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A Fatal Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

In 1816, 18 year-old Mary Godwin Shelley spent the summer in Switzerland with her moody husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, step-sister Claire Claremont and friends Lord Byron and John Polidori. During that brief summer, Mary Shelley penned her enduring Frankenstein, Or, A Modern Prometheus about Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the unfortunate monster he created.  After the famous Romantic writers left Lake Geneva, many of them suffered calamities and the ramifications of careless spending, burned reputations and complicated relationships.

Nearly half a century later, the current Percy Shelley, son of Percy Byssche and Mary Shelley, and his wife hire Charles Maddox to find additional papers attributed to the poet for their collection of family records.  This Percy Shelley is a flabby, pale imitation of his father and Charles can’t shake a sense of desperate greediness emanating from the couple.  Charles’ great-uncle once worked on a case for the Shelley family but his own health forces him to remain incapacitated and mute, giving Charles little instruction.  After he meets with their nemesis, Claire Claremont, Charles realizes that he trusts neither party, making his search into his great-uncle’s records that much more urgent, especially when he realizes several pages have been roughly torn out of the otherwise immaculate files.

The investigation necessarily takes him through the past, each step raising new questions about the breakdown between family members and friends.  Charles further realizes that no one can really be trusted and the more he learns about the celebrated poets and authors, the more he suspects each one of terrible crimes.

While based on a story filled with passion and jealousy, A Fatal Likeness never loses its sense of reservation, instantly chilling the deep feelings surrounding the intricate relationships between the historical figures.  Lynn Shepherd also casts considerable doubt on the authorship of Mary Shelley’s most significant work, adding an additional and unnecessary conspiracy.  Even Charles Maddox’ own narrative feels removed, as the professional investigator remains oblivious to the open secret in his own house. Shepherd often creates an ambience but then breaks it with references to 2013, abruptly and casually leaving 1850 before returning to the case.

The relationship between the step-sisters offers an entry into their difficult past and readers will appreciate the complex and intriguing story surrounding the English Romantic writers whose work remain read today. Shepherd admirably shows that modern reality TV celebrities pale in comparison to these early nineteenth century larger than life figures, while creating enduring literary archetypes based on truly tragic experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil’s Cave by Martin Walker

Publisher: Knopf

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

This engaging mystery centers on a tiny French village protected by Bruno Courreges, the chief of police warmly embraced by the family-like mix of inhabitants.  True to form, the residents worry about Bruno when his casual girlfriend Pamela leaves town to care for her aging mother and Bruno’s ex-girlfriend Isabelle visits for the weekend. Of course, Bruno appreciates policewoman Isabelle’s well-trained eye in his investigations when a boat laden with the naked body of a middle-aged woman floats into view.  With no identification or related missing persons reports, Bruno relies on black candles and a few inconsistencies as his main clues. When the local tourist attraction, a multi-roomed cave filled with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, receives a secret Satanic-themed redecoration, Bruno’s mystery deepens, opening old wounds and delving into fresh disasters in the making.

Author Martin Walker (Bruno, Chief of Police) furthers the town’s intimate feel by introducing tiny Balzac, a Basset Hound puppy brought by Isabelle after he loses his beloved older Basset.  Loathe to part with the wiggly creature, Bruno takes him on his investigation, handing him over to the mayor for babysitting duties when required or fashioning a carrying case for Balzac on their nightly horse rides.  Walker weaves these facets into the story, contrasting the mayor’s steely business side—on full display when encountered with opposition to a multi-million dollar upscale development deal—with a softness for the breed and introducing a major character on the nearly daily horse rides.

Walker creates a lovely atmospheric mystery in the vein of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series.  Bruno’s tenaciously hunts for the truth like a hound on the scent but his attention to details regarding the origin of food (knowing the breed of goats and the name of the province that produces the cheese on his plate) and the documented lineage of Basset families and their relationships to the village’s natives results in a full-bodied mystery that satisfies casual mystery readers.

 

 

Dexter’s Final Cut by Jeff Lindsay

Publisher: Doubleday

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader 

Author Jeff Lindsay has created one of the most remarkable characters in all of fiction in Dexter Morgan.  Based on the success of both his novel series as well as the Showtime series, Dexter, his title character has become nearly as universally known as Thomas Harris’ villainous Dr. Hannibal Lecter (himself now the subject of a TV series).

The difference with Dexter is he is far more complex than Dr. Lecter.  What also separates him from other serial killers or villains is that Dexter kills in the name of good and justice. For the uninitiated, Dexter Morgan works by day for the Miami P.D. as a blood spatter forensic tech.  His sister, Deborah, is the current Sergeant of the squad.

The biggest challenge for readers of Lindsay’s DEXTER series is that the story and plot is so different from the Showtime series that it is often confusing.  There are characters killed off on the TV show that are still active in the novels --- and vice versa.  Also, the relationship with Dexter and Deborah --- as well as between Dexter and his step-children --- is far different than the Showtime series.

While the cable series has ended, the novels continue.  With DEXTER’S FINAL CUT, it is unsure if the title is indicative of this great series of novels coming to an end.  The title directly refers to the fact that this plot circles around Dexter and the Miami P.D.’s involvement with providing insight to a new crime-drama television show that needs expert assistance with putting together a highly promoted TV pilot.

Dexter is paired off with the lead actor, Robert Chase, who knows nothing about police work or analysis and seems to be hiding something from Dexter.  The usual lone wolf Dexter Morgan clearly has his style cramped by having to baby-sit an actor.  Plus, this takes him away from his side work involving bringing serial killers to justice via his own alternate life that he refers to as his  Dark Passenger.

What makes things interesting is when the lead actress on the TV series, Jackie Forrest, reveals to everyone that she has been stalked by a creepy fan that may have deadly intentions.  When a murder in Miami bears similar resemblance to a murder that took place in the last place Jackie Forrest filmed, Dexter and team realize they have more than a mere stalker on their hands --- they now have a dangerous serial killer hunting in Miami and possibly targeting Forrest.

Dexter agrees to take extra work as Jackie’s body-guard.  This will not only allow him to make over-time cash but also give him an opportunity to pursue the serial killer in his own unique fashion.  Things get complicated when Dexter and Jackie have a dalliance while he is staying over in her hotel suite.  This not only creates a potential issue for Dexter and his wife, Rita, but also could put him and all those he loves on the hit list for whoever has been pursuing Jackie Forrest.

DEXTER’S FINAL CUT reads quickly as the action never stops and those who love these books (or the Cable show) will enjoy spending time with the recurring characters.  Jeff Lindsay has created a literary monster and pop culture icon with Dexter Morgan and I personally hope we have not seen the last of him in print.

 

 

A Blind Goddess by James R Benn

Publisher: Soho Crime 

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

Followers of crime fiction or TV shows with a court setting will recognise the allusion in the title. The blind goddess is Justice, supposedly available to all because she does not judge by appearances.  Justice was a concept only occasionally met by the subject of this story, the black soldiers of the U S Army in World War II. 

Black soldiers were not only in humble jobs like cooks and quartermaster’s assistants, but in fact were on the front line toward the latter part of the war.  Many of them were stationed in England before D-Day and most of those were accepted well by the local people—but not so well by some of their white colleagues.   Nasty things are happened when the black and white troops crossed paths, and often it was the English who suffered for it—for instance, a bunch of white hooligans arrived where black troops have been peaceably billeted and broke every glass in every pub in town to ensure that no pure white lips would ever touch a glass that a black man drank from.

The premise of this novel is that a member of a black fighting unit has been accused of murdering an English citizen.  His Sergeant, “Tree” Jackson, doesn’t think he did it, but without some heavy-hitting help, the man is almost sure to be hanged.  Tree contacts Lt Billy Boyle an old friend from Boston from whom he’s been estranged for a while.  Boyle works for a small investigation unit that reports directly to General Eisenhower.

When Boyle starts looking into the matter, he finds it crosses with another job he’s been given to investigate on the quiet.  And while he’s trying to sort out his two cases, his friend Diana is desperately trying to get someone in a position of power to face up to what’s happening in the death camps of Germany, but she runs into some of the same sort of prejudice, although a different flavour, that Boyle and Tree are battling. 

James Benn has done a lot of research, and has woven many true incidents into his fiction.  This is a very uncomfortable book to read; you don’t have to be black to feel your blood simmering at the dreadful treatment of black soldiers by those who should have known better.  There was an awful waste of resources by having separate-but-not-equal duplication of many units in the war effort, and the criminal misuse of combat-trained black troops as labourers.  The war might well have been over sooner and many lives saved had the US military and government had the courage to bring in real civil rights in the 1940’s.  Things are far from perfect these days, but every time you see a black officer speaking for the US Armed Services on the evening news, you can see that it is possible to have genuine change in society, if only there’s enough genuine will.

 

 

Solo by William Boyd

Publisher: Harper

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Easily stepping into Ian Fleming’s considerable shoes, William Boyd presents a self-assured, middle-aged James Bond tasked with only one objective: to single-handedly stop a war.  Set in 1969, a fictitious but realistic western African nation has imploded in civil war after the discovery of oil in one region, which now refuses to share with the rest of the country and has instead declared independence. M sends Bond out to stop the war and as always, keep a close eye on Her Majesty’s best interests.

Through the course of the novel, Bond finds aid and comfort in the arms of intelligent, beautiful women and keeps his priorities straight; while investigating an unexpectedly silent home for an intruder, he takes time to pour two fingers of his favorite scotch.  Bond’s latest mission forces him to consider present difficulties, including potentially fatal situations deep in the heart of Africa, but a series of triggers ranging from a specific perfume to a battle’s tactics bring him back to his youth as a World War II soldier and, briefly, even as a schoolboy.  

In Solo, Bond travels to Africa to find the military leader who has thwarted American and British attempts to end the war that has disrupted the plans of the west.  The leader is notoriously well-guarded and secretive, with an uncanny knowledge of strategy and morale-boosting plans while his underdog army stubbornly fights for their new country.  Fortunately, Bond meets exotic Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, the head of the local office whose local contacts can get Bond closer to his target while providing him with distractions along the way.

Just in time for the sixtieth anniversary of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, Boyd keeps his version of Bond close to Fleming’s effortlessly elegant yet relentless 007 while casting aside some of the dated aspects in Fleming’s works while still remaining in the period of the turbulent 1960s.  Boyd adds details of Bond’s luxe life to contrast with the spartan existence he leads while on missions, even adding a recipe for Bond’s favorite salad dressing.  Thrilling and beautifully written, Solo showcases Bond at his loner best so well known to generations of readers while assuring he has a long future of covert service and high end drinks ahead of him.

 

 

Cut to the Bone by Jefferson Bass

Publisher: Harper

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

This disturbing prequel to the Body Farm series reveals the beginnings of the literally named Body Farm, a small section of beautiful Knoxville, Tennessee, land dedicated to the natural decomposition of human bodies for forensic educational purposes.  Dr. Bill Brockton, the cheerful head of the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, has been called out to investigate the remains of a string of murdered young women who suffered torture and mutilation imitating previous cases.  Brockton moved to Tennessee just a few years before and has a wide network of state and federal contacts, allowing him to broaden his investigative scope more easily than a less-connected investigator in the non-computerized era.  When Bill realizes the near-perfect recreations of his previous crime scenes, his paranoia grows and the stakes become markedly higher.  

Written by Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass, the real founder of the Body Farm, have changed some particulars to better fit the timeline of the novels, dating the Body Farm’s inception in 1992 rather than 1981.  The novel explains the rudimentary forensic knowledge of the time, with artistic reconstructions an extreme rarity and even less information regarding insect life cycles and the process of decomposing flesh.

In Cut to the Bone, Bill assigns his graduate assistant Tyler Wainwright the project of studying insects around bodies in a methodical manner for his thesis project, an homage to the real work performed by Dr. Bass’ graduate student, William Rodriguez, and which is now extensively cited.  Jefferson Bass balances the macabre but important work with fleshing Tyler out as a sensitive, level-headed young man still looking for his place in the world.

While Cut to the Bone revisits a world familiar to followers of the series, new readers will be able to easily jump into the story, imagining a world untouched by Kathy Reichs’ or Aaron Elkin’s books or television series such as Bones (based on Kathy Reichs’ series) or CSI.  Written in a casual, unsentimental style, Cut to the Bone delivers chills, worthy characters and a real sense of danger just in time for Halloween.

 

 

 

 

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

Publisher: Minotaur

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Over the course of the Chief Inspector Gamache series, Louise Penny (the excellent The Beautiful Mystery) has created a rich world in which Gamache’s very presence assures his colleagues and friends that everything will work out right, even when faced with danger.  This assurance has started to slip a bit since Gamache and his favorite, Lieutenant Jean-Guy Beauvoir, nearly died on assignment and then a video revealing the terrible circumstances was leaked.  Jean-Guy became addicted to painkillers, ultimately losing his faith and his partnership with Gamache, while Gamache’s department slowly bled agents looking for greater stability and career advancement.  Through it all, Chief Superintendant Francoeur witnesses Gamache’s fall from grace with great satisfaction, knowing that Gamache has been reduced to investigating a nearly insignificant case on behalf of another department.

In fact, while the murder of an elderly woman called Constance Pineault may not have been noteworthy to Francoeur, her identity was once known to nearly every Canadian of a certain age. Like Gamache, Constance had ventured to the isolated village of Three Pines to find solace and understanding; it was their mutual friend Myrna who requested Gamache’s help when Constance failed to return for Christmas as planned.  Gamache has spent years relying on the solid, welcoming people who populate the village and in How the Light Gets In, finally settles in and lets their light fully into his soul when he needs it most.  Eccentric poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa add a light but wise touch while therapist Myrna provides insight  for the already thoughtful Gamache.  Other villagers familiar to long-time readers appear as does the pale, socially awkward Agent Nichol, who was once discarded by Gamache into the metaphorical hell of the basement, the destination for the police department’s computer system.  How the Light Gets In becomes a story of those who are outcasts and those awaiting redemption, all while rewarding those who bravely help themselves along the way.

Inspired by the famous Dionne family, How the Light Gets In is a lovely novel filled with people that are hard to leave and a mystery that gets under the skin. It’s to Penny’s credit that Constance remains well-remembered in death as Gamache’s own struggle takes greater significance in the narrative.  Only the final chapter is initially jarring, since so much happens between the penultimate and the last, although readers will appreciate the extra time with Gamache, Jean-Guy and the village of Three Pines. Police corruption juxtaposed with the snowy silence of the village lead to an emotional climax, all while permeated by Penny’s consistent themes of relationships and acceptance.  

 

 

 

A Spider in the Cup by Barbara Cleverly

Publisher: Soho Crime

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Slow to start, A Spider in the Cup picks up steam after stoic Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Joe Sandilands, dripping with hard-boiled masculinity, wraps up a plodding exposition of derring do with his erstwhile soldier-turned-deadly nemesis, who also egotistically shares his latest exploits and newly honed linguistic skills.  Unfortunately for Sandilands, his nemesis, William Armiger, has the same mission as Sandilands: to protect a high-ranking American targeted by a shadowy organization.  

United States Senator Cornelius Kingstone has crossed the Atlantic with his bodyguard Armiger to smooth discussions between England and the US during the tumultuous year of 1933.  Mired in the Great Depression and still reeling from the devastation of the Great War, both governments are trying to navigate through their considerable problems while monitoring the movements of upstart Adolph Hitler in Germany.

Kingstone intends to report back directly to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon his return—if he manages to make it back alive.  After receiving specific threats and suffering from the disappearance of his fickle mistress, a ballerina named Natalia, Kingstone relies on Armiger and Scotland Yard to protect him during his stay in England.  

Meanwhile, a well-drawn group of dowsers discovers the body of a mutilated ballerina in the muck, made even more mysterious by the placement of an ancient coin in her mouth.  

Although the set-up contains a heavy dose of one-upmanship in order to take one another’s measure, Barbara Cleverly’s (The Last Kashmiri Rose) plot winds through the upper echelons of military and police ranks with a wink, allowing both Sandilands and Armiger to put them into proper context since each saw true horrors in World War I that make their bureaucracy much less intimidating.  Their uneasy partnership becomes an interesting trio with the support of Natalia’s assistant, a woman with her own secrets and fortitude. The secondary characters and an escalating pace in A Spider in the Cup breathe life into the story, resulting in a mildly political thriller filled with complicated loyalties and the dangers of overconfidence or, equally, naivete.

 

 

 

Shoot the Dog by Brad Smith

Publisher: Scribner  

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Virgil Cain is a farmer in New York State. He is a good man with a soft heart. When the local vet asks him to care for two Percheron draft horses, he reluctantly agrees. Eventually he even uses the large workhorses in place of his tractor as he cuts hay. The unusual sight catches the interest of film crewmembers that are scouting locations for a period piece called Frontier Woman being filmed in the area. They offer Virgil $500 a day to use the horses. Virgil is hesitant but agrees since the mortgage payment on the farm is coming due.

Sam Sawchuk is talented film producer. She is talented at the many nuances of the film business including financing a movie. When she substitutes her husband Robb Fetterman for the current director, she loses part of her financing. Although Robb has limited experience as a director, he seems to be as interested in a good buzz from pot and booze as making a film. Sam finds a willing investor in the person of Ronnie Red Hawk, a Native American casino owner.

Still, with a leading actress the magnitude of Olivia Burns, the film has a chance. Then Olivia is killed. Ronnie exercises his new power that his finacing in film has bought by replacing Olivia with starlet Kari Karson. Gradually Ronnie’s lecherous nature and Kari’s well-earned reputation emerge as he chases the starlet.

Virgil would just as soon leave the film crew to its own fate. However, he has made friends with Georgia, a ten-year-old working on the film. Virgil fears that she could be the next victim and works to solve the crime for her sake.

The book is a pleasant departure from many works that prefer explosions and gore to a good plot and character development. Virgil is not flashy or glamorous. He embodies a traditional main character with old-fashioned values and common sense.

Smith has created a pleasant work with gentle satire toward self-important people who gain great wealth while making limited contributions to society. The author has worked as a railroad signalman, farmer, carpenter and variety of other jobs. This shows in his homage to the characters and setting. The book is unlikely to offend more sensitive or younger readers and is highly recommended for those seeking relaxing entertainment.

 

 

 

 

Multiple Exposure  by Ellen Crosby

Publisher: Scribner

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Sophie Medina is a photojournalist based in London. Nick is her husband. He is a geologist working for an oil company. His job allows him to travel and fluent Russian language skills have made him a valuable asset to the CIA. Few besides Sophie know of Nick’s true career.

When Sophie returns to London from an overseas assignment, she confronted with a mystery that quickly turns into an emotional roller coaster. Nick has disappeared. Their flat is covered in his blood. His car turns up abandoned and his wallet with money and ID are left behind. His boss turns up dead and floating in a river.

Just as Sophie begins to come to grips with the fact that she may never see her husband again, a friend with connections in the intelligence community reveals that Nick has been spotted in Moscow. However he appears to be there by choice and moving freely.

Time passes with no more word of Nick. Sophie decides to return to the Washington D.C. area. Her boss in London arranges an interview for a job with Luke, a photographer in Washington D.C. When she is hired, she thinks that the calm will be helpful after her turbulent life overseas. She is greatly mistaken.

Luke has been commissioned to photograph a display at the National Gallery. This is the first U.S. display is of Fabergé’ eggs owned by a powerful Russian oil tycoon. Nick had seen the eggs at the tycoon’s house despite posing as a potential competitor for the oil reserves in a former Russian state.

When the Russian tycoon uses thinly veiled threats to demand documents she is unfamiliar with, Sophie realizes that not all is well. Then she overhears a plot between another Russian and U.S. Congressman staff member to murder someone entering the country in three days.

To make matters worse, the receptionist at Luke’s studio is found drowned in the Potomac. Now Sophie must decide if this is connected to events in her own life or a coincidence.

Ellen Crosby has created a very tense and edgy novel. It is an interesting approach that the amateur detective Sophie is at once threatened by the missing CIA husband’s career and must solve the mystery for their mutual safety. The book is well written and the characters have depth. The book does not use literary devices to make the reader more aware of the plot than Sophie and so it is a mystery in the traditional sense of the word. Overall, it is a good read if not a relaxing one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devil in the Hole by Charles Salzberg

Publisher: Gale Cengage Learning

Reviewed by Robin Thomas, New Mystery Reader

James Kirkland notices that all of the lights are on in his neighbor’s house. Not trying to be the nosy neighbor, but still curious, he checks every night and notices that lights are going out over time. As he watches the house he never sees any activity within even though the Hartman’s have three children and John’s mother lives with them. Kirkland finally decides to call the police and what they find is beyond horrifying. The wife and the three teenaged children have all been killed in the same way, a single bullet in the forehead.  Then the killer neatly positioned them in the ballroom. Upstairs, Hartman’s mother is lying in her bed killed in the same manner as the rest of the family. All the shell casings were picked up, the weapons were cleaned and oiled and the house was made presentable before the killer fled. John Hartman, the husband, is missing and based on the coroner’s estimate, he has a three-week lead on the police. The hunt for Hartman becomes an unwieldy obsession for Charles Floyd, the senior police investigator assigned to the case. John Hartman is a complex individual who commits a heinous crime to shed is oppressive old life as he seeks to find a new life while eluding the police.

Devil in the Hole is a mesmerizing, elegantly constructed crime novel that is based on a true story. Charles Salzberg tells the tale using numerous characters that knew Hartman or encountered him as he moves around to avoid being caught. The voices of Charles Floyd and Hartman himself are raw and compelling as each of them deal with their own inner demons. Each of the other characters provide a teasing snippet of information about Hartman that keeps the reader enthralled as the story unfolds. Even though Salzberg uses over a dozen voices to tell the story, the reader never gets lost despite the complexity of the book. I am typically not a fan of books written in this manner but Salzberg masterfully uses this technique to create a novel that is different in an extremely good way. The author effortlessly blends the different perspectives, viewpoints, and impressions of each character into a brilliant tapestry that envelops the reader, while peaking interest and the desire for more information about the crime. Devil in the Hole is one of the best books that I have read this year and I most highly recommend it.

 

 

A Tap On The Window by Linwood Barclay

Publisher: Signet

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

Linwood Barclay has been one of the best suspense writers out there and it boggles my mind why he is not a household name. The first novel I read of his --- NO TIME FOR GOODBYE --- is one of the finest thrillers I have ever experienced.

Unfortunately, for me, he took a step backward with his last novel --- TRUST YOUR EYES. Good, but not up to his usual standards. I fear it was an attempt to make a less intense novel that would bring him the much deserved recognition his work deserves. However, the bar is set really high by his prior works and TRUST just does not come close to any of them.

With the release of A TAP ON THE WINDOW, Barclay may have not only redeemed himself (for me) but also comes close to outdoing his previous best. When former Police Officer now turned upstate New York Private Investigator Cal Weaver tries to turn his life around he suffers the incomprehensible loss of his son, Scott, as an apparent drug-related suicide. Just when he thought life could not get any worse, a rainy night brings about a tap on his car window in which Cal finds a teen girl (and friend of his late son) asking for a ride home. Little does Cal Weaver know that this fateful ride will turn his life upside down in ways he could never have imagined.

What Barclay does best is build suspense and create a plot that can sustain multiple surprises with the addition of believable characters along the way.  A TAP ON THE WINDOW succeeds because it takes a seemingly simple dilemma --- whether or not to pick up a hitch-hiker --- and allows the results of the protagonist’s decision to push the narrative until things spiral fully out of control.

The story is lengthy but impossible to put down. The secrets kept in the small town of Griffon, NY, will completely consume Cal and possibly provide him the redemption he seeks for his son. The Associated Press blurbs that ‘Barclay channels the best of Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner’. They could not be more wrong --- Linwood Barclay is better!

 

 

First Frost by James Henry

Publisher: Minotaur

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Detective Jack Frost has appeared in six novels by R. D. Wingfield and in the popular television series A Touch of Frost. After Wingfield’s death in 2007, his estate granted permission to publisher James Gurbutt and Daily Mirror crime reviewer Henry Sutton to resurrect Frost under the pen name James Henry.  Keeping true to the original vision of Frost, Henry creates a prequel to Wingfield’s novels that show Frost in all of his 1981-era glory: a cocky man who casually sexually harasses female colleagues and suspects alike along the way to barreling through red tape to help those in desperate need, regardless of the consequences to his own career.

In First Frost, Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister and England has settled into a recession, forcing budget cuts and staff layoffs on the Denton police department.  Detective Sergeant Frost has landed several serious cases as a senior officer since his partner, Detective Inspector Bert Williams, disappeared days before.  Bert’s known as a struggling lush on his way out the door thanks to a retirement date so Frost and the other detectives find themselves even more overextended and underfed than usual.  

When twelve year-old Julie Hudson vanishes from a major department store’s dressing room, speculation abounds that she’s just an unhappy runaway but Frost refuses to take the easy route.  The publicity-wary department store employs two security guards, including an ex-copper, but antagonism between the police and guards bubbles between them.  

Bomb threats promising IRA violence in Denton quickly overshadow Julie’s case plus a call of child abuse is called in, all resulting in Frost’s growing distrust of humanity amidst his exhaustion. Aiding Frost in the investigations is the experienced DC Arthur Hanlon and up and coming detective DC Sue Clarke. Hanlon’s loyalty and thoroughness in the pre-internet world plus Clarke’s fresh perspective and enthusiasm invigorate Frost, even as he spends days away from home, surviving on junk food and wearing the same clothes.

In the same manner, Gurbutt and Sutton (writing as James Henry) revive Frost nearly seamlessly while still allowing him to be the familiar gruff detective familiar to millions of readers and viewers.  With its attention to period workplace harassment and troubles of many kinds, First Frost won’t be for everyone but if you’re going to revisit the tumultuous punk era of disenfranchisement and underemployed, Frost will show you firsthand the excesses and blight that birthed a generation.

 

 

 

The Last Whisper In The  Dark by Tom Piccirilli

Publisher: Bantam

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

To begin with, I must commend Tom Piccirilli as he has recently battled brain cancer and is hopefully turning the corner.

THE LAST WHISPER IN THE DARK is the sequel to THE LAST KIND WORDS --- one of the best crime thrillers of recent years. The characters are so memorable --- a family of thieves all named after breeds of dogs --- which they simply demanded to be revisited.

In THE LAST WHISPER IN THE DARK the central character from the afore-referenced Rand family is Terrier “Terry” Rand. He finds himself mixed up in three different dilemmas: the man living with his ex-fiancée and daughter is wanted by some dangerous people for a heist gone bad; his estranged Grand-father makes a death-bed plea for Terry to rob his failing horror film studio and, lastly, his sister Dale is involved in an on-line video series that could get her in serious trouble.

This time around, Terry has got himself mixed up not only with the local Long Island criminal underground but also with the less than upstanding folks involved in the independent film industry.  There is so much going on in this novel that readers will need a scorecard.  You really feel for Terry as he is trying to always do the right thing by his friends and family but cannot resist the need to call upon his shady skill-set that seems to consistently put him in precarious situations.

What Tom Piccirilli does best in THE LAST WHISPER IN THE DARK is create tension that you will need a knife to cut through --- all the while, creating multi-layered and complex characters with ease.  This series just cries out for a cable-TV version as the unique and mysterious Rand family make for terrific entertainment.

The writing in this series is reminiscent of Lehane and Pelecanos and the characters and situations are constantly engaging. I particularly love the Long Island locales (my home!) and the way Piccirilli deftly blends all three story-lines is nothing short of genius. Here’s looking to more from the Rand clan!

 

 

The Right Side Of Wrong by Reavis Z Wortham

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

This book has one of the most horrifying but impossible-to-stop-reading first chapters that have come across my desk in ten years of book reviewing.  I’d be amazed if anyone can put this book down before finishing page 14.

There’s still plenty of action after that page, but that first chapter sets the stage.  The time is 1965 and the place is Texas.  A mysterious old man has come to town and is fixing up an old farm he claims to have been born on over 80 years ago.  Tom Bell makes friends with Constable Ned Parker’s grandchildren after he saves their uncle Cody Parker from a gruesome fate.  Everyone’s grateful to Tom, but they remain a bit suspicious—strangers aren’t common in this small town, and it’s peculiar that a crime wave starts about the same time as Tom settles down in Center Springs.  Then other strangers turn up in the neighbourhood and they aren’t as friendly as Tom Bell.

Ned Parker is determined to find Cody’s would-be murderer.  It soon becomes apparent that this was no simple drive-by shooting by a local thug who’s got a grudge against Cody.  There’s big crime involved, and it runs on both sides of the US-Mexico border.  Everything comes to a head in a shoot-out worthy of The Alamo, where Ned, Cody, Deputy John and old Tom Bell take on organised crime as well as a do-nothing local police force.

The narrative switches between first person, in the voice of Ned’s grandson, and third person.  It could be argued that the boy’s voice is much too mature for his age, but that’s a small quibble.  The book has a lot of local colour and local characters, including the judge, who reminds one of the protagonist of the old TV show “Judge Roy Bean”.  It also touches on the nascent civil rights issues of the day, with Ned’s big black deputy John having to put up with a lot of gratuitous insults from outsiders who don’t understand how relationships work in this part of Texas.

Author Wortham manages to amalgamate the folksiness of Susan Wittig Albert’s fictional Texas with the gritty realism of Glendon Swarthout’s “The Shootist” to produce a very readable third volume in this entertaining series.

 

 

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader 

The value of a person’s traits can be defined by the society in which they live. Most parents in contemporary society would be pleased to have their child classified as “gifted.” Sakey presents a society where this not the case.

Exceptional traits are appearing that could be beneficial, but are feared by many. This includes physical skills that create record-breaking athletes and intellectual development that yield incredible genius in a variety of fields. The fear results in a society where there are “straights” and “abnorms.”

For a time there is an uneasy truce between the two groups. The government is making moves to assimilate the abnorms into straight society. This includes the testing of children at age eight and the placement of “tier one” abnorms in academies to teach them to function in straight society. The methods employed by the academies are harsh. The children lose their previous identity and are renamed. They are taught to distrust other abnorms.

An agency known as the Department of Analysis and Response is established to deal with the abnorm problem. The department starts out with a small budget and few resources. Cooper is one of the first agents in this fledgling agency. An exceptional thing about Cooper is that he is an abnorm hunting and killing other abnorms.

John Smith is a graduate of such an academy. Smith is quickly becoming the leader of the abnorms as they resist social pressure. Then there is massacre of men, women and children in Washington D.C. restaurant that includes a senator vocal against the abnorms. Video reveals Smith leading the attack.

Cooper spends much of his career chasing Smith and not even getting close to catching or killing him. Then Cooper talks the head of the agency into letting him go under cover as a renegade agent to pursue Smith. This will be an enlightening experience for Cooper. He must learn to trust the abnorms as he realizes that he cannot trust his own agency.

Sakey has produced a most unusual work. This piece is as much science fiction as it is mystery and holds up well in both genres. The reader may suffer some confusion in the first half of the book in terms of the timeline, but if they persevere, they will be rewarded by clarification later on. The author’s style moves the action along well despite the need to note important details. This is all in all a superior work.

 

 

 

 

Downfall by Jeff Abbott

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

If you’ve met him before, you know Sam Capra lives a rather insecure life.  On the surface he’s a normal businessman, running a bar in San Francisco and trying to raise an infant son with the help of a young art student he rescued from some villains in a previous story.  Rescuing damsels in distress comes naturally to a former CIA agent, so when Diana Keene begs for his help one night in the bar, Sam automatically steps in to save her from the bad guys. 

This innocent action leads Sam into a labyrinth of dark deeds and darker people.  Diana Keene is the daughter of a woman who, like Sam, lives two lives.  Janice Keene’s daughter has found out something of what her mother really does when she’s away from home, and it scares her.  A number of unpleasant people don’t want Diana telling what she knows, and as it turns out they are connected to the people who killed Sam’s wife, threatened his baby and got him sacked from the CIA—which led to his being hired by a shadowy secret organisation whose purpose is to fight other nations’ shadowy secret organisations—well, you get the general drift, yes?

Sam’s intervention in the attempted kidnapping of Diana leads to his killing one of the villains, who turns out to be Russian, which excites the interest of the police detective who’s assigned to the investigation.  Sam has to protect his employers’ interests, but finds it hard to be credible as an innocent bystander when he’s the putative owner of 32 bars around the world at the age of 26.  (That really is a bit of a reach and I’d be more likely to believe his story if he were, say, 36—but perhaps Author Abbott made him young for the very purpose of making it difficult for him to be taken seriously sometimes.)

Sam gets out of the police station and rather than go back to work and mind his own business, sets out to find Diana and uncover the reason for the Nine Suns’ interest in her.  He’s met these particular villains before, and they are sure to be up to no good.  The rest of the book zips along like a Harrison Ford movie as Sam tries to find and rescue Diana, and locate a mysterious video clip.  He’s playing a dangerous game, as the man at the centre of the web of bad guys is, to quote the blurb, “the man who owns the people who run the world.”  But potentially more dangerous is a man on Sam’s own side, one who is motivated by one of the oldest and most destructive of human passions.

If you have a long boring airplane flight ahead of you, pack this book; it will take your mind off your surroundings—but perhaps make you avoid bars for a while.

 

 

4-bolt review by Don Crouch

Downfall, the third in the Sam Capra series from Jeff Abbott, is one of the summer’s best page-turners.  Abbott has created a world in which his hero is knocked around like a sock monkey in a clothes dryer while uncovering a vast conspiracy for, well, world domination, starting with control of our American executive leadership.

We are dropped into retired-CIA-op Capra’s world as a woman enters his San Francisco bar (he has a few scattered around, which come in handy), asking for his help. Then a shadowy bunch of operatives make their first appearance at Sam’s bar, resulting in a brawl well-sketched and fun to read.  Abbott creates quite a few action set-pieces, they’re all exciting, with sometimes unpleasant results.

Abbott has a few threads of story that he weaves together, including a dying hit-woman on a legacy gig for her daughter, Sam Capra’s own circle, and that group of shadowy operatives; something he does with a firm grasp on tempo and narrative drive.

And here’s the thing about Capra: he’s like, twelve.

Well maybe not twelve, but in his late 20’s. Way too young, you’d think, to operate with such cynical precision.  But he does, and his past has even brought him a kind of weariness.

Abbott creates an excellent villain in Belias, leader of an organization rooted in blackmail and execution, with layers beyond layers. Abbott lets events define character, and get out of their way so they can tell the story.

Those looking for a Bourne-like series with a noir-ish attitude need to grab Downfall, it’s a blast! 

 

 

 

Skinner by Charlie Huston

Publisher: Mulholland Books

Reviewed by Dana King for New Mystery Reader 

Skinner, the hero of Charlie Huston’s eponymous novel, is in the asset protection business. In a world where governmental security, espionage, and dark ops are often contracted out, he is a legend for his ability to protect experts (“assets”) who lack the skills to do so themselves, and have better things to do, besides. Skinner stands alone because of his unique philosophy of personal protection: The only way to secure an asset is to ensure that the cost of acquiring it is greater than its value. In more personal terms, try to kill one of Skinner’s protected assets, he’ll kill you and anyone who came with you, then hunt down whoever was behind it and kill them, too.

Skinner has been out of the game for several years when Terrence, his mentor, comes to him with a contract to protect Jae, a young woman who builds robots and has a unique gift for finding patterns in data and extrapolating those patterns into action. Officially hired by Kestrel, a company Terrence founded and has since been ousted from, Jae and Skinner find themselves working for Cross and Haven, men with whom each of the protagonists has unpleasant history.

Skinner is an extremely difficult book to review. On one hand it’s an action-packed thriller with stakes constantly being raised and a couple of jaw-dropping surprises at the end. On the other, it has all of the modern conventions that make such stories hard to read for those who enjoy lean, well-crafted prose and plausible stories. The only way around it is to write two reviews.

Skinner, reviewed as an thriller and candidate for an action movie – 5 bolts.

Skinner is the literary version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As Sarah Conner says in the movie: “…the terminator, would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him.”

That’s Skinner. Somewhat autistic, with self-confessed empathy issues after a horrific childhood spent more as an experiment than as a child, he lives to make the cost of killing his assets more than the asset’s worth. Resourceful as MacGyver—though considerably more violent—Skinner is not perfect. He sometimes has to come from behind, and benefits more than once from Jae’s own resourcefulness and unique skill set.

Jae’s investigation of the perpetrators of a software attack on the American power grid takes them from California to Bombay, via Miami, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Cologne, and Paris. Either running into trouble or just ahead of it—sometimes both—they use their wits and chops to achieve a resolution unanticipated by those who hired them and tried to play them, who may well have been played themselves.

Think Jason Statham as Skinner, with Lucy Liu as Jae. Lots of exotic locales, dizzying plot twists, and enough action to satisfy anyone. (And some sex.) Skinner is a summer blockbuster of a book.

Skinner, reviewed as a novel – 2 bolts

Charlie Huston has reached the Dan Brown level of popular acceptance, where it no longer matters if what writers are told makes for a good book has anything to do with the sales potential. Skinner moves the reader along at such a rate that plausibility can—hopefully—be  overlooked. This works much better in movies, where the director and editor can enforce the pace at which the story is presented to the viewer. It’s more problematic for a reader.

Start with description. In a movie, you can see what happens, and the viewer’s eye takes in details almost instantaneously. Books have to lay things out one at a time, at the risk of slowing down the forward motion of the story. Modern thrillers live for this, trying to milk tension through minute description; Skinner is no piker in this regard. At one point it takes Jae almost two pages to get out of her car, get a case from the trunk, and walk thirty feet to a motel door. Yes, she is taking measures to ensure she’s not under observation, but damn. Skinner has his own similar episode, where it takes over a page to describe him striking a single blow.

Also in keeping with modern tastes, both Skinner and Jae—especially Skinner—have incredible backstories, using the original definition of “incredible”: not credible. This plays into the current practice of no longer allowing for the suspension of disbelief; there can’t be any disbelief at all. To think about any of this is to watch the momentum fall apart. Tedious description of some actions is interspersed with unexplained feats. (Example: while it may take Jae two pages to get out of her car, Skinner can penetrate a gated and guarded compound without a word of explanation, and he and Jae are followed with ease—even beaten to some locations—despite their best efforts.)

Skinner is not to be read so much as absorbed. Read it at 200 frames per second and don’t leave time for thought.

*   *   * 

The second review may well be unfair; Skinner is not meant to be a leCarré novel. Take it for what it’s meant to be and you may have a hell of a summer read on your hands. Be advised, though: that’s all it will be.

 

 

The Eye Of God by James Rollins

Publisher: William Morrow

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader

James Rollins has made a niche for himself in the currently overcrowded historical fiction field.  He not only excels at creating eerily plausible premises based in some form of ancient history infused with a good amount of scientific research but also combines it with the brutal action of a Special Forces novel.

Rollins once said at a book signing that he has a ‘magic box’ that he draws his ideas from for each of his novels.  As he comes across interesting news or scientific articles he cuts them out and puts them into the box.  Then, when he is in need for a new idea to base his next novel on, he shakes up the box and reaches in.

It may not actually be that simple --- but James Rollins makes it look that way!  His latest Sigma Force Novel is entitled THE EYE OF GOD and presents readers with an end-of-the-world plot that will have them clinging to their seats.  Imagine, if you will, that the famous Mongol warrior Genghis Khan may be genetically related to a good portion of the world’s population.  Statistics state that 1 in 10 Mongolians and 1 in 200 men around the globe share some genetic make-up with the ancient conqueror.  I  guess it pays to conquer many countries and have many wives!

The Eye of God literally refers to a downed U.S. military research satellite.  It is not just important that the satellite be retrieved from where it landed (supposedly, somewhere in the remote wilds of Mongolia) but more urgent is the images that were viewed from it before it crashed.  Sigma Force Director Painter Crowe and several other high-ranking U.S. Government officials witnessed a feed from this ill-fated satellite that depicted much of the U.S. Eastern seaboard decimated and in flames --- the apparent victim of a massive meteor strike.

As usual, Sigma Force --- led by Gray Pierce --- is split up pursuing different segments of the same assignment. Gray and a small team of colleagues team up with a pair of Vatican historians to discover the actual cause of the Roman Empire’s fall.  This pursuit leads them from China --- where they face off with both a highly dangerous criminal Triad as well as other unsavory characters --- and ends up converging with the rest  of Sigma in the sacred Mongolian territory that has been preserved since the days of Genghis Khan.

The rest of the team is already in the Mongolian territory in search of rare artifacts relating to Genghis himself. As it turns out, both teams need to gather Christian and Mongolian artifacts and place them strategically in an ancient place that has not seen the light of day in centuries.  This combination of artifacts may indeed have the necessary might to deflect the oncoming meteor that is aimed at planet earth.  Without this deed being accomplished, the magnetic pull that was prophesized in ancient times will keep the meteorite on its deadly course.

THE EYE OF GOD is a page-turner of the highest caliber and I defy any reader to avoid the temptation of consuming it all in one sitting.  As always, Rollins provides an informative afterword entitled Truth or Fiction, whereby the most speculative ideas that were posited have the most evidence supporting their validity.  Fans of sci-fi and physics will enjoy the passages on quantum physics and dark energy that provide for a nice alternative/twisting final chapter.

 

 

Her Last Breath by Linda Castillo

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Reviewed by Ray Palen for New Mystery Reader 

Linda Castillo takes readers back to Painters Mill, Ohio, for her fifth thriller featuring Police Chief Katie Burkholder set against the backdrop of the local Amish community.  HER LAST BREATH depicts two separate mysteries --- one from the present and one long-hidden from the past.

Each situation has the power to rock the Amish and non-Amish communities and one of them is especially close to Chief Burkholder.  The novel opens with a brutal hit-and-run accident where a local Amish farmer and his three children are struck by another vehicle and left for dead on the side of the road.

At the point when Burkholder gets the call she is the first to arrive on the fresh accident scene.  What she finds will shock and unsettle her.  Only one of the four in the family will survive the accident --- a young boy named David --- and she immediately recognizes the father.  He is the husband of her former best friend, Mattie.  Chief Burkholder holds the distinctive background that includes being raised in this Amish community only to venture off.

Burkholder has not spoken to Mattie for twenty years and now her next conversation with her will involve having to report the tragedy that her family has met.  Because of her relationship to the family affected by this accident, as well as her long-term ties to the Amish community, Burkholder takes special interest in finding the responsible party and bringing them to justice.

While this is happening another situation rears its ugly head.  The remains of a long-dead body are found in a silo by two Amish boys.  Local law enforcement is called in and it turns out the remains are those of a man who has been missing for decades.  More importantly, this man was tied to Chief Burkholder and her family in a way that she never wanted revealed.  How will she be able to follow her hit-and-run case with this past crime hanging over her head?

What Linda Castillo does best with HER LAST BREATH is to make it immediately accessible for all readers.  You need not have read any of the prior novels to be able to jump fully into this release.  Also, the unique setting and clash of cultures provided by the Amish and non-Amish residents of Painters Mill --- especially Laurie Burkholder with her dual perspectives --- makes HER LAST BREATH a fresh and engaging thriller that is hard to put down.

 

 

 

Full Ratchet by Mike Cooper

Publisher: Viking

Reviewed by Jim Sells, New Mystery Reader

Full ratchet is a financial term meaning that an investor’s percentage of ownership in a company will remain the same even if the company is sold.

Silas Cade is a contractor who is hired to make sure that executives of companies aren’t cheating or stealing. He does this with more than a calculator and pencil. He is described “an accountant with a gun”. His military background has endowed him with a special set of skills.

Silas has been asked by a colleague to go to Pittsburgh and deal with a high tech company. This looks like a routine job and it would give him time to look up his long-lost brother, Dave, who has recently contacted him. The men were separated as children and raised in different foster homes.

Silas goes to the company and confronts various executives including the CEO of that division. He believes that he has convinced the men of the error of their cheating ways by various methods that include cutting off part of one of the CEO’s fingers.

Silas heads out to meet Dave. While at Dave’s welding shop two carloads of Russians show up and do their best to kill Silas. They manage to destroy Dave’s shop in the process. Then another covert team headed by a woman shows up. This tells Silas that he has at least two interested parties after him.

Silas uses several contacts in the financial community to obtain info for him while he and Dave stay one step of his pursuers. His contacts reveal that the Russians are former Soviet commandos. A very ethical businessman nicknamed “The Buddha” currently owns the company. The woman is named Harmony and specializes in abduction rather than murder. Silas is not sure how this information is connected.

Silas and the Russians leave a path of destruction in their wake as they battle across Pennsylvania. Eventually, Harmony is fired by her employer and joins Silas. With Harmony and Dave’s help, Silas is able to unravel the mystery and discover that the whole affair involves insatiable desire for massive wealth.

This work is highly entertaining as an action thriller. The financial angle gives it a different background than many others of this genre. If there is a shortcoming, the characters could stand a little more development. Still, it is an enjoyable and fast read.

 

 

 

 

Pinot Envy by Edward Finstein

Publisher: Bancroft Press            

Reviewed by Karen Treanor, New Mystery Reader

I am predisposed to like a book that has a clever title.  I’m sure Sigmund Freud would have also liked this one.  The title is a good start, but of course you need a good plot, interesting characters, and perhaps an exotic location as well.  Every location is exotic to somebody, and in this case it’s California, home of some fairly decent wine, a lot of rich people, and a good selection of sophisticated crooks.

Woodrow “Woody” Robins lectures on wine at a local college, and as a sideline operates as a private detective in mysteries involving wine.  He is hired to discreetly investigate the disappearance of a bottle of Chambertin that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte and which has a price-tag higher than most people’s lifetime earnings.  The very rich man who owned the wine has the best security money can buy—but it depends on a computer, and you’d be spoiled for choice in a place like California if you wanted to find a cyber-crook.

Woody is happy to take on the job, because it will take him out of town for a while.  This means he can avoid making a commitment to his long-term girl friend who wants to move in with him.  He needs the fee he’ll get for the job, because he has an aged aunt with osteoporosis who needs treatment but hasn’t enough money or health insurance. (This is the USA, don’t forget.) 

Woody also has a bad case of retromania; he’s fascinated by the 1930’s and 40’s.  You may find this trait becomes intrusive.  Woody doesn’t sip his wine, he ‘takes a hit’; girls don’t have legs, they have gams, just like in 1942.  If you can overlook this stylistic annoyance, you’ll find an intriguing story with an O. Henry twist at the end.  You’ll also learn a bit about the weird world of wine, such amusing trivia as ‘vintage dust in a can’ for wine collectors to spray around their custom-built cellars.  You know you’re in California when products like that are available!

Now for what I didn’t like: the oenologist’s descriptive habits have crept out of the bottle into the book.  We’ve become accustomed to this sort of thing: “the nose was vibrant with gooseberry, melon and citrus, while the palate was crisp, fresh and lively.”  It’s a bit harder to take when applied to the characters: “A stout large balding man…had a bit of a paunch, bushy brown eyebrows and a rosy complexion that probably came from drinking too much.”  That’s more description in one sentence than anyone’s managed since Dickens hung up his eyeshade.

 

 

 

 

Death of a Dyer by Eleanor Kuhns

Publisher: Minotaur

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

William Rees has recently returned to his family farm after spending much of the last twenty years wandering as a weaver.  Now widowed, Rees wonders what to do with his fourteen year-old boy, especially since he was ill-used by Rees’ sister Caroline and her husband before Rees evicted them from the land.  Making things more complicated, Rees has opened himself up to town gossip since he brought Lydia with him to work as his housekeeper.  Although the red-haired Shaker lives in a cottage rather than in the main house, Rees knows that the small town will pay little attention to that fact.  

Businessman and fabric dyer Nate Bowditch’s murder forces Rees to face the townspeople, since he and Nate were once close as brothers before a quarrel separated them nearly two decades before.  Nate’s greedy but lovely wife Molly hires Rees to prove her  son Richard innocent of patricide while she freely casts doubt on Nate’s other son, born to another woman who continues to work in the family home.  Nate apparently changed greatly since he and Rees were boys, a fact that makes Rees feel every one of his now thirty-six years.

Perhaps the most striking element to careful readers is what’s not there since Kuhns uses modern language patterns and avoids archaic phrases common in the late eighteenth century.  Some of the issues that arise stem from a modern understanding of human nature although placing a Quaker and a nonconformist as two major characters helps with that.  Still, Kuhns is careful to include the casual brutality of domestic violence that legally permeated relationships in the nation’s early history.

Kuhns, winner of the 2011 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition, pays attention to details when it counts, particularly in visual elements so important to craftsmen like Nate and Rees.  When she describes Nate’s attempts at dyeing, she uses vivid imagery and ensures that the characters embrace his techniques with reverence and respect.  Even writing that the “gray clouds clotted the western sky like heavy cream,” shows Rees’ artistry and the observation skills he needs as an investigator.

Although Rees knew most of the victims and suspects from childhood, he quickly realizes that none of them have remained unchanged by time and all have secrets they’d rather the traveling weaver not know.

 

 

 

The Fame Thief by Timothy Hallinan

Publisher: Soho Crime

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

People’s careers often don’t turn out as expected. Take Junior Bender. A burglar since he was a teen, never caught in twenty-some years. Made good money at it, though his wife never got used to the idea and Junior was asked to leave. One day he found himself in a jackpot with a major criminal and the only way out was to conduct an investigation. That went well. Word got out. Now Junior may think of himself as a burglar, but his real job title is Private Investigator to the Underworld.

The potential for fun is limitless, and author Timothy Hallinan provided a lot of it in Junior’s first two adventures, Crashed and Little Elvises. Hallinan had so much fun writing them he didn’t care about a contract and published them himself as e-books. Readers had so much fun Soho broke from the rest of the publishing industry and made a good decision: starting with The Fame Thief, Junior Bender is now in hard cover. (Crashed and Little Elvises are now available physically, as well.)

Irwin Dressler ran Hollywood for the Chicago mob when the Outfit truly did run Hollywood. Older than dirt, his income now legit, Dressler’s habits are still old school. Sixty years ago he entered into a complicated, platonic relationship with starlet Dolores Del Marr. Faithful to his wife despite her growing insanity, Dressler was fascinated with Dolores’s beauty. That didn’t make him special; every man in Hollywood was. Dressler was in a position to do something about it.

Dolores had a problem of her own: she hung out with mobsters. Not a moll, she met George Raft, connected up to his ears, and fell into that social circle. Her career fell apart when she was arrested at the wrong party and the tabloids had a field day. (For younger readers, there really was a time when moral indiscretions, real or perceived, could ruin someone. Not saying this was better than how things are now, but it sure was different.) Sixty years have passed, and Dressler calls Junior to find out who set Dolores up.

The Fame Thief is darker than Junior’s two previous stories; so is Junior. The humor and breezy banter is there, as is the always entertaining supporting cast: his daughter, Rina; Rina’s boyfriend, Tyrone; getaway driver Louie the Lost; and, a new addition, Junior’s girlfriend, Ronnie. Added to the sauce that flavored Crashed and Little Elvises so well is a more detailed look at the psychological aspects and impacts of events, much the way Hallinan probes them in his Poke Rafferty stories. The overall effect is scene reversal on a grand scale, contained not within a chapter, but spanning the entire novel.

A brief diversion into what brought Wanda Altschuler from Scranton to Hollywood to become Dolores Del Marr is reminiscent of a similar passage in Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong, and as effective. Showing the effects of such a journey—engineered by her mother, for her mother—on a sixteen-year-old girl makes the reader care about Wanda/Dolores on a more personal level. It also justifies Junior’s willingness to up the violence ante when juxtaposed against his relationship with his daughter, even though the scenes with Junior and Rina are the most entertaining in the book.

Hallinan has shown a tendency to work historical events into his stories more as his career progresses. The Fame Thief is his first to use actual people as characters. George Raft, Tony Accardo, Johnny Stampanado, and other gangsters from the 40s and 50s are key to what has befallen Dolores. Hallinan’s research is solid, and he interweaves true and fictional people so well I had trouble sorting a couple of them out myself.

The Fame Thief is a rare commodity, a good read that is satisfying on multiple levels. Highest recommendation.

 

 

 

The Doll by Taylor Stevens

Publisher: Random House

Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

In the vein of Steig Larsson’s well-known Millennium trilogy, The Doll features the very capable and highly lethal Vanessa Michael Munroe in a role that requires the aggressive hunter of evil men and women to become uncomfortably passive as prey.

Known as Michael, the battle-scarred woman has finally allowed herself to feel a little peaceful now that she has a home and has fallen in love with a man whose own professional skills complement hers.  Miles Bradford has an idea of the tortures Michael has undergone and his own job requires his team to effectively and quietly deal with problems that would challenge the capabilities and ethics of most Americans.  The two give each other support, independence and considerable trust, making Michael’s disappearance right in front of Bradford’s view even more heart-stopping.

After watching her from his own distant perch, a bizarre mogul known as the Dollmaker kidnaps her and forces her to act as a transporter for one of his high dollar “dolls,” a young woman with a high-profile and stunning beauty especially requested by a client seeking to add to his collection of humans.  The Dollmaker’s clever way to control Michael means that she will interact with her human cargo, knowing that she’s delivering her to a certain and horrific fate even though it’s in Michael’s power to save her.

Meanwhile, Bradford frantically tries to free Munroe from the Dollmaker’s control even as she races across Europe to complete her mission and somehow save the last vestiges of herself. Since Michael trusts only a literal handful of people, an intentional act of betrayal by one of those men and women endangers not only her life but those of everyone she loves.

Well-written with fast-paced action, The Doll’s main disadvantages are the similarity to recent Scandinavian fiction and a seeming regression into her solitary world.  Fortunately, Stevens should have the opportunity to further expand Michael’s world and continue to flesh out the tormented assassin’s difficult journey to a type of peace while still showing her intelligent brand of action.

 

 

The Abomination by Jonathan Holt

Publisher: Harper

Reviewed by Ray Palen, New Mystery Reader

The debut novel by British author Jonathan Holt, THE ABOMINATION, is already bringing about comparison to the work of Dan Brown.  With Brown’s latest release, INFERNO, already atop the International Best Sellers list this is a strong comparison to make.

What sets Holt’s novel apart from other recent historical thrillers is that THE ABOMINATION is a multi-layered tale taking place not only in the landscape of modern day Venice, Italy, but also among a virtual version of the same city that is accessible through a website entitled Carnvia.com.  Secrets abound in both the real and virtual worlds and two strong-minded women may be the only ones capable of unlocking them in time to stop a merciless killer.

Purportedly the first novel in a planned trilogy, THE ABOMINATION introduces readers to Carabiniere Captain Kat Tapo who is working on her first murder investigation. Under the guidance of senior investigator, Detective Aldo Piola, the pair is faced with a bizarre murder scene where a female priest is killed as part of a much darker conspiracy.

As the body count mounts Holt introduces two parallel narratives that add to the complexity of this thriller.  The first involves American Second Lieutenant Holly Boland who is stationed at an army base called Camp Ederle.  She is barely there 24 hours when she is tasked with locating information for a civilian that pertains to alleged crimes against humanity during the war in the former Yugoslavia.  When the woman who makes the request turns up dead, Holly is drawn into the mix of the murder investigation being led by Kat Tapo.

The third key player in this novel is by far the most unique and mysterious of the trio.  Daniele Barbo is a master hacker who created the virtual Venice site called Carnivia.com.  He is on trial himself for some of his illicit hacking activities and working hard to keep things afloat.  He is facially deformed and a loner with a hidden agenda that no one can put their fingers on.  It is inevitable that his particular skill-set will come into play with the case Kat and Holly are working on and allowing them access to Carnivia and its highly detailed layout of Venice will give them the ability to go places virtually that they cannot get to in the real Venice.

The title of the novel refers to the murder of the woman found in Priest’s garb and the ancient history whereby the thought of a female Priest was an abomination in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  Coupled with various occult and unidentifiable symbols being found on the various bodies discovered in this case leads investigators to speculate that some sort of religious sect may be involved.  When the case literally crosses lines with the war crimes inquiry being made by Holly the nature of what is an abomination before God takes on new meaning.

THE ABOMINATION is a well-researched novel and Holt shows a lot of promise as a talented writer who is able to juggle multiple plot lines without dropping any balls.  I would have liked to have spent more time within Carnvia.com as the passages describing that virtual world were quite stunning.  Filled with excitement, history and intrigue THE ABOMINATION entertains while not getting bogged down in figuring out ancient puzzles but instead humanizes every element of the story to create an engaging story that will have the reader begging for more from these well-drawn characters.

 Reviewed by Bonnye Busbice Good

Daniele Barbero lives amidst multi-million dollar art treasures and priceless antiques in his family’s historic home in Venice.  After his kidnapping and mutilation during his childhood, those hold little appeal, especially since his father essentially gave away the family money to a trust, leaving the adult Daniele a ward.  Daniele escapes through his website, carnivia.com, a nearly perfect reconstruction of well-storied Venice that allows him to silently roam through his beloved city without ever leaving home.  

Daniele isn’t the only one who escapes through Carnivia.  Women who have been discreetly ordained as Catholic priests meet with others who protest current Vatican policies regarding the priesthood.  When two of these women are murdered, the Italian Carabinieri send Captain Katerina (Kat) Tapo and her superior officer Aldo Piola to investigate.  

Simultaneously, Second Lt. Holly Boland has just returned to Italy in an official capacity. As a daughter of a well-regarded US military officer, Holly lived on numerous bases throughout the world but has always thought of Italy as her second country.  Her delight in returning to the people, food and general lifestyle is palpable even as she commits herself to routine tasks that threaten to bore anyone with ambition.  Holly’s luck changes when she receives a letter from a US citizen asking for information concerning a well-known war criminal about to go on trial.

Jonathan Holt’s novel is engaging, especially when tough Kat and well-trained Holly are working together or when complex Daniele appears.  Holt occasionally allows his American character to say British phrases such as “should I have done?” and periodically calls the English language as spoken by the crown’s former colonists “American,” which can feel a little jarring.  The question of women being ordained as Roman Catholic priests also takes on a much more sinister feel in the Italian setting than it does for those real-life counterparts in the United States, who evoke controversy but in a much more contained fashion.  

The Abomination is the first of three books in a planned trilogy, promising thrills from a tight partnership between some of the likeable, multi-faceted main characters who live amidst historical magnificence and contemporary conspiracies.

 

 

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

Publisher: Crown

Reviewed Bonnye Busbice Good, New Mystery Reader

Readers find Noa P. Singleton, mid-thirties, tired and sitting on death row with a final date looming larger in her fuzzy brain each day, a fact punctuated by the frequent hours-long visits by her new attorney, Oliver Stansted.  Oliver, British and passionate on improving the American justice system and freeing the wrongly accused, works for sophisticated, powerful attorney Marlene Dixon, a woman who happens to be the mother of the woman whom Noa killed a decade before.  Marlene promised at Noa’s trial that she eagerly awaited Noa’s death but now vows a reversal in her thinking and has just created Mothers Against Death, an acronym too tempting for Noa not to mock.

During Noa’s flashbacks, she remembers how she met Marlene’s daughter, Sarah, and also her own stilted relationships with her absent father and destructive actress mother. Oliver hopes to overturn Noa’s sentence while Marlene vows to file clemency petitions but Noa confides to a manuscript, allowing that to be her main voice and, ultimately, the strongest one.  Noa’s memories are at the heart of this story along with what Marlene desperately hopes to achieve in each chapter marked with a countdown to Noa’s planned execution.

A debut novel from writer and attorney Elizabeth L. Silver, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton slides between Noa’s incarcerated present, lonely childhood and the brief period as a young adult in which she almost escaped into the dream of the well-educated middle class. Silver briefly takes readers through Philadelphia’s blue collar in contrast with the Dixon’s well-heeled but oppressive life but always jumps back to Noa’s tiny cell in a neighborhood of other convicted killers, including one who wakes up every hour pleading for her lover’s return.  

In a lovely turn, Silver imbues each of Noa’s names with great meaning, from the empowering Israeli first name, the reality of being a Singleton as a lonely adult and an only child, to the tightly held secret behind her middle initial.  Threads begun at different parts of the story all tie up in the end, adding gravity to Noa’s situation but with a bit of detachment that she would appreciate.

Throughout this thoughtful, well-written novel, Silver shows that Noa’s rough upbringing and truncated potential don’t necessarily require sentimentalism; instead, she allows Noa to tell her story simply and confessionally while the peripheral characters reveal sins equally devastating—remaining with the reader long after the last word is read.