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THE DARKEST SECRET by Alex Marwood: Book Review

It’s 2004, and three-year-old Coco Jackson is missing.  Her family, including her identical twin sister Ruby, their parents Claire and Sean, two older half-sisters, three other couples, and several children are spending the weekend at the Jackson holiday home in Bournemouth, England, to celebrate Sean’s fiftieth birthday.

Before the weekend is over, Coco’s older step-siblings leave the party and return to their mother’s home; Claire drives back to London after discovering her husband in flagrante delicto with another woman; alcohol and drugs are used and abused in abundance; Coco is gone; and the lives of everyone present are changed irreparably.

The people at this party are wealthy, educated, and not very nice.  Sean Jackson is a handsome, successful, and charismatic businessman who is extremely self-involved and uncaring in his dealings with family and friends.  Claire, who was his mistress before she became his second wife, has come to realize that the charm with which he overwhelmed her before they were married is simply a cover for his narcissistic personality and his persistent womanizing; perhaps as a form of revenge, she shows no interest in maintaining any sort of positive relationship with her step-daughters.

The three other couples attending Sean’s fiftieth are similarly unpleasant.  Linda is the woman with whom Sean is having an affair, and her partner James is a Dr. Feelgood with a supply of prescription and non-prescription drugs for every occasion.  Charles is a rising Tory politician on the far right of his party; his wife Imogen has no other interest in life but furthering his career.  Maria and her husband Robert are a very successful couple, she the head of a public relations firm, he a lawyer, who seem on the surface to be the most likeable people in the group, but appearances can be deceiving.  And Robert’s fifteen-year-old daughter Simone, the child of his first marriage, is desperately trying to attract the wandering eye of the event’s host.

The Darkest Secret tells the story that starts at the beginning of this infamous weekend and continues to the present.  We first learn of Coco’s disappearance from witness statements at the beginning of the novel, and then we learn, bringing the story up to the present, that Sean has died.  Even though Milly, his younger daughter from his first marriage, hasn’t seen her father in years, her mother asks her to identify the body; she doesn’t feel able to and Sean’s third wife can’t because she’s home with their young daughter.

Alex Marwood’s novel will keep you in suspense throughout.  The tight group of adults has a lot of secrets to keep.  They’ve been successful at it for fifteen years, but now those secrets are in danger of being revealed.  And the people involved can’t let that happen.

You can read more about Alex Marwood at this web site.

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

 

SKIN AND BONE by Robin Blake: Book Review

If we think back through history and imagine that times were easier or more law-abiding then, all we have to do is read any of the excellent historical mysteries on bookstore or library shelves.  In his latest novel, Robin Blake proves that intrigue, adultery, and murder were, so to speak, alive and well even in the small towns of England.

Titus Cragg is the coroner in Preston in the year 1743.  There are surreptitious goings-on among several of the well-do-do merchants of the town.  In the name of “improvements,” they appear to be determined to shut down Preston’s tannery and skin-yard.  Foul-smelling the industry may be, but it provides income for the town’s remaining three families of tanners.  The entire place is dirty, with fire heating the materials necessary to make animal hides into useful goods, but there is no other way to cure leather.

As the novel opens, a baby’s body is found in one of the handler pits in the tannery.   This leads to two questions:  who was the mother of this infant, and was the baby stillborn or did the mother kill her own child?

Titus would prefer that the infant be examined by his friend Luke Fidelis, a young physician who studied both in London and abroad, bringing modern techniques and theories to Preston.  Unfortunately, Luke is away, but the town’s other doctor, Basilius Harrod, is available to determine the cause of death.

Although Basilius is a friend of Titus’ and the more popular physician in town, his methods are old-fashioned, as his diagnoses often involve humours and ephemeral qualities or textures as causes of illness or death.  That is the case as he examines the baby, stating unequivocally that she was stillborn.  When Titus suggests he might like to turn the baby over for a complete look at her body, he recoiles.  “Touch it?  Certainly not, Titus….That might be dangerous….Troubled spirits….”

Then, when Luke Fidelis returns to the village and examines the corpse, he comes to the opposite conclusion, namely that the child was murdered.  So who is to be believed?

The settings and characters in Skin and Bone are perfect, easily drawing the reader into the lives of people who lived more than two and a half centuries ago.  Greed and profiteering are rampant, as are officials’ desire to come to a hasty if uninformed conclusion about a troubling issue.

Titus Cragg is an honorable man who combines strict principles with compassion for his fellow citizens.  This does not always work well with the mayor and the Council of Preston, men who are more eager to put unpleasantness behind them quickly and get on with their primary objective, obtaining as much money and power as possible through their positions.

When I reviewed The Hidden Man last year, I was struck with the author’s ability to make the 18th century come alive.  Robin Blake has done this again in Skin and Bone, a mystery that will grab you from the beginning and not let go.

You can read more about Robin Blake at this web site.

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

 

THE HANGING CLUB by Tony Parsons: Book Review

Vigilante justice–what does it mean to you?  The dictionary definition is easy to understand:  a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the process of law is viewed as inadequate); broadly : a self-appointed doer of justice.  We can’t allow people to take the law into their own hands, can we?  But what happens when the official justice system fails its victims?

The prologue of The Hanging Club opens with Mahmud Irani returning to his taxi after Friday prayers.  He’s hailed by a man who gets into the cab and uses his iPhone to direct Mahmud to his desired destination:  Newgate Street.  As they arrive there, the man leans forward from the back seat and presses an old-fashioned straight razor against the driver’s eye.  The car stops, the two men get out, and the passenger directs the driver into a building where three others are waiting.

Mahmud is forced onto a stool that is directly underneath a noose hanging from the ceiling.  Covering the walls of the room are dozens of photos of schoolgirls, all smiling.  Mahmud recognizes them as young girls who had been abducted and raped by himself and his friends.  As he tries to explain that these girls were whores, asking for what happened to them, the stool is kicked from beneath him, he experiences excruciating pain, and he dies.  But he’s only the first.

The opening sentence of the novel is perfect:  “We sat in Court One of the Old Bailey and we waited for justice.”  But they don’t get it.

Steve Goddard was a husband and father.  When he saw three teenage boys urinating on his wife’s car, he ran out of his house and attempted to stop them.  The three boys kicked him to the ground and kept kicking him until he was dead.  They urinated on him and laughed, and all the while one of the boys was filming this; it was almost immediately posted online.  There is no question as to who had committed the crime.

Although the jury is unanimous in its guilty verdict, the judge said the defendants’ attorney proved mitigating circumstances, which reduced the charge to manslaughter.  So for kicking a man to death, the three are sentenced to twelve months in prison.  The remaining Goddards, the mother and her two children, are left weeping and bewildered at the Crown’s version of justice.

Max Wolfe, the detective who arrested the three boys, knows there is nothing more to be done.  But that doesn’t mean he can forget about the case, the injustice of it.  Later that same day the video of the taxi driver being hanged goes viral, and the police in the Major Incident Room watch it.  After watching it multiple times, a new recruit says, “But who’d want to do that to him?”  And unconsciously, almost against his will, Max thinks, “Who the hell wouldn’t?”

Tony Parsons has written about a topic that resonates today.  What is our reaction when we think a truly heinous crime has been committed but not punished sufficiently, if at all? The Hanging Club is a remarkable thriller, not only because it’s so well written but because it brings up a subject that touches so many lives.  Does justice always prevail?  Can vengeance ever be right?  And what is motivating the vigilantes–vengeance, revenge, or bloodlust?

You can read more about Tony Parsons at various sites on the internet.

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

 

HELL FIRE by Karin Fossum: Book Review

Hell Fire is one of the five best mysteries I’ve read this year.  In fact, I would remove the genre qualifier and say it’s one of the five best novels I’ve read this year.

The protagonist, Police Inspector Konrad Sejer, works in a small community outside Oslo.  The crime has Sejer shaken as he has never been before.  Two corpses are found in a broken-down trailer on a farm.  The victims are a woman, Bonnie Hayden, and a child, possibly hers, although there’s no identification for the youngster.  Looking at the child’s body, clothed in a sweatsuit, bloodied and with multiple knife wounds, it’s impossible for the inspector to tell its sex.

The story goes back and forth between two sets of people.  We first meet Eddie Malthe and his mother Mass.  Eddie is twenty-one, an overweight young man with developmental delays who is unable to hold even a menial job.  His mother takes care of him with total devotion and patience, but since they’re alone in the world she worries what will happen to him when she dies.

Mass has told her son that his father left them when Eddie was a young boy.  Eddie doesn’t really remember the man, whom his mother has told him died years earlier after starting another family in Copenhagen, but he has a photo of him hanging in his bedroom that he looks at every night.  His obsession is to get enough information from his mother to allow him to find his father’s grave so that he may lay flowers on it, and he never tires of asking her to do this.

Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her young son, also live by themselves.  She works as a home health aide for a charity that services the elderly and disabled, always being given the most difficult cases because of her gentle and caring behavior.  Her life isn’t an easy one, but the love and strong bond between mother and child make things a bit easier.

As Sejer questions Bonnie’s best friend, the clients she visits on a weekly basis, the farmer on whose land the trailer was located, and her parents, he can find no one with any animosity toward her, no reason for the deaths of this mother and her child.  But someone must be hiding something.

Karin Fossum’s writing is flawless, and the characters she writes about are totally realistic.  There’s a wonderful interview with her in the online British magazine Independent, in which she talks about her outlook on life and her writing.  She tells the interviewer that she is no good with plots (something which with I definitely disagree), so she concentrates on “the yearnings of life’s also-rans, and how fragile minds fracture when seclusion or routine is disturbed.”

Hell Fire is a moving, tragic story of lives on parallel tracks that must inevitably collide.  It’s a must-read for its look into the hearts and minds of people who do things with the best of intentions, only to see them lead to death and destruction.

You can read more about Karin Fossum at many sites on the web; the interview mentioned above may be found at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/karin-fossum-i-knew-a-murderer-i-knew-the-victim-too-1739894.html.

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

 

 

 

HELL BAY by Will Thomas: Book Review

Someone is killing the people at a dinner party at Godolphin House, a manor located on a remote family-owned island off the southwest corner of England.  Deaths by rifle shot, knife, explosion–but why?

The owner of the island, Lord Hargrave, arrives at the office of Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn, private enquiry agents in London.  Hargrave and his wife will be hosting this party with a dual purpose; he wants to come to a diplomatic agreement with Henri Gascoigne, the French ambassador, concerning colonies in Africa; she is hoping to find suitable matches for their older son and their only daughter.  The nobleman wants the agents to guard Gascoigne, and Cyrus, the senior member of the firm, reluctantly agrees.

Everything appears to be going smoothly at the house until the first murder.  Lord Hargrave himself is the victim, shot after dinner while surrounded by several of his guests in the garden.  Of course everyone is horrified, and Ambassador Gascoigne insists he needs his own bodyguard, who has remained on board the boat that brought the ambassador to the island, to protect him.  When Cyrus and Thomas rush to the harbor to bring Delacroix back to the house, however, the boat is gone and his body is floating in the water.

Thus begins a terrifying ordeal for those left in Godolphin House.  In addition to the two investigators and the ambassador, Lady Hargrave and her three children, Colonel Fraser and his wife, Doctor Anstruther and his two daughters, a businessman and his valet from South America, and Philippa Ashleigh, Cyrus Barker’s particular friend, are present.  And, naturally, the servants—fifteen of them.

In fact, two killings occur even before Cyrus and Thomas arrive at the island.  The head of a boarding school on the mainland is shot as he calls out the window to one of his students; the woman who ran a foster home is found in her yard with a broken neck.  These two deaths, seemingly unrelated to each other or to the island, are actually just the beginning of the murderous spree that will follow.

Hell Bay is narrated by young Thomas, Cyrus’ assistant.  He is in awe of his employer and cannot shake the feeling that he will never have the insights that the latter has.  He’s anxious to appear more sophisticated and worldly than he actually is and desperate to absorb knowledge from his mentor.  But Cyrus refuses to coddle him, saying “If I spoon-feed you the answers, however shall you learn?”

Hell Bay is the eighth mystery in Will Thomas’ Barker and Llewelyn series, set at the end of the nineteenth century.  Each one of his novels sets a perfect scene that will draw you into a period well worth visiting.

You can read more about Will Thomas at this web site.

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

SUN, SAND, MURDER by John Keyse-Walker: Book Review

As Caribbean islands go, Anegada, British Virgin Islands, doesn’t stand out.  Overshadowed by its neighbors Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and the more than sixty other islands in the chain, it’s very low-key.  One of its two claims to fame is that it’s the only coral island in the group, with a rich assortment of wildlife, but that doesn’t bring in the tourists.  The other is that there never had been a crime committed on Anegada…until now.

Teddy Creque is the lone law enforcement figure on the island.  He’s not a policeman but a Special Constable, one who has never encountered a crime in his many years of patrol.  However, now he finds himself confronted with the crab-bitten corpse of a man who had been an annual visitor for several years, a man who quietly went about the study of herpetology without interacting very much with anyone.

Paul Kelliher, Ph.D., biologist and professor at Boston University, has been found dead by Anthony Wedderburn, a/k/a De White Rasta.  De White is, in fact, a British lord who has made his home on Anegada for some time.  He is always high on ganja, although no one has ever been able to figure out where he obtains his supply.  He talks in the patois of the island in public, but when he’s alone with Teddy he reverts to the Oxford English that is his mother tongue.

Never having been involved in an investigation, much less been in charge of one, Teddy is quickly removed from the inquiry into Kelliher’s death by Howard Tuttle Lane, deputy commissioner of the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force, who wants an experienced policeman in charge.  Furious at Teddy for moving the body, although obviously it was done to protect the corpse from further depredation by animals, Lane informs Teddy that as soon as the inquiry is completed and the murderer caught, he will be suspended without pay for two weeks.  The only reason the suspension does not begin immediately, he tells the special constable, is because he cannot spare anyone else to police the small island while they are searching for the killer.

Although Teddy’s professional life has been quiet up to this point, his personal life has not.  Several months prior to the opening of the novel, he met Cat Wells, the helicopter pilot who flies in the infrequent tourist from other British Virgin Islands.  It doesn’t take long for the two to start a passionate affair, making the married Teddy feel guilty and uncomfortable but not enough of either to stop seeing her.  Each time he promises himself that this time will be the last, but even as he’s saying it he knows it’s not true.  Cat is irresistible.

Sun, Sand, Murder is John Keyse-Walker’s first novel, and it’s a great debut.  The dialogue is sparkling, the setting glorious, and protagonist Teddy Creque is a wonderful addition to the genre.  He’s obviously in over his head trying to figure out what happened to Paul Kelliher, which he continues to do despite his superior’s order to leave the investigation to the professionals, but Teddy’s humanity and his knowledge of Anegada are working for him.  This novel won the Mystery Writers of America/Minatour Books First Crime Novel Award in 2015.  Sun, Sand, Murder is a wonderful read.

You can read more about John Keyse-Walker at this web site.

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

 

DAISY IN CHAINS by Sharon Bolton: Book Review

Maggie Rose is used to getting requests from convicted killers to help them in their fight for freedom.  Of course they’ve been wrongly imprisoned–isn’t everyone in jail innocent?

Hamish Wolfe is one of those men.  A strikingly handsome man, a successful physician, a gifted athlete, he nonetheless has been convicted of murdering three women and is suspected in the disappearance of a fourth.  Their crimes?  Being fat.

Hamish Wolfe’s mother and a number of his supporters have a website devoted to proclaiming his innocence.  His mother meets Maggie and implores her to look into the case and free Hamish, as she has been able to do with several other men.  In addition to being a defense attorney, or barrister as they are called in England, Maggie is the author of several books recounting the trials of the men she has been able to free.  It’s not that she necessarily thinks each man is innocent but simply that their trials weren’t properly conducted, the evidence was mishandled, or the defending barristers were incompetent.  It doesn’t appear to matter to her that these men are probably, in fact, killers; what’s important is that they were improperly convicted and thus should be freed.

Detective Sergeant Pete Weston has been closely monitoring the Wolfe case, even after its conclusion. He visits Maggie to reiterate his belief that Hamish is indeed guilty and to try to persuade her not to get involved.  Her response?  “…for what it’s worth, I agree with you.  I have no plans to take on his case….If I were to decide to do so, no amount of pressure on your part would put me off.”  It couldn’t be more clear than that, Pete thinks.

But Hamish’s mother and his “fan club” aren’t about to give up.  They become more intrusive in Maggie’s life, there’s a forced entry into her home, and continued mail from Hamish himself asking for her help.  So between her own curiosity and the pressure from those who believe that the prisoner is innocent, Maggie decides she must start her own investigation.  From there it’s a slippery slope, and she is propelled ever faster into the mystery that is Hamish Wolfe.

Daisy in Chains is a taut, suspenseful thriller.  Just like the previous book by Ms. Bolton that I reviewed, Little Black Lies, this mystery grabs you and won’t let go.  Is Hamish Wolfe innocent?  Who is the recipient of the letters he’s writing from jail, the letters that proclaim his undying love?  Does Maggie think he truly is innocent, or is the desire to write another best-selling true-crime book too irresistible to pass up?

Sharon Bolton has written an extraordinary novel, one that will keep you reading far into the night.  You can read more about her at this web site.

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

 

 

 

DIE OF SHAME by Mark Billingham: Book Review

The setting–a weekly therapy group for people recovering, or trying to recover, from addictions.  Readers may immediately think of drugs and alcohol, but two members of the group are also suffering from shopping and gambling problems.  Their group leader, a former addict himself, seems to be handling things well, at least until one of the participants is murdered.

Tony De Silva is the leader.  He’s not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but as a former drug addict he certainly has an understanding of the many issues involved in recovery.  His Monday night group consists, at the beginning of the novel, of two women and two men.  Heather, a woman in her thirties, has a gambling and drug problem; Diana, a middle-aged divorcée, is an out-of-control shopaholic and as well as a former alcoholic; Robin is a sixty-something surgeon who nearly got his medical license revoked for performing surgery while under the influence of narcotics; and Chris is a homeless man in his twenties who continues to support his drug habit by homosexual prostitution.

Into this mix comes Caroline, an obese woman who admits to an eating disorder and to becoming hooked on painkillers.  And the group, which has been functioning more or less peacefully, finds that its dynamics have changed, and not for the better.

The novel is told over a period of time by each member of the group, giving the reader an insight into issues that don’t necessarily get aired in the weekly meetings.  Tony, who is a good facilitator, is a former singer/songwriter whose career never took off, something he is constantly reminded of by his wife’s cutting remarks.  The meetings take place on the lower level of their home, while on the upper level their teenage daughter smokes weed almost constantly, coming downstairs for meals which she leaves virtually untouched.

Robin talks about his childhood in South Africa and his friendship with the son of his parents’ servants, a couple who lost their jobs because of a lie young Robin told.  Diana is still fuming over her husband having left her for a much younger woman and her daughter placing the blame for that on Diana.  Heather is nursing a crush on Tony, planning a birthday party for herself in the hope that he, as well as the other group members, will attend.  Chris spends his welfare money on video games in arcades, using the venues as places to meet young boys who will give him a room for the night and perhaps pay for his sexual services.

Although the murder takes place fairly early in the novel, the reader doesn’t know who the victim is until much later.  What we do know is that someone is in prison for a crime and has a visitor who is trying to find out the motive.  But how many murders are there–one or two?

Nicola Tanner is the detective inspector in charge of the case.  Stymied by everyone’s prior agreement to keep confidential what is said in the therapy sessions, Nicola is finding it hard to discover the murderer and the motive for the crime.  Plus she’s having problems at home with her long-time partner Susan, who has an addiction problem of her own.

Die of Shame will having you turning pages compulsively until the end.  There’s a one-two punch in the last two chapters that had me saying “wow” out loud at the end of each one.  Mark Billingham has written a terrific and touching mystery.

You can read more about Mark Billingham at this web site.

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

 

 

HOME by Harlan Coben: Book Review

It’s been ten years since six-year-olds Patrick Moore and Rhys Baldwin were abducted from Patrick’s home in suburban New Jersey.  Their parents have never given up hope that the boys will return, but with each passing year it has gotten harder to keep the faith.  Now one of them appears to have been located, but what about the other?

Rhys is the son of Win Lockwood’s cousin Brooke; she is one of the very, very few people about whom he cares.  One other, of course, is Myron Bolitar.  The two men have been friends since they met the first day of their freshman year at Duke, and although they couldn’t be more different on the surface, something has kept them close all these years.  Win, however, disappeared from Myron’s life a year ago without explanation; now a long-distance call from England is the first confirmation that he is alive and well.

Win tells Myron that he believes he has seen Patrick.  He had received a cryptic email that gave a clue as to the boys’ location in a seedy part of London.  When he gets there, he sees a teenager who looks like Patrick might look ten years after his disappearance, but before Win can approach him three thugs head toward the boy.  When Win tells them to leave, they turn on him with knives but, Win being Win, all three are dead before they have a chance to attack him.  Then, when he turns to talk to the boy, the teen is gone.

Win’s phone call is to ask Myron to fly to England to help search for Patrick and Rhys.  What they find is deeper and even more disturbing than the kidnapping itself.

Home is partly narrated in the first person by Win, more formally known as Windsor Horne Lockwood III, and partly in the third person limited point of view of Myron.  Win is a man of incredible wealth and intelligence but also a man almost devoid of empathetic responses.  Even his anger is controlled, always contained.  As he says of himself in the opening chapter, after killing the three men who were threatening the boy Win believes may be Patrick, “I give myself a second, no more, to relish the high.  You would too, if you didn’t pretend otherwise.”  He knows what he is and makes no apologies for it.

In Home, Win’s softer side comes out for the first time.  This is obviously because of his feeling for his cousin Brooke; this familial relationship is the reason Win has disappeared for a year, attempting to find her son.  Now he has come closer than anyone else by finding Patrick, whom he hopes will lead him to Rhys.  But it’s not that easy.

Harlan Coben is a master storyteller.  In this novel the tragedies of two families are paramount.  Win and Myron are an outstanding team, but even they cannot heal all the heartbreak that the Moores and Baldwins have experienced.

You can read more about Harlan Coben at this web site.

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

 

SORROW ROAD by Julia Keller: Book Review

A lot of years have passed since the invasion of Normandy, but apparently not enough.  At least not enough for old sins to be buried so deeply that they’ll never be uncovered.

Bell Elkins, prosecuting attorney in rural Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is meeting an acquaintance, a Georgetown Law School classmate, for a drink.  Darlene Strayer and Bell weren’t close, but they both grew up in neighboring small towns in West Virginia and have successful careers, and that makes each one sort of an anomaly in that area of the country.  But while Bell left behind a lucrative career in the nation’s capital to return home, Darlene stayed, became a federal prosecutor and is now a successful litigator in a private firm.  So what could be the reason that she asks Bell to meet her at the Tie Yard Tavern, requesting her help?

Darlene tells Bell that her father, Harmon Strayer, died in a nursing home the previous week at the age of ninety.  Darlene had placed him there three years earlier when his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to live alone or to move to Washington to live with her.  He had been doing reasonably well until the past few months, but during each successive visit Darlene noticed his agitation growing.

She tells Bell that although she knew there was something wrong at Thornapple Terrace, it was easier to do nothing, to attribute her father’s emotional disturbances as increasingly visible signs of the progression of his dementia.  But now that he’s dead, Darlene feels she should have forced the home to do something, to pay attention to the way her father was behaving.  She thinks that his death, even considering his advanced age and mental condition, wasn’t natural or caused by negligence–she thinks he was murdered.

When Darlene leaves the tavern to drive home to D.C., after getting a reluctant promise from Bell to look into the situation unofficially, a brutal winter storm is in full force.  Just a few hours later, in the middle of the night, a deputy sheriff knocks on Bell’s door.  A trucker has found Darlene’s wrecked Audi and her body on the curve of a road nicknamed Help me Jesus for the many wrecks that have taken place there.

Bell’s name was found on a note in Darlene’s coat pocket, the deputy sheriff said; the car smelled of alcohol and Darlene had vomited before the crash.  That doesn’t make sense, Bell thinks, because during the whole time the two women had been talking in the tavern, Darlene had never taken even one sip from the drink in front of her.

Sorrow Road then flashes back to 1938.  Harmon Strayer, Vic Plumley, and Alvie Sherrill were inseparable, and three years later they went off to war together, taking part in the Normandy invasion.  The friends had never been out of West Virginia before that, and even though each was secretly frightened, together the threesome acquitted themselves well and returned to the admiration of the townspeople of Norbitt, West Virginia.  But something had happened to them during the war that changed them, not in a good way, forever after.  Now the past apparently has caught up with Harmon Strayer.

I am a fervent admirer of Julia Keller’s series.  Her writing is outstanding, her characters shaded and believable, and her plots take the reader along for an exciting ride.  This is the fifth book in the Bell Elkins series; I strongly suggest you read the other four as well.

You can read more about Julia Keller at this web site.

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

 

 

 

THE HOMEPLACE by Kevin Wolf: Book Review

Chase Ford was a hero in Brandon, Comanche County, Colorado.  Or rather, he was the hero.  He was the town’s great basketball star who went to Hollywood, married a famous country singer…and then messed up, big time.  Now he’s returned home, but it’s not the same place it was when he left.

On Chase’s first full day back, he meets his former teammate Marty Storm.  Marty’s a deputy sheriff on the county’s force, and while they’re talking on the side of the road a call comes in from another old friend.  It’s Birdie Hawkins, now with the Colorado Department of Wildlife, and she relays a message through the dispatcher that someone has killed four buffalo on a nearby ranch.

That’s bad enough, but when Birdie gets closer to the animals to investigate, she finds the body of Jimmy Riley, star of the town’s basketball team and its brightest prospect since Chase.

The center of life in Brandon is Saylor’s Café, now run by Mercy Saylor.  Like Chase, Mercy had left town years ago determined not to return, but here she is after her messy divorce.

She’d been the most popular girl in high school, the most beautiful, the smartest.  She thought her life would be something special, but today she’s reduced to looking forward to Brandon’s big event, the Pancake Supper, and to continuing to ratchet up the tension between her two former boyfriends, Chase and Sheriff Lincoln Kendall, just as she had done during high school.  It’s not the way she’d envisioned her life turning out.

Now, in addition to the murder of Jimmy Riley, the town is looking for two missing people.  The first is Coach Porter, beloved head of the basketball team and the only man Chase has been in contact with since he left home sixteen years earlier.  The second is Dolly Benavidez, the high school girl who works part time at the café and is Chase’s unacknowledged half-sister.

The homeplace is Chase’s name for his family home, the one he ran away from as soon as he was able.  He couldn’t get it out of his mind, however, even as he couldn’t forget the people in Brandon.  Still wealthy, although his playing days are behind him, he’s the anonymous donor, through the bank, who has been paying taxes and making loans to townspeople who are in dire straits.  He’s never been able to forget Comanche County, although he’s certainly tried.  And then he returns for what he tells himself, and anyone who asks, is his last visit.  But Chase can’t shake himself loose from the crimes that begin the day he comes back.

The Homeplace is the 2015 winner of the Hillerman Prize, named after the late Tony Hillerman and given to a first-time author who writes a mystery set in the southwestern United States.  I went to the Hillerman Prize website to find out what the judges were looking for in awarding the prize.  The guidelines emphasize, among other points, character, setting, and dialogue.  That being said, it’s easy to see why The Homeplace was the winning entry.  Kevin Wolf nailed all three in his novel.

You can read more about Kevin Wolf at this website.

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

 

 

DISGRACED by Gwen Florio: Book Review

Vacation?  Who wants a vacation?  That’s the thinking of Lola Wicks, a newspaper reporter in Magpie, Montana.  Due to a budget cutback she’s been forced to take a three-week unpaid furlough, and she reluctantly heads to Yellowstone with her five-year-old daughter Margaret to spend part of that time trying to relax and forget about covering stories.  Then a favor for a friend and a deadly shooting wreck Lola’s plans.

Lola’s colleague at the paper, Jan Carpenter, asks Lola to make a detour and check on her cousin Pal Jones, a soldier recently returned to Thirty, Wyoming, from Afghanistan.  Jan is worried because her cousin has stopped responding to emails and phone calls.  Jan can’t leave Magpie, and she feels that Lola, who had been in Afghanistan several years earlier reporting on the war, will be able to connect with Pal (short for Palomino) and find out what’s going on.  Lola agrees reluctantly, but she’s determined to make her visit as brief as possible.

What Lola finds when she gets to Thirty is a tall, gaunt, almost wordless woman who has no interest in telling Lola anything at all, certainly nothing about her war experiences.  Together, along with Margaret, they go to the Casper airport to welcome another returning vet home.  But as Cody Dillon steps onto the tarmac, he shouts out, “It’s alive,” and fatally shoots himself in front of nearly all the people of the town.

The always-searching reporter, Lola can’t help looking for the reason that the young man killed himself and for the issues that are besetting these veterans.  What she finds are several different stories about what happened to the group, including Pal, the only woman, who enlisted in the Army the day after their high school graduation.  Pal’s closest friend, a Native American named Mike St. Clair, was killed in Afghanistan, two other members of the group nearly stomped a third one to death, and now a fourth has committed suicide.

And yet that doesn’t explain Pal’s withdrawal from the world, not to mention the ever-increasing number of cuts on her left arm.  Why is she self-harming?  And did Lola actually see a smile on Pal’s face when Cody shot himself, or did she simply imagine it?

Gwen Florio’s novel looks deeply into small-town secrets, barely-concealed racism, and the disparate stories surrounding Mike St. Clair’s death.  In the midst of all this is Lola’s reluctance to accept the marriage proposal of Charlie, Margaret’s father and Lola’s partner of six years.  Why can’t things stay just as they are, she wonders.  But Charlie wants the permanence of marriage, and he’s getting tired of waiting for her answer.

Disgraced is a powerful novel, with headlines that are totally relevant today.  You may think that Lola’s desire to get a story borders on obsession, but she’s convinced that only the truth will free Pal from her demons and explain the deaths that followed the Thirty veterans on their tour of duty and beyond.

You can read more about Gwen Florio at this website.

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

 

 

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS by B. A. Paris: Book Review

It’s a cliché to say that no one knows what goes on in a marriage except the people inside it.  But clichés get to be clichés because there’s validity to them.  Some marriages look wonderful from the outside, with the couple always holding hands and never quarreling.  Other couples seems always to be on edge, never agreeing on anything.  That’s what we see on the outside.  What happens when the couple is alone?

Behind Closed Doors is narrated by Grace Angel.  Grace tells the story of her marriage to Jack with a series of flashbacks that lead up to the present.  In today’s parlance, they “met cute.”  Grace is in a park with her younger sister Millie, and Millie is dancing to the park’s band but without a partner.  Grace is aware that Millie is attracting the attention of people sitting on nearby benches or on the grass; Millie has Down Syndrome and can do things that make others uncomfortable.  So Grace is thrilled when an extremely handsome man walks over to her sister and begins to dance with her.

That is the beginning of Grace and Jack’s courtship, one that ends a few months later with their marriage.  Grace has promised her parents that she will take care of her sister, and her sister and their parents are counting on that.  It’s been the parents’ wish to retire to New Zealand without bringing their younger daughter with them, and it’s been understood for years that when Millie finishes her stay at school she will move in with Grace.  Now Grace is beyond thrilled that Jack insists that that is exactly what he wants too, that having Millie with them will make their lives perfect.

So Grace and Jack marry, and after their honeymoon they go to the house that Jack has built as a surprise for Grace.  It’s magnificent, she thinks, although a bit far from town and hidden behind iron gates.  But Jack explains that because of the sensitive nature of his work, his need for security is high.

That, however, is not the real reason for their solitude.  It gradually becomes clear that Jack is a control freak, or even more than that.  Grace is his prisoner.  He no longer permits her to work, she is not allowed to have lunch with anyone except him, and she is not permitted to answer the phone.  Swift punishment ensues for any deviation from his orders, and the punishments get more and more unpleasant.  And then Grace is told the true reason that Jack wants her for his wife.

Behind Closed Doors is an absolutely chilling mystery.  Beneath the surface of the perfect façade of their lives, perfect being Jack’s operative word, lie torment and fear.  You follow Grace’s descent from a confident, professional woman into a fearful, almost enslaved, one; every chapter makes you wonder how this can possibly end for her.  Trust me, this is not a mystery to read just before you go to bed.

You can read more about B. A. Paris at various sites on the web.

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

BADLANDS by C. J. Box: Book Review

Nothing could be more ordinary than a twelve-year-old boy delivering newspapers so early in the morning that it’s still dark.  And nothing could be more ordinary than a speeding car going off a curving road in that same darkness.  But there’s nothing ordinary in the sequence of events that follow, bringing terror and death to the small town of Grimstad, Wyoming.

Kyle Westergaard has recently acquired a paper route, and he rides his route every morning, his bike heavy with the Tribune.  On this particular morning he sees the car crash that will change his life.

Two town police cars arrive almost immediately at the scene, but separately.  The officers look in the car and realize that nothing can be done for the man inside it, who is definitely dead.  When the two deputies turn and see Kyle, the older one wants to question him but then, looking at him more closely, says to his fellow deputy, “Look, see his face?  He won’t be any help.”  It’s clear from his features that Kyle suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  The short nose, upward slanted eyes, flattened cheekbones, and small head all indicate that Kyle is a boy with major developmental and intellectual disabilities, one who can’t be expected to help the police at all.

What the police don’t know is that a small bundle is thrown from the speeding car as it crashes and that Kyle picks it up and brings it home.  Home is a run-down cottage that houses Kyle, his mother, and his mother’s latest partner, T-Lock.  When Kyle gets home after his paper route is finished he puts the bundle under the garage workbench, but as luck would have it T-Lock finds it and is waiting for the boy when he returns home after school.  T-Lock is all worked up because the package contains both drugs and money, lots of each.  He extracts a promise from Kyle to tell no one, including his mother, by promising that all the money will be spent for Kyle’s mother’s benefit.  Given the difficulty Kyle has talking so that people can understand him, that’s not a difficult promise for him to keep.

The Grimstad police department has a new investigator, Cassie Dewell.  She recently quit her job in Helena, Montana to take this position, a job with a significant increase in pay and a seemingly much smarter and nicer chief of police than she had worked for previously.  But she’s surprised that Jon Kirkbride already has a specific investigation for her to pursue; he’s afraid that one of his officers is crooked and wants Cassie to help find the truth.

C. J. Box, author of the Joe Pickett mysteries, introduced Cassie in The Highway, the first novel in this new series.  She’s smart, tough, and anxious to make a new start for herself and her young son in Grimstad.  But there’s a lot on her plate, including her ambivalence about spying on her fellow officers.

Badlands is a totally engrossing thriller, with a captivating heroine, a great setting, and a realistic plot.  Another plus is the honesty and compassion that comes through when Box is writing about Kyle, his significant difficulties, and the perceptions that people have about him that are often wrong.  Cassie is the heroine of this book, Kyle its hero.

You can read more about C. J. Box at this web site.

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

 

DAMAGED by Lisa Scottoline: Book Review

It’s two weeks before Mary DiNunzio’s wedding, and she hardly has time to breathe.  She needs to approve the wedding menu, go for a fitting on her gown, and meet her mother-in-law for an appointment at the latter’s spa where the stylists want to do major renovations to/for Mary and her mother.  She’s getting truly frantic, and then along comes a case like no other she’s ever had.

Edward O’Brien is her new client, a widower in his seventies who is the guardian of his ten-year-old grandson Patrick.  Edward tells Mary that his grandson has dyslexia, has been bullied in school for years, and that there has been no remedial program for him in his school despite the federal law that mandates an appropriate education for every special needs student.  It also appears that despite the legal requirement that Patrick be tested every three years to chart his reading progress, no evaluation has ever been done after the first one five years earlier.

What brought Edward to Mary’s office is that he has just been served with a lawsuit, claiming that Patrick attacked his teacher with a scissors.  The truth is, Edward tells Mary, that it’s the teacher who slapped Patrick and humiliated him in front of the entire class.  The school’s lawyer is none other than Nick Machiavelli, someone Mary knows from her old neighborhood.  Nick claims that he is descended from Niccolo Machiavelli, the historian and politician known for his cunning and unscrupulous behavior, and Mary is pretty sure she believes him.  It would certainly explain a lot.  She has always wanted to face “The Dark Prince of South Philly,” as Nick is known, and this is her chance.

And there’s Anthony, Mary’s fiancé.  A college adjunct professor, he’s been in California since Mary accepted the O’Brien case, and he and Mary barely have had time to talk in his absence.  Upon his return, there’s another problem to be added to the mix that surrounds Mary.

Mary is now a partner in Rosato and DiNunzio, Philadelphia attorneys.  Readers of this series have followed Mary from her early days as a shy, diffident lawyer to the confident woman she is in Damaged.  Although she’s moved from the South Philadelphia home where she grew up, her heart is still there with her parents and the three Tonys who make up her extended family–Pigeon Tony, Tony-From-Down-The-Block, and Tony Feet.  She knows where she came from and who supported her in every way, and despite an unexpected opportunity that seems perfect on the surface, she’s not about to desert them now.

Lisa Scottline’s most recent mysteries have dealt with some very difficult contemporary subjects.  In Most Wanted it is sperm donation, in Corrupted it is the Pennsylvania juvenile prison system, and in Damaged it is the issue of children with special needs and how the public school system is failing them.  Over and above the excellent plots and characterizations in these mysteries, Ms. Scottoline’s books look deeply and compassionately into our society and its values.

You can read more about Lisa Scottline at this web site.

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