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THE K TEAM by David Rosenfelt: Book Review

Old friends, new friend, old dogs, new dog.  That’s the cast of characters in David Rosenfelt’s first novel in a new series.  He is also the author of the series that features Andy Carpenter, a lawyer and amateur detective.

The setting of The K Team will be familiar to readers of the Carpenter novels.  It’s Paterson, New Jersey, across the river from Manhattan, and the “new friend” is recently retired Paterson police detective Corey Douglas, with his “new dog” Simon.  Simon isn’t new to Douglas, only to the reader, because he was the detective’s canine partner, and through Andy’s clever maneuvering, Douglas was allowed to take Simon with him when he left the force.

Now Douglas has been approached by Laurie Collins, Andy’s wife and a retired police lieutenant herself, to start a private investigations company to be called The K Team in Simon’s honor.  The team’s third human member is Marcus Clark, according to Douglas, “the toughest, scariest man on the planet.”  With everyone in place, the team is ready for its first client.

Via Pete Stanton, another character familiar to readers of the earlier series, the investigators have a case.  Judge Henry Henderson is a well-respected, if not well-liked, jurist, but he is the recipient of a troubling letter.  The letter tells him that he shortly will be called upon to do a service, for which he already has been paid, but Henderson tells the team that he has no idea who has sent this message or what the service is.

When Laurie asks him about having been paid, Douglas, who is the novel’s narrator, expects another negative answer.  Instead, the judge gives the investigators a statement from a bank in the Cayman Islands, showing an account in his name with deposits totaling over $390,000, going back over eighteen months.  Due to the Islands’ confidentiality laws concerning banking, there is no way to trace who deposited the money, even though it is Henderson’s name on the account.

There is a lot going on.  At the same time we read about the team’s investigation, we also read about a mysterious group of ultra-wealthy men who are engaged in an ultra-secret enterprise.  The judge is being followed, a murder is committed, and Henderson receives a photo that shows him opening the door of what is obviously his hotel room and kissing a young woman who, from her appearance, is a prostitute.

Since The K Team is narrated by Corey Douglas, we are privy to his thoughts and to the decisions he and Laurie make.  However, we do not know the identities of the mysterious men who are behind the scheme, what their purpose is, and how they intend to reach their goal.

David Rosenfelt has written an excellent first entry to his second series.  Although the novel features many familiar characters and settings, it’s told in a fresh voice by a sympathetic protagonist who will draw you into the book and keep you engrossed until the end.

You can read more about David Rosenfelt at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

A DEATH IN HARLEM by Karla FC Holloway: Book Review

The title immediately grabbed me in a personal way.  My late father was the police captain of that precinct decades after A Death In Harlem takes place, and many changes, both good and bad, had occurred in the intervening years.

Weldon Thomas is the first colored policeman in the department’s history.  Of course, he’s assigned to his neighborhood to keep an eye on his people, and not much is expected of him.  Racism, accidental or deliberate, is shown by his fellow officers, but Thomas has confidence in himself to do his job.

In Karla FC Holloway’s Author’s Note at the beginning of the mystery, she pays homage to Nella Larsen’s Passing, written in 1929. “Passing” means the ability of a person to be regarded as belonging to another class, racial, or ethnic group; in Ms. Larsen’s novel it was the story of a colored woman passing as white, even to the man she married, with tragic results.  In A Death in Harlem, passing is once again at the center of a book.

Ms. Holloway’s novel takes place in the upper social strata of Harlem society, where rules and behavior are as strict as those found anywhere.  Two woman, Vera Scott and Earlene Kinsdale, had been friends since their college days, but two things have happened to change that dynamic.  First is Earlene’s recent widowhood, second is the entrance into Harlem of a mysterious newcomer.  Olivia Frelon arrived from somewhere unknown, with money from a source unknown, with a background unknown.

All that is known is that Olivia is so light-skinned, so bright in the vernacular of the day, that she could pass for white without question.  But, like the equally fair Vera Scott, she has chosen to remain with her people, so it’s no wonder that she and Vera have become such good friends.  So good, in fact, that there seems to be room no longer in Vera’s life for her former friend Earlene.

Everything changes the night of the Ninth Annual Opportunity Awards Banquet, an event at which various prizes are given to outstanding authors in the community.  The first two awards go as expected, but when Olivia Frelon’s name is announced, she doesn’t come forward.  Her name is called again, and this time when the curtain opens a woman comes out screaming.  “She dead!  She dead!  She done fell out of the window.”

Was it an accident?  Was it murder?  Patrolman Weldon Thomas has his own ideas, but higher-ranking officers ignore his thoughts, both because he is a lowly black patrolman and because there are important members of white society who are also in the picture and who may need to be protected.

There are at least three major secrets in this novel, two of which absolutely stunned me.  I was congratulating myself on having solved one mystery when two others appeared.  The clues are present, but they are so cunningly disguised that I never even suspected that they were there to be discovered.

A Death in Harlem is an outstanding novel that penetrates black society, its aspirations, its gossip, its caring and its backstabbing.  The people are all too recognizable, regardless of one’s own ethnic background–their fears and triumphs, their pettiness and their compassion.  It’s a study of humanity in all its forms.

You can read more about Karla FC Holloway at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

BEFORE FAMILIAR WOODS by Ian Pisarcik: Book Review

Before Familiar Woods is Ian Pisarcik’s debut, and it’s an understatement to say that it is an absolutely outstanding one.

The setting could hardly been more dispiriting–a small, remote town in Vermont’s Green Mountain range, waiting for the worst that winter has in store.  After a very brief first chapter we’re introduced to Ruth Fenn, sitting on her front porch with her husband’s deer rifle across her knees.

Coming up her rutted gravel drive is Della Downing, formerly Ruth’s closest friend but now her bitterest enemy.  Della says she is looking for her husband Horace, and she thinks he’s with Ruth’s husband Elam.  Neither man came home last night, but Ruth isn’t as upset as Della; this isn’t the first time Elam went out and didn’t return for a day or two.  That has happened more than once since the tragedy.

Ruth and Della each had one son, Mathew and William respectively.  The boys were friends and were fifteen years old when their nude and bloodied bodies were found on a trail in the Green Mountain National Forest, surrounded by needles and beer cans.  The medical examiner couldn’t say whether they died from exposure, being attacked by animals, or from the fentanyl-laced heroin found in their bloodstreams.  But did it really matter?

Mathew had always been an outlier, and so it was easy for the citizens of North Falls to put the blame for the deaths on him.  At first people thought that the boys had gotten high, hallucinated, and attacked each other.  But then a statement from a Vermont state trooper painted a different, even more disturbing, picture.  He hypothesized that Mathew had lured his friend into the isolated area, attempted to have sex with him, and then, possibly being rebuffed, killed him.

That became the story that nearly everyone believed, and Ruth and Elam became pariahs.  Then Della made things worse with her statements about William befriending Mathew because the latter had no other friends and William felt sorry for him.  Naturally, that ended the friendship between the two grieving mothers until three years later when Della shows up in front of Ruth’s house and asks Ruth if she knows where their husbands have gone.

Milk Raymond is a veteran returning to North Falls from Iraq.  Milk’s former wife is a drug addict, and while he was in the army she abandoned their son Daniel to run off with another addict, leaving the child in the care of her mother.  Now that Milk is home, he needs to find a job to support himself and Daniel, a decent place to live, and the strength to deal with these problems, and he turns to Ruth for help..

Before Familiar Woods definitely is a mystery dealing with the deaths of the teenagers and the whereabouts of Ruth’s and Della’s husbands.  It is also a brilliant, disturbing novel that looks into rural poverty, homophobia, divisions between friends, and the difficult issues of parenting.  

You can read more about Ian Pisarcik at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

WITHIN PLAIN SIGHT by Bruce Robert Coffin: Book Review

The famous dictum “write what you know” certainly works for Bruce Robert Coffin, former police detective turned mystery author.  Within Plain Sight is his fourth crime novel featuring John Byron who is, like his creator had been, a long-time member of the Portland, Maine force.

An Iraqui war veteran, rummaging through a dumpster in a deserted lot, makes a gruesome discovery.  Then a headless corpse is discovered in a separate location, and the reader is now ahead of the detective and his squad investigating the brutal murder.  But not for long.

The corpse is identified when the police get a phone call from a woman who says that her friend hadn’t met her for lunch earlier in the week as they had planned and that she has not responded to texts or phone calls.  Further investigation shows that the body and its separated head belong to Danica Faherty, the missing friend.

When the medical examiner conducts the autopsy, he says that the cause of the woman’s death was not decapitation–in other words, Danica was dead when her head was cut off.  “Something stopped this girl’s heart from beating….But I’ll be dammed if I know what it was,” he tells the detective.

In addition to the horror of the murder itself, Byron wonders if it is connected to two recent slayings in Boston.  There are similarities, he thinks, but there are also differences; he’s in no rush to judgment.

Byron is also contending with several issues outside of the murder.  The department has a new chief, the first female head of the Portland Police, and Byron isn’t certain how much credence he can give to her statements of support.

He has just received his black coin for six months of sobriety from his mentor at Alcoholic Anonymous, and he is trying his best to take it “one day at a time,” the self-help group’s motto.  Can he continue to be alcohol-free in spite of the stress of his job?

And who is responsible for the leaks that are appearing in the media?  It’s making Byron’s job more difficult, and the possibility that one of his own team may be responsible is definitely something he hopes isn’t true.

Byron is also re-starting his relationship with his colleague Diane Joyner, but he’s having some trouble with the idea that she will be leaving her current position as the face of the department’s public relations and rejoining his section of the force.  He should be happy for her, of course, since he knows that’s what she wants, but he worries that two stress-related jobs in the department may prove to be too much for their relationship.

The police investigation takes us through both deserted lots and elegant mansions.  As the experienced mystery reader knows, there are secrets in both places, secrets that the guilty will kill to protect.

Bruce Robert Coffin has written another excellent police procedural novel in this series.  I had the pleasure of meeting him last month and hearing him speak.  He gave his attentive audience a good look into contemporary policing, with several fascinating incidents that occurred during his years on the Portland force, all told in an engaging manner with a sly sense of humor.

You can read more about Mr. Coffin at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

Monday is the first day of the spring term at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program.  It will be my sixth time teaching a course on mystery novels, and this semester the title is WHODUNIT?:  A STUDY IN SIDEKICKS.

Frankly, I don’t usually think about sidekicks when I pick up a detective story.  The main focus, of course, is on the detective and not any assistant she/he may have.  But when I started to think about the subject a few months ago, I realized how many of my favorite authors have incorporated interesting, charismatic, funny, frightening, but always ultimately fascinating seconds-in-command.

I think the first sidekick that comes to most readers’ minds is Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ colleague.  Of course, everyone knows that Holmes was the one who solved the crimes, but if you read the short stories and novels carefully you can see how much the good doctor contributed.  Sometimes it was his medical knowledge, sometimes his willingness to bring his gun along to a possibly dangerous encounter, sometimes simply his obvious admiration of his friend’s abilities, that made this twosome work.

So that’s where the course will begin, with THE SIGN OF THE FOUR, published in 1890.  It was a time of gaslight rather than electricity, mail and telegrams rather than email and cell phones, hansom cabs instead of cars, but the personalities and characteristics of Watson and Holmes still resonate with readers today.

Then we’ll jump into the twentieth century with THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN by Rex Stout, featuring the inimitable Archie Goodwin as Nero Wolfe’s assistant, secretary, “legs,” and all around pain-in-the neck.  This will be followed by PROMISED LAND by Robert B. Parker (Hawk and Spenser), I KNOW A SECRET by Tess Gerritsen (Maura Isles and Jane Rizzoli), THE WANTED by Robert Crais (Joe Pike and Elvis Cole), PROMISE  ME by Harlan Coben (Win Lockwood and Myron Bolitar), GHOST HERO by S. J. Rozan (Bill Smith and Lydia Chin), and A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR by Dennis Lehane (Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie).

Some of the sidekicks in these books are more clearly secondary characters, with the major detective work done by the detectives.  But in other novels, there’s not such a clear demarcation, and the role of the sidekick is more important, both to the detective and to the book itself.

I invite you to read along with us and perhaps get a different perspective on what being the main character’s friend/partner/colleague means in detective fiction.  I promise it will be a fun trip.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

THE ABSOLUTION by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir: Book Review

The weather isn’t the only cold thing in Reykjavik.  Equally frigid is the heart of the serial killer in the third volume of the Children’s House series.

Chapter one opens in a movie theater after the last film is over.  Stella, who runs the snack bar, is the only person still inside the theater, and as we mystery readers know, that’s never a good thing.  Stella is looking at a photo of herself on Snapchat from someone calling himself/herself Just 13.  Since the clothing in the photo is the same as what she’s currently wearing, it’s obvious that the picture was taken that night; the caption accompanying it reads See you.  It could be some friend of her mother’s, she thinks, “now that old people have started using the app,” or it could be some unknown weirdo.  Unfortunately for her, it’s the latter.

Stella is inside the ladies’ room a minute later when she gets another Snap.  It’s a photo of the outside of her stall.  Then the stall door is smashed open, and Stella is looking at a man wearing a Darth Vader mask.  He grabs the phone out of her hand and starts making a video of her on the toilet seat.  “Say you’re sorry,” he demands, and although she apologies over and over again, the man isn’t satisfied.

He continues filming Stella being dragged out of the toilet and into the street.  Finally, the video shows her bloodied and crushed skull.

The Snap has been sent to the police, but they are at a loss to explain the murder or its motive.  “What can she have done to deserve that?” one of them asks.  “Nothing could justify it,” answers Huldar, a department detective.  “She was only sixteen.”

The Children’s House series features police detective Huldar and child psychologist Freyja. (Most people in Iceland use only their first names.  When another name follows, it’s usually a patronymic rather than what is more commonly considered a family name).  Huldar and Freyja have a strained relationship following their sexual affair that went wrong.  Both have been demoted in their respective work places, but this case brings them together again.

At first, the investigation seems to show that Stella was a typical teenager with a close group of girlfriends.  But a closer look shows a girl who wants to be boss, with little regard for those around her.

The use of social media in Iceland, as is true nearly everywhere, has made the lives of those who are bullied for whatever reason an absolute hell.  One might think that in such a homogeneous country there would be fewer reasons for someone to be singled out for being different, but that’s not the case, as The Absolution shows only too clearly.

The novel could have been taken from today’s headlines in terms of bullying and the pain it inflicts.  In The Absolution the moral questions don’t have easy answers.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir has written another tense, disturbing novel about a small country facing big problems.  The crime, the characters involved, and the resources or lack thereof to deal with the problems discussed are all carefully portrayed, with the ending leaving the reader to think about the choices she/he would make in the same situation.

You can read more about Yrsa Sigurdardóttir at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

THE BLACK JERSEY by Jorge Zepeda Patterson: Book Review

I have several confessions to make before you start reading this review:  first, I have never watched a Tour de France race; second, I do not know how to ride a bicycle; third, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Black Jersey is written in the first person by Marc Moreau, the domestique of the Fonar cycling team.  Thanks to the extremely helpful glossary at the beginning of the novel, I now know that a domestique (French for servant) acts as an assistant to the leader of the peloton (French for platoon) and seeks to advance and protect the team’s leader.  It’s kind of like an aide de camp; this is the most French I’ve ever used at one time.

Marc himself is a gifted rider; in fact, several people believe that he should be the leader of the team rather than his best friend and “bro” Steve Panata.  But Marc is devoted to Steve, with whom he has ridden for eleven years.  The two met when Steve became the newest member of the team, relieving Marc of that doubtful distinction, and it became obvious almost immediately that they were the best of Team Fonar.

Steve has a natural rhythm and grace, and Marc, combining his French father’s familiarity with the Alps and his Colombian mother’s Andean ancestors’ genes, is gifted with an amazingly high oxygen level perfectly suited to the mountainous terrain of the race.

The Tour is twenty-three days long, broken up into twenty-one stages for a distance of two thousand miles.  The team is competing against others from all over the world, but their closest rivals are from Spain, Italy, and Poland.  The riders use every possible advantage–the type of bicycles they ride, the materials that make up their racing clothing, the food they eat that will give them the necessary calories to compete, the amount of sleep they need each night–everything is calibrated by their directeur sportif, their coach, and their soigneurs, who give massages and physical therapy as needed, to make them the best.

But this year, the riders seem to need something more–protection against someone who appears to be trying to reduce the number of riders, by murder if necessary.  The number of accidents/incidents seems too high to be coincidental, and although the riders’ concerns are at first brushed off, they are finally taken seriously when one is killed.

Because of Marc’s background in the National Gendarmerie, he is asked to help with the investigation.  Commissioner Favre tells Marc that it’s obvious that there has to be involvement from within the cycling circuit; no outsider could have gotten close enough to the participants to wreak such havoc.  Although Marc insists that he can’t imagine how he could help, Favre tells him that “until we know what’s behind all this, you and your teammates are in danger,” so Marc finally agrees.

Reading The Black Jersey is a lot safer and almost as exciting as taking part in the Tour.  It’s a breathless journey in every sense, and Marc Moreau is a smart, appealing narrator who takes the reader along for the ride.

Jorge Zepeda Pattterson is an economist, sociologist, and journalist as well as a novelist.  You can read about him on various internet sites, although most of the ones I found are in Spanish.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE WIFE AND THE WIDOW by Christian White: Book Review

On the surface, the Keddies and the Gilpins don’t have much in common except that both families live in Australia.  The Keddies are a well-to-do Melbourne family–a husband, a wife, a daughter; the Gilpins are a down-at-the-heels family on Belport Island–a husband, a wife, a daughter, a son.  So why does one of the women remain a wife while the other becomes a widow?

Kate and Mia Keddie are at the Melbourne Airport, eager to see John Keddie when he returns from his two-week business trip to London.  But even after the last passengers leave the plane, John doesn’t appear.  Finally, Kate calls her husband’s office to find out if some last-minute emergency has kept him in England.

The first person she speaks to quickly transfers her call to John’s boss, who answers Kate’s first couple of inquiries with curt responses.  Trying to hold on to her temper, Kate explains that she and her daughter are waiting for John.  “If John attended the research colloquium this year,” his supervisor tells Kate, “we wouldn’t know about it….John hasn’t worked here for three months.”

The local police don’t seem to take John’s disappearance seriously, saying that he’ll probably be home in a day or two.  But Kate isn’t so sure.  This is so unlike him, she thinks.  Then, in the middle of the night, her cell phone rings.  It’s the Belport Island police, asking her if she’s at her vacation home on the island.  “No, I’m not,” she answers him.  “Well, someone is,” the officer responds.

Abby Gilpin, meanwhile, has a different concern.  One of her husband’s customers tells her that Ray never came to her house yesterday, as expected, for a landscaping job; when Abby asks her husband why he didn’t go, he tells her he did and that the client is losing her memory.  One of them is lying, but which one?  And why were a pair of Ray’s brand-new boots tossed in the trash, along with his cargo pants and a work shirt with his company’s logo, Island Care, printed on it?

The only connection between the two families is Belport Island.  The Gilpins have always lived there, and the Kiddies have a vacation home there.  But Katie tells the police officer investigating her husband’s disappearance that John always hated the island, and the only reason they have a house there is because his parents gave it to them as a wedding present.  So, assuming that’s where he went, why was he there?  And, if he had been there, why didn’t he tell his wife about it?

Christian White has written another spellbinding thriller, following his debut mystery The Nowhere Child, which I reviewed in February 2019.  You will be kept guessing until the very last page of The Wife and The Widow.

You can read more about Christian White at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

 

 

We’re all familiar with New Year’s resolutions.  More exercise, healthier foods, more connections with friends and family.  Some we’re able to keep, some not so much (or not as much as we’d hoped).  But today I’m writing not about resolutions but about second chances.

I’ve just celebrated my 10th anniversary writing about all things mysterious on this blog.  But I wasn’t always the confident, smooth, literary woman you know as the author of marilynsmysteryreads.com.  When my son Rich suggested in 2009 that I write a mystery review blog, I waived away his suggestion–I was no Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times--who was I to let people know what books I was reading?  Why would they care?

But Rich persisted, so a few months later I launched this blog, and much to my amazement people started reading it.  Not only family and friends but friends of friends and people from far away (I know that because I receive emails from people across the States and abroad) were reading my posts and often responding to them.

Then my husband suggested that I write to authors when I reviewed their books.  Again I declined, and it was only after a year or two of Bob’s prodding that I took up his suggestion; lo and behold, many of these authors, well-known authors and first-timers, responded to my emails with gracious letters of appreciation, telling me that they were putting a link to my blog on their Twitter/Facebook accounts.

And, as another bonus, I have been receiving books to review from publishers and publicists for the last three or four years; no obligation, but they hope that if I enjoy their books I will write about them.  And if I do, I will.

A few months after starting my blog I joined BOLLI, an adult education program at Brandeis University, where  I took two courses each semester for three years.   Then I was approached by two Study Group Leaders who knew about my blog and asked me to teach a course on mystery novels.  I know this will come as no surprise, but I turned them down.  Who was I to teach mysteries?  The women waited a year and tried again, and this time I said yes.  I have taught five courses and am preparing for the sixth one that begins in March–WHODUNIT?:  MURDER WITH SIDEKICKS.

And in December I was asked to interview Hallie Ephron, the author of more than a dozen mystery novels, when she spoke at BOLLI.  And then she interviewed me for the blog that she and six other women mystery authors write, Jungleredwriters.  I was so honored both times.

Writing this blog and teaching at BOLLI have been outstanding experiences for me.  I’ve been lucky to have had several second chances and finally got smart enough to take them.  If you have an opportunity to grab a second/third/fourth chance, take it.  It’s definitely possible to grab the gold ring then, even if it slipped through your fingers the first time.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

Marilyn

 

 

WHITE ELEPHANT by Trish Harnetiaux: Book Review

Combine a classic mystery with a contemporary recording star and what do you get?  An engaging, clever mystery called White Elephant.

In the ultra-chic Colorado ski town of Aspen, Claudine and Henry Calhoun had been a star couple.  Henry is a renowned architect, Claudine is a realtor who sells multi-million dollar homes, and together they have made Calhoun + Calhoun the go-to company when buying or selling mega-mansions.  But recently their star has been dimming, with the newcomers to the area more interested in houses with bling than in the unique homes that Henry has created over the years.

Claudine, however, has a plan to reverse the downward slide that begins with an unexpected phone call from Zara, a singer/songwriter whose records sell in the millions; she is so famous, in fact, that she doesn’t need a last name.  Zara tells Claudine that she saw a photo of the Montague House online, with Calhoun + Calhoun as its agent, and she wants to fly to Aspen to see it.

In one sense Claudine is thrilled, as a sale to the diva would put the firm back on top where she knows they belong.  In another sense, the house has a history that the couple has kept under wraps ever since Henry designed and built it years ago.

Every year since the start of their company, Claudine and Henry have hosted a holiday party featuring the White Elephant game.  In less stratified circles, this is also known as the Yankee Swap or Secret Santa game, but Claudine has upped the stakes and made it extra-competitive rather than fun.

And now that Zara is coming to Aspen, Claudine decides to hold the party at the Montague House for the first time as a way to give their visitor a chance to see it as the party showplace it is.  With its price tag of eighteen million dollars and its fifteen thousand square footage, it certainly should be.  With all that’s at stake, Claudine’s decided to ignore Henry’s vow never to enter the house again.

Although they never discuss it, the history of the house and the owner of the land before the Calhouns bought it and built on it won’t go away.  This becomes especially clear on the night of the party.  The uninvited Steve Gilman, Claudine’s former lover/boss, arrives at the house mere seconds before Zara, forcing Claudine to invite him inside to forestall a front-step argument.

And when the group begins the White Elephant game, one of the gifts causes the always-unflappable hostess to drop her wine glass; it falls to the floor and smashes to pieces.  What is the secret about the Montague House that Claudine and Henry have vowed never to discuss?  What is the significance of the present that causes Claudine such anguish?  And who is the author of the notes that we read in between the chapters of the novel?

Trish Harnetiaux has updated the prototypical mystery novel with a bang.  The mysterious house, the short list of suspects, and a long-held secret combine with the addition of a People magazine cover girl, Twitter, and references to the decades-old Aspen murder case involving actress Claudine Longet, her ex-husband singer Andy Williams, and Olympic skier Spider Sabich.  It’s all here in White Elephant, and it’s perfect.

You can read more about Trish Harnetiaux at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

IN THE SHADOW OF VESUVIUS by Tasha Alexander: Book Review

By any standards, Lady Emily is an unusual woman, particularly for her time.  Widowed before the series opens, she is now married to Colin Hargreaves who works “discreetly” for the British monarchy.  The couple, along with Lady Emily’s dearest friend Ivy Brandon, are on an excursion to Pompeii.

In the Shadow of Vesuvius opens in 1902, when the ruins of the ancient Roman city are being excavated.  The unexpected eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, in 79 C.E., covered the city and its inhabitants with layer upon layer of ash and pumice.  Some 2,000 people in Pompeii died; overall, about 16,000 in the vicinity perished.  Abandoned for decades, the city was rediscovered in 1748, and archaeologists and explorers rushed to find out what had been hidden for nearly two millennia.

Lady Emily, Colin, and Ivy have just arrived and are touring the ruins when they come across three corpses–two who were obviously buried there at the time of the eruption and one who, according to Colin, “hasn’t been dead for more than a few weeks.”

The three travelers have become acquainted with a group of professionals and amateurs who are excavating several major sites.  The group includes Mr. Taylor, an archaeologist who is funding the exploration; Cassie and Benjamin Carter, an archaeologist and painter, respectively; and James Stirling, the director of the dig.

The third body is quickly identified as Clarence Walker, an American journalist who had visited the area some years before.  Lady Emily is told that Walker had been on assignment for The New York Times, and although he wrote an interesting piece about the excavation during his earlier visit, he was not as enthralled as those working there and didn’t mention anything about returning at some future date.  No one now working on the site admits to knowing that he had returned or the reason why.

In the midst of the investigation comes a young woman whom neither Lady Emily nor her husband knew existed.  She introduces herself to them as Katharina von Lange, the daughter of a liaison between her late mother and Colin, and announces she is here to meet him.  Her mother had not wanted to marry Colin, and he was unaware of the existence of his teenage daughter until her arrival in Pompeii.

Interspersed with the chapters taking place in the 20th century are the chapters written by Kassandra in 79 C.E., a slave girl of Greek ancestry.  She is the property of Lepida, a young Roman woman with whom she shares a birth date; the two are more like sisters than mistress and slave.  But when both see a visitor to Lepida’s father’s house, the handsome and cultured Silvanus, it is the beginning of an all-too-familiar story.

In the Shadow of Vesuvius is the latest novel in the long-running Lady Emily series.  Lady Emily is a strong-willed, smart, and delightful heroine, one who is years ahead of her time in terms of her outlook on a woman’s place in the world.  Her adventures have taken her to Paris, St. Petersburg, and Greece, and readers will want to follow her to her next adventure, regardless of its location.

You can read more about Tasha Alexander at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE COMPANION by Kim Taylor Blakemore: Book Review

Lucy Blunt is a convicted murderess, but she’s innocent.  At least that’s what she tells us.  In her own words, “Truth is a rather pliable object, isn’t it?  Something molded and recreated and told as an entertaining story.”

Lucy (is that even her real name?) is a prisoner in a New Hampshire jail when the novel opens.  She takes the reader through her life, detailing the events that led her to the Burton mansion and its eccentric, if not threatening, occupants.

Lucy’s voice is the only one we hear in the novel, but is it a reliable one?  She grew up in a loving home with her parents and brother, but all that changed when her mother and brother died from whooping cough.  The double tragedy drove her father to drink and Lucy to have an affair with a married man.  That affair ended in disaster when their infant son, unacknowledged by his father, died and Lucy’s father forced her out of the house.  It was the beginning of a downward spiral for her.

She’s had several menial jobs and is now desperate to find a better place for herself.  Mary Dawson, the young woman whose job with the Burtons she wants, had been found drowned in a nearby icy brook, and Lucy loses no time in forging references in order to join that household as a “washer-up,” what today we would call a kitchen maid.

Besides the staff, the mansion houses the three Burtons–Mr. Burton, owner of the town’s mill; his wife, Eugenie; and Mr. Burton’s cousin, Rebecca, companion to his wife.  Eugenie is a recluse who stays upstairs behind a locked door by choice and, as Lucy discovers a few days after she’s employed, is blind.

There’s a strange dynamic among the family, with the husband rarely home but overly solicitous of his wife when he is, the demanding yet secretive wife, and the companion who appears to have taken an unreasonable dislike to Lucy.

Then Rebecca contracts typhoid, and there’s no choice but to allow Lucy to become Mrs. Burton’s temporary companion.  And then she becomes more than that.

The Companion is spellbinding.  The reader empathizes with Lucy, is angered by her poor choices, and is hoping with her for a commutation of her death sentence–death by hanging in the New Hampshire State Prison at 10:15.  The winter weather, with its ice and snow, deepens the misery that surrounds everyone in the story.  It’s as if their hearts, including Lucy’s, are as frozen as the weather.

Kim Taylor Blakemore has written an outstanding mystery.  Her prose is perfectly suited to the mid-century time period of the novel, and our feelings for Lucy go back and forth between sympathy and its opposite, or at least mine did.  It’s a bravura performance.

You can read more about Kim Taylor Blakemore at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

THE BELLAMY TRIAL by Frances Noyes Hart: Book Review

Did you know that August 18th is Serendipitous Day?  Neither did I until I was Googling the best way to use serendipitous in a sentence to describe how I came across The Bellamy Trial on the mystery shelf of my local (Needham, MA) library.

Who knows why that date was chosen by Horace Walpole, an 18th-century English author and politician?  Perhaps something unexpected and pleasant (the definition of serendipitous) had happened to him on that day?  It really doesn’t matter, but Walpole gave the world an absolutely perfect word to describe my experience after I read Frances Noyes Hart’s novel.

The book is based on the true-life Hall-Mills 1926 murder trial, called the “trial of the century,” in which an Episcopal priest and one of his parishioners were murdered.   The defendants were the Reverend Hall’s wife and her three brothers, but I won’t disclose the outcome of that trial as it might spoil the ending of this novel.

In Mrs. Hart’s book, the site of the murder (there is one victim in the book, as opposed to two in the Hall-Mills case) was moved from New Jersey to New York; the people involved were members of a small upper-class community.  The fictional murder victim was Mimi Bellamy; the defendants were her husband, Stephen Bellamy, and Sue Ives, the wife of Mrs. Bellamy’s alleged lover.  The novel is considered one of the first fictional courtroom mysteries, a sub-genre that would grow to include all of the books in the Perry Mason series, Anatomy of a Murder, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many others.

The Bellamy Trial takes place in Redfield, New York in 1926.  As in the real-life trial, the fictional case became a media circus, with reporters from newspapers and radio stations across the country filling the courtroom to capacity; the actual trial took thirty days, the fictional one took eight.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, the recipient of multiple Agatha Awards for her mysteries, has written an outstanding introduction to the book.  She notes the anachronisms in the novel – an all-male jury, the same attorney for both defendants, hearsay evidence that is sometimes forbidden and sometimes allowed – but she happily disregards these issues, as will discerning readers, to better enjoy this excellent story.

Frances Noyes Hart was primarily a short story author and wrote only a handful of mysteries.  If the others are as well-written and riveting as The Bellamy Trial, she certainly deserves a special place in the pantheon of American mystery authors.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, DEAR by Hallie Ephron: Book Review

I’d never thought of dolls as creepy, but then I read You’ll Never Know, Dear and I do now.

Lis Strenger is the daughter of Sorrel Woodham, a nationally-known dollmaker.  Miss Sorrel, as even Lis calls her, no longer creates dolls or collects them, but their home is filled with them–on the kitchen shelves, in the dining room’s glass cabinets, in the workroom at the back at the house.  Although Miss Sorrel is now retired she still has her projects–repairing dolls with thinning hair, broken limbs, or cloudy eyes for clients who love their childhood companions.

Lis, who came back to Bonsecours, South Carolina with her daughter Vanessa years ago after a particularly painful divorce, is in the kitchen making lunch for herself and her mother as the novel opens.  A woman drives up to the house and walks up to Miss Sorrel’s front porch with a bag in her hand.  Then the three women go inside and gather around the kitchen table, and Miss Sorrel opens the bag and brings out a baby doll.  And the next moment, the visitor, whom Miss Sorrel earlier referred to as Miss Richards, grabs the doll and rushes out of the house with Miss Sorrel following her as quickly as she can.

Miss Sorrel’s claim to fame is that many of her creations were portrait dolls, designed to look like the girls who owned them.  When she sees the face of the one that Miss Richards brought, she is traumatized.  It’s the one she made nearly forty years ago for Janie, her young daughter who later was kidnapped and has been presumed dead for decades.  And her portrait doll, which presumably was with Janie when she was abducted, hasn’t been seen since.

Miss Sorrel tries to stop the visitor, who is still holding the doll, begging her to say where she got it.  In a frenzy, the woman throws the doll against the house’s brick front steps, runs to her car, and drives away.  Getting a closer look, Lis thinks it’s possible that the doll was the one her mother made for Janie, but Miss Sorrel is convinced it is.  She brings the damaged doll into the kitchen, cleans its face, and holds it close to her.  “I always knew one day she’d come home,” she whispers.

Can she be right after all these years?  Her best friend and neighbor, Evelyn Dumont, doesn’t believe it, and Frank Ames, the town’s deputy police chief, is skeptical as well.  Then things take a distinctly ominous turn as a fire in Miss Sorrel’s kiln virtually destroys her workroom and sends her and her injured daughter to the hospital.

You’ll Never Know, Dear will keep you on the edge of your seat.  The many subplots in the novel make for fascinating reading, and the characters and their backstories are perfectly drawn.

You can read more about Hallie Ephron at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

BLIND SEARCH by Paula Munier: Book Review

It’s a beautiful day in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and Henry Jenkins has sneaked out of the house to enjoy it.  It’s the beginning of hunting season so the boy is not alone in the woods, but he’s keeping as far from other people as possible.  When he sees Alice de Clare, a friend of his father’s and a guest at a nearby lodge, walking ahead of him he decides to follow her as silently as possible.

Henry comes to a log, which looks as if it would be great place to hide, but when he peers inside he sees a bundle of guns.  He’s retreating when Alice finds him, and when she sees the guns she tells him they need to return to the hunting lodge as quickly as possible.  But before she can move, an arrow flies through the air, killing her and causing Henry to run.

Mercy Carr, a former Army MP, has returned from her tour in Afghanistan, still recovering from the trauma of losing her fiancé there.  She has brought his dog, a Belgian shephard named Elvis, home with her, and the two of them are making a home for themselves in the mountains where she grew up.  Mercy and several members of her family are practicing bow and arrow shooting when Elvis bounds into the woods to retrieve an errant arrow and doesn’t return.

When Mercy follows him, she encounters Daniel Feinberg and his friends who are staying at his nearby lodge for the weekend.  Mercy continues to track Elvis and discovers him next to Alice’s body.

According to Katharine Montgomery, another of the guests, the impetus for the weekend hunting party was to give Daniel an opportunity to meet Alice and possibly hire her to renovate a nearby inn.  Katharine and her husband Blair were going to be partners with him and another couple who also are his guests.  Now, Katharine tells Mercy, “that will never happen.”  And Mercy wonders whether the two couples are more regretful over Alice’s death or the end of a possible partnership with Daniel.

Mercy and Troy Warner, a Vermont game warden, are dismissive of the attempts the local police make in their search of the nearby woods.  They decide to search the area with their dogs, Elvis and Susie Bear, and come upon Henry, hiding in a shed.  Mercy recognizes him at once as a friend’s son and knows that he is autistic.  Henry turns out to be the only witness to Alice’s death, but he is almost non-verbal, obviously frightened and cold, and is only persuaded to accompany Mercy and Troy back to the Feinberg residence because he has taken an immediate liking to their dogs.  And then it becomes obvious to all that Henry is the only one who can identify the killer.

Blind Search is the second mystery in the Mercy Carr series, and it’s inspired by the true story of an autistic boy lost in the wilderness of Vermont.  Paula Munier has crafted that into a thrilling story.

You can read more about Paula Munier at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.