Thursday, April 20, 2017

Where the Dead Lie by C.S. Harris (aka Candace Proctor)

First Sentence:  The boy hated this part.
Poor street children die all the time in London.  Dr. Paul Gibson calls for his friend, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, to view the body of Benji Thatcher, a young boy who was tortured and murdered, and whose young sister is missing.  St. Cyr's outrage for this crime leads him to learn how many children are missing, the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and the realization of wealthy men who torture children for pleasure.
There is nothing better than a compelling opening chapter, except when that chapter leads to another, and another, and a complete story all equally good.
While the plot captures one, it is the characters to whom we are most attracted.  With few words and simple descriptions, Harris brings her characters to life.  Harris takes us from the lives of the most wealthy, to the most poor, with Dr. Gibson being the perfect middle note. One of the things that makes St. Cyr such a strong character, is his sense of morality—“Someone’s been killing poor children…” “…Do you know who is responsible?”  We all are, Sebastian wanted to say. You. Me. This city.  This nation. Everyone who ever saw a cold, hungry child alone upon the streets and simply looked away.”
Harris employs the same deft hand in establishing the sense of time and place, as well as transmitting the emotions of each character.  It is painful to read the descriptions of the lives of the poor, especially the women.  She doesn’t shy away from acknowledging man’s capacity for violence--“Any man who has ever gone to war understands only too well the worst of what his fellow men are capable. … He reached the conclusion that this capacity for barbarity actually forms a fundamental and inescapable part of whatever it means to be human, however much we might want to deny it.”  Yet Harris knows how to tug our heartstrings as well.
A really good author educates as well as entertains.  Among the things we learn are about making shot for rifles of the time, and 14th/15th-century building construction.  Additionally, she also provides an accurate assessment of humanity—“With humanity’s capacity for great good comes the capacity for unfathomable evil.”
Where the Dead Lie” is a very good book with plenty of action and suspense.  More importantly, it deals with a very painful theme which still holds true today. Do be sure to read the notes at the end. 

WHERE THE DEAD LIE (Hist Mys-Sebastian St. Cyr-London-1813/Regency) – VG+
      Harris, C.S. – 12th in series
      Berkeley – April 2017

Monday, April 17, 2017

The First Rule of Ten by Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay

First Sentence:  I was just sitting down to a cold beer and hot corn soup, at the end of a long week, when my phone rang.
Half Tibetan, half Caucasian, raised in the Buddhist monastery, Tenzing “Ten” Nurbu always wanted to be Sherlock Holmes.  Now retired from the LAPD, he becomes a private investigator with a high-tech sidekick and his first case. 
It’s always intriguing to have a protagonist with an unusual background and Ten is definitely different.  A very good opening introduces us to the character, his background, outlook, and ambition all within a dangerous situation and very effectively sets him, and us, up for the next step.  Then, for some unexplainable reason, Hendricks falls into the rookie author trap of not one, but two portents.  Happily, he stopped that completely unnecessary device after those two. 
The mix of Buddhism, with descriptions and explanations of the rituals such as a bardo, is nice, but more research for accuracy would have been appreciated.  Still, it’s a nice offset to Ten’s passion for his car and guns.  His alleged telepathic powers with his cat is a bit over the top. I would suggest not reading this while hungry—“Thirty minutes later, we were serving up a cashew-and-vegetable stir-fry with basmati rice.  Expertly chopped cucumber salad on the side.”
There is an interesting mix of philosophy and menace in a verbal dual--“The Buddha himself said we shouldn’t believe his words without question—we must discover the truth for ourselves.”  Brother Eldon saw things a little differently.  “Obey your God, Nehemiah.  Obey me.  Go! Guard God’s Paradise!” I got a sudden urge to “find my own way” out of there, and quick.”—and a simplistic, but adequate definition of karma—“…it is our intention that determines our karma; good intentions produce good karma; bad intentions produce bad karma.”
The story is well-plotted, and a bit painful for those of us who all too well remember Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, but with a very interesting and effective twist.  There are a few minor inaccuracies related to Buddhism, and rather TSTL move by the protagonist.
The First Rule of Ten” has plenty of action and a good resolution, as well as some minor first-book problems.  Still, it makes for a good airplane read. 
 THE FIRST RULE OF TEN (PI-Tenzing Norbu-LA-Contemp) - Good
      Hendricks, Gay and Tinker Lindsay – 1st in series
      Hay House Visions – January 2012

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Black Fall by Andrew Mayne

First Sentence:  When she saw the telephone pole with the yellow plastic base again, Olivia Fletcher slammed on the brakes of her mail truck, bringing it to a skidding halt.
FBI Agent Jessica Blackwood’s boredom on stakeout is irrevocably broken by a woman appearing at the door threatening to kill the baby she’s holding. The same day a major earthquake hits the East Coast, and a video is televised of well-known Peter Devon, dead for eight years, predicting the location and date of the earthquake, promising more predictions to come.  But for Jessica, the critical question becomes who is pulling the strings of the building chaos.
There’s nothing like a really good opening.  An entire town disappearing is a really good opening.
Jessica Blackwood is a fascinating character; as is the author himself—do read his bio.  You know a book about a woman whose father and grandfather were magicians, as she also was before working in law enforcement, is going to be different.  However, it only takes a few pages before you also realize how intense is the action.
Mayne has a wonderfully readable voice; he’s a natural storyteller. He has done an excellent job of having created a completely believable female character.  He moves the story along at a rapid pace, but doesn’t rely on any one device.  Yes, there’s suspense, but the story is also filled with Jessica’s memories, historical information, her observations, and even her insecurities—“I bought this outfit three years ago, and I’m sure I didn’t see a single person with the same lapel style in the entire FBI building in the last twelve months.  It’s stupid stuff like this that drives me nuts.  I’m hung up on it because I think other women may be hung up on it.  It’s a vicious cycle.” It's not easy for authors to write cross gender, but Mayne does it exceptionally well.
More than a mystery, the story is filled with fascinating ideas in information—“Almost five hundred years ago, John Wilkins, a philosopher and bishop, pushed heavily for the written language to adopt an upside-down exclamation point at the end of a sentence to indicate irony.  Think of how many online feuds that could have prevented.”  While some authors cause one to seek a dictionary, Mayne prompts visits to Wikipedia.
Damian is an intriguing character about whom we’d like to know more.  And, we realize we probably won’t.  It is that mystery that keeps him so intriguing.
Mayne is frighteningly spot on with some of the events happening today.  This makes the book both fascinating and terrifying—“The ammunition is rumor, innuendo, misinformation, and leaks. …the delivery vehicles are ordinary citizens, journalists, media personalities, and politicians.”  As much as I tend to dislike prologues, the connection to it is very well done later in the story.  
Good dialogue, natural-sounding dialogue, can make all the difference to a story even when it’s a monologue to a horse perfectly conveying the character's nervousness about the situation—“Alright, boy.  If you don’t hear from me in ten minutes, go get help.” Silverback stares at me blankly. … “And get me a grande latte…um, and a cowboy…blue eyes, independently wealthy, not too rustic….” I pat Silverback on the flank, which he interprets as a signal to start walking.  I chase after him and grab the reins. “Wait! Hold up.  Not yet.”  Silverback stops and gives me another of his looks:  Seriously, lady?”
 “BlackFall” has excellent suspense, and twists; great characters, and very relevant themes.  It is, so far, the best book in the series.  Yes, at times, it’s over-the-top and there are plot holes, but one doesn’t really care.  Once embroiled in the story and the series, it doesn’t let go.  One simply, impatiently, waits for the next book.

BLACK FALL (Pol Thriller-Jessica Blackwood-US- Contemp) – VG+
      Mayne, Andrew – 4th in series
      Harper Perennial – March 2017

Monday, April 10, 2017


First Sentence:  The man stood in front of Thomas Pitt in the untidy office, papers all over the desk from half a dozen cases Pitt was working on.
Queen Victoria summons Commander Thomas Pitt to investigate the murder of her confidant, Sir John Hilberd.  Sir John had been looking into the influence Alan Kendrick, a horse-racing enthusiast might have on Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales and, perhaps, prove a danger to the monarchy.
Perry so perfectly creates the environment of the time, the constraints and social restrictions on men and women, and the division of the classes—“Aunt Vespasia calls all her maids Gwen, regardless of what their names really are.  I don’t think they mind.”  Perry’s details are exacting, right down to the way we imagine Queen Victoria might sound. 
This is a time when Germany and the Kaiser are looking at expanding their power.  That the Pitt’s son, Daniel, realizes this and wants to study German, looking at a possible career in the diplomatic service, is interesting and a possible bridge to the series’ future.
The Boar War, and that there were actually two Boar Wars, isn’t something about which most know very much.  While this doesn’t go into the war, it focused a bit on the lead up to it.  It deals with the issue of the greed of men, and on trading connections for profit.
For those who follow the series, it is nice to see Charlotte and her sister, Emily, working together again to help Pitt in his investigation.  Perry’s descriptions of fashion and food provide us a true sense of place and time, as do the inclusions of actual historical events and the social issues of the time.
Murder on the Serpentine” is a very good entry into and excellent series.  Redemption is a theme which runs through the series. The manner in which the villain is dealt with is satisfactory and very effective, and the ending particularly gratifying.         

MURDER ON THE SERPENTINE (Pol Proc-Thomas/Charlotte Pitt-England-Victorian)-VG
      Perry, Anne – 32nd in series
      Ballentine Books – March, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mission Hill by Pamela Wechsler

First Sentence: I’m in bed, silently reciting their names.

Prosecution attorney Abby Endicott learns a colleague has been killed execution-style by gangbanger Orlando Jones. Abbie takes on the case, in part as she blames him for the murder of her friend many years ago. If she loses, not only does he walk, but she could lose her license to practice law.

Pamela Wechler’s legal and screenwriting background are apparent from the first paragraph. She certainly knows who to capture the reader’s attention, as well as touching one’s emotions. Yet the explanation makes sense, as do the geographic references.

Our introduction into Abby’s background is handled early and quickly. The relationship between Abby and her lover, Ty, is a nice counterpoint to the case. That it’s not a perfect relationship is a refreshing change.

Wechler’s voice is crisp and real—“The sleek, high-tech building offers one-stop shopping; it houses the homicide unit, the crime lab, the ballistics lab, the identification unit, and the fugitive squad. It’s a kind of like a Neiman Marcus for prosecutors.” For those who know, or even want to visit, Boston, Wechler describes the city very well, good and bad, as well as its politics, and the project known as “The Big Dig.”

There are interesting details about which one wouldn’t normally think—“A hospital emergency is a cheater’s purgatory. Spouses and girlfriends rush to be by their man’s side, only to discover that he has another significant other—or others. There’s nothing that a bed-bound patient can do to prevent the encounters.” The author’s wry humor helps offset the drama nicely—“A dirty mop and bucket are in the corner, next to an overflowing trash barrel. The order of grease is so strong I feel like I need to go to Elizabeth Grady and have my pores extracted. I was hungry when I walked in here. I’d planned to get a burger and a bag of fries for the road. Now I’m seriously considering becoming a vegetarian.” However, fewer product placements wouldn’t have gone amiss.

There is a very good escalation in the seriousness of the plot, but it also goes a bit over the top. For being a legal mystery, there could have been time spent in the courtroom.

“Mission Hill” does have some weaknesses, but it’s a very credible first effort. It will be interesting to see how the series progresses.

MISSION HILL (Legal Thriller-Abby Endicott-Boston-Cont) - Good
Wechsler, Pamela – 1st in series
Minotaur Books – Mar 2017

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong

First Sentence:  We’ve been tracking Shawn Sutherland for almost two hours when the blizzard strikes.
The Yukon Canadian town of Rockton is completely off the grid and its residents, those running from their past/past crimes, are controlled by a remote town council.  The unapproved departure of one of those residents leads to the discovery of a woman who has been held captive in a cave for over a year, as well as the bodies of two other women. The town’s sheriff, Eric Dalton, and homicide detective, Casey Duncan, need to find the person responsible.
No easy, gentle opening here.  Instead, the story begins with a strike to the senses and continues on to the end with a story that keeps you totally off balance.
 The town of Rockton is as unique as its residents.  Each has a history of which only parts are revealed as the story progresses.  And as with any small town, there are rivalries, jealousy, and mistrust, heightened in Rockton by the resident’s pasts.  Then there are the “outsiders,” those who don’t live in the town, but with whom some of the residents have contact; and the “hostiles,” with whom no one deals.  The relationship between these characters, as well as the characters who live with Rockton, is what gives humanity and dimension to the story.
There is an interesting analysis of a serial kidnapper/rapist.  In fact, although much of the book focuses on action and suspense, there is a fair amount of psychology included, along with an appropriate reference to “Lord of the Flies,” as well as a line that can make one smile—“Do you ever look back on your younger self and just want to slap her?”. 
A Darkness Absolute” is a fascinating book dealing with the complexities of what are considered we humans.  It’s also highly suspenseful and very well done.

A DARKNESS ABSOLUTE (Susp-Casey Duncan-Canada-Cont) – VG
      Armstrong, Kelley – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books– February, 2017

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence:  There comes a point in the life of a balloon when it has lost so much air that it's taut, festive body becomes sagging, wrinkled and—well, frankly, sad.
DCI Bill Slider is decidedly unpopular at HQ due to those implicated in his last cast.  A young couple discovers a skeleton in their back garden.  It’s thought to be that of a young girl who disappeared from that garden two decades ago.  Slider’s boss, DS Porson, hope this case will be simple and will keep Slider out of harm’s way.  But does it?
Harrod-Eagles never disappoints.  Her use of language, Britishisms notwithstanding, is always a delight, including her chapter headings.  Her descriptions of people makes them immediately recognizable—“Carver was a miserable bastard, who had raised resentment to an art form, and his leaving do was appropriately cheerless.” and—“It was time that Atherton, the serial romancer, settled down.  He was tall, handsome, elegant, and irresistible to females.  Pure catnip.  He could commit sexual harassment by sitting quietly in another room.  Really, the world needed him to be taken out of circulation.”
How lovely to have the protagonist be in a marriage that has suffered its rocky patches, but that works.  There is an excellent comparison between Slider being a cop, and his wife Joanna being a professional musician.  There is also a moving and painful description of a mother learning of her daughter’s body being found years often her disappearance.  It is this ability to convey both light and dark equally well that makes CHE such a fine writer.
Slider and his team truly are a team.  They are an ensemble cast, each with their own parts to play and backgrounds about which we learn.  The case is a jigsaw puzzle, put together piece-by-piece, following the clues. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the cases are clichéd or the ending pat.  They are far from so being.
 “Old Bones” is a very well-done police procedural with excellent characters.  It is so well written; no prologue, no tricks, no portents or cliff hangers, just 256 pages of solid writing.

OLD BONES (Pol Proc-Insp. Bill Slider-England-Contemp) – Ex
      Harrod Eagles, Cynthia – 19th in series
      Severn House, Feb 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

First Sentence:  In summer, the season of the Hollywood blockbuster, Bingham, got to work at eight in the morning and didn’t leave until long after midnight.
There were two unsolved crimes in the summer of 1986; six movie theater workers were murdered, and a teenaged girl vanished from the state fair.  Now, 25-years later, two people are trying to find answers to those two mysteries. But now there’s a third mystery. Wyatt, now a P.I. in Las Vegas, has been hired to return to the small Oklahoma town where he grew up in order to find out who is trying to destroy the owner's music club. Are the three cases linked?
Berney creates a very good sense of time and place, immediately drawing one into the story.  He then tops that off by also creating a palpable aura of fear, but without graphic detail.
All three primary characters—Wyatt, the PI; Candice, who is being harassed; and Julianne, whose sister disappeared—are well developed and interesting.  Yet it is Wyatt, in particular, who draws one in and makes one care.  He makes the reader want the answer to this question as much as he does—“One of the toughest things about being a detective, Wyatt supposed, was that you never really stopped detecting.”  Wyatt makes us contemplate.  Don’t we all, at times, wonder about those from our past?—“He tried to remember the line from Lear.  “That way madness lies.”"  
The plot keeps one turning page after page.  The threat against Candice is real and absolutely chilling.  What is more effective than a plot that has definite “Wow!” moments as does the mystery involving Julianne’s sister.
The Long and Faraway Gone” is not your average mystery.  Yes, there are mysteries, and there are resolutions; however, it is more about people who were once lost, but now are found.  It truly deserves every award it was given.
THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE (Novel-Wyatt-Oklahoma City-Contemp) - Ex
      Berney, Lou - Standalone
      William Morrow Paperbacks-Feb 2015 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Kahn

First Sentence:  Esa Khattak turned his head to the right, offering the universal salaam at the conclusion of the evening prayer.
Esa Khattak and Det. Rachel Getty are members of the Canadian Community Policing Section which handles minority-sensitive investigation.  At first glance, it doesn’t seem that the death of Christopher Drayton, who is believed to have fallen from a cliff, fits their charter.  Or does it? And is that Drayton’s real name? Was he really Canadian, or did he have a much darker past?
During this time in which we live, learning about other cultures and religions is not only informative but vital.  The very humanizing aspect of Khattak’s rug being made by his ancestors, and that we learn of his wife’s death, are good indications of the man.  It is also an excellent introduction to the character’s history and that of the unit he heads up; the Community Policing Station.
How refreshing when an author with eschews chapter-ending cliff hangers, but with uses clues instead.  Good chapter headings; some mild, others disturbing, are also much appreciated and can add so much—“Father, take care of my children, look after my children.”  It is only much later one realizes the significance of these passages. There are many passages within the text that cause us to pause and consider—“Because friendship was more than a source of comfort, or a place of belonging.  It was a source of responsibility.”
Although this is the first book in the series, there are constant references to a past time where Rachel and Khattack worked together.  One may find this more annoying than informative.  However, learning of Rachel’s background and present concerns does bring her to life.  What is interesting is how Rachel actually becomes the lead character after Khattack becomes too personally invested in the events.  She is a wonderful character and one of whom one would like to see more.
Best of all, we are provided with so many examples of such fine writing—“She scorned those who genuflected at the temple of nonviolence, their voices ringing with praise of the defenseless victims of butchery while they sat on their hands when the gods of carnage came calling.”  So much of the book’s theme is relevant today—“It was a compelling history lesson:  how quickly the violent ideals of ultra-nationalism led to hate, how quickly hate to blood.”
 “An Unquiet Dead” is more a novel and a warning—“Everywhere the radical right was rising:  Sweden, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland.  While a steady stream of vitriol drifted north of the US border.”--rather than a mystery.  Either way, it is disturbing and painful, and excellent.
THE UNQUIET DEAD (Crime Novel-Rachel Getty/Esa Khattak-Canada-Contemp-) – Ex
      Kahn, Ausma Zehanat – 1st in series
      Severn House – Feb 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

First Sentence:  Half an hour before Diana Snyder died, she tidied up her desk in the typists’ office of the Cabinet War Rooms.
The war in Europe has begun but hasn’t come to England…yet.  Churchill is the new Prime Minster, and everyone is just waiting.  Maggie Hope has a fine, logical mind but, after another typist is murdered, has been hired on to work at No. 10 Downing Street.  But spies are afoot, and not just from Germany. 
The inclusion of segments from Churchill’s actual speeches well establishes the time period and adds veracity to the story.  Early dialogue leaves no question as to the location—“Tea,” she stated in her deep, booming voice, deliberately changing the subject. “We all need tea.  There’ll be no blood, toil, tears, or sweat until I have some goddamned tea.”
We are reminded that this was a time before the US entered the War and when some American Industrialists and politicians were supported the German regime, and when Ireland declared itself neutral. Yet the character of Maggie has an interesting perspective.
It is always a benefit to learn things one hadn’t previously known.  Such is the skill of a good author.  MacNeal’s references to specific events of the time are also a very clever way of indicating the passage of time within the story.  Yet we are painfully reminded of the attitudes toward women which prevailed then…and still often do—“You’re a smart girl,” Snodgrass said to her,” and that’s good.  You’ll have intelligent children.  But isn’t it more important to worry about your appearance and not calculations?  Let the boys like John here take care of it.  Stick to typing, please.”—which can cause readers to indulge in a gnashing of teeth.  Still, there is a wonderful reference to Noel’Coward’s song “The Stately Homes of England.”  A slight aside, if you’ve never seen the movie “The Grass is Greener,” I do highly recommend it.
MacNeal provided us with an excellent and horrific description of the Germans’ bombing London, as well as a very moving poem about death.
One thing that would very much have helped would have been a cast of characters.  Although the characters are interesting and individual, there are a lot of them and one can find oneself confused as to who is whom, and the role they play. There were also some small historical inaccuracies, but nothing so significant so as to lessen one’s enjoyment.
 “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” is full of surprises with intrigue, action, history; all of which is very well done.

MR. CHURCHILL’S SECRETARY (Ama Sleuth/Molly –London-WWII/1940) – G+
      MacNeal, Susan Elia – 1st in series
      William Morrow – March 2015

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Echoes in Death by J.D. Robb

First Sentence:  Was she dead?
Homicide Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her wealthy husband, Roark, are on their way home from a formal event, and a naked, bloody, dazed woman steps out in front of their car.  Although they are able to get her to the hospital in time, they find her husband, Dr. Anthony Strazza, murdered in their bedroom, his safes opened and the house ransacked.  Unfortunately, this is only one such incident.  Eve and her team race to find the man Daphne Strazza describes as ‘the devil.’
With overtones of Hamlet and philosophical question, we are inexorably drawn into this, the 44th book of the Eve Dallas series.  What is particularly remarkable is that in Eve time, the series has only progressed 3 years.  What homicide team wouldn’t love a clear rate of approximately 14-15 cases per year?
It is Robb’s skill that can take one from the victim of an exceedingly violent crime to a description of a sumptuous dinner.  Part of what makes Eve such an appealing character—aside from her husband—are her powers of observation and her lack of pretension.  How nice it is to have a character for whom the trappings of wealth are not only unimportant but can sometimes be an annoyance.
Robb is notable for her dialogue, which is extensive and very natural.  She doesn’t depend on the narrative to move the plot forward.  But when she does narrative, she does it well—“Eve found a street slot--small miracle—and decided it was worth a two and a half block hike in the snow.  She imagined some cheery optimist would call the wind bracing.  She hated cheery optimists.”  In fact, her books read more as screenplays with wry humor, and solid plots where the pieces are laid out one-by-one until the pattern emerges.
The character of Eve is so meticulously maintained one understands her focus on her job which justifies her lack of knowledge about popular culture, or that the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” being an actual person rather than an apparition.  Robb skillfully relates this case to the childhood experiences of both Eve and Roark, further explaining their personalities.
Robb knows just how and when to heighten the suspense and sense of dread, as well as providing a brow-raising twist.
Echoes in Death” may be set in the future with technology and references that can amuse, but it also points out the timelessness of people’s emotions and actions.  In the end, it is a very good read.   

ECHOES IN DEATH (Fut/Pol Proc-Lt. Eve Dallas/NYC-2061) – VG
      Robb, J.D. – 44th in series
      St. Martin’s Press – February 2017

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Racing the Devil by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  It was a way of daring Fate.
 Inspector Rutledge receives a call sending him to a village in Sussex where the local rector apparently lost control of the motor car he was driving and was killed.  There are more questions raised than answers found:  the rector wasn’t driving his car, nor had he asked the owner’s permission, and his death wasn’t a result of the accident itself.  The further Rutledge digs, the more he believes the rector’s death was a case of mistaken identity.  So who was supposed to die, and why?
The ability of Todd to place one immediately within a scene is such an admirable skill.  Beyond that, the very effectively conveys the effects of war on those who served—“There are those who came home to forget, hoping to outrun the past.  I’ve seen them, drinking too much, dancing all night, brittle, seeking oblivion.  The rest of us haven’t found our place yet.  It isn’t a world we recognize, and we don’t feel we’re a part of it.” 
Todd excels at providing small details of both events and characters without those details being overdone or intrusive.  Once gets to know even the minor characters of ever social strata and each is so distinct, that there’s never a sense of needing a cast of characters to prevent one from being confused.   There is a lovely connection between Rutledge’s friend Melinda Crawford and Bess Crawford of Todd’s other series.  Melinda is also a delightful character and provides a bit of lightness to the story. It’s nice to have a character who knows Rutledge personally and refers to him by his first name—“Do sit down, Ian.  It’s not your fault that you inherited your father’s height, but I’m getting a pain in my neck looking up at you.”
For those who follow the series, the voice of Hamish, the soldier Rutledge had to shoot for cowardice, is still here, but Todd gives us well-done new characters as well.  He provides plenty of background details that add dimension and explanations to Rutledge’s actions, such as his transition from a bicycle, to trains, to finally owning his own motor car, although one does wonder at his always being able to find petrol so easily. 
Racing the Devil” has a very effective escalation of suspense, and well-done plot twists with the case being solved by sheer dogged pursuit and a bit of luck.

 RACING THE DEVIL (Hist Mys-Insp. Ian Rudgledge-England-1920) – VG+
      Todd, Charles – 19th in series
      William Morrow – February 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth

First Sentence:  When she heard the stair creak beneath her foot, Portia stopped and stood frozen.

In 1938, at the estate of Sir Jack Jessup, a friend of the Prince of Wales, an actress is murdered.  An ex-convict is arrested, confesses, and is hanged.  But was he really the killer?  In 1949, the reappearance of a necklace raises questions.  Although the police aren’t interested in re-opening the case, former CI Angus Sinclair persuades his former Inspector, John Madden to pursue the investigation.
Although it’s been four years since Airth’s last book, he certainly hasn’t lost his touch.  He also does an admirable job of catching readers, new and old, up with the characters, particularly of Madden and his family, and of the post-war period—“No matter how many times he visited Rotterdam…the sight of the devastation wrought by the German bombers in 1940 never ceased to impress…”  A significant change brought about by the war was the introduction of the National Health Service.
Airth transports one to England by his descriptions of people and his dialogue.  It is nice to have a protagonist with a solid family life—“Recently [his wife] had taken to wearing spectacles for reading and it was a source of wonder to Madden to see how a pair of simple horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose somehow added a new dimension to a face that had never ceased to hold him in thrall.”
There are excellent revelations and twists through the story, but so well and subtly done as not to feel at all contrived.  An interesting shift, the explanation of an expression, and an evocative description all move the story forward nicely.
One can very much appreciate that all the police work well together.  It is particularly gratifying that Lily, the female police officer who is a fairly new addition to the force, is treated with respect.  That said, all the characters are fully developed and interesting.

When Airth does suspense, he does it well.  The pace picks up significantly in the last third of the book when situations become dangerous and dramatic with red herrings nicely done.  The reader is inclined to realize the guilty party just as Madden does.

The Death of Kings” is a very good police procedural from a very good author.

THE DEATH OF KINGS: A John Madden Mystery (Pol Proc-John Madden-England-1949) – VG+
      Airth, Rennie – 5th in series
      Viking – 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Last Mile by David Baldacci

First Sentence:  Mars, Melvin.
Malvin Mars receives a last-minute reprieve from judicial execution.  Someone else confessed to the crime.  But why now?  That’s what FBI special task force member Amos Decker wants to know, especially when he realized Mars’ case is similar to his own was.  When one of Decker’s team disappears, and the FBI tries to kill the investigation, becomes even more determined to find the answers in spite of the danger Decker.
Baldacci creates a powerful sense of place through his descriptions.  Although one rather expects the initial twist, it is still very effective when it comes.
It is nice to have a story that is logically and meticulously plotted, but you felt as though you could see his index cards on his wall.  He did create a good cast of characters.      
Plot twists can be very effective unless they are overused as they were here.  The whole thing felt over-the-top, and I shan’t even talk about chapter-ending cliffhangers.  Can an author not just tell a good story without needing “read-my-book” tricks? It's unfortunate as the first book in this series was so much better.
The Last Mile” does keep you reading and has a very satisfactory ending.  In spite of its many flaws, it is a decent read-it-and-leave-it airplane book.

THE LAST MILE (Pol Proc-Amos Decker-US-1949) - Okay
      Baldacci, David – 2nd in series
      Grand Central Publishing – 2016

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bryant & May: Strange Tide by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence:  Nothing gave Arthur Bryant greater satisfaction than making his first blotch on a fresh white page.
The body of a woman chained to a stone and left to drown by the Thames isn’t that unusual a crime.  But finding only one set of footprints which lead one direction does make it more unusual.  As more bodies are found, and Arthur Bryant’s mind becomes less stable leaving the team floundering, could this be the end of the Peculiar Crimes Unit? 
Not every contemporary mystery opens with Celtic Queen Boddica sitting on a wall eating a candy bar.  But then, this is Christopher Fowler who has taught readers to expect the unexpected.  His use of a staff memo to the PUC is a wonderful way to introduce readers to both the characters and their functions.
Switching gears to two men trying to escape Libya for England is a perfect example of Fowler’s ability to change from humor to the horror often experienced by refugees.  It is both terrible and compelling—“Many of the passengers had already been made frail by hunger and thirst, and the sea began to swallow them.  They slipped silently beneath the surface like players forfeiting a game.”  We are also given a lesson in how quickly and easily identity theft can take place. 
The history lessons one receives are fascinating and add to the story’s strong sense of place.  There are excellent observations on the wastefulness of Westerners where time and money are concerned.  But it’s the detailed information of London and the Thames that add to the delightful experience of the reader.
Fowler’s voice is such a delight to read—“Longbright and May seated themselves in the cavernous living room opposite Cooper, keeping a distant cordiality, a double act they had finessed over the years until it reached the level of a top-notch production of Waiting for Godot.”  He also really knows how to construct a plot.  One can never predict where he is going to take one next.
Counting this, over the past three books, Bryant’s physical and mental health have been a major plot point—“Bryant released himself back into the vibrancy of the city with relief, for he had come to understand that in the midst of winter there was within him an invincible summer.”  The realization of its cause is brilliant and a bit embarrassing once one realizes the clues have been there all along.
The book is not all cerebral, however.  It is filled with excellent plot twists, a very exciting chase scene, and lots of suspects of various crimes.
Bryant and May: Strange Tide” does not disappoint.  It has an excellent building of danger and suspense, a wonderful ending, and some of the best characters written today.

BRYANT and MAY: STRANGE TIDE (Pol Proc-Bryant/May-London-Contemp) – Ex
      Fowler, Christopher – 13th in series
      Bantum – Dec 2016

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hidden Graves by Jack Fredrickson

First Sentence:  Three minutes and twenty-three seconds before the skeleton came at him with an axe, the candidate for US Senate stood grim, trim and confident behind a mahogany lectern set on the freshly hacked weeks of an abandoned farm.
After the US Senate candidate publically embarrasses himself, he goes into complete hiding.  An anonymous, heavily disguised woman hires Dek to travel to three Western States looking for men who don’t seem to exist.  And someone is trying very hard to frame him for murder, or make him a victim himself.  Can Dek put the pieces together?
Starting out with a good hook is important, and boy; does this have a good hook! It also has Fredrickson’s voice and wry humor—“‘What’s the matter with your right hand?’ she asked.  ‘I pulled it out to show her the patchwork of Band-aids. ‘It got damaged.’ ‘Your Band-Aids have cartoon characters on them.’ There was nothing wrong with her eyesight.”—and his use of description—“Outside, the setting sun was beginning to gild the waves in the ocean.”
Dek is an interesting, well-drawn character about whose past history we learn as we go.  That he is surrounded by a unique assortment of supporting characters gives him dimension and balance to the drama; occasionally too much so.  Dek’s relationship with his ex-wife Amanda is an interesting one and one that changes/develops with each book.
Fredrickson’s imagery is very well done—“Curbside girls were wobbling home, a few bucks richer, a few hundred years older.”  However, one must, once again, criticize the overuse of chapter-end cliffhangers and portents which are so unnecessary that they become annoying for their predictable presence—“I told her that would be just about right, because at the time I believed it.”  Dropping the second half of that sentence would have been more suspenseful, and more effective.  This is true of every incident. 
Hidden Graves” is a very enjoyable read with an excellent twist.  It’s another good addition to a well-done series.

HIDDEN GRAVES (PI-Dek Elstrom-Illinois-Contemp) – G+
      Fredrickson, Jack – 6th in series
      Severn House – Feb 2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

First Sentence:  From the time he was six years old, Van Shaw was raised by his Irish immigrant grandfather Donovan to be a thief—to boost cars, beat security alarms, crack safes, and burglarize businesses.
Army Ranger Van Shaw returns on leave to his home in Seattle only to find his grandfather seriously wounded by a gunshot.  His grandfather was no shining example, except how to live on the wrong side of the law of car theft, burglary, and safe-cracking.  But his grandfather did raise him, and he won’t quit until he finds the shooter and uncovers all the secrets of the past.
Hamilton creates an interesting opening with almost a Jack Reacher feel to it, but not.  He has a good voice—“Even after she died and was buried and long gone, I felt she was still in the hospital, somewhere just out of sight.  The six-year-old me would feel that forever.” However, how nice would it be if authors would stop using the textbook “How to Write a Mystery 101” of short chapters, an arc and a cliff-hanger segue at the end of each chapter. 
On the positive side, Hamilton’s characters are distinctive and interesting, with the elderly neighbor, Addie Proctor, being a particular standout.  Her sangfroid adds just the right touch—“Pieces of the broken chair were strewn around the room.  The breakfast table had fresh gouges exposing raw wood beneath.  A glass salt-and-pepper set had fallen off and shattered.  The spilled contents soaked up the whiskey.  Addy Proctor took it all in and tugged Stanley back from the broken glass. “Redecorating?” she said.”
The ticking clock aspect of Van having only 10-days leave is a very successful element of suspense.  His visual imagery is excellent—“Madrona trees grew in bunches around the pitted shore.  The orange-red trunks twisted and strangled one another for precious space.”
The flashbacks to Van’s youth certainly explain the genesis and development of his character, but they also detract from the flow of the main story and, after a time, seem to be filler which could have been significantly edited down.  A longer book doesn’t necessarily signify a better book. Sadly, the plot didn't really hold together and an event at the end seemed to come completely out of the blue.
 “Past Crimes” is an interesting debut to the noir space.  It makes for a decent airplane book. 

 PAST CRIMES: A Van Shaw Novel (Susp-Van Shaw-Seattle-Contemp) – Good
      Hamilton, Glen Erik – 2nd in series
      William Morrow – March 2015

Thursday, February 9, 2017

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

First Sentence:  Detective Inspector Ray Stevens stood next to the window and contemplated his office chair, on which an arm had been broken for at least a year.
A child, on his way home from school, releases his mother's hand with disastrous results.  Jenna Gray leaves everything behind and moves to a remote cottage in Wales, hiding from her past.  A pair of investigators with the Bristol police are trying to solve the hit-and-run, but are frustrated at every turn.  Can the pieces be put together?
The prologue is the perfect example of a wide-awake nightmare.  It is painful to read, and a definite attention grabber.
The first third/half of the book almost reads more as a romance than suspense.  It is so disappointing when characters fall into predictable, stereotypical situations.  But one wants to keep reading just to see where the story is going.  One thinks one knows, until one finds they are completely wrong. 
Then comes the second and third parts of the story--talk about hugely disappointing.  It is as though Mackintosh watched “Sleeping with the Enemy,” and/or “Jagged Edge” way too many times.  That said, I do give her credit for knowing how to play with the reader’s loyalties and emotions. 
Not only are many of the situations stereotypical, but so are most of the characters.  By far, the best character is Bethan, who has a secondary role, along with Insp. Stevens.   It’s unfortunate there weren’t more characters such as those.    
I Let You Go” had some strengths.  It also had major weaknesses which made it close to a wallbanger due, in part, to its horribly predictable ending.  I recommend letting this one go and moving on to something better.

I LET YOU GO (Psy Susp-Jenna Gray-Wales-Contemp) – Poor
      Clare Mackintosh – 1st Book
      Berkley Reprint, Nov 2016

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Storm Cell by Brendan DuBois

First Sentence:  Testifying inside the third-floor courtroom at the Wentworth County Superior Courthouse was the state's deputy chief medical examiner, a plump balding man with a habit of taking a short intake of breath each time he paused between his sentences.
Lewis Cole’s friend Felix Tinios is one trial for first-degree murder.  Rather than being represented by his usual, top-line attorney, he has a public defender, and refuses to see Lewis.  Felix often dances on the wrong side of the law, but this crime scene is way out of character.  Things become even more strange when the FBI approach Cole and ask he help clear his friend before Felix is murdered in prison.
A good opening with a powerful hook is a beautiful thing, and this book has it; especially for those who follow the series.  The book starts placidly enough, for the first few pages, but then it sucker punches you. 
Literary quotes from an author, via a character, are always welcome as they tell us something about both—“Stalin once said ‘Death solves all problems.  No man, no problem.”—and it’s fun to see how they’re worked into the story. Yes, there are portents, several of them, which are annoying.  Yet, one lives in eternal hope that authors will grow past this unnecessary, very irritating device that actually diminishes the suspense, one day.
Dubois’ ensemble of characters is interesting and diverse.  Not only are they real and developed, but they grow and change through time.  They encourage one to follow the series, partly to maintain a relationship with them.  Felix is particularly interesting, in spite of everything.  His description of the changes which occur in towns with the influx of casinos and all that goes with them is well done and rather poignant. 
DuBois as a very good story-telling voice and ability to combine sense of place with a touch of pathos—“A male jogger and then another male jogger went by, dressed in a nice colorful Spandex and both with white earbuds in their ears.  It made me wonder what digital tunes or words were so compelling that they needed to drown out the sound of the crashing waves, the cry of the birds, and the whistling of the wind through the rocks.”
Storm Cell” has very good characters, twists, suspense, and an exciting ending with a dramatic thread causing one to be eager for the next book.

STORM CELL (Lic Inv/Journ-Lewis Cole-Maine-Contemp) – G+
      DuBois, Brendan -
      Pegasus Crime – Nov 2016  

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