Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Lost Hills by Lee Goldberg

First Sentence:  The northern stretch of Mulholland Highway ended in a T intersection with Mulholland Drive.

Deputy Eve Ronin has experienced a meteoric rise in her career.  She is the youngest female homicide detective in the LA County Sheriff's Department history. With that comes the resentment of her colleagues, including her partner, Det. Duncan Pavone, who is about to retire. Now Eve is the team leader in a case with a missing mother, two children, and their dog from a house where there is plenty of blood evidence, but not a single body.

One can always depend on Lee Goldberg for quick, wry humor—"they could be mistaken for a father and daughter who liked to carry Glocks."—and the occasional bit of wisdom—"Let me give you some advice. …when ship happens to you, it isn't always personal."

Goldberg creates an interesting collection of characters.  Eve is perfectly portrayed as one who is young and ambitious, but a bit in over her head.  Her partner, Duncan, is the seen-it-call cop who is counting the days to retirement but is willing to mentor his young partner.  In some ways, he's the most interesting character of the lot.  Eve's mother is the classic Hollywood want-to-be-but-never-made it figure who just can't imagine anyone not wanting to be an actor. While she may have been intended as comic relief, she ends up being more annoying than anything.

It’s disappointing of an author when the investigator’s case is weak and based on assumptions.  Goldberg did just that. Ronin tries to make the case fit the suspect rather than looking further.  Rather than making the character seem fallible, it diminishes the reader’s ability to identify with the character.

It's easy to see Goldberg's background as a scriptwriter.  There are too many coincidences and an over-the-top plot, but the pacing and dialogue are well done, keep the story moving, and the reader involved.    

LOST HILLS is a good, quick read. It is a perfect airplane book.


LOST HILLS (
PolProc-Deputy Eve Ronin-Los Angeles-Contemp)
Lee Goldberg – 1st in series
Thomas & Mercer, Jan 2020, 240 pp.
Rating:  G+/B+

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Fall Guy by Archer Mayor

First Sentence: Joe Gunther crested the hill overlooking a small cluster of flashing, multihued vehicles below.

Special Agent Joe Gunther, head of the VBI (Vermont Bureau of Investigation), and his team are confronted with a case that initially seems straightforward. An expensive car with New Hampshire plates, reported stolen by Lemuel Shaw, is found in Vermont near the scene of two burglaries. In the trunk is the body of the suspected burglar, Don Kalfus. Evidence suggests he was killed in New Hampshire. Also in the trunk are several stolen cell phones, one containing child porn, and another which belonged to a boy who disappeared years ago. The VBI team follows the clues as the body count continues to rise.

Rather than a prologue, Mayor begins with a description that is both dramatic and evocative. His literary style is always a pleasure to read--”…specialist teams delicately work around one another like dancers of a minuet…” The author is thorough in his description of the activity which occurs at a crime scene and explains how multi-jurisdictional teams can work together cooperatively and without grandstanding. There are a lot of acronyms used, but each is quickly explained.

Mayor has developed a cast of central characters that are always a pleasure to rejoin, especially as we’ve seen them grow and develop with the series. They are a cohesive unit, knowing how each works while trusting and supporting one another with occasional flashes of humor.

The investigative team runs through the details of the case and offer theories providing the realism one hopes for in a police procedural; they follow the clues rather than making an assumption of guilt and fitting the clues to that assumption. Willie, who has been with Joe and the VBI from the beginning, is the one, occasional, maverick among the group, sometimes taking someone else with him—Willy…“I want to tail ‘em.”… “Sniper-style,” Lester suggested neutrally…”Without authorization, without backup, and without pay, if I’m reading this right.” Willy’s enthusiasm was unaffected. “Yup. Sounds like fun, don’t it?”

Child kidnapping, sex trafficking, and kiddy porn are exceedingly difficult subjects. Mayor handles it with great sensitivity and understanding for the victims. In thinking about the child’s interview with social services, Joe had—"been caught by the metaphor of each victim becoming traumatically transformed into conjoined twins, one destined to lug around the corpse of the other until death.”

FALL GUY is a police procedural that begins as burglary and murder, develops to include at least two cold cases of missing children, a suspicious death, an abused child, spousal abuse, and a life-threatening situation no one could have predicted. Even then, it’s all topped off with a very unexpected case of, “but wait, there’s more.” Once again, Archer Mayor has come through with a first-rate read.


FALL GUY
(PolProc-Joe Gunther-Vermont/New Hampshire-Contemp)
Archer Mayor – 33rd in series
Minotaur Books, Sept 2022, 304 pp.
Rating: VG+ / A

 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Blood Covenant by Chris Nickson

First Sentence: His footsteps rang and echoed off the walls.

Thief-taker Simon Westow remembers the years of punishment and torture he'd received as a child working in the mill, a prisoner of the workhouse. When his friend, Dr. Hey, has him read the report of two young boys who died at the hand of a mill overseer, it brings Simon back to those memories. A man is pulled from the river with his throat slit and one hand removed. Simon and his assistant Jane are drawn into a dark and dangerous case of fighting for justice against the town's most powerful and wealthy men.

The strength of Nickson's book, and his series, are the characters. Simon may be tough, but it's Simon's wife Rosie, and his assistant Jane, who truly stand out. One doesn't know how realistic they'd have been for the time, but they are wonderful here. Jane, the most dimensional of all the characters, while being someone truly terrifying—small reminders of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce, but far more dangerous—also shows great compassion and love. Jane's relationship with Mrs. Shields, the elderly lady with whom she lives, and her growth at the end, is heartwarming.

The story moves between Simon and Jane. Rather than disruptive, as this style can be, it is seamless under Nickson's pen as there is no disruption of time.

The depiction of the period is stark. This isn't the charm of drawing rooms and balls. This shows the realities of the beginnings of industrialization, child labor, and poverty—"…a desperately poor area…a court where the piss and shit settled ankle deep. No clean air, everything coated in grime and soot…nothing was ever going to stay clean for more than five minutes around here." 

This was a time when a breath of sickness could decimate one's life; when thief-takers took the cases in which the authorities weren't interested and when "justice" was harsh and unmerciful, and when the rich and powerful were in control—"It's never going to change until the laws gives them no option. Even then, they'll try to find a way around it. The rich will grow richer and the poor will stay desperate."

Beyond the harshness, the author includes an element of thoughtfulness—"All the dead. What has happened to their souls? He wondered. Where had they gone? Heaven? Hell? Or was there nothing at all?" One can tell that Nickson, who lives in Leeds, has done thorough research on his city and the time.

THE BLOOD COVENANT is a hard, violent book with excellent suspense set in a hard, violent time. After all, as Nickson says in his worth-reading Afterword: "History is cruel." However, the book is honest and the principal characters are sympathetic and compelling.

THE BLOOD COVENANT (HistMys-Simon Westow/Jane-Leeds, England-1823)
Chris Nickson – 4th in series
Severn House, Mar 2022, 224 pp.
Rating: VG+/A

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Fierce Poison by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  Scotland Yard is of the opinion that we at the Barker and Llewelyn Agency are barking mad.

Private Enquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn have had a wide assortment of cases. This is something new. Roland Fitzhugh, a Member of Parliament, was rebuffed by the police over his claim that someone was trying to kill him.  Entering the office of Barker and Llewelyn, he falls to the floor, dead. Baker feels obligated to find the killer and more deaths follow.  The threat becomes personal and enters Barker’s house.  Can the Agency uncover the killer in time?

Because Thomas writes from the point of view of young Thomas Llewelyn provides an intimacy to the story and an introspection. At times, Llewelyn's observations also provide an element of humor—"Later, I found out I'd got it all wrong.  There's more than porridge in the old Llewelyn noggin."

The opening of the book is both clever and interesting. It’s well done that we meet the ensemble of policemen in very short order and understand their rankings. Sergeant Kirkwood quickly becomes one’s favorite. By the police not believing Fitzhugh, it moves the crime to its critical location, establishes the rank of the victim, and creates an important historical link.  An interesting factual tidbit is that in those times, members of parliament had originally been barristers.

Thomas cleverly establishes Llewellyn as one who is trying to be the practical Welshman and look after the business side by questioning spending time on a case for which they won’t get paid, while Barker is looking at the moral side of feeling obligated to a man who asked for their help before he died. That Thomas includes Llewelyn’s introspection adds depth and humanity to the character.  Adding actual historic characters and events, such as William Gladstone introducing a bill for universal health care and rearranging the country into smaller, self-government districts, called town councils on which women would be allowed to serve.  And who doesn’t love the inclusions of Shakespeare?

An ensemble cast, when done well, gives a sense of depth and realism.  No one operates in the vacuum, either professionally or personally.  Thomas surrounds his protagonists with police contacts, their co-workers, household members, employees, friends, and Llewellyn’s wife Rebecca. 

Despite this being the thirteenth book in the series, Thomas hasn’t allowed the characters to stagnate.  Instead, they have developed, grown, and their lives have changed.  This keeps them real, interesting and gives them greater depth with each book.

Thomas demonstrates the way a book should be done with a case that grows threat by threat, victim by victim.  The reader doesn’t know the identity or the killer, nor for a while, even who is the actual intended victim. When the killer is revealed, one is caught off guard, yet delighted by the character who uncovers the truth. Thomas doesn’t resort to the overused devices of prologues or portents.  What exposition there is, and it’s not much, isn’t there to expand the page count, but to provide historical clarity. 

FIERCE POISON is 292 pages of mystery and intrigue with a very clever plot.  An excellent final chapter plays with one’s emotions and leaves one anxious for the next book.

FIERCE POISON 
HistMys-Barker/Llewelyn-England-1893
Will Thomas – 13th in series
Minotaur Books, Apr 2022, 292 pp.
Rating:  VG+/A

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Shadows Reel by C.J. Box

First Sentence: Lorne Trumley had called dispatch to report a dead moose on his ranch.

Game Warden Joe Pickett goes to the scene where allegedly a moose has been burned. Instead, he finds the tortured and burned body of a local fishing guide. Librarian Marybeth Pickett receives an anonymous package containing the photo album of a former Nazi officer. The Pickett's friend, falconer Nate Romanowski, is tracking the man who attacked his family and stole his falcons. "This won't end well."

It is challenging when an author whose entire catalogue of books one has loved writes one that is painful to read, and not in a literary sense. All the elements one normally loves are missing. What happened to the warm, supportive relationship between Joe and his wife, Marybeth? Where is the subtle humor that has been a trademark of Box's writing?

Political viewpoints seem to be the theme de jour, and certainly, not everyone will agree with various points of view. However, a writer is usually expected to maintain some objectivity or, at the very least, do their research. Box missed both these marks by an extremely wide margin. The author's usual high-quality storytelling is painfully absent. The crass, sexist descriptions of the woman in the bar would embarrass pulp fiction authors of the 1940s.

SHADOWS REEL could have been a good book with an intriguing plot, particularly as related to the photo album. Unfortunately, there was so much about this book that was cringeworthy, it wasn't worth spending the time to finish. The only bright spot was the Pickett daughters. The worst part is that it causes one to question even reading the next book.

SHADOWS REEL (LicInves-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp) - DNF
C.J. Box – 22nd in series
G.P. Putnam's Sons / Mar 2022 / 368 pp.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Lost Graves by S.A. Dunphy

First Sentence: A small boy stood in the clearing amid the oak and hazel trees and stared at the macabre object his dog had just excavated from the soil of the forest floor, gripping the animal's collar to restrain it from tearing the severed human hand apart.

Joe Keenan and his young son Finbar are Travellers who've made camp for the night when Finbar comes across a corpse. Joe is arrested, but members of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigations, Jesse Boyle, criminal behaviorist, DS Seamus Keneally, and historian and computer genius Terri Kehoe, don't believe Joe is guilty. Joe Keenan is and is hesitant about helping the investigation as he is on the run from a group of Travellers threatening to kill him. More bodies are found, some dating back 20 years. Locals blame the deaths on a vampire, the Abhartach. 

What an excellent opening. One is drawn immediately into the story and the characters. Even the chapter headings are evocative.

Jessie Boyle, Seamus Keneally, and Terri Kehoe make a great team. Jessie's observations and analysis are interesting to follow, Seamus' ability to eat constantly without ever getting a drop on himself and Terri's computer expertise bring the characters to life. One has become accustomed to investigative teams being able to find whatever information they want via computer. It is a nice change to have someone acknowledge GIGO—Garbage In, Garbage Out—the unreliability of data.

In this second book of the series, once again the author falls victim to over-plotting. While the folklore is interesting, it somewhat overwhelms the story, as does the serial-killer trope. There is an attempt to introduce a sense of the paranormal with the idea of the Abhartach, a vampire-like creature, but one never quite buys into it, and links to the seemingly omniscient character of Uruz from the previous book "Bring Her Home" leaves one wondering as to the point.

Dunphy excels at suspense. He creates a true spine-chilling creepiness that makes one catch their breath. Although he is guilty of overkill, he maintains a degree of logic in the plot. What was effective was the inclusion of case notes of a former detective. This added veracity to the story, as did information on the psychology of the Travelling people. They are a group on which there is rarely a focus. The epilogue is nicely done, while a major weakness is the use of completely unnecessary portents.

LOST GRAVES is a good, fast read. The thing that really holds it together is the principal characters. Dunphy falls into the category of a guilty pleasure read, and that's not a bad thing. While this second book is a step forward, a much stronger editor is to be desired. Even so, the books are ripping reads and the next is already in the queue.

LOST GRAVES (PolProc- Boyle/Keneally/Kehoe-Ireland-Contemp) – G+
Dunphy, S.A. – 2nd in series
Bookouture, Jan 2022, 356 pp.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Bring Her Home by S.A. Dunphy

First Sentence: I left his body where I knew it would be found, nestled gently in the tidal mud of the Thames in the shadow of the Tate Modern in Southwark.

A man known only by the Celtic rune Uruz or ᚢ, murders the former professional and personal partner of criminal behaviorist Jessie Boyle and is now stalking her. After retiring from London's Metropolitan Police, Jessie returns home to Ireland. Her friend, Dawn Wilson, newly appointed Police Commissioner of Ireland, calls in an old debt.

Penelope (Penny) O’Dwyerhe, the daughter of Ireland's Taoiseach (Prime Minister) is gone. The kidnapper threatens to kill her unless the police find her first. They have twelve days. Serial killer Frederick Morgan, imprisoned for life, claims he has the information needed to save Penny, but Jessie is the only one with whom he will negotiate. As Boyle and her team investigate, they learn there is much more to Penny than first thought, and that she is not the only woman who has gone missing.

There are a lot of threads and characters in this story. There is much to like, and Dunphy's voice galvanizes the reader to continue reading. But there are several things that, upon reflection, cause one to pause.

The book, in some ways, feels introductory, a prologue to the upcoming series while clearly being a story in and of itself. One is introduced to every character, including the secondary ones, with each given a separate chapter detailing their background. As opposed to interfering with the story, the characters are brought to life with even the bad guys given full dimensionality and shades of gray. However, one may wonder at the necessity of this and how many of these characters will reappear in the future.

The principal police characters: Jessie Boyle, Detective Seamus Keneally, genealogist and IT tech Terri Kehoe, and Dawn Wilson are an interesting, diverse team, each with strengths and weaknesses. They contrast and complement each other and are characters one wants to know. When at risk, the tension is palpable as one doesn't want any harm to come to them.

The story includes quite a bit of ancient folklore and references to Celtic artifacts. While germane to the plot, this slows the pace and can lead to confusion with the number of characters who spiral off the person who fashions himself after the folklore character of Uruz or ᚢ. One already knows he will be back.

BRING HER HOME is an exciting read with great characters, occasional good humor, and powerful suspense. The book would have benefited from stronger editing. Even with a satisfactory ending, once one thinks about it, it causes curiosity about the fate of several characters. Book two awaits. It will be interesting to see how things progress.


BRING HER HOME (PolProc-Boyle/Keneally/Kehoe-Ireland-Contemp) – Good/B
Dunphy, S.A. – 1st in series
Bookouture, Aug 2021, 346 pp.

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.

THE LADY WITH THE GUN ASKS THE QUESTIONS (SS-Phryne Fisher-Australia-1920s) EX
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.

THE STOLEN HOURS – G+
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.

LAST CALL – VG+
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.

BLOOD MOON – VG
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:

C.J. Box - DARK SKY
Ann Cleeves - THE DARKEST EVENING
Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny - STATE OF TERROR
M.W. Craven - DEAD GROUND 
M.W. Craven - THE PUPPET SHOW 
Ashley Gardner - THE CUSTOM HOUSE MURDERS
Dennis Lehane -THE DROP 
Donna Leon - TRANSIENT DESIRES 
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:

C.J. Cooke - THE NESTING
Charles Finch - AN EXTRAVAGANT DEATH
Kerry Greenwood - DEATH IN DAYLESFORD
David Housewright - WHAT DOESN'T KILL US 
Alexandria Sokoloff - HUNTRESS MOON
C.J. Tudor - THE BURNING GIRLS

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