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MOLTEN MUD MURDER by Sara E. Johnson: Book Review

As may be obvious to frequent readers of this blog, I love reading and reviewing mysteries that take place outside the United States.  I can never decide if I find a novel more interesting if I’ve been to the country where it’s located or if I’ve never been there.  Either way, I really enjoy learning about the customs and culture of foreign places, and reading Sara E. Johnson’s debut mystery that takes place in New Zealand, a country I have yet to visit, grabbed me from the first page.

Forensics expert Alexa Glock has been fortunate enough to spend six months working at a lab in Auckland and wants desperately to extend her stay.  She had made a close friend at the lab, and the plan was to visit Mary in the latter’s home town of Rotorua when Alexa’s visiting professorship was finished so that the two of them could spend time together going around New Zealand.

Alexa had rented a small cottage in Rotorua and was on her way there when she got a call from Mary’s brother, telling her that his sister had been killed in an auto accident.  On her way to attend the funeral and pay her respects to her friend’s family, Alexa comes across an article in the New Zealand Herald describing a gruesome death–a man’s body has been found boiled to death in a thermal pool where the temperature reaches over two hundred degrees.  Due to the high temperature of the pool, all the man’s identifying features have been destroyed.

Having fallen in love with Kiwi, which is the name New Zealanders call their nation, Alexa thinks that her expertise could help the police and allow her to prolong her stay in the country.  She thinks that perhaps the victim can be identified by his teeth, and that’s where her expert knowledge comes in; she has a master’s degree in odontology and has worked with the police in her native North Carolina.

There is so much fascinating information about New Zealand and the Maori, the indigenous people of the country, in Molten Mud Murder.  The Maori are ethnically Polynesian and arrived in Kiwi in the 14th century, now comprising about a fifth of the population.  Ms. Johnson does a wonderful job in describing many of the group’s customs and beliefs, particularly their veneration for their ancestors.

Alexa Glock is a welcome addition to those amateur detectives whose specialized knowledge make them a valuable asset to the authorities investigating a crime.  Her delight in the country she’s visiting and her interest in all things Maori is infectious and carries the reader along as she looks into the death of the European man at the thermal pool that is sacred to the Maori and forbidden to others.

You can read more about Sara E. Johnson 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.

DEAD LAND by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

The prologue of Dead Land opens in the middle of the night with the loud buzz of the doorbell waking V. I. Warshawski and her very angry neighbors.  Vic hurries down the stairs and opens the front door to find a large dog tied to a nearby lamppost with a short note of explanation attached to his collar.  Coop, a man she hardly knows, has left his dog Bear with her for safekeeping, not saying where he’s gone or why.

The book flashes back to a community meeting three weeks earlier, when Vic is asked by her goddaughter Bernadette to watch the girls on the soccer team Bernadette’s coaching accept an award.  Before the girls can go onstage for the award, the meeting dissolves into chaos.  The issue at stake is the development of an area on the Chicago lake front, and passions are running high on all sides of the issue.

It’s V. I.’s birthday, and after the meeting she and Bernie head to the newly chic Forty Seventh Street to meet V. I.’s significant other for a drink to celebrate.  As the women walk under a viaduct they hear the tinny sound of a toy piano and a woman’s voice accompanying the music.  The only words they can make out are “savage” and “cruel,” but Bernie immediately recognizes the song as one written years ago by Lydia Zamir, a song that has become an anthem to those fighting injustice against women.

Trying to help the woman who is singing, obviously homeless, and in need of mental health services, Vic and Bernie are confronted by a couple.  Vic recognizes the man as Coop, the man who disrupted the community meeting, and a woman who say that they are protecting the musician from “busybodies.”  Reluctantly, Vic and Bernie leave, wanting to help but not knowing quite how.

Dead Land refers to the city’s area that caused the disruption of the community meeting.  A shadowy coalition of big business and Chicago officials have plans to make it into a millionaires’ resort with a golf course, a marina, and luxury homes, while a group of residents, with Coop in the forefront, are hoping for a beach and a playground and want details of any proposed plan before a vote is taken.

Vic’s investigation leads her to discover that the homeless singer is indeed Lydia Zamir.  Delving into Lydia’s background in an effort get her the help she needs, V. I. reads about a mass shooting four years earlier at a music festival that involved Lydia and killed her boyfriend, Hector Palurdo, an environmental activist with ties to his late father’s native Chile.

Then things begin to spiral out of control, with the disappearance of the homeless woman as well as Coop, and the strange proposal that Vic receives from the Global Entertainment conglomerate that offers her an enormous amount of money if she will allow them to follow her as she attempts to find Lydia.

It’s always a pleasure to see Vic again, scouring the streets of the Windy City searching for answers.  And this case takes her to the plains of Kansas as well, home of the man convicted of the murders of seventeen people at the music festival.  There’s no question that Arthur Morton was guilty, but as V. I. looks into the murders, she realizes that it involves more than just the shooter.  As Vic connects the dots between the land issue confronting the voters in her city and the mass murders in Kansas, she unearths corruption and evil in both places.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky 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.

 

 

 

HARD CASH VALLEY by Brian Panowich: Book Review

Returning to McFalls County, Georgia is a painful experience.  So much crime, so much brutality, so much pain.  But Brian Panowich’s brilliant writing makes the visit worthwhile.

Dane Kirby is a former sheriff and former arson investigator who is still in love with his late wife.  Gwen and their daughter were killed in an accident for which Dane blames himself, although no one else does.  Although he’s retired from the two posts mentioned above he is still active in law enforcement, working part-time for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.  He’s enjoying being behind a desk for the first time in his professional life, rather than being out in the field, but that respite ends with a call from the county’s new sheriff.

A body has been found in the woods, and it looks as if the murderer has been found right away.  It’s Ned Lemon, Dane’s former best friend, whom he hasn’t seen in ten years.

Back at the opening of Hard Cash Valley, a low-life criminal is congratulating himself on cleverly escaping with half a million dollars.  Arnie Blackwell has carried the cash onto a plane, taken a taxi to a motel, and is nervously feeling better and more confident by the minute that he has eluded the men who want to capture him and his money.

That feeling remains with Arnie until he checks into the motel and is getting ready for a much-needed shower.  When he opens the door to his room, expecting the bellboy delivering the towels he requested, he sees his worst nightmare in the doorway.  As one of the men standing there tells him, they never even had to look for him.  “We never lost you.  All the way from that farm.  We were sitting behind you on the plane.”

Arnie knows he has only minutes to live, and he gives up the name of his partner who is holding the other half of the money.  He asks only one thing of the men.  “Please don’t hurt Willie.”

Hard Cash Valley has multiple plot lines–murders, cockfighting, marital issues, debilitating illness, autism–but the brilliant writing of Brian Panowich pulls it all together.  There are many bad guys, some worse than others; the not-always-cooperative relationships among local, state, and federal agencies; a man who cannot seem to leave his first marriage behind him to the detriment of his new relationship; and how even the sleaziest man can demonstrate caring for someone one more vulnerable than himself.

Hard Cash Valley is Brian Panowich’s follow-up to Like Lions; similar to that novel it’s a story that will tug on your heartstrings while keeping you turning the book’s pages as quickly as possible.  A mystery, a love story (or more than one), a glimpse into the lives of children with autism–it’s all that and more.  To sum up, it’s another outstanding work by a gifted 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.

 

THE EVIL MEN DO by John McMahon: Book Review

A routine wellness check is the start of a murder investigation for Georgia police detective P. T. Marsh and his partner Remy Morgan.  When they arrive at the home of wealthy businessman Ennis Fultz, they find his naked body stretched out on his bed, an oxygen tank nearby.

As the investigation gets underway, Marsh is getting different versions of the dead man.  A framed wall photo of a real estate magazine cover shows a photo of Fultz with the caption THE MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA.  When the chief of police arrives, he tells Marsh and Morgan that the deceased was a good man.  But in Fultz’s ex-wife’s opinion, “Ennis was charming.  He was handsome.  And he was a son of a bitch.”

Then Fultz’s housekeeper says that that her late boss had a reputation as a ruthless, no-nonsense businessman, one who did his homework and found a way to get the best of every opponent.   However, she continues, after a recent hospitalization he seemed to have become a new man, giving her a gift of $6,000 for no particular reason.  The housekeeper, nicknamed Ipsy, also tells the detectives how he helped a couple who had been living illegally on his land by making the man a groundskeeper and assisting the man and his wife in adopting a homeless child.  Can anyone have this many sides to him?

Then Sarah Raines, the medical examiner, tells Marsh that Fultz had died of nitrogen poisoning, and Marsh realizes that the tank that was next to his bed must have been filled not with oxygen but with nitrogen, which when inhaled is deadly.

P. T. is dealing with a number of things outside of the case.  His wife and child were killed in what appeared to be a car accident less than two years earlier, and although he is in a relationship with Sarah, he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to commit to her.   In addition, he was involved in a shooting, and now the dead man’s sister wants not only a financial settlement from the city but an apology from P. T.  The city is agreeable, but the detective is not.

Interspersed with Marsh’s narrative is a story told by a young girl.  The reader doesn’t know her name or her connection to the murder; all we know is that she was riding in a car with her parents when a car began following them.  Her parents appear unaware, but the little girl can see the car coming faster and closer until it pushes their Hyundai off the road.  And then the girl wakes up in a hospital and looking out the window in her room she sees the white Toyota van that deliberately crashed into her father’s car.

John McMahon has written an amazing novel.  His characters are realistic, his plot engrossing.  At the end of The Evil Men Do, Marsh has solved one case but is looking for answers in another.  I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the third book in the series and hoping to learn the truth about the deaths of his wife and son.

You can read more about John McMahon 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.

 

Blame it on the coronavirus!

When I walked upstairs after using the treadmill this morning, my husband asked me why I had sent out a blog post today instead of on Saturday.  But I didn’t, I protested.  Well, he said, I got one this morning.

I rushed to my computer and there it was–my review of Harry Dolan’s THE GOOD KILLER.  When I finished writing it last night, I obviously pressed publish instead of saveSeriously, my mind is a jumble nowadays, dealing with how best to get groceries, missing visits with family and friends, and teaching my mystery class online.  Those are my excuses—I mean reasons–for the midweek blog.

In any event, I tell myself it could have been worse.  I usually write about half a review and leave it to percolate for a couple of days before completing it and sending it out.  What if I had sent out only half a review?  I guess I could have covered it up by saying that after all this is a mystery blog; readers would have to be in suspense until Saturday for the second half of the post.  I did notice one typo, and there may be more since I had not proofread the blog carefully before accidentally pressing the publish button.  I hope not.

At any rate, I hope the post’s early arrival didn’t shake you up too much (if you even noticed); a friend had already emailed me by the time I saw the post to say it threw her entire week off schedule.  I definitely don’t want to create more uncertainty during an uncertain time.  In these difficult days, I plead for a little understanding.

Stay well.

Marilyn

THE GOOD KILLER by Harry Dolan: Book Review

Sean and Molly are an attractive couple, leading quiet lives in Houston.  They have few friends but seem content just being with each other.  This happy life very likely would have continued for them if not for the fact that Sean got a pebble in his boot while walking in Houston’s Bear Creek Park.

That meant a trip to the city’s Galleria Mall to purchase a new pair, which Sean does while Molly is off to Montana for a five-day retreat featuring horseback riding and yoga.  Sean isn’t interested in either of those things, in addition to the fact that it’s only for women, but before Molly leaves they go over over “the rules.”

The rules stipulate that they never return to their former home, they don’t contact any of the people they knew before they moved to Houston, and they don’t talk about something that they’ve buried in the woods.  But because of the need to buy new boots, all these precautions turn out to have been in vain.

Sean is sitting on a chair in the mall when he hears a series of gunshots, twelve in all.  Around him people are falling to the ground, either bleeding or displaying the stillness of death.  Without conscious thought, Sean rises and pulls out his Glock, taking aim at the gunman; his first shot enters the man’s heart, the second his brain.

Of course, even during this terrifying event, cell phones are out with people taking photos and videos of the carnage, the killer, and the man who took  him down.  Although Sean gets into his car to get away from the mall, those photos and videos are being uploaded and shared faster than he can drive.   And a man whose TV is tuned to CNN sees Sean’s photo with the caption underneath reading PERSON OF INTEREST.   Yes, Jimmy Harper thinks, he certainly is.

Harper is one of two men searching for Sean, the other is Adam Khadduri.  On the surface the two men couldn’t be more different, as Harper is the owner of a small garage with a reputation for “sending a message” to whose who didn’t pay protection to him or otherwise didn’t meet their obligations; Khadduri is a “businessman” who is looking for something he believes Molly and Sean took from him.  But the bottom line is, they both want Sean.

What follows is a novel filled with cat-and-mouse chases, escapes from pursuers by the skin of one’s teeth, and a sense of menace so strong it’s almost palatable.  Harry Dolan, whose thrillers keep readers at the edge of their seats, has written another novel in which the “bad guys” are not the only ones with flaws.  His characters are realistic and human, his plots outstanding,  and The Good Killer will make you go back to his previous mysteries in case you missed them.  I’ve blogged about two of them, and you can read my posts of Bad Things Happen and The Man in the Crooked Hat on this blog.

You can read more about Harry Dolan 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.

 

RUNNING OUT OF ROAD by Daniel Friedman: Book Review

Buck Schatz is the very personification of a grumpy old man.  Actually he was a grumpy young man too, but he’s gotten more cranky and gruff as he’s aged.  He makes no apology for this, as he believes he has sufficient reasons:  he has dementia, needs a cane to manage even hesitant steps, his wife has terminal cancer, they are living in a studio apartment in an assisted living facility, and their only son died years earlier.

Despite all that, Buck is determined not to give in or give up.  He was once a tough detective on the Memphis police force, a man who faced anti-semitism at every step of his career, as well as questions as to his treatment of those he arrested, and he feels that his reputation for solving murders is pretty much all he has left.

One particular arrest from decades ago has come back to haunt him.  Chester March is on death row for the murder of his wife Margery, and he has enlisted the aid of an NPR reporter, saying that the reason he confessed is that Buck beat the confession out of him.  Now Buck is afraid that March and the reporter may take his reputation away from him.

When he was investigating the case, Buck wondered if Margery was March’s first victim.  He went through the list of unsolved cases of murdered women in the area and found one that appeared similar.  Cecilia Tompkins was last seen getting into a white man’s car, a car that matched the description of the one that belonged to March, and sometime later her brutalized corpse was found.  The killer had tried to dissolve her body using lye, and when that proved impossible her corpse was thrown into the Mississippi River.  Buck thought that the case wasn’t pursued very vigorously, if at all, because she was a black prostitute.

During his investigation Buck visited the street where Cecilia worked and talked to the friend who reported her missing.  When he showed the woman fifteen newspaper photos of various white men, she pointed to March’s picture without hesitation.  Now Buck was more sure than ever that March was responsible for the deaths of both Cecilia Tompkins and Margery March.  Although it couldn’t be proven that March had killed Cecilia, he was convicted of murdering his wife and condemned to be put to death by electrocution.

Running Out Of Road is a portrait of a man whom time seems to have passed by.  There’s virtually no one on the Memphis police force who remembers him, and a police union rep isn’t any help.  At the end of the novel there’s a very telling conversation between Buck and Carlos Watkins, the NPR journalist who brought March’s upcoming execution before the public.  The two men have totally different points of view regarding justice and society, and it makes for riveting reading.

In Watkins’ view of justice, the problem is that the entire system is oppressive, corrupt.  “If you repair or dismantle oppressive systems, you solve your Chester (March) problem.”  But to Buck Schatz, justice is very different.  “There are always going to be monsters.  The systems don’t make them.  We make the system to protect the rest of us from them….That was justice as I understood it….”

Daniel Friedman has written a fascinating book that explores the American justice system  and the sometimes irreconcilable differences between those on opposite sides who hold tightly to their version of right.  It’s a mystery that will make you question your own beliefs.

You can read more about Daniel Friedman 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.

HID FROM OUR EYES by Julia Spencer-Fleming: Book Review

I’ve “known” the Reverend Clare Fergusson since she interviewed to become the first female priest leading the Episcopal church in Millers Kill, New York, nearly two decades ago.  That’s in real time, but in fictional time not that many years have passed.  In Julia Spencer-Fleming’s latest novel in the series, Hid From Our Eyes, Clare is naturally older than she was when In the Bleak Midwinter was written, but not by eighteen years.

Now she is the established priest of St. Albans, married to the town’s Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne, and the mother of a four-month-old son.  Her days, and nights as well, are a constant juggling act between caring for Ethan, arranging for various child care options when neither she nor Russ is available, and attending to her flock.  That would be daunting enough for anyone, but she’s also dealing with guilt and shame:  guilt because before she knew she was pregnant she was drinking heavily and using drugs; shame because she still craves both.

Finally it does seem that Clare gets a break.  The scion of a wealthy Dutch family who has summered in the Adironacks for decades, Joni Langevoort is searching for an internship in the area while completing religious studies at Union Theological Seminary.  It would appear to be a perfect match, but Clare is surprised when she meets Joni and realizes that Joni is a transgender woman.  Not every congregation would be open to having her on their pulpit; Clare thinks that her diocese would probably get around to welcoming transgender ministers “the twelfth of Never.”  But it’s not an issue for Clare and, she hopes, not for her congregants either.

Hid From Our Eyes tells the stories of three murders spanning more than half a century.  In the midst of a town meeting, Russ gets a 911 call from the police dispatcher that the body of a young woman has been found on a rural road in Cossayuharie, dressed in a summery dress.  This fits the pattern of two separate murders that took place decades ago.  The victims of those crimes were never identified nor the killer or killers found.  “It can’t be the same,” he thinks to himself.   How could there be three identical murders decades apart?

Like his wife, Russ Van Alstyne has more than one thing on his plate.  The League of Concerned Voters, Washington County Chapter, wants to dissolve the police department.  The department covers the three towns of Millers Kill, Fort Henry, and Cossayuharie, and the League wants to give its duties to the state police in order to save the taxpayers money.  Now it’s Russ’ job to convince the voters of the importance of a local police force, but he’s facing some powerful opposition.

As always, Julia Spencer-Fleming gives the reader an intense portrait of life in Millers Kill and the differences between Clare, always an “outsider” because she didn’t grow up there, and Russ, a “townie” whose misdeeds as a young man will never be forgotten.  Once again it’s a pleasure to step into their lives.

You can read more about Julia Spencer-Fleming 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.

 

 

 

EIGHT PERFECT MURDERS by Peter Swanson: Book Review

Mal Kershaw, owner of Boston’s Old Devils Bookstore, wants nothing more than a quiet life.  An only child, a widower, a man with almost no friends, his daily life consists of going to work and going home after closing the store.  He might occasionally stop off for a beer or a quick bite after work, but that’s basically the extent of his social life.  And he has no desire to change it.

Then, during a blizzard, FBI Special Agent Gwen Mulvey enters the store.  She’s here, she tells Mal, because of a blog post he wrote years earlier called “Eight Perfect Murders”; now it looks as if someone is using that blog as a blueprint to commit murders of his/her own.

The first murders appear to be an adapted version of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders; in the current case, each victim’s name is somehow related to a bird–Robin Callahan, Jay Bradshaw, Ethan Byrd.  A fourth murder involves a man who appears to have been thrown from a commuter train, as was the victim in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity.

According to Agent Mulvey, nothing connects the four victims except for the fact that their deaths mimic those in two of the books on Mal’s list.  But, she continues, she also has a “gut feeling” about the case.  The victims weren’t bad people, but neither were they good.  ‘”I’m not sure any of them were really well liked.”

There’s another suspicious death that Mulvey tells Mal about, that of a woman who apparently died from a heart attack in her Maine home.  When Mal hears the woman’s name, Elaine Johnson, he doesn’t tell the agent that she had been a customer of Old Devils Bookstore and a particularly unpopular one.  He rationalizes this by thinking, “I was sure she was withholding information from me, so I planned on withholding this information from her.”

Their conversation makes Mal think about his blog with the list of books detailing perfect murders, so he goes online to check the site.  The blog originally had two comments, but now there is a third, posted less than twenty-four hours earlier.  The author writes that he/she is halfway through Mal’s list and promises to get in touch when done reading.  The post is signed Doctor Sheppard, the name of the unreliable narrator in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Peter Swanson’s novel is an homage to many of the best writers of crime fiction–Dame Agatha, John D. MacDonald, Patricia Highsmith, A. A. Milne, Anthony Berkeley Cox, Ira Levin, and Donna Tartt–as well as being a thriller you won’t want to put down.  The author of five previous novels, he succeeds once again in coming up with a taut mystery that will have readers stunned at the ending.

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.

THE K TEAM by David Rosenfelt: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about David Rosenfelt at this website.

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

A DEATH IN HARLEM by Karla FC Holloway: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BEFORE FAMILIAR WOODS by Ian Pisarcik: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Ian Pisarcik at this website.

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

 

WITHIN PLAIN SIGHT by Bruce Robert Coffin: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

THE ABSOLUTION by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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