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The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

Publisher: Seventh Street Books

Reviewed by Dana King for New Mystery Reader

All avid readers go through a time in their lives where books take them outside themselves, teach them of things beyond their experience, things they would never have thought of on their own, and, in so doing, show them how much more there is to know. This happens less as we age. We may become more cynical, our experience has broadened to make it harder to find an unprobed niche, or it might be we’ve read a lot of books over time and we know how the fictional dream works. That’s why it’s such an unqualified pleasure to find a book—possibly as late as one’s 57th year—that sparks the same feeling of being taken to a place the reader did not know existed, and making him think of what it would be like.

Adrian McKinty’s The Cold Cold Ground is such a book.

Sean Duffy is a police detective in Carrickfergus, Ireland, (near Belfast) during The Troubles. Being a cop in that time and place is bad enough; Sean is also Catholic. There are Protestant paramilitary groups that will kill an Catholic peeler for something to do on a slow Tuesday. No cop starts his car in the morning before checking for a bomb on the undercarriage.

Duffy is relatively new to his posting when a body is found in a burnt-out car, with one hand cut off. A hand is found on the car’s floor, but it doesn’t belong to the rest of the body. That hand’s owner is found dead the next day, with the original body’s hand. The crimes bear marks of a serial killer, something unheard of in Ireland. If a person wants to kill a lot of people, he can almost certainly get one paramilitary group or another to pay him to do it.

There are plot twists, dead ends, and red herrings to delight to most puzzle-minded reader, but McKinty has his sights set substantially higher. The plot, while engrossing on its own merits, is the scaffold on which McKinty hangs his vivid and gripping descriptions of life in Northern Ireland during the early 1980s. The book brings to mind the best work of Richard Price, where the crime is in some ways an excuse to explore a time and place.

For all the post-9/11 talk of terrorism in America, no one in this country has lived under everyday circumstances remotely resembling this period of Irish history. McKinty didn’t have to scour the Internet and haunt libraries for is research, though it’s clear some of that was done. He grew up in Carrickfergus during the time of the book, and uses this knowledge to impart sensations no amount of research could teach. Many scenes aren’t described as much as they are experienced, seeing the world through Duffy’s eyes, knowing the fear of paramilitary roadblocks and the terror of not knowing if tonight’s the night someone blows up the theater you’re in.

The writing is spot on to suit the circumstances, as McKinty’s always is. He treads the line between hard-boiled Hammett and Irish lyricism with aplomb, and uses dry humor—both in dialog and description—to both leaven the read and make the horror worse by lulling you to sleep. He writes banter between cops that would make Leonard or Higgins proud, and can describe helicopter searchlights as “finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife.”

The Cold Cold Ground is a book that will stay with you a long time, and may well leave you awake for a while if you read before turning in. Book One of what McKinty is calling the Troubles Trilogy, its sibling (I Hear Sirens in the Street) is available in Ireland and the UK now, and for Kindle in America. Based on the first effort, you’re going to want to read all three; you might as well start here.

For the Interview with Adrian McKinty

 

 

 

Left for Dead by J.A. Jance

Publisher: Pocket Books

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

A young runaway, who has turned to a life of prostitution, is tortured, badly beaten and left for dead along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. A policeman pulls a motorist over for speeding and is shot at point-blank range. These seemingly unrelated events form the backdrop for the whodunit in Left for Dead, the seventh installment in J.A. Jance’s Ali Reynolds series.

Jose Reyes, the officer that was shot is Ali’s classmate from the Arizona Police Academy. Ali remembers how helpful Jose was to her while they were in the Academy and she goes to the hospital to assist his wife who is pregnant and has two small children. The two events start to converge when Ali arrives at the hospital and finds that her best friend, Sister Anselm Becker is the patient advocate for the young woman who was left for dead in the desert.

The evidence at the scene of the shooting leads the police to believe that Jose may be a dirty cop and they treat him and his family like traitors. Reye’s wife denies the allegations and so does Ali. Ali decides that she needs to find out what really happened the night that Jose was shot. At the same time, Sister Anselm is working on finding out who her client really is, who beat her up and why. As the two friends learn what really happened to Reyes and the runaway teen they find that they have unintentionally put themselves in harms way.

J.A. Jance is a brilliant storyteller. All of her series (J.P. Beaumont, Diana Ladd, Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds) are set in Arizona and in each book she captures the vivid beauty of the environment along with the real world issues of drug trafficking and illegal immigration. The author keeps the chapters short, but provides the reader with an awareness of change in setting and time between chapters which helps to build the tension to an really unexpected conclusion in Left for Dead. The plotline is elegantly complex. Jance never lets the reader get lost or lose focus; she provides artful guidance through each twist and turn in the novel. I truly loved Left for Dead and highly recommend this book and the entire Ali Reynolds series. I would also suggest that readers check out Jance’s other series, they are all quite good.

 

 

 

 

A Vine in the Blood by Leighton Gage

Publisher: Soho Crime

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Different is sexy. Publishers, television producers, and movie studio magnates are always looking for the next big thing. It will be groundbreaking, earth-shattering, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen or read before. Not too different, mind you. Can’t get so far ahead of the curve the least common denominator loses sight of you. Edgy is good. Different enough not to be the same, but not so different people don’t know what’s going on.

New.

Exciting.

Not the same old same old.

How’s that working out? Movies stink, most television nights make Newton Minnow’s “vast wasteland” comment seem nostalgic, and publishing as we know it may not last the decade. Or even the year. And it’s December. Producers, directors, and writers are so bound up in being new and different and sexy they can’t be bothered with being good.

Let’s take a moment and celebrate excellence.

Police procedurals have been around since Ed McBain virtually invented the form in the Fifties. Unfortunately for many erstwhile competitors, McBain also perfected the procedural and became its pre-eminent practitioner, much as if Beethoven had also been Mozart. Many have attempted to dress up the form. Try different things. Make it sexy. But it’s not sexy. It’s workaday stuff, except the people who work here solve crimes, usually murder. It’s their job. No psychics need apply. No one man wrecking crews who break all the rules. Just cops. McBain’s cops lived in New York, thinly disguised as Isola.

Leighton Gage put his cops in Brazil. They’re not local, they’re federal, which gives them some juice. Brazil provides customs and corruption we don’t see much of here. Still, his stories are contemporary versions of what McBain wrote so well for fifty years, with the exotic tinges of Carnaval and horrific poverty thrown in. Gage’s cops go to work every day. Some are friends, some aren’t. One has romantic hopes for another, but they are kept quiet. There is none of the sexual tension and bed hopping that would inevitably erupt in a movie or television version. Nothing sexy in Gage’s stories.

The stories don’t need it. Especially not his newest, A Vine in the Blood.

Tico “The Artist” Santos is the greatest soccer player in the world, possibly the greatest of all time. Even Brazilians dare to compare him favorably to Pele. When his mother, Juraci, is kidnapped for ransom on the eve of the World Cup, the entire country is in an uproar. Was it Argentinian provocateurs, hoping to throw The Artist off his game to better their country’s chances? Is Tico’s supermodel girlfriend involved? She hates his mother with a passion rivaled only by Juraci’s hatred of her. Or maybe it’s just for money and the World Cup makes for convenient timing.

Chief Inspector Mario Silva is called in to find Juraci and get things back on track for the Cup. As usual, he is plagued by his boss, a political appointee whose sole crime fighting talent is getting credit. Silva’s usual team is with him, sometimes joking, sometimes bickering, always watching each other’s backs. They talk to people. Drug lords. Soccer team owners. Caretakers and pharmacists. All described just enough to set them in your mind, and you’d do well to pay attention, because Gage is going to ask questions later.

He doesn’t hit you over the head with clues, nor will there be a Eureka moment where Silva (or anyone) leaps to his feet with the sudden realization of who is guilty. Silva and his cops investigate. They pull at loose threads and occasionally shake the tree and otherwise incite reviewers to mix metaphors until something comes loose. Someone says the wrong thing or makes a mistake or they get a little lucky. Only a little lucky; large coincidental events are likely to set Gage’s cops back more than help them. They plug away, true devotees of the school that defines luck not as an event, but as the place where preparation meets opportunity, and they’ll damn sure be ready when theirs comes. Then the momentum builds and events pick up speed until you realize the villains were right in front of you, the realization dawning at the perfect time, a split second before the reveal. This is true suspense. Not a series of chase scenes, rather a inexorable tightening of the cords of the story until one snaps and things must be sorted out right now.

I read A Vine in the Blood in one sitting. Gage has a knack of keeping you reading without doing anything obvious. Everything in balance, no individual feature overwhelms anything else. The dialog flows and the descriptions put you there without slowing down the story, the work of a master craftsman so secure in his field he sees no need to impress you with overt virtuosity. He keeps things fresh without resorting to zombie detectives or vampires who can live in sunlight. Just a great story, well told. Publishing really is in trouble if the industry can’t make a go of it with books like this.

 

 

 

Hard Target by Howard Gordon

Publisher: Pocket Books

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

Riding high on the success of his recent Golden Globes win for Best Television Drama with the show he penned, HOMELAND, Howard Gordon once again revisits the world of print fiction with the second novel in the Gideon Davis series --- HARD TARGET.

This time around, Gideon is facing a threat to our nation that exists at the very heart of it.  Home-grown terrorists with a serious chip on their shoulder towards the U.S. and their government are planning an attack on the Capitol that will literally cripple the entire governmental system.  Planned for the night of the President’s State of the Union Address, this band of fanatics have their sights set on taking out the government in one fell swoop.

The only thing standing between the terrorists and their target is Gideon Davis and his brother, Tillman.  In GIDEON’S WAR, Gideon Davis and his brother Tillman were pitted against each other --- or so we thought.  Now joined together and with the help of Gideon’s ex-girlfriend and FBI Agent, Nancy Clement, they represent a small band of patriots with a large task to handle.

Tillman does his part by going undercover and joining the ranks of the conspirators while Gideon and Nancy try to enlist support from the rest of the FBI and anyone who will listen to guard the nation’s Capitol.  Nancy’s boss, Director Dahlgren, has serious reservations about trusting Tillman Davis and his meth-head informant within the white supremacist group planning the attack.  Additionally, the FBI does not want to overreact against a bunch of hicks and create another Waco.

The Davis brothers realize they are mixed up with some really bad people who have an anti-government agenda that is quite alarming.  When two of the leaders of the rebel group, Jim Verhoven and his sadistic wife, Lorene, take Tillman into their circle of trust they share with him their deadly intent to decapitate the entire top tier of the US government.  Even though they know about the group’s plans, the Davis’ are in a race against time to stop them since no one takes the threat seriously and many of the players involved have their own hidden agendas.

HARD TARGET is far more dramatic and slower-paced than the high-turbo action of the previous novel, GIDEON’S WAR.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Howard Gordon uses his knowledge of the U.S. government’s inner workings coupled with the twists and turns that make his series HOMELAND such a treat and pushes them to the extreme.  The most frightening reality within HARD TARGET is the fact that those who are capable of causing the most damage to our nation may be currently living safely within it.  A solid, suspenseful read!

 

 

The Cat Sitter’s Pajamas by Blaize Clement

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

Pet sitting is a very dangerous profession for Dixie Hemingway. Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Cupcake Trillin (I had a good laugh at the image of a linebacker called “Cupcake”) and his wife hire Dixie Hemingway to take care of their precious cats, Elvis and Lucy, while on vacation. As a pet sitter, Dixie provides valued care to pampered pets and reassurance to their owners that all will be well during their absence. When Dixie stops by the Trillin home to care for the cats, she finds a woman scantly clad who claims she is Cupcake’s wife and a dead body. The fake “wife” is actually a fashion model who knew Cupcake when they were children. When she becomes the police’s prime suspect, she begs Dixie to help her clear her name. Dixie agrees despite her better judgment and quickly finds that she is in the midst of a load of trouble.

The Cat Sitter’s Pajamas is the seventh book in the Dixie Hemingway series. Blaize Clement takes time to fully develop the secondary characters in the book; in particular the four-legged ones. Through Dixie the reader gets to know their quirky personalities and often I found the pets to be more interesting than their human owners. Dixie is a very believable character. She struggles with the grief of the death of her husband and child. As a results of the hardships she has experienced; being a pet sitter fits her emotional state much better than her previous career on the police force. The whodunit in The Cat Sitter’s Pajamas is very well crafted and keeps the reader’s interest throughout the book. The author saves the most stunning revelation of the story for the last couple of pages of the novel. The Dixie Hemingway series is set on Siesta Key in Florida. The author vividly describes the area enveloping the reader in the tropical climate, vegetation and wildlife. While reading the book I feel in love with the Keys and the delightful pets that are in Dixie’s care. By the end of the book I was ready to get on a plane, move to Florida and see if I could find a job as a pet sitter.

Blaize Clement passed away in July of 2011 before she finished this installment.  Fortunately her son was able to complete this book and intends to continue the series. I just loved The Cat Sitter’s Pajamas and although I was deeply saddened about the tragic loss of Ms. Clement, I was delighted to know that the series will continue. I highly recommend not only this book but also all the books in the Dixie Hemingway series.

 

 

Michael Palmer continues to evolve as a writer and his ability to leap from purely medically driven thrillers into novels that pack such strong political overtones like OATH OF OFFICE shows of an author at the top of his game.  With well-researched and shockingly relevant fiction like this it scares me as to what Mr. Palmer will think up next!

 

 

 

 

 

Gideon’s Corpse by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Publisher:  Vision

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

With the introduction of Gideon Crew, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created one of the most unique protagonists in modern fiction.  First seen in the novel, GIDEON’S SWORD, Gideon Crew jumped off the pages with a background utterly unique.  Not only is he a brilliant nuclear scientist but he also suffers from a rare form of brain aneurysm and has been diagnosed with less than a year to live.

Actually, it could be anywhere from a few months to a year.  All Gideon knows is that when his time comes it will be sudden and extremely painful.  Needless to say, Gideon has both a huge chip on his shoulder and the determination to do as much good as he can before his time is up.  In GIDEON’S CORPSE, he is called into action immediately by his mysterious benefactor, Mr. Glinn.  Glinn runs an organization in the meat-packing district of NYC known simply as Effective Engineering Solutions.  This is an obvious front for a group that gets involved in some deeply important and underground stuff on behalf of the U.S. Government.

Gideon’s latest assignment is simple --- infiltrate a hostage crisis taking place in Queens, New York.  The alleged hostage taker is a former Los Alamos colleague of Gideon’s by the name of Chalker.  Gideon enters a street scene filled with all forms of law enforcement and scientific teams who are on the ready to take down Chalker.  As Gideon gets close enough to speak with Chalker through the front door of the Queens home, he finds the formerly mild-mannered scientist to be delusional, paranoid and screaming that he is ‘burning up’.

Gideon helps to eventually resolve the situation --- but Chalker is killed and the burning feeling he professed so loudly about was a fear of radiation poisoning.  Everyone involved is quarantined and cleaned.  Upon release, Gideon is teamed up with an FBI Agent named Stone Fordyce and put on the trail of a nuclear bomb.  Where did this bomb come from?  After examination of Chalker’s tiny basement apartment, it looks like Mr. Chalker may have built a nuclear weapon for a group of Islamic terrorists.  It also appears that Chalker himself has converted to Islam and may have been part of a Jihadist sect.

With fear running rampant that a nuke will be set off in either NYC or the Capitol in D.C., Gideon and Fordyce must work quickly to find out where the bomb is and who else is behind it.  By the diary found in Chalker’s apartment it seems like there are only 9 days until the terrorist attack.  What occurs next is a race against the clock thriller that does not let up until the final page is turned.  Gideon and Fordyce chase down all potential leads including a subversive militant group in the Midwest, a potential leak within Los Alamos and a famous fiction writer named Simon Blaine.

It is Simon Blaine who is the most confusing suspect as he is an internationally famous writer that Chalker seemed to read a lot of (even possessing several personalized signed volumes of his work).  Gideon and Fordyce find it hard to see Blaine’s involvement in this mess.  Additionally, Gideon finds himself entangled with Blaine’s daughter, Alida --- a feisty and headstrong young woman who teams with Gideon to clear her father’s name and help find the real culprits.

Things take a startling turn when Gideon is exposed by the U.S. Government as being involved with Chalker in the plans for the terrorist attack.  A series of emails are discovered between Gideon and Chalker outlining their support of Islam and professing a destiny of Hellfire for all Muslim enemies.  Gideon knows these are false --- but now has his own partner, Fordyce, on his trail.  He also has Alida doubting his actions and faces a solitary battle to prove his own innocence, uncover the set-up that has been perpetrated against him at the highest level of government and stop the terrorist attack before time runs out.

It is during Gideon’s own crusade that he uncovers something far worse than a nuclear attack.  What if that alleged attack was a smoke-screen hiding the true deadly intent of the villainous group behind this panic?  A file called OPERATION CORPSE is found on author Simon Blaine’s laptop.  It is the outline for a proposed novel about the release of the smallpox virus upon mankind and the devastation that could cause.  Gideon realizes that someone is looking to turn fiction into reality and cause destruction on a global viral scale!

After reading and thoroughly enjoying the first novel in this series, GIDEON’S SWORD, I still longed for Preston and Child to return to their heralded Pendergast series.  Now, with the completion of GIDEON’S CORPSE, I am more than happy to patiently await the continuation of the Pendergast series AFTER they finish up the saga of Gideon Crew.  Gideon is a thoroughly engaging character who will instantly appeal to all readers fortunate enough to dive into his adventures and Preston and Child are masterful storytellers at the top of their game obviously enjoying uncovering the layers of their complex and driven new protagonist.  Bravo!

 

 

Down the Darkest Road by Tami Hoag

Publisher: Signet

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Hoag returns to her idyllic setting of Oak Knoll, CA a small college town nestled between the mountains and coastline of Southern California.  And not only do readers get a chance to catch up with the cast from her previous novels, but also get the opportunity to meet some new characters who are just as compelling.

It was about four years ago that Lauren Lawton's perfect life was torn to shreds while living in Santa Barbara.  It started when her beautiful teen daughter went missing on the way home from a softball game, with all that was found of her was her bicycle on the side of the road.  And while it soon became clear who was responsible and who most likely ended her daughter's life, the lack of evidence left the culprit free to walk the streets and to secretly harass Lauren's family.  But the tragedy didn't end there when two years later her husband, unable to bear the burden of it all, drove off a cliff in what most presumed a suicide.

So now Lauren has relocated to Oak Knoll with her younger daughter, now a teen herself, and with the same amount of emotional scars her mother has.  But what makes matters worse is that the suspect in her daughter's disappearance is also a recent resident, and once again, terror lurks behind a series of unexplained  events surrounding these desperate survivors.

Taking place in the early 90s, Hoag does a stellar job at reminding us how difficult it was to prosecute a case a mere 20 years ago that today would be a slam dunk.  Without the help of DNA and other forensic advances, the chances of walking away from such brutal crimes were more often the rule than the exception.  And with the lack of tools such as the Sex Offender Registry, tracking offenders was even more of an impossibility. 

Hoag gets just about everything right in this one.  However, some might find that following along with the mother and daughter's guilt and grief can become overwhelming at times; the repetition of relentless agony almost unbearable after awhile.  But that aside, this read offers not only plenty of suspense, but enough fully-drawn characters that easily invoke empathy, to make this a read nearly impossible to put down or to forget once done so.  Emotionally taxing it may be, but well worth every second, this one comes highly recommended.      

 

 

Start Shooting  by Charlie Newton

Publisher:   Vintage

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader 

Reuben Vargas is a Chicago homicide detective. His brother Bobby is tough and smart street cop. The two brothers are alike in many ways, but differ in their approach to the job. Bobby still believes in his ability to make a difference while Reuben has succumbed to the temptations that corruption offer.

Now, involvement with Korean gangsters threatens to destroy Reuben and his partner. At the same time, the murder of Bobby’s childhood girlfriend, more than a decade before, threatens him. An investigative reporter has been a series of reports that imply the brothers were responsible for the murder and promise proof. The events overlap when the dead girl’s sister becomes involved.

Newton has penned a first-rate mystery that resembles the works of Wambaugh. The short, terse style works well for the story. However, the style can make the story line difficult to follow at times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death In The 12th House by Mitchell Scott Lewis

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press               

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

This is the second in the series about David Lowell, the world’s only consulting astrologer detective.  This time he’s pulled into a murder case by the sceptical Lieutenant Roland, who’s getting a lot of pressure from his (alleged) superiors over the murders of three Rock-n-roll wrinklies who survived the sixties to continue making records into the present day. 

Some of the recently dead had already had some pretty close calls with the Grim Reaper, but this time the visit was terminal.  One fell from a great height, one was stabbed, and one shot—all different methods, but one can’t overlook the common thread that all three men were musicians.

Part of the work David does relies on accurate information about the subjects’ birth dates and times.  This isn’t easy information to come by when you are dealing with narcissistic folk in the entertainment world, but he does his best, aided by his support staff, Sarah and Mort, and his intrepid bodyguard-cum-driver, Andy.  It doesn’t take David long to run across a money trail, something his astrological studies led him to expect.  And where there’s a lot of money, there’s always a motive for murder, something David has cause to remember when he’s in an abandoned warehouse with a gun pointed at him.

I had a small whinge about the first book in this series, saying that it was a bit preachy in places.  Author Lewis has avoided that trap this time, but still conveys a lot of intriguing information about astrology and its possible effect on people’s lives and actions.

There are some very good lines in here.  “Don’t trip over your tongue” one ex-wife suggests to another ex-wife.  And I liked David’s thought when he’s offered a TV cooking show spot based on astrological signs. “How did we manage to invent an entire culture without substance?”

If you have a spare $14.95 in your pocket, you could do worse than invest it in “Death in the 12th House.”

 

 

 

Jail Coach by Hillary Bell Locke

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press 

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If you want to speak Spanish, you take lessons or find a tutor.  If you want to be a great netball player, you get yourself a coach.  So if you’re a newly-convicted white collar criminal, and you’re facing a jail term, what do you do?  Well, you don’t do anything, but the insurance company which has a lot of money invested in the success of your latest movie does: they find you a jail coach.

(This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and apparently it’s a real job.  People who know how to survive on the inside, behind bars and away from the common niceties of everyday ‘normal’ life, provide coaching to those about to be incarcerated, to give them an edge and increase the chances of their surviving the experience with minimal damage.)

Hollywood actor Kent Trowbridge has had had a bit of a run-in with the law—seems he was drinking and driving….again.  While his lawyers try and finagle a pass for Kent, somebody has to be sure he doesn’t screw up while the publicity tour for the movie is running.  Loss Prevention specialist Jay Davidovich has the unenviable job of keeping an eye on the naughty boy, whose other hobby is collecting adoring young females, most of whom aren’t PhD candidates..

Jay manages to line up a jail coach for Kent, on the assumption that the lawyers won’t manage to get him off this time and he’ll have to serve several months behind bars in the county jail.  Not exactly Folsom Prison, but not likely to be a picnic, either.   The jail coach is a young woman who served time for abducting her own daughter, and then served time in the Marines to get away from another contempt of court charge.  Katrina’s tough, she’s attractive, and of course Kent falls for her.  She goes on the run, and Jay has to find her.  This he does without too much trouble, but he also finds a major criminal, Stanislav ‘Mr Ten-percent’ Chaladian, who has his hooks into the girl and who has designs on the insurance company’s investment. 

Jay’s problems have multiplied: not only does he have to keep Kent out of trouble; he has to extricate Katrina from the clutches of the mobster, meanwhile trying to sort out a very complicated relationship with his ex-wife.  Then there’s a murder, or a suicide that looks like murder—or could look like murder if a smart fixer happened to have something with someone’s fingerprints on it….

This is a nicely complex, fast-moving story with a tough but very likeable protagonist.  (Then there’s the ex-wife you’d happily stake out on an anthill if she were yours.)  There are some amusing bits of byplay and a very satisfying, if slightly contrived, final scene for the bad guy.   And an antepenultimate page surprise which I have to admit I didn’t see coming. 

 

 

 

Crashed by Timothy Hallinan

Publisher:  Soho Crime

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

I’ve been a devotee of Timothy Hallinan’s work since I was asked to review A Nail Through the Heart, the first of his Poke Rafferty series. The Rafferty books started strong and got better, capped (so far) by The Queen of Patpong. Knowing how much effort Hallinan puts into the Rafferty books, and the emotional fatigue writing Queen must have been induced, it was no surprise he opted for something lighter for his next project. As it turns out, Hallinan did everyone a favor writing Crashed: he got an emotional respite, and we get a book that’s likely to be as much fun as you’ll have reading this year.

Junior Bender is a burglar. Not some cheap smash-and-grab jerk, Junior works mainly on commission, stealing specific things on demand for pre-set prices. When stealing a Paul Klee painting from the home of a notorious gangster goes south on him, Junior finds himself engaged with two organized crime operations, a crooked cop, and the pornography industry.

The Rafferty books always have laughs in them, no matter how serious the content. Hallinan has a good ear and light touch with his humor, and an appreciation of how characters have the capacity for it—even if unintentional—during the toughest moments. Crashed is intended to be more of a humorous read, as the story breezes along with more odd circumstances and quirky characters than can be found in any of the Rafferty books.

That’s doesn’t mean it’s fluff. The core subject matter is life and death, and Junior has a harder interior than may first appear. Thistle Downing is a cautionary character, and the issues surrounding Junior, his ex-wife, and their daughter are real enough to fit far more standard occupations than professional thief. The ending isn’t sure until it’s over. Still, the subtext is lighter, the smiles more frequent, and the cast more inclined to banter than in the Rafferty books.

What hasn’t changed is the quality of the writing. Hallinan writes scenes as memorable as anyone working today, and his descriptions are Chandler-esque at times, without sounding dated or derivative.

It’s easy to see why Hallinan would need a departure from Poke Rafferty’s increasingly dark adventures. Crashed is just what could be hoped for, something different that still has the basic elements that make Hallinan worth reading in the first place.

 

 

 

Burning Man by Alan Russell

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer 

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Michael Gideon and his canine partner Sirius are members of the LAPD. Gideon has suffered tragedy. He lost his wife to cancer. He still carries the loss and a degree of guilt for not pushing her to seek treatment sooner.

However, Gideon is about to undergo extreme circumstances that will test his strength and even will to live.

LA is suffering the onslaught of a serial killer known as the Weatherman. Despite its best efforts, the department has not been able to catch the elusive killer. Gideon and Sirius are summoned to the scene of the latest murders. Detectives on the scene have reason to believe that the Weatherman is still in the area and has started a wildfire to cover his escape. The K9 team is assigned to task of tracking the killer.

Despite the smoke and threat of flames, the team enters the underbrush. It is not long before Sirius signals on a clump of undergrowth. Gideon orders the killer out and looses the dog when the killer doesn’t comply. Despite being shot several times, Sirius holds the killer for Gideon.

Now the three must work together to escape the fire. Gideon forces the killer to help carry the wounded Sirius – a scenario that plays again and again in Gideon’s nightmares. The three make it out, but with terrible burns that end Sirius’s K9 career and could end Gideon’s.

After recovering sufficiently from his injuries, Gideon discovers he and especially Sirius are heroes. The pair are offered jobs by the new chief that would mean becoming a detective. Now, Gideon is dealing with cases as diverse as the death of an abandoned infant and a teen crucified in a local park. Both hit closer to home than Gideon would like. In the meantime, the Weatherman makes his presence known despite being on death row.

If Russell’s earlier books haven’t already established him as a master storyteller, this book surely does. The characters are three dimensional and infused with humor as well as pathos. The readers will find themselves rooting not only for Gideon’s solution of the crimes, but also for his emotional balance robbed by his wife’s death and the fire. The character of Lisbet as his new love interest and the meeting with the infant’s mother are defining events in his recovery. This is a superior read on many different levels. 

 

 

 

Death Goes Postal by  Rosemary and Larry Mild

Publisher: Magic Island Literary Works 

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

The reason we call it ‘luck’ is that it happens out of the blue, unexpected, undeserved, and sometimes even unwanted.  Luck came to Daniel and Rivka Sherman, a personable middle-aged couple with settled lives, both with good careers.  For fun they have become involved with The Olde Victorian Bookstore in Annapolis, attending book club meetings and critique groups.  Suddenly Edythe Bender, the owner of the store, makes them an offer they can’t refuse.  Edythe has cancer, her husband has dementia; they have no children, and they need to simplify their lives.  The Shermans barely have time to realise that this is the chance of a lifetime when they find themselves the owners and operators of the store and servants of a large cat named Lord Byron.

In short order Edythe settles her husband in a comfortable nursing home, books herself into what she knows will be her last hospital stay, and receives news of her brother’s murder in England.  She tries to send a coded message to the Shermans via her shop assistant Liz, to alert them to something important her murdered brother left her, but Edythe dies and Liz unwisely tries to do a little sleuthing on her own.  She lives to regret this when she’s mugged by someone who has found out about the valuable antique printing artifacts that Edythe’s brother Abner has concealed somewhere.

Once Daniel and Rivka find out what Liz has been up to, they are determined to solve the mystery of the missing typesetting treasure.  They are spoilt for choice for suspects, since there are four or five possibilities amongst the new members of the mystery writers group. Liz isn’t much help identifying her assailant—it was dark, she was scared, and she’s a bit of a dill anyway; otherwise she’d never have blabbed about the clues to the mystery at a meeting where anyone could overhear what she said.

When there’s something of great value to be had for the finding, ordinary moral constraints take second place.  The man who murdered Abner has nothing to lose now, so he kidnaps Rivka.  She quickly realises that only her own wits will save her, so she keeps a sharp eye out for a chance to escape, meanwhile doing her best to instigate a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the villain.

This is a fast-moving and entertaining story in the ‘amateur sleuths risk life and limb to solve the mystery’ mould.  There are a few weak spots in the plotting that seem contrived, and the character Liz is less a real person and more like a mere device; but all in all you get value for your money in this first outing of what is likely to become a popular series.

 

 

Easy Money by Jens Lapidus

Publisher: Vintage

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

JW appears, at first glance, to be a typical rich young man enjoying the good life in Sweden while pursuing an economics degree. Gradually it is revealed that he not from a rich family as he leads others to believe. He works secretly driving a cab to finance the appearance of wealth. The owner of the cab knows the truth about JW. He offers the chance to deal drugs in wealthy circles that JW frequents. JW becomes an instant success as a dealer and starts amassing the wealth he craves.

Jorge is a young drug dealer serving a prison sentence. He becomes something of a folk hero by pulling a daring escape. His enjoyment of new freedom is short-lived as he sneaks from one hideout to another and quickly runs out of money loaned by his friends.

He makes the mistake of trying to blackmail his former Yugo boss in the drug trade. This results in a severe beating.

JW’s boss wants Jorge’s expertise in the drug business. JW finds Jorge after the beating and Jorge is nursed back to health. With Jorge’s help, the profits from the drug sales continue to increase.

Now JW and Jorge are in danger from the Yugo mob as well as a national police investigation targeting the drug trade.

Lapidus has written an interesting mystery with tension resulting from the players accumulating obscene wealth in criminal enterprises. The story elements are well arranged and characters show depth. The story is made more believable by the author’s expertise as a Swedish defense lawyer as well as literary skills that weave several story lines into a one entertaining plot.    

 

 

 

Killing the Blues by Robert B. Parker

Publisher: Berkley

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

Your reaction to the simple existence of a Jesse Stone novel written by someone who’s not Robert B. Parker will likely define your approach to reading it.

If, like me, you are a long-time reader of the late, lamented Grand Master Parker, you will be rightly skeptical. The stylistic differences, coupled with clearly different skill-sets, will be off-putting. The choices Michael Brandman makes early in the book will drive you crazy. You might want to fling the book out a window, even.

If, however, you come to Killing The Blues as an admirer of the Jesse Stone TV-Movies, on which Brandman and Parker were frequent collaborators, you’ll likely be spared such self-righteous angst.

Brandman seems to be blurring the lines between book and movie continuity now, to the point that Killing The Blues is much like those “tv tie-in” books that support CSI and other long-running series. The settings and characters now resemble the movies more than the books.

By itself, Killing The Blues is a very effective story of obsession, redemption and all the themes Parker made resonate so well. It weaves a few compelling plot-lines together pretty seamlessly. It’s very entertaining crime-fiction commerce.

As summer approaches Paradise, Jesse is greeted with a new wave of car thefts, all Hondas. Clearly an organized-crime expansion into His Town to feed their chop-shop appetites. Jesse wants to stop the crimes, but the Paradise Board of Selectmen want to stop the threat to The Season, which creates some cross-purposes, and opportunities for Jesse to display his ironic aversion to authority.

Jesse hears from his old boss in L.A. A former victim of Jesse’s dark past, Ruthless Thug Rollo Nurse, has been released, and word has drifted that Jesse will be his target. The cat-and-mouse between Jesse and Rollo form the core of the book’s narration. The other threads of Brandman’s story weave around it, and provide nice balance.

When Parker died, Jesse seemed headed towards a really fun relationship with Sunny Randall. That’s “resolved” rather quickly, so we can watch Jesse do the dance with Alexis Richardson, niece of a town Selectman, and PR person. She wants to launch a Rock Festival in town. Sparks fly, take-out is consumed, frolic ensues.

As Jesse gets close on the car-thefts, Rollo arrives and begins to work his twisted revenge scheme on Jesse. Brandman stages these quite well, creating some real loin-girding moments for us. He also does good work in forcing us to observe Rollo’s psychosis as a result of Jesse’s Great Flaw. It’ll keep ya thinking.

Brandman also takes a trendy whack at school bullying, starting and finishing an episode at the local Junior High providing some character beats for Jesse, but nothing significant beyond them.

So, for Parker fans, what’s missing? The obvious is that Parker wrote human dialogue better than almost anyone, so anyone else using the characters is going to suffer by comparison. There’s also a marginalization of Molly Crane that is saddening. She’s there for comic relief, but the banter between her and Jesse is just functional, totally lacking Parker’s insightfulness. She is, here, a reflection of the TV version.

And there’s the whole commercial orientation. Parker loved to make money, of course, but he always had something on his mind, and used his characters to flesh out those thoughts. Brandman has a whole other direction here, and it occasionally disrupts the reading experience.

However, anyone getting too high on their horse should remember, in literature, characters always live on. Parker wrote a Philip Marlowe by himself (Perchance To Dream), after finishing Chandler’s unfinished Poodle Springs, and it was huge fun. Jeffrey Deaver just published a James Bond novel.  Someone will pick up the Spenser series. The key is how involved the Parker estate remains in the execution of these series.  That influence will determine the quality of future installments primarily by ensuring selected authors stay true to what made the characters worth continuing in the first place.

So, get Killing The Blues, have fun with it, be wistful, and enjoy the ride. It’s what Parker would’ve wanted us to do.

 

Twelve Drummers Drumming by C. C. Benison

Publisher: Bantam

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

As a priest for a small rural congregation, Father Christmas sounds like a page from a Victorian mystery set in the English countryside.  Father Christmas, or Tom, as he prefers, is indeed an extremely devoted follower of the faith but the modern reverend believes in levity and forgiveness, occasionally lightened by accompanying magic tricks (outside the services) remembered from his earlier career as the Great Kromboni.

Tom’s lighter side has deepened after the murder of his beloved wife, Lisbeth, and his need to find a safer environment for his precocious nine year-old daughter Miranda, a devoted fan of the French version of Nancy Drew.  Because of a fortuitous vacancy, Tom finds a post in the same small village in which his sister-in-law lives, giving his daughter security and doting relations in one fell swoop. 

While helping the villagers prepare for the annual fayre, the Christmases discover the body of a young woman whose own path veered towards danger, possibly because her parents were international celebrities surrounded by temptations.  The young woman, Sybella, retained connections to London even after joining her father in a quieter life, adding to the list of suspects kept by the police investigators, Bliss and Blessing.  Tom’s concerns grow as his verger, the highly self-contained Sebastian John, becomes even more private during the growing speculation.

Author C. C. Benison adds depth to the portrayal of the villagers by including a diverse group of characters such as the British-born Japanese descendent and artist who created quilts portraying the local activities and Colonel Northmore, a World War II-era hero and former POW.  Benison punctuates the narrative with letters from Tom’s housekeeper and local gossip, Madrun, to her mother detailing the events of everything from murder investigations to the local kleptomaniac who donated his finds to a charitable sale, requiring his indulgent neighbors to buy back their own things.

Benison carefully avoids peachiness or triteness with the one exception of equating Sybella’s goth past with her misbehaviour, instead letting his characters reveal believable layers and describing complicated relationships that teach Father Christmas a considerable amount about his new flock.

 

 

The Drop A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly

Publisher: Little Brown

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

We all look forward to retirement, right? Hanging out, indulging our indulgences. It’s our reward for a life of labor.

Unless, of course, you’re Harry Bosch.  Then it’s just another thing to be confronted, dealt with, then defeated.

And this is where Connelly deposits the reader as The Drop commences. He has been given some news regarding his request to delay his retirement. With that news, he’s also been given a doozy of a case. DNA connects a recently-incarcerated sex-criminal to a brutal crime. Only problem, the crime was many years ago, and the connected individual was a small child. Hmmm.

But wait! There’s more! Harry is summoned to a death scene at the legendary Chateau Marmont, only to find the victim is the son of his long-time annoyance, Irwin Irving. Anyone who’s read this series knows well enough to wince at the name. He’s been gone, but now he’s back, and he wants Harry to make sure the family’s integrity is maintained. Odd choice, eh? Harry thinks so too, and before long he’s deep in the weeds of political nastiness; specifically taxi licenses and the pressure exerted to secure their issuance.

Connelly wants us to think about a couple of things while our palms sweat. Primarily, High Jingo. Which, per Bosch, is how power is used to affect the truth. And not only in the hallowed halls of justice, but throughout our lives.

The DNA case brings Harry into the world of Clayton Pell, convicted sex offender.  It’s his DNA found and recently tested on a victim who died 30 years ago, when Pell was 8. An interview at halfway-house where Pell is currently in residence introduces Harry to one Hannah Stone—Raven-haired counselor and eventual romantic intoxicant for our favorite detective. Their nascent romance provides some welcome relief to the very solemn events unfolding in The Drop, and we hope she sticks around. It also starts Harry off on an investigation that will test his beliefs about nature/nurture and will lead him to unravel years of sickening murders.

And don’t forget, Bosch’s status quo has been rattled as of late.  We get some nice insights into Life With Father, with Maddie in residence. It allows Connelly to paint some comforting brush strokes for those of us vested in Bosch’s whole story.

But it’s REALLY about the cases, right? And Connelly has whipped up a couple of beauties here. The sense of dread as Bosch unravels the DNA case is vintage Connelly, while the Irving investigation allows the author to fully immerse Harry in what the character hates most, resulting in high rewards for the reader.

The previous all-Bosch novel, Nine Dragons, was a apex for the series, and one of Connelly’s best books, period. The Drop isn’t as “major”, but it’s still Connelly firing strong on all cylinders, delivering a novel complex in its emotions, direct in its action, and compelling in its depiction of one of Crime Fiction’s greatest detectives.

 

 

Vigilante by Stephen J. Cannell

Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperback

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Scully and Hitch are veteran LA detectives. They’ve been around long enough to know that the high profile murder of gang activist Lita Mendez will prove little but trouble. Add to that the close scrutiny of Nixon Nash, crime reality show host, then the mix is volatile.

The nature of the victim is one factor that makes for a difficult case. Mendez had bought a phenomenal of lawsuits against the LAPD for alleged misconduct. Scully and Hitch are deceived into arresting innocent suspects by Nash thereby wasting valuable time and giving Nash juicy material for his sensational show. Nash seems to be three moves ahead on everything. The two detectives must navigate a political minefield under intense media scrutiny while trying to solve the Mendez case and another cold case that could be related. When a Captain of Internal Affairs becomes a suspect, there comes the real possibility of riots in the street.

Cannell is a master storyteller. His experience in creating more than fifty television series is evident in the development and depth of his fictitious characters. His style keeps the reader guessing right to the end. This a superior work in the tradition of Joseph Wambaugh.  

 

 

 

 

Natalie’s Revenge by Susan Fleet

Publisher: Music and Mayhem Press 

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader 

When a book has this sort of title, it has telegraphed its plot line and you already know who’s going to do the murder.  What makes the book worth reading is following the mind of the murderer and the detective as the plot draws to its foregone conclusion.

Natalie’s Revenge is another in Susan Fleet’s series about Detective Frank Renzi and the New Orleans police department.  It’s a good mix of police procedural and psychological thriller, and keeps your attention throughout, even as it jumps between the killer-s present and past lives and the cop’s daily grind.

The story starts with the discovery of a dead businessman in a hotel room.  There’s CCTV footage of a woman entering and leaving the room, but it’s not very revealing due to her dark glasses and big hat.  As Frank Renzi and his often preoccupied partner start digging into Arnold Peterson’s live, they learn he was not a very lovable person.  Most of his workmates won’t miss him, it’s rumoured he was about to be fired from his job, and was neck-deep in debt.  Plenty of motives suggest themselves, but Frank follows the only solid clue, the mysterious woman in the video footage.

There’s a second murder, a bartender who initially has no connection to Peterson except for being shot with the same hand gun.  Frank digs deeper, then surprise: there’s a connection back to a small town in Texas, which coincidentally is the same small town from whence the mysterious woman apparently comes. 

Fleet juggles the serious questions of guilt and judgment and whether a private citizen has the right—or obligation—to deliver punishment when the legal fraternity can’t or won’t.  This book is a far  better read than many for which I’ve paid serious money that were written by “big name’ writers.  I can see it as the basis of a mini-series if it ever gets to the attention of a television producer.

 

 

 

 

Headstone by Ken Bruen

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Bruen brings back the spiritually broken Galway PI Jack Taylor  in yet another outing that shines with its use of spare prose and brutal  violence.

In this outing Taylor thinks he might have just finally found a semblance of happiness with his new love.  But, that fantasy is about to be proven wrong when an old nemesis comes back to haunt him by hurting the innocent and defenseless.  And in his effort to stave off this new evil, Taylor will find himself once again face-to-face with his demons of old, and losing, as always, every chance he has at being a normal guy.

While I despise violence, Bruen tends to use it in such a way that it seems a natural part of the story, or more important, an integral ingredient that not only accounts for who Taylor was and has become, but as an aspect that without, the story and Taylor himself would make little sense.  The damaged Taylor, and his just as quickly deteriorating homeland,  is as always, the focal point of this tale.  Both slowly dying from too little good and way too much bad.  Happy endings?  Forget about it.  But emotionally stark and engaging storytelling - that’s here in leaps and bounds.  Another stellar outing that might just break your heart, this one is more than worth it.

 

 

 

Defensive Wounds by Lisa Black

Publisher: Harper

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Black returns with her 4th outing featuring the Cleveland forensic scientist Theresa MacLean.  This time out, blah has the case of a lifetime in her hands when a prominent lawyer is found dead in the presidential suite of the Ritz Carlton.  Not only is she up against the worst witnesses to be found – lawyers, but working a crime scene in a hotel is just as bad as it can get.  And when another lawyer, followed by a third is discovered dead, Theresa has more than she can handle.  Especially when she discovers that the crimes echo those that one of the hotel’s young male employees was accused of only a few years before…an employee that has also caught her daughter’s eye.

This is my first time to read a title in this series, and I have to admit, I found it to be charming and unassuming while at the same time realistic and containing just the right amount of forensic detail.  With not too much to distract from the story itself, and not too little for those who like this kind of thing, this new tale should please just about everyone.  The heroine, a single mom who is still dealing with grief over a lost fiancée, is especially appealing.  Her down-to-earth approach towards life with a touch of vulnerability is just the right blend to help make this fascinating tale of murder hit all the right notes. 

 

 

The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Publisher: Soho Crime

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Denmark Red Cross nurse Nina Borg definitely has the "White Knight" syndrome, flying from country to country whenever disaster strikes and she's in need.  Something that takes her away from home and her husband and two children.  Something that she has promised she'll try and temper down.  But when she's contacted by an old friend to retrieve a suitcase from a train station locker, she jumps to the task.  And when she finds a three year old boy inside, still breathing but with no identity, she once again finds herself as savior, only this time the stakes are personally higher than those that have ever come before.

This huge international bestseller finally makes it to the U.S. and fans of the genre will be glad it did, with the hope that next time the lag will be much shorter.  The two authors have created a riveting and emotionally charged read that contains fully realized characters, important social comment, and white-knuckled suspense.  And combined with the slow but steady revealing of these well drawn characters' motives and the racing plotline, putting this one down before the end is damn near impossible.  Can't wait for the next, and am hoping that some of these same characters return.