Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor

First Sentence: Joe entered the autopsy room unnoticed, stepped to one side of the broad door, and leaned against the wall to watch.
The body of a young woman is discovered and a confession quickly obtained, but it doesn't take much to determine the confession is false.  However, the man who confessed once worked at a large local warehousing company experiencing serious acts of vandalism, the latest of which resulted in a death.  Is there a connection?  Willie Kunkle, a key member of Joe Gunther's team on the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, is hospitalized as there is a suspicious possible outbreak of Ebola.  Are all these events linked?  That's up to Joe and the VBI to find out.
It is hard for many to image witnessing a real autopsy.  The opening achieves several things beyond taking one through the procedure; one is introduced to Joe, learns about his department and his past, and demonstrates Joe's humanity—"This was always an autopsy's watershed moment for Joe, making the divide between seeing a fellow human as someone's recently lost companion or child and simply discovering—piece by piece—what had one made it function." One also meets Beverly, the pathologist and Joe's lover.  This is nicely done both for new readers, and as a reminder for those who have followed the series.  However, it also provides initial information on the victim and the crime. 
Although Joe is the protagonist, his team is an ensemble about whom series readers have come to care, and that's certainly true of Willie and Sammy.  Each character is fully developed and plays a vital role.  That this extends beyond Joe's team to their families creates a sense of reality, including talking about murder in front of the fridge as do Lester and his wife Sue.  It is through his style that Mayor makes the reader feel invested in, and even part of, the team.  What is especially nice is that the characters change and evolve over time.
One of the many things to be appreciated about Mayor is that he provides explanations, such as what is a Spellman entry, as he goes along.  Even better that is the explanations never slow down the pace of the story.  Something about policing which one rarely considers, is well stated—"Joe found himself in the dreariest corner of human behavior in which his job so routinely deposited him, surrounded by the loss, waste, and malice of others."
It's nice to have a police procedural where the police actually follow procedure.  No cutting corners, no bending the law, no working without notice in other jurisdictions.  It is a credit to Mayor's character of Joe that one really starts to believe there are people such as him in law enforcement.  If only they were much more visible.
As connections are made and a threat is issued, tension increases. Again, it's the details where Mayor shines; the explanations of what happened and what will happen.  The plot is really well done, with enough twists and surprises to keep one thoroughly engaged.  There is an excellent ending and an explanation which sums things up perfectly.
"Bury the Lead" is a very good police procedural with an ensemble cast of characters, a delightfully complicated crime. This is another well-done installment in a terrific series.

BURY THE LEAD (PolProc-Joe Gunther-Vermont-Contemp) – VG
      Mayor, Archer – 29th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2018

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Last Call by Paula Matter

First Sentence:  Refusing a ride back to the VFW was maybe the stupidest thing I'd done that morning.
Maggie Lews is trying to make ends meet by taking in a renter and serving as a bartender at the local VFW hall.  Instead, she finds herself suspended from her job and suspected of murdering Korean war veteran Jack Hoffman.   Not trusting the same police who still haven't solved the murder of her husband from a year ago, Maggie decides the only answer is to find the killer herself.
Not only does Matter introduce each of the characters, but we are told something which makes each one memorable.  Matter has a wonderful voice.  Her internal narrative for Maggie really works and makes the character someone to whom we can easily relate—"I could sometimes kick myself for being so stubborn.  And mouthy.  And grouchy.  But I was working on it."  Her issues are similar to those real women face, although possibly under different circumstances—"What did one wear to a strip club?  Particularly a short, middle-aged, slightly chunky woman."  The reference to reading Dennis Lehane adds a nice touch of realism. 
All of the characters are fully developed.  Yes, her neighbor Michael's background may seem a bit convenient, but that diminishes as we learn more about his background. His advice to Maggie adds a nice touch of seriousness—"Okay, don't ever forget that there's a real killer out there.  This isn't a game."  Gussie, a former teacher with a good eye and a sharp mind, is the type of character one always appreciates.  The information about the murder of Maggie's husband and the rumor of treasure hidden in her house is well, and naturally, presented.
It is interesting to learn about VFW halls, their structure and customs.  The tradition of the POW/MIA table is particularly moving.
Some books are filled with descriptions of delectable French or Italian fare.  Matter gives one good ole', stick-to-the-ribs basic meals—"In a matter of minutes, Sally set two plates heaping with fried eggs, bacon, home fries, buttered toast, and unasked-for grits before each of us. … I scraped the last remaining egg off of my plate with a last bite of toast.  Sally whizzed by, grabbed my plate, and plopped down a piece of banana cream pie. "Now, you can have some of my pie.  You earned it.""  Now doesn't that sound good?
Suspense is even more suspenseful when it escalates in increments.  Matter does just that, and does it very well giving us nice plot twists along the way.  It is not often an author provides as much background on the victim as Matter does.  It's a refreshing change which humanizes the one who died.  And it's nice when the killer is someone one should have guessed but didn't.
"Last Call" is a delightful debut.  It's a traditional mystery with great characters that leaves one looking forward to the next book.

LAST CALL (Ama Sleuth-Maggie Lewis-Florida-Contemp) – G+
      Matter, Paula – 1st book
      Midnight Ink – July 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dark Tide Rising by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Monk sat beside the fire and felt the heat seep through him.
Kate, the wife of property developer Henry Exeter, is kidnapped during an outing with her cousin, Celia.  Exeter is told his wife will be killed if he doesn't deliver a large ransom to Jacob's Island, one of the worst slums in London.  William Monk, Head of the Thames River Police, and three of his best men go along to deliver the ransom. When Monk and his men are attacked, it's clear they were expected.  Not only do the kidnappers escape, but Kate is found brutally slaughtered.  How well does Monk really know his men? Did one of Monk's men betray their plans to the kidnapper? 
Perry creates a palpable sense of urgency.  She overlays that by establishing the dangers involved and providing a strong suspicion to taunt the reader with the question as to who can be trusted.   One can almost sense Perry smiling as she takes readers along with her.
There is wisdom in Perry's writing which can see as being appropriate to today—"The raving madman is perfectly easy to recognize.  It's the one who believes he's good, that all he does is justified, who is hard to see.  The one who is in the center of his own universe is the real danger."
Perry doesn't simply introduce one to the characters.  She enables one to see inside them, helps one understand and often like them, as with Hooper and Celia.   Those who follow the series will appreciate seeing how Will, aka Scruff, has developed.  The relationship Monk has with others; his wife Hester, his men, and particularly with his former boss Rathbone, says so much about the character.  Because of that, one can sense his pain at thinking one of his men may have betrayed him and the other men. 
Redemption, in ways both large and small, is an important theme in Perry's writing.  Her thoughts on grief are something with which many can identify and empathize, as are Monk's self-doubts.  It is things such as this which make the characters both interesting and real.  She brings characters in from earlier books, but always in such a way that new readers are not confused.
It is lovely, and a nice distraction, watching as a relationship develops.  The conversations between the two characters are delightfully done.
Perry's descriptions create wonderful visual images—"He thought about broad estuary skies and birds on the wild winds, white gulls, skeins of geese with their wings creaking.  There was no other sound like it."  She is a lyrical writer—"I love numbers, Mr. Monk."  She was looking at him again. "That may seem to be a strange thing in a woman, but they have a beauty, when you understand them.  They are utterly without emotion, yet they have music in them, and reason, and occasionally humor."
"Dark Tide Rising" is not a light, comfortable read, but it is a very good one.  There is violence, danger, anger, and an increasing body count.  Perry even captivates readers with an excellent Victorian version of "Law and Order" as truth will out and justice have her day.      

DARK TIDE RISING (HistMys-William Monk-England-Victorian) - VG
      Perry, Anne
      Ballentine Books - Sept 2018 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

First Sentence:  From the top of Primrose Hill, silhouetted against the arriving day, the spires and domes of London look like the painted backdrop of a Pinewood sound stage waiting for actors to take their places and an unseen director to yell 'Action'.
Psychologist Joe O'Laughlin is coping with Parkinson's, recent widowhood, and raising his two daughters.  Receiving a call that his father has been attacked and in a coma introduces yet another challenge.  Who is the woman, covered in his father's blood, sitting at the bedside claiming to be his father's wife?  Investigating the attack, and the people surrounding his father, completely alters Joe's views and knowledge of his parent's lives.
We begin at the beginning, which is very nice, and with a concise introduction to Joe,  what has led to his present stage of life, and to those around him.  In describing Joe's relationship with his father, we gain an even greater empathy for him.
Robotham's dialogue is excellent; quick, natural, and realistic such as that between Joe and his youngest daughter, Emma.  There is also a very real understanding of what can be the impact on a child of losing a parent—"Emma worries about me because I am the last parent standing.  When we cross the street, she insists on holding my hand—not to protect herself, but to protect me." The portrayal of their relationship is touching without being saccharine or contrived.
The observation about secrets is something which causes one to pause and consider—"Secrets are valuable.  We lie to protect a relationship, or get a job. Or keep the peace, or win the girl, or protect a child.  In a deep psychological sense, we have no self unless we have a secret."  How true and universal, as is the statement—"I began to understand that day that Dad was a product of his own upbringing, just as I am."  And isn't that something with which we all struggle?
In addition to the characters we meet at the beginning, one learns, or is reminded, that Joe can't stand the sight of blood, which makes him wonderfully human.  Robotham skillfully conveys the challenges faced by Joe in living with Parkinson's; his frustration and occasional rage of being subject to its limitations. Then there's Vincent Ruiz, a former cop and Joe's best friend.  What a wonderful character he is.  He's a character who both makes one smile, and one wish for such a person in their own life…maybe.  DI Macdermid is a true copper, neither friend nor enemy but realistically drawn in his pragmatism—"I wish we could swap jobs for a day, Professor. … I have…two sons—one who hears voices from God and the other who thinks he's God's gift." 
This is a story about families, and secrets, and the lengths to which one is willing to go for one's family.  It's about the fact that—"Life isn't fair or unfair.  It is what it is."--and that "Our fates are gloriously uncertain and the arrogance of believing that human tragedy is justified because it's part of some holy blueprint is intolerable."  It also contains very good suspense, well-executed twists, and embroidery-worthy lessons—"Remember, Joseph, the worst hour of your life only last for sixty minutes."  There is an ending one doesn't foresee and a final chapter which may set the tears flowing.  While in general not a fan of the current trend for 400-page mysteries, this was 400 pages which flew by.
"The Other Wife" is a rollercoaster of twists and surprises, filled with excellent characters, thought-provoking truths, and an ending of hope.

THE OTHER WIFE (Myst-Joe O'Laughlin-England-Contemp) - Ex
      Robotham, Michael
      Sphere – Oct 2018

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Forgotten Place by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  The war had ended, but not the suffering.
The war is officially over, and WWI field nurse Bess Crawford has been reassigned to a clinic in England for amputee soldiers.  After the suicide of one of her patients, Bess takes advantage of her 10-day leave, traveling to Wales to check on several of her Welsh patients, one about whom she is particularly concerned.  Deserted by her driver in a very small hamlet, Bess finds herself trapped in a place where she's not wanted but has no way to leave. What is the secret the inhabitants are hiding?  Are they willing to kill to keep that secret?
One realizes how important is an author's voice with from very start.  Todd touches one's emotions and gives the sense of reading a very personal letter.  There is an intimacy to the tone which immediately creates a bond between the author, the reader, and the character of Bess.
The long-lasting impact of war, particularly for the physically maimed, is effectively conveyed—"No conquering heroes, these men.  No victory parades for them.  Our patients were the ultimate reality of war."  It is nice to realize how far we've come from that.  Todd, however, shows that not only did the patients suffer, but so did the families, and the communities from which they came. That has not changed. 
Todd perfectly conveys the insular nature of a tiny community.  The secretiveness, closemindedness, and suspicion of anyone from somewhere else are well captured.  The portrayal of Bess' anger and frustration are extremely well done.  Conversely, we see her wisdom and experience when talking about grief—"To stop living in the present, clinging to the past, is part of mourning for a while, but you have to make a future for yourself.'
Since the story is told from Bess' point of view, much of it is internal narrative, yet the plot does hold one's interest all the way to the end.  A slight criticism would be that the end does feel a bit abrupt. 
"A Forgotten Place" includes well-done suspense, a palpable sense of danger, and a very good twist.   Do be sure to read the author notes.

A FORGOTTEN PLACE (HistMys-Bess Crawford-Wales-1919) – G+
      Todd, Charles – 10th in series
      William Morrow – Sept 2018

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Guilty Dead by P.J. Tracy

First Sentence:  Gus Rankin sipped from a bottle of water as he surveyed Trey's living room.
Gregory Norwood died of an accidental drug overdose.  Or did he?  On the one-year anniversary of his death, his father commits suicide.  Or did he?  What is the connection to an even greater threat that could kill hundreds of lives?  It's up to the police, working with the experts of the Monkeywrench team, to find the answers.
The story opens with a prologue that that works as it is an example of "show, don't tell."   It provides background to the events, people, and connections which form one of the two story threads. From there, Tracy quickly draws one into the main story, introducing the rest of the characters and clarifying relationships along the way. 
It doesn't take long before Tracy's trademark plot twists and wry humor become evident—"There was a gate and a gatehouse inhabited by two armed guards who possessed all the charm of North Korean border-control agents."  The other side to humor is tears.  Tracy also understands—"…that grief was the cost of love and it pillaged everybody in exactly the same way, regardless of socio-economic status.  It was the great equalizer."  The dialogue is wonderfully done, particularly the repartee between Magozzi and Rolseth.
All the characters regular readers have come to know are here, with the extra feature of an extremely pregnant Grace.  Those new to the series need not worry, however, as each is reintroduced in a casual manner, with backstories provided.  However, there are a lot of links between the secondary characters, not to mention similar names in the beginning, which can be confusing. 
Tracy creates a real sense of atmosphere, which is something very different from place or time.  It's a skill which can make one stop and really consider—"Norwood's body was gone, but the pervasive stench of death wasn't.  Its malignant presence had even penetrated the upstairs rooms in the big house.  "There were companies that specialized in sanitizing the aftermath of crime scenes – 'trauma cleaning' was the polite term for it – but Magozzi had always wondered if it was possible to scour a place entirely of death's effrontery."
The escalation of suspense is very well done, but the reliance on coincidences is a bit heavy-handed, in spite of the clever exchange on the subject—"…"'We asked a buddy tonight if he believed in coincidences.' She arched an over-plucked brow. 'And what did he say?' 'He said no.  But sometimes coincidences happen.'"
It is a bit unusual, in a good way, to have a bad guy with a conscience, and the motive comes clear as does the intended target.  It is a circuitous route, but an interesting one.  Even so, the exposure of the villain is hard to believe, and the ending, which includes a predictable scene, rather abrupt.  This is the first book written solely by Traci since the passing of her mother P.J., and it does show, yet one should have faith that she'll hit her full stride soon.
"The Guilty Dead" is exciting and suspenseful with twists galore and plenty of bodies.  Whatever else, it's a fun way to spend a few hours with an entertaining group of characters, and that's not a bad thing at all.

THE GUILTY DEAD (Pol Proc/Tech-Monkeywrench Gang/Magozzi/Rolseth-Minnesota-Contemp) G+
      Tracy, P.J. – 9th in series
      Crooked Lane – Sept 2018 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan

First Sentence:  Do you know me?
Journalist Mercer Hennessy struggles daily with the loss of her husband and child who died in an automobile accident. Reminiscent of the Casey Anthony case, Ashlyn Bryant is about to go on trial for the murder of her daughter Tasha Nicole, yet she swears she is innocent.  Believing Ashlyn is guilty, Mercer accepts the assignment from her editor Katherine Craft to watch a live courtroom feed and write an "instant book" about the trial to be released as soon as the verdict is pronounced. When events don't go as planned, Mercer attempts to learn what is true.
Breaking this book down by the elements and beginning with its hook, there is no question but that the opening captures one's attention.  The pain and grief conveyed in the opening are palpable and relatable to anyone who has experienced extreme loss, as well as the pain of being left behind—"Dex will never be thirty-six.  Sophie will never be four.  Tasha Nicole Bryant will never be three.  I'll keep changing, though.  And keep wondering why." More than that, one is able to empathize with Mercer and the stages through which she goes throughout the story.   Ryan's perspective on the balance of life rings so true—"We live in such a fragile equilibrium.  When one thing changes, everything else has to readjust, same as when a new person steps onto an elevator.  People move, shift positions, make sure that the remaining room is properly allocated." 
What is nice is that in the midst of the sorrow and drama, there is Voice; this character who is only heard, never seen until the very end, who provides touches of light amongst the darkness, and normalcy within the drama—"'You need coffee?' Voice asks.  As if he's talking to me. 'Praise this morning's delay, team, you've still got fifteen minutes.'  'Thanks, Voice,' I say.  'Good idea.'"
This truly is a book of two parts.  In the first part, Ryan once again proves that well-written courtroom scenes can be as suspenseful as any other type of confrontation.  What sets these scenes apart is that the protagonist is neither in the actual courtroom nor personally involved with the hearing.  Yet while Mercer is watching the trial remotely, one is envisioning it, and it works.  Although the end of Part 1 is rather expected, it does leave one wondering as to where the story is headed.
Part 2 takes a major turn and one quickly realizes how subjective is the truth, and how effectively Ryan has done her job.  Even Mercer muses that--“Maybe we never know that truth, since it’s so inescapably transformed by our own point of view.” True to the title, one has incorporated Mercer's views into one's own despite the internal thoughts of "But wait" creating doubt.  Ryan has caused one to not want the answers to those doubts even though they are necessary.  The bigger question is whether one can "trust" the author.
There is so much which cannot be said for fear of any spoilers.  What can be said is that the story within the story is incredibly twisty.  Part 1 is approximately the first half of the book and it's excellent.  Parts 2 and 3 take one down the rabbit hole as we start to lose faith in the protagonist.  We know she is vulnerable; we don't expect her to be naïve.  There is also quite a bit of redundancy.  Does the story seem overly long?  Yes; 50-100 fewer pages might have increased the tension of the story.  Still, the book is a fairly quick read, although one may find oneself skimming a fair amount in the latter two parts.   
Was the ending satisfactory?  It depends.  There is a major thread left dangling.  For those who prefer feeling justice has been served, as usually found in most police procedurals, traditional, and cozy mysteries, and although one knows justice isn't a given, the end is frustrating. However, it may not bother those who enjoy psychological suspense and don't mind an unresolved or ambiguous ending. 
"Trust Me" is twisty, psychological suspense.  It's not perfect, but the very end and the epilogue make up for quite a lot.
TRUST ME (Psy Susp-Mercer Hennessy-Boston-Contemp) - Good
      Ryan, Hank Phillippi - Standalone
      Forge Books – Aug 2018

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Desolation Mountain by William Kent Krueger

First Sentence: He watches the boy on the steep rise above him.
A private plane crashes on Desolation Mountain.  Among those on board were Senator McCarthy and most of her family.  Getting to the crash site and investigating the wreckage isn't as routine as normal. Barriers are erected, first responders disappear, and it appears to Cork O'Conner and his son Stephen that something darker is at work.  Cork meets up with private security consultant Bo Thorson, but even his motives become questionable as they find the danger at hand is far greater than imagined.
To begin with a conversation between Stephen O'Connor and Ojibwe Henry Meloux, is to begin with wisdom and beauty.  Henry's philosophies are ones from which we could all learn.   This is in spite of the ominous nature of the vision Stephen had, the latest of visions he has had all his life.  One can only imagine how terrible it would be to experience visions which foretell only terrible things and which come to pass.
Krueger's character descriptions can be unusual, yet very visual—"Monkey Love looked like the Devil had walked all over him, the result of years of addiction to booze and drugs. …He had unusually long arms and fingers—he'd been called Monkey all his life--…"  Although Bo Thorson was in a previous book, the author wisely doesn't assume readers will have read that book, nor remember the character.  Instead, he provides a well-done introduction to Bo, and to Bo's pragmatism which is both admirable and sad.
It is hard to explain the wisdom conveyed by Krueger through his characters except to say it rings more true than anything one is normally taught.  It truly makes one think about everything by which we are surrounded.  Even so, the question is raised as to who can be trusted.
Krueger is very good at creating a sense of danger, especially at points of calm.  When action does occur, it is very effective.  Such good suspense is created by taking one up to a point of resolution and then introducing a complete plot twist. 
As is known from recent events, there are none more destructive than those who believe they know better than others.  At the end is a statement those who follow the series will acknowledge as being true, although a sadder fact has rarely been written.  Yet, there is a contrasting truth to which one must hold strong. 
"Desolation Mountain" is yet another wonderful book by Krueger.  It is suspenseful and exciting, as well as thought-provoking. It exposes things which are painful while creating hope.

DESOLATION MOUNTAIN (Susp-Cork O'Connor-Minnesota-Contemp) Ex
      Krueger, William Kent – 17th in series
      Atria Books – Aug 2018

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Soul Survivor by G.M. Ford

First Sentence:  Art Fowler came to me on the last day of January while I was sitting in my front parlor drinking coffee and watching a blizzard blow in the from the south.
Retired PI Leo Waterman is asked by Art Fowler, an old friend, to help find answers as to why his grandson would suddenly kill a city councilman and then himself.  No one can explain how Matthew got the gun, which belonged to his father, into the City Hall, and what he did during the nine minutes between when he entered and when he shot the councilman.  When Art allegedly commits suicide two days after making the request, Leo knows he can't ignore things.  Leo's questions into the matter nearly cost him his life and take him into a situation he'd never expected.
The story begins without a prologue, but with a scene which sets the stage—"Out in the orchard, the drifting snow had harlequined the trees black and white.  Looked like every apple and pear had one stubborn leaf, a sole survivor, waving like a drowning sailor as the skeletal branches were slapped to and fro by the wind."  Ford also makes a very true observation about guilt—"Guilt's a funny thing.  Sort of a phantom feeling, because you don't have to be guilty of anything in order to experience it.  You can even feel guilty about not feeling guilty, about stuff you had not one damn thing to do with in the first place.  It's like guilt's an equal opportunity abuser.  Another funny thing:  people who have the most to feel guilty about generally don't."
Ford's voice is reminiscent of 40's noir with sardonic humor.  It's not Tarantino graphic, but it is violent.  One thing which is very refreshing is to not have a protagonist who is critically injured amazingly be up and ready for action in a couple of days.  Ford handles it much more realistically, and includes both the physical and emotional recovery, reminding one of Robert B. Parker's book "Small Vices."
There are excellent and interesting secondary characters, including Leo's gang of old men, but the primary sidekick is Gabriella (Gabe) Funicello, a unique character; one becomes very glad he's there.  Yet each character plays their part, including Leon Marks, a young AP stringer, being quite heroic, and the barkeep at the oyster bar in Conway.
Ford provides an apt description of not only Everett, Washington, but of so many towns around the country—"These were the people for whom the economic system no longer functions, folks who had voted for "something else," because what they did for a living didn't need to be done anymore."  He also understands something some in politics do not—"To make it worse, he told anybody who'd listen he was a socialist, which just drove the locals and the retired military people apeshit.  Far as they're concerned, that's the same thing as a communist."
Emotion, sorrow, and anger are all conveyed well, as is gratitude.  A very refreshing change from the style of many current authors writing in short sentences and having remarkably short chapters, is to reading Ford with long, complex sentences, and realizing the entire book is split into only four chapters. 
Just when one thinks things are calm, they're not.  The tension ratchets up significantly to a level where one has to remember to breathe when we realize we are dealing with a topic, and a group, very much in today's news.  Ford's theory as to why some become involved in radicalized groups makes sense.
"Soul Survivor" presents a very different, and much darker, G.M. Ford than we've ever known.  It's not a comfortable read, but it's an honest one with several "wow" moments.  One can only hope to see more of Leo in the future.

SOUL SURVIVOR (Susp-Leo Waterman-Washington-Contemp) - Ex
      Ford, G.M. – 11th in series
      Thomas & Mercer – July 2018