May 2011 New Mystery Reviews


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Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder

Publisher: Minotaur Books       

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Conway Sax is not your typical hero of a story. He is a skilled auto mechanic. He is a reformed alcoholic. He is a convicted felon who served time for manslaughter.

Sax overcame his alcoholism thanks to a support group known as the Barnburners. As well as providing moral support against alcoholism, the Barnburners give help to members against abusive spouses and other bullies in the world.

Tander Phigg is a Barnburner. Phigg asks Sax to get his prized Mercedes back from an unscrupulous auto shop owner. Phigg is an obnoxious heel, but a promise is a promise. There is more to the shop than meets the eye. When Sax goes to confront Phigg with the facts, he finds Phigg hanging from the pipes of the shack that was serving as his home instead of the river front mansion that Phigg had bragged about.

With a cast of suspects, Sax begins to unravel what he sees as the murder of Phigg rather than a  suicide. Ulfelder shows a flare for storytelling with a short, rapid-fire writing style reminiscent of the great mystery writers of yesteryear.



Spider Web by Earlene Fowler

Publisher: Berkley Hardcover

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

Benni Harper’s stress lever is “through the roof.” She is dealing with the busy routine as  curator of the San Celina folk art museum. Adding to her stress, Benni is the coordinator of the first Memory Festival, a celebration of the memories of loved ones and past experiences. As a historian Benni copes with the additional stress because the capturing of memories through photographs, oral history, scrapbooking and crafts is priceless. As a result of the Memory Festival, Benni learns a great deal more about the past by capturing the memories of members of the Coffin Star Quilt Guild. Unexpected Benni learns of their involvement in war tracing back to WWII and moving forward to the Vietnam War. Benni documents the rich history of the WWII U.S. Army and Navy Nurse Corp who cared for the wounded, were captured by the enemy and spent a great deal of time in prison camps. Those nurses were called the “Angels of Bataan” and their contribution to history is not well known but due to the Memory Festival Benni has some excellent material to contribute.

Benni’s husband, Gabe Ortiz, San Celina Chief of Police, is also dealing with added stress and the repressed memories of war that have come to the surface to haunt him. A sniper is on the loose and is targeting policemen. Gabe feels helpless because in spite of his best efforts he has no clues and the sniper is clearly toying with the emotions of the townsfolk and the police force.

Spider Web is the 15th book in the Benni Harper series. Earlene Fowler does a masterful job of weaving wartime experiences, the challenges of dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the anxiety of a sniper whose targeting policeman into the ongoing series plotline of Benni’s friends, family and in particular the members of the Coffin Star Quilt Guild. Spider Web is a touching, well-written story of memories, the strength to overcome adversity and the fear that everyone is at risk especially those who are near and dear to Benni.



Cherry Beach Express by R.D. Cain

Publisher: ECW Press

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Steve Nastos is a detective in the sex crimes unit of the Toronto police department. He is a tough and honest cop. That earns him some friends and many enemies. However, his career does not prepare him for the molestation of his daughter by her dentist or what follows.

The pedophile dentist is murdered. Nastos is charged with the crime. Perhaps this not surprising, but the zest of the prosecution and willingness of former colleagues to frame him, shocks even the cynical Nastos. Suddenly Nastos is having to rely upon the help of a mob lawyer and a restaurant owner with questionable business partners to find justice.

Cain has been a cop and could have produced another tedious police procedural. Instead, he provides many a twist or turn and a healthy dose of human emotion to create a work that is hard to put down.






Pumped for Murder by Elaine Viets

Publisher: Penguin Group

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

The Queen of the “Dead-End” job is back with a new wrinkle; Helen Hawthorne and her hubby Phil are starting a private investigation business along with marital bliss. With the help of their landlady Coronado Investigations has its first two cases and their business is underway. One of the cases involves a wife who thinks that her now “buff” husband is cheating on her with someone at the health club he attends. To make matters worse the wife was the one who purchased the health club membership for her husband. Helen takes the lead on this case. For those followers of this series, taking a deep cleansing breath right now is strongly recommended in order to overcome the shock that Helen may have had her last dead-end job. Helen applies and is hired for an administrative position at the health club in order to maintain surveillance on the husband. So Helen’s string of “dead-end” jobs continues and she is immersed in the world of beautiful bodies, emotions laced with steroids and murder. While Helen works the case of the cheating husband, Phil has the lead on a cold case that he fears will lead to more heartache than answers for his client.

Pumped for Death is a wildly entertaining cozy mystery that provides a view into the world of the ultrafit. Elaine Viets has avoided the trap of boredom in this series with the introduction of new beginnings; a marriage and the launching of a private investigation business, while still maintaining the series central theme of the “dead-end” job. Pumped for Death is an addictively fun read that I highly recommend to followers of the series and cozy mystery lovers who are looking for a new adventure.



The Burning Lake by Brent Ghelfi

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press   

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Getting a much-deserved reputation for very readable books, in a wide variety of genres, Poisoned Pen Press is now home to Brent Ghelfi’s antihero Alexei Volkavoy.  When I reviewed Ghelfi’s first Volk novel in 2007, I said  “Alexei Volkavoy reminds one of the human-machine mutants, the Borg, from Star Trek.  He has dealt in death and horror for so long there is almost no humanity left in him, and what there is, he and others seem to view as an aberration.”

Volk hasn’t warmed up much in this fourth volume of his adventures, but at least this time his motivation is more human.  He’s on the trail of the killers of Katarina Mironova, aka Kato, a crusading journalist who has been found murdered.  Kato was one of the few people ever to get close to Volk.  It was she who got under the hard skin of the assassin and made him look at the country he claimed to be defending, and see the corruption and misery.  Just before she died, Kato brought to Volk’s attention something she called “Slow Motion Chernobyl”.  Nuclear waste is piling up in enormous amounts, and silently poisoning the land and people near it—and not so near.

Volk is determined to track down Kato’s killer, but all he has to go on is a clue about a shadowy Frenchman, and an American named Stone.  At first it appears Volk won’t be able to follow the leads, because his employer, the General, has work for him.  Fortunately it dovetails with Volk’s mission to find Kato’s killer.  His search first takes him to Lake Karachay, “the most polluted and dangerous spot on earth”.  (This is a real place: Google it and be prepared for nightmares.)  Later he goes to the United States, and then Mexico, and meets many dangerous and unsavoury people, on both sides of the, ahem, ‘law’.

If you know Volk, you know he won’t give up until he comes face to face with his prey, and achieves his mission—but the price he pays is more than most of us could contemplate, never mind achieve.

Ghelfi is still using the annoying literary device of writing in the present tense, but that doesn’t seem to bother most people.  I find it suitable to book reviews, but wearying for full-length novels, but that’s no doubt a matter of taste.  What isn’t in question is Ghelfi’s skill as transmitting the bleakness of the modern Russia, the chilling possibilities of what lies beneath our modern world, and the potential for silent death around every corner.  Brrr!  One would like to pretend this is just a Brothers Grimm tale, but…..



The Gods of Greenwich  by Norb Vonnegut

Publisher: Minotaur Books   

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Jimmy Cusack is the son of a plumber who left the working class world behind to rise in the realm of high finance and investment. He worked to learn the craft at a financial giant and then struck out on his own. Market shifts destroy his hedge fund investment company.

Cy Lesser is the stuff of legends. He goes from a poor kid to one of most successful hedge fund mangers. Lesser makes staggering amounts of money while others lose or fail.

Now Cusack accepts a job offer from Lesser.  It seems like the opportunity for Cusack to save his personal world. Yet, there is something at work behind the scenes in Lesser’s life. Mysterious phone calls to Lesser trouble his wife. Cusack wonders at an investor needing a personal bodyguard. The fun is seeing how it will unfold. Then there is the mysterious woman who works as nurse and moonlights as an assassin

Creating sympathetic characters that worry over $24,000 mortgage payments is difficult, but Vonnegut has done it. Watching such men maneuver through a world based upon net worth measured in the billions and house prices in the millions is an interesting journey. The sense of a storm brewing just beyond the horizon is intriguing and makes for an entertaining read.




The Jefferson Key Steve Berry

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader

What if all of the U.S. Presidential assassination and assassination attempts were part of the same plot?

It is this supposition that provides the background for Steve Berry’s latest historical thriller starring his favorite lead character, Cotton Malone, entitled THE JEFFERSON KEY.  Allegedly, the founding fathers of our country in an effort to give thanks to the Barbary Pirates that assisted them in several skirmishes including the Revolutionary War, were written into the U.S Constitution by Thomas Jefferson.  The two pages supposedly give certificate of marque to these pirates and allow them to continue operating independently as they aid the United States in various missions.

However, when President Andrew Jackson survives and assassination attempt when the person pointing the gun at him suffered two consecutive misfires, he changed history.  Jackson suspected that the pirates (or Commonwealth as they later came to be known) were behind the assassination attempt.  To punish them, President Jackson removed the two pages of the Constitution that gave free reign to the pirates and hid them. In their place, he placed a cipher code that was created by Thomas Jefferson.  This cipher is so difficult that no one has been able to decode it up until present day.

It as at this point that we are introduced to the ancestors of the original Barbary Pirates, representing four families and spear-headed by a man named Hale.  They are out to get their name cleared and will stop at nothing to either decode the Jefferson cipher or find the original two pages hidden by Andrew Jackson.  When an assassination plot to kill current President Daniels is foiled by none other than Cotton Malone --- the excitement begins!

Enjoying his first exclusively U.S. bound adventure, Cotton Malone teams with his girlfriend and fellow agent, Cassiopeia Vitt, to race around the nation trying to foil the plot of the Commonwealth and find break the cipher before their fellow pirates can get to it.  Malone goes after the original pages hidden by Jackson while Vitt is headed down south to the mansion home/castle owned by the Hale family where he may be holding fellow agent Stephanie Nelle. 

Berry further complicates this puzzle of a novel by throwing in a secret relationship between the President’s Chief of Staff and the first lady along with another plot-line where a long-time rival agent of Cotton Malone’s is battling him for the same missing pages that Jackson hid.  Will the modern-day pirates succeed and reclaim the right that was promised to them centuries earlier before Malone, Vitt and company can stop them?

It’s this question that will keep the pages turning.  While THE JEFFERSON KEY is far from being the best of the Cotton Malone adventures, it is a reliable and engaging thriller.  Berry always knows how to dig up a long-lost historical mystery and build a substantial and exciting plot around it and THE JEFFERSON KEY is no different.




Dead Of Wynter by Spencer Seidel

Publisher: Publishing Works/Perseus Books           

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

The death of her father brings a reluctant Alice Wynter back to her grim and cold roots, a small town in Maine where her mother and twin brother still live.  At least, she thinks her brother Chris still lives there: he’s disappeared.

Probably Alice would have found a way to avoid the visit if she hadn’t been having some marital troubles at the time her father died.   Her unsympathetic rather self-absorbed husband has irritated and angered her, so Alice packs a bag and drives to Maine.  No sooner is she there than she is nearly overwhelmed by memories of the past, of the life she fled and has tried not to think of for the past 20 years.

Jackie Ruth, Alice’s mother, is obviously hiding some unpleasant secret, but neither Alice nor the local police can pry it from her.  The police are sure Jackie knows where Chris is, and they want to discuss his father’s death, which now appears to be murder, not suicide.  Chris and his father had a strange, strong bond that wasn’t based on love, but rather on a shared alcoholism and something else, some secret that Alice doesn’t know, but begins to learn more about as she sinks back into the depressing world of Redding, Maine.  There’s one bright spot in Alice’s return: she meets her former boyfriend Michael, now a widower, and they begin to reconstruct a relationship.

A violent attack on Jackie suddenly makes Alice realise where Chris must be hiding.  Can she reach him before Jackie’s attacker does?  Hurtling through the icy wastes on a snowmobile, Alice rushes to her brother’s side, oblivious of the extreme danger they are both in.  Michael contacts the police officer who’s trying to get to the bottom of who killed Alice’s father, and the two of them set off in pursuit, only to run into a lot more than they are able to cope with.

This is a grim and violent story, which examines in great detail the dynamics of young male outsiders who gravitate to each other and find pleasure in destruction.  As well, it’s the story of a family that barely deserves the name, and how occasionally a member of such a group can escape—but not permanently.

This is not a book to give a friend who’s in rehab for any serious problems, and the sort of people who most need to read it probably won’t.  This is the author’s first published work; it will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.





The White Devil by Justin Evans

Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers   

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader    

“Facts are the long way round to Truth,” Piers Fawkes tells his troubled student Andrew Taylor.  This epigram isn’t much comfort to a boy who’s convinced that he’s being haunted by the ghost of one of Lord Byron’s lovers.  Fawkes believes Andrew about the ghost, and he believes it is dangerous—but he can’t resist trying to find out more about it in order to flesh out the play he’s writing about Byron.

Andrew has been sent to one of England’s premier boys’ schools by his father, who wants his son to have something that looks better on his school record than “doesn’t apply himself, has discipline issues.”  To hear Andrew’s father, you’d think he’d been selling stolen Glocks in the playground. The man is desperate for the boy to get into a good university, and has paid out some serious money to Harrow to take him in and polish him up.  (This is a work of fiction; surely such things couldn’t happen in real life!)

Andrew is supposed to study hard, keep his head down, and serve out his year abroad without getting into trouble.  It’s a difficult request: he’s been dropped into a new world where even the words don’t mean what they do elsewhere.  Just getting on top of the Harrow slang is a challenge, never mind ‘fitting in’ with a totally new tribe of unfriendly natives.

Andrew makes one friend, Theo, who becomes his guide and eases the misery of the first few weeks.  He also starts a sort of relationship with Persephone Vine, the housemaster’s daughter, the only girl at school.  It’s a prickly sort of relationship, but it has potential to become something more, Andrew thinks. 

Very suddenly, Theo dies, and another boy becomes critically ill.  Andrew comes under suspicion as the new boy, and is forced to have tests that he knows won’t show anything—he’s certain the source of infection is the ghost of the white-haired boy, the one who loved Byron and who’s been invading Andrew’s dreams and sometimes his waking life.

Author Evans has drawn on his own year at Harrow for much of the background that makes this story so convincing.  It’s a murder mystery with a difference, and has some particularly good phrases scattered through it: “he was the human equivalent of an old manuscript,” describes a librarian perfectly.