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LOST LAKE by Emily Littlejohn: Book Review

Four young people go on a camping trip near a lake with a tragic history that goes back over one hundred and fifty years, but only three of them return.  Is it possible for a body of water to be cursed?

Lost Lake is set in the beautiful Colorado wilderness.  During the summer, the site attracts hikers, campers, and picnickers, but during the winter months it’s an isolated place with, as noted, a particularly unhappy reputation.  What would make Ally, Mac, Jake, and Sari deal with melting snow, wet soil, and a two-mile uphill climb to get there?

All is fine when the four go to sleep in their tents that night, but in the morning Sari Chesney isn’t there.  Jake calls the Cedar Valley Police Department, and Detective Gemma Monroe is assigned to the case.  But is there actually a case?  It’s possible, Gemma says, that Sari simply left on her own and walked back down the hill although her cell phone and keys are still at the campsite.  But when the detective and the three friends drive to Sari’s apartment, she’s not there.

Sari’s friends tell Gemma that tonight would have been a special night for Sari.  She works at the Cedar Valley History Museum, and tonight is their major gala; there’s no way Sari would have missed it.  Then, to make matters even more bizarre, Gemma gets a call from Sari’s boss, Betty Starbuck, who tells her that not only is Sari missing but the museum’s most valuable artifact, the Rayburn Diary, has been stolen.  And, Betty adds, only four people have the combination to the safe in which the diary was held, and one of them is Sari. 

One of the two others with knowledge of the safe’s combination, besides Betty and Sari, is Dr. Larry Bornstein.  Larry tells Gemma about the Diary’s Curse, that every person who ever possessed it died a terrible death.  Although she doesn’t believe in supernatural powers, with two curses as part of the case she can’t help but be disturbed.  Coincidence or something more?

Betty insists that the gala, the one on which Sari was working, must go on as scheduled to keep the museum’s major donors and its board of directors happy.  All goes according to plan, with an excuse made to the attendees that the Diary was being restored and would be on display shortly.  The evening ends, and Gemma goes home only to be awakened in the early hours of the morning to the news that Betty’s bruised and beaten body has been found inside the museum.

Lost Lake is the fourth in the Gemma Monroe series.  Ms. Littlejohn has created a realistic portrait of today’s woman, someone trying to balance a demanding career, a fiancée who has let her down in the past, and an infant daughter.  Shatter the Night, the next in the series, is due out in 2019.

You can read more about Emily Littlejohn 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.




BLEAK HOUSE by Bryan Gruley: Book Review

What’s in a name, anyway?  As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Still, names convey a lot, and some are less pleasing than others.  So what would you expect of a family whose last name is Bleak?

Bleak Harbor, Michigan was founded generations ago by Jacob Bleak.  Bleak had established a lumber mill, a newspaper, a shipping port, and steelworks across the river in Indiana, but all of that is gone now except for the newspaper and the millions of dollars those businesses earned.  This money is controlled now by the family’s matriarch, Serenity Bleak; she is willing to give the town her entire estate, having disinherited her only descendants years earlier, with one condition:  she wants every part of the township renamed for her.

Not surprisingly, Serenity is estranged from her daughter and son, and ordinarily her daughter Carey Bleak Peters is fine with that.  Now, however, Carey is facing the worst moment of her life.  Her autistic son, Danny, is missing.  A ransom note demanding five million dollars for his safe return has been emailed to her, and she may be forced to ask her mother for the money to save him.

Carey’s life was spinning out of control even before this.  She had taken a job in Chicago, a major commute home three times a week but something that was necessary to support her family.  Her husband Pete’s legal marijuana shop is close to bankruptcy, and that problem is in addition to his increasingly high consumption of alcohol.  Carey has made a major blunder in her own life, sleeping with her boss, Randall Pressman, one night.  After she continues to refuse his demands for another night with him, Pressman demotes her and threatens to move her to another of his offices even farther from Bleak Harbor.

However, Carey has a plan of her own, both for revenge against Randall and to get out of her current life, leaving everything and everyone behind except Danny.  She has obtained documents that prove that Pressman Logistics is transporting illegal cargo across state lines, and she’s demanding her own ransom–ten million dollars from Pressman to destroy the incriminating papers or she hands them over to the feds.

And then she comes home to celebrate Danny’s 16th birthday to find that he’s missing.  Pete, who was supposed to pick up his stepson that afternoon at the dock so they could go fishing, instead had stopped at his usual afternoon hangout, Boz’s Bayfront Bar and Grill, for a quick drink or two.  By the time Pete got to the dock, Danny was nowhere to be seen.

Bleak Harbor is a taut thriller about a family where everyone, no exceptions, has secrets they don’t want to disclose.  You can feel Carey’s pain at her past and current mistakes and her overwhelming love for her son, although she acknowledges to herself that there are parts to him that she will never understand.  Bryan Gruley’s characters are sympathetic even when you realize that their every step is a misstep and that their secrets are making a terrifying situation worse.

You can read about Bryan Gruley 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 NIGHT FERRY by Lotte and Søren Hammer: Book Review

In May, 2017 I wrote an About Marilyn column about nature vs. nurture.  I wrote about wives and husbands and parents and children, all of whom were mystery writers.

But I didn’t mention Lotte and Søren Hammer, a sister and brother from Denmark who have co-written several mysteries, because I hadn’t read any of their work at that point.  But now I’ve read The Night Ferry, their fifth book in the Detective Chief Inspector Konrad Simonsen series; to continue the transportation metaphor of the novel’s title, it’s a thrilling ride from beginning to end.

The Night Ferry opens with a man jumping onto the deck of a tour boat in a Copenhagen canal.  In less than a minute he kills four of the five adults on the boat; the fifth, unable to swim, nevertheless jumps overboard in a panicked, futile attempt to save her life.  The canal boat, now without a captain, collides with the Oslo ferry whose own captain is powerless to avoid it.  All but one of the fifteen Japanese school children remaining on the canal boat, in Denmark on a school trip, are killed.

It is a horrific tragedy for all of Denmark, and it becomes personal for the Copenhagen police department when it’s discovered that one of its own, Detective Pauline Berg, was among the victims.  Before her abduction, which was described in the previous novel, she had become obsessed with the death of a young woman whom she believed had been murdered.  All the evidence pointed to natural causes, but Pauline ignored that and continued, both on department time and on her personal time, to investigate Juli Denissen’s death.

Juli’s autopsy showed that she had died of a brain hemorrhage, a condition to which she was predisposed.  Her family refused to accept the official verdict, and that is how Pauline became involved, ultimately siding with them in opposition to the police findings.  So certain were the police that Juli’s death was tragic but non-criminal that Pauline’s obsession with it became known in Homicide as ‘the Juli-non-case’; that, however, did not stop the detective’s search for what she believed to be the truth.

Then Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen learns that one of the passengers on the canal boat was the man who found Juli’s body and thus was questioned numerous times by Pauline Berg.  Was the reason for the crime to get rid of these two people, and were all the other victims simply collateral damage?

The answer to that question begins in Denmark but leads, almost incredibly, to the Bosnian War of the 1990s.  Two Danish soldiers, an American/Danish intelligence officer, and the high command of the present-day Danish government are all involved.  And instead of the Danish foreign service, intelligence, and police working together to solve the canal boat massacre, Konrad and his department find obstruction at every turn.

The Night Ferry is a brilliant but hard-to-read novel, as it describes in detail the atrocities that took place when the former Yugoslavia fell apart.  It’s the kind of story that makes one wonder about humankind, but it is well worth reading.  The characters, the plot, the scenes are all absolutely outstanding.

You can read more about Lotte and Søren Hammer 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.

SHELL GAME by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

Every novel by Sara Paretsky is wonderful, and her latest is no exception.  Shell Game brings Chicago-based private detective V. I. Warshawski into the all-too-timely issue of immigration, both legal and illegal, that is facing the United States now.

Shell Game opens with V. I. (Vic) making her way through the woods with a Cook County deputy sheriff and Felix Herschel, the nephew of her dearest friend Lotty.  Felix was contacted by the authorities to identify the brutalized body of a dead man who had Felix’s name and phone number on a note in his jean pocket.  His response to the officer in charge, Lieutenant McGivney, and V. I. when seeing the body strikes them both as strange.  “I don’t know him.  Where is he from?”

Felix, a Canadian citizen, is a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology and is active in the university’s Engineers for a Free State.  He tells Vic that he and several other international students had been picked up by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities a few weeks earlier, and he had been held for several hours by ICE without benefit of legal representation before he was released.  Although ICE said it was checking on the immigration status of all foreign students, Felix said that only students from the Middle East or South America were actually detained.  As a favor to Lotty, Vic is willing to look into the case, but Felix will tell her nothing, and without his help there’s not much she can do.

The next morning V. I. is greeted at her apartment house by an unexpected visitor.  It’s her niece Harmony, the daughter of her former husband’s sister.  Harmony has come to Chicago to look for her sister Reno who had arrived in the city several weeks earlier to look for a job.  She got one through her Uncle Dick, Vic’s ex, but he was less than enthusiastic to see his niece and told her that this was the only favor he was doing for her and not to bother him again.

All Harmony knows about what happened to Reno is that she obtained a job at Rest EZ, a payday loan company, and that shortly after she started she received a promotion and the opportunity to fly to the Caribbean for the company’s Mardi Gras party.  When Reno returned she was upset and agitated but wouldn’t tell her sister more than that.  Becoming upset herself, Harmony flew from Oregon to Chicago to talk to Reno, but Reno is no longer working for Rest EZ nor is she at her apartment.  Their Uncle Dick professes to know nothing about this and to care less, so it’s up to “Auntie Vic” to find Reno.

As always, Vic is the person you want if you need a private investigator.  She is smart, determined, loyal, and tough.  And she’s always on the side of the  underdog.

Ms. Paretsky joins current authors who infuse their mysteries with current events; these include Julia Keller’s novels concerning drug abuse and Auzma Kahanet Khan’s on war refugees.  In addition to being exciting books with strong protagonists and stories, they bring readers issues straight from the headlines.  Shell Game is another example of Sara Paretsky’s skill in invoking a strong heroine in today’s world.

You can read more about her 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 DARKNESS by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Ragnar Jónasson has started a new series, and like his previous “Dark Iceland” series it’s a winner.  While the first series features a male protagonist who is a detective in a small town in a remote part of the country, The Darkness introduces a female detective inspector in the capital.

Hulda Hermannsdóttir is a few months away from her much-dreaded mandatory retirement.  Being a police detective has been her entire life, and she can’t imagine what she will do when she’s no longer working.  Then she’s called into her boss’ office and given the worst possible news–her replacement has arrived and she must clear out her desk immediately.

Hulda is able to bargain for two more weeks, which is reluctantly granted, but since all her cases have already been allocated to other officers, she can only look into “cold cases,” those that were never solved at the time the crime was committed.

Determined to stay until the last possible day, Hulda begins looking into one from a year earlier, a case that she believes was never properly investigated.  Maybe, she thinks, that’s because Elena was a young asylum-seeking woman, with no command of either Icelandic or English, who apparently had no one interested enough to make a fuss over the lack of police diligence.

In Hulda’s opinion, the investigating officer had gone out of his way to portray the death as accidental.  Given the low number of murders annually in Iceland, one or two on average, and the much higher incidence of accidents, it was easy for the police to conclude that the death had been simply an unfortunate event.

When Hulda starts investigating, she meets with Elena’s solicitor and discovers that the woman was almost certainly going to be granted political asylum.  The detective gets the name of the translator whom the solicitor employed to get the facts for the asylum application; since the lawyer spoke no Russian, Elena’s only language, the lawyer needed a Russian speaker.

The translator, Bjartur, tells Hulda that he never spoke to any other member of the police and only met with Elena once or twice.  However, he tells her that Elena had confided to him that she was a prostitute, and he thinks she may have been brought to Iceland specifically for that reason.  When Hulda asks him why he never mentioned this before, he says, apologetically, “Nobody asked.”

Now certain that the initial investigation was poorly handled, Hulda is more determined than ever to find out the truth behind Elena’s untimely death.

Ragnar Jónasson is one of a group of Icelandic writers who have made that small country an important part of the current international mystery scene.  In addition to his writing, he is also the co-founder of Iceland Noir, an annual conference held in Reykjavik featuring authors in the mystery genre.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson 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.

FOGLAND POINT by Doug Burgess: Book Review

David Hazard is one of only a handful of transgender protagonists in the mystery genre, at least to my knowledge.  A native of Little Compton, Rhode Island, he has just been fired as an assistant professor at Xavier College because the school’s authorities have discovered his sexual identity.

Born as Rosalie Hazard, even as a child David felt he was in the wrong body, and when he was able to do so he began the surgeries and medical procedures to change his female body into a male’s.  He’s happy about that, but he doesn’t fool himself into believing that he will be able to obtain another teaching position easily.  Thus, without a salary, his only option is to return to his childhood home and to the problems that await him there.

The main problem is that his grandmother, Maggie, is slipping away from the world due to dementia.  From moment to moment her mind wanders from past to present, not recognizing her grandson one minute and knowing who he is the next.

It’s not surprising, then, that when David receives a phone call from Maggie to say that she’s found a dead body with blood all around it, he assumes it’s a symptom of her disordered mind.  When he drives to her house and finds nothing out of place, that seems to confirm it.  But when he goes next door to see his “Aunt” Emma, who has taken on a major role in caring for Maggie, there is Emma’s body on the kitchen floor, just as his grandmother had said.

At first it appears that her death is due to a tragic accident that might well happen to an elderly woman while she was in her kitchen–a heavy pot falls from a shelf, lands on her head, and cracks her skull.  But Billy Dyer, the small town’s chief of police, doesn’t buy that.  He thinks someone stood over Emma and deliberately brought the pot down on her.  Then whoever it was pulled the rest of the pots from the shelf to make it appear an accident.

Little by little old secrets are revealed.  There’s the matter of the three million dollar legacy that Emma left to an Arabella Johnson, who turns out to be the daughter no one knew Emma had.  There’s the story of Teddy Johnson, Emma’s fiancé, who was drafted and went off to Korea and never returned.  There’s the mysterious couple who arrived in Little Compton shortly before Emma’s death and stood, according to the town’s mourners, much too close to the casket than was proper for outsiders.  Little Compton is a bastion of Yankeeness (a word I just coined).

Doug Burgess has written an outstanding first novel.  His characters are realistic, his plot tight, and his dialogue rings true.  And, in David Hazard, he has created an appealing protagonist who, I hope, will be featured in other mysteries.

You can read more about Doug Burgess at this 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.

PAPER GODS by Goldie Taylor: Book Review

When I came across this quotation on Google, it seemed the perfect description of the politicians in Paper Goods, Goldie Taylor’s debut mystery novel.  “Politics have no relations to morals,” said Niccolò Machiavelli, often called the father of modern political science.  His cynical view is seen on every page of Ms. Taylor’s excellent book.

Victoria Dobbs is the mayor of Atlanta and a protégée of Ezra Hawkins, a United States representative for the district that covers Georgia’s capital.  The two go way back, both in city hall politics and in their membership in the fabled Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached.  Their politics have mostly been in accord over the years, but now it appears that a major division has taken place over a bill that is due for a vote in Congress, and neither one will give way to the other.

Mayor Dobbs is seated in the church’s sanctuary, listening to remarks by Hawkins, when a rifle shot shatters the building’s ceiling and kills Hawkins and three other parishioners, with more critically injured.  The F.B.I. and the Atlanta Police Department are immediately on the scene, but it is the mayor who becomes the spokesperson for the massacre.  “There will be justice,” she promises.

Victoria rules the city with an iron hand and doesn’t take orders from anyone on any topic.  When she is called several hours after the shooting and informed by her police chief that his officers have surrounded the house with the suspected shooter inside and are trying to take him into custody, she gives the command to “Put him down….I said shoot him.”

On the mayor’s trail is Hampton Bridges, an investigative journalist who is definitely a persona non grata at City Hall or anywhere else under Victoria’s control.  He is writing a series of articles about corruption in her office, including questions about her brother’s conflicts of interest while controlling billions in public spending.  That finally prompted Victoria to remove her brother from her mayoral campaign but did nothing to improve the already tense relationship between the reporter and the mayor.  And Victoria’s not-so-secret desire to take Ezra’s place in a special election for Congress is pushing Hampton to work ever more feverishly to lay bare her secrets and make certain she loses.

Hampton is not the only one eager to make sure that Victoria doesn’t get to D. C.  Virgil Loudermilk, the white power broker in Atlanta, had been behind Victoria in previous elections, but since she’s stymied a bill he wanted passed that would have earned him millions, he has become her enemy.  And he is a powerful one.

Goldie Taylor, editor at The Daily Beast, former political consultant and filmmaker, obviously knows whereof she writes.  Paper Goods is a close look into the not-very-pretty state of politics in America today, rife with corruption and back-room deals.  No one in this novel is totally innocent, and the reader’s sympathies will go from one character to another with each discovery of dirty dealing.  The plot is tight and the characters totally believable.  Ms. Taylor will keep you reading until the last page.

You can read more about Goldie Taylor 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 ONE-EYED JUDGE by Michael Ponsor: Book Review

The title of Michael Ponsor’s second novel, The One-Eyed Judge, is a perfectly designed tease to pique the interest of any mystery reader.  And the book does not let you down, for it’s a fascinating look into our legal system with all its benefits and flaws.  The book’s title comes from a serious eye injury that Judge David Norcross suffered in the first book of the series, The Hanging Judge.

As this novel opens, Amherst College English professor Sidney Cranmer receives a UPS package and signs for it.  He has only managed to slit open the outside envelope when a tremendous pounding is heard at his front door.  He puts the package in his desk drawer and answers the door; in come several FBI agents who are part of a sting operation.  When an agent opens that drawer in the professor’s desk, he sees the recently arrived package and opens it completely.  Inside is a DVD of child pornography, the possession of which carries a minimum five-year sentence in a federal prison.

Cranmer’s specialty is nineteenth-century English literature with an emphasis on the works of Charles L. Dodgson, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll.  Dodgson has long been reputed to have been a pedophile, something that Cranmer believes is “preposterous,” and he and his intern have been doing research into the subject.  Cranmer admits to viewing pornography but tells his lawyer he has no memory of ordering this DVD, although he admits that since the recent death of his mother he hasn’t been totally aware of everything going on around him.

The case comes before David Norcross, the federal judge for the five western counties in Massachusetts; it is a federal one because interstate mail was used to deliver the package.  In the midst of the initial hearing David gets a note saying he has an urgent phone call from his brother’s office.  Norcross’s brother was on a fact-finding mission to Croatia with his wife when their plane went down.  Mrs. Norcross died on impact, Norcross’ brother is in critical condition and unable to travel home.  That leaves the judge with the responsibility for his nieces in Washington, two girls with whom he has has spent very little time.

David has been dating Claire Lindemann, a colleague of Cranmer’s in the college’s English Department.  He and Claire have become serious over the last few months, and he has proposed without getting an answer.  A major issue is that she wants to have children and he, given the ugliness he sees on a daily basis in his courtroom, does not.  And now Claire’s belief in Cranmer’s innocence and her determination to help him has added additional stress to their relationship.

Michael Ponsor, a sitting federal judge, has created an excellent new series with a terrific protagonist.  David Norcross is an intelligent, sensitive man who recognizes that he is sitting in judgment over the future of a person’s life, a responsibility that he does not take lightly.  The novel’s plot is believable, the characters are realistic, and the seriousness of the subject of child pornography makes The One-Eyed Judge a fascinating read.

Full disclosure–I had the pleasure of hearing Judge Ponsor a few weeks ago at BOLLI (Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) and speaking with him briefly after his presentation.  He is an outstanding speaker with a wonderful sense of humor, and it was obvious to me that the audience was very impressed by his discussion of his two careers–a federal judge and a two-time mystery novelist.

You can read more about Michael Ponsor 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 OF NO IMPORTANCE by Mariah Fredericks: Book Review

It’s a perfect match.  The Benchleys are nouveau riche and in need of a lady’s maid, and Jane Prescott is a lady’s maid in need of a position.  The family is trying to break into New York City high society but is seen as “from Scarsdale,” an unimportant suburb outside the city, while Jane, due to her previous jobs, knows everything that such people need to learn about living among the “Four Hundred” in 1910 Manhattan.

The two Benchley sisters, Louise and Charlotte, couldn’t be more different.  Louise is the older sister, anxious, plain, and extremely shy; the younger Charlotte is outgoing, very pretty, and determined to find what she considers her rightful place in society.  This she does with lightening speed, thanks in part to her father’s wealth as well as her own determination:  she steals Norrie Newsome, the handsome but dissolute scion of another New York family, from Bea Tyler, the young woman it was always assumed he would marry.

Charlotte tells her family about her secret engagement to Norrie, which she says will be announced publicly at the grand Christmas Eve ball that the Newsomes are giving.  The Newsome family consists of the father, Robert, multi-millionaire owner of the Shickshinny mine; his second wife, Rose, who is younger than his son; the above-mentioned Norrie; and Lucinda, the daughter who had been a schoolmate of Rose’s at the posh private school they’d attended in Pennsylvania.

Things at the ball do not go according to plan, however.   After hearing about a fight between Charlotte and Bea, Jane goes in search of Charlotte but instead nearly falls over the dead and brutalized body of Norrie Newsome in the mansion’s library.  Everyone at the house is presumed to be innocent due to their high social position, and the police begin looking at the local anarchists who allegedly have been sending threatening notes to Robert Newsome, owner of the above-mentioned mine where a cave-in disaster had recently killed eight boys under the age of ten.

A Death of No Importance is an insightful view into a time, more than a century ago, that shows the huge divide between the haves and the have-nots, a scene that is all too familiar today.  The members of the “Four Hundred” live in incredible luxury, with housekeepers, maids, and chauffeurs, and New York City policemen patrol their streets to keep out the riff raff; the poverty-stricken live on the Lower East Side, half dozen to a room in cold-water flats, with outdoor lavatories, inadequate and rotten food, and thieves and pickpockets on every corner.  This dichotomy is what has led to the anarchists’ violent actions across the country and the fear that the wealthy have of them. 

You can read more about Mariah Fredericks 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 fall semester of BOLLI (the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) is underway, and for the third time I am teaching a course on mystery novels.  The “umbrella” title of my courses is WHODUNIT?, and the two earlier ones I taught are MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND and MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES.

This semester’s course is MURDER IN SCANDINAVIA, exploring a group of countries known for their bleak landscapes and dark crimes.  This course, as did my others, runs ten weeks, and the class reads and discusses eight books in that time.  The first week is an introduction both of the class members and of the genre itself, which in each course I’ve taught has been new to some and familiar to others; the final class lets us choose our favorite author/book and talk about the merits and shortcoming of what we’ve read.

Given the abundance of excellent mysteries from Scandinavia that have been translated into English during the past few decades, I had a hard time deciding on my choices.  To make things even more difficult, I expanded the term Scandinavia to include three countries that are not now part of Scandinavia but were in the past.  I thought that would make it more interesting in terms of discovering differences and similarities among these nations.  So in addition to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (each with many outstanding mystery authors), I included books from Greenland, Iceland, and Finland.

I am going from west to east geographically–Greenland (Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg), Iceland (The Undesired by Yrsa Sigurdatdottír), Norway (The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø), Norway (Hell Fire by Karin Fossum), Denmark (The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen), Sweden (The Ice Beneath Her by Camilla Grebe), Sweden (Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell), and Finland (Snow Angels by James Thompson).

I am not exaggerating when I say that choosing among the dozens, if not hundreds, of outstanding mysteries from these countries kept me up at night.  For every one I chose I could think of half a dozen others, either by the same author or by another author from that country, that would fit just as well into the syllabus.  The only exception to that was Smilla’s Sense of Snow because it is the only mystery I know with a strong sense of Greenland.

As in previous classes, this semester has brought forth a great deal of thoughtful discussion, strong opinions, and respectful disagreements among its participants.  Everyone who is attending my class at BOLLI is there to enjoy the novels and share likes and dislikes.  As I write this post the course still has some weeks to go, and as winter days grow shorter and shorter, it will be a perfect time to curl up with a Scandinavian mystery or two or more.

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.


SUNRISE HIGHWAY by Peter Blauner: Book Review

The saying “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em” is a famous line from Twelfth Night.  Can it also be that some are born evil and some have evil thrust upon them?

Hauppauge, New York is the kind of small town people move to in order to escape violence and crime in the big city.  On the surface all is well in this town with its good public schools and its strong police force and judiciary.  But under the surface things are rotten.

In 1977, a young white girl is killed in a wooded area of town, with a bunch of twigs and leaves stuffed down her throat.  Suspicion immediately falls on Delaney Patterson, one of the few young black men in town.  The police theorize that Delaney, who had recently moved to Hauppauge and was touted to be a star on the high school football team, got in with the wrong crowd when an injury forced him off the gridiron.

Detective “Billy the Kid” Rattigan tells the new, naive, and eager-to-please assistant district attorney, Kenny Makris, that he believes the young man and the girl had a fight, possibly over drugs, and that Delaney killed her.  Rattigan even has someone who witnessed, or nearly witnessed, what happened–that both young people went into the woods but only Delaney came out.  And the witness is Joey T., then the teenage son of a police officer in town.

Now, thirty years later, Joey T. has become the town’s police chief.  He is in control of every aspect of the law, and those who oppose him do so at their peril.  It’s Joey T. who seems to have been born evil and Kenny Makris who has evil thrust upon him.  But evil is insidious, and once Kenny has taken that first step over to the “dark side,” it’s too late to reconsider.

Into this situation comes Lourdes Robles, a New York City police detective.  She is called to Far Rockaway in that city’s borough of Queens when a large green bag is washed up on the shore.  Upon opening the bag it’s discovered that inside is the corpse of a pregnant woman, her throat stuffed with rocks.  Given that Far Rockaway is almost swimming distance to Nassau County, Lourdes and her team reach out to the police there and are surprised at their colleagues’ immediate determination to take over the case.  It’s too quick, Lourdes thinks, and she determines not to give up the case until she’s forced to do so.

Joey T. runs his town with an iron fist, and those who try to oppose him are dealt with summarily.  He is adept at finding the chinks in one’s armor, and if they doesn’t exist he’ll use force to get his way.  The combination of threats and bribery has made him untouchable.  That is, until Lourdes comes to town.  She is a heroine fighting her own family-related demons, but they will not get in the way of her solving the case. 

Sunrise Highway will have you hooked from its first chapter.  Peter Blauner has written a chilling novel, with a strong, believable plot and realistic characters.   You can read more about him 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.

AN ACT OF VILLAINY by Ashley Weaver: Book Review

Once again I am green with envy reading about Amory Ames and her life in 1930s London.  Amory is the beautiful, smart, wealthy heroine of several mysteries by Ashley Weaver, and her life sounds almost perfect to me.  The caveat almost has to be used because her marriage to Milo has always been somewhat “iffy” due to his less-than-monogamous behavior.  But that seems to be in the past, and in An Act of Villainy the Ameses seem to be a happy, loving couple.

While leaving a West End theater one night, Amory and Milo are greeted by Gerard Holloway, a friend of Milo’s.  Gerard is a wealthy man who has just written his first play, The Price of Victory, and it is about to open.  In addition to being the play’s author, he is also producing (read financing) and directing it, so obviously he has a lot at stake in its success.

During their very brief conversation outside the theater, Amory innocently asks Gerard about his wife, a woman whom Amory greatly admires.  After Gerard rather tepidly says that “she’s quite well,” he moves off and Milo looks quizzically at his wife.  Didn’t you know, he asks her, that his new play’s leading lady is his mistress?

The next day Milo meets Gerard at the latter’s club for a drink, and Gerard confides that Flora Bell, his paramour, has been receiving threatening anonymous letters at the theater.  Knowing of the Ameses’ past successes in solving mysteries, the playwright asks them to attend his play’s dress rehearsal to see if they notice anyone behaving in a guilty manner, and Milo now puts the matter before his wife.

Amory agrees to go to the rehearsal, although she is upset with Gerard’s philandering.  As she says to her husband, “this seems a minor matter” because if someone really wanted to harm the actress they would hardly warn her beforehand.  In this, however, Amory couldn’t be more wrong.

Ms. Weaver has written another beguiling novel that bring today’s reader back nearly one hundred years to a social set and time quite different from our own, or at least from mine.  Amory has a lady’s maid, Milo has a chauffeur, afternoon tea is a ritual, and they have three homes.  It’s a charming fantasy life to read about, but there’s an excellent mystery here as well.

I often wonder how authors can write a novel about a time and place in which they never lived.  Ms. Weaver, as far as I can tell from brief biographical notes I’ve read, has never lived in England; in fact, she is a librarian in Louisiana.  But her fertile imagination and creativity will make you believe that, in a former life, she was a member of London high society.

You can read more about Ashley Weaver 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.






Long a tourist mecca, Venice conjures up beautiful visions of stunning architecture and elegant bridges crossing calm canals.  But there’s an ugly underside to the “Queen of the Adriatic,” a city rife with corruption and a populace who seems to be either uncaring or else committed to the belief that nothing they do will change the situation.

Guido Brunetti, commissario at the city’s Questura di Venezia, knows every canal and street in his beloved city.  Sadly, nothing about Venice shocks him any longer, and he is beginning to feel that the police have become almost totally ineffective.  So when Professoressa Crosera comes to him with a problem she can barely articulate, he finds himself not as sympathetic as he thinks he should be.

The professor is a member of the university’s architecture department, the same college where Guido’s wife Paola teaches literature.  The two women are colleagues rather than friends, but Guido has met the professor before.  After a great deal of hesitation, she finally asks Brunetti if it is a crime to purchase drugs.  He tells her it is not, that the crime is selling them, and she seems slightly reassured.  She is fearful that her teenage son is using drugs, but she has no definite proof and appears not to want to find any.

Probing more deeply, Brunetti asks her why she has come to the Questura, what she would like the police to do, and he is surprised by the simplicity of her response.  “Find out whose selling him these drugs.  And arrest them.”  And Guido thinks to himself, if only it were that easy.

Several days later Professoressa Crosera’s husband is brutally attacked on the Ponte del Forner.  Did it have something to do with the drugs that he and his wife believe their son is using, or is it a different matter entirely?  Street crime is so rare in Venice that the former seems much more likely, but Brunetti and his colleagues are getting nowhere by focusing on that aspect of the  investigation.

The Temptation of Forgiveness is Donna Leon’s twenty-seventh book featuring Commissario Guide Brunetti, his family, and his fellow officers at the Questura.  The incredible sense of place that is in all the novels is understandable when the reader knows that Ms. Leon lived in Venice for thirty years.  Brunetti’s humanity shines through in all the books, but it is obvious that he has reached a point in his life where his optimism is greatly tempered with reality and his knowledge that many of the problems that confront the citizens of the city are beyond his ability, or that of anyone’s, to remedy.

The final two pages of The Temptation of Forgiveness are among the most moving I have ever read.

You can read more about Donna Leon 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.


CITY OF INK by Elsa Hart: Book Review

Reading City of Ink, Elsa Hart’s third entry into the Li Du series set in 18th-century China, is like reading a long poem.  Her writing is so beautiful, so evocative of its time and place, that the reader must pause to take a moment to relish it.

Li Du is a government official who has returned to Beijing after a three year exile.  Although his results in the official examination for government officials were outstanding and had earned him a high position as a librarian and an esteemed place in society previous to his expulsion, Li Du makes no effort to reestablish himself when he comes back.

Instead, he accepts a much lower position as a secretary to the chief inspector of the capital city’s North Borough.  He offers no explanation for this decision, nor for his unexpected return from banishment, and after a few half-hearted inquiries his colleagues leave him alone.

But, of course, Li Du has his reasons.  His closest friend and mentor, Shu, had been convicted of being a member of a group trying to assassinate the emperor.  Shu was executed and Li Du, as his friend, was exiled.  His reason for returning to the capital and accepting a lowly job is to have the freedom and opportunity to examine the secret files about the coup and to prove Shu’s innocence.

Tile manufacture is a major industry at this time in China, and the Black Tile Factory is one of the most important ones.  Its owner is Hong Wenbin, a nice man when sober with a vicious streak when drunk.  And so when the bodies of his wife and a man are discovered in the factory’s seldom-used office, it appears obvious to the authorities that Hong had found the two having an intimate relationship and murdered them.

Hong protests that he was so drunk the evening before that he has no memory of what he did but swears that he would have remembered, even in his inebriated state, something as drastic as a double murder.   Li Du’s superiors’ desire for a quick and easy solution to the murders is upsetting to him, and he determines to look into the crimes without their knowledge or permission.

Elsa Hart’s portrayal of life in the Chinese capital is captivating.  She recounts scene after scene in such detail that the reader is transported there.  She describes, for example, the specific hats that must be worn by government officials to show their rank, the books that are read by members of the intelligentsia, and the fourteen gates to the city that are closed at night.  Such descriptions make the setting of City of Ink come alive.

And the depiction of the students taking the examinations that will mark them for success or failure in their lives –their frantic studying, their fear of failure, and the possibility that they are victims of a corrupt system–is outstanding.

Li Du is an admirable protagonist.  He is smart, caring, open-minded, and loyal, traits that are not necessarily admired in his society.  He is willing to consider new, Western ideas, as is evidenced by his friendship with Father Calmette of the Roman Catholic Church, but clever enough to keep secret his illegal search for documents that will clear Shu’s name.

The author’s third mystery featuring Li Du is a brilliant follow-up to the two previous ones.  You can read more about Elsa Hart 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.


RIVER OF SECRETS by Roger Johns: Book Review

Racial relations between blacks and whites are at the heart of Roger Johns’ second mystery, River of Secrets.

Detective Wallace Hartman of the Baton Rouge police department is the head of the squad investigating the murder of Herbert Marioneaux, a state senator with a varied career and political history.  In his younger days Herbert was a member of a mainline Protestant church, but he left it to become a pastor in an evangelical fundamental one.

An avowed segregationist early in his life, Marioneaux changed direction here as well and became a man apparently committed to equality between the races and the sexes.  Some people applauded this change as sincere, while others claimed it was a political ploy and would soon be abandoned.  Only Marioneaux knew the truth, and it died with him.

The day before his death, there was a confrontation between two men–Father Milton, a white priest at a local Catholic church and Eddie Pitkin, a black lawyer and social activist.  Eddie has come to the church to make the case for reparations for the decades of slavery that his ancestors had endured under families that were the forebears of the priest.

The scene is being videotaped by Eddie’s assistant.  Eddie makes his case that the priest’s family, as well as other families whose ancestors were slaveholders, should make monetary amends to the blacks who can prove that they are descended from Louisiana slaves.  A crowd gathers to watch the interchange, which is thus far cordial, when Wallace appears and leads Eddie away in handcuffs, thus avoiding what she believes could turn into violence.

While Eddie is in custody for disturbing the peace, the results from the police lab investigation of Martineaux’s murder come in.  Hairs and DNA were recovered from the senator’s shirt, and they match the DNA belonging to Eddie.  Eddie is the half-brother of Wallace’s very close friend, Craig, who tells the detective that his brother is innocent and that he was at the family’s fishing camp at the time of the senator’s death.

Soon Wallace is caught in the middle of rising emotions on both sides of the arrest.  There are those who are demanding Eddie’s release and claiming that his being taken into custody was too hasty and that the police are no longer investigating to find the actual murderer; others declare Eddie’s guilt is open-and-shut and he should be tried and convicted immediately.  And racial incidents are rearing their ugly heads in parts of the city.

River of Secrets tells what has become an an all-too-familar story in our country today, to which there is no easy answer.  Wallace is torn between the seemingly damning evidence against the man she arrested and his half-brother’s conviction that Eddie is not guilty of murder.  Whatever she does while looking more deeply into the case is sure to have repercussions for her, in both her career and her personal life.

Roger Johns has written an excellent mystery, with characters we have all either read about or know ourselves.  His picture of today’s racial climate, with its links to the past, will resonate with every reader.

You can read more about Roger Johns 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.