Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Puppet Show by M.W. Craven

First Sentence: The stone circle is an ancient, tranquil place.

A serial killer leaves his burned and disfigured victims within one of the stone circles of Cumbria.  Each victim is an elderly man, disfigured and burned.  Detective Washington Poe's suspension from the Serious Crimes Unit has been lifted. Tilly Bradshaw, a brilliant data analyst, has been assigned to work with Poe.  The challenge is for Poe and Tilly to stop the "Immolation Man" before he kills again, and again.

Readers: Be warned -- this book is dark, with descriptions and themes that become increasingly so as the story progresses.

Craven begins by turning a place usually thought of as magical, into one of fear and horror, constantly increasing the tension throughout very well-timed plot twists and a red-herring or two. The fascinating forensic and analytic work described moves the story forward at a breath-catching clip. Craven's writing is compelling. Even at the darkest parts, one never wants to stop. There is always that sense of wanting to know more; seeing where the path lead; whether will justice be done, and even questioning what constitutes justice.

What truly makes this book work is the characters. Yes, they are rather stereotypical, but one doesn't care. Poe, the rule-breaker with a soft heart, will do whatever it takes to solve the case. Tilly, the brilliant, clever, possibly autistic sidekick, is genuinely appreciated for the first time in her career, is given a chance to spread her wings and show her talents. As a team, they are quirky, delightful, and you cheer for them every step of the way.

The trail Craven lays for Poe and Tilly to follow is fascinating, wonderfully atmospheric, and exciting. It is filled with a plethora of interesting information along the way. It includes a side path with the history of Poe's name which one assumes with have more relevance later in the series. One small point: a glossary of all the acronyms would have been helpful.

"The Puppet Show" is dark, twisty, suspenseful, filled with great characters, and one of the most gratifying endings of late. However, the best part is knowing there are for Poe and Tilly books yet to be read.

THE PUPPET SHOW (Thriller/PolProc-Poe/Tilly-Cumbria, Lake District, England-Contemp) – Ex
Craven, M.W. – 1st in series
Constable, June 2018, 352 pp

Thursday, July 8, 2021

An Extravagant Death by Charles Finch

First Sentence: It was a sunny, icy late morning in February of 1878, and a solitary figure, lost in thought, strode along one of the pale paths winding through St. James's Park in London.

British Enquiry Agent, Charles Lennox, solved a case that brings down Scotland Yard with the three top men headed to trial. Prime Minister Disraeli determines it best that Lennox is not in England during the trial and sends him to the United States with the Queen's Seal on a tour of the East Coast law enforcement agencies. 1878 Newport, Rhode Island; a place of extreme wealth and self-indulgence. A place of new money, and a focus on marrying well. The murder of a young woman of the first diamond doesn't fit into this scenario. Lennox's help is requested.

Finch does an excellent job of providing a summary of Lennox's background, as well as folding in that of his wife's, Lady Jane. However, it is confusing that the case for which Lennox is being lauded falls into a huge gap in the series storyline: When did Lennox and Jane have a second child? When did Polly and Dallington, Charles' partners in the agency, get married? And most of all, what was the case that brought down Scotland Yard? Either this reviewer blanked out this information, or Finch and/or his publisher just decided to skip a book and these annoying little details.

In Lenox's getting to know New York, Finch presents the stark contrast between the wealthy and the laboring class very well, demonstrating compassion but not dismissiveness or pity. Lenox's excitement is tangible as he crosses the border from New York to Connecticut, consulting his little book of maps showing the thirty-eight states, until one learns the origin of the word "shrapnel," and later the term "I heard it through the grapevine." Those small bits of information lend richness to the story.

Just as with the contrast in settings, Finch displays the contrasts in characters and their lives with the working class and merchants of the town, to the very wealthy "cottage" owners such as the Vanderbilts and Mrs. Astor. As is often true, some of the most interesting characters are those of ex-soldier James Clark, and Fergus O'Brian, the Irish valet,

It is interesting to see Lenox dogged determination and attention to detail as he investigates every aspect and every possible suspect. The details of how and why Lily, the victim, was killed are laid out perfectly and done in a scene of edge-of-seat suspense rather than the more pedestrian style of Christie. The final chapters are heart-warming, especially the requests he makes on behalf of others.

"An Extravagant Death" is just shy of being excellent, in part due to a scene at the end. The mystery is well done with some secondary characters nearly stealing the show. It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here.

AN EXTRAVEGEANT DEATH (EnqAgent-Charles Lenox-Newport, RI/NYC-1878) – G+
Finch, Charles – 14th book in series
Minotaur Books, Feb 2021, 277 pp

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Death in Daylesford by Kerry Greenwood

First Sentence: It was a lazy, late summer's morning in St. Kilda.

Miss Phryne Fisher and her ever-loyal maid, Dot, are off to visit the Spa at Hepburn being run for shell-shocked veterans of the Great War. Their visit coincides with the Highland Games, but it is not much of a celebration as people begin dying. And what about the women who have been disappearing? With Phryne away, her two adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth, along with handyman Tinker, join forces with DS Hugh Collins to solve the murder of the girl's classmate.

Ah, the joy of the Honorable Phryne Fisher of 221B The Esplanade in Melbourne, Australia in this multi-plot story where all the characters are fully developed and wonderfully realized. Phryne is a strong, independent, character with a view of relationships that is more traditionally male, yet completely accepting—'Phryne made a mental note to the effect that medical opinions stating that women who were same-sex attracted must be neurotic were so much ill-informed drivel.'

Those new to the series are introduced not only to Phryne and learn of her family history but meet her current family and those who are associated with her. With the secondary characters, Greenwood cleverly and oh-so-subtly includes a soupçon of doubt as to their honesty.

Greenwood begins each chapter with an excerpt from a poem or literature, adding a certain grace to the story. She paints verbal pictures; places, things, and most of all, people become three-dimensional through her words. "A generalized sense of doom hung in the atmosphere… 'I don't know how this farm strikes you, Dot, but it's a little bit too Thomas Hardy for my liking.'"

This is not a book to read when hungry as even the simplest meal leaves one salivating--"fish, beef, and chicken pies."—and-- "broccoli has a sauce made of lemon juice, garlic and butter, and the carrots have fresh ginger, sesame seeds, and honey. Oh, and butter.'" Alternatively, one appreciates Phryne admitting that Dot a lesson in camouflage.

Rather than a cozy, consider this a traditional mystery.  The murders are numerous, and the issues, whether related to the crime being solved by the group in Melbourne, or by Phryne and Dot, are stark. Greenwood makes it clear that issues of today are not new but were relevant in the 1920s as well.

"Death in Daylesford" is chock full of mysteries all of which are solved in the most British of manners. There are numerous characters to keep straight, so it's best to keep each mystery separate in one's mind. No matter what, it is wonderful to have Phryne and the gang back again.

DEATH IN DAYLESFORD (Hist/PI-Phryne Fisher-Australia-1920s) – VG+
Greenwood, Kerry - 21st in series
Poisoned Pen Press, Jun 2021, 318 pp

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Not a Creature Was Stirring by Jane Haddam

First Sentence: "Listen," Myra said, as soon as the phone was picked up, without waiting to find out who had answered it.

Gregor Demarkian, a retired profiler for the FBI "…the most Irish Catholic organization in the U.S. government" is asked for a special favor by his good friend, Father Tibor. Philadelphia Main Line millionaire Robert Hannaford has offered the priest $100,000 for his crumbling church if Gregor will have Christmas dinner at "Engine House," the Hannaford estate. What Gregor finds is a house with every inch decorated for Christmas; a group of siblings who don't like themselves or one another, some of whom are in financial and or legal trouble, and a matriarch crippled with Muscular Sclerosis who never leaves her room. Shortly after arriving, Hanniford is found in his den where a marble bust accidentally fell, killing him. Was it an accident? Gregor doesn't think so.

Haddam's voice is one that captivates. With a heading of "PART ONE SUNDAY, DECEMBER 18-SATURDAY DECEMBER 24 THE FIRST MURDER," it's clear there's an interesting story ahead. And it is nice that a floorplan of the house is included at the beginning of the book. The story is filled with subtle, often dialogue-driven humor. There is a cynicism and sharpness to her voice that causes frequent chuckles—"No intelligent psychopath had to murder a dozen little old ladies to get his kicks. He would wreak far more havoc by going into government work." After that, it is the character of Gregor and his friend Father Tibor who are the hook. We learn of Gregor's past and about life within an Armenian community.

As for the family/victims, they are a mess. It is hard to work up a whole lot of sympathy for them. It makes one glad to not be wealthy, or at least, overly entitled.

As for the plot, in the end, aren't all motives really quite basic? The family Gregor is investigating is filled with unpleasant characters, and none more so than the father. As the investigation proceeds, it is understandable why he was murdered.

One point of interest is that each of Haddam's 30 books, is set against the background of a holiday. This somehow truly fits with her sense of humor.

"Not a Creature was Stirring" is a familial version of Agatha Christie's "And Then There None." The has a strange, obscure plot of even stranger, mainly unsympathetic people other than those surrounding Gregor. However, what it really has is a delightful voice, eminently quotable lines, and a lot of smoking: one forgets how prevalent smoking was in 1990. This was one of those books where you feel as though you should have figured it out, but didn't. It's also a book that makes one really want to continue the series.

NOT A CREATURE WAS STIRRING (Pol(ret)-Gregor Demarkian-NYC/PA-Contemp) – Good
Jane Haddam, 1st in series
Mysterious Press, 1990, 320 pp

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

What Doesn't Kill Us by David Housewright

First Sentence: I was shot in the back at close range by a .32-caliber handgun yet did not die, at least not permanently.

Rushmore "Mac" MacKenzie is a former cop now spending his time by taking on unofficial private investigations as favors for his friends, some of whom are more law-abiding than others. It all starts when his friend Deese takes a genealogy-site DNA test and learns his father is not his father. But is that what led to Mac being shot in the back? Now lying in a medically-induced coma, it is up to Mac's friends to do a favor for him and track down his would-be killer.

What a unique premise. While the solving of the crime is left up to his diverse and fascinating assortment of friends with incidents shown from their perspective, the story is told, by post coma, by Mac. This gives a somewhat out-of-body feel to the narration. The book does mention COVID-19, although it was clearly written at the very beginning of the pandemic.

Housewright has compiled a fascinating collection of characters. Many are recurring characters that add to the overall series. Some, such as Detective Shipman, are new and add a touch of vinegar to the story. That Nina, Mac's wife and owner of jazz club, confesses being jealous of Shelby, the wife of Mac's best friend, is perfectly written and exemplifies how women almost never realize their own worth or successes.

The story segues into various relevant topics are insightful and add a layer to the story beyond the basic investigation. Rather than being intrusive or slowing the pace, they add a layer of significance.

Housewright is an eminently quotable author. Whether talking about emotional pain—"It reminds me of that old Skeeter Davis song. I wake up in the morning and I wonder why everything's the same as it was."—or referencing Shakespeare to impart a facial expression—"I need you to do something for me," she said. The way Smith and Jones glanced at each other yet again somehow reminded Shipman of Shakespeare's Richard III – I am not in the giving vein today."—or a t-shirt meme—"YOU MATTER unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared…then you energy."—his words are relatable.

Unconventional twists are sometimes so cleverly done as to make one smile. The story of Deese and the unintended result of taking the DNA test is one that could serve as a caution. But there is also a well-done twist that circles the plot back to the motive.

"What Doesn't Kill Us" is a well-done, non-stop read. The plethora of characters can be confusing, but collectively they consolidate the notes into a melody line that makes the story sing.

WHAT DOESN'T KILL US (PI-Rushmore MacKenzie-Twin Cities-Contemp) – VG
Housewright, David
Minotaur Books, May 2021, 345 pp.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence: Lorna lifted Thomas from his high chair and held him for a moment on her knee.

DCI Vera Stanhope comes upon a car that has skidded off the road in a snowstorm. There is no driver to be seen, but an infant has been left secured in a child seat. Knowing she can't leave him there, Vera and the child head for a nearby house; Brockburn, where her father grew up. When a neighbor of the house finds the body of a murdered woman half-covered by the snow, Vera calls up her team to solve the crime, uncovering family secrets along the way.

Vera is one of the best creations of contemporary mystery fiction. She is older, overweight, rather shabby, completely devoid of maternal instinct, and raised in a way to make her a loner, yet not unaffected by how others view her, and not without insecurities—"She paused for a moment, Cinderella looking in: the fifteen-year-old girl again, excluded."

In addition to her descriptions of Vera, Cleeves creates a vivid sense of place—"The sight was like something from a fairy tale. Magical. The flurry of snow had passed and there was moonlight, and a sky flecked with stars."—and scene—"…pheasant, cooked slowly with red wine and shallots…And a vegetable casserole…Roast potatoes and parsnips and sprouts…A variety of puds, hot and cold."

Vera's relationship with her team is interesting. She knows their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Although she seems to take advantage of them, in knowing what drives them, she is helping them grow and improve individually and as a unit. What makes it work is that they understand what she is doing. They know her, too, with the teammates often bolstering one other.

Cleeve's books are as much personality studies as they are mysteries. By focusing on motivation, it becomes clear how the past can influence the present and the future. One cannot help analyzing oneself in the process.

The plot is excellent. The information on anorexia is well presented and stresses the severity of the disease—which not simply an issue of vanity. There are plenty of questions and red herrings. The question as to who fathered the baby leads to effective supposition. A "ta-dah" moment gives way to real suspense and threat, and a wonderfully English ending.

"The Darkest Evening" is another example of Cleeves' excellent storytelling. The climax is well done and even touching. It's a mystery one may not figure out before the end when it all makes sense, and the use of Frost's poem in the title is perfect.

THE DARKEST EVENING (PolProc-Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) - Ex
Cleeves, Ann – 9th in series
Minotaur Books, Sept 2020, 384 pp.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

What the Devil Knows by C.S. Harris

First Sentence: Molly Maguire hated the fog.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has been asked by a Bow Street magistrate to investigate the brutal murder of Sir Edwin Pym. Pym had been one of the lead investigators on the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 in which two families were slaughtered in their homes. A suspect was arrested but died in his cell prior to the trial, and the murders stopped. Now in 1814, Pym has been killed in a nearly identical way, raising the question: was the real murderer caught, or is this a copycat killing? St. Cyr must go back to the beginning to find the truth.

Harris presents a stark, brutal look at London from the time of Bloody Mary, through Elizabeth I, to the time when the book is set. Nothing here is romanticized –"The farther east they traveled, the older, narrower, and more decrepit the houses became, the more ragged the men, women, and wretched children on the streets, the more foul the air."

It is interesting how Harris weaves together the cases from the two time periods into one investigation when other authors might have been tempted to write in two alternating timelines. By using this method, the story has more impact when it becomes clear that St. Cyr is solving is both a cold case and a current one. Harris is an effective and affecting, writer. Her scenes simultaneously create a sense of anger and desolation.

Hero, St. Cyr's wife, is a wonderful character used wisely by Harris. She has a role that involves her but doesn't have her actively attempting to solve crimes. Hero is the conveyer of a bit of humor when interviewing a young prostitute. She is an activist, writing columns on the city's laboring poor—"In some ways the lives of the Foundling Hospital's children were pitiable. … But in truth, these were the lucky ones. They weren't dead." She is the generous heart who is distressed at seeing a caged parrot that can never be set free, and an orphan who'd rather sell herself than be subjected to abuse—"Why? Why would you want to help me?" Hero drew a painful breath. What should she say? Because my life has always been so comfortable and easy that a part of me can't help but feel guilty for it?...Because sometimes writing articles to stir the public conscience simply isn't enough? … So instead, she said, "I need someone to take care of my parrot." Lastly, she is St. Cyr's wife and partner in the truest sense of the word, which adds softness and humanity to an otherwise very dark and dangerous story.

There are a lot of characters. Some are ones series readers will remember. Certainly, St. Cyr holds center stage, and young Tom, who takes care of his coach and horses and is wonderful in his own right. However, one downside of the double investigation is the plethora of other, secondary characters, who can be confusing as they are not fully developed. There are also a lot of murders. However, there are also exciting scenes of suspense and danger.

A second plot line runs through the series in St. Cyr's search to learn about his true parentage. Some of the most poignant moments come from here, and this book is no exception.

"What the Devil Knows" is a compelling read with a complex plot that keeps you going. Sadly, in many ways, it demonstrates that nothing really changes over time. Do note the map at the beginning of the book and make certain to read the Author's Notes at the end as they differentiate history from fiction.

WHAT THE DEVIL KNOWS (HistMys-Sebastian St. Cyr-London-1814/Georgian – VG
Harris, C.S. – 16th in series
Berkeley, Apr 2021, 336 pp.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Art of Violence by S.J. Rozan

First Sentence: Shifting colors on a monster billboard bled through the April evening mist, showed me a shadow in the alley.

Chronic alcoholic Sam Tabor has mental health disorders and experiences blackouts, except when he paints. After being convicted of murdering a woman and serving five years in prison, art lovers arrange for Sam's release. Now, two new women have been murdered and, because of the means of their deaths, Sam fears he is the killer. As a former client of investigator Bill Smith, Sam wants either to be proven guilty of the murders or absolutely convinced of his innocence.

A first line, both evocative and threatening, immediately draws one into an unusual premise. Rozan is a joy to read. Her writing is thoughtful and literary with passages of text—"By now, it was half past eight. … All traces of last night's mist had burned away under the April Sun … This unsullied light, this bright vision, they're beautiful, but they're false … It's not until the day gets older, wearier, that it stops making the effort to lie."--that contrast to her natural, realistic dialogue with touches of wry humor—"'Can I pick the restaurant?' … 'I've heard of it. I don't think I'm cool enough.' 'No, but I am."

Characters drive the story, and Bill and Lydia are wonderful characters. Rozan's books alternate between which character takes the lead, and this is Bill's turn. Bill is interesting in that he's a combination of the Golden Age PI with his cigarettes, a bit of the 70's television PI Banacek with his love of classical music and knowledge of art, but with more contemporary sensibilities in his personal relationship with Lydia and consideration for her mother, as well as his respect for her skills. These elements add dimensions to Bill one might not expect. Lydia plays a secondary role in the story but is still significant to the plot.

Although his mental illness, beyond OCD, isn't defined, Sam is the most intriguing character of them all. The description of Sam's paintings conveys their impact and inspires curiosity but leaves one disquieted. Through him, one sees the absurdity and price of celebrity—"….it had made him famous. He belonged to it now … belonged to didn't mean 'fit in with.' It meant 'was owned by." and those who follow it.

While there is the usual "bad" cop, Rozen counters that with Detective Angela Grimaldi who is tough, thorough, and smart, provides an explanation of the types of serial killers, and who believes in working the evidence to find the killer. And there is Lydia's traditional Chinese mother who is always a delight.

One may suspect the killer quite early on. While this is somewhat disappointing, the quality of Rozan's writing compels one to keep going, and it's worth it. After all, with very clever twists, additional murders, and the age-old, never-resolved question as to what is art, one's suspicions may not be accurate.

"The Art of Violence" could be considered Rozan's pandemic in that it is a bit muddled and not always easy to keep the characters straight. Even so, it is a good story and keeps one well engaged to the end.

THE ART OF VIOLENCE (PI-Bill Smith/Lydia Chin-New York-Contemp) - Good
Rozan, S. J. – 13th in series
Pegasus Crime, Dec 2020, 352 pp.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Dark Sky by C.J. Box

First Sentence: Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett stood on the edge of the tarmac with his hands thrust into the pockets of his parka and his gray Stetson clamped on tight against the cold wind.

Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett has been ordered by the Governor to take Steven "Steve-2" Price, a Silicon billionaire, bow-hunting for elk. While Joe is helping Steve stalk a bull elk, Earl Thomas and his sons are stalking Price intent on killing him. Joe's daughter, Sheridan, works for Nate Romanowski. In checking falcon nests, she discovers someone has been stealing and killing the birds. Nate and Sheridan learn Joe is in trouble, and immediately go to help. When Soledad, a falcon thief destroys Nate's birds and threatens his family, all bets are off.

Box's descriptions bring the locations and characters to life—"the last rays of the sun lit up the face of the rock formation and threw dark shadows into its folds and cracks. A single raven hugged the rim of the wall and flew in lazy, ever-widening circles." Where he excels is in suspense; in knowing who, but not the why. Violence comes hard and fast in the story. Seeds of distrust and suspicion are cleverly planted, and things escalate quickly as Joe is left without any communications or weapons but must protect another.

This is a two-pronged story, with the effectiveness and intensity of each being equal to the other. "Steve-2" is clearly based on Steve Jobs; the character even cites him as an idol. He exemplifies the very worst of the 1%, who created a product that enables the narcissism and bullying sadly found today. This is contrasted by the innate morality of Joe. Through Nate and Sheridan, one learns more about falcons and the illegal bird trade. It is also a thread that leads directly to the next book.

The intensity of suspense and action tend to keep one reading into the night. Although completely different, one may make a small comparison between Box and Agatha Christie in their high body count. The coming together of the three segments; Joe and Price, Nate and Sheridan, and Thomas and his sons, is cataclysmic—"Gee," she said to Nate, "I think we have enough guns along." "Bite your tongue," Nate said. One never has enough guns."-- but provides an unexpected revelation that doesn't excuse but explains how actions can lead to devastating results. Joe may now be 51, but he hasn't lost those attributes that one admires and that make him who he is.

"Dark Sky" is a wild ride of non-stop tension. It is violent, but thought-provoking as it deals with many important issues of our times. This may be Box's best book yet.

DARK SKY (LicInv-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp) - Ex
Box, C.J. – 21st in series
G.P. Putnam's Sons, Mar 2021, 349 pp.