March Paperbacks 2010
 

 

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Depraved Heart by Alysse Aallyn

Publisher: The Midnight Reader    ISBN 978 0 9821439 1 9

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If there were Oscars awarded for dysfunctional families, the White-Hawkes of Depraved Heart would probably be on the short list.

The story is narrated by Bronte, chronologically eighteen but probably about one-hundred-and-five in terms of weird experiences and dramatic events.  Bronte’s step-father, Oz, is on trial for the murder of his wife.  Later, he is suspected of another murder as well.  Oz, as seen through his family’s eyes, is a controller and a manipulator.  Not all of them realise this; some think he was just a caring parent.  Bronte and her step-siblings and her sister watch the trial with varying degrees of disbelief. 

Bronte wants to be a poet, and collects interesting words such as ‘octothorp’, which is the proper name for the hash mark thingummy that one has to push so often when paying a bill by phone.  She’s an observer of life and people, and maintains a detachment from the drama being played out in the courtroom that infuriates her family.  Nobody likes a devil’s advocate, especially when she makes valid points.

There are winding sexual undercurrents in the family, and at times it seems as if all that holds this strange collection of people together is its own psychopathology. They go to the trial each day to present a united front for their father, but none of them are enjoying the experience.  Bronte and her step-brother Trevor manage to construct a relationship of sorts, which gives them comfort for a while, but then there’s a letter from Oz with startling news.  “Your conscience is the part that hurts when everything else feels good,” says Trevor just before he leaves Bronte to salvage a life from the ruin of others.

One should not to confuse ‘a literary novel’ with ‘a novel involving some literary themes.’  However, this is a strange and disconcerting story, with distant echoes of some of the great Southern writers of the past. 

 

 

The Last Child by John Hart

Publisher: Minotaur Books  ISBN-10: 0312642369

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

While for many a year gone by might seem little more than the blink of an eye, for Johnny Merrimon, a 13 year old boy in the South, the year following his twin sister’s disappearance has been anything but.  He’s not only had to deal with the empty hole left by his missing sister, but also that left by his father  who, apparently ridden with guilt, also managed to vanish into the greater unknown, leaving Johnny with his shell of a mother whose spiral into drugs and despair has only continued to grow.  But despite his growing isolation and fears, Johnny has never given up the search for his beloved twin, with the intensity of his search only growing with each day that passes.

And so it’s a year later in his search that he suddenly finds himself in the right place at the right time to receive a clue in what happened that fateful day.  But the clue, literally falling to his feet from an overhead bridge in the guise of a dying man, will only lead to more questions, questions that involve not only this dying man, but also those surrounding the severely injured black man carrying his own burden he encounters shortly after.  Yet, it's the deeper questions that Johnny will have to face that will forever change him -  questions of just who to trust in his world of broken adults, of just how far friendship and family will go in time of need and, most importantly, questions of how far he himself is willing to go to get to the truth.

In The Last Child, Hart returns to the South and again uses his uncanny ability to create characters that speak directly to the reader’s heart.  There’s so many dimensions to this latest that it’s a bit difficult to pinpoint which one stands out the most. There’s the heartfelt portrayal of Johnny’s journey from boy to man - a rich and multi-layered quest that mercilessly leaves innocence behind.  There’s the story of a determined detective who in his own relentless quest for answers also sacrifices his own share of ignorant bliss.  Then too, there’s the story of the past, of its losses and heartaches, its regrets and promise, and its sometimes mystical return to set things right.

Adequately describing the many facets of this book is most likely impossible, so let it just be said that undertaking this read will take you not just through a series of words wonderfully strewn together to create a wondrous story, but through an adventure that easily transcends the pages they’re written on.

 

 

 

First Family by David Baldacci

Publisher: Vision   ISBN: 0446539740

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

What do Secret Service agents do when they leave the Secret Service? In the case of Michelle Maxwell and Sean King, they become private investigators.

What does the somewhat deranged descendent of wealthy American plantation owners do to compete with the atrocities carried on by some of his ancestors? In the case of Sam Quarry, he struggles to maintain the remaining two hundred acres of the past empire, renovate an old house into a survivalist’s bunker, and convert a deserted mine into a remote underground prison. All this plays along with his plans of kidnap. Quarry then kidnaps the niece of the First Lady from one state. In a seemingly unrelated act, he kidnaps a woman from another state. What is the ultimate purpose of the kidnapping and why is he collecting vials of blood from the victim and her family?

What does the First Lady do if close relatives are attacked in their home and her niece is kidnapped? She calls an ex-Secret Service agent she can trust – Sean King. King once saved her husband from a comprising situation that could have ruined his future chances to be President. Needless to say, this does not set well with the Secret Service or FBI.

Then there is also the brother of the first lady who had his wife murdered and daughter kidnapped. What secrets is he hiding? Finally, there is the death of Michelle Maxwell’s mother. What looked like an accident begins to look like murder with her father as the prime suspect. So what does it all mean? That’s part of pleasure of reading a well-crafted mystery by a master writer such as Baldacci. However, be forewarned that there are several subplots early on and the reader will need to pay close attention to detail thanks to the plot twists.

 

 

 

Red Delicious Death by Sheila Connolly

Publisher:  Berkley Prime Crime ISBN:  978-0-425-23343-6

Reviewed by Anne K. Edwards, New Mystery Reader

For the mystery fan, Red Delicious Death by talented author Sheila Connolly is a winner. You won't want to miss it!

Meg Corey didn't intend to raise apples, but when she saw the orchard and house her mother inherited, she decided to stay.  She has made some fast friends, one in particular is a jack of all trades who is also her new boyfriend. 

She's only been in the Granford area when someone asks her if she knows of a place suitable for two young chefs to set up a restaurant.  She makes a suggestion and soon the pair has moved into Granford and is working hard to make their dream come true. 

But a murder of their third partner casts a pall over their dream and before she knows it, Meg is gathering clues without meaning to, to the identity of the killer. She is stunned by what she learns and so is everyone else.

This is a fun, satisfying read that I'm happy to highly recommend to any mystery fan who enjoys red herrings and twists in a story.  Characters and settings are so well drawn you will think you've actually been to Granford.  If you suddenly develop a hunger for apples, you'll be in good company.

 

 

 

Slip of the Knife by Denise Mina

Publisher: Back Bay Books  ISBN 978 0 316 015601

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Paddy Meehan finds herself parked in a Volvo by a cold ocean, talking to a seagull.  That’s only one of the weird things that have happened to her since ‘the death knock’, the visit from the police to tell her Terry Hewitt is dead.  Not only dead, but murdered—left naked in a ditch with a bullet in him, IRA execution style.

Once lovers, Paddy and Terry have been estranged for months, so why would he leave her his house and his notebooks?  Was the seasoned journalist passing the torch to the younger one, giving her some sort of crusade to finish for him?

Paddy’s life has been somewhat less than perfect.  She lives in a run-down flat in Glasgow with her young son and a sub-tenant (and occasional lover), Dub.  She writes pop ed material for a major newspaper which requires her to be continually enraged about something.  Her mother doesn’t approve of her life, and the father of her young son is an unpleasant and tasteless comedian who’s on the skids.  Will being left a house and a bombshell of a story be a good thing for Paddy?  Maybe.

But first, she has to figure out what the story is.  How could the book Terry was doing about Scottish expatriates in New York lead to his death?  Paddy knows it has to tie in somewhere when Kevin Hatcher, the photographer for the book, is also found dead, this time from a forcible drug overdose which the police stubbornly refuse to label murder.

Paddy’s complicated life is made more so by the fact that a convicted child murderer is being paroled into the care of his brother, who was once engaged to Paddy.  She’s being harassed by every other journalist in town because they assume she has an inside track on the killer’s story.  And let’s not forget the IRA hitman whom the police refuse to believe in.  Paddy has met him and she’s certain he’s a stone cold killer.  When he threatens her son, Paddy realises she’s going to have to deal with him, which sets the scene for one of the grisliest denouements in recent fiction.

This is a grim story, enlivened with bits of humour in expected spots.  It’s customary to call rising writers “The New Ruth Rendell,/Ed McBain/Kingsley Amis/Whoever”.  Denise Mina isn’t the new anybody, she’s just herself, and that’s far and away enough.

 

 

The Fallen by Mark Terry

Publisher: Oceanview Publishing  ISBN 978 1930351575 5

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

In a scenario whose complexity and premise remind one of Robert Ludlum at his best, readers are dumped into the deep end of the thriller pool and left to swim for shore as best they can.

Terrorists and hostage stories are pretty common these days, but author Terry takes this one to a whole new level of scary.  A posh resort in Colorado is the venue for this year’s G8 summit, and is full of important people from around the world, including the US President.  Keeping a discreet eye on things is Derek Stillwater, working undercover as a maintenance man at the Cheyenne Resort. 

Derek was nearly killed in a previous adventure, and it suits his bosses to let it be thought that he did in fact die.  Few people know that Derek is alive and is one of the good guys, which sets the scene for some dangerous misunderstandings when the rescue attempts and shooting start.

It doesn’t take ESP to foresee that author Terry has brought these fictional politicians together in order to put them into desperate danger.  The conference has barely started when terrorists called The Fallen Angels take over the resort, lock down the main conference area, and start shooting hostages to establish their mala fides.  Assisted only by a pretty girl who works for the hotel food service, Derek must find a way to stop the terrorists before more world leaders are killed.  Meanwhile, in the outside world, a rather dimwitted and dangerous Vice President is taking steps that many people could live to regret—or not.

Derek and Maria make likeable and believable team, despite being pushed to what we might think are unrealistic physical extremes.  The bad guys are a complex group with two different agendas, which makes Derek’s job even more difficult, especially when he learns that one of the Fallen Angels is an old friend.  The tagline “It ain’t over til it’s over” was never truer than in this book. Just as Derek thinks his job is nearly done, a final horrific booby-trap is discovered which makes everything that’s gone before look trivial.

This book moves so fast your eye muscles may suffer RSI.  It’s another ripping yarn from the folks at Oceanview. 

 

 

 

Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay

Publisher: Dell  ISBN-10: 0553591754

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When Sydney, the recalcitrant teenaged daughter of divorced Connecticut couple Tim and Susanne Blake, goes missing on her way to her summer job at a local hotel, most are quick to write it off as just the teen’s way of making a point after a brief quarrel with her father.  But when Tim goes to the hotel looking for her and finds out they never heard of her, frightening questions are soon raised.  What was she really doing all those days she claimed to be working, and was it something that put her into danger, and just how culpable is she in her own disappearance?

And when Tim and Susanne begin to notice that they’re being followed, a situation that is soon followed by other disturbing and threatening events, they are only further convinced that their daughter is not the runaway the cops think she is, but much more likely a young girl on the run from some very dangerous people who want to find her just as much as her parents do, but for some very different reasons.    

Barclay has a pretty strong record now for writing thrilling and suspenseful mysteries, and in his latest he once again is able to make good on the promise of his earlier works.  Most readers should easily identify with the characters in this middle-class family torn apart by divorce, the sullen teenaged daughter who has problems adjusting, the day-to-day frustrations of everyday life, and how easily that can all be seen as nirvana when true danger walks into the scene and really blows everything apart. 

But, and this is just a minor quibble, while Barclay does throw in a whole lot of unexpected and interesting twists that make the majority of the ride exciting yet believable, his blow-up ending feels stretched a bit too tight for complete credibility.  Nonetheless, taken in its entirety this is a worthy and compelling read that will keep readers guessing all the way through.

 

 

 

Execution Dock by Anne Perry

Publisher: Ballantine Books ISBN 0345469348

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Anne Perry understands the darker side of humanity better than most writers, and brings that insight to the latest in her William and Hester Monk series.    This series has always been the darkest of her historical mysteries, and her choice of topic this time—child pornography and murder in Victorian England—is grim, grimy and gruesome.

For all their lip service to respectability and the niceties of life, the Victorians were no better than modern people when it came to perversion.   Perhaps worse, because their upper classes did not grant the same value to the life of a slum child as to someone of their own class.  This dichotomy is thrown into high relief when the Monks’ friend Sir Oliver Rathbone is approached by his father-in-law to defend a man arrested by Monk.   Rathbone’s own high principles and devotion to justice are used to manipulate him into defending Jericho Phillips, child porn entrepreneur and possible murderer. 

To win the case, Rathbone uses his intimate knowledge of Hester, Monk and his staff of River Police to destroy their credibility in the witness stand and get his client off.   Monk and Hester are devastated, but realize it was partly their own failure to prepare the case well that led to the acquittal.   Both are committed to bringing down Phillips, and to this end they enlist allies, including staff of Hester’s free clinic and one of the mud-larks, Scuff, a friend of the murder victim.

Going into parts of London that brave men would quail at, Hester picks up some leads for Monk, and strand by strand they braid the rope that could eventually go around Phillips’ neck—if they live that long.  That’s not a good bet, because men in high places have an interest in keeping their vices secret, and where murder has once been done, the likelihood of repetition increases.   When things look darkest, an ally appears and the investigation takes a new turn. 

This is a horrifying topic, and Perry spares the reader little in describing the condition of the poor, defenseless and disenfranchised in mid-Victorian London.   Despite the darkness, there are spots of humor and warmth that alleviate the oppressive atmosphere.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing  ISBN 0446582212

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

You can’t beat and old tried-and-true plots.  Mr W. Shakespeare had some of the best ones, which have been borrowed freely over the years by other writers.

David Cristofano rings the changes on the well-known story of Romeo and Juliet and introduces some new and dark twists to the plot along the way.

Melody McCartney has spent her life since age six being somebody else, and never having a real home, either literally or figuratively.  Her parents were put into the Witness Protection program after seeing a major crime, and although they are now both dead, Melody is still in hiding. 

Life changes when one day out of the blue Melody meets Jonathan Bovaro, the scion of the mob family that has everything to gain by Melody’s death.  The Bovaros have found Melody and sent Jonathan to kill her, but he has other plans.  Against all reason, Melody trusts Jonathan and runs off with him, away from the supposed safety of the WitSec program, the US Marshalls and everything that she has lived with for two decades.

What happens to Melody and Jonathan over the next few days forms a fast-paced story that should have your pulse considerably above its usual resting rate.  You will wonder if Jonathan is on the level or if Melody will do a Jimmy Hoffa, but you’ll understand why she would grab almost any chance to reclaim her own life.  The ending is realistic but surprising and should leave you in a thoughtful mood.

 

 

 

The Mao Case by Qiu Xiaolong

Publisher: Minotaur Books  ISBN: 0612601239

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Beautiful Shang seemed to have it all: a thriving movie career, a beloved daughter and a wealthy lover, Chairman Mao Zedong.  Unfortunately, Chinese politics and cold revenge interfered with her personal happiness, resulting in Shang’s suicide after a frightening interrogation during the Cultural Revolution and beginning a cycle of misfortune for her daughter Qian and granddaughter Jiao. 

Chief Inspector Chen, professional cop and minor literary critic, immerses himself in the official and truthful versions of the past to find out if Shang’s heirs inherited something potentially damaging to the carefully burnished reputation of the famous Mao.  Because of his considerable knowledge of Chinese poems (in addition to a fondness for TS Eliot), Chen poses as a writer to infiltrate the social circles of Shang’s old friends.  Writer Chen enters the world of exclusive 1930s-style parties and befriends the mysterious host, Mr. Xie, and Shang’s granddaughter Jiao.  Formerly poor with only menial jobs, uneducated Jiao’s recent access to substantial sums of money and lack of employment terrifies the Beijing offices, who fear that Jiao is selling Chinese artifacts obtained through her grandmother’s relationship with Mao.  While permitted by Beijing to handle this case in his own fashion, Chen must deal with the added interference of another agency, tightening his deadline to gain Jiao’s trust and find the possibly mythic Mao material.

Author Qiu Xiaolong, himself a poet, includes small bits of relevant verse throughout the book, which adds greatly to the ambience and softens the relentless inspector, who must experience his own personal misfortune along the way.  Detective Chen’s case illustrates an honest man’s devotion to truth in a story filled with twists, unexpected allies, and the tragic modern history of the resilient Chinese people.