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The Con Artist of Catalina Island by Jennifer Colt

Publisher: Tessera Books ISBN  978 1 60461 267 7

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

This fourth in the McAfee Twins series starts with Kerry being rudely awakened by her hysterical Aunt Reba, announcing that cousin Robert has been struck by lightning.  Same old, same old, thinks Kerry, going to shake her twin awake.  Terry doesnít want to forsake her zombie pyjamas and warm bed, but when bribed with coffee agrees to go along and see what Robertís gotten into this time.

Reba explains that Robert was flatlined by a bolt from the blue whilst in the bathroom.  As the three women gather around Robertís hospital bed, awaiting the last breath, Reba is overcome by past guilt and imminent death, and says how she wishes sheíd had a chance to tell Robert about his real father, a French film director with whom she joined the Mile High Club thirty-plus  years ago.

This startling bit of news not only shocks the girls, it shocks Robert out of his vegetative state and back into the real world.   So then they all decide to take a family Christmas holiday on Catalina Island.  Well, why not?  (All together now, ďTwenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a-calliní to meÖÖ.Ē  If you can remember all the words you are probably too old for this book.)

Once on Catalina, the twins hear about a local mystery.  A new bride has vanished and her heartbroken husband is desperate to find her.  Being investigators, and not wanting to spend much time with Aunt Reba and the now obsessing Robert, who wants his biological father located, Terry and Kerry  take on the job of finding the missing girl.

The first thing they find is the body of another local woman, which points them toward a much bigger problem than a runaway bride, although she is also involved.  Meanwhile, Cousin Robert has taken on a job as Santa for the casino Christmas Party and gives the girls elf suits so they can help him out.  You can imagine what fun this turns out to beóchasing down a murderer just has to be better than spending a day in a grotto with a bunch of seven-year-olds.

This is a light-weight good-hearted romp that wonít tax your intellect and should give you a chuckle or two.

 

 

 

 

Sizzle and Burn by Jayne Ann Krentz

Publisher:  G. P. Putnamís Sons  ISBN:  978-0-399-15445-4

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

Raine Tallentyre knows that selling her deceased auntís house will be a challengeóeven before she discovers the Bonfire Killerís 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 auntís psychic abilities contributed to her insanity, and Raine doesnít want to follow in her auntís 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 doesnít hear voices, he does see visions.  Discovering Zackís relationship to the family that destroyed her fatherís lab quickly squelches her attraction.  For a few hours.

Zack, almost too good to be true, reveals what really brought him to Raine:  J & Jís 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. 

 

 

The Skeleton Man by Jim Kelly

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN-10: 0312377819

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

The Skeleton Man is Jim Kellyís fifth mystery featuring journalist Philip Dryden, his wife Laura, and Humph, Drydenís eccentric driver and confidant. As with its predecessors, the writing is tight, the characters are alive, and the story is intricately plotted. Maybe too much so.

The hamlet of Judeís Ferry was bought up by the British Ministry of Defense in 1990 for use as an artillery target range and house-to-house training site. The villagers were an isolated, insular lot, exhibiting both aspects of rural living. Radio interviews made as the villagers prepare to leave show the Norman Rockwell-esque pathos over the ends of people denied their simple existence by world events. The skeleton found hanging in a cellar seventeen years later begins a chain of gruesome discoveries that shows the potential for darkness in an outwardly quaint existence.

Dryden was there for both. He covered the exodus as a Fleet Street hot shot; heís a local reporter when an errant shell leads to the discovery of the skeleton man. By the time heís done tracking back through the labyrinth of clues and lies, itís barely possible to tell whoís alive and whoís dead.

Kellyís writing is as solid as ever. Lauraís recovery from a horrific accident, and her gradual return to acting, is lovingly described, never sinking into melodrama. Humph, who drives Dryden everywhere, kills time by listening to foreign language tapes. This time itís Faeroese. Heís a good foil for Dryden, never a stooge. The travails of writing for weekly newspapers, and the balance that much be struck between sending a hot story to the nationals while preserving some of the scoop for the next local edition, is believable and educational.

The characters exiled from Judeís Ferry are well drawn, with every effort made to keep them distinguishable from their considerable number of peers. Therein lies the rub for The Skeleton Man: there are just too many of them. Kelly parcels them out slowly enough to be absorbed, but the relationships between them overlap, and their stories create such a Gordian knot of logic, itís hard work to keep track of who did what to who and when. Buggery, thuggery, murder, and incest were rampant in the tiny village, barely submerged until a Day of the Locust orgy of destruction as the villagers have to move out.

There is still much to recommend the rest of the book. The overly complicated plot doesnít ruin The Skeleton Man so much as make it a slog, more of a scholarly exercise than an entertaining read. A hand-drawn map of Judeís Ferry is a nice touch, a clever way to set a fictional place in the readerís head. Unfortunately, one also needs a character tree and plot diagram to keep up with everything.

Kellyís an excellent writer, well worth checking out. The uninitiated might want to start with 2005ís The Moon Tunnel for a more approachable story. The Skeleton Man has more meat on his bones than can be easily digested.

 

 

Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta

Publisher: Bloomsbury  ISBN 978 1 59691 451 3

Reviewed by Karen Treanor,  New Mystery Reader

The first winter of the Cold War was just that: cold.  The winter of 1946-7 had seemingly endless days below zero and far more snow than usual.  Nobody over the age of five really enjoyed that winter, particularly the inhabitants of the ruined capital of the recently defunct Third Reich.

Some people got on better in post-war Berlin than others: Sonia survived by renting out her body to the grossly fat Colonel Fosko, or, at his behest, to others, including a midget who knew some valuable secrets.  Boyd White got on after he left the army by trading in women and gambling.  The boy Anders scraped a life on the streets, and then almost accidentally began to share the life of Jean Pavel Richter, a man dying of kidney infection in a freezing apartment. 

Sonia is drawn to Pavel, initially by the boy, who pounds on her door and demands her help to save his dying friend.  She discovers Pavel has the body of the midget, entrusted to him by Boyd White.  They hide it in the attic and try to forget it.  Shortly thereafter, Colonel Fosko comes to Pavelís apartment and takes him to the morgue to identify a body.  Itís Boyd, and he died badly, tortured for information , which Fosko now assumes Pavel must also know.

Enter the narrator, Peterson, who is a torturer by trade but a philosopher by inclination.  He needs to get information from Pavel, now imprisoned in Foskoís cellar, but Fosko is away and Peterson doesnít know how far he can go.  He is somewhat hampered in his choices by the presence of Foskoís wife and young children just upstairs.  He therefore leaves the bloodstained apron on its hook and tries to construct a relationship with Pavel through conversation.  Like Sonia and Anders before him, Peterson falls under Pavelís influence and begins to value their talks, the chess games, the personal details that Pavel is sharing with him. 

Peterson should know better: all torturers must know that the information they come by is flawed and counterfeit, whether gained by bloodshed or deceit.  The coin of the tortured is always suspect: it can hardly be otherwise. 

The story takes a gruesome twist with the return of Fosko, who dies in a scene that calls to mind some of the weirder of the pre-War German silent films.  The other characters leave the stage in unexpected ways.  Peterson remains obsessed by Pavel: who was he really?  Was anything he said true?  What happened to him? 

This is a disquieting book with little to cheer one; nevertheless, it is a compelling and involving story about a disjointed period of history.  Alert readers may spot parallels with our own day.

 

 

 

 

Salt River by James Sallis

Publisher: Walker & Company  ISBN-10: 0802716172

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Itís no surprise that James Sallis has published volumes of poetry after reading his latest novel, Salt River. The writing is reminiscent of James Lee Burke, without the soaring lyricism Burke is so often effortlessly capable of. (I almost said Sallis was Everymanís James Lee Burke, until it occurred to me that James Lee Burke is Everymanís James Lee Burke.) The book reads like warm milk, easy on the ear and with a gracious flow that conjures a small southern town solely through the rhythms of Sallisí storytelling.

Itís good the book is such a pleasure to read in the literary sense, because thereís really no story. There are fragments that could have become stories if Sallis had written middles and ends for them. Whatís left is a brief, meandering series of loosely linked episodes through which John Turner searches for meaning.

Searching for meaning is big in Salt River; rarely is anything made obvious. The relationships among characters are tests to see which readers are paying attention. You can guess that Lonnie is Billyís father, but good luck figuring out who some folks are, or why theyíre there. Itís the third book in a series, and Sallis clearly assumes youíve read the first two. Most of the important personal relationships are inferred, never explained.

Salt River has no real mystery and no real resolution, chock full of stuff that reads a lot like symbolism. Iíll take the blame for that. Why someone has fixed up the insides of a house Turner hasnít lived in for two years while not touching the crumbling outside, with no clues being given for whoís doing it, or why, is beyond me. Iím sure itís my loss, and I never stood in line for a Bergman film, but Iím also not the shallowest pool at the water park.

You may fare better, if your mind is of a more poetic bent. Youíll pay for the privilege: the advanced readerís copy describes the finished product as 160 5 Ĺ by 8 ľ pages costing $21.95. (The publisherís web site describes it as 256 pages for $23.95. The ARC is 146 pages. Either almost half the book was left out, or the final version makes Robert B. Parkerís recent work seem as densely printed as a pocket Bible.) Itís an enjoyable read, and there may be cosmic significance Iím missing. On the other hand, a lot of people are going to finish it, reflect on the artistry of the writing, and decide Ė to paraphrase Gertrude Stein Ė that thereís no there there.  

 

 

They Did It With Love by Kate Morgenroth

Publisher: Plume  ISBN-10: 0452288975

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When not too long after the death of her father, Sophie's husband Dean suggests the couple move to the upscale community of Greenwich, Connecticut, Sophie warily agrees to leave the big city.  But it doesn't take long for the pretentious and inconsequential lifestyle of her wealthy neighborhood to drag her into boredom and depression.  And while at first it seems that joining the local woman's mystery book club might just be the perfect way to help alleviate some of the boredom, the sudden death of one of the members proves to be a bit more than anticipated.  And as the secrets of these women's lives begin to be revealed, so will the danger that comes with every ugly truth exposed.

Morgenroth's fascinating and convincing look at the lies, betrayals, and pettiness behind the lavishly decorated walls of wealthy suburbia make it easy to distinguish this as the year's first must-read.  This one has it all: complexly crafted characters, brilliantly choreographed suspense, and perhaps best of all, an ending so full of audaciously cunning twists that it's difficult to determine which has been more fun: getting there, or at last arriving.  Start this one when you have plenty of time to savor it, because once started you won't want to stop.