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Covenant Hall by Kathryn R. Wall

Publisher: Minotaur Books  ISBN-10: 0312375352

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Investigator Bay Tanner searches for the long-estranged aunts of young Kimmie whose only hope for survival is bone marrow from the missing relatives.  The girl’s family, both immediate and distant, is torn over a family secret from years before.  At the same time, Bay uncovers her own heart-wrenching family mystery after rifling through her beloved father’s papers during a family emergency.  With little time, Bay seeks to help Kimmie while thinking of her own changing family with an ambivalent wedding and expected funeral.

Continuing the Bay Tanner Mystery series set in South Carolina, Kathryn R. Wall weaves the threads of families together like strands of Spanish Moss clinging to a Live Oak even as the families try desperately to rip themselves apart with deadly secrets on all sides.  Both African-American and Caucasian families are affected here, each playing a large role in the others’ lives.  Remnants of the stereotypical old South with treasured black servants who have become family members in influential white families and bitter, hardscrabble black families who know the cycle of polite manners and the segregated worlds only too well.  Likewise, Bay remains ensconced in the old world of placating females tending to the delicate male egos even though it would be nice if she’d politely laugh off the poor advice of her doting, old-school father and fiancé/brother-in-law Red. 

There are just too many stereotypes here—the poor but earnest and unfailingly polite young black man who does what Bay wants; the wealthy white South Carolinians whose only interest seems to be their own; the long-suffering black servant Lavinia; the gruff fiancé who convinces Bay that he’s right when he argues that he needs to take care of her rather than allow her to claim self-sufficiency in her eventual dotage; and a host of others.  There’s a nice complicated story here with an appropriately slow pace but without the modern multi-cultural vibrancy of today’s South, the stereotypes are just too crushing to ignore.

 

 

Martyr by Rory Clements

Publisher: Bantam  ISBN-10: 0385342829

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Thoughtful and tenacious, John Shakespeare serves Queen Elizabeth I and her advisor, Lord Walsingham, with various assignments requiring subtlety on behalf of Tudor England in an era full of plots—and heads violently separated from their bodies.  The times are difficult as Elizabeth tries to solidify her hold on the throne inherited from her infamous father, Henry VIII, and to more firmly establish the Anglican church while snuffing out the defiantly publicly practiced Catholicism. 

Raised in the culture of ever-shifting religion and resulting mistrust, Elizabeth knows that when her subjects declare themselves Catholic, they may also be repudiating her right to England’s throne in favor of her beautiful and foolish cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.  In Martyr, John Shakespeare is charged with finding an elusive Flemish assassin intent on slaying the arrogant but idolized national hero, Sir Francis Drake, as a death blow to England’s military might and Elizabeth’s birthright.  John’s journey weaves through not only English politics but also those in other equally unstable European countries but always with a light touch.  As a bit of humor, John’s younger brother William makes a brief appearance with his fellow struggling theatre colleagues.

Journalist Rory Clements maintains historical accuracy throughout major events and with many of the real characters.  His attention to detail and thoroughly readable style makes this Elizabethan England addictive and bodes well for future installments of the new series.  Although John Shakespeare is fictional (William’s father was named John but was not the investigative man created by Clements), his reflections and experiences offer insight to the dirty, dangerous time immortalized in the graceful, albeit bloody, work of William Shakespeare.   One final note: Bantam fittingly published Martyr on May 19, 2009, which was also the 473rd anniversary of the beheading of Anne Boleyn, mother of the justifiably paranoid Elizabeth I.

 

 

 

 

 

Jelly’s Gold by David Housewright 

Publisher: Minotaur Books  ISBN: 978-0-312-37082-4

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Rushmore McKenzie was a St. Paul, Minnesota police officer who won the lottery. He retired from police work – kind of. He continued to work as an unlicensed PI. Then he made more millions when he caught a successful embezzler

Ivy Flynn – a graduate student who helped McKenzie on a past case – turns up with an interesting proposition. Ivy and her boyfriend Josh Berglund have been researching the location of gold stolen in the 1930’s. A three-way split of the $8 million in gold catches McKenzie’s attention.

Through a series of flashbacks, the author tells of the criminal career of Frank Nash. Nash was gentleman bandit who earned the nickname “Jelly” from his expert use of nitro. In 1933, Nash pulled off a heist of gold bars that he hid. The location of the gold was apparently lost when the robber was killed in a violent attempt to help him escape police custody. 

In the 1930’s, St Paul was one city that afforded criminals “protection”. By following three rules, they received safe haven there. This made the city a probable location for the lost gold.

Now McKenzie begins a hunt for “buried treasure’ along with Ivy and Josh. McKenzie first has to discourage two bumbling amateurs who are following them. McKenzie uses his old police connections to examine the ancient homicide files. Next, while looking for clues at the Minnesota History Center, McKenzie meets Heavenly Petryk – the one who sent the amateurs and Josh’s former girl friend. Heavenly claims to have started the treasure hunt only to be pushed out by Ivy and Josh. Finally, when Josh is killed, the old robbery becomes a current case with the police and media involved.

Housewright has penned an intriguing mystery by connecting the past and present. The characters are well developed and entertaining.

 

 

 

Whispers of the Dead by Simon Beckett

Publisher: Delacorte Press  ISBN: 978-0-385-34006-9

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Dr. David Hunter is a top forensic anthropologist in the UK. In the past few years, Hunter lost his wife and child in automobile accident and was attacked and stabbed by serial killer on a case in which he was involved. Even in the present day, Hunter reminds himself that she is still out there as he looks into the shadows. He just doesn’t realize there are other dangers in the shadows.

As part of the resumption of his career, Hunter accepts an invitation to consult at the Knoxville, Tennessee forensic facility known as the Body Farm. This is not Hunter’s first involvement with the Body Farm. He had trained there early in career.

Returning to the facility puts him back with his earlier mentor, Tom Lieberman. Lieberman has not aged well with a heart condition combining with the strain of the job. A gruesome discovery in a vacation cabin leads to a murder investigation. A fingerprint leads to a suspect – who had been dead and buried six months. The body is exhumed, only the body is not of the suspect. Hypodermic needles have been placed in the body as an apparent booby trap and wound an assistant. Also, both bodies are more decomposed than they should be. All of this leads to more questions than answers and keeps the mystery moving along at a satisfying pace.

The characters are interesting and well developed. Hunter struggles with his fears and Lieberman with his health. Hicks, the coroner and Irving, a profiler, inject monumental egos that hinder the investigation. Dan Gardner, the state investigator in charge is a somewhat disheveled figure that has to sift through the evidence and suspects.

Also, there are scenes shown from the unknown killer’s perspective. These include an encounter with Hunter and the abduction of Irving. The investigators are just beginning to realize how close and dangerous the killer is to them.

While well written, as with any story of murder, there is gore. The reader should be prepared for this as well as detailed chronicles of forensic techniques and procedures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cecilian Vespers by Anne Emery

Publisher: ECW Press  ISBN-10: 1550228617

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Traditional church music, Catholic priests clad in austere black, and a grisly murder… it may sound pretty grim but Anne Emery instead surprises her readers with a witty story populated by realistic Catholic clergy whose spiritual belief remains palpable even as they struggle with their very human flaws.  In the course of Cecilian Vespers, we have not only an earthly mystery, but also reflections on the religious mystery held dear by so many and on the changes in the mass inspired by Vatican II.

Irish priest Brennan Burke leads a schola, or group studying church music, culminating in a public program in his lovely historic church in Nova Scotia.  Schola students include a stylish Italian priest stationed in the decidedly protestant backwoods of Mississippi, a moody former priest still coming to grips with losing the special relationship between God and priest, other participants eager to do away with traditional hymns altogether, and most controversially, a man so hated by both liberal and conservative Catholics that he’s traveled under an alias.  After one of their occasionally combative number is murdered on the Feast Day of St. Cecilia, church attorney Monty Collins joins Father Burke in an investigation to discover the party most in need of confession. 

While knowledge of Catholic theology is not a requirement to enjoy the book, Catholics will find special meaning in the descriptions on saints and even the titular reference to Saint Cecilia, patron saint of church musicians.  Likewise, novices to traditional music may also enjoy the discourse on the role of music in the church.  There are things here which may offend some (imperfect priests, discussion of Catholic doctrine which differs from Protestantism) but as a work of fiction, Cecilian Vespers captures interest and keeps it to the surprising end.

 

 

 

Chasing The Bear: A Young Spenser Novel By Robert B. Parker

Publisher: Philomel/Penguin ISBN 978-0-399-24776-7

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader


WHAT IS THIS....P.I. MAN ORIGINS: SPENSER?

Well, not really. For that, you still have to go to The Godwulf Manuscript.  After almost 40 years, still great.

OH....WE FINALLY LEARN HIS FIRST NAME, THEN?

Uh.....no. Like that’ll ever happen.

SO.....WHAT??

Now THAT is an interesting question. What is Chasing The Bear?

Well, it’s written for what the trade calls the Young Adult audience. Basically Middle School and up.

It does, however, have value to “completists.”  All through the series, Spenser has referred to the men that raised him after his Mother died. There’s even an episode of the much-revered Spenser: For Hire TV series that harkens back to this time, but Parker, before now, has yet to seriously address that time.  And so, for those who want all Spenser tales, the trade-group is meaningless, the story and characters are everything.  

So now Parker, after a couple of successful forays into the YA market, ties his tent pole series to that demographic with a story—told  from a present-day reminiscence amidst canoodling with his ever-present other-half, Susan Silverman—that speaks to the values that make Spenser who he is today.

The moral of the story, crucial to any YA work, dumbs down to “bulllying is wrong, stand up for the little guy”.  Make no mistake, writing about this is important for this demographic, based on what’s happening in schools today.  Parker tells the tale strongly, makes the point without brow-beating.

All the things we love about Spenser are here—except sex, guns and Hawk (all most likely not YA appropriate)--snappy dialogue, wise musings on the nature of heroism, and the bond between Spens and Sus that is the heart of the series.

The result is, for those familiar with the series, a VERY quick and mostly-satisfying read (if you take the YA nature into account) that tracks quite safely with the characters history, despite Parker’s refusal to acknowledge such quibbles as, oh, the passing of time.

After that, you can put it up on the shelf with your collection, or gift it to a Young Adult reader and do your part to carry the legend of Spenser forward to the next generation!

 

 

 

The Way Home by George Pelecanos

Publisher: Little, Brown  ISBN 978-0-316-15649-3

Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader

Expectations are so important when reading a book, and, yes, when writing about one as well.

We expect our finest crime novelists to consistently deliver great crime novels. No great revelation there, right?  But what happens when a genre writer moves “beyond his modifier” and starts to produce books that are, to coin an Obama-nism, “post-noir”?

Well, they become Dennis Lehane. Or George Pelecanos.

The Way Home continues on that path for Pelecanos.  It is an outstanding character-driven novel about family and redemption.

And yeah, there’s crime in it, so don’t trip.

The book is full of what we expect from the author—sharply-written characters, an intimate awareness of the Washington D.C. area and its’ impact on those characters. And expertly-created tension that generates not from events themselves, but the motivations behind those events.

The Way Home is the story of Chris Flynn Growing Up. Chris, you see, came from what most would call a “good family”, and took some detours along the path to manhood that landed him in the Juvenile Corrections system. Pelecanos bring his journalistic-finepoint to his exploration of one of our great National conflicts:  Do we try to help them, or simply house them?  We are introduced to proponents of both views, and get to decide for ourselves.

Then we move forward a few years.  Chris has earned his freedom, and is working for his father, the anguished Thomas Flynn, who runs a carpet-installation business. Chris and his juvie-bunkmate, Ben are doing an install in an empty home when they come across a satchel of cash.

Chris mulls the possibilities for awhile, then makes a decision. That decision launches the book on its’ track of redemption, loss and how family impacts all of that.

Adult decisions bring adult consequences.  This fact is brought home in a most tragic fashion in The Way Home.  A murder galvanizes those affected to take action, and the meat of the book is the various paths those actions travel. You know that they will intersect, and Pelecanos’ art is making that intersection both deliberate and exciting.  He does that by exploring the depths of his characters in a way enlightens but doesn’t lecture, along with action scenes that you can FEEL, because they are full of the small details that we all connect with.  Whether it’s the music on the radio in the car, or the car itself, Pelecanos brings them, and their significance to the action, up close and personal.  It’s one of the things that seasoned readers of his expect, and even demand.

Some folks will find thematic as well as stylistic similarities with his last two novels. There’s even a blink-and-miss shout-out to Gus Ramone from The Night Gardener which will make you hope for a re-visit with that character. That’s because Pelecanos is evolving, gang.  It’s a GOOD thing. The father-son dynamic, so richly explored in The Night Gardener, is revisited here even more effectively.  Adult fathers, always conflicted by their status as both father and son, will find much to connect with here.

Folks may pine for the “old days”, when Pelecanos wrote novels teeming with seedy characters doing nasty things to each other. The author himself may do the same, and perhaps that will one day happen. In the meantime, he is, right now, very much involved in bringing light to dark corners in the American Family, and doing so with great soul and a lot of style.

 


And a review for The Way Home from Karen Treanor

This is the sort of book that you might pick up and take a dislike to.  “Not my sort of book,” you might think.  It starts in a juvenile detention facility, what we used to call a reform school.  There’s a sullen boy named Chris, his bewildered parents, and an assortment of fairly unlikeable juvenile crims.  If you persevere, somehow you get drawn in.  You start to see the boys as individuals, you begin to see a few nuggets of gold mixed in with a lot of coal dust.

Move ahead a while: Chris is back home, he’s met a decent girl, and he and his father have come to a truce of sorts.  More than that, Mr Flynn has hired a few of the other parolees from the Pine Ridge facility  Some of them have made good, some haven’t, but Chris and his best friend Ben are doing all right, going straight, learning the carpet-laying business, and looking as if their bad experiences are behind them.

Then they find a big wadge of money hidden at one of the job sites.  They walk away from the money, but Ben foolishly mentions it to a third person, who steals it, and thus sets in motion something like a Greek tragedy that ends in pain and blood for many, and threatens to destroy the progress Chris has made with his life.  What saves him is an unexpected sacrifice that, in the best Euripidean tradition, brings things back into balance, but at a high price.

The book’s acknowledgements page indicates Pelecanos has a keen interest in judicial reform and appropriate sentencing; this book should give others some food for thought about those topics.

 

 

 

Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing   ISBN  978 0 446 58029 8

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

The strange silver-eyed special agent is back, in another strange adventure.  Pendergast is a bit like a character from a 1930’s radio serial.  He owns not one but three apartments in the Dakota, one of which has been converted to a Japanese garden and tea house; he has a faithful deaf-mute servant; and he has apparently unlimited income.  Why he’d bother chasing bad guys is debatable, but in this case it’s because the victim of the murder that opens the book is his long-time friend and fellow adventurer, journalist William Smithback.

Smithback has been hacked to death in his own apartment while his wife Nora is around the corner getting dessert.  Nora returns and is attacked in turn, escaping death by a hair.  The killer is identified as Colin Fearing, a neighbour of the Smithbacks.  There’s a small problem when it comes to tracking down the murderer: he himself has been dead for days.   At Smithback’s autopsy, a tiny skull and pouch of mysterious ingredients are found hooked to his tongue.  Talk of zombies and voodoo begins,

Readers of the authors’ previous books will know that things will only get weirder from here on.  Pendergast and police lieutenant D’Agosta begin the difficult task of finding the murderer, and the shadowy figures behind him.  This involves, among other things, a visit to Pendergast’s mad old Aunt Cordelia at the maximum security insane asylum.  Meanwhile Nora and Smithback’s former colleague Caitlin Kidd tackle the problem from a different angle, one which exposes them to considerable risk. 

Colin fearing turns up again—really dead this time—with strange symbols drawn on his back.  Pendergast sees a tie-in with a local cult, and he and D’Agosta set out to infiltrate the group’s secret ceremony.  Meanwhile Nora Kelly has been kidnapped from her hospital bed, for what purpose one can only shudderingly speculate.  On another front, a group of animal rights activists is also focussing on the cult, for reasons of their own. 

Underneath all the blood and darkness, there is a motive you might not expect, although when Pendergast and D’Agosta finally track the main villain down it all makes sense.  Somehow I didn’t find the scary bits all that scary; the authors have done better in some of their earlier books.  That sense of impending horror doesn’t come though as well in this story but it is nonetheless a better way to spend an evening than listening to unemployed economists rehashing financial doom stories on some infotainment show.

 

 

 

 

No Such Creature by Giles Blunt

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company  ISBN: 978-0-8050-8062-9

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Owen Maxwell had an ideal childhood with two loving parents. This ended on his tenth birthday when his parents were killed in a car crash as the three came home. Owen could not accept the foster homes to which he was sent. Fortunately he was saved from that life by the appearance of his great Uncle Max.

Max was a failed English actor who had turned his talents to larceny. Eight years later, Owen and Max divide their time between robbing Republican dinner parties and touring the country in a massive motor home. The pair - with the rest of their gang - is successful at this method of acquiring wealth.

However, there is trouble in their world taking several forms. Owen has been accepted to Julliard to study acting thereby breaking up the criminal partnership. Also, the Subtractors – a vicious group of criminals that steal the loot from other criminals – are on their trail. Finally, Sabrina – the daughter of a criminal colleague of Max’s – is thrust into their life and turns Owen’s head, but a jealous and obsessed ex-cop is on her trail.

Blunt has fashioned an extremely entertaining tale. The dialogue is snappy and the storyline allows colorful characters to interact on a humorous as well as violent level reminding the reader of the price that criminals can pay.