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Death and the Devil by Frank Schatzing
Translated by Mike Mitchell

Publisher:  William Morrow   ISBN: 978-0-06-13498-5

Reviewed by Kathryn Lawson, New Mystery Reader 

While in a treetop stealing apples, Jacob the Fox witnesses the murder of a prominent architect, who whispers his dying words in Jacob’s ear and thereby puts Jacob on the run from powerful interests embroiled in a ruthless struggle for control of Cologne.  To make matters worse, the murderer’s strength and agility are so superhuman that Jacob believes that the killing may have been the work of the Devil himself.  Jacob teams up with some unlikely allies (including a beautiful clothes-dyer’s daughter) to try to uncover the conspiracy and identify the murderer, before he loses his life.

Death and the Devil is set in Cologne in 1260, and Schatzing pulls the reader into his descriptions of a variety of locales within the city (a house of prostitution, a monastery, a bathhouse, a leper colony).  Unfortunately, the effort to provide historical detail often results in dialogue that is a bit forced, as when one of Jacob’s allies embarks on long narratives on the history of the city and the power structure within.  This self-consciously didactic tone lessens the emotional depth and impact of the characters.  The plot has a number of credible twists, but the pacing is slow.  If you want to soak in the atmosphere of medieval Germany, then this is a good read.  If you prefer more character-driven stories, or those with high levels of suspense, this may not be the book for you.

 

 

The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam  by Chris Ewan

Publisher:  St. Martin's Minotaur ISBN:  978-0-312-37633-8

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader

Charlie Howard is a suspense writer who is currently living in Amsterdam while writing his latest novel.  Imagine his reaction when someone tells him, "I want you to steal something for me."  How did that someone know Charlie is also a thief?

Even though he denies knowing what the person is talking about, Charlie's interest is piqued.  What he is supposed to steal are two small monkeys that look like part of the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil set.  What value could they possibly have? 

This is a fun read all the way through.  Charlie has problems with his book, he wants to find out who fingered him as a thief, he is kidnapped, and meets some interesting people as he becomes involved in a murder.

Talented author Chris Ewan has written a well crafted story that will hold your attention as the action unfolds.  Imagine the trouble an American writer/thief might have with the law in a country where he doesn't speak the language and join Charlie as he tries to find out what he's gotten into.

I'm pleased to recommend this tale highly as a read well worth the time for any mystery/suspense fan who likes meeting interesting characters.  Lots going on in this story.  Enjoy.  I sure did.

 

 

The Dells by Michael Blair

Publisher:  The Dundurn Group   ISBN:  97801055002-752-5

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader 

Joe Shoe hasn't been home for a while and his return isn't something he particularly looks forward to.  He's grown apart from his brother and sister, but his parents are aging and it is time to pay them a visit.

He arrives in time to find an old neighbor has been murdered in his parent's back yard. The man had been gone for decades and suddenly returns to be killed.

Joe is questioned by a woman cop who he finally recognizes.  The kids he knew are all middle aged now like himself and it is a shock to see the changes in some.  He meets an old girlfriend, an ex-friend, and old enemies. 

The investigation into the murder involves Joe with many from the past and his family too.  It brings out secrets and exposes activities of local toughs who were young toughs once.  A woman is murdered and the question is, are the deaths connected. 

Then Joe's sister and a friend disappear.  Danger seems to be all around.  Will they be found in time?

Talented author Michael Blair uses his sure knowledge of people's natures and lets his characters do what they will do. The result is a tension filled, exciting read you will not want to put down and you will be looking for other books by this fine writer. 

I'm pleased to highly recommend this tale as one you will want to read more than once.  Enjoy.  I sure did.

 

 

 

Dead Man's Hand Edited by Otto Penzler

Publisher: Harcourt  ISBN-10: 0151012776

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Robert B. Parker once wrote, "Otto Penzler knows more about crime fiction than most people know about anything.” Penzler’s place in the pantheon of crime fiction has been secure for years, and he shows no sign of losing any zip off his high hard one at sixty-five. In recent years he has edited a series of themed anthologies, including Murder for Love, Murder on the Ropes, and last year’s triple header, Murder at the Foul Line, Murder at the Racetrack, and Murder in the Rough. This year’s addition, Dead Man’s Hand: Crime Fiction and the Poker Table should make readers hope Mr. Penzler’s imagination for concocting scenarios doesn’t run dry any time soon.

As always, Penzler has attracted an impressive line-up for this series of short stories. He knew not to restrict them; the only stipulation was for each story to involve poker in some way. Some stories treat the game as incidental; shopping or rock climbing could have sufficed just as well. Some link their stories intrinsically with the falls of the cards, and the propensities of those who stake their livelihoods – and sometimes more – on chance, and confidence in their ability to tell what someone else is thinking.

Walter Moseley’s “Mr. In-Between” has a master fixer use a poker game for more than just the exchange of funds. The best story of the set, Jeffery Deaver’s “Bump,” capitalizes on the popularity of televised poker to explore the ethical similarities of criminals and television producers. “The Monks of the Abbey Victoria,” Rupert Holmes’s entry, has a set-up and twist that meets the description of perfect mystery as well as anything this side of The Shawshank Redemption. (The ending must be a surprise, and yet seem inevitable.) “One Dollar Jackpot” showcases Michael Connelly’s procedural skills (and Harry Bosch) in a quick, yet satisfying episode Law and Order could learn from.

An interesting subtext to the poker theme lies in several contributors’ use of children. Teenagers, anyway. Joyce Carol Oates’s “Strip Poker” shows how a fourteen-year-old girl grows up in a hurry. “Pitch Black,” by Christopher Coake, uses the poker game as a minor, yet key point, in a fascinating and unusual coming of age story. “Poker and Shooter,” by Sue DeNymme, would fit right into one of Hitchcock’s old anthologies. Alexander McCall Smith shows how students can become attached to teachers in “In the Eyes of Children.”

Other talented writers also make appearances: Sam Hill, Parnell Hall, Peter Robinson, Eric van Lustbader, Laura Lippman, John Lescroart, and Lorenzo Carcaterra all have worthy contributions. Not all stories measure up to the expectations set by the best; that’s the nature of any anthology. Nothing here is a disappointment. Dead Man’s Hand  is a wonderful companion, especially when you have more taste for a quality mystery than time to read. Enjoy these one at a time, or all at once, as circumstances allow. You won’t be sorry.  

 

 

 

 

A Widow’s Curse by Phillip DePoy

Publisher:  St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN: 978-0-312-36202-7

Reviewed by Kathryn Lawson, New Mystery Reader

When a stranger approaches folklorist Dr. Fever Devilin about the story behind a mysterious coin, Fever accepts the assignment with no expectation of anything but an interesting diversion.  When the coin leads back to Fever’s own family, however, he finds himself struggling to solve mysteries of both the past and the present.  DePoy deftly weaves together murder, unrequited passion, intergenerational curses, and valuable artifacts, in a story that connects a homicide in Ireland to the Cherokee Trail of Tears through a web of family relationships and bitterness. 

The novel is rich in historical detail, but does not become bogged down in unnecessary description.  Pacing is leisurely, reflecting life in Blue Mountain, Georgia, where the story is set.  DePoy’s characters (living and dead) are interesting and multidimensional, from angst-ridden Fever himself, to his promiscuous mother and magician father, to his brash buddy Dr. Winton Andrews and a nefarious local lawyer Taylor.  There is an affectionately argumentative interplay between Fever and Andrews that enlivens the action.  An ideal book to curl up with on a rainy afternoon.

 

 

The Graving Dock by Gabriel Cohen

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN-10: 0312362668

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, Editor-New Mystery Reader

Not yet fully recovered from being shot during his last case just a few months previously, NYPD homicide detective Jack Leightner is still ready to go back into action when a coffin carrying the body of a young boy with the letters G.I. marked on his forehead is found floating in the river off the Brooklyn Pier.  And while further investigation of the boy's death seems to point more towards a mercy killing than a homicide, the appearance of another body bearing the same signature soon after makes it all too apparent this is a killer that must be found.  Meanwhile, Jack must not only face solving a couple of other cases along the way, including why his new temporary partner is so edgy, but he must also find a way to find a way to put the engagement ring he just bought on the hand of the woman he wants to marry.

With his setting of New York City and environs just months following 9/11, Cohen creates a vivid and realistic backdrop that effortlessly places the reader firmly inside the story; the streets and sounds and smells of this time and place coming vibrantly alive in this talented author's hands.  And when combined with characters, dialogue, and investigative details that smack of authenticity, the immersion into the tale is made complete, with the sense of realness being so complete that the mystery itself seems to be the background for this time, people, and place instead of the other way around.  If for no other reason, this is why this book comes recommended; this is one author who knows how to write and knows how to transport the reader from where they are to where he wants them to be.  

 

 

Terminal by Andrew Vachss

Publisher: Pantheon Books ISBN 978-0-375-42508-0

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

Terminal, the latest in the much-revered series of novels featuring career criminal Burke, finds Andrew Vachss in a real groove, writing-wise.  The end result is an exceptional episode in what is one of the most important series in its genre.

Perhaps not the most commercial series, mind you, but that's more a function of the marketplace than anything else. Vachss' novels, both series and stand-alone, require commitment beyond that which is normally required in order to appreciate their full impact. And intent.

And as any Vachssian will tell you, that commitment involves action.  That action could be anything, from becoming more educated about the realities behind Vachss' fiction--the "Trojan horses" that he constructs--to actually becoming part of the effort to right the wrongs (PROTECT.org).  In his words, let your actions be your truth.  But we'll talk about that later.

At its core, Terminal is a great crime thriller. It finds Burke and his crew at the nexus of a scheme to bring some long-overdue justice to the killers of a young girl. The suspects have been protected by the privilege of their upbringing some 30 years after the murder, and a dying man comes to Burke, via Vachss' time-honored fashion of back-channels and references, with a notion of payback.

Burke sees potential for a multi-level reward, so he pulls together his family to vette his ideas and create a plan of action.

We are introduced again to Burke's Chosen Family--the indomitable Max The Silent, they rhyming wisdom of the Prof, the laser-focused devotion of Michelle, the genius of The Mole--as they help Burke filter his emotions and desires into a brilliant scheme of deception.

Vachss' gift, as his writing has evolved, involves his ability to blend those Trojan horses in so seamlessly with his plotting. His mission is now DNA-bound with his prose.

Unlike, say, Tom Clancy--who can be read, and even enjoyed, without signing on to his extreme politics--anyone who DOESN'T think that we have a long way to go before children in this country are truly protected against the monsters we've systematically created is going to find this a challenging read. And if you're that person, you'd better read this--or any other Vachss novel, and learn some truth.

As Vachss weaves his plot--and make no mistake, the plot here is complex and very well-knitted--he also takes some interesting detours. Those would be the Trojan horses we talked about. Whether it's a fascinating recollection of how prison society is REALLY organized (as opposed to how it's generally portrayed in American Media) and how that organization manifesting itself into our concept of "rehabilitation" affects us in The World, a prescient look dog-fighting in the "gangsta" cuture, or exposing the outrages that  stay under society's radar, primarily because their images don't make good TV, Vachss constructs them in such a way that makes them inseparable from the plotting.  It's the reason his novels kick your ass. And that is, most definitely a good thing.

The finale of Terminal is one of Vachss' best ever. He raises the stakes for Burke along with the pace of the action in a stunning manner. At the end, if you are not screaming "WHAT HAPPENS NOW?", you aren't paying attention. It is mind-blowing, and it's one of the reasons that Terminal is one of 2007's major crime-fiction accomplishments.

 

 

Spider Trap by Barry Maitland

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur  ISBN-10: 0312369085

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Spider Trap is Barry Maitland’s ninth mystery featuring Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla. Carefully plotted and professionally told, there’s no reason to doubt a tenth installment is coming.

Brock and Kolla are called when two teenaged girls are shot execution-style in a Jamaican neighborhood of London. Within a day, a young local boy exploring the open ground on the other side of some train tracks is nearly electrocuted when he brushes against the third rail. He went looking for a rumored artifact that had achieved legendary status among his classmates. He found a human jaw bone, which eventually leads to three skeletons at least twenty years old.

Maitland’s plot turns more than it twists; complex, but not complicated. The story bows in the direction of Ross Macdonald, with long-buried family secrets made destructive when brought into the open by a random act. It’s also a procedural of the Ed McBain school, a novel about people who happen to be cops. Brock and Kolla have lives apart from the investigation, and the relationship between them is interesting and believable. Maitland is too clever to go for cheap sexual tension, or a simple a surrogate father/daughter combination. Favored uncle and pet niece maybe, interested in the other’s welfare, always careful not to overstep the relationship’s boundaries.

Any book worthy of comparison to Macdonald and McBain has to be pretty good. A few nagging gaps keep Spider Trap  from rising to the level of either of those masters. The writing is competent, but lacks beauty or much wit. The style is plain – appropriate in this context – but also dry, and never separates itself from the thousand or so other mysteries that will compete for your attention this year.

The plot, while never frustratingly convoluted, has holes of its own. No correlation is evident between the dead girls and the old skeletons other than geographical proximity, yet Brock insists on investigating them as related crimes. A clue may be inserted with negligible fanfare (which is fine; make the reader pay attention), and apparently disregarded by the cops until it’s used to explain something they’ve deduced because of it. The effect is to make it seem like a bit of a cheat.

The reader also has to wonder how cops clever enough to get out of some of the situations they find themselves in were dumb or careless enough to get into the situation in the first place. Kolla makes comments she should keep to herself to someone she shouldn’t be talking to at all, and your mind is screaming, “Shut up, dummy!” because you know no good can come of this, but she doesn’t. On the other hand, there’s a gun used in homicides separated by twenty-four years, so the criminals aren’t the brightest floodlights in the prison, either.

Spider Trap is well and tightly written, but the end result falls short of the sum of its parts. The depiction of London puts you there and the characters have all three dimensions; the plot will keep you guessing without losing you. The holes mentioned above don’t ruin the book; they just make it a minor disappointment, not quite as good as its strengths led you to believe it might be.

 

 

 

Hitman by Parnell Hall

Publisher:  Pegasus Books  ISBN:  978-1-933648-53-8

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader

An unlikely hitman hires Stanley Hastings to stop him from doing a job.  Is he for real?  That is what Stanley is trying to find out before he takes the job.

Talented author Parnell Hall gives the reader something different in this tale--an unexpected twist in a plot that is in itself different. A touch of tongue-in-cheek gives the bleak business of murder a light touch and you'll find yourself smiling as you read. 

Questioning lawyers and police about his possible new client don't produce results so he'll have to do the digging himself to decide if he takes the case or not.  Join Stanley as the plot unfolds and he finds himself involved in murder. Did the self-confessed hitman  do it?

An easy-paced read with an intriguing cast of characters you'll enjoy meeting.  A definite break from the usual mystery that provides humor as well as murder and the hunt for a killer and the identity of his intended victim.  Enjoy.  I did.