February 2011 Hardcover Mystery


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The Omega Theory by Mark Alpert

Publisher: Touchstone

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

Mark Alpert’s latest release, THE OMEGA THEORY, is a scientific thriller of the highest caliber and a terrific companion piece to his debut novel, FINAL THEORY.

The action begins with a brilliant and severely autistic young man named Michael being kidnapped by a band of rouge military types from his home at the Upper Manhattan Autism Center.  Michael’s legal guardian is science historian and Columbia University instructor, David Swift.  Swift, along with his wife, quantum physicist Monique Reynolds, were the protagonists of FINAL THEORY and now are faced with saving the universe from a religious zealot.

The group that kidnapped Michael is the True Believers, an organization/cult made up of various military and senior government officials who are all doing the bidding of their leader, known simply as Brother Cyrus.  Brother Cyrus has a grand scheme to destroy the world as we know it and, in essence, bring about the End of Days by opening up the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Brother Cyrus needs Michael’s brain to complete the complex code required to activate his secret weapon --- known simply as Excalibur.  Excalibur was actually the brain child of Edward Teller – father of the H-Bomb – and essentially is a series of laser controlled nuclear weapons capable of launching multiple strikes and wiping out all living beings on the planet.  Using a replica of the same “Little Boy” atomic bomb that leveled Nagasaki in World War II, Brother Cyrus plans on coaxing the U.S Military into striking with their own stealth bomb upon a pre-determined location that will se t off Little Boy and Excalibur and bring about ultimate destruction.

Working again with FBI Agent Lucille Parker, David Swift and Monique Reynolds head to the Middle East to try and stop Brother Cyrus from following through on his deadly plan.  They infiltrate various groups and agencies in Israel in an attempt to gain some foothold against Brother Cyrus and his band of True Believers --- who have succeeded in infiltrating the highest levels of government in both the U.S. as well as in key Middle Eastern countries.  The U.S. is going to be fooled into believing that Iran is attempting a nuclear strike against their ally, Israel, and this should force the President’s hand to retaliate --- giving Brother Cyrus the spark he needs to fire up Excalibur!

Brother Cyrus appears unstoppable in his efforts to unsheathe Excalibur and aim ‘God’s sword’ at the weakest part of a broken world.  Will David Swift, Monique Reynolds and their allies be able to win their race against time to stop Brother Cyrus?   Author Mark Alpert pulls out all stops in this fire-cracker of a thriller that combines the best of current scientific research with the pace of a Jason Bourne novel and the surprises never cease to amaze.







Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

Publisher: Knopf

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader

Karen Russell’s SWAMPLANDIA! is already being hailed as one of the major literary works of 2011 and received heavy advanced praise from Stephen King in his Best Novels of 2010 column in Entertainment Weekly as he had opportunity to preview this novel well before other reviewers (like myself).

Karen Russell does appear to be an immensely talented writer with a gift for character development and an above-average imagination.  While SWAMPLANDIA! featured one of the most unique plots I have read in recent years, the novel (in my opinion) falls far short of being hailed as a classic literary achievement.  I’m not sure what her inspiration was for the story.  As an original resident of Florida I’m sure Russell has seen the constant battle for consumer dollars between the many theme attractions they have there and that may have been the impetus here.

SWAMPLANDIA! is the name of an alligator wrestling theme park located in the swampy marsh islands off of the coast of Florida that has been run by a few generations of pseudo-Native Americans known as the Bigtree family.  The entire family, from the youngest daughter, Ava (age 12) right up through old Grandpa Sawtooth all work at the attraction.  The star of the theme park for years has been Hilola Bigtree --- wife of ‘Chief’ Bigtree and mother to Ava and her high-school age sister (Osceola or Ossie) and brother Kiwi.

Ava is the narrator here, with an innocent voice that falls somewhere between Scout from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and the 5-year-old narrator of the recent novel ROOM.  Ava and her siblings are home-schooled, somewhat.  Their education has mostly been about working at Swamplandia, running the different attractions and interacting with the many alligators that inhabit their theme park (all of whom are called Seth).  Ava states fairly early in the novel that the short summation of what happens in the story is just two words: we fell.

The fall from grace that eventually causes the closure of Swamplandia and incites the adventures and journeys each character undergoes is two-fold.  First, mother Hilola contracts cancer and eventually succumbs to it.  Secondly, a new theme park opens up just down the road from them --- a horrific place called The World Of Darkness that is set up to look like something out of Dante’s Inferno.  The loss of their major entertainer and the immediate success of their new competition eventually drives all the crowds away until the Bigtree family is faced with foreclosure.

Grandpa Sawtooth is put away in a Retirement Home.  Father ‘Chief’ Bigtree leaves his children behind to head to the mainland to drum up investors.  Brother Kiwi, in an effort to make some money to appease their many creditors, literally makes a ‘deal with the devil’ and takes on employment as a worker at World Of Darkness.  Worst off is older sister, Ossie, who believes she has the power to commune with the dead and finds herself ‘engaged’ to the spirit of a long-dead dredge-man who tragically died in the nearby swamps a century ago.

What is young Ava to do?  Ava’s arrested development and innocence wavers between cute and deranged.  She reads her sister’s elopement note and actually believes that Ossie has headed to a part of the swamp known as the Underworld where she will forever live with her spectral husband, Louis.  Ava, now all alone at the abandoned Swamplandia, befriends a strange character known only as the Bird Man.  Bird Man listens to her crazy tale and agrees to take her on his skiff through the darkest parts of the swamp and into the Underworld in search of her sister Ossie.  The journey is at times an Odyssey and at other times highly disturbing.

Without giving away the ending, let it be said that the tale loses serious steam in the last act and it is only the hope of an inevitable family reunion that will keep the pages moving towards the end.  A very different type of book --- but this is no ALICE IN WONDERLAND.





Though Not Dead by Dana Stabenow

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Stabenow brings back Alaska's inimitable and unbreakable Kate Shugak in a mystery that stretches back to the days of the beginning of this wonderful state to current times with a tale of a treasure hunt that should thrill her many fans.

When one of the oldest members of Alaska's Park Rats Sam Dementieff  dies and leaves Kate as the heir and executor to his estate, Kate finds herself embarking on a journey of discovery that draws light to not only Sam's roots, but those of her own family's and the very state she calls home.  Alternating between events from more than one century ago, Kate follows a trail through the past to find the treasure Sam entrusted her to bring back home in a hunt that just might prove to be her downfall. 

Definitely one of Stabenow's longest novels, some readers may find this a bit lengthy and heavy on historical detail while at the same time being a bit short on suspense.  However, those who are enthralled by Alaska, and its reputation as the last untamed part of America, will find it a captivating look at how this state came to be, along with the men and women who made it through intact and left their stories behind to be continued. 

Personally, I think this is the historical/fictional novel that Stabenow has always wanted to write, as while reading it, it's more than apparently obvious how much she loves the people, the land, and the mystique that is Alaska.  And while it is mostly fascinating in that aspect, pure mystery lovers might find it leaving a bit to be desired.  This is more of a love song than a mystery, but with that being said, it has a beautiful melody that will resonate with most.




World’s Greatest Sleuth by Steve Hockensmith

Publisher: Minotaur

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Old Red and Big Red think Sherlock Holmes is the greatest detective in the world, along with everybody else who appreciates the Baker Street detective’s resourcefulness and wit.  Unfortunately, Dr. Watson’s latest magazine account reveals his death two years before in a tussle with his nemesis, resulting in a traumatic waterfall ending, devastating countless readers. 

Since Holmes has captured the imagination of would-be sleuths throughout Europe and the United States, McClure’s Magazine has sponsored a well-publicized contest to find a new detective worthy of the title, “World’s Greatest Sleuth,” with no less than the sulky but well-regarded head of the Pinkerton Agency as judge.

Set in Chicago’s legendary 1893 World’s Fair, five contestants vie for the title as they look for clues spread throughout the White City.  Participants include an elegant French detective in the style of Agatha Christie’s later creation of expository Hercule Poirot, an English investigator who bears a striking resemblance to Holmes himself, a fashionable American and the grim-faced Colonel Kermit Crowe and Crowe’s partner, Diana Corvus.

The elegant group is joined by Gustav (Old Red) and Otto (Big Red) Amlingmeyer, two cowboys looking forward to getting away from their difficult western lifestyle and ready to start sleuthing.  Big Red’s penchant for talking and serving as Watson to Old Red’s taciturn Holmes adds credence to their moniker of “Holmes on the Range.”

Lured by the contest and the hope of seeing Diana again, both agree to participate in the contest even as their rough manners and dress offends their city-born counterparts.  Although the contest begins as an easy lark of deciphering riddles, a true mystery soon occurs when the contest’s puzzle maker is found facedown in a great vat of Wisconsin cheese.  In the words of Holmes, suddenly, the “game’s afoot!”

Told from Big Red’s gregarious, home-spun point of view, author Steve Hockensmith finds a consistent voice for his detective story and creates an interesting angle by making his investigators and public truly believe in the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. 

The story also revels in being centered in one location, the dazzling group of white buildings that formed a magical escape for real world’s fair attendees.  Although Hockensmith does not refer to it, the Chicago World’s Fair did play a role in murder in 1893 as detailed in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, adding further credibility to his plot.

World’s Greatest Sleuth keeps readers guessing on which twist Hockensmith will offer next while reuniting favorite characters—with a few surprises—found in earlier Holmes on the Range books.



The Diviner’s Tale by Bradford Morrow

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt                 

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Cassandra Brooks bears an ill-starred name, and like the original bearer, is rarely believed when she foretells something people don’t want to believe.  Starting with the certain knowledge at age seven that her brother would die that night, Cass has been cursed with some sort of extra sense.  She quickly learns to keep her mouth shut: nobody wants to think you know something they don’t, or that you can sense doom around the corner.

Cass puts her unwanted gift to work by following her father into the business of being a water diviner—a dowser, in plain speech.  However, harnessing the strange skill does not prevent occasional flashes of knowledge, and at the opening of the story, Cass experiences one of these.  She’s walking in a valley, and finds the dead body of a girl, hanging from a tree.  The experience is so real that she calls the police—but when they go back to the spot she saw the body, it’s not there.  Later, Laura Bryant is found hiding in the forest, having escaped a kidnapper.  Cass knows that however unreal her vision of the body was, sooner or later the real Laura will really be dead.  This knowledge leads her into the dark ways of a serial killer, and makes her dig around in her own past, often painfully.

Complicating Cass’s life is her relationship with her parents and her twin sons.  Her mother is a practical, down-to-earth perfectionist doing her best to handle her husband’s increasingly fragile mental state.  Cass is devastated by the thought that her father Nep, the one person who understands what it is to have the diviner’s gift, will drift away from her and then die, leaving her with no-one with whom she can truly communicate.  This is somewhat balanced by the awareness that one of her sons seems to be developing the gift as he begins to grow into manhood.  This will bring more responsibility before it brings any comfort to Cass; how can she help guide this young soul?

Cass packs up her divining gear, puts it in the attic and determines to remake her life.  She gets a job teaching, updates her wardrobe and even attends church occasionally.  She meets an old friend, but things from the past, like shadows over the sun, prevent the relationship’s thriving as well as it should.  Then the girl Laura turns up again, and Cass knows somehow she must save this girl and to do so she must confront a killer.

While this book has some characteristics of a murder mystery, it is far more than a simple crime novel.  The writing is often lyrical, and the understanding of the characters goes deep.  It’s a testimony to the skill of the award-winning author that if you didn’t see the name on the cover, you’d assume this book had been written by one of the leading women writers of the last century.   (Please, no letters from militant anti-sexism groups!)





The Illuminated Vineyard by Jean Moynahan

Publisher: Five-Star /Gale Cengage

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Rachel Jarvis hires backpacker Michael Broom to work on her small rural property on a whim she can’t explain.  He turns out to be the proverbial ‘new broom’, and sweeps all sorts of emotions and problems out of the dark corners of Rachel’s life.   

A murder at the vineyard of Rob Fargeau, Rachel’s unpleasant and unfriendly neighbour, brings local policeman Greg Linskey on the scene and stirs up Rachel’s protective impulses for Michael, impulses she can’t understand at first—then a worn gold ring brings back a painful past she’d thought long-buried.

The plot gets more complicated when Rachel’s son Brett falls in love with Michael’s travelling companion, Cara.  Michael is insistent that he and Cara are just travelling buddies, but Rachel fears trouble, and her fears are justified when there’s another murder.  Her suspicions can’t help focus on the nasty Fargeau, but he seems to have an alibi.  

Rachel is living on tenterhooks and sleeping badly.  When loud voices wake her one late night, she leaps to a false conclusion and  is compelled to find out what’s going on, discovering too late that she’s walked into a potential fatality—hers!

Author Moynahan has written a rather different sort of mystery, which displays a good command of language.  “Like a droopy moustache on a pagan god of vegetation, the twigs, berries and leaves of the autumnal swag still trembled on the abruptly opened door…”  “…the forest that had the stillness of a hundred beings holding their breath…”  You probably wouldn’t lose money betting that Moynahan writes poetry when she’s not plotting mayhem.

Another more than adequate offering from Five-Star /Gale Cengage.