Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Lady with the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

Opening: Dear Reader, Thank you very much for buying this book (and if you haven't bought it yet, please do so—I have cats to feed…

Only Kerry Greenwood could make an "Apologia" as interesting and delightful to read as the actual stories.  I do recommend readers start with there, and not skip "On Phryne Fisher" which is the author's introduction. From there, one jumps into the wonderful world of 17 wonderful short stories. There is also a very helpful Glossary at the end.

It is known that short stories are the hardest to write, yet Greenwood does it delightfully well.  Still, one always has favorites.

- "Hotel Splendide," a case of a missing husband and a missing hotel room, starts off with the perfect amount of information as to Phryne's background, her style, her ability to take charge, and her enviable sangfroid.
- "The Body in the Library" pairs Phryne and DI Jack Robinson and a not-so-pious reverend.
- "Death Shall be Dead" includes DI Jack Robinson and a dog. How can one resist that? and
- "The Bells of St. Paul's" begins with a tea at the Windsor that leaves one salivating and includes a message in the bells.

One rather wishes a few of the stories were expanded into novellas. A couple of them would make wonderful full-length novels.

For readers new to Phryne, this is an excellent way to experience her and her world. A slight criticism is there is not a lot of introduction to the secondary characters, and the settings and the times at which the stories occur jump around a bit which can be confusing.  However, for those who already love Phryne, there is still the overwhelming desire to be her when one grows up. 

THE LADY WITH THE GUN ASKS THE QUESTIONS is a treat. Some stories were published previously, some have been reworked slightly, and four are brand new. They are piquant, thoroughly entertaining, and not overly complicated. One may read one, a few, or all of them at a sitting as reading them may have the effect of potato chips; one just isn't enough.

Greenwood, Kerry – Short Story Collection
Poisoned Pen Press, May 2022, 272 pp.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Dying Fall by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence:  'I thought after all this time I'd know everywhere in Shepherd's Bush,' said Slider.

An anonymous call leads the police to a house where a woman lays dead at the bottom of the stairs.  The first glace indicates a suicide and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Bill Slider agrees.  Without an initial identity of the victim, witnesses, or motive, it's a hard case for the Shephard's Bush homicide team to solve.  The more they learn, the more complex the case becomes and the harder it is to prove.

From the first chapter heading, one is treated to Harrod-Eagles' skill with words. Her unique descriptions—"Shepherd's Bush Green was littered with sun worshippers, the men stripped to the waist—the glare off their blue-white bodies could have brought a plane down."—and her humor.  The description of characters is unique yet brings a visual image immediately to mind.  Phrases such as--"Atherton moved like a cat, except that he did not spray the furniture as he passed."—make her writing such a pleasure to read. And who but Bill Slider would quote Tennyson at a murder scene.

Bill Slider's relationship with his family is realistic without overshadowing the plot. Slider's wife, Joanna, is in a position common to many women, a mother with her own career. The family adds dimension to Slider and contrasts with his second-in-command, confirmed bachelor and ladies man, Detective Sergeant Inspector(DSI) Atherton. 

One of the best things about the book is that it is a true mystery with an ensemble cast. Each member of Slider's team is fully developed and plays an important role. Also appreciated is the loyalty Slider's boss, Detective Superintendent (DS) shows for his men.

The case is unusual and interesting. Clues are tracked down by learning the victim's identity, piecing together her associates, bit-by-bit learning the motive, eliminating suspects, and finally identifying the killer.  A young man plays a significant role in the plotline and Slider's interactions with him are both sensitive and extremely well done.  There are excellent twists when the team uncovers a second, and possibly a third death, which were also thought to be suicides.  This forces the team to go back and investigate the past.

DYING FALL is a first-rate police procedural/mystery based on a murder and what is needed to solve the crime.  There are no car chases or gunfights, just a hard, nose-down investigation with twists, humor, and an excellent cast of characters.  

DYING FALL (PolProc-DCI Bill Slider-London-Contemp) – VG+
Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia - 23rd in series
Severn House, Feb 2022, 256 pp.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Something Wicked by David Housewright

First Sentence: "Jenness Crawford's voice trembled with rage"

Rushmore McKenzie may have retired from the police force, but when a friend of his wife, Nina, asks for help, McKenzie can't refuse. Jenness believes someone murdered her grandmother despite a lack of evidence. However, her biggest concern is that her siblings want to sell their 1883 home, hotel, and restaurant, struggling since the pandemic, to developers. The Sons of Europa, a group calling for the preservation of white families, want her to sell so zoning laws might be changed, and no one wants that.

Housewright can be relied upon for an excellent sense of time and place, and wonderful dialogue. His realistic inclusion of life in the time of COVID was very well done. He deals with the issues of white supremacy, racism, greed, deceptiveness, infidelity, and more while being objective and non-preachy.

McKenzie, Nina, and the town's sheriff Deb are the ones who hold the story together and maintain our interest. There is a danger inherent with a plot that centers on a family rivalry; the characters tend to be unpleasant. That was certainly the case here. While Jenness was likable enough, she was overshadowed by the other characters who were not.

There were significant weaknesses to the book. Exposition can be interesting but unless it moves the plot forward, it's filler. Highly dramatic points at 50 percent and 75 percent make one think of "Midsomer Murders"; it becomes predictable rather than suspenseful. An ending that tells, rather than shows, seems lazy. Classifying this story as a "locked-room mystery" is misleading, and a major loose thread, even when acknowledged in the epilogue, wonders why it was there. Housewright is usually better than this. It appeared his heart just wasn't into this book.

SOMETHING WICKED relies on the strength of its principal characters and they don't disappoint. A protagonist with a strong, committed, supportive relationship is such a pleasure. It may not overcome everything but serves as the core for a decent way to spend a day.

SOMETHING WICKED (UnlInv-Rushmore McKenzie-Minnesota-Contemp) – Okay
Housewright, David – 19th in series
Minotaur Books, May 2022, 336 pp.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

A Litter of Bones by J.D. Kirk

First Sentence: The total collapse of Duncan Reid's life began with a gate in the arse-end of nowhere.

The past comes back to haunt DCI Jack Logan. A boy has disappeared, and the case has all the characteristics of "Mister Whisper," a serial child-killer Logan put away ten years ago. When another child goes missing, Jack is sent to lead the investigation. Did Jack have the wrong man all those years ago? Is this a copycat? Either way, Jack needs to do everything possible to rescue the boy.

It takes very little time to recognize the quality of Kirk's writing and his skill for dialogue. He provides a well-done introduction to Logan's team and their personalities. PC Sinead Bell and DC Hamza Khaled are particularly well utilized in their roles.

One appreciates the hints of humour with their very Scottish flair—"But in a minute, I'm going to hear a cry for help from within this house, giving me no choice but to break this door down and investigate." …Sinead hesitated, then nodded. …He watched as Sinead leaned past him, turned the handle, and pushed the door open. "It's the Highlands," she told him. "We don't always lock our doors." What a good example of Logan being out of his element while showing his fallibility.

Kirk establishes an excellent sense of place, whether it be a small, mid-terrace house, or an open area. Yet it is the excellence of conveying the fear and frustration of the family which is particularly compelling. His ability to escalate suspense is palpable, cementing the plot as being a ripping page-turner filled with wicked twists. Be aware that there are scenes related to animal torture, and others not for the faint of stomach.

LITTER OF BONES is a straight-through, non-stop read filled with great characters, action, suspense, emotional impact, twists, and just enough humor for balance. There are no portents, just a wicked good story that keeps on turning the pages. It is dark, and there are scenes unpleasant to read, yet the positive qualities outweigh the negative and compel one to read the next book.

LITTER OF BONES (PolProc-DCI Jack Logan-Scotland-Contemp) – Ex
Kirk, J.D. – 1st in series
Zertex Crime, Oct 2020, 320 pp.

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

First Sentence:  On the morning of the worst, most earth-shattering day of Ray McMillian's life, he ordered room service:  scrambled eggs for two, one side of regular bacon (for Nicole), one side of vegan sausage (for him), one coffee (for Nicole), one orange juice (for him)

Ray McMillian is black and a classical violinist.  He has overcome poverty, racism, and the censure of his own mother.  Two people have been his principal support; his Grandma Nora who gifted him the violin which had belonged to his once enslaved great-great-grandfather, and his violin teacher, Janice Stevens. After being in New York City with his girlfriend Nicole for several days, he is about to leave for the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia when he discovers his beloved violin, discovered to be a Stradivarius, has been stolen and is being held for a $5 million ransom. 

It is a gripping read when one starts a book at 10 p.m. and reads straight through until 3 a.m.  From first page to last, this is a book impossible to put down as it is so much more than a mystery.

While a crime has been committed, this is a book about racism and greed.  But it also shows that with the love and support of just a few people, as well as determination, perseverance, and passion, one can accomplish great things. Still, too, there is a mystery within the mystery.  Much of the story's tension arises from the question of who really owns his $10 million Stradivarius.  This becomes a battle between Ray, his family, and the Marks family whose ancestors owned Ray's "PopPop." 

An unusual format takes one from the present to Ray's childhood and forward to the present.  One is drawn into Ray's life.  From his experiences with casual and overt racism, from beginning with a school violin to the Strad, one grows as Ray does.  However, it is the descriptions of Ray's playing and performing that are truly transportive. Comparisons to the book/series "The Queen's Gambit" about a young, female chess master, are to be expected.

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY is a remarkable debut.  It is not a perfect book, yet one really doesn't care. It is a book that leaves one thinking long after closing the covers and may even draw one back for a second reading.

THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY (Myst-Ray McMillian-various- Contemp/1880s) – Ex
Slocumb, Brendan – 1st book
Anchor, Feb 2022, 352 pp.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Stolen Hours by Allen Eskens

First Sentence: Lila Nash counted her steps as she walked from the kitchen to the bathroom of her apartment.

Lila Nash has one primary goal: to pass the bar exam to become a licensed attorney and prosecutor in the office of the Hennepin County Attorney. When a barely alive woman is pulled from the Mississippi River, it evokes memories of a horrible attack Lila suffered eight years prior.  And she wasn't his only victim, most of whom didn't survive. The police believe they know the attacker, but they need Lila's help. Lila's new goal is to bring the killer to justice. 

What an evocative opening chapter. Can anyone ever really comprehend the effects of an experience such as Lila's? Not wasting any time, Eskens introduces the villain, creating a sense of fear.

The principal characters are immediately identified, with the standouts being Lila, Detectives Niki Vang, and Marty Lopez. One can't help but admire Lila's determination and resolve to assist the investigation despite the possible risk to herself, and the trauma she suffered eight years ago. However, it can be hard to feel a connection with Lila.

Esken's interesting approach makes the case seem almost too easy, yet he makes a smooth transition of the story from being a police procedural to a legal thriller. Although there are some very good twists, some are predictable.

In the past, some of Eskens' work has been deeply disturbing and emotionally charged. In contrast, this book seems too superficial. The story touches on hard, serious topics yet the author skims across them as if they are under the ice. One knows they are there, but they feel glossed over.

The Stolen Hours is part police procedural, part legal suspense. While it is a better-than-good read, it's not Eskens' best work.

Eskens, Allen - Standalone
Mulholland Books, Sep 2021, 310 pp.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Last Call by Sheldon Siegel

First Sentence: At ten-thirty a.m. on Tuesday, December first, Judge Elizabeth McDaniel was running an hour behind schedule.

As every lawyer knows, representing a relative is a bad idea. But District Attorney Mike Daley finds this is a rule made to be broken when his nephew, Joey Dunleavy, is accused of killing a cop behind the family-named bar he manages. Joey is covered in Corcoran’s blood and a knife engraved with Joey’s name is found next to the body. When Joey is charged with first-degree murder, Mike and his PI brother Pete must find the real killer to clear Joey of the charges.

Siegel begins with a courtroom scene imbued with humor. This serves to introduce the protagonists as well as the author's use of Mike's internal dialogue. While some may find the inclusion of the latter to be distracting, it provides an honest look at the steps of the legal process. With Siegel's use of realistic dialogue, one always learns aspects of the law from his books. The author's summary of the characters is helpful to new readers and a nice reminder to followers of the series.

The author's love of San Francisco is apparent and presents an accurate picture of it being a town of multi-generational families, made of up neighborhoods and great places to eat. For the foodies, there's a temptation to make a list and eat their way around the City. And for locals, it's fun to see mentions of places one has been and learn of new places to go. The one thing of which one may be assured is the accuracy of Siegel's geographic representations. Although Mike's family plays a significant role, it is nicely balanced and doesn't overwhelm the plot. Even so, there is a wonderfully emotional scene toward the end and a nod to the impending pandemic.

The plot is interesting and informative. There is the usual frustration with the police and the realization that their rush to convict is politically motivated, rather than ensuring they have the real killer. The information as to what it takes for Mike to go from working for the DA's office to handling Joey's case pro bono is fascinating. The investigation is laid out step-by-step and filled with unique, fully-developed characters. The sense of working against the clock effectively heightens the suspense, and the twists are effective.

Last Call is a very good legal mystery without all the oft-times histrionics of other writers. Far from making it dull, the accurate depictions of an investigation and trial provide plenty of interest and excitement.

LegalMyst-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-San Francisco-Contemp
Siegel, Sheldon – 13th in series
Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc., Jan 2022, 306 pp.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Blood Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

First Sentence:  Twenty-five years have passed since a savage killer terrorized California, massacring three ordinary families before disappearing without a trace. 

FBI Agent Matthew Roarke is conflicted.  As a child, Cara Lindstrom, was the only survivor of her family's massacre by a man known as The Reaper. Now, twenty-five years later, Cara kills those who prey on innocent girls. Knowing why she kills doesn't help; Roarke knows he must arrest her. After learning of the recent murder of a family with details very similar, too similar to that of Cara's family.  Could The Reaper be back?  Or has he been killing all along?

Sokoloff creates an excellent sense of place. Wherever Roarke is, one is right beside him. There is a tiny element of the supernatural in the plot, but more as an element of racing against the clock.  An effective dream sequence plays a part, as does the author's evocative descriptions—"Dawn is a curious shade of gray; the fog drifting outside the window above her is so thick it is nearly impossible to tell the time of day." 

The characters of Roarke and Cara support the theme of the moon; light versus dark.  Part of Cara's appeal is that there is something mercurial about her.  There is the sense of her being tuned in to an uncommon knowledge of the world.  One isn't certain as to whom they should support; Roarke on the side of the law, or Cara, knowing her past and present.  Although the story is told with alternating points of view between the two, it works well.  

The author brings Roake's team to life while providing a connection back to the series' first book, "The Huntress." Then there is Agent Epp, an interesting character perceptive of both Roarke and Cara.

Sokoloff creates effective and perfectly timed plot twists, constantly building the suspense.  On one hand, she thinks through the logic of situations, putting the pieces together. On the other, it is the forensics and following the clues, especially seeing what others should have seen, that gives genuine power to the story. Amazing the things to be learned.

"Blood Moon" is an exciting read and a wonderful addition to the "Huntress" saga.  Start at the beginning and prepare to become addicted.

PolProc-Agent Matthew Roarke-CA/Nev-Contemp
Sokoloff, Alexandra – 2nd in series
Thomas & Mercer, Feb 2015, 313 pp.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Top Reads of 2021

These are the books that made my list of Top Reads for 2021 with links to my full review:

Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny - STATE OF TERROR
M.W. Craven - DEAD GROUND 
Dennis Lehane -THE DROP 
Andrew Mayne - BLACK CORAL
Chris Nickson - TO THE DARK
Sheldon Siegel - FINAL OUT 

There is also my group of HONORABLE MENTIONS; books I found close to excellent, but for one or two quibbles.  They are:

David Housewright - WHAT DOESN'T KILL US 
Alexandria Sokoloff - HUNTRESS MOON

May 2022 be a year of good books and good health.
Happy Reading,