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The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press   ISBN: 0312587503

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader

Michael Palmer has long been the fore-runner in medical thrillers having firmly taken that mantle from Robin Cook and, to some extent, the late Michael Crichton.  His upcoming novel, “The Last Surgeon,” marks his 15th effort and follows a string of best-sellers that began with the release of his first novel, “The Sisterhood”, in 1994.

“The Last Surgeon” is a non-stop thrill ride of a novel that follows the parallel narratives of three principal characters:  Dr. Nick “Fury” Garrity, a former military medic who runs a mobile medical unit from an RV and provides free treatment for the needy; Jillian Coates, in pursuit of answers following her sister Belle’s alleged suicide and, the mysterious killer-for-hire, Franz Koller.   

Koller claims to be most infamous for his ‘painless kills’ and the fact that he has mastered the art of leaving no trace at his crime scenes and arranging his kills in such a way that it appears his victims claimed their own lives.  The string that ties these three characters together is the mystery at the heart of “The Last Surgeon” and Palmer masterfully reveals a little piece at a time as the story races forward.Nick and Jillian are brought together by the shared investigation into both the suspicious suicide of Jillian’s sister and also the mysterious disappearance of Nick’s old military buddy, Lt. Umberto Vasquez.  Their search brings them to a well-known site for plastic surgery --- the Singh Medical Spa and Cosmetic Surgery Center.  Belle Coates was a Nurse here and there are indications that Lt. Umberto Vasquez may have been a recipient of a top-secret surgery to change his appearance.  Why this surgery took place and the fact that nearly everyone involved in that procedure has been eliminated in suspicious fashion is the burning question that drives Nick and Jillian’s efforts.

Meanwhile, Franz Koller has been lurking in the shadows and tailing Nick and Jillian --- adopting various guises along the way.  It appears Koller has been hired by a group/person known simply as “Jericho”.  When the actual identity and purpose of Jericho is revealed to the reader --- what you thought you understood up to that point will be turned on its head.  Could the U.S. Government actually be behind these mysterious surgeries and murders and, if so, for what purpose?  How far might a secret faction of the Government go to maintain National Security? 

What Michael Palmer has accomplished in answering these questions is to take his novel way beyond the ‘medical thriller’ genre and directly into territory normally found in the novels of Brad Thor or David Baldacci.  I can only hope that this will open “The Last Surgeon” up to a far wider audience as there is plenty here to appeal to all fans of high-octane thrillers.

In 1999, a film version of one of Palmer’s more successful novels – “Extreme Measures” – was made starring Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman.  I often wonder why more of his material has not been utilized by Hollywood – especially when the film industry seems so starved for original material.  Hopefully, “The Last Surgeon” can make that leap because its wide scope and broad understanding of current issues would make for engaging film entertainment.  A must-read for the new year!



Breathless by Dean Koontz

Publisher: Bantam 

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Writing a concise synopsis for this book is difficult enough, let alone a review.  But with that warning in effect, here goes.  Koontz takes the stories of several characters and places them in alternate chapters that highlight how they are affected by a mystical and nearly inconceivable event that will shake their, and soon enough the rest of the world’s, preconceived notions of science and beliefs to the core.

Included in this array of characters is a lonely veterinarian whose scars from a painful past have yet to heal; an ex-marine - now furniture maker - whose solitary life in the beautiful forests of Colorado with his dog keeps him honest and sane; a psychopathic killer whose past in our nation’s capitol has led him to know some secrets that makes him willing to kill in order to create his dream survival setting; a husband who considers murder a better alternative to divorce; and a scientist whose controversial opinion on chaos theory leads him to the latest ground zero to make sense of it all.

And just what exactly is the event that connects all these characters together?  Well, in order to not give too much away, let me just say it’s a pair of never-before-seen creatures whose ability to transfix, transform, and transcend seem nothing short of a miracle.  But, then again, could their sudden appearance instead be an ominous prelude to something dark coming this way?

As in his recent writings, Koontz tackles some complicated and thorny subjects: faith, science as we know it; science as it might be; the fragility of belief systems; and pretty much life as we understand it.  And in so doing, he does manage to raise some provocative questions that will make most readers at least consider his main premise that everything we think we know is either wrong now or will soon be proven as such.  But, yes, while he does do this in a magical way that tempts and challenges the reader to follow, those who have agreed to go down that road will find that some of his implied conclusions too must eventually fail because of the very reasons he puts forth for what’s failed before.  But in the end, if understood correctly, Koontz might be saying there is no conclusion to be had and that’s the magic of it all. 

Warned you, this is one that’s near impossible to describe, but it is one that’s worth reading in order to make your own sense of in the end.  At times magical and beautiful, at times frustrating and inconceivable, for the most part this is a challenging and breathtaking read that will touch most readers in one way or another.             




What My Best Friend Did by Lucy Dawson

Publisher: Avon

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Alice’s life as an adult has proved to be more than dull; a boyfriend whose idea of romance is going in together on a mortgage, a career that involves taking pictures of nail polish remover, and friends and family who can only talk of husbands and kids have all combined to make her feel less than satisfied with growing up.  And so when Gretchen, a popular television host, enters her life and fills it with glamour and excitement, Alice is quick to make Gretchen the center of her new existence.  And when Gretchen introduces her older brother Bailey to Alice, Alice is even quicker to move on that bit of novelty as well – Gretchen’s hot brother being a world traveler and good looking heartbreaker rolled up in one.  But while things are great at first, they soon turn sour when the real Gretchen comes out to play and Alice’s well-ordered life goes from boring to excitement, and before she knows it, to complete disaster.

There’s something all too addictive about this novel that will have you reading deep into the night to find out how it all turns out. And although I hate to use the cliché “roller coaster ride,” it does manage to perfectly describe this read.  Starting off slow and easy and oh so innocent, yet knowing you’re in for a plunge of some kind, makes this steadily increasing suspenseful read more than worthy of living up to the cliché.  And its examination of friendship, and the sometimes all too consuming need to taste the greener grass on the other side of the fence, makes it one that will also leave you questioning just how high a price one should pay for wanting more.  This is a book that comes from an author that I suspect has many more great tales in her to come, and I look forward to the next.



Tragedy at Two by Ann Purser

Publisher: Berkley

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

In Europe, gypsies are much more than the misunderstood romantic depictions seen in American television and movies.  Modern nomadic gypsies, or Roma, retain a reputation for pick-pocketing and other sorts of criminal mischief while uneasily co-existing with those who live a more traditional lifestyle. Like in any society, there are those who build on this negative reputation but many more who just want to preserve their cultural lifestyle.

Ann Purser bravely explores two disparate worlds whose inhabitants plead for privacy from one another while attempting no understanding of the other.  Lois Meade, a middle-aged, no-nonsense Englishwoman from the village of Long Farnden, intends to walk the line between both in order to find the killer who brutally beat her daughter’s boyfriend Rob to death.  Because the gypsies were camping out on a local’s land at the time, suspicion quickly falls to them, especially when a pair of brothers and their illegal pit bull taunt lone villagers.

Lois continues her unofficial partnership with Detective Chief Inspector Hunter Cowgill, who barely hides his adoration of her in spite of her irritability.  Cowgill plays only a minor part as Lois can maneuver into the gypsy camp slightly more easily than an official police presence.  Befriending gypsies such as wise Athalia and kind George, Lois realizes that the list of suspects should include many more than just the travelers since there are plenty of disgruntled villagers, marauding teenage gangs and other strangers in the area. 

In keeping with the authenticity, the dialogue contains a specific dialect which can be jarring at first but by the end of the book, readers will find its consistency easy to understand.  This is not a story in which the main characters are likeable, but it is one in which there is an honest depiction of the contradictory motivations found in each person, and Purser gives many of her characters the chance to demonstrate inner confusion, guilt or other turmoil. 

In spite of a slow start punctuated by the seemingly unending grumpiness exhibited by many of the characters, Tragedy At Two ultimately proves rewarding for the patient reader with a fuller, unsentimental glimpse into the lives of English villagers and traveling Gypsies.



The Cloud Pavilion by Laura Joh Rowland

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Floating in clouds like a gliding bird, a young woman feels peaceful until she gradually shakes off her drug reverie and realizes she is actually a trapped animal being violated by an unknown assailant.  After her attack, Chiyo loses her husband, children and home in accordance with the Japanese tradition of 1701 and returns to her father’s house.  Equally dishonored, her father reluctantly requests the investigative help of his nephew Sano Ichiro, who has risen to the position of the Shogun’s Chamberlain in spite of being cast off by his family because of his mother’s decades-old youthful decisions.

Sano, a former samurai well versed in the need for spies and court politics, begins work on his newest case in deference for defenseless Chiyo.  Aiding him is his equally resourceful wife Reiko and young son Masohira, who is determined to be a detective like his revered father.  Sano’s professional allies include an accomplished spy called Toda who admits to sharing information with both sides and a troubled martial arts master named Hirata who normally reads auras to separate truth-tellers from outright liars.

Meanwhile, Sano’s greatest political foe, Yanagisawa, has sought to befriend and support him, leaving Sano deeply mistrustful while still requiring his assistance while handling the Shogun.  Even while Yanagisawa seems still, his son seethes while seeking revenge against Sano, creating diversions from the case that Sano does not need.

Rowland clearly feels comfortable in 18th century Japan.  She writes vividly and frankly, with the eye for detail required by a top investigator such as Sano.  The setting and reflection on both the traditional male and female realms give the traditional investigative mystery a new twist, one which has happily supplied her with several cases for the Sano Ichiro mystery series.

In spite of the traumatic material, Rowland handles the attacks with grace and sincerity.  She clearly disapproves of the quick reaction to ostracize women but she takes the time to show the layers of social status and polite tradition which allow such a cruel fate to occur regularly in the heavily masculine land of the samurai.  While life can be routinely dangerous for the samarai in battle or in the seedier sections of town, both upper-class and lower-class women find it treacherous no matter where they may be.




A Night Too Dark by Dana Stabenow

Publisher: Minotaur Books 

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Stabenow continues the saga of the Suultauq mine full of gold that has been discovered in the nether land’s of Alaska’s wilderness.  And Kate Shugak, private investigator, and now the head leader of the Park’s local tribal citizens, is trying to balance the old ways with the new money that is poring in. But even she can’t stop the greed and destruction that results when gold, pure gold, is reshaping the future of everyone and everything she loves.

As with the last book, bodies are found, all seemingly deaths resulting in one way or another from the new gold mine.  Kate, however, seems to want nothing to do with the mine or any fallout from the resulting greed.  But, of course, her intentions don’t last for long when her Alaskan Trooper lover asks her to help investigate not one, but two, unexpected minors’ deaths.    

At first all seems as it should be, single men commit suicide often in these parts; at times Alaska seems like the last frontier in that aspect as well as what it’s known for.  But Kate knows instinctively that something is wrong, that the young men’s bodies that are found did not die the way everyone claims. 

Stabenow has kept a series of Alaska’s most wild environs going for years, and she’s done it well.  And while her latest novels delve deep into the subject of greed that results from the new gold mine, one can’t help but wish she would take a breather from that particular plotline.  Yes, greed is a subject that can be mined for many plots but, unfortunately, it can also get old and tired (as can my unintentional puns).  This is one mine that has been dug to its bear bones, and I hope Stabenow goes in a different direction in her next.  But with that all that being said, as always, the beautiful Alaska environs and the engaging characters still make this a worthwhile read.