Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Murder Theory by Andrew Mayne

First Sentence:  The helpless man in the wheelchair thrilled him.
      
Dr. Theo Cray is a computational biologist who has established a reputation with the FBI as a hunter of serial killers and has been called upon to fulfill that role again.  At the site of Cray's previous case, an agent with no history of violence has murdered two of his colleagues.  But this isn't the only incident of violence on the site. As Theo investigates, he recognizes that he's up against someone as talented as he is and finds himself crossing the line to stop a killer.
      
Prologues, even when not so named and no matter how suspenseful, are a device unnecessary to a good book. There is no reason why this book could not have started with the first chapter, which is interesting and makes one suspicious of Q-Tips.
      
One of the attributes of Mayne's writing is his observations about people and human nature—"In parts of Africa even today, "witch children,” boys and girls born with albinism or other uncommon features, are treated as outcasts and killed for their supposed magical powers. … To be sure, it's one thing to murder a child for having different genders and another to make a joke at the expense of someone who is dealing with a handicap, but they're both acts of cruelty and dehumanization.'  The comparison of the two killers in Mayne's previous two Cray books is fascinating and thought-provoking.  It also leads to the age-old question—"Do you believe in evil?".
      
There is quite a lot of geek-speak and scientific information.  One may either focus on it and learn some rather fascinating bits of information, or one may choose to skim through it and still pick up rather fascinating bits of information.  Either way, one must pay attention as these passages can lead to sudden realization and/or twists.
      
Reading Mayne is not for the weak of stomach or heart.  What offsets it, however, is understanding that his character is operating for the greater good and that he has a conscience when he crosses a line—"Um, God, uh, forgive me for not believing. And forgive me for what I'm about to do.  Uh, may they all rest in peace."  We do also get flashes of Mayne's humor—"I look up to the sky as if I'm expecting Morgan Freeman to look down at me and wink, giving me his approval."
      
When Mayne creates a plot twist, it's a serious twist.  Unfortunately, the climax is a bit too fantastical and Theo's co-rescuers are opportune and improbable.  Fortunately, there is a great deal of humor among the suspense.
      
"Murder Theory" is, sadly, not Mayne's best book.  But, between the unnecessary prologue and the nearly wall-banging last sentence, there are very good characters, plot twists, and breath-catching suspense.

MURDER THEORY (Suspense-Theo Cray-Georgia-Contemp) - Okay
      Mayne, Andrew – 3rd in series
      Thomas & Mercer – Feb 2019

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Hot Shot by Sheldon Siegel

First Sentence:  The twinkling Christmas lights strung along the pinewood bar reflected in the gregarious barkeep's eyes.
      
Jeff King is a billionaire, CEO, and founder of the soon-to-go-public high-tech company Y5K and is dead from a hot shot of heroin.  There's no question the shot was injected by Alexa Low.  She admits to administering the shot but claims the heroin had been purchased by King.  Now it's up to Mike to prove Alexa innocent of murder. 
      
It's nice to have a good introduction to each of the characters, in Mike's circle of family and friends.  Even better is the introduction of the suspect Alexa. We learn her background and the circumstances which caused her to be where she is in life.  Siegel makes her a real, three-dimensional person without judging her.  He also paints an ugly, and most likely very realistic, picture of the high-tech wealthy.
      
Although the frequent injections of Mike's thoughts may seem distracting, they also provide a realistic look at the difference between what one, especially an attorney, may say, and what one may think.  Mike is an interesting character; an ex-priest, divorced from Rosie, but with benefits, and a father.  Nady, an associate lawyer, is someone of whom one wants to see more.  She's smart, capable, and no-nonsense.
      
The balance between Mike's personal and professional life is well done.  It makes the characters relatable and provides realism to the story.
     
It's really fascinating to see, step-by-step, the legal process at work.  Siegel makes the process clear and understandable, while still managing to make it exciting.  There is  an interesting observation on our addiction to technology'—"You don't need Google or an iPhone."  "Or ninety-nine percent of the stuff that we buy, Mike.  But we think we do. Technology allows us to do things faster and cheaper, but it hasn't fundamentally changed what we want—things that make our lives easier, enhance our productivity, and entertain us."  And make you a ton of money. In other words, it delights us."
      
"Hot Shot" is a very good legal thriller.  One will appreciate its very satisfactory yet realistic ending.  

HOT SHOT (LegMys-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-San Francisco-Contemp) - VG
      Siegel, Sheldon – 10th in series
      Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc. – May 2019

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Flowers Over the Inferno by Ilaria Tuti

First Sentence:  There was a legend that haunted that place, the kind that clings like a persistent odor.
     
Inspector Massimo Marini's arrival at the crime scene of his new posting in Northern Italy is less than auspicious, particularly when he mistakes a male officer for his new superior.  In her sixties, Superintendent Teresa Battaglia is overweight, diabetic, and has other health issues, but is known to be an excellent profiler. Teresa and her team have been called to a gruesome scene:  the body of a naked man whose eyes have been removed.  Marini is determined to win his superior's respect, but can Teresa's and Marini's very different styles find the perpetrator?
      
The story's evocative opening, set in 1978, has a very gothic feel to it. Tuti then does an interesting segue to a child in the present, and then to the crime scene and the introduction of Marini, Teresa and the first example of her analytic skills—"She wondered why he had requested a transfer from a big city to this small provincial precinct…We run away from what scares or hurts us—or from what holds us captive."  As opposed to the usual cooperative relationship between the lead and subordinate, this begins very differently but with intent.
      
The story is told from four perspectives: that of Teresa, Marini, members of the group of four young children, and the killer.  Plus, in the background, is the School with its rules of "Observe, record, forget."  Each voice is very clearly differentiated and important to the story.
      
Tuti has a remarkable voice.  It is one which compels one and yet tempts one to draw away from it as it can resonate too clearly at times—”Solitude was an unobtrusive housemate; it took up no room and never touched anything.  It has no smell or color.  It was an absence, an entity defined in contrast to its opposite.  Yet it existed; it was the force that made Teresa's cup of chamomile tea shake on its saucer on those nights when sleep refused to come to her rescue." It is fascinating watching Teresa build her profile while training Marini—"Criminology is an art. … It's not magic; it's interpretation.  Probability, statistics.  Never certainty."  Teresa is truly a complex, compelling character.
Beyond the story being a suspenseful mystery, the plot touches on relevant and important themes.  Among them is the importance of compassionate and empathetic touch along with the instinct to nurture which is contrasted with man's unfathomable ability for cruelty. Yet there are still nice touches of humor—"Ed Kemper would dissect the bodies of his victims to play around with their internal organs."  "Do you mind if I throw up?"  "Not all over my evidence, Inspector."  When one realizes the motive, it's someone one wouldn't expect.  After all, one never expects that learning about the killer can break one's heart.
      
"Flowers Over the Inferno" is an incredible book which will be on my "Best of 2019" list.  It is one which touches on every emotion and leaves a mark on one's soul.  It stays with one long after the final page and leaves one wanting more.  How wonderful to know this is the first of a trilogy.

FLOWERS OVER THE INFERNO (PolProc-Super. Teresa Battaglia-Italy-Contemp) – EX
      Tuti, Ilaria – 1st book
      SOHO – April 2019

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Who Slays the Wicked by C.S. Harris

First Sentence:  Bloodred and splayed wide as if in panic, the dried handprint stood out clearly against the white, freshly painted inside panel of the town house's front door.
            
Stephanie, the niece of Sebastian St. Cyr, is married to Lord Ashworth, a sexually profligate, violent man, whom St. Cyr had suspected of kidnapping and killing children several years ago.  After the birth of their twin sons, Stephanie no longer lives with Ashworth.  Still, she becomes a natural suspect when a small bloody handprint is found in the door to Ashworth's house, and he is found naked, tied to the bedposts, and brutally murdered.
            
Harris is very good at capturing the reader's attention on page one. She then keeps the tension going through the introduction of various suspects, and additional bodies, and a character gone missing.    
            
It's always interesting to see how similar, and yet different, was forensics over 200 years ago.  Harris makes very good use of such information.  The story's setting and the inclusion of historical events adds a nice layer and intrigue to the plot.  It also educates one about the period.
            
There are nicely done snippets of humor—"Why exactly are we here?" "To watch.  And listen.  And leap to wild and probably faulty assumptions." Harris knows how to create atmosphere—"The entire area reeked of overflowing bog houses, rot, disease, and despair." She effectively destroys any illusions one may have about the tranquil, genteel life of the entitled and wealthy, especially as it pertains to a woman.  As she describes the rise and fall of prosperity in various neighborhoods, one does wish for a detailed map.
            
The question as to why one murders has long been given the answer of five human emotions.  To that, Harris adds a sixth, rather frightening motive.  She also reflects on the hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians and reveals things about which one might not know except for reading historicals. While the story contains a plethora of bodies and suspects, many are ones who seem incidental and don't add significantly to the story, the perpetrator is a well-done surprise.
      
"Who Slays the Wicked" does hold one's interest and effectively demonstrates that it truly is the poor who pay the price while the elite are never brought to justice.     

WHO SLAYS THE WICKED (HistMys-Sebastian St. Cyr-1814- London) - Good
      Harris, C.S. – 14th in series
      Berkeley, April 2019

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Bouquet of Rue by Wendy Hornsby

First Sentence:  From the butcher to the baker to the café tabac, word spread through the village of Vaucreson that Monsieur John-Paul Bernard had moved a woman into the house he had ever so recently shared with his wife, Marian.
            
Documentary filmmaker Maggie McGowen is settling into her new life in France and her new live-in relationship with Jean-Paul Bernard and his son Dom, and houseman, Syrian refugee Ari.  Trouble arises when Ophelia, the daughter of Jean-Paul's neighbor, disappears, especially as she was last seen in the company of Ahmad Nabi, a fellow refugee being tutored by Ari. Nabi is also missing.  It is important that the teens be found before anti-refugee sentiments get out of control.
            
Isn't one always curious as to what others say about one?  The beginning is a perfect setup for the protagonist to introduce herself and the community in which she now lives, as well as the home in which she now abides.  A very well-done summary brings new readers up to date on Maggie, her life, and career.
            
Set in France, the dialogue includes common French words and phrases.  One needn't be bilingual; however, their meaning is either easily inferred, or they are immediately translated, often for Maggie.
            
Food; one cannot have a story set in France without wonderful food. Ari's fish soup of tomatoes, grilled haddock, onion, garlic, peppers, and fresh oregano sets the juices flowing.  However, meals also serve as a way to learn more about the characters, and Syrian refugees—"Afghans don't have surnames unless they decide to adopt one." …"I had learned that the current wave of refugees pouring out of mid-eastern war zones were, like Ari, more likely to represent their nation's educated urban elite than any other group."
            
The underlying theme of the story couldn't be more relevant; prejudice, fear, and distrust of those who are different while those who are afraid never make the effort to reach out. It is an irrational fear of the "other" based only on the fact that they are different from "us."  This transitions nicely into the equally timely issue of bullying.  Hornsby manages this in a way which is easy and natural to the scene.
            
It is nice to see the character of the police, in this case, a policewoman, go from being an adversary to an ally.  The detective's reference to Maggie as the fictional Inspector Maigret is delightful.
            
Maggie is a wonderful character.  One can't help but admire her for the way she can handle a difficult situation. All of Hornsby's characters are very human and relatable.  This is never truer than when she turns an antagonist into someone for whom we feel true sympathy.  Lest one think everything is dark and grim, rest assured there are interjections of humor-- "Detective Delisle has her eye on you."  … "Tread gently, my friend, … She packs heat."  Those who love Shakespeare may chuckle at the summary of "Hamlet."  Such bits as these add both veracity and a soupçon of relief to the seriousness of the story.
            
"A Bouquet of Rue" is as much a commentary on today's social issues as it is a mystery and it is highly effective in both aspects. It reminds us that schadenfreude—pleasure derived by one at the misfortune of another--and the "domino effect of revenge" is a fascinating, and rather dangerous, principle worth contemplating.  Yet the story also reminds one that life goes on.
           
A BOUQUET OF RUE (Mys-Maggie McGowen-France-Contemp) – VG+
      Hornsby, Wendy – 12th in series
      Perseverance Press/John Daniel & Co. – April 2019

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Triple Jeopardy by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Daniel rang the doorbell, then stepped back.
            
Jemima Pitt has returned to England with her American policeman husband Patrick.  As well as visiting the Pitt family, they’ve come to ask a favor of her brother Daniel, now a lawyer.  British Diplomat Philip Sidney attacked Jemima's friend, Rebecca, in her bedroom and stole a necklace whilst Philip was stationed in Washington, D.C.  Under protection of diplomatic immunity, he returned to England.  Jemima and Patrick want Daniel's help in bringing Sidney to justice.  Brought up on charges of embezzlement, Sidney asks Daniel to represent him.  After a murder back in Washington, and the possibility of the case becoming a major international incident, Daniel, along with forensic scientist Mariam fford Croft, travel to the Channel Island to learn the truth.
            
One often worries as to what an author will do when the protagonist of a long-running series ages.  Ms. Perry solved the problem by having the protagonist's children age as well and now, for the second time, we have Daniel Pitt stepping into the foreground.  So as not to lose readers, new or old, Perry summarizes the backgrounds of the members of the Pitt family.  This is particularly helpful to those who are new to Anne Perry's very well-done historical mysteries.
            
The story, quite appropriately, raises the issue of prejudice against Jews and the Irish, the latter seamlessly incorporated by the fact of Rebecca's husband, and Daniel's brother-in-law, both being of Irish heritage.  That there is a role-reversal between Jemima and Patrick when discussing Rebecca's situation is interesting and very well done.  Penny does a masterful job of presenting both sides of the situation and its possible outcome.  Moreover, she places doubts in one's mind regarding the motives and possible guilt of the characters.  There is so much "here" here.
            
Perry can make even basic English cooking sound delicious—"Lamb chops; the freshest of peas, as mild and delicate as possible, with a little mint and plenty of butter, and boiled potatoes." However, the transition from food to a very astute observation—"Have you noticed how often it is not the crime or the disaster of a scandal that brings down an otherwise great man, but the lies he tells to avoid admitting it?"—is extremely well done.
            
Perry's characters are some of the most fully-developed one will find. Each has complexity and definition.  Even the most severe of them can occasionally make one smile; if not at a bit of dialogue, then at the very human attributes.  Mariam fford Croft is one such character and, true to form, only Perry could create such a strong connection between two characters without its being romantic.
            
The occasional bon mot lightens a scene—"Not another corpse to dig up, I trust?  You're a little early.  We don't do that sort of thing until midnight.  It tends to disturb the locals." Those are balanced by ideas that make one stop and consider—"We all make mistakes, Jem.  It's how we live with them afterward that matters.  Accept that we really were wrong, don't make excuses or blame anyone else.  The moment you say 'I was wrong' you can begin to move on."
      
"Triple Jeopardy" is an extremely well-done story of families, loyalty, and betrayal.  Filled with excellent characters, it is brought to a dramatic and explosive conclusion.

TRIPLE JEOPARDY (HistMys-Daniel Pitt-London-1910) - VG
      Perry, Anne – 2nd in series
      Ballentine Books – April 2019

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Black and Blue by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  I feel like a jerk.
            
A single shot to the heart from a high-powered distance made from a distance killed Walter Brookings 18 months ago.  The case, investigated by Doug Brock, remained unsolved and went cold.  Now, there's a second murder; same M.O. and even the forensics match.  The difference is that Brock suffers partial amnesia from a gunshot to the head.  He survived, but not all of his memory did.  With the help of his partner, and girlfriend Jessica, who is also on the force, Brock is not only investigating the new case, but digging back into the previous case as well.
            
Partial amnesia is always an interesting subject and an excellent hook for a protagonist.  However, it takes more than that for a book to be compelling, and Rosenfelt delivers.
            
A very nice cross-over into Rosenlfelt's Carpenter series is done by brining in the characters of police Captain Pete Stanton, as well as attorney Andy Carpenter and Vince Sanders, editor of the local paper.  There is an arrogance to Brock which can be annoying, but it's nicely balanced by self-doubt—"…the two guys that I shot were apparently total scumbags who had themselves committed murder.  But even so, I took their lives, and it somehow seems weirdly disrespectful that I have no recollection of doing so."
            
Multiple points of view can be awkward, but Rosenfelt makes them work.  However, one of his greatest skills is the ever-escalating level of suspense and that he keeps one guessing with lots of twists along the way.
      
"Black and Blue" has a cleverly done plot that makes sense once it's all put together.  Rosenfelt takes the suspense right down to the wire and gives one a captivating, gripping read.

BLACK & BLUE (PolProc-Doug Brock-New Jersey-Contemp) - VG
      Rosenfelt, David – 3rd in series
      Minotaur Books, March 2019

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Holy Ghost by John Sandford

First Sentence:  Wardell Holland, the mayor of Wheatfield, Minnesota was sitting in the double-wide he rented from his mother, a Daisy Match Grade pellet rifle in his hands, shooting flies.
            
The population and economy of Wheatfield, Minnesota has seen incredible growth since the floating image of the Virgin Mary began to appear in the Catholic church.  That's not the only thing to appear.  While the apparition brings the town back to life, what they hadn't planned on was a sniper and the arrival of Agent Virgil Flowers from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
            
It's an unusual thing for an author to compare and contrast the odors of animal excrement, but it is indicative of Sandford's style and humor. While one is not given a long backstory, there is just enough information to know who are the characters.  There is no prologue, no lamenting past cases; one can start with this, the 11th book in the series, and be just fine.
            
Sandford's characters are a pleasure to read.  They are people--individuals--and it's interesting that there's no obvious bad guy.  Odd as it sounds, some of the most enjoyable characters are the "Nazis."  There is a lot of information on guns—can you say "filler"— than is really needed.             
            
Even if one hasn't read John Connolly, a very good author of horror, one can appreciate Sanford's reference to Connolly's book Every Dead Thing—"Good thing we're going to talk to heavily armed Nazis 'cause now I can quit reading this book.  It's scaring the hell out of me.' Such passages add realism and humor to the story.  Even food becomes an object of humor as it is the antithesis of what may be found in other books.
            
The pace picks up significantly and the question of que bono, who benefits, arises.  The ending was a bit of a cheat, but epilogue is wonderful.
      
"Holy Ghost" is a fun, easy read.  It's a perfect weekend or airplane book.  Overall the book really was enjoyable, and makes one want to read more books in the series.

HOLY GHOST (PolProc-Virgil Flowers-Minnesota-Contemp) - Good
      Sandford, John – 11th in series
      G.P. Putnam's Sons – Oct 2018

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Deadly Turn by Clare Booth

First Sentence:  He walked casually up to the car.
      
Branson County Sheriff Hank Worth stops a car with six teens clearly out for a joy ride.  He lets them go with a warning only to receive a call a short time later of a serious traffic accident and arrives to find all six kids dead.  The closer Hank looks at the scene, the more he questions whether it was an accident, or whether foul play was involved.
      
Booth does an excellent job of conveying the devastation and guilt Hank feels, while creating excellent characters to back him up.  Booth does a good job of introducing one character who transforms fairly quickly.  That Booth provides a short biography on each of the victims adds verisimilitude; they aren't characters, they are victims. 
      
This is a book where a cast of characters would have been particularly helpful.  There is a multitude of officers from a multitude of agencies not always working with those in their own agency.  It can have the feel of musical chairs at times, including with the families of the victims and others.  However, one thing is that Booth's characters do ring true in all ways.
      
It's nice how quickly the anomalies begin to appear and give the sense that the accident is more than it first seems.  In the end, it's good, old-fashioned police work, following the clues, and an exciting car chase that solves the crime.  

That there is an unnecessary, unrelated cliffhanger at the end was annoying.  One may also wish to start the series at the beginning rather than with this, the third book, in order to have a better understanding of the characters.
      
"A Deadly Turn" is a good read with plenty of twists and turns.  Sheriff Hank Worth could easily join one's list of favorite characters.  

A DEADLY TURN (PolProc-Sheriff Hank Worth-Missouri-Contemp)-G+
      Booth, Claire – 3rd in series
      Severn House Digital – March 2019

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Wolf Pack by C.J. Box

First Sentence:  For Wyoming Game Warden Katelyn Hamm, April really was the cruelest month.
      
Game Warden Joe Pike has his job back, a new house, and another new truck. He and neighboring game warden Katelyn Hamm also have a big problem with someone using a large drone to kill herds of animals.  It becomes more complicated when Joe learns that Lucy, one of his daughters is dating the son of the very wealthy man named Hill who owns the drone, and when Joe receives orders from above to leave Hill alone.  The drone is the least of the problems when it is suspected that four killers, known as the Wolf Pack, of the Sinaloa cartel, are in the area, and are after Hill and anyone who gets in their way.
      
One always learns new things when reading Box.  It's fascinating to know about the value of antlers and the horrible damage to a herd of deer caused by unscrupulous antler collectors.  It's an industry with regulations of which we would not otherwise know. 
      
Box creates such fascinating characters.  Certainly, there are the recurring characters of Joe, his family, falconer Nate Romanowski and his now pregnant fiance Liz, but it's extra nice to have the female game warder of Katelyn.  Joe is such a well-constructed character.  That he and his wife Marybeth have such a strong relationship and partnership where she, at times, provides Joe with informational assistance, gives further dimension to both characters.  Although Nate may refer to him as "Dudley-Do-Right," Joe is no one's fool. Underestimating him is a mistake and things can get "Western" very quickly.   On the other side, the head of the Wolf Pack is as nasty a character as nasty can get. 
      
From the very start, Box creates a sense of threat.  The plot is as one is on a roller-coaster ride.  There are fairly gentle rises and falls, then huge escalations, heart-stopping drops, flat runs for relief, and then we're off again.  Box knows how to plot.  He's an expert at linking aspects of the story together in ways one doesn't expect.  Even seemingly innocent scenes have an overlay of danger to them.  The escalation of tension is palpable to the point where one may even mutter "No, don't go." as if watching a movie.  One is definitely never bored.
     
"Wolf Pack" is a high-energy, edge-of-seat book.  There is divine retribution and an ending that is very emotional and somewhat bittersweet. Fair warning that this book is more violent, with more bodies, than some of the past books in the series, but it's an excellent read. 

WOLF PACK (LicInv/Game Warder-Joe Pike-Wyoming-Contemp) - Ex
      Box, C.J. – 19th in series
      G.P. Putnam's Sons – March 2019


Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Vanishing Man by Charles Finch

First Sentence:  Once a month or so, just to keep his hand in the game, Charles Lennox liked to go shopping with his friend Lady Jane Grey. 

      Charles Lennox had success with his first outing as a Private Enquiry Agent and is now being called on by The Duke of Dorset to investigate the theft of a painting.  But it's not what was taken which is the mystery, but what was not; a painting much more valuable.  Lenox fear of the thief realizing the mistake and returning seems to be realized when a murder occurs.  But are the paintings the real objects of attention, or is there something more precious at stake?
      
Whether it is a series one has long read, or one to which someone is new, being introduced to the characters from their very start establishes a link to them and almost an intimacy of friendship. It is that which Finch has accomplished through the prequels, this being the second, he has written. Finch brings the characters to life, whether they are directly involved in the mystery, or are part of Lenox's personal life.  How can one not like a protagonist who carries with him a small book of Shakespeare's quotations? For those who love Shakespeare, this is a wonderful story, indeed.
      
Finch paints an excellent picture of the period.  From an explanation of noble titles down to a visit to Bedlam, we are provided a vivid sense of the time.  And what a sad commentary of the time it is that even the daughter of a Duke would be deemed unlikely to marry had she not so done by the age of 30.  The small details of life, custom, and society are fascinating.  Imagine mail being delivered seven times a day, seven days a week. 
      
The resolution of one mystery is well deduced, providing a nice twist and a loop back in the story to a very interesting character.  However, it is the larger mystery behind the original one which is most intriguing.  What a completely tantalizing resolution there is, and one of nearly divine retribution, albeit a rather sad ending for those involved.  Yet, once the criminal is identified, one discovers a motive that is as old as time.
      
"The Vanishing Man" is a wonderfully done trip back in time.  It is filled with excellent characters, fascinating information, and a resolution related to the cost of pride.

THE VANISHING MAN (HistMys-Charles Lenox-England-1853) – VG+
      Finch, Charles – 12th in series; 2nd Prequel
      Minotaur Books – February 2019

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Redemption Point by Candice Fox

First Sentence:  There were predators beyond the wire.
      
Former homicide detective Ted Conkaffey is barely able to leave his house after having been arrested yet released for lack of evidence.  Supposed to have raped a young girl Claire Bingley, he has lost his wife and daughter, and he is being threatened by Claire's father.  His partner, Amanda forces Ted out to investigate the murder of two young bartenders.  Originally thought to be a robbery, the pieces don't quite fit.   These are cases which could bring redemption to those involved, or just might kill them.
      
Characters; strong, compelling characters can make or break a book.  Once can often forgive massive plot holes if the characters are interesting and compelling.  Fox's characters are that in spades. 
      
Although this is the second book, Fox provides an excellent summary of everything one needs to know about the history of Ted by taking one straight into the thick of the story.  The portrayal of someone who is presumed to be a criminal, yet knows they are innocent, and the realization that he who one presumed to be a monster is, in fact, only a man, is very well done. 
      
Then one meets Amanda.  What a wonderful character she is; quirky, brilliant, observant, she lives by her own set of rules.  It is impossible not to be drawn to her.  Conveying tender emotion isn't always easy, yet Fox does it so beautifully. 
      
There are other major characters, and each is fully-dimensional and interesting.  None of Fox's characters are simple.  Each is complicated with a past, as is true in life.
      
As for the plot: one has nothing to fear.  There are no weaknesses or plot holes here. 
      
Fox creates a plot which draws one in and keeps one there from beginning to very end.  There are three threads to the story.  As two begin to join, the tension increases.  She presents simple ideas about which one never thinks in a way that makes them meaningful and important. She points out the damage lies can do.  The momentum grows as pieces fall into place. 
      
"Redemption Point" is an excellent book by a truly remarkable writer with a story which is compelling, tense, brutal, sad, and ultimately hopeful.   One may find Fox at the top of their favorite author's list. 

 REDEMPTION POINT (PI-Amanda Pharrel/Ted Conkaffey-Australia-Contemp) – EX
      Fox, Candice – 2nd I series
      FORGE – March 2019

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence:  'If you'll permit me,' said the Stranger, 'I'd like to tell you a story.'
      
Clare Cassidy not only teaches a course on the late Gothic writer R.M. Holland, but has the keys to his study at Cambridge wherein she finds the body of a colleague with a note containing a line from Holland's work, "The Stranger."  Clare usually finds solace writing in her diary.  Finding an entry written by an unknown hand puts Clare in the middle of the investigation.
      
The beginning of a story within the story, a possibly haunted school, a death, and a diary.  These things set one off into a well-done, atmospheric and captivating book filled with literary references, quotations, and the occasional injection of wry humor—"I can't find St. Jude's and the sat-nav gives up, muttering 'turn around where possible' to itself."—along with lines which may make one smile—"It can be a dangerous thing, reading too much.'—and the occasional small truth—"Nothing in the world is hidden forever."
      
Well-drawn, dimensional characters make all the difference, as does conflict.  Griffiths creates a relationship which begins with the lesson--one should never make a promise one might not be able to keep and that one should never lie to the police--and allows it to develop in a natural, logical manner. 
      
Having multiple points of view can be awkward or effective.  Here, it is the latter with the story being told by Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Kaur (Harbinder), as well as excerpts from Clare's diary,  both written by Clare and the anonymous stranger.  The different voices permit us to know more about the characters than even each character knows about the others.  However, the interjections of Holland's story can be a bit confusing. 
      
What works particularly well is Griffiths' ability to make one feel the emotions of the characters, particularly Clare. And there are a lot of characters, many of whom become suspects.  While the plot can keep one guessing, some may identify the killer before the end reveal.
      
"The Stranger Diaries" has good Gothic overtones with well-done suspense and an excellent epilogue.  It is nice when an author steps out and does something new.

THE STRANGER DIARIES (Susp-Clare Cassidy/DS Harbinder Kaur-England-Contemp) - Good
      Griffiths, Elly (aka Domenica de Rosa) - Standalone
      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – March 2019


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Unto Us a Son Is Given by Donna Leon

First Sentence:  "You know I don't like to meddle in things," Conte Falier told Brunetti.
      
Gonzalo Rodríguez de Tejada is a wealthy, titled man who has announced his intention to adopt a much younger man to be his son and heir.   Conte Falier, father-in-law to Comm. Guido Brunetti is concerned about his elderly friend and asks Guido if he could look into the situation.  With the aid of colleagues and contacts, Guido fears things may not be as straightforward they seem. 
      
The theme of family is central this Leon's latest book, as is love.  Brunetti's relationship with his family has become a hallmark of the series and that's very true here.  But it also looks at what constitutes a family—'It would be nice if we could choose the people we love, but love chooses them."  Having Brunetti question his feelings towards his preconceptions of gays is an interesting topic—"Was a preconceived notion the same thing as a prejudice?"
      
Although the majority of the book is crime-free, it is anything but slow and/or boring.  There are so many layers and elements to reading Leon, as there are to life including Brunetti's own family and even his musings over literature and the law.  Leon doesn't allow one to be lazy but asks that one take the time to think along the way. Leon's reference to a technique used by writers adds just the right touch of verisimilitude to the story.  
      
Death does come.  Even here, Leon's presentation of it is to be contemplated—"It is a terrible thing for us when a person dies here. … I don't mean here, this time, but always.  A hotel – any hotel – isn't the same for days, even longer.  It's strange because that's what the person is, a stranger to us, and yet we all feel their death.  Maybe it's the absence of any real involvement with the person that lets us feel the mystery of death." Leon's insightfulness into the nature of humans often gives on pause.  That is, perhaps, her greatest gift and truest strength.
      
"Unto Us a Son is Given" is a compelling story of relationships.  One might wish the mystery had come sooner, but the twist is startling and very effective, and the procedural and investigative elements grab one's interest to the end. 

 UNTO US A SON IS GIVEN (PolProc-Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) - G+
      Leon, Donna – 29th in series
      Atlantic Monthly Press – April 2019

Friday, March 15, 2019

Court of Lies by Gerry Spence

First Sentence:  I've been around a long time.
      
Judge John Murphy is in a difficult position.  Lillian Adams, who has been like a daughter to the Judge and his wife, is on trial for the murder of her wealthy husband.  Under pressure to recuse himself, Judge Murphy knows prosecution attorney Haskins Sewell will do anything possible to bring about a guilty plea in order to further his own political career and remove Murphy from the bench.  Murphy is in a fight for justice for Lillian, and to save his own position.
      
Gerry Spence knows the law.  He has never lost a criminal case either as a prosecutor or a defense attorney, nor has he lost a civil case since 1969.  With his first book of fiction, set in 1954, he is starting off very well, indeed, and it is not often we find a legal mystery from the perspective of the judge. 
         
The author's voice can make such a difference in the telling of a story.  It is no surprise that Spence has a storyteller's voice—"I'm a judge, and in the end we judges are killers like all the rest of the killers.  Some poor devil waiting in a filthy concrete cell will start his march to the gas chamber when we sign the order.  It's our duty to kill killers." He knows how to create a strong sense of place—"Winters get long in Jackson Hole.  Too damn long.  The people burn their woodstoves twenty-four hours a day, and the smoke settles down on the valley in a dark gray ground-hugging blanket."
      
As opposed to most books which would go through the police investigation, Spence takes one directly to the trial and the behavior of the defense attorney and the prosecutor. The first interaction between them truly establishes their characters.  That's not to say that forensic evidence isn't involved in the story, but it becomes critical in the battle between the two attorneys.  What makes Judge Murphy such a strong, interesting character is his self-doubt and insecurities.   
      
From some authors, flashbacks can be irritating.  Here, they prove a fascinating look at the characters.  The judge's internal musings show a man who truly understands the weight of his office—"He tried not to see her [Lillian] as his child, but as just another defendant at the dock…".
      
One is accustomed to tension and suspense in a mystery.  Although it is of a very different type, both attributes are just as present and just as effective as a car chase might be. In fact, it is taken a step further with a nice win for the judge and a rousing closing argument by the defense attorney reminding one of the importance of reasonable doubt.  For anyone who has served on a jury, the scene in the jury room rings painfully true.  In fact, the scene was so well done, one might have liked to see it extended. 
      
"Court of Lies" is a very good, different legal mystery with a major twist, a surprising new character, and a powerful ending.  Here's hoping for more novels from this legendary attorney.    

COURT OF LIES (LegalMys- Judge John Murphy-Jackson Hole, Wyoming-Contemp/1954) – VG+
      Spence, Gerry – 1st book
      Forge – Feb 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Ring by M.J. Trow

First Sentence:  It had been a long time since William Bisgrove had seen a woman.
      
Mrs. Rackstraw, the housekeeper to Private Enquiry Agents Matthew Grand and James Batchelor, has labeled their new client a lunatic.  Yet the two men agree to take on the case of timber merchant Selwyn Byng who received a ransom note demanding £5,000 for the return of his wife, heiress to a tea import business.  The next package Byng receives causes Batchelor and Grand to take the case more seriously.  Is their case linked to the naked torso found by the Thames River Police?  As more parts show up, it's clear there is more than one victim, and possibly, more than one killer.
      
In spite of the rather gruesome theme, Grand and Batchelor are just plain fun to read.  Trow has delightfully wry, humor—"She looked closely at Grand. 'Are you foreign?' She raised her voice slightly, as all nicely brought up maiden ladies do when speaking to foreigners, dogs, children, and the indigent."  That same humor makes even the grimmest scene enjoyable –'...Mother of God; what's that?' Crossland held the white thing in both hands, as though he was offering the inspector dessert. 'It's a body, sir…' 'Take it up top, man.  God knows what it'll do to my Stilton.'
      
Victorian England is such a perfect setting for a murder mystery and Trow uses the setting to full advantage.  He paints vivid pictures of everything from a prison cell, and the muddy banks of the Thames, to an overblown Victorian parlor.  London becomes as much a character to the story as do the actual characters and Trow creates wonderful characters.
      
Even though their time in the story may be short, we come to know each one; their names--and what fun he has with names--and a bit of their background.  They're not just anonymous figures.  Each is special, with Mrs. Rackstraw and the sweet between maid Maisie being particularly important.
      
The plot is nicely done with the detective work and forensic details being rather fascinating.  There are red herrings and twists aplenty.
      
"The Ring" has a very interesting conclusion and a lesson to be learned.  That the story is layered upon a series of actual, unsolved murders is very cleverly done.

THE RING: A Victorian Mystery (Hist-Grand/Batchelor-England-1873) – G+
      Trow, M.J. – 5th in series
      Severn House – Dec 2018

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Birthday Lunch by Martin Walker

First Sentence:  Bruno awoke when his cockerel saluted the first glow of the sun that was about to rise, and at once he remembered falling asleep to the sound of heavy rain.  

Bruno Courrèges, police chief in St. Denis, is surprised to find an ancient artifact while out for his morning ride.  It's a perfect gift to include in that day's birthday celebration for his friend Florence.  Joined by good friends, it's a lovely way to share memories and wonderful food.

Walker creates such a strong sense of place--"The air had never been clearer, the river never such a perfect silver, and the thin grass of the plateau had become a lush green overnight."--one feels as if one were there.  

With the tantalizing descriptions of food one dearly wishes one were, in fact, there.  However, I suspect a good cook could make the dishes presented from the instructions provided.  With good friends and good food, one learns a brief history of the region and the role of dogs to humanity.  Walker truly enables one to feel part of the conversation.  

"A Birthday Lunch" is not a mystery, but it is a delightful soupçon into Bruno's personal world and friendships.  Moreover, it's the perfect way to meet some of the recurring characters in Walker's excellent and highly recommended series of police procedurals.

A BIRTHDAY LUNCH (Novella-Bruno Courreges-St. Denis, France, Contemp) - Ex
Walker, Martin - A Bruno Novella (ebook)
A Vintage Short Original, 2019

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A Time to Scatter Stones by Lawrence Block

First Sentence:  The four of us—Kristin and Mick, Elaine and I—stood on the stoop of their brownstone for the ritual round of hugs.

Matt Scudder is now retired, 25-years sober, and still attending AA meetings.  His wife, Elaine, informs him of a group called TARTS that she helped start for sex workers who want to stay out of the life.  However, when one young woman informs Elaine of an abusive client who won't let her quit, Elaine suggests Scudder might help.
      
It is hard to describe how wonderful it is to read Lawrence Block—"You get old and things hurt and then they don't and then they do again."  He has an obvious love for New York City, and his characters are real, imperfect people with pasts. If you've not previously read Block, in this case his Matt Scudder series, he brings readers up to speed on the characters within a very short time.  There's no more backstory than one needs, yet just enough to know the characters.
      
Prostitution isn't something about which most people even think, unless it's in the news, let alone about the women involved, and not at all about a support group for those who want to leave the life. It is remarkable the way Block creates a sense of danger through a conversation.  It causes one to realize just how vulnerable and at risk any woman can be.
      
Block's dialogue is so natural.  It wanders, as real conversations do, from topic to topic within a single conversation—"God, I hate when that happens.  Something you said triggered a thought, and then the conversation whet on, and the thought got lost.  Where were we saying?"  There are wonderful kernels of truth sprinkled along the story's path.  "There three stages of a man's life," I said, "Youth, middle age, and 'You look wonderful?" 
      
"A Time to Scatter Stones" is perfectly written.  It does have violence and sex, but always offstage.  While this is a nostalgic read for those who have loved this series, it could also be an excellent impetus for new readers to go back and further explore this fine author.

 
A TIME TO SCATTER STONES (Novelette-Matt Scudder-NYC-Contemp) – Ex
      Block, Lawrence – A Matt Scudder Novelette
     
Subterranean; Deluxe Hardcover edition - Jan 2019