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NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson: Book Review

I don’t know whether it’s the long snowy winters, the soothing hot springs, or something completely unknown, but the mysteries coming out of Iceland recently are uniformly excellent.

Ari Thór Arason is settling into his life in the small village of Siglufjördur in the northern part of the country.  Small as Siglufjördur is, it’s not as remote as it once was due to the recent construction of a tunnel bringing it closer to the capital Reykjavik.  But with that convenience come crimes that never had been part of village life before.

Ari Thór is one of the town’s two-man police force, consisting of a detective (Ari Thór) and a supervising inspector.  The previous inspector moved to Reykjavik and has been replaced by Herjølfur (many people in Iceland don’t have last names), although Ari Thór himself had hoped to be chosen for that job.  So there’s a bit of tension between the two men, although they are trying hard to work things out.

As Nightblind opens, Herjølfur is approaching an old, seemingly vacant house several miles from the center of Siglufjördur.  There’s something about the abandoned home that’s making him very uneasy, and he wonders if it is wise to investigate it by himself.  But he has no choice after receiving a call stating drug deals were going down there, as Ari Thór has been home ill with the flu for several days.

Herjølfur tries to dispel his fear by walking up to the house and shouting that he is from the police.  Even as he does so he’s aware he’s ignoring his feeling of something really wrong, but he continues onward toward the building.  And then there’s a fatal shot.

Meanwhile, Ari Thór is at home, still very much under the weather.  When the phone rings he expects it to be Herjølfur, asking whether he’ll be at work tomorrow.  Instead, it’s the inspector’s wife, telling Ari Thór that she’s been unable to reach her husband on his cell or the station and that he hadn’t slept at home the previous night.  Ari Thór drags himself into town, looking everywhere for his colleague, and when he’s unable to find him he is sure something really bad has happened.  And, of course, he’s right.

Nightblind is the second of five books in the author’s Dark Iceland series, all featuring Ari Thór.  In the prequel to the series, he is a young theology student.  But in the first book of the series, Snowblind, he has given up his studies and moved to Siglufjördur to think things out.  He has also moved away from his girlfriend Kristín and gotten involved with a village woman.  You can read my review of Snowblind here– http://www.marilynsmysteryreads.com/book-author/ragnar-jonasson.  By the time Nightblind opens, five years after the events in Snowblind, he and Kristín have cautiously reconciled and are the parents of a ten-month old son.

Ari Thór wants to continue to live in Siglufjördur and become the police department’s head, but Kristín is having second thoughts about her move there.  She’s a physician at the local hospital, obviously a much smaller facility than the one she was working at in the capital, and she’s finding herself attracted to another doctor.

Ragar Jónasson has written a spellbinding novel, with deep insights into the many conflicted characters in the book.  You can read about him at this website.

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

 

 

THE CHILD by Fiona Barton: Book Review

Who is the mother of the child whose corpse is found years after its burial?  There are four women in The Child, and each one has a story to tell.

The novel begins with Emma, a forty-something woman with a history of mental illness.  Married to a wonderful man and employed as an editor for celebrity memoirs, she constantly relives a past that threatens to overwhelm her.

Kate is a journalist at the Daily Post, a London newspaper, always looking for the next story.  A small piece from a competing paper catches her eye with its headline “Baby’s Body Found.”  She believes she has found the big scoop she is looking for in the piece about a baby’s skeleton unearthed while contractors were demolishing old houses.

Angela is getting ready for March 20th, the anniversary of the day her newborn daughter was taken from her room at the hospital, never to be seen again.  It’s been decades since the abduction, and she’s married with two other children, but of course she’s never forgotten the infant she’d had for less than twenty-four hours.

Jude is Emma’s mother, a single mother with her own emotional problems.  She and her daughter once had a close relationship, but that ended when Jude met Will and determined that he was more important to her than her own daughter.  After years of separation, the mother and daughter have reconciled, but their tenuous, tense relationship always leaves one or both unhappy or angry.

The book follows the paths of these four women over a period of a week.  The story of the Building Site Baby has grabbed Kate, and she gets permission from her reluctant editor to go to the run-down neighborhood where the corpse was found and try to interview any people still living there who had been residents at the time the baby was believed to have been buried.

The Child is Fiona Barton’s second mystery, and two of the characters appeared in The Widow as well, both in the same jobs they held in the earlier novel.  At a farewell function for a fellow journalist, Kate sees Bob Sparkes, a police detective she met while covering another story.  She tells him about her interest in the baby, and Bob is quickly drawn into the story because of his own interest in missing children.  Now, hoping for some assistance from the police, Kate is even more eager to find out the truth about the infant who has been buried for years.

Fiona Barton was a journalist in London for many years, and on her website she says that the ideas for both The Widow and The Child came from news stories she’d read.  In both novels she has taken the painful subjects of domestic abuse and child kidnapping and turned them into beautifully written, suspenseful thrillers with believable characters whose painful secrets and emotional problems will grip the reader from the first page.

You can read more about Fiona Barton at her 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.

 

PULSE by Felix Francis: Book Review

In May I wrote an About Marilyn column regarding families with more than one mystery author.  Naturally I included the late Dick Francis and his son Felix.  Dick Francis wrote more than thirty mysteries, he and Felix collaborated on four, and after his father’s death Felix has written seven more, including the latest, Pulse.

Felix Francis’ main character, Chris Rankin, is an emergency room physician suffering from, and denying, her own medical and emotional issues.  Married with a loving husband, twin teenage sons, and a challenging but rewarding professional life, she nevertheless is dealing with depression and anorexia.

A man is wheeled into the emergency room, unconscious and with a weak but rapid heartbeat, where she is on duty.  He was found in a stall in the men’s room of the nearby Cheltenham Racecourse, hours after the last race.  After running various tests that prove inconclusive, Chris orders an injection of adenosine, hoping to restart the man’s heart back into a normal rate; while she is called away to another emergency, the man dies, and an autopsy shows he had ingested a huge amount of cocaine immediately before his death.

His death feeds into all of Chris’ vulnerabilities and causes another of her all-too-frequent panic attacks.  She’s been seeing a psychiatrist, but so far nothing has been able to relieve her feeling of professional inadequacy that has led, in turn, to feelings of personal worthlessness and body dysmorphic disorder.  She knows she should eat, but her mind is telling her that bad things–her husband leaving her, their sons having an accident, their house burning down–will happen if she eats even a bite, so she doesn’t.

In the midst of these overpowering emotional problems, Chris becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the man who died under her care.  She talks to the local police, who believe that “death by misadventure” is the right call; their consensus is that he either committed suicide or else accidentally overdosed.  Chris believes neither answer is right, but her stubborn insistence on looking into the case overwhelms her already shaky mental state, and she is sent to a mental hospital to recover, with the possibility of losing her medical license after her release.

In addition to being a first-rate mystery, Pulse is a close look into Chris’ denial of her deteriorating physical and mental condition.  Her desire to get better and return to her life in the emergency room and to normal family life is overwhelmed by the voice in her head demanding that she not eat.  It’s a terrifying portrait of how the forces of mental illness can destroy a person from within.

Felix Francis continues his string of outstanding novels with Pulse The plot is first-rate, and all the characters, including Chris, her husband, their sons, and the various men who run or race at Cheltenham will keep you engrossed until the last page.

You can read more about Felix Francis 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.

 

 

SULFUR SPRINGS by William Kent Krueger: Book Review

A stranger in a strange land is how Cork O’Connor feels when he finds himself far from his beloved Minnesota woods, thrust into the desert of southern Arizona.

Cork and his bride, Rainy, have known each other for several years but married only a few months ago.  The first time Cork met his wife’s son and daughter was at their wedding, and Cork admits to himself that he doesn’t have strong feelings toward them.

But when Rainy gets a garbled message left on her cell phone from her son, saying that he’s killed a man, Cork and Rainy are thrust into a search for Peter that leads them into a deadly web of international crime.

The couple leave for Arizona the following morning, and on the trip Rainy tells Cork that there are many important things he doesn’t know about her, one being that if her son did kill someone in Arizona, he’s not the only one in his family who has done that.  Obviously that’s a major secret, and it turns out to be not the only one that she has kept from Cork.

Peter had gone to Arizona to recover from an addiction to pain medication, the result of a sports injury.  After he was clean, the Goodman Center, an alcohol and drug treatment facility, hired him, and as far as his mother and stepfather knew, he was still on their staff.  But after they arrive in Tucson and drive to the Center, they discover that Peter hasn’t worked there in over a year.

The Center’s director tells them that she believes he has been working at a vineyard owned by Jayne and Frank Harris, so Cork and Rainy head to the vineyard’s location in Sulfur Springs.  The Harrises acknowledge that Peter is employed there but tell Cork and Rainy that although he’s been an extremely reliable worker, he hasn’t been at work that day.  And visits to the Sulfur Springs post office and police station turn up no further information on the missing man.

The issue of immigrants trying to enter the United States from Mexico ties into the racism faced by Rainy, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, when a sheriff stops Rainy and Cork while they’re driving and examines her closely to make certain she actually is the Native American she says she is and not someone trying to get into the country from Mexico.  As Rainy says to her husband after they continue on their way, “If I was white, he wouldn’t have taken a second look at me.”

Cork is a former sheriff and a quarter Native American, and he brings to the search for his stepson his law background, his feelings about racism, and his love for his new wife.   This is a masterful novel, with issues that resonate all-too-clearly in today’s world.  There’s a lot going on–drug addiction, illegal aliens, Mexican drug cartels, blended families, and racism–with each part adding to the whole.

I’ve reviewed two of William Kent Kruger’s earlier books, Trickster’s Point and Ordinary Grace, the latter the winner of the 2014 Edgar for Best Novel.  You can read more about the author 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 SHADOW DISTRICT by Arnaldur Indridason: Book Review

Iceland during World War II was changing, and the changes weren’t to everyone’s liking.  Before the war the country was a small farming community, remote from the rest of the world, ruled by Denmark.  But in 1944 Iceland became an independent republic while at the same time undergoing major social changes due to the influx of American and British troops who were stationed there before being sent to fight in Europe.

As in other countries where foreign armies were present, this created problems; in Iceland that became known as the Situation.  British and American soldiers were dating Icelandic women who were impressed by the foreigners’ sophistication, politeness, and wealth, a welcome change from the rural and unworldly Icelandic men, at least as they were perceived by the young women.

In wartime Reykjavik, Ingiborg is facing this problem.  Deciding to disregard her father’s stern prohibition about dating an American, she and her lover Frank have sneaked off to the abandoned National Theater, a favorite place for illicit romance.  Scarcely have they arrived when Ingiborg trips over some cardboard, and when she and Frank look down they see the body of a young woman.  Ingiborg wants to call the police, but Frank prevails and they flee the scene.

Fast forward to present day Reykjavik, where the body of an elderly man is found in his apartment after his neighbor calls police to say she hasn’t seen him in several days.  He’s lying peacefully on his bed, fully clothed, but obviously quite dead.  At first, given his advanced age, the police conclude that he died in his sleep, but the autopsy required by law shows that Stéfan Thórdarson was suffocated.

Konrád, a retired Reykjavik detective, has an interest in the case.  He has vague childhood memories about the murder in the Theater; it happened in his neighborhood, the Shadow District.  He seems to recall that his father had some connection to it, but he can’t remember exactly what it was.  He gets permission to search the apartment of the dead man, which is almost completely free of any personal items except for a photo of a handsome young man and three newspaper clippings about the death at the Theater.

The Shadow District goes back and forth in time between 1944 and now.  No one has ever been arrested in the young woman’s murder, even though it bore a resemblance to the disappearance and presumed death of another woman in northern Iceland a few years earlier.  The only seeming connection between the two deaths was the mention of Huldufólk in both cases. 

Huldufólk are elves or hidden people in Icelandic folklore, sometimes amusing and sometimes evil.  Shortly before the disappearance of the northern woman and the death of the woman in Reykjavik, each had spoken about being attacked by these elves.  The belief in these mythic beings runs deep in the country, even today.  And although many people say they don’t really believe in the hidden people, no one wants to totally dismiss them.

Arnaldur Indridason is one of Scandinavia’s most popular writers, winner of the Glass Key, the award for the best Nordic mystery novel, in 2002 and 2003.  The Shadow District is his first in a new series, and it’s a terrific beginning.  As always the author’s characters and plot are believable and engrossing, and the glimpses into Icelandic history are an added plus.

You can read more about Arnaldur Indridason on many websites.

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.

 

 

UNHOLY CITY by Carrie Smith: Book Review

After a year-long battle with cancer, New York City police detective Claire Codella is anxious to return to her job.  She’s feeling completely recovered and eager to put her skills to use.

But although her fight with lymphoma has been won, her fight with her boss, Lieutenant Dennis McGowan, continues.  He’s made no secret of the fact that he hadn’t wanted her as a member of “his” Manhattan North force, and he’s made her return to duty as unpleasant as he could, giving her cold cases and trivial ones, disregarding the fact that she has the highest case clearance rate in the precinct.

So when the phone rings in the middle of the night in the apartment she shares with her lover and colleague, Brian Haggerty, it’s his cell phone’s ringtone, not hers.  Brian has been called out to investigate a murder at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  Claire is disappointed, but there’s nothing she can do about it.  Then, a short while later it’s her phone that rings–Brian has called for backup, knowing that Claire is on duty and that she will be called in to assist him on the case.  She’s out the door in under ten minutes.

St. Paul’s Church is a small oasis in the concrete city.  It has a two-hundred-year-old history, with a surprisingly diverse group of parishioners:  Caucasian, African-American, wealthy, and lower-middle-class, and it’s proud of that.  But behind the scenes, members of the Vestry (a committee dealing with issues regarding the church’s members) are locked in a battle that has been going on for months.  The church’s finances are in poor shape, and there’s no agreement on how to raise the necessary funds.  One vestry member, Philip Graves, wants to sell the air rights above the church to a corporation to build a luxury high-rise; another wants to improve the church’s cemetery and update its crematorium so funeral homes and other churches will pay to use it.

Feelings in the committee are running very high when the meeting ends.  Rose, one its newest members, is pleased that she finally can go home and relieve her daughter’s babysitter, but she decides to make a brief stop in the garden to see how the plants she’s nurtured are going.  But in the darkness she trips, and as she tries to right herself she realizes that what is on the path in front of her is the body of Philip Graves.

Within the small group of staff and congregants who are in the church that night, there are a lot of reasons to want Philip dead.  One person is hiding an unrequited crush on him, two others have secret lives that he has discovered, and another is having an illicit affair.  Each person is determined to keep her/his secret, but Claire Cordella is equally determined to unravel the case.

Carrie Smith has written an exciting, fast-paced mystery with realistic characters and great dialog.  Claire is a dynamic protagonist, driven by her need to excel at work and bury the demons from her past.  But that’s not so easy.

You can read more about Carrie Smith 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.

DON’T LET GO by Harlan Coben: Book Review

Napoleon Dumas has been haunted by two things for over fifteen years.  First are the deaths of his twin brother Leo and Leo’s girlfriend Diana, second is the disappearance of Nap’s girlfriend Maura.  To some of his friends, Nap seems to have been frozen by these two terrible events; he abandoned his college plans, which included a possible hockey scholarship, lives alone in the house in which he grew up, and never has had another important romantic relationship since the traumatic events at the end of his high school senior year.

Don’t Let Go opens in a Pennsylvania bar.  Daisy, a strikingly attractive woman, comes into the bar alone and seats herself next to a man, asking if he minds if she sits there because someone is bothering her.  The man, whose name and backstory she already knows, seemingly doesn’t care one way or another, but Daisy pushes and keeps the conversation going through the several drinks that the man consumes.  After the fourth drink, Daisy’s plan is set.

She asks the man if he can drive her home, and he agrees.  It’s all part of an intricate scam designed by a divorce attorney and carried out by Daisy’s friend, Rex Canton, a policeman in the town.  Daisy and the “mark” will get into his car, drive a couple of blocks, and Rex will pull them over and do a sobriety test.  It’s a setup so that the man gets a DUI conviction on his record, which will work against him in the divorce case that his wife has initiated.  But this time, when Rex stops the car, the driver pulls a gun, kills the cop, and drives off with Daisy.

That’s the prologue to Don’t Let Go, and I defy anyone who reads it to put down the book at this point.

Nap is a detective on a suburban police force in New Jersey.  He’s good, very good, at his job, but he’s consumed by the death of his twin.  Everything he does, every action he takes, he “tells” Leo about it, as if looking for approval.  And when two police officers from Pennsylvania ring Nap’s doorbell to tell him about Rex’s murder and the fingerprints found on the scene, Nap knows that this is what he’s been waiting for.  The fingerprints belong to Maura, missing for eighteen years but now coming back into Nap’s life.  Several years earlier Nap put Maura’s prints into a national registry, asking to be notified if newer prints were found; now it’s proof that Maura is alive and not far away.

Nap and Leo were incredibly close in high school, and Nap would have said he knew everything there was to know about his twin.  But, as he gets drawn more deeply into Rex’s murder and the appearance/non-appearance of Maura, Nap is finding out there was much more in Leo’s life, and in Maura’s as well, of which he was totally unaware.  And it appears that every event–the double deaths, Rex’s murder, Maura’s return, and a secret high school club that Nap never knew about–are all connected.

Harlan Coben has written another taut, suspenseful thriller.  Don’t Let Go is a completely satisfying novel that will keep you guessing until the very end.

You can read more about Harlan Coben 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.

 

TRACE by Archer Mayor: Book Review

Vermont isn’t a state with a high murder rate, but things are definitely heating up now for Joe Gunther and his detectives at the Vermont Bureau of Investigation.  Three different cases–one the murder of a young New York woman, one a cold case involving the deaths of a policeman and the man he stopped for a traffic violation, the third a mysterious finding at a railroad track–all converge simultaneously for the VBI.

Jayla Robinson has just arrived at the Brattleboro bus station, escaping an abusive relationship in New York.  A few minutes after getting off the bus, she’s absent-mindedly crossing an intersection when she’s grazed by an oncoming car.  Jayla says she’s fine, not hurt at all, but Rachel, the young woman driving, insists on taking her to her apartment for a cup of tea and to make certain she’s really okay.  The two hit it off almost immediately, and Rachel invites Jayla to stay with her until she finds a job and an apartment.  But when Jayla’s boyfriend/abuser locates her, he sends an enforcer either to retrieve an item that she took when she fled his home or to “dispose” of her, whichever is easier.  Unfortunately for Jayla, he chooses the latter.

The cold case was called into the VBI by a member of the state’s forensic team.  Tina Sackman was doing some research into fingerprints and thinks she has found something strange in the case involving state trooper Ryan Paine and the man he pulled over for a routine traffic stop, Kyle Kennedy.  Shots were exchanged and both men were killed.  Now, in going over what had seemed an open-and-shut case, Tina discovers something disquieting about the trooper’s fingerprints on the gun he supposedly used to shoot the driver–they appear to have been placed on his gun by artificial means.

The third case begins when a child discovers, and then brings to the local police station, three bloody, broken teeth that she found by the railroad tracks.

All this is happening while Joe Gunther, head of the Bureau, is handling a family emergency.  His younger brother Leo calls with the news that their elderly mother is in a “bad way.”  After finally having gotten their reluctant mother to visit her doctor, Leo tells Joe that the physician’s diagnosis is Lyme encephalitis, a tick-borne disease that affects the nervous system, bringing with it mood swings, cognitive problems, and personality change.  The doctor at the Darmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center tells Joe and Leo that the best place for Mrs. Gunther to receive rehabilitative care is in St. Louis, and Joe immediately decides that he will take her there and stay with her while she’s undergoing treatment and rehab.  So, while the three cases are being investigated, the head of the Bureau is out of state.

Trace is the twenth-eighth (!) book in the Joe Gunther series.  Not surprisingly, given the background of the author, the series presents a totally realistic picture of law enforcement in both a mid-size city department and a state investigatory agency.  Archer Mayor is currently a death investigator for the Vermont Office of the Chief Medical Examiner as well as a detective for the Windham County Sheriff’s Office.  Readers who have been following Joe and his squad–Lester Spinney, Willy Kunkle, and Samantha Martens–will be delighted to see them again in this novel that will hold their interest until the end.

You can read more about Archer Mayor 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 SCARRED WOMAN by Jussi Adler-Olsen: Book Review

It’s not coincidental that Copenhagen’s Department Q is located in the basement of the police department’s headquarters.  Q is in charge of clearing “cold cases,” crimes that have not been solved and are not at the top of the police agenda.  Although the Department’s record in solving such cases is extremely high, manipulated data are showing otherwise, and Q’s already slim budget may be further reduced.  This, of course, is anathema to its head, Detective Carl Mørck, and he’s fighting back with everything at his disposal to show the importance of his group.

The Scarred Woman could actually refer to several of the women in this novel.  One is the social worker Anneli.  When she receives a diagnosis of breast cancer, her world is turned upside down, and her anger builds as she thinks of the healthy young women who frequent her office determined to get benefits to which they are not entitled.

There’s Michelle, living with her boyfriend, illegally getting financial assistance while refusing to get a job; Denise, originally named Dorrit, currently working as a prostitute; and Jazmine, receiving maternity benefits because she deliberately becomes pregnant and upon the birth of each child gives it up for adoption.  So Anneli comes up with a plan to eliminate those three and possibly more.

This cast of characters is, of course, unknown thus far to Carl Mørck and his staff, but that will not last for long.  Since they don’t deal with current cases, they haven’t had anything to do with Cophenhagen’s latest murder, that of Rigmor Zimmermann in King’s Garden.  However, that killing has brought memories back to Marcus Jacobsen, a former police detective; it reminds him of an unsolved case that he investigated more than ten years earlier.  The current police powers-that-be don’t see any connection, but Marcus isn’t about to let that detail stop him from trying to fit together the pieces of the puzzle.

A fourth “scarred woman” is Rose, who is one quarter of the members of Department Q.  She’s had a difficult life, and recent events have nearly pushed her over the edge.  She’s disoriented, her coordination is off, and she’s having what would be “senior moments” if she weren’t much too young for them.  Usually so meticulous at work, she’s left dozens of reports unfinished, and a recently closed case has reopened her memories of her traumatic childhood.

Carl has a three-person staff working with him.  Rose is the only woman, and she has been with Q the longest.  Second in terms of longevity is Assad, a Middle-Eastern immigrant with a mysterious, slightly sinister, background.  The newest and youngest member is Gordon, still on the learning curve to becoming a detective and dealing with his not-quite-hidden feelings for Rose.

The Scarred Woman is the seventh novel in the Department Q series.  Jussi Adler-Olsen is Denmark’s best-selling crime writer and the recipient of the 2010 Glass Key Award, the honor given to the author of the best Nordic crime novel of the year.

You can read more about Jussi Adler-Olsen 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.

October 6, 2017

Back in February I wrote that I was invited to teach a course on mysteries at BOLLI, the Brandeis (University) Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  I agreed, partly flattered and partly nervous about what I had gotten myself into.

Well, here’s the update.  The ten-week course began on September 25th, and we’ve just had our second class.  The first week was devoted to a general overview of mysteries:  Do we read mainly for the plot, the characters, or the setting?  Do we prefer hard-boiled mysteries or cozies?   What makes an author stop writing a particular series or stop writing completely?  Why do characters age in some series while those in other series remain the same age as when the first book was written?

Given that there are so many choices for topics in this genre (e.g., novels that feature private eyes, police detectives, and clergy involved in mysteries, to name just three) and I had to choose just one, I decided to focus on mysteries that take place in New England.  The eight books I picked for the course feature a variety of investigators–a licensed private eye, a police detective, an amateur detective, and a member of the FBI, among others)–with two from Massachusetts, two from Vermont, and one each from Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine.

We’re reading a novel a week, with a wrap-up in the last class.  There are 21 students in the class, and there’s been a lot of excellent discussion in the first two weeks.  Before the first session, I had assumed that everyone who signed up for the course had read a lot of mysteries, but that proved not to be the case.  In fact, several of the members said they had read very few mysteries but were eager to find out more about the genre and share thoughts about the books I’d chosen for the course, which actually has made our discussions very stimulating.

For those who are interested, here is the list of the books we’ll be reading:  God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker, Find Her by Lisa Gardner, A Scourge of Vipers by Bruce DeSilva, Fruits of the Poisonous Tree by Archer Mayor, Small Crimes by Dave Zeltserman, Primary Storm by Brendan DuBois, Trespasser by Paul Doiron, and Hearts of Sand by Jane Haddam.

The second class, in which we discussed God Save the Child, was terrific, with comments that made me examine the Spenser series in a new light.  That’s the great part about any learning experience but particularly at BOLLI, where people are invited to share their opinions and give and get feedback.

Our next book, Find Her, is a dark novel told in two voices, that of a female police detective in Boston and that of a young woman abducted and held prisoner for a horrendous 472 days.  If you like, read the novels I’ve chosen, as BOLLI members explore what the mystery genre has to offer.

Marilyn

DARK SATURDAY by Nicci French: Book Review

Back in 2012 I reviewed Nicci French’s first thriller, Blue Monday, featuring Frieda Klein and raved about it.  Since then I’ve read all those that followed, except for one (can’t imagine how I missed it).  Now comes Dark Saturday, definitely among the top five mysteries I’ve read this year.

Frieda is a psychotherapist, which in England is apparently the term for what Americans call a psychiatrist, with more than her own share of demons.  In addition to a private practice, she has also consulted with the London police, although at the opening of this novel they have parted ways due to grave trust issues on both sides.  But now she’s approached by Walter Levin, a mysterious figure who is either a government official or not; in any event, he helped Frieda in the novel immediately preceding this one, and now he’s called on her to repay the favor.

Hannah Docherty was eighteen years old when she was convicted of murdering her mother, stepfather, and younger brother and sent to Chelsworth Hospital, a place for the criminally insane.  During the thirteen years since, she has remained virtually silent, not speaking to any of the staff, the other patients, or the therapists trying to help her.  The Docherty case was investigated by police detective Ben Sedge; after a brief investigation he arrested Hannah, who was duly convicted and sentenced to life at Chelsworth.

For nearly all of those years Hannah has been in solitary confinement, yet somehow, when Frieda visits her, she is a mass of bruises and scars and she appears to have been drugged.  The hospital staff doesn’t seem to care.  As far as Frieda can ascertain, no one has visited Hannah since her conviction.  As one of the nurses says, “Why would any relative want to see her?”

Something about Hannah resonates with Frieda, and almost against her will she agrees to look over the woman’s file and find out more about the case.  The issue has come up, the therapist is told, not because there’s any doubt about Hannah’s guilt–“it’s the most open-and-shut case I’ve ever seen” according to a police official–but because there’s a question of how the case was handled.  If there’s no issue concerning the perpetrator of the crimes, Frieda tells Levin, “then there’s no harm in me looking at the files.”  But, of course, when you open a box, you can never be sure what’s going to fly out.

The Frieda Klein series is outstanding.  The writing is sharp, the plots convincing, and the protagonist is full of strengths and weaknesses that will keep you reading one book after another.  For best results, as they say in commercials, start with Blue Monday and read the remaining novels in order.  Each book can be read on its own, of course, but the power of the series is in following the development of the various characters–Frieda, her somewhat wayward niece Chloe, her former therapist Reuben, the police detective Kerrigan, and several others whose voices are complements to Frieda’s.

Nicci French is the pen name of the wife-and-husband writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.  Information about them is available at various websites.

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.

Y IS FOR YESTERDAY by Sue Grafton: Book Review

Along with all the other readers of the Kinsey Millhone series, I approached Sue Grafton’s latest novel with both anticipation and despair.  The anticipation is obvious–I’ve been reading Ms. Grafton’s mysteries since A is for Alibi was published in 1982 and have enjoyed every one.  At that time it seemed inconceivable that the end of the alphabet would ever be reached; delusional thinking, I know.

Now comes the despair–Y is for Yesterday is, I imagine, the next-to-last book in the series.  I’m trying to think how Ms. Grafton can work around her self-imposed finale.  Could she start all over with A+ is for Adventure/Adultery/Absence?  It works for me; anything to read more about Kinsey Millhone.

When the book opens in 1989 (that’s present time in the series), Kinsey is approached by Lauren McCabe, whose son Fritz has just been released from prison.  Ten years earlier Fritz killed a teenage friend, Sloan Stevens.  The two were part of a group of high school students led by Austin Brown, who was both admired and feared by his classmates.  Austin had been the instigator of a “shunning” of Sloan for reasons that secretly benefited him.  Allegedly trying to patch things up, he invited her to a party at his family’s cabin.

She reluctantly agreed to go, although once she got there words were exchanged between the two of them.  Angry and upset, she started to walk away, but she was overtaken by Austin and three of his friends, driven to a remote area in the woods, and killed.  Although Austin’s gun was the murder weapon, it was Fritz who fired the shot.  Of the four boys implicated, one gave state’s evidence and avoided jail time, one was convicted of lesser charges and spent time in prison, Fritz spent ten years in jail and was automatically freed under California law at age twenty-five, and Austin Brown disappeared.

When Kinsey and Lauren meet, Lauren tells the detective about a package she received after Fritz’s return home.  It contained a tape of sexual acts committed by four boys, including Fritz, against Iris Lehmann, another member of the student group, who was obviously drunk and/or stoned at the time of the attack.  The tape was accompanied by a demand for $25,000 from the McCabes with the warning that unless it was paid, another copy would be sent to the police.  Even though Fritz had served time for Sloan’s murder, he still could be prosecuted for rape and sexual assault.

As always, Sue Grafton’s characters are wonderfully portrayed.  We meet Fritz, who was desperate to be a friend of Austin’s when they were in school together; Iris Lehmann, who now wants revenge on the boys who violated her and taped the assault for their own amusement; Troy, who spent years in prison for his involvement in Sloan’s death and since his release has been trying to atone for his part in the attack on Iris; and Lauren and Hollis McCabe, fearful that their son is headed down the wrong road again but with conflicting opinions on how to deal with it.

Y is for Yesterday shows the reader a more vulnerable, more cautious, Kinsey but still a woman determined to do her job.  Ms. Grafton’s other returning characters–Kinsey’s elderly landlord Henry; Rosie, the owner of the Hungarian restaurant down the block from Kinsey’s apartment; and Jonah Robb, a former lover of Kinsey’s who is still in an off-again-on-again marriage with a very jealous wife–are all present in Y is for Yesterday and the novel is richer for them.

Wait–here’s another thought.  The author could switch to another alphabet, since many other languages have more than 26 letters.  Tamil, for example has 247; if that seems too daunting, she could choose Hindi or Hungarian, each with 44!  If you know Ms. Grafton, please feel free to pass this post along to her.

You can read more about Sue Grafton at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.

FAST FALLS THE NIGHT by Julia Keller: Book Review

West Virginia prosecutor Bell Elkins is back, and I am delighted.  I am totally devoted to Julia Keller’s series, and this is her most ambitious novel yet.

The novel begins with a painfully personal acknowledgement.  During the author’s recent visit to her hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, there was an epidemic of heroin overdoses, twenty-eight in a twenty-four period, with two fatalities.  The national scourge of drugs has severely impacted West Virginia; the state currently has the highest rate of overdoses in the country.

Ms. Keller has put her feelings into Fast Falls the Night, moving the drug crisis to Bell’s hometown.  Acker’s Gap is being particularly hard hit by heroin overdoses and deaths in the single day in which the novel takes place.  The first overdose takes place in The Marathon, a gas station/convenience store that’s manned during the evening hours by Danny Lukens.  He has given the key to the bathroom to a woman who, he’s sure, is going to use it to get high on heroin.  Not his business, he thinks to himself; he doesn’t want any trouble.  But after waiting for more than twenty minutes for the woman to come out, he goes to the restroom and calls through the closed door several times to see if she’s okay.

When there’s no answer, he calls the sheriff’s office and Deputy Jake Oakes arrives.  Having no better luck at getting the woman inside to respond or to open the bathroom door, Jake gets the key from Danny–the woman is lying in the middle of the dirty floor, her face blue, and a used syringe beside her.  That’s the first overdose and the first death.

Even worse than the simple fact of heroin is that carfentanil has been added to the drug that the town’s addicts are using.   It’s an ingredient a hundred times more potent than fentanyl and ten thousand times stronger than morphine and is used to stretch out heroin so that the original drug can be sold more profitably.

Given the incredible number of cases that are springing up all over town, and the underfunded police and district attorney’s offices, Bell is feeling overwhelmed.  There’s simply not enough money or personnel to deal with this problem, but what are the alternatives?  Just wait it out, Bell wonders, and allow the addicts to tempt death every time they inject themselves?  After all, if they don’t care about themselves, why should the police and the courts be concerned?  But, of course, Bell does care, and she’s trying to come up with a plan to get the contaminated drug off the streets.

The official reactions to this crisis are not the only moral points in Fast Falls the Night.  Deputy Jake Oakes is attracted to Molly Drucker, a local EMT, but either she’s not interested in him or something is stopping her from showing her interest.  Bell’s sister Shirley has two devastating pieces of news to give to Bell, her cancer diagnosis being the easier one to talk about.

And what can be done about Raylene Hughes, the negligent mother of an adorable daughter?  Is the child better off with her con-artist mother or with her father, a man whose war experiences and brain injury has made him unreliable and possibly violent?

Julia Keller’s latest mystery ends with as many questions as it answers, as is true of real life.  The characters in the novel, and the plot itself, are mesmerizing, and you will keep reading without letup until the last page.  And even then, you’ll be left wondering.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.

 

 

 

ORDEAL by Jorn Lier Horst: Book Review

Chief Inspector William Wisting of Stavern, Norway has his hands full.  He receives new information about a high-profile crime, his former lover asks for his help in dealing with a problem at her restaurant, and his pregnant daughter extracts a promise from him to be at the hospital with her when she delivers her first baby.

Jens Hummel was a taxi driver who disappeared in Stavern six months earlier, along with his cab.  Neither man nor vehicle has been seen since.  Norway’s media has been having a field day with this, stating that the police had not done all they could to break open the case, insinuating that poor work and a lack of interest in the fate of Jens were to blame.  Now a call from Suzanne, William’s former girlfriend, gives the inspector some news.

She tells him that a man has been to her restaurant for the past several evenings, and on one of those nights he was reading an article about Jens’ disappearance.  When Suzanne noticed, she made an innocuous comment to him, and his response was, “It’s sitting in the barn.”  Then he picked up the paper, left, and hasn’t returned.

Suzanne also has a problem of her own.  She suspects one of her waitresses is stealing from the till, but she doesn’t want to fire her without knowing for certain that she’s guilty.  So she asks William if he would do surveillance for a day or two, trying to see whether the young woman Suzanne suspects is actually pocketing the restaurant’s money.  William thinks of his overload of police work and his pregnant daughter, but he can’t say no, and thus he agrees to visit the restaurant the following evening.

William’s daughter Line has just moved back to Stavern from Oslo, awaiting the birth of her daughter.  On a shopping expedition to furnish her new home she bumps into an old school friend, Sofie Lund, and Sofie’s year-old daughter.  The two women, both single, renew their friendship over the coincidence of motherhood, being first-time homeowners, and returning to their home town.  But Sofie’s home has a strange story behind it that involves her late, unlamented grandfather, a murderous gangster known as the Smuggler King.

Ordeal is the tenth novel in this series, the fifth published in English.  There’s a fascinating introduction to the book that explains that the author was himself a Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department, just like the protagonist he created.  There is an amazing sense of realism in the book, a deep knowledge of how things work in small-town police departments; the real Stavern, Norway has a population of 3,000.  But, of course, there can be plenty of crime and violence in a small town, certainly enough to keep William Wisting busy.

Jorn Lier Horst is the winner of both the Glass Key and Martin Beck awards for his earlier novel The Hunting Dogs You can read more about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.

 

 

 

 

 

THE WALLS by Hollie Overton: Book Review

Kristy Tucker doesn’t have an easy life.  She’s a single mother with a teenage son, the caretaker for her ailing father, and works for a boss she doesn’t respect.  But still, she thinks to herself, I’m managing all this and someday things will hopefully be different.  As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Kristy’s son Ryan, a bit of an outcast at school, has been secretly taking martial arts lessons.  When Kristy finds out she’s upset, both because he kept it from her and because she’s not a fan of physical force to solve problems.  She makes her feelings known at a meeting with the trainer, Lance Dobson, and thinks she has put an end to Ryan’s lessons.  But the next day Lance shows up at the house, apologizing and asking for another chance to keep giving Ryan lessons, stressing the benefits of the lessons to a boy who feels out of the mainstream in his town.  Swayed by Lance’s apparent sincerity, not to mention his good looks, and by her son’s fervent desire, Kristy agrees he can continue.

Lance works his charm on everyone, even Kristy’s dad, a former prison guard.  Not until after Kristy and Lance are married does the real Lance shows himself as a physical and emotional bully and abuser, a control freak who needs to dominate every aspect of Kristy’s life.   And when she tries to rebel, Lance has no compunction in threatening her father and her son.

Kristy is the public information officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a job requiring communication skills among inmates, the media, and the prison system.  She works in the Polunsky Unit of the prison system, where 279 men are on death row.   Kristy has always been able to keep her emotions in check while dealing with the men, but now one of them, soon to be executed, has touched her.

Clifton Harris was convicted of setting his house on fire, killing his two young children who were inside.  Like all the other prisoners awaiting execution in what has been called “the hardest place to do time in Texas,” Clifton is on lockdown twenty-two hours a day in a small solitary cell, with no access to phones or television or contact with any other prisoners.  But Kristy is moved by his declarations of innocence; she’s not certain she believes him, but she’s equally not certain he’s guilty.  And the date of his execution grows closer and closer.

Hollie Overton has written a taut, terrifying thriller.  I must confess that I started the book, read about one third, and had to put it away for several days because it was so scary!  But when I picked it up again and read to the end, I felt it was well worth it.  The characters and the plot are top-notch, and the abusive, frightening situation that Kristy finds herself in is unfortunately too familiar to anyone who reads the newspapers or watches television.

You can read more about Hollie Overton at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.