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Fire Season by Jon Loomis

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Humorous crime fiction is hard to pull off. (We’re leaving Donald Westlake out of this discussion. He could make anything work, from Dortmunder to Parker.) Elmore Leonard has a reputation for being funny, but, with the possible exception of Get Shorty, his books aren’t written to be funny. The humor is endemic to the situation, and to the intellectual capacity of the characters, who are most often inadvertently funny. (The characters, I mean. Leonard has no accidents in his writing.)

A lot of authors try to write tongue-in-cheek crime fiction; none blends the elements better than Jon Loomis. His Frank Coffin mysteries never make light of the seriousness of the crimes, but juxtapose them against what may be absurd conditions to create a unique atmosphere.

Loomis’s newest is Fire Season. The book opens with the killing of a restaurant’s tame seals, kept in their own tank near the beach as a tourist attraction in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Soon a series of increasingly serious arson fires breaks out, and a local doctor is found dead in gruesome fashion. Whether any of these are related is a key element of the story, so we’re not going to discuss it here.

There are two keys to the success of Loomis’s stories, and Fire Season is no exception. First is Coffin, a Provincetown detective and acting chief of police. He worked homicide in Baltimore for several years, finally leaving because he’d developed a phobia about corpses. He returned to his native Provincetown to get away from that, but they insist on popping up in the least expected places. His girlfriend is pregnant and hyperaware of things, and his mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, which leaves her prone to what she thinks of as pranks and the other residents of her nursing home consider terrorist acts.

The other thing the series could not exist without is Provincetown as a setting. The town on the farthest tip of Cape Cod, always a summer tourist attraction, has become an enclave for the LGBT community, often flamboyantly so. It’s P’town that makes the humor work, as the bizarre settings allow Loomis to make the comedy endemic to the scene without diminishing the seriousness of the situation. Everything is held together by Loomis’s acceptance of everyone in Provincetown as they are. He never condescends of make fun of them, rather welcomes them as the engine that makes his stories fun to read. How do you make murder scene interviews funny without minimizing the brutality of the crime? Interview half a dozen Tall Ships (male transvestites) in various stages of undress, and capture their side conversations.

Coffin is not alone. The supporting cast more than carries its weight. Even those who aren’t P’town crazies realize they live in a sometimes surreal environment, and make their decisions accordingly. The normal rules of logic don’t always apply in Loomis’s Provincetown, but loomis sticks to the rules he has created so the reader never feels cheated, but also never quite sure how each event will be received.

Fire Season is the third Frank Coffin mystery, after High Season and Mating Season, both of which are also highly recommended. (Especially the premiere, High Season.) Enough loose ends are left for the characters to carry on should Loomis decide to keep writing them. Let’s hope so. He’s carved out a unique niche in crime fiction. It would be a shame to lose it.

 

 

 

Endangered by Ann Littlewood

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Iris Oakley is lost in rural British Columbia, on a mission to rescue what she’s been told by her boss are some “exotic pets”.  What she finds when she eventually gets where she’s supposed to be is a collection of terrified and very wild parrots and some dehydrated rare tortoises badly in need of care, and a group of lawmen who make her job really difficult.

Iris has a hard enough time rescuing the birds and reptiles, but when she tries to befriend a hungry dog, she is led to a dead girl in the woods.  The run-down farm has been hiding a drug lab, and where there are illegal drugs, there’s plenty of motivation for murder.  Iris manages to get the birds back to the zoo where she works, but ends up with two birds at her house due to overcrowding.  These feathered guests are attractive in more than one sense of the word.

Anyone who has met Iris in Littlewood’s previous books knows that she isn’t going to be able to walk away from what is clearly a criminal enterprise, smuggling rare and endangered creatures from South America to North for the illicit pet trade.  But is that all there is to it?  Finding a package concealed in one of the parrot cages brings a dangerous new element to Iris’s life, and before long she’s not only trying to solve the mystery and the murder, but also hoping to keep moving fast enough to avoid being the next victim.  Fast enough isn’t fast enough, and Iris has to take a stand where she’s relying on herself and one very chancy potential helper, facing a stone killer who won’t believe the truth when she tells it.

Add to all this the chance for romance, and you have as entertaining a crime novel as you could ask for.  It’s an enjoyable read by someone who has had plenty of practical experience in a real zoo.   (You will also learn a lot about the horrific trade in wild animals and pick up some pointers about what you can do about it.)

 

 

 

Hell or High Water by Joy Castro

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

Growing up in the projects of New Orleans was far from easy for first generation Cuban reporter Nola Cespedes, but with a high IQ and a determined single mother, she managed to take advantage of the scholarships that eventually led her to the middle-class life few from her part of town had access to.  And having left her childhood behind, not even Katrina can shake her off her game.  But when she is asked to do a feature on sex offenders and the tracking of them post-Katrina, she finds herself taken back to memories and feelings she thought long gone, some of which will lead her down a very dark road towards the terror that’s never really left her soul.

In this stand-out debut, Castro manages to do a stunning and profoundly engaging job of comparing the devastation and rebuilding – or lack thereof – of a city and a soul after massive destruction.  Not so much a mystery in the sense of the genre, but rather an unflinching spotlight shone on our systems of managing such tragedies, Castro shows both how we individually cope with such events and all too often how as a society we fail.  Never shying away from the more difficult questions, Castro shows all sides with equal force.  And in her depictions of her main characters, Nola and New Orleans, Castro not only gives us plenty of reasons to empathize, but propels us to ponder it long afterwards in a way that might actually lead to action.  An outstanding debut, this portrayal of damage left too long unheeded is a must read and one of the best this year.       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 13th Target by Mark de Castrique

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press  (Also in paperback) 

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Russell Mullins is planning to take his grandson to a T-ball game in the morning.  He and his boss, Paul Luguire, discuss grandsons and sports as Russell drives Paul home from his high-powered job at the Federal Reserve Bank.  The ride is without incident; it’s been a normal day at work for Russell, now working for a private protection agency after many years with the Secret Service.  This is the last normal day for Russell for quite a while.

Before dawn, he’s informed that Paul is dead, apparently by his own hand.  This makes no sense, and when Amanda Church, an associate of Paul’s suggests there was dirty work afoot, Russell can believe it.  He finds a clue supporting his suspicions in the ‘suicide’ note.  Informing his employer that he’s taking some vacation time, Russell sets out to find the unseen hand behind Paul’s death.  He’s distracted by the discovery of a frame being built around him by the same hand; now he’s got to clear his own name as well as find Paul’s killer.

The case gets more complicated when a reporter in the Woodward-Bernstein mould starts digging around.  Fairly quickly it becomes obvious that there’s more to this story than a faked suicide: international terrorism seems to be part of the bigger picture—or is it?  This story has more sudden turns and twists than a bowl of spaghetti, and just when you take a deep breath and think ,“So, that’s it!”, there’s more.

De Castrique has come up with a fascinating premise that turns the dry topic of monetary policy into the stuff of high adventure, and he does it without excessive gore, sex or sadism—just plain old good plotting and writing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bad Day for Mercy by Sophie Littlefield

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Jacqueline Corcoran, New Mystery Reader

A Bad Day for Mercy is the fourth book in a crime novel series by Sophie Littlefield.  The main character Stella Hardesty a former battered woman, is best described as a do-gooder on steroids.  When Stella’s sister phones in hysterics because she believes her grown-up stepson is being threatened for gambling debts, Stella rushes to the rescue—all the way to Wisconsin.  She is not only compelled to help her sister, the stepson, and his new girlfriend (a Russian mail order bride who is married to somebody else), but various sullen teenage boys who come across her path.  

In my opinion, the book would have been better written in first rather than close-third person due to the narrator’s love affair with the main character.  I liked the cross-country adventure involved with the mystery, but the pace was slightly off.  A Bad Day for Mercy started slowly with a lot of back story and then wrapped up quickly—a bit of an anti-climax after all the travels—and the ending wasn’t a big surprise.  Feeling sexually attractive while ageing was a major theme.  

 

 

 

 

The Lost Artist by Gail Lukasik

Publisher: Five Star

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If you like complex mysteries that roam back and forth in time, this story will please you.  It starts in a run-down farmhouse and ends on a tropical beach, and in between there’s murder, villains, tragic sub-plots and treasure.

When Rose Caffrey arrives to visit her sister Karen in the run-down old farmhouse, she finds her sister’s dead body.  After the formalities are gone through, Rose is left alone in possession of the old house, and hopes to sell it fast and return to the city.  Life becomes complicated when she discovers some amazing murals in some of the rooms, and an artist arrives at the door saying that Karen hired—and paid—him to restore the artwork.  It may be worth a great deal, he tells Rose, and she realises that having the work finished could be more profitable than just selling the house fast.

Running parallel to the story of the house in the modern day is a flash-back to the early 19th century: the story of how the wall paintings came to be here.  The lost artist of the title is Emily Lord, and the author’s depiction of her hard life is chilling; one is reminded of the early chapters of Jane Eyre.  Rose is drawn into the mystery of the murals, and begins to try and follow her sister’s research.  There are many questions, including why Emily’s grave was empty: if she didn’t die young, what happened to her?  

When Rose is attacked in a reputable library and her sister’s notebook stolen, Rose knows that there’s something important at stake here, and that her sister was probably murdered.   The wonderful murals are only part of the story: there’s a much bigger treasure to be found if you know where to look.  The police insist a drug addict mugged Rose in the library, but she knows better.  She is determined to finish her sister’s work and bring the wonderful murals to a wider public knowledge—but to do that she has to escape from a killer. 

This is a nicely-written and complex story; the historical research makes a solid frame on which the modern plot hangs. 

 

 

 

The Conviction by Robert Dugoni

Publisher: Touchstone

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader 

What I enjoy best about the novels of Robert Dugoni is how they bring me back to the days when John Grisham and Scott Turow were writing top-notch legal thrillers that opened up the floodgates to a myriad of imitators.  While Grisham and Turow still continue to write, their novels are not nearly as engaging or interesting a their early work and this has allowed the mantel to be firmly passed on to writers like Robert Dugoni.

THE CONVICTION is another novel in his Attorney David Sloane series and provides another unique take on the genre.  Sloane is famous for being the attorney who cannot lose and he has won some big and highly publicized cases over the years.  This has not come without a price. His wife was brutally murdered and his step-son, Jake, witnessed this cruel act first-hand.

As Sloane continues with his own practice in Seattle and picking up the pieces of his shattered life, he still attempts to play a role in the life of his step-son.  Jake has been living year-round with his birth father in California and occasionally seeing Sloane.  When Jake comes up to Seattle for the first visit since his mother’s murder he is not the same boy Sloane used to live with.  Jake has not responded well to the family tragedy and turned to drinking, drugs and other forms of trouble that usually get teen-aged boys put away in juvenile detention.

Sloane has gotten Jake out of some smaller convictions but the downward spiral continues.  Realizing that keeping Jake in the home where he witnessed his mother’s murder might not be such a good idea, he takes up an offer from his friend Tom Molia to get away for a guys-only camping trip.  Molia is a police detective and he and his young son, T.J., set out with Sloane and Jake to an adventure in the California Gold Country wilderness.

Unfortunately, things do not start out well for the group.  The first night at a hotel in the small town of Truluck, California, Jake and T.J. get into trouble at a local general store.  Jake attempts to purchase alcohol and is denied --- having his phony I.D. taken in the process by the store clerk.  Jake heads back to the store after-hours and smash the window to get back in to reclaim his illegal I.D. as well as pilfering some beer and alcohol.  Intoxicated, the boys are apprehended and brought before the local town judge.

Judge Earl Boykin represents generations of Boykin family justice in Truluck and he proceeds to railroad Jake and T.J. by forcing confessions out of them before their parents or any legal representation can get there.  By the time Sloane and Molia arrive at the courthouse they find out that their sons are already on their way to Fresh Start juvenile detention where they have been sentenced to six-months of incarceration.

The fact that Sloane and Molia carry both legal and police connections has no sway with Judge Boykin who seems to take an evil delight in pushing around the big-city duo.  Horrified and hamstrung, Sloane and Molia begin to delve into Judge Boykin and Fresh Start to attempt to get any leverage that will help them free their sons.  What they begin to uncover is a potential far-reaching plot that involves a rich local business man named Victor Dillon who is deeply connected to Boykin and everything going on in Truluck.  To make matters worse, Dillon also owns Fresh Start and it seems that Boykin may be feeding young boys into the system to keep the business turning a profit.

While Jake and T.J. are being abused and constantly threatened by the sadistic guards and fellow juvenile inmates at Fresh Starts their fathers are facing their own danger in the form of dirty local police, private security and Victor Dillon himself.  All four of our protagonists are thwarted at every turn and more than once are their lives in serious danger.  It seems that there is no way out and that the mighty David Sloane may have finally come up against a case he cannot win.

THE CONVICTION presents a very real tale of parental horror that will truly hit home and leave the reader as powerless as David Sloane feels to the unfortunate events that are unfolding around him.  The tension and surprises never let up and Robert Dugoni has put together another winning novel sure to provide many enjoyable summer hours of reading fun!

 

 

 

 

Castle Bravo by Karna Small Bodman

Publisher: Headline Books

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

“The difference between us and the bad guys is that while they make plans, we just keep having meetings and appointing commissions.”

Samantha Reid has a demanding job; she’s never off duty as assistant to the President for Homeland Security.  She’s worried about the possibility of an electro-magnetic pulse attack that might bring down all the electronic networks in the world, but she can’t get anyone to take her seriously.  The White House staff  is much more concerned about getting the Vice President into the Oval Office come election time, and they don’t want any scaremongering, no matter how real Samantha thinks the threat is.  Some of the military thinkers are aware of the potential danger, but with so many other problems on their plates and their budgets slashed to the bone, there’s very little they can do.

As if that weren’t enough to worry about, Samantha’s father, Jake, has gone off adventuring in Kazakhstan with her lover Tripp Adams.  While there they get caught up in some dirty politics and the aftermath of a miscarried missile launch, which proves Samantha’s concerns about an EMP attack are not the hysterical musings that some of her enemies in Washington have said.

Running parallel to Samantha’s campaign to get someone to take her concerns seriously is the story of a pair of idealistic college students, one American and one Kazakh.  Pete Kalani wants justice for the Pacific islanders who paid a high price for American nuclear testing in the 1950’s; and Nurlan Remizov has similar concerns about the Russian tests that were carried out and harmed many Kazaks.  The two of them hatch a fairly harebrained scheme that nevertheless has a big effect.  Then the scheme is hijacked by the Kazakh president, with potentially disastrous results.

This is a story about consequences, particularly unintended ones.  It’s also about preparedness.  Perhaps we should all be asking our government representatives what they’re doing to ensure that this fictional story stays fictional.  Remember that shocking scene that ends Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honour” —and how you remembered it on 9/11/2001?

 

 

 

 

The Body in the Boudoir by Katherine Hall Page

Publisher: William Morrow

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader
 
Katherine Hall Page’s latest installment in the Faith Fairchild Mystery series is actually a look back to Faith’s heady youth, during her engagement to Reverend Tom Fairchild and the first time someone attempted to murder Faith.  Since Faith obviously survived, a bit of tension dissipates from the attempts but Page adds an ingredient well-known to most brides: family disagreements on both sides of the aisle.  Happily oblivious and mild-mannered Tom’s personality is bookended by his constantly irritated sister, Betsey, whose heart was set on welcoming someone else entirely into the family.  For Faith, having her dream wedding at the extended family’s estate, The Cliffs, means moments with her beloved Uncle Sky and dealing with his well-meaning but ill-fitting Southern wife.   Faith also has to pull up roots from New York City and close her catering business, Have Faith, and move to a small New England town to become a pastor’s wife, which, as a preacher’s kid, she thought she’d never do.

Longtime readers of the series will enjoy background on the continuing characters but first-time readers will be able to jump right in.  As usual, Page’s descriptions of New England vividly evoke the cuisine, aromas and scenery that allow the locations to serve as a character in their own right.  Unfortunately, her decision to make Uncle Sky’s wife Tammy from the Delta region of Louisiana complicates things when Page claims that Tammy would be “unsure of her French” pronunciation of a particular luxury item.  Spunky Tammy would joyfully use a Cajun or Creole accent perhaps far removed from European French but would never doubt her ability in this regard.

Page includes recipes with the story, describing them in delectable terms in believable parts of the story.  While the reader questions who would want to murder Faith and why, Page adds a twist that will surprise many fans of the series and reveal a source of Faith’s later hard-won inner strength that will serve her so well as a murder-solving, gourmet-cooking, fun-loving  pastor’s wife.

 

 

 

The Inquisitor’s Key by Jefferson Bass

Publisher: William Morrow

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

Jefferson Bass have created something special with their latest release, THE INQUISITOR’S KEY.  They were already creating forensic anthropology-centered thrillers every bit as good as Kathy Reichs.  Now, with this new novel, they enter into the religious, artistic and historical fiction realm of authors like Dan Brown and Iain Pears.

Jefferson Bass --- the pen-name for the writing team of Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass --- continue their Dr. Bill Brockton series with their most intense and deftly plotted novel yet.  Brockton is already working on an interesting case stateside at the Body Farm when he receives a desperate call from France that his protégé, Miranda Lovelady, has been hospitalized with a burst appendix and his presence is needed at her side.

Arriving in France, Brockton is surprised to discover there is absolutely nothing wrong with Miranda and the hospitalization was just a ruse to get him there.  The reason for this deception was that she was afraid to discuss the real reason for the invitation over the phone.  It seems that Miranda and her French advisor, Stefan, may have come across the most important discovery of all-time --- the bones of Jesus Christ!

Brockton realizes this could be the find of the century.  But are the bones discovered in a chamber beneath the Palace of the Popes in Avignon really those of Christ?  Miranda and Stefan require a forensic scientist with Brockton’s expertise to justify or refute the origin of their discovery.  It is not likely that these bones are authentic as the Middle Ages were renowned for faking relics like this for future treasure-seekers to find.

Making matters more interesting is the constant switching of time-lines between the present day and the 1300’s where a backdrop that includes Meister Johannes Eckhart, Pope Benedict XII and an artist known as Simone Martini is explored.  The jaunts into the past make for such compelling reading you will wish Jefferson Bass had written an entire novel just about these engaging and troubled historical personalities.

As rumors of their discovery start to circulate, Brockton and his team realize they may be in danger.  Their exploration also calls in the infamous Shroud of Turin --- another ancient relic long purported to be faked.  Brockton starts to think that the bones and even the shroud may not belong to Christ but to Meister Eckhart!  This deadly fact will anger many and threaten the deepest pockets within the Catholic Church.  Things take a deadly turn when Stefan goes missing and is found crucified to death on a make-shift cross.

What follows is a break-neck paced thrill-ride in which Brockton and Miranda can trust no one and may be the target of a multi-national religious fanatic and his followers who will stop at nothing to claim the bones that were unearthed.  Crosses and double-crosses are abundant as Jefferson Bass stay one step ahead of the reader right up to the stunning climax.

They will have a hard time topping this one as THE INQUISITOR’S KEY will easily go down as one of the best thrillers of 2012!

 

 

Spilled Blood by Brian Freeman

Publisher: Silver Oak

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader

When Christopher Hawk, a lawyer practicing meaningless law in Minneapolis, receives a desperate plea from his ex-wife to come to her small hometown to defend their teen-aged daughter, Olivia, on a murder charge, he’s quick to respond.  It appears that Olivia was the last one seen with the murdered girl in a ghost town nearby, holding a gun to her head and hysterically threatening to pull the trigger.  And while Christopher knows his daughter is innocent, even he can’t help but question that one fact and what happened next.  But there are many suspects in this case that has its roots in the ongoing struggle between one town’s suspicion that the big research company in its neighboring town caused a spurt of cancer among its residents.  And just as family members are committed to loyalty, so are the citizens of each town, all with their own secrets, making the truth that much harder to uncover and that more treacherous.

Taking a break from his successful series, Freeman offers readers a stand-alone novel that provides much of the same ingredients that fans have come to expect: suspense, taut writing, family loyalty, and a strong emotional backdrop easily identify this as one of his.  And while, admittedly, the ending is a bit of a push, this one does well as a stand-alone and will no doubt do well within the genre.  Personally, I find the thriller market a bit oversaturated at this point, leaving a definite lack of what Freeman has done best with in the past  – an addictive character driven series, and I can’t help but hope he’ll return to his series next time out.