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Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert

Publisher: Berkley

Reviewer: Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Bittersweet is divided into a first person perspective featuring China Bayles, the primary character of the China Bayles Mysteries, and a third person narrative showcasing China’s friend, Mack Chambers, whose story takes center stage here.

Mack, recently divorced and now struggling to find her footing in a new relationship, is mostly married to her job. She tries hard in her personal life, but being a Texas Game Warden means the world to her, even with its erratic hours and dangerous encounters with wildlife and criminals. Of course, compared to her new boyfriend’s two sulky teenagers, Mack finds the wildlife more welcoming than a family dinner.

It’s at her boyfriend’s ranch, in fact, that Mack finds six dead deer, resulting in immediate action to limit the dangers to local deer. Texas’ laws allow fenced hunting so entrepreneurs are acquiring abnormally large, non-native deer to the area for inclined hunters to pay for easy hunting with a big payoff (large racks of antlers) at these trophy game ranches. Mack supports hunting, but knows that these unusual deer, or “axis” deer, threaten the normal ecosystem in the area if they escape their manmade boundaries.

Mack’s not the only one concerned; an ornery vet surreptitiously tells Mack about a possible problem, but is murdered before giving her enough information. Now Mack worries not only about protecting the wildlife, but she also wants to find out who killed the vet.

While Mack works on her investigation, China prepares for Thanksgiving with her husband, McQuaid, and their children, Brian and Caitie. China’s left her home to spend time with her mother and step-father at their new ranch, which they plan to open up as a B&B. Unfortunately, her step-father has fallen ill, but her mother has found a resourceful young woman named Sue Ellen to help them out temporarily, although Sue Ellen’s own past threatens to catch up with her.

Author Susan Wittig Albert takes a stance in Bittersweet; her characters support hunting for meat, but only when it’s a true contest between hunter and prey. It’s clear that the story is set in fiercely independent Texas, resulting in lovingly rendered scenic descriptions and testaments to the toughness of character found in many of Albert’s creations.

As in her previous novels, Albert keeps up the pace and ties in all the threads by the last page. Her characters remain likeable if flawed, and long-time readers will enjoy seeing familiar characters.

Albert is known not only for her contemporary China Bayles Mysteries, but also the quietly magical Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter and the highly Southern and comfortably entertaining Darling Dahlias Mysteries; each series has a distinct voice and fleshed out characters.

 

 

Falling in Love by Donna Leon

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Reviewer: Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

While Falling in Love may sound like the name of a romance novel, this is actually a rather pleasant murder mystery centering on a famous middle-aged opera singer named Flavia Petrelli during her set of performances in Venice.

Flavia’s renown means that she’s acquired a number of devoted fans over the years, but she’s always thought of them as fairly harmless—until now. Throughout the current season, Flavia has received yellow roses, a few at first, but now dozens each time. Fortunately, Flavia previously formed a solid friendship with Commissario Guido Brunetti, a middle-ranking policeman who takes her fears seriously, especially as violence escalates around men and women linked to the singer.

As Flavia’s admirer becomes more brazen, the singer can no longer assume that the police will stop that person before it’s too late.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series offers a light touch, notable Italian scenery and devotion to the culture which produces both remarkable culinary delights and substantial corruption. Leon’s decades living in Venice shows through on every page, adding an easy familiarity and casual attention to detail that enlivens the mystery.

Brunetti’s professional and personal lives receive fairly equal amounts of attention. His intellectual family (co-led by his beloved, book-adoring wife) shares comfortable banter and habits that provide a haven from the rank-obsessed police force in which he observes and occasionally conspires with like-minded bureaucrats.

Leon also ensures that Flavia remains flawed, but likeable, and juxtaposes her traditional artistic persona with a very different personality to whom readers can relate. This is a mystery written from a mature perspective, not stodgy or boring at all, but rather one in which life experience and knowledge add considerably to both the characters and the story. To put it simply, readers will want to spend time in Leon’s world.

Thoroughly modern although grounded in Venice’s singular history, Falling in Love provides readers a chance to fall in love themselves with this enjoyable Venetian series and its cheerful hero.

 

 

Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Publisher: William Morrow

Reviewer: Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

Army Ranger Van Shaw has made his home anywhere the Army has told him to for the last ten years—a fact that he doesn’t expect to change. He hasn’t even been back to his native Seattle since he left; it’s only when a frugally worded message from his Irish grandfather causes him to return at once.

Unfortunately, someone else got to his grandfather Dono first, resulting in a coma for the cantankerous, bear-like older man and a search for an attempted killer. Dono is nearly mythological in his local reputation, careful and knowledgeable as he successfully commits crime after crime. He’s a hard man, but those around him are fiercely protective of him and glad to see Van return home.

Van—as tough and tenacious as they come—wants to work with the local police, but he quickly realizes that his childhood in Seattle’s criminal underworld grants him privileges the police could not hope to have. Armed with superior survival skills and fierce loyalty that remains in spite of his complicated past, Van intends to find the person who tried to kill his grandfather, no matter the cost to him personally or professionally.

Hamilton’s excellent debut feels natural in its use of a shortened timeframe as Van chases both the killer and seeks to elude detection. The intricate web of relationships between criminals never feels forced or overcrowded. Past Crimes moves fleetly, passionately and memorably, from the touch of Gaelic to a man’s unexpected return to his boyhood home.

 

 

The Body in the Birches by Katherine Hall Page

Publisher: William Morrow

Reviewer: Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Sanpere Island, Maine, is filled with families celebrating summer in their spacious, architecturally notable “cottages,” which is especially welcome during the current hot summer. Many of these families have owned the cottages for generations, making the act of inheritance a tricky thing when multiple heirs have both the desire and the means to maintain the family legacy.

Sophie Maxwell’s Great-Aunt Priscilla passed away a year ago and now the family is converging on The Birches, awaiting Great-Uncle Paul’s pronouncement as to who will inherit. Since Priscilla had no children, and the house descended on her side of the family, all of her nieces and nephews have a chance to inherit. Sophie goes as her mother’s placeholder of sorts, until her mother Babs returns from a cruise, allowing Sophie to avoid the immediate Survivor-style scrambling and showmanship.

Sophie’s nomadic cousin Sylvia appears in all of her well-heeled Bohemian glory along with her irritable daughter, Autumn, and arrogant son, Rory, as well as with her young daughter, Daisy. Lawyer Forbes and his twin sister Felicity, are also in the running as well as Simon and his wife, Deirdre, a couple who clearly don’t believing in doing for oneself if one has others to do it for you.

Meanwhile, Faith Fairchild, the series’ protagonist, gourmet caterer, and amateur detective, watches the events from afar. She, too, is away from her traditional safe space, staying with another family as her own cottage undergoes much-needed renovations over the summer. Her children, Ben and Amy, are growing up rapidly, and Ben’s new job at a resort hotel’s restaurant offers its own mystery. Her husband, Tom, normally attends families in need of comfort in his role as a pastor in Massachusetts, but now he’s the one by his mother’s bedside, forcing Faith and Tom to spend much of the summer apart even as they navigate through personally difficult times.

Faith’s role in the happenings at The Birches is fairly minimal compared to previous—and equally engaging—novels by Maine/Massachusetts resident Katherine Hall Page, although her concurrent narrative offers a keen look at an outsider’s take on the dirty process of choosing successors for an economically valuable and much-loved property. Since Sanpere Island is fairly small, Faith interacts with the descendants of The Birches’ Proctor family and her observations also shed light on those who serve those able to afford cottages, but could never feasibly do so themselves.

When Sophie arrives, she realizes that Uncle Paul has brought one other person with him: a mysterious young man named Will Tarkington. When an older woman’s body is found on the grounds of The Birches, Sophie suddenly realizes how little she knows or trusts anyone except Uncle Paul. Apparently, spending time with family really CAN be murder.

 

 

 

 

The Harvest Man by Alex Grecian

Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Reviewer: Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Readers who enjoy Anne Perry’s Thomas Pitt novels or BBC’s Ripper Street television series will find a similarly seedy Victorian London populated by those who vividly remember Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror in Whitechapel in his fourth Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad installment.

The Harvest Man begins a bit slowly and with graphic violence that threatens to submerse the story into tedium, but Grecian pulls back a bit on the violence—although cozy mystery fans may still find it a bit much—to focus on Detective Inspector Walter Day and erstwhile Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, both of whom are a battered from a previous assignment, but dauntless nonetheless. Because of his injuries, Day remains on mind-dulling desk duty and Hammersmith’s been released from the department entirely, yet when a new series of murders occurs, the Yard’s doctor (nearly a one-man forensics department) asks for help.

Day and Hammersmith, lumbering along thanks to unhealed leg and chest injuries between the two of them, form almost a comic duo as they follow clues among the area’s basest criminals, some of whom (such as the pub-frequenting Blackleg) offer a little humor themselves. The two vividly remember their failure at catching Jack the Ripper and he continues to haunt them. Their more immediate concern, however, is finding the Harvest Man, named for a spider that hides in attics, just like the deadly Plague mask-wearing fiend sought by the police.

While the primary and secondary plots move along speedily enough, Grecian’s real gift is creating likeable characters in Day and Hammersmith and also fleshing out the supporting characters such as Day’s wife, Claire, and her friend, Fiona Kingsley, so that they never feel unnecessary, but instead seem a natural fit in Grecian’s world. Grecian offers a real sense of danger to equal the concern for the characters, making this an enjoyably worthwhile book to take on vacation or to just curl up with on a very long night.

 

 

Black Run by Antonio Manzini

Publisher: Harper

Reviewer: Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader 

Deputy Chief Rocco Schiavone loves Rome. He loves the fast pace, the bluntness of its inhabitants, and the nonchalant overstuffing of glorious architectural and other artistic gems throughout, but he especially loves his spacious home with the gorgeous view. Rome’s police department may be rife with corruption, but that’s okay—Rocco thrives in the grey area.

Unfortunately for Rocco, he’s finally angered his superiors just enough to stay employed, but to be removed to the serene town of Aosta, overlooking mountain resorts filled with cheerful native skiers and tons of tourists. Even worse than the relentless cold, Rocco’s spent the last four months trying to numb his mind against everything he’s lost, refusing to adapt to the point that he continues to wear his fashionable clothes and absolutely unsuitable footwear even though he’s miles away from sunny, urban Rome.

When an unfortunate young slope groomer accidentally runs over a body buried in the snow, Rocco suddenly wakes up—albeit glowering all the way. This is the first homicide in the region in years and Rocco’s surrounded by good-natured but ill-trained police. Thwarting seniority, he grooms a couple of his underlings, teaching them how to brusquely investigate as he would in Rome, surprising the quiet, polite locals with each step of the way.

Rocco is certainly an anti-hero who considers results as the necessary factor without concerning himself too much over the laws or internal police regulations. This may seem especially jarring when comparing him to a thoughtful, quietly intense character like Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, but brash Rocco is indeed a product of Rome with all of its inherent complications and contradictions.

Black Run is the third of the Rocco Schiavone mysteries by Italian author Antonio Manzini, although the first translated into English. Antony Shugaar’s translation offers a very smooth reading, with only a couple of sentences that made me wonder if it fit with Manzini’s original text. The novel also slowly peels back Rocco’s rough external layers, inspiring interest in what happened in the first two installments. Rocco may seem like a flat caricature in the first few pages, but he ultimately proves both wildly entertaining and heart-breaking at the same time.

Black Run serves as a great vacation read, vividly portraying a holiday destination in which the memorable main character alternates between calculated rage and suave persuasion without ever lapsing into boredom. Rocco is the proverbial fish out of water, but it turns out he’s just what the town needs in order to solve a murder.

 

 

 

 

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

Publisher: Penguin Press

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader 

The author John Milton once said:  "To kill a man is to kill a reasonable creature, but to destroy a book is to kill reason itself".

Matthew Pearl clearly loves reading and literary history.  Some of his prior Historical Thrillers involved Charles Dickens, Edgar Alan Poe and Dante.  With his latest release, THE LAST BOOKANEER, he has created a valentine to books and book lovers.  He also exposes the dark side of the publishing world circa 1890.

A young man named Clover commutes by London train each day.  One of the most pleasant sights of his journey is when he sets eyes on Mr. Fergins.  Fergins wheels a book cart down the train aisle way passing out literary treasures and classics to all those in search of their next read or to simply kill time on their journey.

Clover befriends Fergins and the bookseller begins to impart his knowledge to his young admirer.  Fergins tells how the publishing company, prior to regulation, was a free-for-all and those who could get their hands on an original manuscript from someone like Twain, Shelley or Dickens would have a windfall.  The sub-group of book hunters were labeled bookaneers and Fergins knows all of them --- at least those that are left.

The novel focuses on these profiteers of the written word as Fergins regales a story for Clover about his trip to the isle of Samoa in the Pacific Islands.  His journey described his time as sidekick to 'the last bookaneer' --- a man named Davenport.  Davenport travels under an assumed name and his target is an ailing and secluded Robert Louis Stevenson.  Stevenson relocated to the islands primarily for health reasons and is purportedly working on what would be his final manuscript.

However, Davenport and Fergins are not alone.  After they eventually befriend Stevenson and his staff they are met by a missionary priest who was actually the notorious bookaneer Belial in disguise.  Belial is there for the same reason --- to con Stevenson out of is unfinished manuscript upon its' completion.  The battle is on between the rival bookaneers and is a pleasure to behold.

THE LAST BOOKANEER has it all --- adventure, intrigue, historical references and events, mystery and thrills.  You experience everything from typhoons to cannibals along the way and the opportunity to spend time with the legendary Robert Louis Stevenson --- a famous wit --- is worth the price of admission.  A must read for anyone who loves reading and appreciates the long-standing history and tradition of book-reading!

 

 

 

 

The Stranger by Harlan Coben

Publisher: Dutton

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

A successful attorney living in the quiet suburbs of New Jersey with his family --- adoring wife Corrine and his two well-adjusted sons, Thomas and Ryan --- seem to be living the American Dream.  Lacrosse games, family nights and plenty of friends.  How could that seemingly unbreakable existence fall?  Even more shocking --- how could it come crashing down with just a few simple sentences whispered in your ear by a complete outsider?

This is the premise of Harlan Coben's latest thriller, THE STRANGER.  Adam Price is representing his wife and family at the school Lacrosse meeting in an effort to ensure his son Thomas gets picked for the right squad.  After this typical suburban activity, an unknown young man who refers to himself as 'the stranger' grabs Adam's attention by dropping hints about a dark secret Corrine Price has kept from her husband.

When Adam searches through old Visa bills to locate the name of the retailer the stranger suggested he investigate he finds a purchase of nearly $400 made to a vendor called Novelty Funsy.  This vendor does not exist and there is no website with that name.  As Adam calls out his attorney research skills he discovers the site is a dummy for another, far less innocuous site with the name fake-a-pregnancy.com.

Suddenly, Adam's world closes in around him as he begins to recall the miscarriage his wife suffered a few years earlier.  When she returns from a teacher conference in Atlantic City he confronts her with his discovery.  She does not deny anything and suggests they meet away from the home the next night for a discreet dinner where she promises to come clean.  She never makes that dinner and instead sends a text asking for some time apart from her husband and sons. 

Adam continues to dig into Corrine's deception and uncovers a much larger issue.  The athletic club that sponsored the Lacrosse team is missing a big chunk of money and Corrine happened to be on the board of that committee.  With all of this causing Adam's world to spin wildly out of control he decides to focus his efforts on the stranger and the young female companion who drove away after dropping that bombshell on him a few nights earlier. 

The stranger represents the new generation that has grown up in the internet age and knows how to exploit their technical knowledge.  The internet has allowed many people to participate in less than faithful activities and believe they can hide their deception behind a wall of anonymity.  Unfortunately, there are some people equipped and motivated enough to want to even the playing field a bit --- and Adam Price has just met one of them. 

THE STRANGER shows off all the intricate plotting talents of a writer who proudly has won Edgar, Anthony and Shamus awards.  Harlan Coben seems to whip these thrillers up with ease and takes an almost sick glee in taking simple situations and relationships and turning them upside down.  THE STRANGER goes to some very unexpected and dark places and his fans wouldn't want it any other way!

 

 

World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

Publisher: William Morrow 

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

When Dennis Lehane, born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, set his last novel LIVE BY NIGHT in Tampa, FL, circa the 1920's I wondered if his fan base would have interest.  That novel went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel and introduced us to up and coming crime boss, Joe Coughlin.

We now jump to WWII and Joe Coughlin is twenty years older and firmly ensconced in the crime scene of Tampa's Ybor City.  WORLD GONE BY depicts an area that was once a small sapling as potential gangster territory and has now grown into a region that finds all ethnic groups vying for control of the thriving crime market.

Even WWII can't keep Joe Coughlin down as he operates as the number one guy under his mentor, Dion, who he looks at like a big brother.  However, there is noise coming from the Negro section of town and the proximity to Cuba and the illegal trafficking there that it makes things ripe for the picking.  Joe is raising his son, Tomas, as a single parent and tries to take his half-Cuban son back to Havana as much as possible.  Joe wants a quiet, crime-free life for Tomas and can see them settling in Cuba one day --- if he can get away from the Bartolo Crime Family alive.

Joe seems to have everything --- power, money, a mistress who happens to be the Mayor's wife and a growing connection with the Meyer Lansky-Lucy Luciano gang.  The infusion of these real characters into the fictional world Lehane has created lends much credibility to the story and makes for some intriguing reading.

WORLD GONE BY starts off slow, but once it kicks into gear it unrolls in classic Lehane style.  Joe Coughlin happens to be an Irishman from the south side of Boston --- so Lehane's hometown influence is never far away.  I particularly like how he tends to take the titles of his novels from a quote within the book.  We saw this in GONE, BABY GONE and this time there is a scene between Joe and the black gangster Montooth Dix who stare together at the ocean and wax prophetic about the worlds that could be got to by crossing that water that have simply gone by.

Joe Coughlin is an anti-hero but one you will find yourself rooting for.  He remembers his roots and lives for his family --- especially young Tomas.  After a particularly violent shoot-out that Tomas witnesses he asks his father if he was a 'bad guy'.  Joe answers him, 'No, son, I'm just not a particularly good one'.  It's writing like that which makes Dennis Lehane one of the premiere novelists of our time.

 

 

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

Publisher: Harper

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

The long-running Maisie Dobbs series returns with this eleventh installment set in 1939, which is both bleaker in tone and forces Maisie to regain her self-reliance without employees or her father’s contacts. After the events in the last book, Maisie found true contentment, which, by the beginning of A Dangerous Place, has irrevocably changed.

As a result, she journeys to India to regain her strength, but finally books passage to return to England and her aging father. On her way home, however, she disappears in Gibraltar, finding security in its instability. Nearby Spain is in turmoil and Gibraltar teems with spies, secret machinations, and divided loyalties. Her anonymity vanishes when she finds the body of a badly mutilated young man who worked as a photographer. The police chalk his murder up to the work of a faceless refugee and bad timing, but Maisie determinedly seeks the truth about his killer.

Long-time readers of the Maisie Dobbs series will see familiar characters while new readers can easily jump into the story. Because it is sorrowful, it may not be the best introduction to the eminently resourceful Maisie, but A Dangerous Place shows Maisie’s maturity as well as the devolving political stability throughout Europe prior to World War II.

Jacqueline Winspear (Among the Mad) does a beautiful job mapping Maisie’s grief and struggle to find her way back to normality even as she survives a very abnormal situation filled with danger and intrigue. Readers also benefit from Winspear’s care in recreating Gibraltar and Spain; many often forget about the Spanish Civil War because of the start of World War II soon after. Likewise, secondary characters receive considerate development in their myriad of situations.

A Dangerous Place doesn’t quite feel like a nonchalant beach read, but instead feels like a visit with an old friend who’s had a tough time, but who is always well worth another visit. Readers who enjoyed earlier installments (or who like Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy and Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series) should find A Dangerous Place and a comfortable reading spot—because you won’t want to leave Maisie alone until the end.

 

 

Every Fifteen Minutes by Lisa Scottoline 

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader  

Dr. Eric Parrish is the chief of Psychiatric Unit at Havemeyer General Hospital in Pennsylvania. Eric is a dedicated healer who endures the stress and bureaucracy of his position. At the same time, he is struggling with the end of his marriage to prosecutor-wife Caitlin and contemplating a custody battle over his young daughter Hannah.

Eric is enduring professional pain and problems as well. A medical student, Kristine, is showing romantic interest in him. Her interest seems to exceed the usual “hero worship” and borders on obsession.

A colleague and friend asks Eric to consult on a case involving an elderly, dying patient and her grandson. The depth of the relationship between the grandson, Max and his grandmother, touches Eric. He agrees to treat Max. In therapy, it is revealed that Max has several obsessive behaviors. The boy must tap his head and recite colors in his mind every fifteen minutes – day and night. Also, there is a girl that he has met and follows. In Max’s mind, he is following her to protect her. Eric is torn between protecting Max’s privacy and reporting the behavior to authorities. When the girl turns up dead, Eric’s world is thrown into a spin.

“Every Fifteen Minutes” is a story filled with small, significant events rather than massive action. The author has created a work that is a refreshing return to thoughtful drama in place of car chases, shootouts and explosions.

 

 

 

 

Someone Is Watching by Joy Fielding

Publisher: Random House

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader 

I confess it has been several years since I have read a novel by author Joy Fielding.  Really enjoyed her earlier work --- THE DEEP END in particular --- but found some of her successive releases to be weak and leaning more towards romance thriller than mystery thriller.

Happy to proclaim that her first novel for Random House entitled SOMEONE IS WATCHING is a real winner and one I did not want to end. Bailey Carpenter seems to have it all --- on the surface.  A job as a special investigator with a hotshot Miami law firm,  a great boyfriend, a loving family and an apartment with a view to die for.

Under the surface is a different story.  Her boyfriend becomes abusive and she issues a restraining order, she is dating her married boss, her wealthy father passed away and his children (from 3 marriages) are fighting over his estate.  Worst of all, Bailey is accosted during a stakeout and brutally raped --- a dirty pillowcase thrown over her head allowing her to only see the Nike sneakers of her attacker.

She was already fragile from her family and relationship situations.  Now, the rape has all but shattered her and the apartment she was so proud of has become her prison cell.  Her job is understanding and even some of her various full and half brothers and sisters are there for her.  Her half-sister, Claire, is the most caring and has made sure Bailey sees a renowned psychiatrist to help get her back on her feet.

Meanwhile, she is still in possession of her most valued work tool --- a trusty pair of binoculars.  With these binoculars she peers from her apartment window and is even able to see into the windows of the apartment building across the way from her.  In a shout-out to the great Hitchcock film, "Rear Window", Bailey begins to spy nightly on a handsome but suspicious man in another apartment.  When she believes she sees him violently abuse a young woman she calls the police.  The same police that are handling her rape case and who recognize how fragile she has become.

For Bailey, this is not just some abusive man but might actually be the same man who raped her.  The problem is she has become a literal 'boy who cried wolf' as she has already unsuccessfully accused other men of being her attacker.  The police are at their wits end, her family is struggling to remain supportive and her job desperately wants her to come back.  The problem is that Bailey is partially right and the man who is still haunting her in her nightmares may be closer than she --- or anyone else --- ever expected.

SOMEONE IS WATCHING is a pure pleasure to read with surprises at every turn and a finale you won't see coming.  All the characters are enjoyable and, Jade --- the 16-year-old niece of Bailey --- steals every scene she is in.  I'm pleased that the back cover of the novel indicates that we should look for the next thrilling book in the series.  Above all, Bailey Carpenter is not a caricature or one-dimensional character in any way.  She is vulnerable, afraid and loyal to those close to her --- something typically missing from thriller fiction --- a real person.