January 2009 new mystery book reviews in paperback
 

 

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The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion by Alice Kimberley

Publisher: Berkeley Publishing Group  ISBN: 978-0-425-22460-1

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

In the latest of the Haunted Bookshop Mystery series, one of the most curious investigative teams returns to solve an unexpected mystery in lovely Quindicott, Rhode Island.  Reclusive octogenarian Miss Timothea Todd dies of fright in her beloved Mansard-roofed Victorian while waiting for her favorite literary fix of true crime and occult.  Local bookstore owner Penelope, better known as Pen, quickly discovers poor Miss Todd in the center of the formal living room and she feels a definite cold breeze—unlike the gentle chill of her friend, former private investigator Jack Shepherd, gunned down in the Bookmark in 1947.  Literally spooked, Pen bolts with Jack’s encouragement.

Although the imposing house, ornamented with fleur-de-lis embellished pentagrams and ample Victorian furniture, was a comforting refuge, Miss Todd had recently complained to the police about the new strange noises in the house.  Settled in her ways, Miss Todd would not leave her home and her doctor dismissed the sounds as dementia.  Thanks to the bequest of the house to hippie mail carrier Seymour Tarnish and his fabulous wake in memory of Miss Todd, Pen experiences these frightening sensations first-hand—adding to both the house’s mystique and the local gossip since she spent the night with an unlikely prospect. 

In order to solve Miss Todd’s murder—or even if there was a murder—Pen and Jack need to learn more about the strange pentagram and the house’s disturbing history, elements which tie into both Pen’s current case and Jack’s last.  Thanks to the structure of the story, Jack reveals more of his life as a cynical 1940s PI and just how much he’s changed in the following years as a ghost.  Pen and Jack are one of the most unusual mystery-solving teams and Jack’s hard-boiled persona, complete with the entertaining era’s lingo, plays well against Pen’s thoroughly modern woman.  Booklovers will enjoy the debates on the merits of books and old house devotees will salivate over the architectural details in Miss Todd’s home and the Queen Anne Victorian B&B, all on the way to a very satisfying conclusion.

 

 

 

Portrait of a Lady by Diane A. S. Stuckart

Publisher: Penguin   ISBN: 97-0-425-22573-8

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

In a tale of love and much deception, court painter Leonardo da Vinci must decipher the meaning of four golden fortune telling cards depicting disturbing imagery in the murders of servant women deemed inconsequential and easily replaceable by the Duke of Milan.

Second in Stuckart’s Leonardo da Vinci Mystery Series, Portrait of a Lady reveals the secrets of the unappreciated but indispensable women in the picturesque court while Duke Ludovico Sforza, happily unaware of anyone’s needs but his, confidently plans his strategy to increase his power and wealth.  Exotic Caterina, pampered cousin and ward of the Duke, lives in a stronghold surrounded by servants and obedient townspeople but she fights crippling loneliness with the attention of her servants and devotion of her beloved hound Pio.  Using tarocchi cards, Caterina foretells the horrific fate of one of her maidservants with her ornate cards and another tragedy forces da Vinci to uncover the source of these deaths using his secret weapon found in his own workshop. 

Young apprentice Dino, da Vinci’s confidant, ably assisted the inquisitive artist in uncovering the truth in Stuckart’s previous mystery, The Queen’s Gambit.  While obeying his master, Dino has the chance to revisit his life-altering choices in pretending to be a young woman in order to discover why the servant women were murdered.  Unbeknownst to the normally observant da Vinci, Dino’s artifice is actually in pretending to be a young man since his real identity is Delfina, a teen-age girl who fled an arranged marriage and wishes to hone her skills as an artist.  Pretending to be Dino playacting as Delfina, the painter’s apprentice befriends the lonely young woman and works her way into being a part of Caterina’s desperate plans for a brief chance at happiness.  Delfina must also take care with the captivating and seemingly ever-present Captain of the Guard, Gregorio, until she decides if she can trust him with her greatest secrets.

The title of this mystery is inspired by the name of an authentic da Vinci painting and Stuckart ably weaves this into the story.  Readers should be sure to revisit da Vinci’s “Portrait of a Lady” after finishing the book.  The Leonardo da Vinci Mystery Series also offers descriptions of the necessary political machinations that the artist had to make in order to find the time and funding necessary to create the magnificent work that has been lauded through the ages.

Eminently readable and enjoyable, Portrait of a Lady does have some predictable elements but teems with twists, good humor, and a flowing style.  Devotees of historical mysteries, art history and women’s studies should happily spend a few hours in the charming company of wise da Vinci and young Dino.

 

 

Sizzle and Burn by Jayne Ann Krentz

Publisher:  Jove  ISBN:  0515145815

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

Raine Tallentyre knows that selling her deceased aunt’s house will be a challenge—even before she discovers the Bonfire Killer’s latest victim locked in the basement.  Raine manages to duck the attention of the media; fortunately, because she always hates trying to explain that she is a psychic who hears voices.  She fears that her aunt’s psychic abilities contributed to her insanity, and Raine doesn’t want to follow in her aunt’s footsteps.

However, Raine does garner the attention of Zack Jones, investigator for Jones & Jones and heir apparent to the leadership of the Arcane Society.  Unlike the last man she found attractive, Zack is not creeped out by the fact that she is clairaudient.  He understands her unusual abilities; although Zack doesn’t hear voices, he does see visions.  Discovering Zack’s relationship to the family that destroyed her father’s lab quickly squelches her attraction.  For a few hours.

Zack, almost too good to be true, reveals what really brought him to Raine:  J & J’s suspicion that her aunt was actually murdered by a member of Nightshade, rival organization to the Arcane Society.  As it becomes clear that both Raine and Zack have become targets of Nightshade, their alliance grows closer.

Veteran author Jayne Ann Krentz deftly weaves paranormal aspects into a suspense novel, without being too over the top.  Raine and Zack are intelligent, sympathetic characters, supported by equally believable and likable (or unlikable) secondary characters. 

 

 

 

Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson

Publisher: Harper   ISBN-10: 0060544384

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Robinson brings back detectives Alan Banks and Annie Cabbot in another investigative outing that is sure to please his many fans.  This time out, Cabbot is on loan to another department in the English countryside when she's called to investigate the murder of a young paraplegic woman found dead near a seaside cliff.  At first, it seems an impossible case, the woman having no known relatives, friends, or enemies.  But after digging deeper, Cabbot is shocked to learn the true identity of the woman, an identity whose past is tied to a bout of vicious killings just years before.

Meanwhile, Banks is investigating the murder of a young woman whose body was found after a night of wild partying in the village's labyrinth area called "The Maze."  And when Banks also finds little to go on, he too faces an almost unsolvable mystery.

At first it seems these cases are unrelated, but further discovered clues will prove that they have some very nefarious connections to cases long past, cases that involved more than one serial killer, and cases that have long remained without answers.  And so it seems that the only way to solve one case will be in the solving of the other, putting these two ex-lovers on a shared trail in tracking down the truth.

While this latest is, as usual, a well presented and detailed look at investigative procedure, it does at times become a bit convoluted with all the connections between past and present cases.  With more than one too many killers and victims, it was a bit of a challenge to recall just who was connected to whom, and when and why, with the concerted effort it took to connect them a bit of a distraction from an otherwise clever plot.  A little less would have sufficed in this latest, but still, as fans will surely attest, any Robinson at all is always a treat, no matter what.               

 

 

Touchstone by Laurie King

Publisher: Bantam  ISBN: 978-0-553-58666-4

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

In the midst of labor disputes and increasing tension between the working and ruling classes in 1926, Harris Stuyvesant methodically searches England for the terrorist responsible for the severe injuries suffered by his younger brother in Chicago.  Armed with little more than the bomber’s identity and possessing no proof, Stuyvesant uses his US Bureau of Investigation training to find a surprising path to his objective.  Relying on shifty Aldous Carstairs of Scotland Yard, Stuyvesant embarks on a daring plan to befriend a man with mysterious wounds sustained during World War I who serves as the touchstone in the title.  Using this fragile man’s connections, Stuyvesant must try to ingratiate himself with the upper echelons of British aristocracy.  Bennett Gray, hunted by Carstairs and haunted by the War, possesses the abilities to tell when someone knowingly lies or when an object is purposely faked.  Ironically, Stuyvesant’s blatant American persona allows him to be an accepted outsider in the rigid societal structure, able to be a formal dinner guest or a hired hand as the situation requires and to offer surprises of his own.

Stuyvesant promises himself that he will not get involved with the extraordinary people that he has met and with whom he has shared so much of himself, but he finds that he genuinely likes Bennett and is taken by his sister Sarah.  For a man who lies without thinking in order to gain the trust of others, Stuyvesant’s lies are transparent to Bennett and he realizes that he can’t even lie to himself with the touchstone around.  Never sure whom to trust, Stuyvesant has to figure out the truth before further tragedy occurs.  Stuyvesant has plenty of wounds of his own and some of the best pages cover a brief, meaningful discussion between Stuyvesant and Bennett when they finally discuss their war experience.  

King does an excellent job depicting the instability and turmoil experienced by Britain and the US during the 1920s and includes several nice references to Prohibition, which Stuyvesant happily escapes while abroad.  Period details such as discussions on suffrage martyr Emily Davison, anarchism, and communism serve to make the outside world disappear as you read about the era of cloche hats, dangerous working conditions of miners and factory workers, and the constrictive class structure tightly grasped by conservatives.  Fans of PD James, Charles Todd and Reginald Hill should especially take note although the plot twists, fully-realized characters and vivid imagery in Touchstone are well-worth the time invested by any reader of mysteries.

 

 

The Intruders by Michael Marshall

Publisher: Harper  ISBN-10: 0061235032

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When ex-cop and one-time published author Jack Whalen is convinced by his successful advertising executive wife to move from LA to a rural village in Washington, he's more than happy to leave the bustling city behind.  But it doesn't take long until he notices that things are different- his wife is different; nothing he can really put his finger on, just a subtle incongruous uneasiness that not only is everything in his life just slightly off-kilter but, even odder at times, simply unfamiliar.   

Thinking it might just be his inability to come up with a new idea for his next book, Jack dismisses the foreboding disquiet; at least until his wife goes missing during a business trip only to reappear shortly after as if nothing happened.  And when combined with the odd visit from an old high school buddy who wants him to look into the murder of a mother and her son in Seattle, an inexplicable murder blamed on the husband who seems innocent after further investigation, Jack is suddenly thrust into a world in which reality is far from what he ever thought it was.        

After reading this, my first question was who IS this guy, followed by my second, where can I get his previous titles?  Not usually a fan of, for lack of a better word, horror novels, I approached this with some wariness.  It took all of about two pages until I was completely immersed for the duration.  In lesser hands, this extraordinary plot most likely would have turned into a silly, fantastical tale, but under this master's hand, instead is an ingeniously creepy, wildly imaginative, and oh so subtly menacing tale of a reality better left unquestioned.  Not only are the pace, narrative, prose, and characterizations stunningly brilliant and perfectly executed, but so too are the sly and unexpected doses of humor that can take the reader from feeling petrified to laughing in less than ten.  Simply put, this is a read that embodies all that one desires from a good book and should not be missed.   (for Interview)

 

 

 

Betrayal by John Lescroart

Publisher: Signet  ISBN-10: 0551225708

Reviewed by Harvey Lau, New Mystery Reader

A lawyer handling the murder case of Evan Schaller, a cop accused of killing ex-Navy SEAL Ron Nolan, has disappeared, and a judge persuades another lawyer, Dismas Hardy, to take over the case.

Evan was serving in Iraq at the time Nolan was there as a senior official with a major contractor in Iraq. Evan’s unit was assigned convoy duty to guard the trucks of the contractors, and he gets to know Nolan, whom he confides in about his girlfriend back home, Tara Wheatley. 

Back in the U.S., Nolan woos Tara and manages to break up the relationship by deceiving both Tara and

Evan. This is only the tip of the iceberg of deception where Nolan is concerned. We saw him shooting at civilians in Iraq before and killing three street thugs back in the U.S. There is also a question about his possible involvement in the murder of a wealthy Iraqi and his wife in the U.S.

When Nolan is found killed, the police focus on Evan, whose head injury from a military confrontation in Iraq results in his partial loss of memory. Did he or did he not kill Nolan after he got back to the States? Not even Evan is sure. All the evidence points to it, however. The court case is handled by lawyer Hardy.

The novel ends with a wind up of the case, the jury verdict and result, and a twist of plot at the end. It provides an interesting look at contractors in Iraq and the lack of controls in some areas that leads to excess and waste; however, the plot is not complex enough to support the length of the book or the extraneous detail of the contractors in Iraq, which is not really part of the story that essentially involves only Evan and Ron Nolan.

 

 

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN-10: 0312944500

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Penny returns with her third outing in this outstanding series featuring the idyllic community of Three Pines and the Montreal Chief Inspector Armand Gamache who is always ready to lend a hand to solve their occasional bouts with deadly crime. 

This time out, it’s springtime, and as this eccentric cast of villagers prepare for their annual Easter egg hunt, they have no idea that murder is once again about to shake up their contended lives.  It all begins with the arrival of a seemingly harmless psychic who, after a bit of prompting, agrees to hold a séance in the village pub.  But when the séance proves to be less than exciting, the villagers agree to hold yet another, this time in the abandoned house on the hill that has been the scene of more than one incidence of evil and madness.  And when a local villager dies in the middle of it all, the hunt is on for the killer, a killer who must be one of their own, and one who has been hiding a life’s worth of rage behind a façade of innocence for years.

With the aide of Chief Inspector Gamache, the town might be able to find the traitor in their midst, even as Gamache himself much search out the turncoat on his own team of investigators; one whose identity will unmask the biggest betrayer of all, the person who wants nothing more but to see Gamache’s happy existence ruined and shattered for good.

If you’ve never read one of Penny’s Three Pine mysteries, you’re missing out on one of the best series out there.  Her ability to combine a stunning setting, eccentric characters, and fine investigative detail with such poignant and evocative themes as love, loyalty, jealousy, grief, and madness make each of these reads a rare treat.  This is a place you’ll wish really existed, and these are people you’ll wish you could someday meet, and with Penny’s vivid and lively storytelling, you’ll be surprised at just how close you’ll end up feeling that you actually did.   

 

 

 

Ice Trap by Kitty Sewell

Publisher: Touchstone  ISBN-10: 1416539980

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

On the outside it might seem that British surgeon Dr. Woodruff has everything a man could want with his beautiful, successful wife and thriving career.  But the cracks invisible to the naked eye are about to be revealed when he receives a letter from a woman he knew years before claiming he's the father of her twins; a letter that serves to further strain his childless marriage. 

The woman, writing from the depths of nowhere in Northern Canada where Woodruff once practiced during a messy time in his life, comes as a complete surprise; especially considering how much he once despised her, the thought of merely touching her never passing repulsion.  But when DNA tests prove otherwise, and with his crumbling marriage further disintegrated, he has no choice but to go back to a place he never meant to return to in order to find out the truth.

This amazingly suspenseful tale not only manages to totally enthrall page after page but, even more incredibly, it does it without a single gory murder. In this award winning novel, Sewell easily proves that solid writing, a clever plot, disingenuous characters, and challenging questions of what is really the truth can be enough to make the heart pound.  This first from Sewell is simply brilliant, its intricate plotting and memorable characters remind one of how mystery should be written; the thrill is in the guessing, not in the usual blood and gore offered all too often these days.  And that's what separates this one from the pack; making it a must-read for those that enjoy an intelligently written mystery that is convincingly compelling until the final and thrilling denouement.

 

 

 

Capitol Conspiracy by William Bernhardt

Publisher: Ballantine Books  ISBN-10: 0345487575

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

It looks like Ben Kincaid, recently married and still adjusting to being a US senator for his home state of Oklahoma, is going to have to further delay his honeymoon when a horrific shooting occurs at the site of the first Oklahoma tragedy during the president’s visit to commemorate the event.  And with this new tragedy that’s believed to be an act of terrorism resulting in the death of the first lady and others caught in the crossfire, as well as leaving Ben’s best friend lying in a coma, it comes as no great surprise when politicians from every party demand for a constitutional amendment that makes the Patriot Act look like a liberal idea.  But what’s even more frightening than the event itself and the proposed amendment to curtail the Bill of Rights during national emergencies is just who really is behind it all.  An unknown entity that is as shocking as it is deadly.

In this latest outstanding novel of politics and power, Bernhardt explores perhaps one the biggest controversies this country faces in the new millennium - that of the struggle between national security and civil rights when under extreme threat.  And with both sides being fairly represented, Bernhardt refrains from rushing to judgment, his final denouement only arrived at after much consideration of the most salient reasonings inherent in both, making his conclusion all the more credible.  This provocative and timely novel is much more than good fiction; it’s also a novel that asks some pretty important questions and manages to answer them with an evenhanded grip on sensibility and reason.            

 

 

Old Flame by Ira Berkowitz

Publisher: Three Rivers Press    ISBN: 978-0-307-40862-4

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Jackson Steeg has lost several things in his life. Steeg lost his career as a cop thanks to a drug user’s bullet. He lost his wife – at least in part – thanks to his mother-in-law’s hatred of him. Now the mother-in-law is asking for his help to investigate death threats against his ex-wife – Ginny - and her new husband. Steeg refuses until the new husband is murdered and he fears for Ginny’s safety.

In a subplot, a childhood friend – Danny Reno - has been running a scam that involves an Israeli gangster named Barak. Danny – Steeg’s brother who has criminal enterprises of his own – sense’s Steeg is in danger and kidnaps Barak’s fourteen-year-old son.

Meanwhile Steeg is trying to investigate the death of Ginny’s husband. To complicate things even more, Steeg’s former partner in the police department appears to be taking bribes from the bad guys involved in the murder.

While there is a sense that the plots will overlap and give closure to the reader, careful scrutiny is necessary to keep the details straight. Perhaps fuller character development would make the individuals become more memorable.

Berkowitz’s cryptic writing style packs a punch somewhat like the PI genre of the 40’s. Be forewarned while the book does not contain excessive or graphic sex or violence, the language is rough with a generous sprinkling of profanity.

 

 

Lady Killer by Lisa Scottoline

Publishers: Harper   ISBN: 0060833211

Reviewed by Narayan Radhakrishnan, New Mystery Reader

Ever since I read EVERYWHERE THAT MARY WENT and FINAL APPEAL, I have grown fond of the firm Rosato and Associates and its feisty never-say-die attorneys Benny Rosato, Mary DiNunzio, Judy Carrier and Annie Murphy, making it a point to read each one.  And today with this book, I am now the proud owner of 15 Scottoline thrillers.  And while these regular protagonists were absent in the past three thrillers, DEVIL’S CORNER, DIRTY BLONDE and DADDY’S GIRL, and I had the disturbing feeling that perhaps Scottoline had bade farewell to Rosato and team, thankfully that feeling proved incorrect with Rosato and team coming back in roaring colour in LADY KILLER. 

This time out, Mary DiNunzio is in the heat of things. She has her hands full with a couple of cases; one involving a case of a dyslexic teenager, and the second a defamation suit for Dean Martin- the latter case a bit different considering it’s been a couple of decades since his passing.  It seems that some Dean Martin fans have been wounded by an off-the–cuff remark made by a lady on the character of the gifted actor, and to say that DiNunzio is worked up would be an understatement. 

Things only get more complicated when yet another case falls her way when her old high school nemesis Trish Gambone (aka Trash by DiNunzio) seeks her help. It seems that her boyfriend who is heavily involved with the Mafia is out to kill her, and the help she requires is something that the judicial code can’t quite fix. She wants protection- but without the help of the court.  And even though Mary promises to try and do something to help, within 24 hours Trish goes missing, leaving Mary alone to handle the blame for her disappearance.  And when next a body is found, DiNunzio realizes that this is a much more dangerous case than she thought and that she herself might be the target of vicious killer.

What follows is trademark Scottoline suspense- with thrills, chills and frills – that ends with a bang.

Enjoyed it tremendously.

 

 

Person of Interest by Theresa Schwegel

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN-0312945337

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When at last part-time florist Leslie McHugh wakes up and smells the roses, so to speak, that her undercover cop husband seems to be absent for long periods of time not only physically but emotionally, her first concern is that he's seeing somebody else.  And to make matters worse, not only is her marriage falling apart, but so is her relationship with her teenaged daughter, a girl who too seems to be hiding some pretty heavy secrets of her own.

But what Leslie doesn't know is that her husband Craig has been working a dangerous sting operation, one so deadly that its propensity to completely destroy what's left of her family is almost inevitable. And so as this family of wounded souls fights their individual battles, unaware of the deadly secrets that bind them, they'll plunge faster and faster down a collision course fated to end in disaster unless they can face and reveal these very secrets that might be their only salvation.

It must be said that Schwegel is a more than talented author; her ability to shine the light into the darkest corners of the heart is both fearless and provocative.  Ironically, it's also this very talent that makes this a difficult read that almost in its entirety is distressing and heart-wrenching.  These are sad and despairing characters living desperate and lonely lives, and while ultimately there is hope that redemption might be found in the end, getting there is far from enchanting.  But, still, this comes recommended; not for its ability to entertain, but instead for the opportunity it provides to read an author who knows her craft and is not afraid to take it where it needs to go.