheaded by Hans Kammler.  When U.S. Intelligence gets word that a large amount of machinery may have been cleared out of this underground chamber they need The Athena Project to confirm this and then follow the trail of where the material went and who was behind its’ extraction.

What the team uncovers is beyond description and proof of human experimentation and teleportation is confirmed.  There is direct allusion to the U.S. Military Projects that took place at Camp Hero in Montauk Point, Long Island, whereby scientists attempted many of the experiments found in Hans Kammler’s research.  Everything from mind control to teleportation were real scientific possibilities and now the enemy has obtained the machinery to transport not only humans but also weapons (bombs) to specific targets to the U.S. and their allies --- putting the Western World in an indefensible position and possibly bringing Homeland Security and the Department of Defense (DoD) to their knees.

The female operatives of The Athena Project are all engaging and interesting and Brad Thor himself has spent time around high-end Olympic athletes that many countries have turned to as recruits for their anti-terrorism missions.  This unique group mirrors some of the all-female teams rumored to be recruited by the real Delta Force and Thor felt that female operatives possess abilities to get into situations that male operatives could not.  THE ATHENA PROJECT is an outstanding and very engaging read and may very well be Brad Thor’s best novel since his debut, THE LIONS OF LUZERNE.  I’m sure The Athena Project and Scot Harvath will continue to appear on the pages of future Thor novels and he will be hard pressed to find a more dangerous assignment for them than what they undertake in this novel.  Well done!