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THE TUNNEL by Carl-Johan Vallgren: Book Review

Of course I’d read Scandinavian mysteries before I taught a class on this topic last fall, and I thought I was very familiar with crime stories in the Nordic countries.  But then, reading novel after novel that went ever deeper inside the “dark side” of these nations made me rethink the stereotype of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark being populated by healthy, outdoor-loving, and liberal/socialist people who were among the happiest in the world.

Now comes another black, bleak look into the underside of Stockholm, with the drug and sex trades combining for the worst possible reasons and achieving the worst possible outcome.

The Tunnel is the second mystery to feature Danny Katz, one of the one-quarter of one percent of the Jewish population in Sweden.  Always an outlier, Danny survives by using his phenomenal ability with language sand computers and his quick fists to make a place for himself in that society.  Having lived through a difficult childhood, which included being placed in a foster home situation, he fell victim to drugs and spent years on the streets of Stockholm.

As the book begins Danny has been clean for ten years, although it is a daily struggle to resist the lure of heroin.  One of the very few friends he has kept in touch with through the years is a Swedish-born ethnic Finn named Jorma.  Jorma had a difficult life also, but he too has turned himself around and recently has been living a crime-free life.

However, he has just been approached to take part in a very lucrative armored car robbery, and the temptation is too much for him to resist.  When Jorma asks himself why he is willing to do this, his only answer is that his life has become boring, that he needs the excitement and rush of crime to feel alive.

In the meantime, Katz has reconnected with another person from his past.  He knows Ramón “from before,” he tells Ramón’s druggie girlfriend when she opens the door to their apartment.  “From before” is when both men were drug users, and at that time Ramón saved Katz from an overdose.

Now Ramón tells Katz that he and his girlfriend Jenny have come into big money and a large amount of heroin, and he wonders if Danny wants to become a partner in their business.  The latter declines but leaves the apartment with several packages of heroin that Ramón insists he take to “share with friends,” if he’d like.  And, he assures Danny, “Anyone who uses this will definitely be back to buy more.”

This book is almost unrelentingly depressing.  Drugs, sexual exploitation, and violence are on virtually every page, and the difficulties of leaving behind one’s traumatic early years are all too clear.  So, you may ask, why am I blogging about The Tunnel?  Simply because it’s a beautifully written book that looks into the above-mentioned problems as well as the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Sweden.  It’s a difficult read but a worthwhile one.  And the novel’s last sentence is one of the saddest I’ve read in a long time.

Carl-Johan Vallgren is a novelist, musician, and singer.  His The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot was awarded the August Prize in 2002 for the best Swedish novel that year.  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 VANISHING MAN by Charles Finch: Book Review

I always find it interesting when an author decides to write a prequel to an existing series.  The Charles Lenox novels, featuring the protagonist as a private detective, is set in the Victorian era; The Vanishing Man, the second prequel to Charles Finch’s first mystery, A Beautiful Blue Death, takes place in 1853, some 15 years into the queen’s reign.

Charles has become a bit of an outcast because of his desire to become a detective.  To choose such a profession simply isn’t done in the rigid aristocratic society into which he was born, and it has resulted in fewer luncheon invitations and a not-so-subtle withdrawal from the ranks of England’s most eligible bachelors, at least in the thoughts of the mothers of marriageable-age daughters.  But Charles is content with his decision.

Still, being human and sensitive to his demotion by society, he is pleased when he receives an invitation from the most august nobleman in the country, the Duke of Dorset.  The duke’s family ranks immediately below the royal family, and his home and personality reflect his prominence.  To call his residence a mansion would be an understatement, and it reveals the family’s position in society, having the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as its neighbors.  And, Charles thought, “If you took the whole power of Oxford University it might compete with the duke’s.  But not with his wealth.”

When Charles arrives at Dorset’s home, he is led into the private private study, not the public private study where he takes large meetings.  Obviously the duke wants to see Charles on a most pressing and confidential matter.

A painting has been stolen from the wall of the private private study.  Charles sees that there had been eight paintings hanging, but now there are seven.  To his surprise, however, the duke tells him that the missing painting, a portrait of one of his ancestors, is of no particular value and has no sentimental meaning; it is a different painting that still hangs on the wall that is nearly priceless.  That work is the only known portrait of William Shakespeare that was painted from life.  Only three people, including Dorset, are aware of that fact, the other two being Her Royal Highness and the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, obviously both not suspected of the theft.

So Charles is commissioned to find the missing artwork under the condition of deepest secrecy.  And if that were not difficult enough, it turns out that the duke has not given Lenox the most important piece of information of all.

In addition to the wonderful characters in this series and the exciting plot, I was fascinated, as I have been in Finch’s previous novels, by the author’s ability to drop tidbits of information about the era throughout the book.  For example, did you know that when dining with the queen, as soon as she puts down her fork all her guests immediately have to do the same; this is as true today as it was in Victoria’s time.  And that every day the royal chefs had to prepare forty-eight servings of curry in case forty-eight unexpected guests of Asian descent called upon Victoria.  And if forty nine dignitaries came unexpectedly?  Apparently one of them would have to eat what the queen ate, since she herself despised curry.

The Vanishing Man is a wonderful addition to the Charles Lenox series.

You can read more about Charles Finch 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 UNWANTED GUEST by Shari Lapena: Book Review

Shari Lapena’s new novel, An Unwanted Guest, works perfectly as both an homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and as a totally original mystery.  It’s a terrific novel that will keep you guessing until the end.

A group of people, including several singles and three couples, one married and two not, make their way through a snowstorm to Michael’s Inn, a lovely small hotel situated at the end of a lonely road in New York’s Catskill Mountains.  Most of the guests are looking for a relaxing weekend away from work and family stress, although the only married couple among them has a different agenda.  The marriage of Beverly and Henry Sullivan is currently not a happy one, and Beverly has arranged what she hopes will be a romantic time away to start anew; unfortunately for her, Henry’s view of their upcoming stay is quite different.

The Inn’s other guests include Riley, a journalist back from covering the war in Afghanistan, and Gwen, her former college roommate who hopes the weekend will calm her friend’s PTSD; an engaged couple, Dana and Matthew, almost too gorgeous to be real; Candice, an author feverishly working on a new book; David, an attorney with a difficult past; and Lauren and Ian, two people hoping that this weekend will lead to a permanent relationship.  And then there is James, the owner of the Inn, and his twenty-something son Bradley.

Even during the first evening tension is in the air.  In addition to the Sullivans’ marital issues and Gwen’s worry about Riley’s drinking and anxiety, there is the question of David’s arrest for the murder of his wife and his subsequent release, which not surprisingly he would rather not discuss, and Candice’s guilt about leaving her ailing mother in order to work on her writing.

But the guests are making an effort to smooth everything over and enjoy their time at the Inn.  During the night, however, several people hear what they think is a scream, but they manage to convince themselves it’s part of a dream and do not investigate.  In the morning, however, reality strikes–the dead body of Dana, Matthew’s beautiful fiancé, is found crumpled at the foot of the elegant curving staircase.

Initially her death appears to be a tragic accident, although David, with his legal expertise, seems wary of the situation from the beginning.  Everyone’s first thought is to contact the police, but a glance out the windows shows an ice-covered scene with an obviously impassible road.  And there’s no way to call the police anyway, as the Inn boasts of not having Wi-Fi, cell phones are not permitted, and there is no electricity due to downed power lines.  Luckily there is plenty of food and drink available, so it appears they will simply have to wait a few hours or even a day to contact the outside world.  But then a second death convinces everyone that the first was not an accident and that there may be a killer in their midst.

Shari Lapena’s book is a suspenseful, well-written thriller, with carefully drawn characters, a taut plot, and an extra twist at the end that I, for one, did not see coming.  Everyone at Michael’s Inn has a secret, but who is willing to kill to protect it?

You can read more about Shari Lapena 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.

OUT OF THE DARK by Gregg Hurwitz: Book Review

If anyone can write thrillers that keep you on the edge of your seat, it’s Gregg Hurwitz.  In Out of the Dark, the fourth book in the Orphan X series, the protagonist must discover why his first assignment twenty years ago may have a connection to why he is being targeted to be killed now.

We never learn exactly how X came to live in a group home for boys.  When he was twelve his foster father Jack took him from the home, gave him the name Evan Smoak, and began grooming him to be an assassin as part of a clandestine group run by the Department of Defense.

Evan is nineteen when he is ordered to assassinate the prime minister of an Eastern European country.  After he successfully completes that mission, Jack tells him to kill the man who sold him the gun used in the murder and the man who sold him the bullet’s cartridge with a mysterious fingerprint on it.  When Evan questions this order, Jack simply tells him to …”execute them.  Close the operation.”  And he does.

After about a decade in the Orphan Program, Evan begins to have doubts about the integrity of its purpose and flees the organization.  He has amassed a great deal of money and has no need to work, and he has decided to spend the rest of his life helping those without resources who have nowhere else to turn.  He calls himself the Nowhere Man.

Now, in 2019, Evan has an even more difficult assignment, one he has given himself.  He has determined to assassinate the president of the United States.

President Jonathan Bennett had been an undersecretary at the Department of Defense when Evan entered the Program.  Although the Program was extremely successful in its mission to assassinate those whom the DoD deemed to be its enemies, now that Bennett is president he needs to make certain that any trace of this top-secret operation is eliminated.  And that means eliminating all of the Orphans.

Evan is apparently on the top of Bennett’s kill list for reasons having to do with the 1997 murders in Europe, Evan’s first assignment.  Evan doesn’t understand why that project was so vital at the time and why his participation in it makes it necessary for him to be murdered now.  So, while Evan is planning to assassinate Bennett, Bennett is arranging to have Evan killed.

The success of Evan’s plan seems to be impossible, given the incredible level of security surrounding the president.  When Bennett travels from the White House, it is in a convoy of three identical cars to disguise which one is transporting him.  The presidential limo weighs nearly eight tons, its body covered in armor.  The windows are made of bullet-proof glass, and a steel plate beneath the car protects it from bombs.  This, of course, is in addition to the phalanx of Secret Service personnel surrounding him at all times.  Bennett would seem unreachable.

There is no let-up in the action in Out of the Dark, leaving the reader in suspense until the very end.  It is the very definition of the word thriller.

You can read more about Gregg Hurwitz 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.

 

 

 

LIVES LAID AWAY by Stephen Mack Jones: Book Review

In April of 2017 I reviewed Stephen Mack Jones’ debut novel, August Snow, and showered it with praise.  It was a look into the underside of Detroit that I found totally realistic and gritty, yet with an undercurrent of hope.  I had the same feeling reading Mr. Jones’ second novel, Lives Laid Away, which again follows August Snow in his post-police life.

Unjustly fired from the city’s police force and the recipient of a twelve million dollar settlement for the wrongful dismissal, August continues his attempt to revitalize his neighborhood, Mexicantown.  The son of an African-American policeman and a Mexican mother, both deceased, August knows only too well the discrimination facing both ethnicities.  Now the problems of immigrants, both legal and illegal, have multiplied, and the brutalized body of a teenage Hispanic girl brings August into conflict with both gangsters and the federal government’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

People in August’s neighborhood are scared, and they have reason to be.  ICE agents are following anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant (e.g., anyone with brown skin).  Easily-identifiable cars belonging to ICE are cruising the streets, making immigrants afraid to go to work, school, or even church.  And then the body of the above-mentioned girl is thrown off the Ambassador Bridge, midway between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, dressed in the gown and wig of the seventeenth-century French Queen Marie Antoinette.

Her body, without identification, bears witness to multiple rapes and a variety of drugs.  Dr. James Robert Falconi of the Wayne County Coroner’s Office, known to his friends as Bobby, asks August for his help in finding out the girl’s identity.  “Eighteen or nineteen….Somebody’s daughter,” he tells August, showing how the teenager’s death has affected him.

Tomás and Elena Gutierrez are August’s closest friends.  Elena has been an advocate for the Mexicantown population for years.  Tomás is reluctant for his wife to see the photo of the dead girl that August has brought with him to their home, knowing from past experience that, without meaning to, August brings trouble with him.

Indignant, Elena declares that they know that she’s her own woman and doesn’t need anyone’s permission to see or do anything, but when she sees the photo she becomes tearful.  She knew the girl and is heartbroken to see what happened to her.  Then Elena admits that she has been carrying a gun in her purse because of hateful and vitriolic threats she’s received over the past six or eight months.  Her advocacy for illegal immigrants, Hispanic and others, has brought a death sentence to her door.

Lives Laid Away is an all-too-timely novel about the immigration crisis facing the United States.  Like other mysteries I’ve recently reviewed (Bone on Bone by Julia Keller and Shell Game by Sara Paretsky), Stephen Mack Jones has taken an issue directly from today’s headlines and created an outstanding mystery.  The reader is able to feel the terror of the illegal immigrants as their dreams disappear and with that their hopes for making new lives in the United States disappear as well.

Stephen Mack Jones is an outstanding writer and with this, his second novel, he lets his readers hope that there will be many more stories about August Snow.

You can read more about Stephen Mack Jones 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 NOWHERE CHILD by Christian White: Book Review

Coming from two countries relatively new to the genre, Australian and Icelandic authors have been very busy over the past few years writing excellent mysteries.  The Nowhere Child by Christian White is the latest from Down Under, and it is a spellbinding novel with a unique plot.

Kimberly Leamy is sitting in the cafeteria of a school in Melbourne, where she teaches photography, when a man comes up to her and introduces himself as James Finn.  He shows her a photo of a young child and asks Kim if she knows her.  She responds that she doesn’t, and James tells her the girl is Sammy Went, who disappeared from her home in Manson, Kentucky when she was two years old.

Trying to be polite, Kim starts to direct him to the woman who teaches Crimes and Justice Studies at the school, but James isn’t interested.  “I believe you’re…connected to all this,” he tells Kim, continuing to say that the toddler disappeared twenty-eight years ago.  “I think you are Sammy Went.”

To use Australian slang, Kim is “like a stunned mullet” (courtesy of “The Aussie English” podcast).  Upon returning home that evening she searches the Internet for anything related to Sammy Went.  Sure enough, she immediately finds an article from 1990 about the search for the missing girl that features a quote from Manson Sheriff Chester Ellis.  “We have faith we’re going to find Sammy and bring her home,” the article read, but it’s obvious that that never happened.

As Kim continues looking for more information on the net, she sees a photo in another article and notes the strong resemblance between herself and the girl’s parents.  When another meeting with the man calling himself James Finn reveals that he is actually Stuart Went, Sammy’s older brother, Kim starts to believe that the unbelievable just might be possible.

The Nowhere Child switches in time and narration from the day Sammy was kidnapped, which is told in the third person, to the present day told in Kim’s voice.  We see the dynamics of Sammy’s dysfunctional family then and now and learn the story of how the child arrived in Australia and came to be adopted by Carol Leamy, the woman Kim always thought of as her biological mother.

Carol died several years before the novel opens, so now Kim’s family consists only of her younger sister Amy and her stepfather Dean.  Amy knows nothing about this, but Dean, when confronted by Kim, is forced to face the issue.  “She made me promise, Kimmy.  She wanted the secret to die with her,” Dean tells her.

No longer in doubt about her past, Kim makes the decision to fly to Manson with Stuart and find out exactly what happened on the day she disappeared.

Christian White’s debut novel won the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and it is easy to understand why.  The Nowhere Child is a thrilling story of a dysfunctional family and the secrets kept for decades that span two continents.

You can read more about Christian White 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.

SINS AS SCARLET by Nicolás Obregón: Book Review

Inspector Kosuke Iwata, formerly of the Tokyo Police Department, is now a private investigator in Los Angeles.  After solving two high profile cases in Japan’s capital, Iwata decides to leave his life there and move to California and start a new career as a private investigator.  But there’s more to his decision than the one he publicly admits to, that of a desire to flee fame.  As Sins as Scarlet progresses, bits and pieces emerge that tell his story.

The book’s title comes from Isaiah 1:18:  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”  Certainly the sins in this novel are multiple and scarlet; the question is, can they ever be made as white as snow?

As a young child, Iwata was abandoned by his mother, Nozomi, and placed in an orphanage in Japan.  Although he received letters from her occasionally that promised she would come for him, he never believed it would happen; thus he was stunned when after a decade she appeared with her American husband and the three flew to California.  Nozomi never explained to her son why she had left Japan or why she returned to get him after so many years.  Now Iwata and his widowed mother are both living in Los Angeles, although separately, with this still-unresolved issue continuing to create tension between them.

After spending years in California, Iwata returned to Japan with his American wife, Cleo; the pair later became parents.  References are made throughout the novel to Cleo and their young daughter, but what happened to them and why they are not a part of Iwata’s current life remain a mystery until almost the book’s end.

On what starts out as an ordinary morning of seeing prospective clients, Iwata is stunned when Charlotte Nichol, Cleo’s mother, walks into his office.  So angry at him that she can hardly contain herself, she has seemingly forced herself to come to him for help.

She tells him that her other child, Julian, has been murdered and that the police are doing nothing to solve the crime.  Iwata knows that Julian transitioned gender years earlier and had become Meredith. Obviously this is something that Charlotte has not completely accepted, as evidenced by her using both names to refer to her child; she has come to Iwata as a last resort, only after deciding that the police have no interest in solving the crime.

“I’ve come here because Meredith was murdered and you’re going to do your work for me….You owe me that much for Cleo,” she declares.

As the definition of noir is crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings, this is the “most noirish” mystery I have recently read.  There is so much unhappiness, despair, and criminality in this book that it almost makes the reader give up on the human race.  But then there’s Kosuke Iwata, a man shouldering his own heavy burden, who refuses to look away from the crimes and criminals that surround him in order to keep his promise to Charlotte.

Sins as Scarlet is the second novel by Nicolás Obregón I have reviewed, Blue Light Yokohama being the first.  This book reinforces my belief that he is a gifted writer, one who takes the reader to the darkest places but then leaves that reader with at least a small glimmer of light at the end.

You can read more about Nicolás Obregón 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 VANISHING SEASON by Joanna Schaffhausen: Book Review

In a mystery novel, it’s usually the killer or the victim who has a hidden background, a secret so traumatic that it must be kept from others at any cost.  In The Vanishing Season, police officer Ellery Hathaway was the subject of national news coverage when she was a teenager, and she is determined that no one will now connect her with that traumatic episode in her past.

Not many serious crimes take place in the small town of Woodbury, Massachusetts.  Burglaries, vandalism, shoplifting–these are the things that the eight-person force (seven men and Ellery) deal with on a daily basis.  Except that for each of the past three years, a person from Woodbury went missing during the month of July and was never seen again.

Ellery is the only officer who believes there is a pattern to these disappearances.  To everyone else including her married lover, chief of police Sam Parker, there is no case.  “People leave their lives all the time and don’t look back,” he tells her.

On the surface, Sam appears correct.  The three missing people–a college student, the town’s mail carrier, a woman with a history of drunk driving–seem to have nothing in common.  But to Ellery, who had her own nearly fatal experience of being taken from her home and almost killed, there is a connection, a relationship between these three people that she believes cost them their lives.  All she has to do is find it.

At the age of fourteen, Abigail Ellery Hathaway was abducted and held for three days by a serial killer who previously had taken, raped, and mutilated several young girls before murdering them.  It was FBI Agent Reed Markham who found Abby, hidden in a closet in the killer’s apartment, and who apprehended Francis Coben, the man who is currently serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison for his crimes.

Now using her middle name as her first name, Ellery contacts Reed in her desperation to have someone on her side as she surreptitiously investigates the missing persons case.  The two have not been in touch in more than a decade, but at the time Reed rescued Ellery he told her that if she ever needed anything she could call him.  And so she does.

Ellery Hathaway is a woman who has mostly overcome her past, although the physical scars inflicted on her by Coben are a visible daily reminder of that harrowing episode in her life.  But faced with the intransigence of the town’s police department, she decides to conduct her own off-the-books investigation, hoping that she might be in time either to find one or more of the three people who have disappeared or else to prevent another disappearance.  After all, it’s already July 2nd.

The Vanishing Season is a taut, compelling story of a woman’s fight to do what she believes is right in the face of the apathy and indifference of her fellow officers.  Ellery is flawed, fearful, and yet absolutely determined to follow her instincts and find out who is behind the disappearances in Woodbury.  She is a protagonist to admire.

You can read more about Joanna Schafflausen 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.

NEWCOMER by Keigo Higashino: Book Review

Detective Kyochiro Kaga is viewed as something of a renegade in the Tokyo Police Department.  Perhaps for that reason, in spite of his history of solving murders he has been sent from the prestigious Homicide Squad to a small police precinct in that city.

The body of Mineko Mitsui has been found in her apartment, and Kaga is one of the detectives sent to investigate the crime.  She is a newcomer to the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo and seemingly led a quiet, almost reclusive, life.  She is divorced, with a young adult son she has not seen in nearly two years.

Mineko had been a housewife for nearly twenty years when she decided she wanted a “new life” and asked her husband for a divorce.  Before their marriage she had majored in English literature in college and wanted to become a translator, even planning to travel to England after graduation.

However, Mineko became pregnant with Naohiro’s child, and after they were married she became a traditional Japanese housewife, leaving aside her dreams of travel and career.   But after her divorce, she went for advice to a college friend, Machiko Fujiwara, and joined Machiko in her translation business.

Koki, Mineko and Naohiro’s son, didn’t seem to care one way or the other about his parents’ divorce.  Before it had occurred, he had already cut himself off from them because he did not get the emotional support he wanted when he told them of his desire to become an actor.  Angry at their response, he packed up his belongings and left home.

However, when Koki learns of his mother’s death, he experiences regret and tries to learn why she had moved from their previous neighborhood into one very close to his.  How strange, he thinks, that she never attempted to contact him if, in fact, he was the reason for her move.

Detective Kaga is assured by everyone who knew the victim that she was without enemies.  He has, of course, heard this in many earlier murder investigations, but in this case it appears to be true.  No angry ex-husband, no jealous boyfriends, no inheritance for her son.  So what was the motive for her murder?

Newcomer is an absolute gem of a mystery.  Its protagonist, Detective Kaga, is so low-key that other characters in the novel, as well as the reader, wonder about his involvement in the investigation.  Can the questions he asks the witnesses–about men wearing jackets vs. short-sleeved shirts or why the victim purchased a second set of scissors–really be important in helping him solve the crime?

The answer, of course, is yes, although the reader doesn’t understand until Kaga explains.  Then it all makes perfect sense.  There is something so charming, so attractive about him, that the combination of his personality and a really puzzling mystery will keep you reading until the novel’s end.

Keigo Higashino is a best-selling author throughout Asia and the recipient of many prizes and awards.  One of his earlier mysteries, The Devotion of Suspect X, has been made into a film and is available on Amazon Prime; my review of it is available on this blog.

You can read more about Mr. Higashino 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.

 

HARVEST OF SECRETS by Ellen Crosby: Book Review

Everything is frantic at the Montgomery Estates Vineyard in Atoka, Virginia, but that is to be expected at harvest time.  What is not expected is the vineyard’s farm manager, Antonio Ramirez, coming to owner Lucie Montgomery with the news that a human skull has been found just outside the family cemetery.

As the saying goes, bad things come in threes.  The unidentified skull is the first; Hurricane Lolita, a category five storm with its possibly devastating impact on the season’s grapes that are waiting to be picked is the second; the arrival of Jean-Claude de Merignac, the wealthy French aristocrat who has come to Virginia to become the winemaker at a nearby vineyard, is the third.  Jean-Claude has a reputation as a playboy with a string a broken hearts behind him, and he is also the man that teenage Lucie had a crush on two decades earlier when she summered in France.

Desperate to harvest the grapes before the storm arrives, Lucie’s only chance is to ask Jean-Claude if he will lend her one of his workers for a day.  Asking the Frenchman for anything isn’t something that Quinn Santori, the Montgomery Estate winemaker and Lucie’s fiancé, is comfortable with, but he realizes he doesn’t have much choice if he wants to get the grapes picked in time.  But that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.

The medical examiner who examines the skull determines that it’s from the nineteenth century, and Lucie decides she has to know if there’s any possibility that the remains are of a Montgomery family member, so she agrees to a DNA test to find out.  Lucie wonders if the skull proves to be an ancestor, why wasn’t she buried properly in the cemetery rather than outside it?  What could be so dreadful that it would preclude a proper burial?  The answers turn out to be more than two hundred years old.

Harvest of Secrets is the ninth mystery in the Wine Country series, so there is a lot of backstory involved.  But even a first-time reader of the series will enjoy the novel and be able to understand Lucie’s personal history and that of her family.

Ellen Crosby’s own life has the makings of a novel–she was an economist on the staff of the Senate, a journalist, the Moscow correspondent for ABC News, a world traveler, and an ex-pat who lived in Switzerland and Russia.  She obviously has used all these experiences to write a series with a wonderful sense of place, as well as one featuring a strong, independent woman in what many would consider the man’s world of winemaking.

You can read more about Ellen Crosby 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.

NOVEMBER ROAD by Lou Berney: Book Review

In August 2015 I reviewed Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone.  In that post I wrote that the book was one of my year’s top reads.  Now Lou Berney has written another thriller, and this one also is one of my favorites for the year and well worth the three-year wait.

November Road takes place immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  In Mr. Berney’s novel, the killing was a mob-directed hit, and Lee Harvey Oswald was an innocent dupe who was chosen to “take the fall.”

But because there can be no loose ends, the killings don’t end with Kennedy’s death but continue relentlessly, one after the other, each man killing the one under him and being killed by the one above in a possibly futile effort to erase all traces of the man behind the assassination.

Frank Guidry is a high-level gangster out of New Orleans, but not so high that he can’t be eliminated.  When he realizes that the seemingly insignificant errand he had run in Dallas two weeks before the shooting, dropping a car in a parking garage two blocks from Dealey Plaza, now implicates him in the murder of the president, he knows he’s in danger.

Carlos Marcello, the kingpin of crime in the Big Easy, has a plan to get rid of the car and any possible ties to himself.  The car has already been driven from Dallas to Houston, ready for disposal.  Marcello tells Frank that all he has to do is fly to Houston and drive the car off a pier into a forty-foot ship channel, thus ending any possible connection to the New Orleans syndicate.  What could be easier?

But Frank can put two and two together as well as Carlos, or almost as well.  He realizes that the first thing on Marcello’s agenda is get rid of the car, the second is to get rid of the man who put the car in the Dallas garage in the first place.  And that means him.

While Guidry is trying to figure out how to dispose of the car while still keeping himself alive, another scenario is being played out miles away.  Charlotte, a young housewife and mother of two young daughters, decides to reinvent herself.  After years of dreaming about another life she leaves her alcoholic husband, puts the girls and their dog in her car, and heads to California.

After a day of driving, Charlotte’s car slips into a ditch and needs major and time-delaying repairs.  She and her daughters and their dog go to a motel for the night, and that is where her path crosses with Frank’s.  And the impact of this is life-changing for both of them.

Lou Berney’s novel is a fascinating look into an historic event in American history.  Part of the pleasure in reading November Road is to get another point of view into what possibly happened on November 22, 1963, and another part is following the lives of Guidry and Charlotte, two people who on the surface couldn’t be more different but yet will turn out to have a definite connection.

November Road is a tour de force, a triumph of story-telling that will keep you breathless until the last page.

You can read more about Lou Berney 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.

 

 

LOST LAKE by Emily Littlejohn: Book Review

Four young people go on a camping trip near a lake with a tragic history that goes back over one hundred and fifty years, but only three of them return.  Is it possible for a body of water to be cursed?

Lost Lake is set in the beautiful Colorado wilderness.  During the summer, the site attracts hikers, campers, and picnickers, but during the winter months it’s an isolated place with, as noted, a particularly unhappy reputation.  What would make Ally, Mac, Jake, and Sari deal with melting snow, wet soil, and a two-mile uphill climb to get there?

All is fine when the four go to sleep in their tents that night, but in the morning Sari Chesney isn’t there.  Jake calls the Cedar Valley Police Department, and Detective Gemma Monroe is assigned to the case.  But is there actually a case?  It’s possible, Gemma says, that Sari simply left on her own and walked back down the hill although her cell phone and keys are still at the campsite.  But when the detective and the three friends drive to Sari’s apartment, she’s not there.

Sari’s friends tell Gemma that tonight would have been a special night for Sari.  She works at the Cedar Valley History Museum, and tonight is their major gala; there’s no way Sari would have missed it.  Then, to make matters even more bizarre, Gemma gets a call from Sari’s boss, Betty Starbuck, who tells her that not only is Sari missing but the museum’s most valuable artifact, the Rayburn Diary, has been stolen.  And, Betty adds, only four people have the combination to the safe in which the diary was held, and one of them is Sari. 

One of the two others with knowledge of the safe’s combination, besides Betty and Sari, is Dr. Larry Bornstein.  Larry tells Gemma about the Diary’s Curse, that every person who ever possessed it died a terrible death.  Although she doesn’t believe in supernatural powers, with two curses as part of the case she can’t help but be disturbed.  Coincidence or something more?

Betty insists that the gala, the one on which Sari was working, must go on as scheduled to keep the museum’s major donors and its board of directors happy.  All goes according to plan, with an excuse made to the attendees that the Diary was being restored and would be on display shortly.  The evening ends, and Gemma goes home only to be awakened in the early hours of the morning to the news that Betty’s bruised and beaten body has been found inside the museum.

Lost Lake is the fourth in the Gemma Monroe series.  Ms. Littlejohn has created a realistic portrait of today’s woman, someone trying to balance a demanding career, a fiancée who has let her down in the past, and an infant daughter.  Shatter the Night, the next in the series, is due out in 2019.

You can read more about Emily Littlejohn 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.

 

 

 

BLEAK HOUSE by Bryan Gruley: Book Review

What’s in a name, anyway?  As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Still, names convey a lot, and some are less pleasing than others.  So what would you expect of a family whose last name is Bleak?

Bleak Harbor, Michigan was founded generations ago by Jacob Bleak.  Bleak had established a lumber mill, a newspaper, a shipping port, and steelworks across the river in Indiana, but all of that is gone now except for the newspaper and the millions of dollars those businesses earned.  This money is controlled now by the family’s matriarch, Serenity Bleak; she is willing to give the town her entire estate, having disinherited her only descendants years earlier, with one condition:  she wants every part of the township renamed for her.

Not surprisingly, Serenity is estranged from her daughter and son, and ordinarily her daughter Carey Bleak Peters is fine with that.  Now, however, Carey is facing the worst moment of her life.  Her autistic son, Danny, is missing.  A ransom note demanding five million dollars for his safe return has been emailed to her, and she may be forced to ask her mother for the money to save him.

Carey’s life was spinning out of control even before this.  She had taken a job in Chicago, a major commute home three times a week but something that was necessary to support her family.  Her husband Pete’s legal marijuana shop is close to bankruptcy, and that problem is in addition to his increasingly high consumption of alcohol.  Carey has made a major blunder in her own life, sleeping with her boss, Randall Pressman, one night.  After she continues to refuse his demands for another night with him, Pressman demotes her and threatens to move her to another of his offices even farther from Bleak Harbor.

However, Carey has a plan of her own, both for revenge against Randall and to get out of her current life, leaving everything and everyone behind except Danny.  She has obtained documents that prove that Pressman Logistics is transporting illegal cargo across state lines, and she’s demanding her own ransom–ten million dollars from Pressman to destroy the incriminating papers or she hands them over to the feds.

And then she comes home to celebrate Danny’s 16th birthday to find that he’s missing.  Pete, who was supposed to pick up his stepson that afternoon at the dock so they could go fishing, instead had stopped at his usual afternoon hangout, Boz’s Bayfront Bar and Grill, for a quick drink or two.  By the time Pete got to the dock, Danny was nowhere to be seen.

Bleak Harbor is a taut thriller about a family where everyone, no exceptions, has secrets they don’t want to disclose.  You can feel Carey’s pain at her past and current mistakes and her overwhelming love for her son, although she acknowledges to herself that there are parts to him that she will never understand.  Bryan Gruley’s characters are sympathetic even when you realize that their every step is a misstep and that their secrets are making a terrifying situation worse.

You can read about Bryan Gruley 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 NIGHT FERRY by Lotte and Søren Hammer: Book Review

In May, 2017 I wrote an About Marilyn column about nature vs. nurture.  I wrote about wives and husbands and parents and children, all of whom were mystery writers.

But I didn’t mention Lotte and Søren Hammer, a sister and brother from Denmark who have co-written several mysteries, because I hadn’t read any of their work at that point.  But now I’ve read The Night Ferry, their fifth book in the Detective Chief Inspector Konrad Simonsen series; to continue the transportation metaphor of the novel’s title, it’s a thrilling ride from beginning to end.

The Night Ferry opens with a man jumping onto the deck of a tour boat in a Copenhagen canal.  In less than a minute he kills four of the five adults on the boat; the fifth, unable to swim, nevertheless jumps overboard in a panicked, futile attempt to save her life.  The canal boat, now without a captain, collides with the Oslo ferry whose own captain is powerless to avoid it.  All but one of the fifteen Japanese school children remaining on the canal boat, in Denmark on a school trip, are killed.

It is a horrific tragedy for all of Denmark, and it becomes personal for the Copenhagen police department when it’s discovered that one of its own, Detective Pauline Berg, was among the victims.  Before her abduction, which was described in the previous novel, she had become obsessed with the death of a young woman whom she believed had been murdered.  All the evidence pointed to natural causes, but Pauline ignored that and continued, both on department time and on her personal time, to investigate Juli Denissen’s death.

Juli’s autopsy showed that she had died of a brain hemorrhage, a condition to which she was predisposed.  Her family refused to accept the official verdict, and that is how Pauline became involved, ultimately siding with them in opposition to the police findings.  So certain were the police that Juli’s death was tragic but non-criminal that Pauline’s obsession with it became known in Homicide as ‘the Juli-non-case’; that, however, did not stop the detective’s search for what she believed to be the truth.

Then Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen learns that one of the passengers on the canal boat was the man who found Juli’s body and thus was questioned numerous times by Pauline Berg.  Was the reason for the crime to get rid of these two people, and were all the other victims simply collateral damage?

The answer to that question begins in Denmark but leads, almost incredibly, to the Bosnian War of the 1990s.  Two Danish soldiers, an American/Danish intelligence officer, and the high command of the present-day Danish government are all involved.  And instead of the Danish foreign service, intelligence, and police working together to solve the canal boat massacre, Konrad and his department find obstruction at every turn.

The Night Ferry is a brilliant but hard-to-read novel, as it describes in detail the atrocities that took place when the former Yugoslavia fell apart.  It’s the kind of story that makes one wonder about humankind, but it is well worth reading.  The characters, the plot, the scenes are all absolutely outstanding.

You can read more about Lotte and Søren Hammer 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.

SHELL GAME by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

Every novel by Sara Paretsky is wonderful, and her latest is no exception.  Shell Game brings Chicago-based private detective V. I. Warshawski into the all-too-timely issue of immigration, both legal and illegal, that is facing the United States now.

Shell Game opens with V. I. (Vic) making her way through the woods with a Cook County deputy sheriff and Felix Herschel, the nephew of her dearest friend Lotty.  Felix was contacted by the authorities to identify the brutalized body of a dead man who had Felix’s name and phone number on a note in his jean pocket.  His response to the officer in charge, Lieutenant McGivney, and V. I. when seeing the body strikes them both as strange.  “I don’t know him.  Where is he from?”

Felix, a Canadian citizen, is a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology and is active in the university’s Engineers for a Free State.  He tells Vic that he and several other international students had been picked up by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities a few weeks earlier, and he had been held for several hours by ICE without benefit of legal representation before he was released.  Although ICE said it was checking on the immigration status of all foreign students, Felix said that only students from the Middle East or South America were actually detained.  As a favor to Lotty, Vic is willing to look into the case, but Felix will tell her nothing, and without his help there’s not much she can do.

The next morning V. I. is greeted at her apartment house by an unexpected visitor.  It’s her niece Harmony, the daughter of her former husband’s sister.  Harmony has come to Chicago to look for her sister Reno who had arrived in the city several weeks earlier to look for a job.  She got one through her Uncle Dick, Vic’s ex, but he was less than enthusiastic to see his niece and told her that this was the only favor he was doing for her and not to bother him again.

All Harmony knows about what happened to Reno is that she obtained a job at Rest EZ, a payday loan company, and that shortly after she started she received a promotion and the opportunity to fly to the Caribbean for the company’s Mardi Gras party.  When Reno returned she was upset and agitated but wouldn’t tell her sister more than that.  Becoming upset herself, Harmony flew from Oregon to Chicago to talk to Reno, but Reno is no longer working for Rest EZ nor is she at her apartment.  Their Uncle Dick professes to know nothing about this and to care less, so it’s up to “Auntie Vic” to find Reno.

As always, Vic is the person you want if you need a private investigator.  She is smart, determined, loyal, and tough.  And she’s always on the side of the  underdog.

Ms. Paretsky joins current authors who infuse their mysteries with current events; these include Julia Keller’s novels concerning drug abuse and Auzma Kahanet Khan’s on war refugees.  In addition to being exciting books with strong protagonists and stories, they bring readers issues straight from the headlines.  Shell Game is another example of Sara Paretsky’s skill in invoking a strong heroine in today’s world.

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.