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A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE by Mariah Fredericks: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Mariah Fredericks at this website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marilyn

SUNRISE HIGHWAY by Peter Blauner: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN ACT OF VILLAINY by Ashley Weaver: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Ashley Weaver at this website.

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

 

 

 

 

THE TEMPTATION OF FORGIVENESS by Donna Leon: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Donna Leon at this website.

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

 

CITY OF INK by Elsa Hart: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author’s third mystery featuring Li Du is a brilliant follow-up to the two previous ones.  You can read more about Elsa Hart at this website. http://www.elsahart.com/

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

 

RIVER OF SECRETS by Roger Johns: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Roger Johns at this website.

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

 

BONE ON BONE by Julia Keller: Book Review

My friends and family know that I’m a fast reader and can read a book of 300 pages in a day if I’m not interrupted by unimportant things like cooking and cleaning.  But reading Bone on Bone so quickly is nearly a crime in itself, so beautifully written and poignant is the story.

Bone on Bone reads as a sequel to Ms. Keller’s previous mystery, Fast Falls the Night, in which she wrote about the opioid crisis that is creating devastation across the country.  Particularly hard-hit is West Virginia, the state where the novel takes place; it had the highest number of opioid deaths in the nation in 2016.

Acker’s Gap is certainly not immune to this epidemic.  Still reeling from the loss of mining jobs and the 2008 recession, the community’s young people have decided that their only escape from the despair of their town is via drugs.  Drugs and their devastating effects have reached into many families, including the well-to-do Toppings.

Tyler Topping, the couple’s teenage son, has been in and out of rehab almost more times than his parents can count.  As the story opens he’s again living at home per his counselor’s advice; however, he is back on heroin or whatever drugs he can get if “smack” is not available.  Of course, he has to sell drugs to feed his own habit, and if he can’t make enough by selling he steals from his parents, taking virtually everything in their home that isn’t nailed down.

At her wits’ end after trying to help her son and distraught at seeing her beloved husband frantic at being unable to keep their son away from drugs, Ellie Topping has decided she has no choice but to do the unthinkable–kill her son to prevent him from killing them through his actions.

As all this unfolds, Bell Elkins, the protagonist of Julia Keller’s series, has returned to Acker’s Gap after a three-year prison sentence.  In the preceding book, Bell’s sister Shirley, her only relative, made a startling confession.  Shirley had spent years in prison following her conviction for killing their physically and emotionally abusive father, but now that she is dying she tells Bell the truth.  It was the ten-year-old Bell who was the murderer; Shirley confessed to the crime rather than have her young sister jailed or sent to a detention center.

Although she could have avoided incarceration due to her age at the time of the murder and the confession of her sister, Bell insists on taking her punishment now.  Because she admitted committing a felony, in addition to her prison sentence she loses her position as county attorney and is disbarred.  Despite questions and pleas from her ex-husband, daughter, and former colleagues, she refuses to discuss the reasons she made Shirley’s dying confession public and insisted on going to jail.

Bone on Bone resonates as a cry from the heart by the author.  Every day in our country communities and families are going through unimaginable sadness due to the scourge of drugs.  She recognizes that there’s no easy solution but many share the blame–physicians who don’t monitor their patients’ drug use; drug companies that push drugs for every imaginable symptom; patients popping pills instead of doing the hard work of physical therapy and/or exercise to relieve their problems; teenagers looking for a thrill; parents denying their children’s addiction.

This is a moving novel and an outstanding mystery.  It is a worthy addition to the Bell Elkins novels; I’ve reviewed several of the previous books elsewhere on this blog.

You can read more about Julia Keller 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 EXES’ REVENGE by Jo Jakeman: Book Review

Which would you prefer if you had a choice?  Justice?  Understanding?  Revenge?  Each of the three women in Phillip Rochester’s life has a point of view on how to deal with the man who impacted their lives in unimaginable ways.

The Exes’ Revenge opens with Phillip’s funeral.  His widow is Imogen; she is the book’s narrator and the mother of their only child, Alistair.

Also at the funeral are the two other women Phillip controlled–his first wife, Ruby, and his fianceé, Naomi.  Yes, although he was still technically married to Imogen, Phillip was living with the very young Naomi at the time of his death.

Phillip was a policeman with all the power of his force behind him.  Although Imogen had reported domestic abuse a few times early in their marriage, no notice was taken by the investigating officers.  After all, Phillip was one of them.

But now that Imogen has finally decided on a divorce, her almost-ex has upped the ante.  Instead of Imogen divorcing him, he’s decided to divorce her.  She tells him that’s not a problem, she’ll be happy to let him say she’s at fault, but them he delivers the coup de grâce.

If Imogen and Alistair aren’t out of the house by the end of the month, he won’t divorce her; even more frightening, he will ask for sole custody of their son, citing Imogen’s depression as the reason she is not competent to mother the child.  And when she asks where on earth they would go, he informs her it’s not his problem.

As Imogen says at the end of Chapter 1, “There are only three of us here–Naomi, Ruby, and I–who know how satisfying it feels to know that Phillip Rochester got the death he deserved.”

The novel is narrated in Imogen’s voice, and she tries to explain to herself and the reader why she stayed with Phillip long after his violent outbursts became the norm.  Several years before the novel opens, Imogen, pregnant, was hit by a car and miscarried.  Although Phillip appeared sensitive at first, he soon became annoyed by his wife’s subsequent depression, and his violence and his extramarital affairs escalated.  Even the birth of their son did nothing to stop this behavior.  But by this time Phillip has convinced his wife that the fault is hers, that she has driven him to this behavior by her actions, and she is now convinced that she deserves nothing better.

Then, when Imogen meets Naomi at the hospital one night and sees that the young woman too is a victim of Phillip’s violence, Imogen realizes that her husband must be stopped, and her divorce is not what will stop Phillip’s abusive behavior.  She has the beginning of a plan that becomes the women’s revenge, and Naomi and eventually even Ruby, Phillip’s saintly first wife, join her.

The Exes’ Revenge is a spellbinding mystery, with characters who are understandable and realistic.   Even if you would have made different choices under the same circumstances, the author’s skill makes you understand how Imogen’s self-doubt and low self-esteem allowed her husband’s abuse to continue.

Imogen is a terrific protagonist, and you will be rooting for her to get her life together and protect her son in the only way she deems possible.

You can read more about Jo Jakeman 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 GATHERING OF SECRETS by Linda Castillo: Book Review

We all know that secrets have a way of being discovered despite everything that’s done to cover them up.  But what happens when a teenage girl confides her secret to her mother and is disbelieved and shamed?  There can be no happy ending to that story.

A Gathering of Secrets opens with a harrowing episode.  A seventeen-year-old Amish girl feigns illness to avoid going to Sunday worship with her family.  Believing that God has spoken to her, she waits until her parents and siblings have left their farm, then goes into the family’s barn and hangs herself.

Six months later Painters Mill Chief of Police Kate Burkholder receives a phone call about a fire raging out of control.  The firefighters are already at the farm belonging to the Gingerichs, an Amish family, and when Kate arrives she is told that the family cannot locate their teenage son Danny.  Later that day, after the fire has been controlled, firemen find a body in the barn, but it is so badly burned that at first no one can be certain who it is.   However, several hours later it is identified as Danny.

As is true of many ethnic/religious groups, the Amish in Painters Mill would prefer to handle matters without outside interference.  But after the arson inspector tells Kate that there’s no way Danny could have locked and barricaded himself in the barn’s tack room either before or after the fire started, what initially seemed like a horrific accident becomes a murder investigation, and Kate must try to get answers to her questions from the reluctant members of this religious community.  And what she discovers is that Danny was not the ideal Amish teenager that his parents believed him to be.

This is the tenth novel in the Kate Burkholder series, and in each one the reader learns more about her.  Born into an Amish family, Kate is now “English,” as the Amish call anyone who doesn’t follow the Ordnung, the oral tradition of rules and expectations that govern their lives.  Still, it is Kate’s familiarity with the religion and her knowledge of the families who live in her community that help her solve crimes.

This crime, in particular, hits very close to home, as its investigation makes Kate relive the most painful episode in her life.  Is she too close to the crimes leading back to Danny to do her job with the objectivity she needs?  Or does her own history make her even more determined to find out the reason for the young man’s death?

Linda Castillo has written another engrossing mystery that brings her readers into the community of Painters Mills.  Kate and her significant other, John Tomasetti of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, are moving steadily toward a wedding date despite the past events in their lives that continue to haunt them.  And Kate’s staff, most particularly the ever-eager Mona Kurtz, are wonderfully depicted.  A Gathering of Secrets is a thrilling addition to this series.

You can read more about Linda Castillo 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 DARK LAKE by Sarah Bailey: Book Review

A few weeks ago Jane Harper, the author of The Dry, gave an interview to The Boston Globe in which she listed books by several of her favorite fellow Aussie authors.  One writer she mentioned was Sarah Bailey, whose debut mystery Ms. Harper praised highly.  Since I enjoyed The Dry so much and blogged about it last December, I decided to read her recommendation.

The Dark Lake is an absolutely spellbinding story about how the past never lets go.  Gemma Woodstock is a detective sergeant in Smithson, the small town where she grew up.  As the novel opens she receives a phone call from her supervisor, telling her to go immediately to Sonny Lake; a body has been found there.  The victim is Rosalind Ryan, one of the teachers at the town’s high school.  Gemma is assigned to lead the investigation, and thus she must keep secret the story of her past relationship with Rosalind and its consequences.

Gemma’s past and present are fraught with tragedy and secrets.  Her mother died when Gemma was a teenager, her high school boyfriend died shortly after that, and she is having an affair with her colleague, Felix McKinnon, a married father of three.

Gemma is living with Scott, who wants to marry her, but although Scott is the father of their toddler son Ben, Gemma can’t get past her love (or lust) for Felix.

For reasons the reader isn’t aware of until nearly the end of the book, Gemma won’t reveal her past relationship with Rosalind, who was the most beautiful girl in Smithson.  But strange stories have followed Rosalind’s career:  there was an issue at the university she attended, then at the high school where she taught before coming home to teach, and innuendoes at Smithson High as well.  There are rumors, not facts, swirling around her professional life and, as Gemma is finding out, in her family life as well.

The novel is told in two time periods, Gemma’s high school years and the present.  We learn how unhappy she was as a teenager, certainly explained by the tragic deaths of her mother and her boyfriend.  But somewhere in there as well is her relationship with Rosalind and her fear of its becoming public, something she wants to avoid at all costs.

Sarah Bailey has written a spellbinding mystery, one that delves into the emotions not only of Gemma but of Scott, the father of her baby; Donna Mason, the mother of Gemma’s high school love; John Nicholson, the high school principal with a secret he’s held for more than twenty years; and Rosalind’s family, the Ryans, with issues of their own.

The Dark Lake is a fabulous debut for Sarah Bailey; the second Gemma Woodstock mystery will be published in December.  You can read more about Sarah Bailey 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 TALE OF TWO MURDERS by Heather Redmond: Book Review

Before Charles Dickens was a world-renowned novelist, he was a young journalist working in London.  Determined not to live the life his father led, with two terms of confinement in debtors’ prisons, Charles was working hard and determined to make his mark in society.

As A Tale of Two Murders opens, it is 1835 and Charles has been invited for dinner at the home of his employer, the Evening Chronicle‘s co-editor.  This marks the first time he meets Catherine (Kate) Hogarth, the oldest daughter in the family, and he is immediately smitten by her looks and personality.

Their dinner is interrupted by several screams that seem to come from the neighboring house, which belongs to the family of the late Lord Lugoson.  Dickens, Kate, and Mr. Hogarth walk over to investigate and come upon a strange scene–about a dozen people, including several servants, are standing aimlessly in a room while in front of the fireplace lies a young girl apparently coming out of a fainting episode.

Lady Lugoson’s guests seem unable to cope with the situation, so Charles, Kate, and Mr. Hogarth assist the hostess in getting the young woman, who is her daughter Christiana, to her bedroom.  Various physicians are called in throughout the night, but in the early hours of the next morning she dies a painful death.

When Charles go the Chronicle’s office later that morning and tells fellow reporter William Aga about the tragedy, he hears a strange story.  William tells Charles that he knows of an almost identical episode that took place on the same date, January 6th, a year earlier.  A young woman, the same age as Miss Lugoson, was also stricken and died the following day.  The symptoms that the two girls experienced sound identical to both men.

Intrigued and upset by William’s story and the suffering that he witnessed, Charles begins an investigation into the deaths of the two girls.  In addition to his curiosity, he has an added inducement to follow the story–Kate has been given permission by her father to join Dickens in his quest, and she is more than eager to break out of her routine and help.

In A Tale of Two Murders, it appears that in his early twenties Dickens had no inclination or desire to become a novelist.  Instead, he saw himself as a reporter and possible playwright.  We know that the successes of The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities lie ahead of him, and it’s delightful to read about his life prior to that.

Heather Redmond (a pseudonym) has succeeded in bringing not only Dickens to life but the times he lived in as well.  Her descriptions of society’s manners, dining habits, clothing, and mores make A Tale of Two Murders a fascinating story.

You can read more about Heather Redmond’s new historical mystery at various internet sites.  Since Dickens wrote 15 novels, readers of A Tale of Two Murders perhaps may look forward to more novels in this series.  A Christmas Carnage or Murderous Expectations?

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.

PANDORA’S BOY by Lindsey Davis: Book Review

The ever-delightful Flavia Albia is back, informer par excellence.  Following in the footsteps of her adoptive father, Marcus Didio Falco, she is now a well-established informer (in ancient Rome, the term informer was used as we would use private investigator or detective today).  In addition, she is newly married to Tiberius Manlius Faustus, an aedile, or official, of the Roman Republic.

Both were married before.  Flavia was a young widow, Tiberius was divorced by Laia Gratiana.  But now Laia comes asking for help from Flavia for a family friend who has just experienced the death of her teenage daughter.

Clodia Volumnia had been found dead in her bed, and the aftermath of this tragedy is that her mother and father have separated and their mothers, Clodia’s grandmothers, actually have come to blows.  Reluctantly, because she hates to appear beholden to her husband’s ex-wife, Flavia agrees to meet with Clodia’s father to discuss the case.  Using the soft approach, Flavia tells him how sorry she is about the unexpected death of his only daughter and offers her professional assistance; he agrees to hire her.

The father, Volumnius Firmus, tells Flavia that Clodia simply went to bed one night while both her parents were out and didn’t wake up the next morning.  Firmus stresses what a good daughter Clodia was, but he admits that he was unhappy with her choice of friends.  They were several years older than she and possibly had not been a good influence on her.  In addition, she had seemingly developed a crush on one of the young men, and he belonged to a family not up to the Volumnius family standards, at least according to Firmus.

The streets of ancient Rome were filled with gossip, sexual behaviors, and violence that make it seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Certainly the behavior of Clodia’s family–the “perfect” daughter who turns out to be not quite so perfect after all, the mothers-in-law who cannot abide each other, the preoccupation of various people with substance over style–are not unfamiliar to modern readers.  Apparently human nature hasn’t change that much since 89 C. E.

As readers know from other books in the series, Flavia was found begging on the streets of Londonium when she was young and brought to Rome by Marcus and Helena.  Originally she was a nanny to their children, but they eventually adopted her and she became a free citizen of the Republic.  Also, Marcus and Helena were probably impressed by Flavia’s sense of self and her confidence.  “They soon saw I would not accept being treated like a slave….No one could impose on me.”  You admire and respect her throughout the novel.

When Flavia thinks about how she has become involved with sorcery and magic to find out the truth about Clodia’s death she comes to the conclusion that “There was no need of a blood relationship to inherit crazy behavior.”   As her adoptive father was always coming up with wild ideas that led him into trouble, “now so was I.”

Pandora’s Boy is the sixth novel featuring Flavia Albia; more than a dozen earlier novels featured her father as the protagonist.  Readers will enjoy both informers, but my heart belongs to Flavia.

You can read more about Lindsey Davis 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 FAIRFAX INCIDENT by Terrence McCauley: Book Review

When a corrupt cop loses his job for not being corrupt enough, that’s a great idea for a novel.  And Terrence McCauley takes that concept and runs with it, very successfully, in what hopefully will be a new series.

Charlie Doherty was a New York City policeman, a bag man and enforcer for the even more corrupt Chief of Police Andrew Carmichael.  Shortly before he was kicked off the force, Charlie had gone against the chief’s express order and successfully investigated the murder of Jessica Van Dorn and the abduction of her brother Jack.  Mr. Van Dorn, to show his appreciation, hired Charlie as sort of a “private detective to the rich,” asking him to look into matters for various wealthy friends in trouble.

Now the detective has been asked to meet with Eleanor Fairfax, whose wealthy husband has allegedly committed suicide in his Empire State Building office.  Despite the fact that Walter Fairfax was found alone in his office with his fingerprints the only ones on the gun that killed him, his widow absolutely refuses to believe that her late husband died by his own hand.

Charlie reminds Mrs. Fairfax that the the official verdict was death by accidental shooting.  But she, wise to the ways of the world, knows that the police chief, who had overseen the case personally, will one day “darken my door…seeking to be repaid for a favor I neither requested not wanted.”   What she does want, she tells Charlie, is proof that her husband was murdered, improbable as that seems to the detective and to everyone else involved in the Fairfax death.

The Fairfax Incident is a noir novel that fits completely in its 1930s time frame.  Charlie Doherty is no angel, even by his own reckoning, but he does have a personal definition of morality.  He is perfectly willing to take on the investigation even though he believes Walter Fairfax did indeed commit suicide.  And having agreed to look into it, he will do his best to find the truth, even if, as it happens, no one besides the widow wants him to.

Terrence McCauley’s prose will capture readers from the first chapter.  As I noted, Charlie is not a poster boy for a morally upright detective, official or private, but both because he feels he owes it to Mr. Van Dorn to do his best and because he has his own standards, he will not let Walter Fairfax’s indifferent son or the vengeful Chief Carmichael stand in his way.

I’m looking forward to reading more about Charlie Doherty and his relationships with the residents of the neighborhood that goes, in his words, “from Park to The Park.”

You can read more about Terrence McCauley 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.

 

ALL THE BEAUTIFUL LIES by Peter Swanson: Book Review

There are the lies we tell to others (to impress, perhaps, or to make ourselves more important), and there are lies we tell to ourselves (to protect ourselves from acknowledging the truth of what we are doing or what our motivations are).  In Peter Swanson’s latest mystery, All The Beautiful Lies, there are both kinds of lies; it’s up to the reader to decide which is the more dangerous.

Harry Ackerson is a few days from his college graduation when he receives a call from his stepmother to say that his father is dead.  The night before, while walking on his favorite cliff path overlooking the ocean, Bill Ackerson apparently slipped and fell into the water below.

The initial police investigation quickly changes gears, however, when the autopsy reveals a bruise on Bill’s head; now it’s considered “a suspicious death.”  But who would want to kill this quiet man, owner of two rare book stores, married for several years to his second wife, and father to an only child?  Bill would seem to have had no enemies…but apparently he had at least one.

Nearly everyone in All The Beautiful Lies has a secret.  Alice, Bill’s widow, is the product of a very dysfunctional mother and an unknown father, two things she never told her late husband.  Her stepfather, Jake, was attracted to her before he married her mother, a woman he knew to be an alcoholic and sometimes drug abuser; after her mother’s death, Jake and Alice lived their lives closed to family and friends lest the true nature of their relationship be exposed.  Harry seems to be fearful of his sexuality, something he’s not ready to admit even to himself.  And who is the mysterious young woman Harry notices outside the used bookstore his father owned in their hometown, and why was she at the funeral, only to leave without speaking to anyone?

Peter Swanson is one of today’s best writers, regardless of the genre being discussed.  His characters are totally realistic in what they say, do, and think.  Their lies are what they have constructed to get through life–whether to hide what they dislike about themselves or to help them get what they want.  Either way, it’s a question as to whether they control the lies or whether those lies control them.

This is Peter Swanson’s fourth mystery and the fourth one I’ve reviewed.  He’s definitely one of the authors whose novels can never come quickly enough for me.

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.