June Paperback Mystery for 2008
 

 

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Scavenger by David Morrell

Publisher:  Vanguard Press  ISBN:  1-59315-4836

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

Frank Balenger and his beautiful new lover, Amanda Evert, attend what promises to be a quiet lecture on time capsules at the Manhattan History Club.  They grow sleepy as the other attendees, strangely, leave early.  Frank wakes up several hours later on the beach at Asbury Park, wondering what happened and where Amanda is.  Meanwhile, Amanda finds herself in a remote cabin with four strangers, all wired with explosives and given forty hours to complete a scavenger hunt with only the vaguest of clues.

Frank, following leads and the elusive Karen all over Manhattan, soon realizes that they have become the puppets of an insane game master, so intent on creating and designing realistic video games that he needs flesh and blood avatars to carry out his plan.  Frank, Amanda, and the others must find the macabre Sepulcher of Worldly Desires in order to survive.

By turns gruesome and grisly, Scavenger is unrelentingly violent.  David Morrell, the author who created Rambo, hangs on to his prototype of the battle-scarred, psychologically troubled veteran.  Not knowing Morrell’s backlist thankfully saved me from picturing Frank as Sylvester Stallone, bare steroid-inflated chest criss-crossed with ammunition.  Taut and suspense-filled, Scavenger has some shortcomings in the area of character depth and reality.  It’s not for everyone, but Morrell fans will be happy with his latest installment.

 

 

The Abduction by Mark Gimenez

Publisher: Vanguard Press ISBN-10: 1593154771

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

While at first glance John and Elizabeth Brice and their two children, 10 year old Gracie and five year old Sam, might seem to have the idyllic life living in a posh gated community full of mansions only 40 miles from Dallas, things are not so rosy inside.  Not even the fact that they're about to become billionaires when John's high-tech company goes public can change the truth of the seemingly loveless marriage between these two wounded souls whose hurtful pasts have defined them and left them indelibly scarred. 

But not even their damaging pasts could have prepared them for the suffering brought on when their young daughter is kidnapped one night after a soccer game, her abduction taking place a mere glance or two away from where her father is busy on the phone putting the final touches on the big deal. 

And when some of her clothing is found in the nearby woods, the FBI experts bleakly face the most likely possibility that this is just one more abduction for sex that has ended in death.  An outcome that Gracie's grandfather, ex-Vietnam Green Beret Ben Brice, refuses to accept.  And so begins the hunt for Gracie, a hunt that will lead to government cover-ups, long held secrets, and maybe, just maybe, a shot at redemption and a second chance for them all to live a life liberated from the shames of the past.  

After the stunning success of a first novel, there's always the question if the author can do it again with the second and, fortunately, in this case, Gimenez not only surpasses his own preliminary standards of excellence, but those of the entire genre.  Not only does he offer up an adventurous plot that races forward at a breakneck speed filled with a cast of multi-faceted and poignantly drawn characters, but he also puts forth some concepts and questions that provoke and compel the reader's consideration long after the last page is turned.

But perhaps most notable of all might just be this book's ability to elicit just about every emotional response possible from the reader.  Whether it's laughter or tears, dread or anticipation, be prepared to feel something while reading this glorious adventure that only seems to gain momentum with every page. 

Ultimately, a forceful, exhilarating, and effervescent read of faith and redemption, loyalty and love, truth and purpose, and one that unreservedly qualifies as one of the best to come along this year. 

 

 

Occupational Hazards by Jonathan Segura

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, ISBN: 9781416562917

Reviewed by R. Don Copeland, New Mystery Reader

A $300 a-week beat reporter for Omaha’s sketchy Weekly News-Telegraph, ‘Occupational Hazard’s’ Bernard Cockburn is one of the more perversely satisfying anti-heroes of this or any other year.  With first-person prose as lean as a marathon runner, freshman novelist Jonathan Segura adroitly serves us this slim but wickedly funny slice of noir.  From the gate, we find the bitterly cynical Cockburn on-hand for a hostage negotiation with a deranged father holding his own 13 year old daughter at gunpoint.  A quick transition or two later and we’re at the dowdy headquarters of the Weekly News-Telegraph, where we meet Cockburn’s publisher Manny Hertz.  The improbably titled ‘Chief of News and Marketing’, Hertz proves himself worthy of the second half of his title and assigns Cockburn yet another thinly-disguised ‘Advertorial’.  Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn, a point Cockburn has to make repeatedly), has other fish to fry.  Nevermind a drawer already full of unfinished exposés, Cockburn’s instincts tell him a Downtown land deal has the lineaments of skullduggery.   It seems a group of citizens bent on ‘cleaning up’ areas slated for redevelopment are not only vigilantes, but puppet-vigilantes at that.  So, who pulls the strings?

Cockburn’s investigation is soon awash in a sea of complications- it appears that a major advertiser of the News-Telegraph is somehow linked to the mounting body count.  Bernard Cockburn will cause many readers to wonder aloud whether he’s a bigger bastard or loser, but there’s a quixotic element to Cockburn that should nonetheless keep the reader’s sympathy solidly with him.  Cockburn himself lives in one of the slums to be ‘gentrified’ by the very redevelopment deal he’s investigating.  As Cockburn sardonically sketches his world, we see that his bitter contempt extends to himself.  Perhaps the only people Cockburn despises more than himself are power players.  The only real distinction Cockburn sees between the street whores and bureaucrats he meets is point-of-purchase.  I can think of few novels where bitter cynicism as the bastard step-child of disappointed idealism is revealed more convincingly than here by Segura. 

Don’t let that this is Segura’s first novel have you assume that he is anything less than a scalpel-sharp raconteur.  Segura endows Cockburn with an often howlingly hilarious, but always keen observational style.  You may well find yourself vacillating between laughing your ass off and nodding your head at one of Cockburn’s more profound observations.  Cockburn, commenting on the desire of people to see their name in print says-

“Newspapers, see, are a gateway to fame, an institution dedicated to chronicling the feats of the extraordinary people who define our times.  But the truth is that very few of us have something worthwhile to contribute.  Every last one of us could just as easily blow off our heads tonight and leave nothing behind except a headstone that nobody visits, and the world will keep on turning without so much as a hiccup.” 

Later, we see Segura’s ability to imply entire pages of back-story with astonishing brevity as Cockburn explains why he didn’t listen for his girlfriend Allison’s answer-

“I hang up before I hear the answer, because I know she’s going to say no.  Yeah, not only can I finish her sentences, but I don’t even have to wait for her to start them.”

Despite the moments of sharp wit, the relentless pace of this novel won’t let you forget it’s first and foremost noir.  And grand noir at that.

Cockburn’s life is laid out before us in vignettes of mocking mediocrity.  Destiny has earmarked Cockburn for virtual non-existence, which Cockburn believes is revealed metaphorically by the City in which he lives and works.  It seems Cockburn can’t get through the day without being street-mugged by some new evidence of his own staggering insignificance.  Between liberal applications of drugs and alcohol, Cockburn peels the layers of the Downtown redevelopment onion.  Amidst Cockburn’s bouts of flatulence and mild erectile dysfunction, Allison announces that she’s pregnant.  Cockburn’s immediate reaction is to accuse Allison of a deliberate pregnancy.  Ha.  Everyone- including Cockburn in his more lucid moments- knows that Allison is more than Cockburn deserves.

Author Jonathan Segura has created in Bernard Cockburn a deeply complex character full of sneaky profundities and illuminating dichotomies.  On the surface, Cockburn is engagingly reprehensible and estranged from the ethics of his profession.  But the waters of ‘Occupational Hazards’ run much deeper.  Not only does the outwardly deeply cynical Cockburn care greatly about the world he inhabits, he’s willing to do much more than he’d ever admit to change it.  When a deep, dark secret from Cockburn’s past surfaces, and threatens Game Over, we come to know that Cockburn’s not quite the punching bag he makes himself out to be.  Cat and mouse will swap roles for us now and again.  Settle in for the ride, it’s worth the ticket.

 

 

 

The Case of the Ill-Gotten Goat by Claudia Bishop

Publisher: Berkeley Crime  ISBN 978  0 425 22207 2

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Imagine James Herriott meets Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and you have a rough idea of the flavour of this entertaining book, which is the third in Bishop’s rural veterinary series.

Dr Austin McKenzie had some bad investments which severely damaged his retirement dreams.  Now he runs a veterinary clinic in Summerville for large animals, and dabbles in private detective work on the side.

When the local milk inspector is found dead in a vat of goats’ milk at the Tre Sorelle dairy, who better to get to the bottom of the mystery than the detective vet and his sharp-eyed wife Madeline? 

Hired by one of the family, Austin has an uphill battle due as much to the crotchety dairy owner as anything—Doucetta may be old, but she’s feisty.  So feisty that some people wonder if perhaps it was her heavy cane that did in the unfortunate Melvin Staples.  After all, he’d been giving her dairy bad reports and her future income depended on his next visit—that’s a pretty good motive, although it’s not the only one, as Austin and Madeline discover when they start digging.  Then there’s a second murder and a serious fire: somebody’s playing for keeps, but can Austin figure out which suspect did it before he gets done in himself?

This is a quick and mostly light-hearted read, and you’ll learn a fair bit of information about goat dairies and goat milk products along the way.  The author even provides an easy-to-follow cottage cheese recipe at the back of the book.

 

 

Scots on the Rocks by Mary Daheim

Publisher:  Avon  ISBN 006056654X

Reviewed by Victoria Kennedy, New Mystery Reader

Two American women Judith McMonigle Flynn and her cousin Renie are going on vacation.  Their husbands keep the details a secret, so it’s a surprise when their plane lands in Scotland.  Their final destination is an old castle in the middle of nowhere.   Judith and Renie’s husbands soon abandon them for a fishing trip and the two feel free to get into whatever mischief they can.

Judith is one of those eternally curious people who are always sticking their noses into other people’s business, while her cousin Renie is outspoken and often obnoxious.  She also drinks too much.

The two women are just settling in at the castle when the owner shows up.  He’s none too pleased with his guests and Renie does her best to insult him.  To make matters worse, the caretaker’s snobby grandson dies after an explosion destroys his car.  His young widow Moira doesn’t seem bothered at all by her husband’s death.  Moira’s a flighty character that flits from man-to-man.  She’s already lost one husband, could she have killed the second one?

Judith starts snooping around and discovers the murder was part of complex web of lies and deceit.   

The story is entertaining and humorous, but does get a bit silly at times.  It didn’t amuse me that the author obviously considers rude drunks to be funny.   There are many interesting characters, but except for Judith and Renie the reader doesn’t get to know them well.  It’s still an engaging little cozy for a rainy day.

 

 

 

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN-10: 0312359675

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When the body of Catherine Ross, a young and impetuous teen , is found lying in the snow in a small village in the Shetland Islands, the town is quick to point the finger at the town's most avoided citizen, a slow-minded aged man who years ago was also suspected in the disappearance of a young girl.  But detective Jimmy Perez and the investigators who are flown in to help are not so sure, as there are few connections between the cases.  Digging deeper, the investigators will soon start to uncover some startling secrets hidden behind the innocent façade of this small and remote village, secrets that will make more than one local a suspect on a list that grows with each secret revealed.

In this new tale from Cleeves, the reader is not only treated to a challenging mystery and well drawn characters, but to an invigorating and wintry ambiance that provides its own share of chills.  With never a dull moment, readers will find themselves flying through the pages toward a startling conclusion that is well worth the anticipation that deliciously builds throughout.  A highly unique tale of resentment, guilt, and small town drama, we hope to see more of the same from this talented author soon.

 

 

The Conjurer by Cordelia Frances Biddle

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Minotaur ISBN: 031238338X

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

Lemuel Beale, a wealthy Philadelphian, disappears while on a hunting trip near his country home.  It is generally assumed that he fell into the swollen Schuylkill River—a certain death.  His daughter, Martha, refuses to believe he is dead.

Twenty-six years old and unmarried in the 1840s, Martha is circumscribed not only by her position in society but by her father’s repressive attitudes, enforced by his personal secretary, Mr. Simms, after Beale’s disappearance.  Assisted by Thomas Kelman, assistant to the mayor, Martha attempts to learn more about her father’s disappearance.  As determined as she is to find the truth, far more powerful influences keep the truth just beyond her reach.

A number of subplots involving a clairvoyant (hence the title), the intimidating socialite he seduces, ex-convicts, and crooked businessmen who know more about Beale’s disappearance than they let on, add depth, if not always interest to the story.  More disturbing is the mysterious pedophile who is preying on Philadelphia’s young prostitutes.

As engaging as Martha is (despite her annoying passivity), characterization and plot really take a backseat to setting in The Conjurer.  Author and native Philadelphian Cordelia Frances Biddle evokes a nineteenth century Philadelphia that is worthy of comparison to Dickensian London, complete with orphans, epileptics, and club-footed tailors.  It will be interesting to see if Biddle can hold the reader’s interest in the next title, particularly with Martha free of her inhibitions.

 

 

 

Last Breath by George D. Shuman

Publisher: Pocket Star  ISBN-10: 1416534911

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Shuman returns with a follow-up featuring blind psychic Sherry Moore in a stunning case where she must once again use her extraordinary ability to "see" the last 18 seconds of the victim's death to reveal the face of a serial killer.  This time out, it's a case involving women being targeted by a madman who uses suffocation to slowly kill his victims in his own version of "breath play," a deadly version of what's better known as autoerotica.  But this time out, Shelly, still recovering from death of the man she loved over a year ago and her ever-growing reliance on pills and alcohol, might not only miss the clues provided, but just might make herself the next target as well.

In Sherry Moore, Shuman has created one the most unique crime solvers to come along in awhile and, in his latest, once again adeptly and convincingly draws the reader into a fascinating mystery that is as captivating as his first.  Readers may wonder why they never question Shuman's basic premise involving the overwhelming energy behind the last 18 seconds of life, and it's this, along with Sherry's slow decline into that morass, that is what ultimately distinguishes this book from the pack.  Compassionately and intelligently designed, this latest from Shuman comes highly recommended.   

 

 

 

 

The Silent Assassin by Lori Andrews

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Paperbacks  ISBN: 0312946481

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

Dr. Alexandra Blake, geneticist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), has been tasked with preparing the “Vietnamese Trophy Skulls” for their return to the Vietnamese government.  She had no idea that a letter hidden in one of the skulls would enmesh her in a life threatening international intrigue with ties to her father who was killed in Vietnam.  Alexandra finds out that the mystery surrounding the skulls is also linked to the John Doe who was killed with a bayonet.  The hidden note alludes to the horrific massacre of civilians which leads Alex to Michael Carlisle, a Vietnam era veteran and the former owner of one of the “trophy skulls.”  Carlisle also served with Alexandra’s father in Vietnam and he is able to provide more insights about him.  While searching for the truth about the massacre, Alex unearths hidden secrets that others want left buried and will harm her to keep them that way; she is brutally attacked in her home and her office is ransacked.  The danger goes far beyond Alexandra and the “trophy skulls” to the White House and the President himself.

The Silent Assassin is Lori Andrews’ second novel featuring Dr. Alexandra Blake.  Since Alex is one of the few civilians assigned to AFIP she is not tied to the military chain of command and she pursues the truth despite her boss’ orders to stop the investigation.  Alexandra is an extremely bright, competent woman who bears the scars of her father’s absence in her life because he was killed in Vietnam when she was a very little girl.  The Silent Assassin is a fast-paced thriller combining Washington politics, international intrigue with just enough forensic science technical detail.  It is a powerful, intense read that leave the reader wondering if it could happen in real life.

 

 

 

Justice Denied by J.A. Jance

Publisher: Harper  ISBN-10: 0060540931

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Readre

Jance returns with another outing featuring Seattle investigators JP Beaumont and Mel Soames (co-workers as well as lovers), who once again find themselves investigating perilous cases of murder, conspiracy, and lethal betrayals.  And, while at first, JP's investigation into the brutal murder of a man wrongly convicted, sent to death row, and recently released, seems to have little to do with Mel's assignment of tracking sex offenders, all too soon their investigations collide and reveal a deadly conspiracy of revenge that goes far deeper and is more closely connected to their personal lives than they could ever have imagined.      

With her cast of likable investigators, especially the somewhat curmudgeonly portrayed JP, Jance provides another read that will no doubt appeal to fans of the series.  Admittedly, this is my first, and while I enjoyed the crew of characters, I also, unfortunately, had a hard time relating the seemingly disparate pieces of the puzzle as presented.  All too often it seemed as too much was going on; the jumps from case to case and the sudden leaps of logic occurred at such a rapid pace, it seemed a bit dizzying at times.  However, in the end everything fit as it should, making this an entertaining read that is easily worth the time spent.

 

 

 

Mrs. Jeffries Holds the Trump by Emily Brightwell

Publisher: Berkley Crime ISBN 978 0 425 222089

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

This is the ‘leventy-hundredth Mrs Jeffries story.  OK, maybe only the 24th.  I haven’t had the pleasure of reading the previous ones, but if they are as good as this one, I shall have to look them out.

Mrs Jeffries is the housekeeper in Inspector Gerald Witherspoon’s household.  In concert with her fellow servants, Mrs Goodge the cook, Betsy the maid, Smythe the coachman and Wiggins the footman, Mrs Jeffries investigates murders and manages to put the evidence in the path of her employer.  Inspector Witherspoon is known as a top-notch police detective, but neither he nor his colleagues know quite how he does it.  His silent partners are content to do the work and leave the credit for him.

In this story, the medical examiner finds to his horror that the most recent corpse dragged from the Thames is that of his old friend Michael Provost.  Assessed as an accidental death by the police at the scene, Provost turns out to have been murdered.  Inspector Witherspoon learns from Provost’s servants that their master had been investigating the mysterious death of an acquaintance, Ernie Grigson.

Various clues lead the Inspector to The Wentworth, a gentlemen’s club, and to the eventual discovery that not all the men within its walls are really gentlemen.  Some are living well beyond their means, and it is the need for money that brought them into contact with Ernie Grigson.

While the inspector is investigating at his own level, the staff below stairs are doing their bit, and coming up with a number of interesting bits of information that shed light on just what happened to Provost and why.  The tricky part is bringing this information to the inspector’s attention.

If you mourn the fact that there will be no more new Sherlock Holmes stories, if you’ve got every Jeremy Brett DVD ever issued, then this is the series for you.  Brightwell takes a few liberties with the social structures of the gaslight era, but all in all this is good fun.

 

 

In the Woods by Tana French

Publisher: Penguin  ISBN-10: 0143113496

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

It was 20 years ago Dublin homicide detective Rob Ryan came across his first deadly mystery when at the age of twelve his two best friends disappeared from the neighborhood woods, leaving him as the only survivor to be found, his shoes filled with blood, his memory of the crime irretrievable.  But when a young girl goes missing 20 years later in the very same woods, he is forced to face what he’s long tried to forget when he and his partner Cassie Maddox take on the new case, his need to solve this one leading him to keep hidden his past from everyone but his partner.  But with his memory still unwilling to give up its secrets and the new case proving to be just as impenetrable, he’ll find himself on a road filled with danger and doubts that just might lead to his downfall.

French’s debut novel, admittedly, does not start out with a solid bang or even a hint of  providing a passable good time for the reader, which initially makes it a bit difficult to get into.  Ryan himself comes off as a rather selfish and unsympathetic character, supplying an additional reason to put the book down and start another.  But, and here is the big but, if you hang on past the first few difficult chapters, you’ll find yourself easily ensnared into a story that is impossible to let go of.  French manages to do a magical trick of creating a rather cold character, who while at first is uninteresting and even unlikable, gradually grows into someone we can understand and feel for.  And if the friendship between Ryan and Cassie doesn’t strike a chord, it should honestly be said, it’s not French’s fault.  This is a novel that deserves to be applauded for its slow but honest drive towards the truth, forsaking the easy road we’re so used to traveling and instead choosing to twist through briars and weeds that stick and are difficult to navigate.  And, ultimately, it’s this very thing that makes this journey and its destination all the more worthwhile.

 

 

 

Step on a Crack by James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge

Publishers: Vision   ISBN:0446199273

Reviewed by Narayan Radhakrishnan, New Mystery Reader

James Patterson is an author who never ceases to amaze me; regardless of the genre, he comes out with flying colours. Be it psychological thrillers (Alex cross series) fantasy (Maximum Ride), legal thrillers (Beach Road, Judge and Jury), Science-fiction (The Lake House), Children’s fiction (Santa Kid), romance and sentiments (Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas)- James Patterson has churned out gold. With 40 bestsellers to his credit, and being the proud owner of all, need I specifically mention that I am a James Patterson fan?

Step on A Crack marks the debut of a new series by the ace storyteller and, as in many of his recent novels, Patterson once again shares the writing credits with a co-author, this one being Michael Ledwidge. The promising series features protagonist Detective Michael Bennett, a father of ten, and a hardened man; far from the usual fictional detective fans might be used to. 

Caroline Hopkins’s is America’s first lady- not only by political status, but by her charming demeanor, and so when she suddenly dies, the country if filled with both shock and grief. The funeral is a soberly grand affair, filled with the country's elite, but when the mourners are taken hostage by an ingenuous criminal, it'll be up to Detective Bennett to save them. In the midst of this, Bennett suffers a personal blow from his wife's death from a fatal disease, and the only way Bennett can keep himself sane and in control is to immerse himself in the investigation all the while taking care of his many children.  What follows is Patterson at his fiendishly, cleverly, and maverick best- culminating in a finish that is just out of this world.  This one that will leave readers looking out for the next in what promises to be an exciting new series.

 

 

The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum

Publisher: Harvest Books  ISBN-0156033364

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Gunder Jomann, a quiet and unassuming man, has lived his 50 plus years in a lonely, yet mildly contented fashion.  But when one day while looking through a travel book, he surprises himself and all who know him with his sudden notion to travel to India to find a wife, a task which ultimately proves unexpectedly easy.  But on the day his new wife is scheduled to arrive, his plans to receive her are thrown to the wind when his sister nearly dies in an auto accident.  And when his stranded bride is later found dead, the victim of a brutal murder, an investigation is launched that will forever change the village where she died.

In this somewhat terse and "just the facts ma'am" tale of murder in a small Norwegian village, Fossum somehow manages to create a barren and lonely world filled with characters of such unrealized lives and passions that some readers may find themselves feeling unexpectedly haunted in ways not easy to identify.  There are no explosive moments in this elusive story, no moments of "ah ha!", and with an ending that whispers instead of bangs, the perplexity at the emotion it draws is only deepened.  Ultimately, this is one you'll have to read for yourself, your own conclusions may surprise you.

 

 

Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich

Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press  ISBN:  0312349505

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

February is a bleak month in Trenton, and it’s especially bleak for bounty hunter Stephanie Plum—especially after her obnoxious ex-husband Dickie Orr goes missing shortly after they have an unpleasant encounter.  And when Stephanie’s homewrecking archenemy Joyce Barnhardt reveals that Stephanie is still sole beneficiary to Dickie’s estate, Stephanie moves to the top of the suspect list.

Determined to find Dickie (hopefully alive) and avoid a murder charge, Stephanie investigates Dickie’s shady business dealings and seedy law partners, who are disappearing at a fast clip as well.  In between, she tries to earn a few bucks bringing in FTAs—in this case, a taxidermist who specializes in explosive roadkill and a grave-robber who moonlights as a tax preparer.  When Joe Morelli has to attend to mysterious police business, he leaves Stephanie in the care of Ranger, but no amount of electronic surveillance devices can keep Stephanie safe from herself.

Devoid of some of the elements that have made the past few Stephanie outings a bit stale, Lean Mean Thirteen is an example of best-selling author Janet Evanovich at the top of her game.  Morelli and Ranger have reached an uncomfortable détente (as have Stephanie and Joyce), Bob has some of his digestive issues under control, no cars are blown up, and Valerie and Albert Kloughn are mentioned but never seen.  Lean Mean Thirteen is the perfect summer read.

 

 

The Julius House by Charlaine Harris

Publisher: Berkley Crime  ISBN978 0 425 22203 4

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Here’s another charming cosy from the Berkley  imprint.  Aurora Teagarden may be familiar to fans from her three previous outings.  This time she’s about to be married, and trying to find the perfect present for her fiancé.  He’s doing the same for her, and when they meet over dinner one evening, neither can keep the secret any longer—so they both pull out large envelopes.  Hers contains the deed to his childhood home; his contains the deed to the Julius House, a building that most new brides would rather not own, never mind live in.

Martin Bartell knows his beloved is no weakling; she may be small, but she’s tough, she’s adventurous, and she really likes the house despite its having been the scene of a mysterious disappearance of an entire family some years past.

Martin is a busy man with a fair bit of mystery about his own past, but Aurora, called “Roe”, gets pretty busy fixing up the house to suits her taste and it’s a while before she realises that there are dark doings in Martin’s life.  He finally confesses to having been involved in something that he thought was sanctioned by the government, but has come to wonder about its morality recently.  He promises Roe he will get out of the shady stuff and settle down to his legitimate business.  But before he can do that, there are some loose ends....

Martin installs an old friend and his athletic wife in the garage apartment, ostensibly to help Roe with the house renovations and gardening and other work around the new house.   It isn’t long before Roe learns that Shelby and Angel are there as much to be bodyguards as to be helpers.  Then she and Angel find out what really happened to the Julius family and Roe decides that they have to get to the bottom of past events; otherwise she’s never going to be able to enjoy her new home.

Of course, along the way to the answers, Roe and Angel face some dangerous people who have killed before and will kill again.   Maybe they should have called for backup before going to that old house on the bayou?  Too late now!

A good read for a long hot summer’s afternoon. 

 

 

 

Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski

Publisher:  St. Martin’s/Minotaur ISBN: 978-0-312-34380-4

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

For Don Crouch's interview with Duane Swierczynski

The world has been waiting (well, OUR world anyway) for Duane Swierczynski’s follow-up to the 2006 standout The Blonde for a long damn time, and it’s finally here, in the form of Severance Package. Was it worth the wait?

Oh, yeah.

Severance Package is a rocket-fueled story of spy vs. spy, and then some, spanning continents as well as consciousness.

It opens with a fairly incidental death by potato salad. Really good, we’re told, potato salad. From that point, the story gets unusual.

Right away we are thrust into the world of Murphy & Knox, a financial consultation firm run by one David Murphy. He’s called a meeting for Saturday morning. As you can learn from the book flap, Murphy then informs his underlings that the company is, in fact, a front for an intelligence operation, and due to circumstances, it’s become necessary for them all to die. He’s been kind enough to provide Big Sleep-y time mimosas, or take a bullet in the head. Very considerate.

What Swierczynski has done here, with amazing skill, is create a multi-focused narrative of terror and laughs. The violence is by turns stunning and hilarious, the characters become our friends and we feel for every single one of them as they take their various routes to, well, wherever. It’s these characterizations that elevates Severance Package beyond what it could have easily been—a set-piece extravaganza designed for commerce. Even the secondary characters are fully-formed, giving full weight to the proceedings.

If there’s a nominal hero, it’s  Jamie DeBroux, the writer of the group. (Hmm.) He’s our everyman, deposited by a playful God into some kind of apocalypse, when all he wants to do is get home to his family. Swierczynski has done a great job of letting us share his view, filtered by shock, then fear, then a comic determination, of the world exploding around him.

But Severance Package is RULED by Molly Lewis. Assistant to David Murphy, she promptly turns the operation on its axis, and from that point, becomes a character of such grit and playful brutality that you’ll find yourself becoming her cheerleader. Her action scenes in Severance Package are as entertaining as you will find in a thriller this year. Swierczynski does an amazing job of giving us a visual field of events, as well as keeping up the funny. Needless to say, Severance Package would make one outrageous movie, but they can’t really duplicate the outsized dynamics that Duane Swierczynski creates with the voice of his own narrative.

There is stuff in this book that we SO MUCH want to talk about, but we can’t, so just dive in and bring your freakin’ kevlar!!

Yeah, definitely worth the wait.

 

 

Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett

Publisher: Vintage  ISBN-10: 1400097067

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Bangkok Haunts is the third of John Burdett’s successful and entertaining series of mysteries. Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep again guides us through an alternately harrowing and charming view of Eastern and Western culture, the only honest – by Western standards – cop in Thailand. Unable to buck the system of endemic corruption, he refuses every bribe he can; when he can’t, he insists his share be paid to charity. He is shocked and haunted after viewing a snuff film, on which a woman with whom he had a torrid affair is the main attraction.

Not even Sonchai is sure that pursuing the investigation through the highest levels of Thai society is the smartest thing to do, but his sense of honor and terrifying (and erotic) dreams of the late Damrong compel him. More bodies follow, along with a mysterious Buddhist monk, an assorted cast of corrupt Westerners to complement the corrupt Thais, and Sonchai’s usual sidekicks: his boss, Colonel Vikorn; his police partner, the soon-to-be-transsexual Lek; his life partner, Chanya, who is carrying their unborn child, affectionately referred to as The Lump; and Kimberley, an FBI agent who had a romantic involvement with Sonchai several years ago.

Colonel Vikorn steals all his scenes. His observation of the precise etiquette of corruption is amusing and telling at the same time. A devious man without self-deception, Vikorn is corrupt every waking minute, and cannot fully trust Sonchai’s honesty, yet is more open and honest about his actions than any honest man can afford to be. He is one of those special supporting characters who could carry a book of his own.

The plot doesn’t hold up as well as it might. Part of that is likely a farang’s inability to grasp some of its mystical elements, which are key to a story in which so many character motivations are based on Thai superstition and culture. A few other things also don’t add up, such as the villain (if he can be called that) bringing Sonchai’s to the pay-off, where he can only thwart the scheme, in a finale somewhat reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.

An occasional flaw in the plot fabric is not a deal breaker. The Jitpleecheep series are not mysteries so much as they’re social satire and commentary, using Sonchai’s dry and spot on wit and unique half-Thai, half-farang DNA to compare and contrast the open, acknowledged corruption of Thailand with the West’s hypocritical dismissal of its own, officially unacceptable, corruptions and perversions.

Bangkok Haunts has the tongue-in-cheek humor and absurdist moments of its predecessors, but with more venom. Burdett sometimes falls victim to the temptation to preach, with characters spouting phrases that might as well have been written as asides directly from the author to the reader.

That doesn’t happen enough to spoil a fun and quick read. Bangkok Haunts is populated with characters who are eccentric without becoming cartoons, and who wear well. Two years passed between the publication of Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts. Let’s hope it’s not as long before the next installment.

 

 

Double Dog Dare by Linda O Johnston

Publisher:  Berkley Crime  ISBN  978 0 425 22232 4

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

OK, maybe it does sound a bit odd, that a graduate lawyer would be running a pet-sitting service on the side, but once you accept the idea, you will find Kendra Ballantyne a very appealing heroine.

Kendra is a busy lady, but her life gets much busier when her boyfriend Jeff goes missing and his Caddy is found in a canal.  With broken windows.  And blood stains.  Not lookin’ good for Jeff, but Kendra is not about to accept he is dead without seeing the body. 

Trying to back-track Jeff’s latest investigation, Kendra borrows a dog and pays a visit to—wait for it—“The Clone Arranger”, a high-tech company that will clone your beloved pet for a hefty fee.  It doesn’t take very long for Kendra to suspect that whatever happened to Jeff has its roots in this sunrise industry.  When she meets Jeff’s strange Aunt Lois, a retired exotic dancer and pet lover, Kendra is convinced that there’s something shady going on behind the scientific facade at the Arranger’s place.

Along the way, Kendra begins to think she’s being followed.   This becomes pretty certain when she keeps spotting the same silver hybrid car, and then notices that the Pooper Scooper people seem to be around her neighborhood a lot, and that one of their Mexican workers looks slightly familiar.  Then one of the Clone Arranger senior staff is found dead.....

This is a fast and fun read that would be perfect for one of those mind-numbing waits at the endodontist’s office, you know the one, when they tell you there’s been a slight problem with the previous patient and would you mind waiting with that exploding root canal for another two hours. 

 

 

 

Freezer Burn by D H Dublin

Publisher: Berkley Books  ISBN 978 0 425 22194 5

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If you enjoy true crime, and dramas like the CSI shows, you will enjoy this book.  Third in a new series, Freezer Burn opens with a couple of garbage collectors finding some surprisingly heavy bags in their morning pick-ups, bags which leak red liquid and turn out to contain a dismembered body.

Crime Scene Unit member Madison Cross  is assigned to the case, reporting to the lazy and odious Lt Fenton, a man who will never die of overwork.  Fenton is all for the quick solution, and before you can say Bertillion has arrested a man who lives up the street from the body dump site, despite Madison’s opinion that he has nothing to do with the murder.

Coincidentally with the body in the trash murder, Madison is sent out to the boonies to help a small-town local sheriff process a gang killing crime scene.  Besides the normal shot-through-the-heart body, there’s a shot-up car, and a tie-in to another murder back in the city where a young man’s been found dead on the freeway.

Then there’s yet another strange event:  a ghastly dead man in a run-down house on Germantown avenue,  somebody who might have been mummified or preserved in some way.   Where did the oozy yellow man come from and how did he get here?

Madison may be a very junior member of the team, but she has a knack for lateral thinking.  Even before the senior medical examiner, nicknamed “Spoons’, comes up with how the body in the bag was cut into bits with no observable tool marks , Madison has figured it out.  Going off on her own investigation without checking in as directed with her superior officer—who happens to be her uncle Dave—Madison comes up with the link between the apparently unrelated crimes: the gang war, the dead kid, the yellow man, , the body bits, and a previously unknown relationship  between two of the major characters.    With a sudden insight, she realizes that the investigation has been focusing 180 degrees in the wrong direction, and that she’s the only one who can turn it around before here’s another murder.

This story moves right along, getting more and more complicated until Madison tugs a loose end and the whole tangled mess suddenly becomes obvious—but will she live to brag about her clever deductions?

A thoroughly engaging read, with a few stomach turning moments, a bit of romance, and a final scene that will have you literally on the edge of your seat—and possibly put you off cookouts for a while.

 

 

 

High Marks for Murder by Rebecca Kent

Publisher: Berkeley Crime  ISBN 978 0 425 22204 1

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

When Kathleen Duncan doesn’t turn up for church services at St Edmunds her friend and Meredith Llewellyn is concerned, as well she might be.  Returning to Bellehaven, the exclusive girl’s school of which she is the headmistress, Meredith finds Kathleen dead on the lawn, apparently the victim of an accident.

Very soon thereafter Meredith begins to see an apparition which nobody else can see.  It’s Kathleen, trapped on the earthly side of death and unable to move on due to the manner of her dying.  Murder it certainly was, but nobody wants the murderer uncovered: not the local police, not the parents, and not Stuart Hamilton, the chairman of the school’s managing body.  In 1905 nice girls don’t get involved in murder, and if they do, the less said about it the better.

Meredith, aided only by her co-workers Essie and Felicity, knows that solving the crime so as to allow Kathleen’s spirit to go free is all up to her.  Kathleen’s appearances are starting to affect her work, to the detriment of her hitherto good reputation.   Accidentally assisted by information discovered by a pair of chuckle-headed housemaids, Meredith investigates motives: in whose interest was it for Kathleen to die?  She finally pins down the likely culprit, but without a confession the case can’t be closed.

This a quick read with some interesting sidelights into the women’s suffrage movement and the constricted life for females in Edwardian England.  There are occasional inconsistencies and a deus ex machina ending that may leave some feeling let down.  Sip it and see.

 

 

The Next Victim by Jonnie Jacobs

Publisher: Pinnacle  ISBN-10: 078610668X

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When San Francisco attorney Kali O'Brien gets a phone call from her estranged brother in Tucson asking for her help, her initial response it to disregard the call as just a drunken moment of madness.  But once she discovers that her brother is the prime suspect in a wealthy woman's murder, she begins to grow concerned, a concern that turns to shock and dismay when her brother is shortly thereafter found dead.  And when the authorities insist upon calling his death an accident, and a means to neatly tie up the case of murder, Kali flies to Tucson in an attempt to find the truth, not knowing if her brother is really a killer, or if a murderer is walking free- willing and able to kill again.

Jacobs does a pretty respectable job of keeping the suspense alive throughout this latest by providing some unexpected twists and turns at all the right times.  And while Kali herself may not always come off as the most sympathetic character, Jacobs is able to justify those less than alluring attributes with skill, her depiction of a disenchanted family being both compelling and convincing.  All in all, fans of the series will find this a stimulating addition that easily entertains.

 

 

Death of a Rug Lord by Tamar Myers

Publisher: Avon/Harper Collins  ISBN 978 0 06 084659 6

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

This is another in the amusing “Den of Antiquity” series, featuring the tiny fireball Abigail Timberlake Washburn and her wacky Mama Mozella Wiggins.

As you might expect from the title, rugs feature prominently in this story.  Abby buys a rug from the local Persian Carpet store for a fraction of its worth, and later discovers the  saleswoman being hauled out of the water at the Charleston Yacht Club wrapped in a valuable hand-knotted carpet.

Abby has a bit of time on her hands while her husband is off on the shrimp boat with his cousin (you don’t want to know the guy’s name, no, you really don’t)   The local lawmen would prefer Abby not to play detective, but she just can’t help it, not when she discovers that there is a lucrative business in rug substitution going on in Charleston. 

With her reputation as an antique dealer on the line—after all she sold one of those rugs that has now been proved fake—the pint sized unlicensed PI begins putting together the threads to weave a noose-but might she be the one who ends up dangling without a stepladder?

All the Den of Antiquity folks are here including the Rob-Bobs, Dmitri the ginormous cat, Detective Tweedledee; CJ, Abby’s friend and almost sister-in-law, who has some amazing and startling news—and eventually Abby’s husband Steve, who hasn’t been out shrimping after all.   Husbands have been shot for less than what he confesses to.

Tamar Myers romps through Charleston high society and low with infectious humour; if Spike Milligan had written ‘Steel Magnolias’ it might have come out like this.   Highly recommended if you need some light-hearted escapism.

 

 

 

New England White by Stephen L. Carter

Publisher: Vintage  ISBN-10: 0375712917

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

New England White is Stephen L. Carter’s second novel, following by four years his successful The Emperor of Ocean Park. It’s a compelling read, as Carter unveils a multi-layered plot that constantly keeps the reader wondering where he’s going. It’s also a thought-provoking look inside America’s black upper class, and of some of the conflicts that arise between old black money, and new.

Lemaster Carlyle is a Barbadian immigrant who worked his way up from nothing to become president of a fictional Ivy League college in an unnamed New England state that waddles like Connecticut and quacks like Connecticut. (Carter, a law professor at Yale, is an adherent to the Ed McBain School of Fictional Locations.) His wife, Julia, is the assistant dean of the Divinity School, and can trace her family wealth back at least to the nineteenth century. Lemaster misses a turn on a snowy road one evening and discovers the body of Kellen Zant, an economics professor, seducer of Wilt Chamberlain proportions, and all-around troublemaker.

A brutal murder in a quiet college town is news enough. Law enforcement’s willingness to write it off as a robbery gone bad is too much for the Director of Campus Safety, Bruce Vallely, to swallow. Bruce begins his own investigation, which involves him spending increasing time with Julia Carlyle, who was Zant’s lover long before she met Lemaster.

This is Julia’s book, but her involvement in discovering the truth about Zant’s murder is no more interesting than watching her evolution from elitist snob into someone who is at least walking the walk when it comes to helping those less fortunate. Early in the book, her most sympathetic quality is that she’s not Lemaster, who is a soulless paragons of rectitude, leaving even those closest to him unsure whether an act of kindness springs from his heart, or from his sense of duty.

Zant suspected something might happen to him, so he left clues that Julia, and Julia alone, would be able to decipher in order to complete his current project, the unraveling of a thirty-year murder coverup that could ruin a president, or a senator running for president. Or not. All that Zant knew for sure was that the mystery surrounded the two college roommates, not that they were directly involved. The name of a third roommate raises the personal stakes for Julia: Lemaster Carlyle.

The premise is fascinating, the characters are detailed (almost too much so), and the writing is expert. There are problems, the most prominent of which has been a fly in the ointment of American mystery fiction since The DaVinci Code. The clues Zant left behind are so obscure that lucidity bordering on clairvoyance is required for Julia to find them. Divining each clue’s meaning is another Chinese puzzle. Fortunately, she’s up to every challenge. Good thing, too, because one slip would break the string and end any hope of solving the mystery.

There are other issues. Once robbery replaces premeditation as the cause of Zant’s murder, the official investigation appears to stop. Robbery or not, the murder of a prominent black economist in a quiet college town would provoke media attention. Any cover-up would have Al Sharpton camping out on the steps of City Hall. Yet the only perceived involvement of law enforcement is for Vallely’s old partner to keep warning him off.

There is a constant undercurrent of tension in how Julia’s family and social club friends view Lemaster, and how Julia and Lemaster view anyone not at the same level of blackness as themselves. Whites are inherently mistrusted, as few, if any, can have a word or deed not tinged by prejudice. Even those who may not be overtly prejudiced feel compelled to mention they have nothing against minorities, which is, of course, code meaning they do. Running to a suburban house just ahead of a killer, Julia frantically awakens a white female homeowner, who refuses to open the door, peeking through the curtain to ensure the “darksome intruder” has left. Julia then thinks of throwing rocks through a window or two, in the hopes someone will summon the police with complaints of a “marauding Negro.”

New England White will make anyone think, and it should make everyone uncomfortable. Carter doesn’t play favorites. The upper strata of black society is seen as no less snobbish and condescending than their white counterparts. The description of the tension between the townies and those affiliated with the university is dead on, and his characters are true to their motivations. It is those motivations that are troubling. If Carter’s perception of the deep-rooted mistrust between the races is accurate, there’s not much to hope for along the lines of reconciliation any time soon.

Carter’s book is not for everyone. Those who like their mysteries without social overtones inextricably tied up in it will find it slow going. Carter’s digressions into backstory sometimes place a character’s response a page removed from the question. The racial ruminations are sometimes heavy-handed. New England White may be better served as a discussion book, not as much for itself, but as a gateway into the racial and political questions it raises.

 

New England White as Reviewed by Narayan Radhakrishnan

The Literary Elite often spurn thrillers and mysteries, in particular legal thrillers. True, the legal thriller has taken a leap in contemporary mystery writing and every third lawyer is writing a ‘bestselling legal thriller’ work. It is true that the market is also filled with legal thrillers. But once in a while, although rarely, comes a work that transcends the genre of mystery and thriller writing- and classifies itself into the realm of hardcore literature- one that would satisfy both the elite literati and the ordinary connoisseur of good mysteries. New England White is one such book.

NEW ENGLAND WHITE is the story of Lemaster and Julia Carlyle, two renowned and scholarly academicians in a leading university in America- Lemaster is the President of the University while Julia is a deputy dean. Incidentally, if you raking your to find where you have heard about these characters before- it is in the author’s previous bestseller, the 2002 novel, THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK (minor roles). And if you think the unnamed University featured in NEW ENGLAND WHITE reminds you of Yale or Harvard, you are not the only one- Prof. Carter, the author, is a leading professor of law at Yale Law School.

The Carlyle couple belongs to the “black upper middle class” of America. To the outsider, they are a well knit family- with 2 daughters. Lemaster is good friends with the President of United States and a venerated person both in and outside the campus. But beneath the façade lies a dark story. And when a fellow academician and ex-lover of Julia, Kellen Zant is found murdered, the veneer breaks. Julia decides to conduct her own investigation- and dons the role of a Miss Marple, - albeit a more young, but less spunky Miss Marple. Julia’s investigation opens a whole new can of worms. It seems that Zant’s murder is linked to another murder which took place about 30 years back- a 17 year old girl named Gina, a daughter of an academician was also found murdered, and although the accused was caught and killed while trying to flee, new facts begin to throw new light on the closed murder case. It seems that Zant had some knowledge regarding the murder, and it seems that Zant was killed for you-know-what.

With clean deftness, and with a powerful narrative drive, the author takes us through this complex murder mystery culminating in a grand finish. The highlight of the work is of course the subtle plot of the difficulties and adjustments an “upper middle class black” has to face in a predominantly white society- and therein lays the social message the author tries to drive home. Julia it seems is the true heroine of the work. 

A great book- and I just have one complaint- 5 years gap is too much a long time between two novels. And Mr. Carter if you reading this, I look forward to your next novel in 2009…yup 2009.