Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Inheritance by Charles Finch

First Sentence:  London was silent with snow, soft flakes of it dropping evenly into the white streets, nobody outside who had somewhere inside to be.
Private Enquiry Agent receives a rather cryptic request for help from an old boarding school friend whom he has not seen for many years.  It was a private bequest which allowed Gerald Leigh to attend Harrow, and now he has been notified of a second, even more generous entitlement.  Leigh has been attacked once and now when they go to question the attorney, they find him murdered.  Between East End gangs, and members of the Royal Society, Lenox has his hands full keeping his friend alive while solving a mystery.
Finch is a wonderfully evocative writer.  From the opening paragraph, you are in the room with Lenox and a scene eminently relatable to anyone who has lived in a snowy climate.  He then sets the stage for suspense and introduced us to the characters, all in a very concise, economical fashion.  Finch is very good at providing background information on the characters as they enter the story.  If one is a fan of British detective shows, one might smile at the character of “Inspector Frost.”
One of the pleasures of reading historicals, is the small bits of information one learns—the genesis of “cabs,” why the English drive on the left while American drive on the right, and the changes brought about in the Victorian age, including fish and chips.  It is also, sadly, interesting to note the disparity between the salaries of man and women, and the conflict between science and politics. To further establish the sense of time, we have mouth-watering descriptions of food—“Baked mullets came out to the table; rissoles, and roast fowl, and macaroni with parmesan cheese, and sea-kale; for dessert there was a laudably enormous charlotte russe placed at the center of each table, with vanilla hard sauce trickling down its sides.”
Dialogue is a strength of Finch’s, particularly that between Lenox and his brother Edmund—“What shall we do now?” Edmund had asked.  “We could have a look around Truro.”  “Yes, that should be a thrilling eight minutes.”          
The Inheritance” is wonderfully done with excellent arcs to the story, with rises and falls in the suspense, and a delightful ending.

THE INHERITANCE (Hist Mys-Charles Lennox-England-1877) – Ex
      Finch, Charles – 10th in series
      Minotaur Books, Nov 2016

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Inherit the Bones by Emily Littlejohn

First Sentence:  In my dreams, the dead can speak.
Deputy Gemma Monroe is still haunted by two young boys who went missing, and whose skeletons she found, years later.  Now, she is called to a traveling circus, and the murder scene of a young man who was thought to have died three years previously.  What happened back then, and why has he turned up now, having completely altered his looks?  The more Gemma digs, the more she finds links from the present to the past and another death of which they were completely unaware was linked.
What an excellent opening.  It is both poignant and memorable.  It also ensures you want to read on.  And isn’t that the purpose of a well-executed hook?
Littlejohn creates a strong sense of place that impacts all the senses but then makes us smile before taking us into the very serious reality of a crime scene.  Littlejohn's voice is very evocative, which is both good and disconcerting.  It is certainly effective.  You really do find you don’t want to stop reading.  I know I’m being repetitive; it’s hard to avoid it.
From the protagonist of Gemma, down to the secondary characters, each character is well-drawn, realistic and fully developed.  One can’t help but love Tilly, the town’s librarian.  She is the perfect light touch to the story. 
Gemma is a particularly appealing protagonist.  She is 6-months pregnant, strong, smart, very capable, admired by her co-workers—well, all but one—and persistent.  Yet her life isn’t idealized, or perfect.  There are definitely issues with which she is dealing.  She is complicated on her own, and we like her all the better for it.
Littlejohn wonderful paints verbal pictures—“His voice was low and sounded like he’d spent some serious time down in the bayou; I heard in the ebb and flow of his words, days spend on shrimping boats, in swampy wetlands, watching shell-pink and blood-orange sunsets over the Gulf.”
The danger and suspense are carefully introduced and slowly escalated, and the path nicely strewn with red herrings.  It’s nice to read a police procedural that is solved by following the clues.  It’s nice to read a resolution to a case that isn’t a cheat, but on that is realistic in today’s system of ‘justice.”
Inherit the Bones” is a very good book, even more so when you consider it is Littlejohn’s first book.  She is an author one certainly may want to follow. 

INHERIT THE BONES (Pol Proc-Deputy Gemma – Colorado-Contemp) – VG+
      Littlejohn, Emily – 1st book
      Minotaur Books, Nov 2016 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Ash Island by Barry Maitland

First Sentence:  On a November night in 2013, two kilometers off the coast of New South Wales, a helicopter rises from the deck of a Chinese bulk carrier ship.
Det. Sgt. Harry Belltree has been reassigned to Newcastle, Australia.  With him is his wife, pregnant and blinded from an auto accident which also killed his parents.  Yet on the job, a corpse has been found, which turns out to be one of many and, Harry suspect, related to the car accident.
Maitland does provide excellent descriptions and analogies—“The boom of the surf rises up to her like the rhythmic chant of some primeval chorus, the chorus of the dead.”
This is definitely the second of a trilogy, as there are a lot of references to past events.  Maitland does try to catch new readers up, but there are times when it is rather frustrating for those who start with this book.
For a cop, Harry certainly plays fast and loose with the law.  However, there is some very good suspense.
By far, the female characters are the strength of the story, particularly Harry’s wife, Jenny.  The journalist, Kelly, is also interesting, even though she does commit the classic TSTL (too stupid to live) act.  Sadly, Harry was a difficult character with whom to connect. And yes, sadly, there is a completely unnecessary portent.
Ash Island” was an okay read.  The dialogue was rather flat, and one felt a bit manipulated knowing it was necessary to read all three books in order to know the full story.

ASH ISLAND (Pol Proc-Sgt. Harry Belltree-Newcastle, Australia-Contemp) – Okay     
      Maitland, Barry – 2nd of Trilogy
Minotaur Books, Nov 2016

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Christmas Message by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Vespasia stood at the long, open window of her hotel bedroom and gazed across the rooftops of the city toward the western sky.

Lady Vespasia and her new husband, Victor Narraway, are traveling to the Holy Land for Christmas.  At their hotel in Jaffa, an elderly man is murdered over an ancient piece of torn parchment.  Vespasia and Narraway feel compelled to finish his mission and deliver the piece to Jerusalem.  On their journey, they meet someone with a second piece of the document and are threatened by a shadowy figure.  Can they complete their journey and reunite the pieces of the document?
There is so much for one to admire about Perry’s writing, but most of all, it is her ability to make one think—“How much is any place seen through the lens of one’s imagination, colored by the dreams one has of it and of the events that have happened there?”  She is one writer where I find myself making note of a huge number of passages—“One should be growing, changing, learning forever.  Ideas in the mind were like the blood in the veins.  The heart that does not beat is dying.”
Vespasia is one of those characters one would love to know, or even better, to be, in real life.  She has an intellect, independence, and strength that is remarkable and admirable—“Because to be alive is risk; to care is to be vulnerable.  The only safety there is lies in doing your best, being the bravest and most generous you can.”  It is nice to learn more of her history.
A Christmas Message” may be one of Perry’s weakest in terms of plot, but is still worth reading for the considerations it inspires in the reader.

A CHRISTMAS MESSAGE (HIST-Vespasia and Narraway- Holy Land – 1900) - Okay
      Perry, Anne – 14th Christmas Novelette
      Ballentine Books, Nov 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield

First Sentence:  My darling daughter, This is your mother’s story.
Claire Talbot, Florida state prosecutor, has been newly promoted to Felony Division Chief.  The unearthing of two skeletons by a construction crew reopens a case that happened before she was born; a string of abductions. But who exactly is retired cop Marc Hastings?  Not only did he work the old case, but he seems to know things about Claire that  are beyond a stranger’s knowing.  Can they solve the old case?  What happens when Claire learns the link to her past?
There is nothing quite like starting off with a healthy dose of creepiness, and Schofield definitely provides it.  He also writes, initially, in short, very intriguing chapters that keep one reading way into the late night.
Schofield is good at instilling questions in your mind. He is as good at keeping the reader off-balance, as does one of the protagonists to the other.  Yet, one is completely intrigued by all the characters, particularly Claire.  
The plot is a cracker.  It takes until about half-way through to have even a hint of where you are going.  Rather than being frustrating, one finds oneself smiling, anxious to continue the journey.
There are amazing wrinkles to the plot that are so well done.  One definitely has to pay attention.  On the informative side, there is very interesting information on geographic profiling.
Time of Departure” does have a paranormal factor to it, but it’s also a book that leaves you saying “Wow!”.  It is so well done.  What is amazing is that the author never tries to explain the events, but you don’t care.  The story is so effective you simply keep turning the pages.

TIME OF DEPARTURE (Susp/Para-Claire Talbot-Florida-Contemp) – Ex
      Schofield, Douglas - Standalone
      Minotaur, Nov 2016

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Angel by M.J. Trow

First Sentence:  It wasn’t often James Batchelor had the house to himself, but just sometimes he could persuade Matthew Grand that the Muse must take precedence over finding lost dogs and other footling pursuits.
Private enquiry agents, Matthew Grand, a former Union Calvary officer, and former British journalist James Batchelor, are approached by well-known journalist George Sala who wishes to employ them.  Author Charles Dickens has died of an alleged stroke.  Sala believes he was murdered.  Is he right?

It is not often one finds oneself chuckling through the beginning of an historical mystery.  Yet the housekeeper of Batchelor, whose recent weight gain is expressed in stones, and Grand, with his weight gain conveyed in pounds, prompts just that reaction—‘He’s a bit…Blobby.’ ‘Mrs Rackstraw! That’s not a polite way to describe our guests.’ ‘No, but you wanted to know…’ 
Trow’s use of language is such a pleasure to read—“…Frederick Chapman came in. No one knew of Emmeline Jone’s passion, except perhaps the post boy; all of the editors, sub- and copy-; the woman who ‘did’ and brought their tea; and Mrs. Chapman, who found it all rather hilarious.”—as well as his inclusion of historic individuals in realistic roles.  And, again, this use of humor makes this delightful to read.
The plot continually builds with the addition of other deaths which keeps the mystery going.  However, it is attention to the social issues of the period which significantly adds to one's interest.  Very Dickens.
The Angel” is an unexpected and delightful tale with twists, turns and intriguing suppositions over the death of Charles Dickens. 

THE ANGEL (Hist Mys-Grant/Batchelor-England-1870) – G+
      Trow, M.J. – 4th in series
      Severn House, Nov 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake

First Sentence:  It was a day on which the sun was a disc of polished brass, and flocks of  white cloud chased each other cheerfully across a blue field of sky; the perfect September afternoon for a game of bowls.

      When the body of a newborn is found in one of the tannery skinning pits, it is up to Coroner Titus Cragg, and his friend physician Luke Fidelis, to determine if the infant had died before or after birth, who was the mother, and who was responsible.  The first inquest is interrupted by a near-fatal fire, after which Cragg is fired from his post.  It’s clear someone doesn’t want the truth to be known.

      The story begins with a very effective contrast from a pleasant game of bowls, to the rank odor of the tannery, to the pronouncement of finding the body of a newborn.

      Blake provides a fascinating and frightening look at how medicine was practiced by traditional practitioners.  We have the contrast of Dr. Harrod, who believes in astrology—“A thirteenth child born under Virgo.  She is full of dread.”—and judging an illness by the visage of the person—“Touch it?  Certainly not, Titus….Troubled spirits can be transferred in that way.”--, and Dr. Fidelis, who believes in science, and the advances in forensic medicine—“Of course, he would know nothing of the…lung-in-water test. … It is the test for stillbirth that they do at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London.”

      Cragg is a very likable character.  He takes his position very seriously, believes in justice tempered by mercy, and loves literature. The inclusion of literary references from “The Fable of Bees” and “Don Quixote” provide a sense of reality to the characters.  Cragg’s relation with his wife is lovely and adds charm to the story.  One can particularly appreciate Lizzie’s outrage that a woman whose child is stillborn, rather than miscarried, would be tried for murder.  She also provides a woman’s observation and information to events, particularly during a time when men didn’t have casual conversations with females with whom they weren’t well acquainted.

      Although the author does include one completely unnecessary portent, the formality of the dialogue creates a sense of the period without trying to replicate it—“What was an utter triviality a hundred years ago may be an utter gravity now.”  True fans of Agatha Christie might find that Cragg and Fidelis remind them, somewhat, of Harley Quinn and Mr. Satterwaite.  Or not.

      “Skin and Bone” is a well-done historical reminding us that greed and politics are as old as time.  The story does have a surprising climax and a very gratifying ending.

SKIN AND BONE (Hist Mys-Cragg/Fidelis-England-1743/Georgian) – G+
      Blake, Robin – 4th in series
      Minotaur Books – Oct 2016

Friday, December 2, 2016

Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva

First Sentence:  A plow had buried the hydrant under five feet of snow, and it took the crew of Engine Company No. 6 nearly fifteen minutes to find it and dig it out.
Newspaperman Liam Mulligan is a true son on Providence, RI.  His beat isn’t the elite.  It’s the crooks, mobsters, and hookers, as well as the police and fire departments. Now, someone is starting fires in his old neighborhood.  First, it’s just empty buildings.  Until it’s not.  Mulligan wants to know who, and what, is behind it.  Trying to get the answers may cost him his life.
DeSilva’s opening is not only heartbreaking, but the implications are terrifying.  Seven arson fires with a half-mile in three months is no accident. 
It’s hard to tell about other places, but if one is from the East Coast--meaning from New Jersey to Boston’s North Shore--this book is very recognizable, and very effective.  Providence is a small, tight community, especially amongst those who have been there for generations, and you feel that. “When a Rhode Islander needs something he can’t flat out steal, there are two ways to get it.  …Chances are, in a state this small, you know somebody who can help. … No? Then you have the option of offering a small gratuity.  Graft, Rhode Island’s leading service industry, is widely misunderstood by citizens of states you can’t stroll across on your lunch break.  Those of us who live here know that it comes in two varieties, good and bad, just like cholesterol.”  
DeSilva’s characters are very real.  There are good guys, bad guys, and many who are varying shades of gray.  Mulligan, Rosie, the first female fire chief, and Edward Anthony Mason IV, son of the newspaper’s owner and referred to as “Thanks-Dad” by Mulligan, are definitely the good guys.  You enjoy them and worry about them.  DeSilva’s prognostication of the newspaper industry is depressing, yet one we’ve come to see be true. 
The language is what one would expect to find among people of this rank so if one is profanity-adverse, this is not the book for you.  However, if you like sarcasm and well-done narration that occasionally makes you chuckle, one should enjoy this.   A side note is that DeSilva incorporates his wife’s poem and his daughter’s name into the story.  Yes, it does pay to read the author notes.
DeSilva’s descriptions are so effective—“I heard the fire before I felt it, the flames sounding like a thousand flags snapping in the wind.  I felt it before I saw it, the head like a backhand slap from the devil.”  History buffs will appreciate the historical information that runs through the story.
Rogue Island” has humor and a bit of romance, but the underlying crimes are very serious and have heart-breaking consequences.  In the end, it is a story of trust, betrayal and justice, realized in an unorthodox way.

ROGUE ISLAND (Lic Inv/Jour-Liam Mulligan- Providence, RI-Contemp) – G+
      DeSilva, Bruce – 1st in series
      Forge – 2010

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Shameful Murder by Cora Harrison

First Sentence:  It was Reverend Mother Aquinas who found the body of the dead girl.
On the night of the exclusive Merchant’s Ball, the body of a young woman, dressed in satin and seemingly from the upper class, is found washed up by one of the frequent floods of the River Lee.  The Reverend Mother and young Sergeant Cashman believe she has been murdered.  Surprised by how little grief her father and brother show, there are other questions that arise causing the nun, policeman, an enlightened physician, and a journalist for Republican Party to join forces in looking for answers.
Reverend Mother is someone one can’t help but like from the very beginning.  She is in her 70s, and is someone who has lived a life about which one learns throughout the story.  She is sharp, and good at knowing, and managing, people.  Her sister, Lucy, is delightful and plays an important role.
The time setting provides a very interesting look at a time of change.  This is the first year of a very uneasy independence from English rule.  Yet it is also appalling to realize what men, especially those with money and power, could do to wives they no longer wanted—“Yes, it’s easy enough to have someone shut up in an asylum – if you’ve got the money, and got the power.  Do you know two out of three inhabitants of the asylum are women and do you know the diagnosis that is down for most of them - hysteria – and what’s hysteria?  You tell me that. …I can’t because it isn’t a disease.”
The plot is very well done, with very effective twists.  Between the flooding, raids by the Republicans, and the killer, Harrison builds suspense extremely well.  One can really appreciate all the information detail Harrison includes in the story.  Although the frequent references to the rising water and flooding seem tiresome at times, it is an important part of the sense of place, and an integral element to the story.
A Shameful Murder” is well-plotted, has excellent characters, a villain one does not expect and a very gratifying ending.  It’s nice to see Ms. Harrison branch into a new, potentially very good, series.

A SHAMEFUL MURDER (Hist Mys-Rev. Mother Aquinas-Cork, Island-1923) - VG
      Harrison, Cora – 1st in series
      Severn House – May 2016