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THE GIRL WHO DIED by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

Imagine yourself as a thirty-year-old woman:   you leave your teaching position in Reykjavik, travel 700 kilometers (435 miles) to a village at the most western point in Iceland where you know no one, become a teacher to two young girls, live in an attic that by tradition is haunted, and discover that there is only one person in the town who wants you there.  That is the story of Una in The Girl Who Died.

In a departure from his other stand-alone mysteries and his two police procedurals, Ragnar Jónasson brings us to Skalár, a remote village on the Langanes Peninsula. This is where Una (most Icelandic people are known by their first names only) is hoping for a better, happier life.  Scraping by on her salary as a teacher in the country’s capital, having no romantic attachments, few friends, and a loving but remote relationship with her mother, she decides to take the position advertised for a “teacher at the end of the world.”

The harrowing car trip to Skalár should have been a sufficient warning to Una that her time there would not be an easy one.  Indeed, when she arrives she finds that the only person in the village who welcomes her arrival is Salka, the woman who pushed for Una to be hired and who has offered Una a room in her home.  Salka is a single mother whose seven-year-old daughter Edda is one of the two pupils in the town; nine-year-old Kolbrún is the other.  Skalár’s other residents, with one exception, are either indifferent to her arrival or clearly unfriendly, and Una can’t understand why.

The exception is Thór, a single man living with Hjördís, the woman who owns the farm where he’s staying.  Although he’s friendly, he doesn’t tell Una what brought him to the village or where he came from, and her brief encounters with Hjördís seem to Una to verge on the hostile.  She doesn’t think the two are in a relationship, but what are they to each other?

Enforcing her loneliness is the dismal weather, the lack of pleasant company, and such amenities as a restaurant, television reception, or a library.  And Una is plagued by nightmares.  She keeps hearing a lullaby and seeing a young girl in a white dress, appearing first in her small room in the attic and then in different rooms of the house.  She finally approaches Salka with her concerns and hears the story of a young girl who lived in the house and died there in 1927, a story that does nothing to put her mind at ease.

As in all Jónasson’s novels, The Girl Who Died features a cast of fascinating characters, a riveting plot, and a sense of a country that is unique for its language and culture.  This is another outstanding Icelandic mystery.

Ragnar Jónasson is a best-selling author in Iceland and the winner of several international awards.  He is the co-founder of Iceland Noir, the Reykjavik international crime writing festival.  Beginning at the age of 17, Ragnar translated 14 Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic.  In addition to the English editions, his own books have been translated into French, Italian, Polish, and German.  Ragnar has a law degree, works as an investment banker in Reykjavik, and teaches law at Reykjavik University.

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.

THE POSTSCRIPT MURDERS by Elly Griffiths: Book Review

When ninety-year-old Margaret Smith, known as Peggy, is found dead by her caregiver Natalka, at first glance it appears that she died of natural causes.   Among several other things on the table next to Peggy are her binoculars (which she used for watching birds, she told Natalka, but the caregiver thinks she also used it for watching people), a mystery novel, and a business card saying Mrs. M. Smith, Murder Consultant.

When Natalka starts clearing out the flat at Peggy’s son’s request, she’s so struck by what she finds in many of the books that she goes to the local police station to speak to someone in authority.  She tells Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaus that many of the mystery novels on Peggy’s shelves are dedicated to her or that she’s listed in the acknowledgements.  Why would so many authors give thanks to this elderly English woman for her help?

“It’s suspicious, isn’t it?” Natalka asks Harbinder, showing her the business card she found.  “A woman dies and then it turns out that she’s a murder consultant.”

In addition to Natalka and Harbinder, two other people quickly learn of Peggy’s death.  Benedict Cole, a former monk in the Catholic Church and now the owner of the seaside Coffee Shack, and Edwin Fitzgerald, another resident of Peggy’s building who worked at the BBC before retiring, were friends of hers.  Natalka voices her thoughts about the death to the men and tells them they must go to the funeral.   “…the murderer always attends the funeral,” she tells them.  “…don’t you know anything?”

After the funeral, Natalka is more certain than ever that the death is suspicious, and she inveigles Benedict into going to the deceased’s apartment with her to look through Peggy’s belongings.  Having gone through her books, they’re beginning on her papers when the door opens and a masked man enters holding a gun.  He keeps it pointed at the two while he bends down, picks up a book from the floor, and leaves.

Natalka, Benedict, Edwin, and Harbinder form a loose quartet trying to discover the truth behind Peggy’s death.  No one but Natalka is totally convinced that she was actually murdered, but then there’s a second death, that of the mystery author Dex Challoner, and it’s clear that he was killed.  It was Challoner’s book that was next to Peggy when she died, and at that point her two friends, her caregiver, and the policewoman move into high gear to discover if there’s a connection between the two deaths and the reason for them.

Elly Griffith’s latest mystery is a terrific follow-up to her Edgar Award-winning The Stranger Diaries The clever plot and believable characters will keep you turning page after page.

You can read more about Elly Griffith 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 BIRDS THAT STAY by Ann Lambert: Book Review

What could be more peaceful than the small village of Ste. Lucie, set in Canada’s Laurentian Mountains?  That is, it was peaceful until handyman Louis Lachance went to do a small repair job for a neighbor, Madame Anna Newman, and found her body lying in her garden.

Chief Homicide Inspector Roméo Leduc is called to the scene.  Madame Newman’s house is almost pathologically neat and clean, devoid of any knickknacks or artwork with the exception of several beautiful needlepoint landscapes on the walls.  The only unusual thing was a necklace one of the policemen found in her garden, a gold chain with a charm hanging from one of the chain’s broken pieces.

The charm is the Hebrew letter chai, a word that means life in English, Leduc tells the young officer.  Leduc is more familiar with Hebrew letters and Jewish symbols than most non-Jews because he worked as a shabbos goy for Orthodox Jews in Montreal, doing work (lighting stoves, turning lights on and off) that they were forbidden to do on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath.  But there were no other signs of Judaism in the house–no sabbath candles, no mezzuah on her front door.

Marie Russell, another resident of Ste. Lucie, is writing a book on science for children while she’s on sabbatical from her college teaching position.  She’s wondering how explicit she should be about the mating habits of insects–do the youngsters need to know that earthworms are hermaphroditic and can mate twice at the same time, for example, or that male honeybees explode after impregnating the female and then die?

Marie returns to her former neighborhood in Montreal, to the street where she grew up, to visit her mother who is now in the throes of dementia.  The families who lived on the block when she was a child are almost all gone now, but it is the block itself that is really the center of the story, the place where Marie’s childhood memories begin to unlock the mystery of Madame Newman’s murder.

When Marie finally makes the painful decision to place her mother in a memory care facility, she sees another visitor whom she believes she recognizes from her childhood neighborhood, and the disparate strains of the story start to come together.  And so do Roméo and Marie.

Even though the secrets of this murder go back decades and started in a country far from Canada, once the secrets are unearthed they touch the lives of Marie, Roméo, and many others in the community.  The novel’s characters are totally believable, their personal problems compelling.  And the author makes the city of Montreal and the town of Ste. Lucie come alive; they almost become characters in their own right.

Ann Lambert is a playwright whose works have been performed in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia.  She has taught English literature for thirty years at Dawson College in Montreal and is the former head of The Playwriting Program at the National Theatre School of Canada.  You can read more about her 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.

I never thought the day would come when I would view the postal carrier/FedEx/UPS delivery person with alarm.  So let this be a warning to all–be careful what you wish for!

The thought of having thirteen mysteries waiting to be read once would have seemed like heaven.  Now there are that number of novels staring at me balefully in my study.  In truth, they probably aren’t staring balefully; that’s just my overwrought imagination, I suppose.  They include books from publishers, books I’ve purchased, books from the Minuteman Library system.  Regarding the latter, I have fifteen books on hold, including three that are “in transit,” according to my account.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I’m a fast reader.  I can read a 300-page book in a day if there are no annoying interruptions such as laundry or cleaning.  But even I have a breaking point, and I may have reached it.  The problem is that no matter how many books I read more are published every day, and many of them I am sure are worth reading.

I’ve thought about writing to various publishers and asking them for a short moratorium on new mysteries, just for a couple of months until I can catch up.  But I’m afraid that my request will backfire, and I’ll run out of books before the moratorium is lifted.

So now I’m between a self-made rock and a hard place.  I guess I’ll just keep turning the pages faster and faster, hoping to catch up.

Marilyn

DANCE WITH DEATH by Will Thomas: Book Review

Will Thomas takes readers back to the days when British royalty, in the name of Queen Victoria, rules twenty-five percent of the world.  Not only was her word law in Canada, Australia, India, and Ireland among other countries, but her word apparently was law within her extended family as well.

Her desire to have her favorite granddaughter, Princess Alix of Hesse, married to the future tsar of Russia, Nicolas, is the story behind the story in Dance With Death.

The private enquiry agents, Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn, are approached by Jim Hercules, an American Negro (the preferred term for African-Americans more than a hundred years ago) to protect his employer, the tsarevich Nicolas.  The young heir is on a visit to England to attend the wedding of his cousin George, and Jim believes that his life is in danger from several sources.

Jim tells Cyrus and Thomas that many members of Nicolas’ own family are concerned about his ascending to the throne, which may be sooner rather than later given the ill health of his father, and they may be willing to take steps to make certain that this doesn’t happen.

Also opposing Nicolas are members of various anti-royalty groups including Socialists, Communists, and anarchists, all of whom are protesting the lavish wedding of Prince George as well as the state visit of the tsarevich.  Leading the protests is Eleanor Marx, daughter of the famous or infamous Karl Marx, depending on your political point of  view.

In addition, Nicolas tells the detectives about his mistress, the young ballet dancer Mathilde Kschessinka. When Llewelyn presents himself to her, pretending to be an emissary from the tsarevich, Mathilde informs him that she has determined that Nicolas will marry her, not Princess Alix, despite the fact that she is a commoner.  “I shall shoot us both if I cannot have him….He is my Nicky, or he is no one else’s,” Mathilde tells Thomas.

Throughout all this, Nicolas remains oblivious to these threats against him.  It’s Cyrus and Thomas’ job to protect him without letting him know of the dangers he faces.

Will Thomas has a gift for combining the characters of his imagination with the historic characters of the end of the nineteenth century.  Cyrus Barker, Thomas Llewelyn, and Jim Hercules are as “real” to a reader as Queen Victoria, Nicolas, and Mathilde Kschessinka.

The author makes all the emotions and actions understandable, even though they may seem strange to us.  The queen’s insistence that her granddaughter marry Nicolas, even though that would mean Princess Alix would have to convert to Russian Orthodoxy against her will; Nicolas’ unwillingness to face the opposition to his becoming tsar; Mathilde’s obsession to be the tsarina, even though she is a commoner–all these true-life events played a part in the history of the nineteenth century as well as in the book.

Will Thomas has written another fascinating chapter in the lives of Barker and Llewelyn.  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.

 

STARGAZER by Anne Hillerman: Book Review

Frankly, I cannot get enough of Anne Hillerman’s mysteries.  Stargazer, the sixth in her Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito series, once again takes readers to the sovereign Navajo Nation, enhancing the understanding of its culture and customs to those who are not familiar with them.

Steve Jones desperately wants a reconciliation with his wife Maya Kelsey, but she is not interested.  She tells him that their marriage is over, and to prove it she hands him a copy of the divorce papers she’s filed.  He becomes furious, threatening to make Maya’s life “a living hell.”  And the next morning a young boy finds Steve’s lifeless body slumped in the front seat of his Jaguar.

That same morning Officer Bernie Manuelito receives a phone call from Maya’s brother Leon.  He tells her that his sister was supposed to pick up her son at his house, but she never appeared.  Bernie and Maya were college roommates, so Bernie has a personal reason as well as a professional one for trying to locate her.  In attempting to track Maya down, Bernie receives a call from a detective in another department, Tara Williams, and learns that the dead body the boy found is Maya’s estranged husband Steve.

Upon returning to the station, Bernie’s husband/supervisor Jim Chee greets her with a stunning announcement.  Maya had walked into the station a short while earlier and confessed to the murder of her husband without giving any reason.  However, Bernie refuses to believe her.  “We have an unsolicited confession without any excuse, motivation, and justification for the murder,” Bernie tells Jim.  She can’t imagine why Maya would so calmly admit to killing her (almost) former husband, and she is determined to investigate.

However, there are other cases to pursue in the Navajo Nation.  In addition to the issue of Steve Jones’ death, Bernie has become involved in rescuing an abused woman, serving a warrant on a man who hasn’t obeyed a summons to appear in court, and dealing with her mother’s increasingly fragile memory.  Stress is piling up, and the differences between her opinion and that of her husband’s about Maya’s confession have made their usual loving bond more than a little frayed.

Although retired from his position as a detective in the Navajo Tribal Police Force, Joe Leaphorn still acts as a mentor for Bernie and Jim.  In Stargazer, Bernie phones Joe and asks if they could talk “face-to-face, not over the phone.”  When she gets to his house, she voices her concerns about whether she should apply to become a detective; she’s worried about all the “official BS” and about how her being called away on cases may affect her relationship with her husband.

In this time of non-travel, visiting the beautiful Navajo Nation, even in our imaginations, is a boon.  Many thanks to Anne Hillerman for bringing Bernie, Jim, and Joe back into our lives.  And as an added plus, the front cover art of Stargazer is absolutely breathtaking.

You can read more about Anne Hillerman 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 HIDING PLACE by Paula Munier: Book Review

Twenty years ago, the lives of three people in a small Vermont town were forever changed by an encounter in the Two Rivers Theater.  The first was Ruby Rucker, a former Las Vegas resident who was finding her husband George and her life in Lamoille County, Vermont, not much to her liking; the second was Thomas Kilgore, a general ne’er-do-well, drunkard, and wife-abuser; the third was Beth Kilgore, his beaten, frightened, and downtrodden wife.

In a very short time, all three would disappear.

In The Hiding Place, the third novel in the series, Mercy is called to the bedside of former deputy sheriff August Pitts.  Pitts was the partner of Mercy’s grandfather, Sheriff “Red,” and according to Mercy’s grandmother Patience, Pitts’ late arrival at a crime scene caused the sheriff’s death.  She’s never forgiven Pitts, even as he lies dying.

However, Mercy is curious about two things: what she might find in the boxes of materials labeled BETH KILGORE that Pitts gives her when she visits him and his request, which may have been his last, that she “find the girl.”  Patience tells Mercy the story of the unhappy Kilgore marriage and their disappearance from the town.  Thomas Kilgore’s family said the couple moved to California, but Beth’s father didn’t believe it.  However, he could never find any trace of Beth or Thomas, and he died without knowing what happened to his only child.

The past continues to push its way into Mercy’s life.  She’s told that George Rucker, the man who killed her grandfather, has escaped from prison and is believed to be heading to Vermont.  According to Rucker’s cellmate, he has been harboring a vendetta against Patience, Red’s widow,  and “she was going to pay for what she did.”

Patience is not cowed by this news, calling it “nonsense,” and she tells Mercy the story behind the death of her husband.  Then the two women hear a knock at the door.  Alerted by Elvis, the Belgian shepherd she has inherited from her late fiancé, Mercy tried to stop her grandmother from opening the door, but she’s too late.  A blinding flash and explosion follow.

The many threads in the novel seem separate at first, but they are, in fact, all related.  The missing Kilgores, the body of a biologist/ filmmaker found in the Green Mountain National Forest, the prison escapee, the strained relationship between Mercy and Game Warden Troy Warner, and even the unexpected appearance of a former soldier and friend of Mercy’s late fiancé who insists that Elvis was promised to him–all these strands come together and prove necessary to the solution of crimes both old and new.

Paula Munier’s latest entry in the Mercy Carr series is a worthy successor to the two previous ones.  The characters are real, the plot is suspenseful and moves at a rapid pace, and the connections between Mercy and the important people in her life are believable and convincing.  And the author’s love for the state of Vermont is palpable.

You can read more about Paula Munier 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.

EVERY WAKING HOUR by Joanna Schaffhausen: Book Review

It is, as my son Rich used to say when he was young, deja vu all over again for Ellery Hathaway.

Ellery is the survivor of a brutal kidnapping that occurred when she was a teenager, nearly two decades ago.  The multiple cuttings on her arms are the visible reminders of the physical torture Francis Coben subjected her to; the multiple rapes she suffered are not outwardly visible but are still ever-present in her mind.

As far as is known, Ellery is the only survivor out of the more than sixteen girls Coben kidnapped.   That’s because FBI Agent Reed Markham rescued her from a locked closet in Coben’s apartment, and the survivor and the agent have had an on again/off again relationship in recent years.  At the moment it is definitely in the on mode, as they are having a tentative romantic relationship that naturally brings up multiple issues for Ellery.

Now they are spending the afternoon together in Boston with Tula, Reed’s young daughter, when they hear a frightened woman’s scream.  “Help!  She’s gone!  Someone, please help me!”  Nothing could be more terrifying to both Ellery and Reed, bringing back as it does the horrific event that brought them together.

Twelve-year-old Chloe Lockhart was with her nanny Mimi when she asked for permission to walk a few yards away from the bench where both were sitting in order to buy a pretzel.  Mimi tells Ellery and Reed that she is never supposed to let Chloe out of her sight, but after the girl’s repeated requests the nanny relented.  But Chloe hasn’t returned and isn’t answering her cell phone.

Are Chloe’s parents simply unusually watchful or are they obsessively over-protective?  Why are there bars on the windows of their palatial home?  Why can’t their twelve-year-old daughter go anywhere without her nanny?

Now a rookie police detective with the Boston Police Department, Ellery tells Mimi to wait with Reed and his daughter while she scours the area for Chloe.  As she pauses at an intersection, she hears a strange sound coming from an adjacent trash can.  On the top of the garbage dumped inside the can there’s a cell phone, and its ringtone is Porky Pig’s famous line, “That’s all, folks.”  The caller ID bears the name “Mimi.”

In addition to the search for the missing girl, Ellery and Reed are dealing with personal issues.  His ex-wife is thinking of moving out of state with her lover, taking Tula with her.  She cites Reed’s lack of a predictable schedule in seeing his daughter and his dangerous job as her reasons, saying she is willing to fight him in court to change the custody agreement that gives them both equal physical custody.

Ellery, meantime, is having difficulty dealing with her undeniable attraction to Reed while at the same time dealing with memories of her abduction and its violent aftermath.

Every Waking Hour is the fourth novel in the Ellery Hathaway series.  In each book we get a deeper look into Ellery’s life and mind and see how she is coping, successfully or not, with the traumas of the past.  Joanna Schaffhausen has written another compelling mystery with a heroine you hope will at last find happiness and peace of mind.

You can read more about Joanna Schaffhausen 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 EXTRAVAGANT DEATH by Charles Finch: Book Review

An Englishman born and bred, Charles Lenox is about to take a voyage, somewhat reluctantly, to the United States.

In a previous novel, Lenox’s investigation led to uncovering a major scandal at Scotland Yard.  Now the Prime Minister himself, on behalf of the Queen’s government, has asked Lenox to allow the barristers to use his written account at the trial rather than having him give his testimony in person.  Listening to his testimony read out by the dry voice of a barrister, Benjamin Disraeli says, would be given great weight by the jury without the “ravenous press” having an opportunity to interview and harass Lenox and, of course, further embarrass the government.

Disraeli assures Lenox that there was no way the three accused Scotland Yard inspectors could go free, and thus the detective is persuaded to make himself unavailable during the trial and visit America.

Lenox is reluctant to leave his wife and their two young daughters to go to America on a fact-finding visit, as the government wishes him to do.  However, he believes it’s his duty to follow his Queen’s wishes, and Lady Jane, his wife, gives her blessing to his trip.  So he leaves, first stopping in New York and then, according to his plan, Boston.

However, the best laid plans, as they say, often go awry.  At a luncheon in Manhattan the detective meets Teddy Blaine, son of an immensely wealthy family, who is a devotee of mysteries and murder cases.  Together they set out on the train to Boston the day after the luncheon to discuss all matters relating to deduction, but after the train pulls out of the Stamford, Connecticut station it suddenly stops.

A messenger boards bearing a telegram; it says that there has been a murder in Newport, and the writer of the telegram requests that Lenox investigate it.  The message is signed William Stuyvesant Schermerhorn IV, and Blaine assures Lenox that he is a man above reproach.  Hoping that it will be easy to find the murderer, the detective agrees to a short stay in the wealthy Rhode Island enclave, and Blaine asks to follow along and perhaps be of help.

Lily Allingham is the young woman who was murdered.  Her radiant beauty had turned Newport society upside down, with its wealthy inhabitants offering party invitations and boat trips to attract her.  Two wealthy young men, Willie Schermerhorn and Lawrence Vanderbilt, were courting her, but it seems that no one knows if she had decided which one would be her future husband.  Then, in the midst of one of the city’s many balls, she unceremoniously left by herself and was later found dead on the property belonging to one of the suitors.

An Extravagant Death is an apt title for a book set in one of the wealthiest locations in the United States.  Families with the names of Astor, Vanderbilt (the latter family is considered nouveau riche and therefore not in the top tier of Newport society), Morgans, Wideners, and Schermerhorns live in their “cottages” for six weeks every summer before moving on to one of their other homes, and it’s a delight to read about the mores and scandals of the 19th-century elite.

Charles Finch’s latest novel is a wonderful addition to the Charles Lenox mysteries.  You can read more about him on many sites on the internet.

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.

EVERY LAST FEAR by Alex Finlay: Book Review

One could hardly imagine a more typical family than the Pines of Nebraska.  Father, mother, three sons, a daughter.  So what catastrophe could have left only two of them alive?

The event that precipitated the tragedies began several years before the novel opens.  Danny, the oldest of the Pine children, was a high school football star at a party with his girlfriend Charlotte.  Then everyone, including Danny, started drinking and everything got out of control.  There was a fight, Charlotte fled, and she was found dead along the river the next day.  Danny was arrested, confessed to her murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

The book opens with Matt, the second oldest son, being summoned to his dorm room at NYU by his dorm’s resident assistant.  There, FBI Agent Sarah Keller gives him the heartbreaking news that his parents, sister, and younger brother have died in an apparent accident in Mexico.  Details are scarce, she informs him, but it appears to have been a faulty gas leak in a cottage they were renting in the resort town of Tulun.

Matt is stunned, needless to say, by the deaths of his parents and siblings.  His last contact from them was a text from his sister a few days earlier, but nothing since.  And now Agent Keller wants him to visit his brother in prison and give him the horrendous news personally.  Matt protests that he hasn’t seen Danny in years because that’s the way his brother wants it, but he finally relents and the two brothers meet for the first time since Danny’s imprisonment.

Agent Keller tells Matt that the Mexican authorities are making a fuss about releasing the bodies to anyone but a family member, and obviously that means Matt.   So he flies to Tulun, but nothing goes as it should.

Every Last Fear is written in several voices–Matt’s, Agent Keller’s, Matt’s father Evan’s, and his sister Maggie’s.  Evan Pine is the family member most obsessed by his son’s imprisonment.  He is convinced that Danny was coerced by the local police force into confessing, and the case became a national cause celebre when it was made into a documentary.  Danny’s defense was first mounted by an inexperienced local lawyer, then by other attorneys, finally reaching the Supreme Court, but his conviction was not overturned.

So when Evan gets a text with a photo that appears to be of Charlotte in a bar in Tulun, he feels it’s his final opportunity to find out the truth and free his son.  That led to the family’s fatal trip to Mexico and opened a Pandora’s Box of questions about the truth of Charlotte’s death.

Every Last Fear is a breathtaking thriller, with a plot that will keep you reading to the last page.  Power, privilege, mistakes–they’re all there and all believably realistic and skillfully drawn.

Alex Finlay is the pseudonym of the author, and at this time not even his/her gender has been revealed.  You can read more about him/her in an excellent discussion of the novel 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.

 

GANGSTERLAND by Tod Goldberg: Book Review

What does it say about me that I was rooting all the way for Sal Cupertine to come out on top?

Of course, you have to know that Sal is a stone-cold killer, a man who has actually lost count of how many men he’s “offed.”  More than fifty, certainly, he thinks, possibly up to one hundred.  And yet, and yet….

I’m hoping that what it says about me is not that I’ve lost my values and morals but rather than Tod Goldberg has written an extraordinary novel with a protagonist who does the most vicious things but somehow keeps you (or at least me) on his side.

Sal is a member of the Chicago Mafia, not a big-time gangster but more of an errand boy who is called when someone needs to be killed.  The victim might be another Mafia member or just someone who knows or sees something that might be dangerous to the mob.

He’s always been careful, which explains his extraordinary success rate, but one night something goes terribly wrong and he kills three F.B.I. agents and a confidential informant in a hotel room.  He contacts his cousin Ronnie, who is much higher up on the command chain to tell him the bad news, and Ronnie comes up with a plan.  The next thing Sal knows he’s in Las Vegas with a new face and a new identity.

Meet David Cohen, youth rabbi at Temple Beth Israel.  This is Sal’s new identity, 1,747.5 miles from the Windy City.  He also has a new religion, which he has to learn about very quickly, but luckily for him he’s known in mob circles as the Rain Man because he never forgets anything he’s seen or heard.

That will certainly come in handy when he has to learn everything in the Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the thousand other books of commentary and history of the Jewish peopl.  After all, on the Jewish calendar it’s now 5,781, so there’s a lot of backstory involved.

David’s Las Vegas minder is the son-in-law of Temple Beth Israel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Kates.  Just what has the mob got on Kates, David wonders, to make him go along with this charade?  A lot, as it happens.

As all this is happening on the gangster front, Special Agent (soon to be ex-agent) Jeff Hopper is doing his best to find Sal; Jeff of course doesn’t know that Sal no longer exists and has become Rabbi Cohen.  The agent has become a pariah in the agency because it’s seen as his carelessness in putting the hotel room in his own name and thus causing the deaths of three of his fellow agents and one C. I.

Hopper has been demoted and forbidden to look for Sal, and when he disregards this order he’s fired.  But that doesn’t stop him, and he and a new recruit to the agency continue to search for the killer of their comrades.

Tod Goldberg has written a fascinating novel about killing as a way of life and a man who does it without apparently a shred of remorse.  It’s not even that Sal believe all the people he’s killed deserve it, it’s simply that killing them is his job and he does it efficiently.  But still there’s something human about him, as the reader sees in his desire to be reunited with his wife and young son after his forced move to Vegas.

You can read more about Tod Goldberg 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 GIRL IN THE BOSTON BOX by Chuck Latovich: Book Review

Have you ever heard of the Boston Box?  Neither had Caitlyn Gautry until she started doing research for her doctorate at Harvard.

While taking a tour of Boston’s historic Otis House, one of the other members of Carolyn’s group asks their guide about the Boston Box, which he says he had heard refers to a small secret chamber in homes built in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The benign version was that the Box was used to shelter runaway slaves; the malevolent version was that it was a room used for torture or illicit sexual activities.

The guide says that since a Box has never been found or otherwise authenticated, historians have come to believe it’s an urban legend, such as building a house over an ancient burial ground will bring death to the house’s inhabitants or a chain letter saying that if you don’t continue the chain that bad luck will befall you.  But the possibility of such Boxes fascinates Caitlyn and makes her wonder if she can incorporate the question of whether such rooms actually existed into her dissertation on Boston architecture.

Her advisor, Professor Bacht, is dismissive about her research, arrogant and insulting.  But his negative reaction has the opposite effect from what he intended, making Caitlyn more determined than ever to continue looking into the mysterious Boxes and to find out the reason they were incorporated into some of the city’s homes, if in fact they were.

At the same time as Caitlyn begins her investigation into the architectural mystery, another mystery is taking place in Boston.  Mark Chieswicz receives a call from the Boston Police telling him that his brother David is dead.  The news itself is shocking, but even more so is the information that David was found murdered, stabbed to death and left on the side of the expressway.

Mark informs the detective that he and his brother haven’t seen each other in more than two decades and that he had no idea his brother was in town.  And he’s even more surprised, actually stunned, when he’s given a file containing information about his brother, a ne’er-do-well with several prison stays behind him, who had a bank account with a balance of $633,215.38.

The Girl in the Boston Box is written in the voices of Caitlyn and Mark in alternating chapters.  At first the two characters seem to have nothing in common.  What could be the relationship between a Harvard graduate student from Pennsylvania and a forty-six-year-old man struggling to make ends meet on his part-time job as a Duck Boat tour driver?  What could possibly be the connection that draws them each into a near-death situation?

Chuck Latovich has written an intriguing mystery, one with fascinating characters, a very clever plot, and a wonderful sense of the city of Boston.  You can read more about him on various internet sites.

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.

WINTER COUNTS by David Hesla Wanbli Weiden: Book Review

Virgil Wounded Horse isn’t sure how to describe himself, and that’s understandable.  A member of the Lakota Nation in South Dakota, he’s lived a difficult life including multiple family deaths, job insecurity, and alcoholism.  But now he’s pretty much pulled himself together and is working at a hard-to-define job.  He’s not a private investigator, certainly not a member of the tribal police on the Rosebud Indian Reservation where he lives, so he’s become “an enforcer.”

The Lakota Way is to show mercy; it’s one of the seven Lakota values.  But for Virgil, who has had to deal with so much trauma and unhappiness, when he gets the chance for some payback he takes it.  Counting coup, or going up to an enemy and touching him with a stick and escaping unharmed, isn’t Virgil’s way.  He wants to make up for all the hurt he’s endured, and now tribe members are hiring him to get some justice when the authorities can’t or won’t get involved.

Under the law, the tribal police can’t prosecute a felony; that is up to the federal authorities.  But the feds usually ignore “lesser crimes” like child or domestic abuse, arson, rape, and theft, so the Lakotas have turned to Virgil to get revenge or justice, depending on the way one looks at it.

Virgil is approached by Ben Short Bear, a member of the tribe’s council who is planning to run for mayor of the reservation.  He tells Virgil that heroin is appearing on the rez, and he wants it stopped before it affects more kids.  He offers Virgil five thousand dollars to go to Denver to find Rick Crow, an old enemy of Virgil’s, who Ben says is responsible for bringing the drug up from Mexico.  Virgil is reluctant to take the job, but when he discovers his nephew Nathan unconscious from a drug overdose, he decides to accept the job offer.

Complicating Virgil’s relationship with Ben is the return of Virgil’s former lover, Marie.  The daughter of Ben and his wife, Marie grew up in relative luxury on the reservation, and her parents never accepted her relationship with Virgil.  She tells Virgil that she knows where Rick Crow lives in Denver and insists on going with him.

Winter Counts is a beautifully written story.  Besides the mystery, this novel is a history lesson into the shameful treatment of American Indians by state and federal governments.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled citizen of the Siscangu Lakota Nation, an attorney, and a professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.  Winter Crow is the first novel in what appears to be a series with Virgil Wounded Horse as its protagonist; I look forward with great anticipation to the second one.

You can read more about the author at this website.

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

FOOL’S ERRAND by Jeffrey S. Stephens: Book Review

Fathers and sons.  They can have a warm and nurturing relationship…or not.  And since Fool’s Errand is a mystery novel, it’s probably the latter.

Blackie Rinaldi was a paradox, an enigma, a puzzle.  As the protagonist describes it shortly after the novel opens, his father disliked all ethnic groups (except Italians) equally, which in his mind meant he wasn’t racist.  He was a low-level gangster who read Shelly and Keats.  He loved his older brother Vincent and wanted his respect but pulled a knife out at Vincent’s daughter’s wedding when he felt he had been disrespected.

Six years after Blackie’s death, his widow gives their son a box of things that belonged to Blackie.  There were the usual letters and photos of a man’s life, but there’s also an envelope with “For My Son” in his father’s handwriting.  Reading the contents will change his son’s life.

The letter inside talks about Money with a capital M, his best friend Benny, and France, which is where Blackie and Benny were stationed toward the end of World War II.  Getting in touch with Benny seems to be the only way to find out more about what happened in France and why his father, who always talked about a big deal, had never told him about it.

A quick meeting with his cousin Frank helps him track Benny to his new home in Las Vegas.  Benny reluctantly admits that there had been something going on in France that involved Blackie, himself, and a Frenchman.  “You oughtta let this go….You don’t want to get yourself in a jam,” is his advice.  But since it’s obvious to Benny that he won’t let it go, Benny gives him the name of the Frenchman who was also involved in the mysterious affair and the last address he has for Gilles de la Houssay.

Flying back to New York the next day, he meets Donna, and as they disembark he invites her to dinner the following evening.  Then, on a whim, he invites her to go with him to France.  She agrees, and the two fly off to Paris to meet Gilles.

Over dinner in a Parisian restaurant Gilles recounts the story of Blackie’s time in France, how the two Americans were recruited by the army to find items stolen from families by the Nazis and their French collaborators.  And then Blackie’s son learns what it was that his father and Benny stole.

Now maybe you’re more aware reading this post than I was reading the book, and perhaps you’ve notice something “off,” something missing in the review.  If you haven’t, here it is–nowhere is the protagonist’s name. 

That’s right, he’s nameless throughout the book, something that was done so skillfully that I didn’t realize it until I went looking for his name in order to write this review.  He’s referred to as Blackie’s son throughout.  He introduces himself to other characters but not to us.  Neither his mother nor his sister names him, and neither do Benny, Donna, or the Frenchman.  So clever!  So I guess I’ll just call him The Son.

Fool’s Errand is a close look into family dynamics, the relationship between fathers and sons, and how that influences The Son’s life.  It’s filled with fascinating characters, an exciting plot, and, did I mention, a nameless protagonist?

You can read more about Jeffrey S. Stephens 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.

 

 

WATCH HER by Edwin Hill: Book Review

One might think that a Harvard University research librarian wouldn’t get involved in murders and other crimes.  But that’s because you haven’t met Hester Thursby.  Somehow crime always finds her.

Watch Her revolves around Prescott University, a for-profit art school in Boston.  It had humble beginnings a few decades ago, but through clever marketing and perhaps some other less savory means, it has become a major player in the city’s landscape.

Now the university is poised to open new classrooms and a state-of-the-art gallery, and it’s having a huge party to celebrate. Prescott is privately owned by the Matson family, with Tucker Matson the chairman of the school’s board and his daughter Vanessa its president.

The real work is done behind the scenes by Maxine Pawlinkowski, Prescott’s general manager who is in charge of everything from speech-writing to hiring contractors.  No one outside of the Matsons knows exactly what her position entails, but Maxine is fine with that; she has her own reasons for staying at her job.

Hester and her non-husband (that’s how she refers to him) Morgan Maguire are invited to the gala, and shortly after it begins Maxine’s cell phone rings with a text from Jennifer Matson, Tucker’s wife, about a problem at their home.  Maxine asks Angela White, a police detective who is another guest at the party, and Hester to go with her to the Matson mansion, and the three women leave and head for Pinebank.

Jennifer says she believes someone has broken into the house, although nothing appears to have been taken.  She doesn’t want this reported to the police and seems annoyed at Angela’s presence and a bit embarrassed as well.  The only thing out of place, Jennifer says, is the copy of George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede, which she found lying on a table after the alleged intruder left.

The Matsons have a strange family dynamic.  Jennifer is an alcoholic who rarely leaves the house, which explains why she wasn’t at the celebration.  Tucker is filled with self-importance, still believing he is running the school although he’s no longer its president.  And their son-in-law, Gavin Drew, is Prescott’s CFO and has a reputation that makes students wary of being alone with him.

Hester has made a name for herself as a researcher who is able to find missing persons, so it’s not a surprise when Maxine approaches her with an unusual request.  Maxine has been examining student records and finding that they are incomplete.  She had asked Gavin, who as CEO is in charge of this information, for all the records but has yet to receive it.  Her suspicions are aroused, and she decides to have Hester locate a number of current and former students, but Hester can find no traces for many of them.  Nothing on social media, no websites, no digital trail.  Something is definitely wrong.

Watch Her takes a long look into the secrets that occur between people — the Matsons, Hester and Morgan, Maxine and Tucker, Angela and her colleague Stan — that won’t stay buried.  Even people who profess to love each other have secrets that, when unearthed, have devastating consequences.

Edwin Hill has written a fascinating study into the behaviors of seemingly ordinary people, people you might know, who will stop at nothing to keep things from being revealed.  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.