January 2011 Hardcover Mysteries


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The KenKen Killings by Parnell Hall

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Sherry and her aunt Cora have created a pretty interesting life in their shared home and personal hobbies.  Sherry creates crossword puzzles under the moniker “Puzzle Lady,” and because of extenuating circumstances with Sherry’s smarmy ex-husband, Cora has become the face that goes with the name.  Although Cora can’t actually solve crosswords, she and Sherry have bonded over solving murder investigations in their small town that involve puzzles that stump the police and require the efforts of the duo behind the Puzzle Lady persona.

Now that Sherry is busy with her new husband and is knee-deep in house renovations, Cora takes center stage as she fights a legal battle with her own least favorite ex-husband, Melvin.  Melvin, with blonde trophy wife in tow, has decided that he’s tired of paying alimony to Cora and has figured out how to stop the drain on his cash flow.  Early on, Melvin and his lawyer developed a sting operation to sully Cora’s reputation but that becomes secondary when one of Melvin’s witnesses is found dead, with only a KenKen puzzle left as a clue, bringing Cora into the picture as the only one who can save Melvin.

While Cora detests crossword puzzles, she revels in KenKens, which rely on simple mathematics and logic.  In The KenKen Killings, Cora truly comes into her own with her larger-than-life personality full of curves and wisecracks, relegating Sherry to minor character status.

Since author Parnell Hall includes blank puzzles in each book, readers can solve the puzzles on their own if they choose to do so or they can read through the next few pages after each puzzle and Sherry or Cora will explain the puzzle’s significance to the mystery.  Although Cora remains entertaining, previous books featuring the tag-team investigative efforts of Cora and Sherry feel slightly more satisfying, although The KenKen Killings fulfills the series’ requirement of being a fun read.





The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

Publisher: Little, Brown & Co      

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader         

Arlen Wagner lives hand-to-mouth by working for the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.  A veteran of the bloody mess that was World War I, Arlen somehow gained the poisoned gift of seeing death in other men’s eyes.  It’s not a gift anyone would choose to have, but it has saved Arlen from his own premature demise on occasion. 

Rattling along on an uncomfortable train, heading for the Florida Keys to work on a bridge-building project, Arlen sees death in the eyes of every man on the train, including young Paul Brickhill, a naďve mechanical genius.  Arlen convinces Paul to get off the train in the middle of nowhere, and while they’re walking towards what they hope is a town, they’re given a lift by Walt Sorenson in his large and expensive car.

Sorenson promises them a ride further south, right after he does an errand at Cypress House, a run-down boarding house in Corridor County run by Rebecca Cady.  Sorenson’s errand ends with him being blown up and incinerated in his own car.  Trying to do the right thing by reporting the death, the men find themselves under suspicion by the scariest country sheriff I’ve met in a long time.  A very unpleasant few days in the local lockup ensue, at the end of which they are released, and informed that the train they jumped off of was wrecked and all aboard died. This makes a believer out of Paul: he won’t doubt Arlen’s predictions again.  Which is not the same thing as taking Arlen’s advice.

Staying on at Cypress House to help Rebecca, both Paul and Arlen fall hard for the mysterious woman.  Why does she stay at this awful place, and what is the business that Solomon Wade and the Sheriff transact here?  Bit by bit, Arlen finds out Rebecca’s story, and wishes he could help her escape the evil morass she’s stuck in, but it doesn’t seem possible.  Paul, younger and with a simpler view of the world, is determined to stand by Rebecca regardless—despite Arlen’s having seen the smoke of death in his eyes, and warned him about it.

This is a dark, violent and sometimes depressing story.  If you were casting the movie and had no temporal restrictions, you might want Gary Cooper to play Arlen and Rachel Ward to play Rebecca.  The writing is spare and echoes some of the great southern writers of the past: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Flannery O’Connor come to mind.  I will be very surprised if this book doesn’t win at least one significant literary prize.




Bitter Legacy by H Terrell Griffin

Publisher: Oceanview Publishing          

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader 

Followers of Matt Royal’s adventures at Longboat Key will know how close he and his best buddy Logan Hamilton are.  It’s therefore a real kick in the guts when a sniper tries to kill Logan and would have succeeded were it not for a book in his breast pocket.  That’s the opening shot in a short, ugly war in which an unknown enemy sends one assassin after another to kill Matt and Logan, as well as an elderly man who belongs to a little-known subculture, the Black Seminoles.

By the third incident, Matt knows he can’t solve this problem alone and is happy to have the help of Jock Algren, the man who works for an agency so secret that the CIA probably doesn’t know it exists.  Jock is mild-mannered on the outside, but utterly ruthless when it comes to problem solving.  It doesn’t take long for him to loosen the tongue of a biker kingpin—and he doesn’t even have to use those 24” bolt-cutters.  However, this doesn’t move the solution much further forward, because the person behind it all has put up firewalls which stymie all attempts to back-track.

Even with Jock’s help, it’s touch and go whether they will discover the identity of the man behind the murder attempts before one of the hired guns succeeds.  So far they have been inept semi-amateurs, but what will happen if the contractor decides to take on professional help?  (As with the previous books in the series, you need to suspend disbelief a bit and accept that all these would-be killers could wander around small  Florida towns so easily.)

Complicating the problem of identifying who wants him dead is Matt’s developing relationship with J D Duncan, the new cop on the block, who works for his pal Police Chief Bill Lester.  J D is a tough cookie who doesn’t like being left in the dark, and who feels that crime and criminals are her job, not some retired lawyer beach bum, which is how she views Matt at first.  Before the story ends, she has to face and accept some very dark corners of herself that she didn’t know were there.  Matt himself suffers flashbacks to Vietnam and even earlier traumas in his life, things he can usually keep locked down, but which surface as the violence around him accelerates.

I sat up until ten past two in the morning to finish this book, cussing Griffin all the way because I couldn’t put the book down.  It’s not that he’s a writer of the calibre of P D James, or a master of suspense and horror like Stephen King, but he has a knack of nailing your eyeballs to the page and not letting you go until he’s done.  In this book he’s also woven in some fascinating real-life historical facts that I’ll bet you never learned in school.   Another very readable offering from the folks at Oceanview.





Gideon's War by Howard Gordon

Publisher: Touchstone

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader  

Howard Gordon makes his fiction debut with the novel GIDEON’S WAR.  Gordon’s prior experience includes Emmy and Golden Globe Awards for his work as a writer and producer of the hit FOX Television series, 24 and The X-Files.

In GIDEON’S WAR, the title character --- Gideon Davis --- is an international peacemaker currently working for the President of the United States.  He is also a renowned pacifist and refuses to hold a gun --- an interesting trait for a lead character in an action/thriller novel.

Gideon is called into action when word of a potential civil war in the small Southeast Asian country of Mohan is threatening to break out and potentially impact the U.S. owned Obelisk --- a multi-million dollar oil rig located in the Pacific outside of Mohan.  Gideon is not only sent into service because of his peacekeeping skills but also due to his past experience in hand-to-hand combat and covert ops.  To make Gideon’s presence even more vital, the alleged terrorist warlord who is threatening both Mohan and the Obelisk is Abu Nasir --- a pseudonym being used by Gideon’s own brother, Tillman Davis.

Accompanied by family friend and U.S. government bigwig, Earl Parker, Gideon heads to Mohan with hopes of taking down (in a peaceable manner) his brother Tillman and saving the Obelisk. Making matters worse is the fact that a major typhoon is hitting the Obelisk and a Delta Force team has to wait for the eye of the storm to be directly over the oil rig before they can drop their team in to assist Gideon in his mission.

Howard Gordon clearly knows how to thrill, but with his first fiction novel he definitely needs to expand his character development beyond his usual writing style for the small screen.  Several minor characters are introduced and then quickly eliminated throughout the novel and the reader never truly gets a feel for what Gideon Davis and his brother are all about.  Also, the influence of 24 is clearly seen in GIDEON’S WAR as a bomb that this planted on the Obelisk by the terrorists is under a 48-hour countdown with time remaining frequently updated throughout the story.  A decent first effort and a brisk and furious action novel.