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Do you hear the school bell ringing?  That’s because it’s almost time for the fall semester at BOLLI–the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute–to begin.

This will be my fifth semester teaching a course at BOLLI on the appreciation of the mystery genre.  Each course begins with the word WHODUNIT? and then gives the specific title of that term’s subject.  The previous ones have been MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND, MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES, MURDER IN SCANDINAVIA, and MURDER MOST BRITISH.

This semester’s class is WHODUNIT?:  MURDER, SHE WROTE.  It features all women authors and all female protagonists.  We’ll read eight novels during the ten week course, with the first and last weeks an introduction to mysteries and an overall discussion of the books assigned, respectively.

As I’ve noted in previous About Marilyn’s columns, what I find most interesting is what brings people to the classes.  There have been class members who have been reading mystery novels their entire lives and are familiar not only with the most popular authors but also with many little-known writers; there have been others who “confess” that they have never read a mystery or, if they did, it was many years ago.

So those who are devoted fans of mystery novels are presumably eager to explain and share their love of such books, while those who are new to mysteries are eager to learn why others find them so fascinating and perhaps to find an author or two who greatly appeals to them.

After a brief introduction of mystery types, we’ll spend part of the first session talking about Nancy Drew and what explains her popularity ninety years (!) after The Secret of the Old Clock was published.  To date, eighty million books in the series have been sold, a truly astonishing number, especially given the fact that the presumptive author, Carolyn Keene, is as fictitious as Nancy herself.

Carolyn Keene was the brainchild of Edwin Stratemeyer, founder of the syndicate that bore his name, and several authors were used under the Keene name to write the books to the formula Mr. Stratemeyer outlined.

Starting with the second class, we’ll be examining the eight novels I’ve chosen in the order they were published.  Since the first was published in 1930 and the last in 2017, we’ll be discussing not only the books’ heroines, plots, and settings but also the changes that have taken place in the culture and in women’s status in the nearly ninety years from the first novel to the most recent one.

If you’d like to read along with us, here are the books for this semester:  The Murder at the Vicarage  (1930) by Dame Agatha Christie, Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) by Marcia Muller, “A” is for Alibi (1982) by Sue Grafton, Indemnity Only (1982) by Sara Paretsky, A Trouble of Fools (1987) by Linda Barnes, China Trade (1994) by S. J. Rozan, Baltimore Blues (2006) by Laura Lippman, and The Last Place You Look (2017) by Kristen Lepionka.

Our first class is on Monday, September 9th.  Happy reading!


P. S.  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.

DEATH IN THE COVENANT by D. A. Bartley: Book Review

The history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a long one, but it is a complicated one.  Many of their beliefs follow mainstream Christian beliefs–purity before marriage, strong families and communities–but many do not.

Foremost among the differences are the two that are central to Death in the Covenant:  first, a belief in a pre-existence in Heaven before birth and second, a policy long renounced by the church but still practiced secretly by a very few, plural marriages.

Abbie Taylor is a descendant of several Mormon men high in the church’s hierarchy, but following the deaths of her husband and mother she lost her faith.  She has, however, returned to her Utah home and is a member of the Pleasant View police department, hoping to regain the sense of community she once experiencd there.

Death in the Covenant opens with a fatal car crash that claims the life of Heber Bentsen, first counselor to the prophet of the church.  A witness tells Abbie he saw another car forcing Bentsen off the road and down the cliff, but he didn’t see the license plate or get a close look at that driver.

There are a number of things that seem “off” to Abbie.  The department’s chief of police is very anxious that the fatal crash be an accident and is quick to disregard the statement of the eyewitness.  The 911 call that came into the police station was from a burner phone, and the male caller hung up before giving his name.  Eliza Bentsen tells Abbie that she’d been trying to call her husband several times during the evening, but there’s no record of her calls on Heber Bentsen’s phone.

When Abbie goes to see her father, perhaps Bentsen’s closest friend, he has already heard the news from the widow.  He tells her that he and Bentsen had a rather disturbing meeting a week earlier.

Some time ago the counselor had asked Professor Taylor to keep a list of unmarried female graduate students in the department of religious studies who dropped out before receiving their degrees.  It had become obvious that there were a higher number of these women that the Bentsen had expected, and his comment to Taylor the previous week, “I can’t believe he already started,” made no sense to the professor at the time or to him or Abbie now.

When the medical examiner determines that the counselor was murdered by a blow to his head, finding the man who called in the crash becomes even more important.  In her investigation, Abbie goes through old family files kept hidden in her attic and discovers a copy of The New and Everlasting Covenant, the church’s document from the 1840s sanctioning the practice of multiple marriages.

Although polygamy was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1879, a few polygamous communities are still to be found in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and Abbie thinks that it’s possible that one of these communities holds the key to Bentsen’s homicide.

I find mysteries about religious communities fascinating, and Death in the Covenant is no exception.  Ms. Bartley’s style propels the reader along; her characters, both good and bad, are realistic, and the plot kept me engaged until the very end.  This novel is the second in the Abish “Abbie” Taylor series, and I hope the next one will not be long in arriving.

You can read more about Ms. Bartley 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.

LADY IN THE LAKE by Laura Lippman: Book Review

Lady in the Lake is an absolutely wonderful book.  For me, its timing could not be more serendipitous–one of the mysteries I’m teaching this fall at BOLLI (Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) is the first novel in Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series, Baltimore Blues, and Lady in the Lake may be read as a prequel to the earlier novel as well as a stand-alone.

The book’s protagonist is Maddie Schwartz, a thirty-something upper-middle-class Jewish housewife in Baltimore; the time is 1966.  Married to a successful attorney, mother of a teenage son, she seems to have everything needed to enjoy her life.  But, as the Bob Dylan song so aptly put it two years before the books opens, the times they are a -changin’.

Maddie is experiencing a sense of unfullfilment, a sense that she should be doing more with her life than being the pretty wife and good mother she has been for nearly twenty years.  She leaves her husband and their son, who decides to stay with his father, and takes a tiny apartment in a not-so-savory part of the city.  And then she has to decide what she wants to do, or is able to do, with the rest of her life.  Her mantra is, She had to matter, she wanted to matter.

The novel is told in many voices, all brilliantly presented.  The main one is Maddie’s, and we learn her many secrets during the course of the book.  The second most frequent voice is that of Cleo Sherwood, a young “Negro” woman whose body is found in a city fountain.  She hadn’t been seen for weeks by her parents or at the bar/restaurant where she worked, but no one reported her missing until nearly two months had elapsed.  As Cleo asks herself, “…are you really missing if nobody misses you?”

But before Cleo’s body is found there is another missing person, an eleven-year-old white girl named Tessie Fine.  A search is started for her, and Maddie and a friend almost literally trip over her corpse.  This starts a new train of thought for her and sends her on the road to the Star’s newsroom.

Thus she begins her career as a reporter, although Maddie being Maddie, in her later life she erases the Star from her C.V. and lists her journalism beginnings at the more prestigious Beacon.  She was always a bit cavalier with the facts.

There are many, many personalities in Lady in the Lake, some of whom play an important role in the story, some who come into it for a brief mention in a chapter or two.  Regardless of the length of her/his appearance, every character’s voice is distinct and true.  In addition, the city itself is a major character in the book, with its neighborhoods explained, its streets explored, its synagogues and churches delineated.

Not surprisingly, Laura Lippman began her own career as a reporter in Baltimore for The Sun, working at the newspaper for twenty years.  She was still working there when she began writing the Tess Monaghan novels.  Over the years her novels have received Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, Shamus, Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe, and Barry awards.

You can read more about Laura Lippman 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.


AFTER SHE’S GONE by Camilla Grebe: Book Review

Just over two years ago I blogged about a Swedish mystery, The Ice Beneath Her, by Camilla Grebe.  It was a novel so well-written, so extraordinary in its plot, that I included it as one of the books in my Fall 2018 BOLLI course, WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN SCANDINAVIA.  I also chose it as one of my favorite mysteries of 2017.

After She’s Gone is the follow-up to that novel.  This time the locale is the small and not-very-exciting town of Ormberg, Sweden.  It’s 2009, and three teenagers, two boys and a girl, head for the town’s forest to do some underage drinking.  Malin needs to relieve herself, so she cautiously goes a bit deeper into the woods; she’s a bit uneasy because of its reputation as the place where the Ghost Child lives.

Squatting down, she touches what at first feels like some type of bowl, surrounded by moss.  But a closer touch reveals that the bowl is actually a skull and the moss is human hair.

Jumping ahead to the present day, we meet Jake.  He’s a lonely teenager, mourning the death of his mother, and tormented by what he calls The Secret:  he likes to dress in women’s clothing.  On this particular night, after his sister and father have gone out, he goes to his late mother’s closet and puts on one of her evening dresses and a pair of her high heels and goes for a walk where no one will sees him, in that same forest.

It’s dark and a cold rain is falling when Jake hears a noise and then sees a woman crawling on the forest floor.  She’s covered with scratches, her hair is dripping wet, and she’s barefoot.  “Help me,” she says, and despite his misgivings Jake approaches her.  “Who are you?” he asks, and she says, “Hanne.”

Just then he hears a car on the road outside the woods, and very slowly the woman makes her way toward it.  In his fear of being discovered, Jake hides in the trees while Hanne makes her way to the car and after a brief conversation with the driver gets in.  But she has left something behind, something that Jake picks up.  It’s a small brown leather notebook.

The following day we meet Malin again, now a police officer in Stockholm who has been sent to Ormberg, her home town, to join the police team interviewing Hanne.  This is not just another middle-aged woman who lost her way in the forest; she is, in fact, a legend:  Hanne Lagerlind-Schön, Sweden’s foremost criminal profiler.  She is apparently suffering from dementia and can’t tell the investigators why she was in the forest or how she got there.  And where is Peter Lindgren, her partner both personally and professionally, who never leaves her side?

After She’s Gone is a fascinating glimpse into life in a town that, much like Hanne, has lost its way.  Its major industries, the ironworks and the sawmill, have closed, its young people are moving away, and the town’s long-time residents are having difficulty dealing with the newly-arrived immigrants from Arab countries.  As Malin thinks, “They get plenty of help.  Help that the people of Ormberg never received…there was no help for us when we needed it…Why can’t they go to some other place?”  But she doesn’t say that aloud.

Camilla Grebe has written several novels with her sister; After She’s Gone is her second solo mystery.  You don’t have to read The Ice Beneath Her to enjoy this novel, but I highly recommend that you double your pleasure and read both of them.  They are outstanding.

You can read more about Camilla Grebe 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 BEAUTIFUL CORPSE by Christi Daugherty: Book Review

Harper McClain lives for violence.  It’s not that she’s cruel or uncaring, it’s that she’s the journalist on the Savannah Daily News’ crime beat.  So a day without a hit-and-run, a major robbery, or a murder leaves Harper nothing about which to write.

Still, she’s overcome when she arrives at River Street, the most photographed place in the city, in response to a phone call from the cameraman with whom she works.  The victim, who has been shot to death, is someone she knows; it’s Naomi Scott, a law student by day and a bartender at Harper’s favorite pub, The Library Bar, at night.  Naomi was beautiful but reserved, a quiet young woman who would not seem to be the type of person to be gunned down in the middle of the night.

Bonnie Larson, who was with Harper when she got the call at The Library and goes with her to River Street, tells the police that Naomi had a boyfriend, Wilson Shepherd, a fellow student at the law school.  Wilson is a likeable young man, very devoted to her, Bonnie insists, but she admits that the two were “taking a break” in their relationship.  That, given the young man’s juvenile record, makes him suspect number one.

Hours later, the Savannah police have Wilson surrounded on a city street.  He’s protesting his innocence, but he has a gun pointed at the officers.  The more they yell at him to surrender, the more agitated he becomes, until members of the department’s SWAT team leap onto his back, throw him into the gutter, and handcuff him.

The police are confident that they have the killer, but Jarrod Scott, Naomi’s father, doesn’t believe it.  Jarrod contacts Harper at work and tells her that he knows Naomi was frightened of another man, although he doesn’t know exactly why.  The name he gives Harper is another of Naomi’s classmates, Peyton Anderson, son of the county’s former district attorney and a member of one of the city’s most prestigious families.

Harper has never met Peyton, but everyone in Savannah knows his family.  They meet at the memorial service for Naomi, and he admits to Harper that they were more than friends before she met Wilson but denies he knows anything about her murder.

On the strictly personal side, Harper is struggling with her sense that an intruder has been in her home more than once.  The clues are slight–a glass where she is certain she hadn’t put it when she left that morning, a faint smell of smoke–but they are making her apprehensive.  Why would anyone enter her place?  Is it done to intimidate her, or is the whole thing just her over-active imagination?

A Beautiful Corpse is a powerful follow-up to Christi Daugherty’s first Harper McClain novel, The Echo Killings.  Harper is a terrific protagonist, smart and independent but with a vulnerability that dates back to her childhood when she returned home from school and found her mother murdered.  That crime was never solved, and it is never far from Harper’s mind.

You can read more about Christi Daugherty 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.


GRAVE EXPECTATIONS by Heather Redmond: Book Review

We return to 19th-century London in Heather Redmond’s Grave Expectations, her second mystery featuring Charles Dickens.  Dickens is in a slightly better situation now, with his journalistic sketches selling well and his love for Kate Hogarth having culminated in their engagement.

Dickens and his younger brother, Fred, have taken rooms for the summer in Chelsea to be closer to Kate.  However, the downside to this is that he now has an additional expense which, added to the frequent bailing out of his parents due to his father’s inability to stay within a budget, means that his marriage has been postponed yet again.

Nevertheless, he and Kate have been spending more time together, always properly chaperoned by either Fred or Mary, Kate’s younger sister.  As the novel opens, Kate and Charles have been enjoying an afternoon together when, in an effort to prolong their time together, Charles suggests that they pay a visit to his elderly upstairs neighbor, Miss Haverstock.

But as they climb the stairs, an unmistakable odor becomes evident.  “Maybe she is ill?” Kate asks hopefully.  But Charles responds, “It’s death, Kate.  It can be nothing else.”

It turns out that Miss Haverstock kept a lot of things about herself hidden.  She had a past life no one seemed to know about, no one except perhaps the person who murdered her.  And when Charles’ neighbor, Mr. Jones, is arrested and jailed for the murder on the flimsiest evidence, Charles and Kate decide to do whatever it takes to find the truth.

Some of the characters in Grave Expectations appeared in Ms. Redmond’s previous novel, so again we meet William and Julie, newlyweds who seem to be having some marital difficulties; Fred Dickens, anxious to leave school and start earning money; the charming Hogarth family, proper and upright; the impecunious Dickens family, always seeming to be one step away from financial ruin.

And, of course, we meet new characters:  Breese Gadfly, Charles’ Jewish neighbor; the Jones family, about to be evicted from their shabby home for nonpayment of rent after the father is jailed; and the neighborhood’s nasty landlord, Mr. Ferrazi.  And everyone has a part to play in the investigation of Miss Haverstock’s brutal murder.

As in the first mystery in this series, A Tale of Two Murders, Heather Redmond expertly brings Dickens’ London to life.  The fashions, the food, the class distinctions, the societal norms are all present, and the reader will find him/herself taken back more than 150 years.  Those touches, in addition to the clever plot and the delight in learning more about Charles Dickens, make this novel a perfect sequel to the first one.

You can read more about Heather Redmond 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.

DECEPTION COVE by Owen Laukkanen: Book Review

Former U. S. Marine Jess Winslow has returned home after three tours in Afghanistan, but that country won’t let go of her.  Jess received a medical discharge due to PTSD, a condition caused by her blaming herself for failing to save the life of an Afghani woman who was aiding the Marines in their fight against the Taliban.

She has come back to Deception Cove, Washington, the town she was raised in, but there’s nothing left for her there.  Her brief marriage to her high school sweetheart Ty was basically over when she re-upped for her third and final tour; by the time she returned home she was a widow, Ty having been drowned while on his fishing boat.

Given Jess’ lack of family and the loneliness she feels in Deception Cove, the only positive in her life is Lucy, the “comfort dog” the Corps allowed her to take home.  Lucy has literally been a life-saver, sensitive to Jess’ despair and depression, perhaps the only reason Jess has not taken her own life during one of the many flashbacks she continues to endure.

More than a thousand miles to the east, Mason Burke has just been released from jail at the end of a fifteen-year sentence for murder, a crime committed when he was a juvenile.  The only positive thing in his life was that same dog, the one he trained under the auspices of Rover’s Redemption, a dog-training program that encourages rehabilitation of prisoners.

Mason’s first goal upon gaining his freedom is to find out that Lucy is alive and well with her new owner, and he is disbelieving when the woman he speaks to at Redemption tells him that Lucy attacked someone and is about to be destroyed.  From the background on an old photo of the dog that was sent to him while he was imprisoned, he manages to read the name of the town where Lucy was sent–Deception Cove, Washington.

In Mason’s heart he knows that Lucy would never have bitten anyone without strong provocation.  He borrows two thousand dollars from his sister, his only surviving relative, and begins the trek to find the dog, not to reclaim her but to get to the truth of why she attacked someone and hopefully to rescue her from death.

The man Lucy bit is Deception Cove’s sheriff, Kirby Harwood.  He had come to Jess’ cottage shortly before the novel opens, determined to find something he said Jess’ late husband had hidden.  Jess told him she knows nothing about this, but Kirby didn’t believe her and moved towards her as if to attack.  The dog then bit him, and the next morning the sheriff and his deputies came to take Lucy away to have her put down.

Now Mason has arrived in the Cove, going to Jess’ place and telling her why he’s made the trip west.  After hearing her story, he’s determined to rescue Lucy, and together he and Jess start out on an adventure that will become life-threatening for both of them.

Deception Cove is pure thriller, with the suspense escalating from page to page.  Owen Laukkanen, who writes both outstanding stand-alones and a wonderful series about Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Carla Windermere of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has written another mystery with an exciting plot and believable characters.

You can read more about Owen Laukkanen 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 UNSETTLED GRAVE by Bernard Schaffer: Book Review

Police detective Carrie Santero is doing her best to be a good cop, but it’s not easy in the small town Pennsylvania department where she works.  Policing there is casual, and it appears to her that it’s much more important to the powers-that-be to keep from prying too deeply into anything that might embarrass its officers than it is to solve every crime.

A case in point is that of Monica Grimes.  She was driving home late at night from her gym when she was pulled over by what appeared to be a police car.  The man in uniform pulled Monica out of her car, handcuffed her, and then raped her.  When Carrie goes to interview her in the hospital, Monica is so traumatized she can’t speak coherently and refuses to answer any questions.

Then, when Carrie attempts to look into the police logs of various nearby communities to see who was on duty at the time of the rape, her chief’s comments tell Carrie where his sympathies lie.  “Some lunatic is claiming a cop raped her?” he asks, and refuses to allow any investigation into the charge.  Instead, to make certain she obeys, he sends her across the state to help with a “nice, simple call for assistance” from another department.  But it seems that Carrie brings “trouble” with her wherever she goes.

When Carrie arrives at the Liston-Patterson Township, she’s told that the police have just discovered part of a child’s corpse buried in the woods.  The only missing child anyone can remember is Hope Pugh, who disappeared from her home more than three decades earlier.

Depending on one’s view of things, there was either corruption or an incredible lack of interest in solving Hope’s case.  In her first night in town Carrie discovers more clues than the police did in thirty years.  And there’s definitely something strange in the fact that the former police chief Oliver Rein committed suicide and the much-revered assistant who took over for him was killed immediately thereafter, allegedly in the line of duty.

To make the situation even more complicated, Oliver Rein was the father of Carrie’s mentor Jacob, and his father and his death are two topics Jacob Rein never discusses.

Bernard Schaffer has written an intriguing novel about what happens when small-town crimes, police coverups, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder collide.  The novel serves both as an indictment of a community’s desire to keep its problems quiet and honors the commitment of those who strive to solve crimes, both old and new, against tough odds.

An Unsettled Grave is the second in the Santero and Rein series, and I hope for a third book soon.

You can read more about Bernard Schaeffer 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 SHE KNEW HIM by Peter Swanson: Book Review

After reviewing hundreds of books over the past nine and a half years, I can honestly say that I’ve never read one quite like Peter Swanson’s latest  mystery.  It is truly a one-of-a-kind novel.

Before She Knew Him starts calmly, slowly.  Two married, childless couples live side-by-side in identical Colonial houses in a suburban Massachusetts community.  Hen, short for Henrietta, and Lloyd have recently moved to West Dartford and have been invited by their neighbors to a block party.  Hen is reluctant to go, preferring to stay home rather than mingle with people she doesn’t know, but Lloyd persuades her and they get introduced to the couple next door, Mira and Matthew.

Several days later Mira invites Hen and Lloyd over for dinner.  Not seeing a polite way to refuse, Hen accepts, and a few evenings later the two couples get together.  After dinner, Mira offers the guests a tour of their house so they can perhaps get some decorating ideas.

It is when the four of them get to Matthew’s study that things go awry.  It’s very different from the other rooms, filled almost to overcrowding with knickknacks, photographs, and books.  When Hen sees, in the midst of an otherwise seemingly ordinary display of objects, the small figure of a fencer on top of a silver pedestal, she nearly faints.

She recognizes, or thinks she does, that figurine.  She asks Matthew if he fences, and he says that the statuette is just one of the many items he had bought because it caught his eye.  She passes off her reaction as dizziness, and she and Lloyd go home.  But the more Hen thinks about what she’s seen, the more uncomfortable she is.

In very small letters on the bottom of the figure were the words THIRD PLACE ÉPÉE and JUNIOR OLYMPICS, with a date too small for her to read.  Could it be a simple coincidence that Dustin Miller, a former neighbor of theirs when they lived in Cambridge, was a fencer and that Matthew teaches at the school Dustin attended before he was murdered years earlier?

Hen suffers from bipolar disorder, although she is currently on medication.  When she was in college she had a particularly violent episode and was hospitalized.  Although it has been years since the last manic event, both she and Lloyd are wary about her becoming obsessed with particular thoughts that perhaps would lead to a recurrence of mania.  And now she can’t stop thinking about Dustin and his still-unsolved murder.

Hen thinks her past mental illness will stop the police from taking her seriously, so she decides to investigate on her own before involving them or telling Lloyd her suspicions about their neighbor.  But tracking someone you believe is a killer is a dangerous business.

Peter Swanson has proved in his four previous novels that he is a master of suspense, and Before She Knew Him only reconfirms that.  The reader will be with Hen all the way as she tries to prove that Matthew did murder Dustin.  The book’s plot is taut and its characters totally believable.  You may never look at your neighbors the same way again.

You can read more about Peter Swanson 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.

DARK SITE by Patrick Lee: Book Review

Danica Ellis, a forty-one-year-old divorcée trying to put her life together, and Sam Dryden, a former Special Forces operative, would seem to have nothing in common.  In fact, when they meet each believes the other to be a total stranger.  But it turns out they do share something–on the same day, someone tried to kill both of them.

Dark Site opens with Danica shopping for groceries at two in the morning, just after she completes her second-shift job.  The store is empty except for a single cashier and a young couple just behind her in the checkout line.  After paying for her purchases, Danica heads to her car and is about to begin loading the purchases inside when the man and woman come up behind her, and the man strikes a savage blow to her neck.

Somehow managing to escape, Danica runs into the woods.  When she hears the couple’s van pull out of the lot and speed away, she tries to imagine who would want to abduct her, or worse.  There’s only one person she can think of who could help her, the stepfather from whom she has been estranged for more than two decades.

Carl Gilmore is a retired FBI agent, and when Danica arrives at the house they had shared when her mother was alive and tells him her story, he knows exactly what is happening.  He gives her an envelope that her mother had given him and made him promise never to share with her daughter.  But now he thinks it’s time for Danica to understand her past and why she may be an assassin’s target.

Miles away, Sam is looking at an old house he is considering buying and fixing up for sale.  He tells the realtor he’ll make a decision and will call him soon.  As soon as the agent drives away, he hears another car pull into the driveway.  When Sam turns to look, expecting that the agent has returned for some forgotten item, a man opens the driver’s side door with a pistol pointing at Sam.

Sam is able to overpower his assailant and in the ensuing fight is forced to kill the man.  He looks through his pockets for some identification but finds none.  And then the man’s cell phone rings.

Sam ignores the call but texts to the number.  The person on the other end is the one who ordered the murder, and now, thinking that the assassin has succeeded, the man orders “the killer” to go to another location and murder the woman he will find there. Sam doesn’t know who this woman can be or why either one of them has been targeted for death, but he races to the address to rescue her.

By the time Sam arrives at Carl’s home, Carl has been shot to death and Danica is seconds away from the same fate.  Sam is able to kill her would-be assassin, and Sam and Danica run from the house and drive away with the sound of police sirens in their ears.

The answer to why someone wants the two dead goes back nearly thirty years.  The only clue they have is contained in the file that Danica now possesses.

Dark Site is a nail-biting thriller.  Its plot is exciting, its characters well-drawn, and the motive behind the attempted murders of Danica and Sam are all-too-believable.

You can read more about Patrick Lee 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.

Can a person be a bibliophile and a bibliophobe at the same time?  If so, I think I am one.

Being a bibliophile comes naturally to me.  My late mother used to tell people, perhaps with a bit of motherly exaggeration, that I was reading at the age of four.  That was her story for years, but then she lowered my reading age to three and finally to two-and-a-half.  Just wondering if she mis-remembered….

But getting back to the first sentence of this post.  Frankly, I feel somewhat of a bond with Eudora Welty’s character, the one who lived at the post office.  I (almost) live at the Needham library, visiting at least twice a week in search of the perfect mystery/mysteries about which to blog.

If I have fewer than three library books in my study, I go into a slight panic mode.  What if there’s an unexpected snowstorm?  (Yes, I know it’s June now, but stranger things have happened–haven’t they?)  What if the library loses electricity and has to close unexpectedly?  Or a thief empties all the shelves?

In addition to library books, there are also the novels that I’m fortunate enough to receive from various publishers/publicity agents who would like me to review their authors’ mysteries.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m delighted when there’s a package containing a mystery novel in my mailbox, and this happens several times a month.

But that’s where bibliphobia comes in.  Merriam-Webster defines that condition as a “strong dislike of books.”  Of course, that doesn’t apply to me, but it’s the closest I can come to in explaining a panic similar to the one I experience as a bibliophile.  For example, at the moment I have five books sent by publishers and four library books on the shelves in my study, one more waiting for me at the library, and ten on reserve.  What happens if they all arrive at once?

My husband’s solution for me is not to reserve so many books but simply to arrive at the library and see what’s available.  I suppose that makes sense, but what happens if I read someone’s review of a great mystery this week and don’t reserve it?  I might (probably will) forget about it until some time later, and by that time there are 50 people who have already reserved it.  There’s a word for that condition too–fear of missing out, or FOMO.

Now I have three problems which with to deal.


JUDGMENT by Joseph Finder: Book Review

Take one step down a slippery slope, and the next thing you know you’re falling faster than you ever imagined possible.  According to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, “a slippery slope…is a consequentialist logical fallacy in which a party asserts that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of unrelated events culminating in some significant (usually negative) effect.”

To put it more simply, when something goes wrong or one makes an unwise decision, additional wrong decisions follow until the final one leads to disaster (my definition).  That is certainly the case for Juliana Brody, a respected judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court, who makes a wrong decision, or maybe two such decisions, that may cost her her life.

Juliana has just given a presentation at a national lawyers’ conference in Chicago and is sitting alone on the hotel’s rooftop terrace.  She’s had her self-imposed limit of one drink when a man asks if he may sit at her table.  Matías Sanchez is staying at the hotel too, attending a different conference, and they enter into an interesting discussion about Mallorca, a place with which he’s very familiar.  Unwisely, Juliana has a second drink and before she has time to think it through, she and Matías are spending the night in his hotel suite.

Juliana has always been “miss goody two-shoes,”  in part to make up for her somewhat dysfunctional and chaotic childhood.  She obeys the rules, never goes over the speed limit.  She is, in her own words, “sensible, prudent, and cautious.”  So she determines to put this one misstep behind her and return to her husband, teenage son, and the Massachusetts court system.

The case currently before Juliana is a sexual harassment one.  The plaintiff, a young woman, claims that when she worked for a start-up ride-hailing company the CEO made unwanted advances to her; when she wouldn’t submit to his advances, he fired her.  The company, naturally, disputes these charges.

As Juliana returns to the courtroom after her Chicago trip, a man enters the room and sits down at the defense table.  He stands up to be introduced by his co-counsel and says, “Good afternoon, Your Honor.  My name is Matías Sanchez.”  And later that day, after having a drink with a friend at the Bostonia Club, Juliana is stunned once more to see Sanchez sitting in a chair across the room from her.

He comes to her table and tells her what he wants, a ruling in the company’s favor.  Angry and indignant, Juliana is ready to tell him to forget it when he says, “there’s a video” of their night together and proceeds to show it to her.  And what if she defies him or those who sent him, she asks.  “If you defy them, then the judgment will come,” he says.  “No appeals.  No mercy.  No justice.”

Joseph Finder has written a powerful novel about the fallout that comes from both making a mistake and trying to rectify it.  There are no easy answers for Juliana, and every step she takes seems to bring her and her family into more danger.  Judgment is a page-turner in the best sense of the word.

You can read more about Joseph Finder 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.


DEATH OF A RAINMAKER by Laurie Loewenstein: Book Review

In the 1930s, Oklahoma is a state suffering crop failures, mortgage defaults, and devastating dust storms that creep into every crevice of one’s home and body.  Nowhere is that more true than in the small town of Vermillion, where not a drop of rain has fallen in 240 days.

The townspeople are so desperate that they hire Roland Coombs, a self-professed expert, to bring rain to their parched farms.  Coombs says he learned his craft when he was in charge of munitions in the Army, and he has brought a truckload of TNT to start the process.

One of the few businesses remaining open in Vermillion is the Jewel Movie House, which charges a nickel admission.  Its owner, blind Chester Benton, needs every one of them to stave off bankruptcy.  Barely had the day’s early-bird matinee started, however, when the largest dust storm the town had ever seen barreled into Vermillion, covering stores, houses, and cars, forcing people to hunker down anywhere they could find shelter.

After the dust storm finally subsides the audience leaves the theater to return to their battered homes, and Chester begins the dispiriting task of sweeping up the dust that had accumulated on the seats, in the aisles, and in the cracks of the candy counter’s glass top.  But when he tries to open the fire door to clear that exit, it won’t budge.  Then, when the door finally opens a couple of inches, Chester leans down to measure the height of the dust; instead of dust, he touches cloth and then a man’s leg.  He feels the man’s face and tries to brush the dust away from his mouth and nose, but the man is definitely dead.

Temple Jennings is the Jackson county sheriff, so naturally he is called to investigate.  He and the medical examiner examine the corpse; the cause of death, which at first appears to be accidental suffocation from the dust storm, is now seen to be a murder, with the victim’s skull fractured by a heavy instrument.  And, the doctor says of the body, “It’s the rainmaker.”

Suspicion falls on one of the teenage boys who was seen to have been given a lift by Coombs after the dynamite explosion the previous night and to have had words with the rainmaker at the local bar.  Carmine DiNapoli is a recent arrival at the nearby CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp from Chicago, and he tries to flee when Temple arrives at the campground to question him.

Temple has another problem.  He is running for re-election, and the powerful and successful businessman Vince Doll is running against him.  Doll’s election posters have been plastered all over the county, and even people who supported Temple in the past seem to be leaning toward the challenger.  It’s as if they blame the current sheriff for all the ills that have befallen the town and think that a change in that office will bring prosperity back to Jackson county.

Death of a Rainmaker is a truly powerful book.  The author’s depiction of small-town life during the bleakest times in the state is incredibly realistic, and the characters and their problems are true-to-life.  Laurie Loewenstein has written what I hope will be just the beginning of the Dust Bowl series.

You can read more about Laurie Loewenstein 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.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A SCANDAL IN JAPAN by Keisuke Matsuoka: Book Review

Where was Sherlock Holmes in the years following his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls?  Thanks to Keisuke Matsuoka’s new novel, we now know that having to flee arrest and possible imprisonment for the murder of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock is sent to Japan by his brother Mycroft.

As clever as Sherlock had been in escaping from death at the hands of Professor Moriarty at the Falls, he unfortunately was seen by Moriarty’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Moran.  When Moran returns to London he tells the members of his gang that Sherlock is still alive, thus explaining Mycroft’s insistence that his brother leave London until all the gang members are imprisoned.  So, very reluctantly, Sherlock undertakes a most unpleasant sea voyage to Japan, one of the few countries not part of the British Empire or closely allied to it. 

It turns out that there are two men in Japan whom Sherlock had met when he and Mycroft were urchins on the London streets.  Hirobumi Ito is one of those men.  A former prime minister, he is now head of the Privy Council and one of the emperor’s closest advisors.  It is 1891, a very difficult time for Japan.  The country has become a pawn in the battle between Great Britain and Russia, both of whom see the small nation as a backward place, small and unable to defend itself.

There is a current problem in Japan which, if not handled properly, could result in a war with Russia that would probably be catastrophic for the Eastern nation.  Shortly before Sherlock’s arrival, a Japanese policeman named Sanzo Tsuda attempted to assassinate one of Tsar Nicolas’ sons who was on a royal visit.  This has sparked an international crisis, and the detective appears just in time to be thrust into the middle of it.

Ketsuke Matsuoka has taken actual events and included Sherlock Holmes, whose arrival is very much to the benefit of the Japanese government.  In “real life,” how did they ever manage without him?  The author has been very respectful of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, giving him the dialogue that readers of the canon can imagine him speaking and not adding anything about his past that was not mentioned in the original works.  Except, of course, for his visit to Japan, which Mr. Matsuoka makes totally believable.

Having just taught a class in which we read The Hound of the Baskervilles and several short stories featuring Holmes, I was a bit wary of this new adventure in his life.  However, I was truly impressed and delighted by how seamlessly A Scandal in Japan fit into Doyle’s novels.  Sherlock and his brother behave exactly as this reader imagines they would have if the detective actually had been forced to leave his country and try to acclimate himself to such a different culture.  The portrait of late 19th-century Japan is fascinating.

You can read more about Keisuke Matsuoka 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.



LIKE LIONS by Brian Panowich: Book Review

There are two interesting facts about Clayton Burroughs:  first, he’s the sheriff of a rural North Georgia county; second, his family is the most notorious crime family in that county.  Even the name of the area, Bull Mountain, is enough to set the scene of the novel.

The prologue of Like Lions is chilling.  A young mother of three sons is trying to escape her brutal, abusive husband.  She’s almost out the door of their house, carrying their baby in her arms, when her husband confronts her.  She pleads for her life and to be allowed to take the infant with her; he permits her to leave, but she is forced to leave the boy behind.

Fast forward to the present day, some thirty years later.  Clayton has a lot on his mind.  He’s thinking of his two dead brothers, the constant pain in his leg where he was shot a few months earlier, and his pain-reliever and alcohol problems that are spiraling out of control.

A group of gangsters from another part of Georgia attempt to rob The Chute, a gay bar owned by a man named Tuten.  Everyone knows that the bar is a “cash cow” for the Burroughs’ family and that there would be drugs and money in Tuten’s safe.  But the robbers get an unpleasant surprise by the reaction of the bar’s patrons and its owner; one of the thieves is killed and the others are taken prisoner.

The next morning Clayton gets a call from a member of the Burroughs’ gang, Scabby Mike.  He meets Mike, a man named Wallace, and JoJo, a teenage member of the criminal band who tried to rob The Chute.  Clayton learns that this gang has plans to gain control of the county and use it as a conduit for expanding the drug route through this part of the state.  The sheriff, however, is less than impressed, saying that he’ll deal with the problem when it happens, and starts to leave the scene.

Then JoJo starts to talk trash, vicious trash, to Clayton. He tells him how his Deddy (sic) is going to kill them all (the Burroughs gang), that he knows that Clayton is the man who shot and killed his own brother, that he’s just a drunk cripple who can’t fight any more.  All that the sheriff is able to ignore, but when the teenager starts to brag about how he’s going to deal with Clayton’s “pretty wife,” that’s more than Clayton can handle.

He takes the boy down to the muddy pond on the site and holds his head under water for several seconds. When he’s satisfied that that’s sufficient punishment, he asks the two men to “pull him back some”  and then take him home.  Clayton leaves, and when Mike and Wallace turn around to pick up JoJo, they discover that he has suffocated.

Like Lions is a story filled with violence and love, trauma and redemption.  It’s a story about Clayton Burroughs, who grew up in a family and an area that would corrupt anyone and his fight to redeem himself and his county from the past.  The plot will keep you reading and breathless until the end, when a totally surprising conclusion will make you realize you are in the hands of an outstanding mystery writer.

You can read more about Brian Panowich 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.