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Book Reviews

FATAL FAMILY TIES by S. C. Perkins: Book Review

With millions searching sites such as and 23andMe, Fatal Family Ties is a mystery that will resonate with many people. 

Lucy Lancaster is a Texas genealogist, formerly employed at Howland University and now head of her own three-woman firm.  She has mostly unpleasant memories of her sixteen-month tenure at the University, thanks to her less-than-friendly colleagues, Roxie, Patrice, and Camilla.

So Lucy is stunned when Camilla interrupts her at her favorite lunch place, Big Flaco’s Tacos, and insists that Lucy read an article in Chronology, a highly-respected magazine published by a nationally known museum.  Camilla says that the article’s information, detailing the life of her ancestor Charles Braithwaite, is false, and she wants Lucy to find the truth.

Charles Braithwaite was a Confederate soldier. and the article contends that he deserted his regiment, presented himself as a corporal after the war ended although he actually had been a private, and spent his remaining years burnishing his reputation and becoming rich from lecturing about his imaginary exploits.

Readers’ backlash to the piece is immediate and strong, with a petition being circulated to have the city’s park and elementary school, currently named after Braithwaite, renamed.  At the same time, the Braithwaite family is steadfast in the belief that their ancestor was, in fact, a corporal and the presentations he gave about his service in the war were accurate.

After his service in the Civil War (aka The Late Unpleasantness or the War Between the States–take your pick), Charles painted a triptych.  One-third was given to each of his children, and the painting has never been seen in its entirety since his death.  Now Camilla has one section, her Uncle Charles (every generation in the Braithwaite family had a son named Charles) has one section, and the third section is held by another relative.

When Camilla brings Lucy to see Charles’ section of the painting, Lucy is stunned at how dreadful it is.  When she makes a gallant attempt to say something positive, Charles smilingly gives her more information about it.  Recognizing the poor workmanship of the piece, he had nevertheless hung it in his office because of its “family history…and thus it is precious to us.”

He tells Lucy that some time earlier, a visiting child knocked into the panel and loosened a bit of canvas so that a small piece of another painting could be seen underneath.  Charles invites Lucy to look at the small section that was formerly invisible, and she is very impressed by its artistry.  For some reason the triptych had been painted over, and that’s part of the mystery that Lucy, Camilla, and Charles want to uncover.

This seemingly innocent request, as well as finding out the truth about the original Charles Braithwaite, leads Lucy to fraud, murder, and a very fractured and dysfunctional family.  Fatal Family Ties bursts with an amazing sense of the Lone Star State, and it is as well a crash course in genealogy and the good news/bad news it can bring to families determined to find the truth about their ancestors.

S. C. Perkins is a fifth-generation Texan with a strong interest in her own family’s background.  Her debut mystery novel, Murder Once Removed, was the winner of the 2017 Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery competition.  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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

AN EMPTY GRAVE by Andrew Welsh-Huggins: Book Review

Andy Hayes, a Columbus, Ohio private eye, is a man who has a hard time saying no when someone comes to him needing help.  He’s in a restaurant with his sons, already running late to get them to a movie theater in time to see the previews, when a stranger walks up to their table and says in a loud voice, “What about murder?”

Without waiting for an invitation, Preston Campbell sits down and tells Andy the story of his father, a Columbus police officer who was shot in the line of duty forty years earlier while investigating a burglary.  Howie Campbell survived; the shooter, John J. Ebersole, was wounded, arrested, and brought to a hospital, but he disappeared from there and was never found.

Preston has been trying to track down the burglar for years via the Google alerts he’s set up, and he tells Andy that the criminal did the same thing in Rochester, New York, thirty years after Howie Campbell was wounded–committed a crime, got himself arrested, and promptly vanished.  Preston shows Andy what he feels is definite proof of the man’s whereabouts, a two-week old newspaper listing a John J. Ebersole as a relation of the man named in an obituary notice.

Then Preston’s sister Monica approaches Andy’s table, a resigned yet angry look on her face.  She hands Andy another piece of paper, this one from a Rochester newspaper dated ten years earlier.  Notorious Burglar Dies in Fire, it reads, and it gives the deceased’s name as John J. Ebersole.  Is it possible there are two men with the same rather unusual name?  Or was the man who died in the fire actually the criminal who had escaped justice for decades?

The morning following their restaurant encounter, Andy meets Preston and Monica at the former’s home.  Trying to bolster his case, Preston gives the investigator additional information, including the painful fact that Howie Campbell had died a month earlier, a suicide.  Preston can’t understand why the police and the district attorney’s offices never followed up on either of Ebersole’s disappearances from custody.  He remains firm in his belief that Ebersole is still alive and holds him responsible for his father’s death.

Then Andy meets Hillary Quinne, another private investigator, who is working on a different case.  The chairman of the board of McCulloh College, Grant Fulkerson, is running for a U. S. Senate seat and is concerned about the college’s involvement in an incident that reaches back years and may have a connection to the Campbell/Ebersole case and to one of the professors on the college’s staff at that time.  Andy meets Fulkerson, and the two men and Hillary agree to keep the others informed regarding what they discover.  But are Grant and Hillary telling him the whole truth, and can Andy really trust either of them?

An Empty Grave is an excellent mystery featuring a recognizably human investigator.  Readers will identify with Andy and admire his strengths and the dedication he brings to his clients.

The author of seven novels in this series, Andrew Welsh-Huggins is also a journalist based in Columbus and the editor of the Columbus Noir anthology.  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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


FALLEN by Linda Castillo: Book Review

In the stereotyped version of the Amish world, all is peaceful and harmonious.  After all, its members live their lives mostly with other members of their faith, eschewing things that might bring danger or temptation to them–alcohol, drugs, cars–and believe in a doctrine of humility, community, fairness, and separation from the world and its unseemly urges.

But in Painters Mill, Ohio, a town with a considerable Amish presence, there are always problems under the smooth surface.  In Fallen, Linda Castillo’s latest novel, things thought long buried are brought to the surface when Rachel  Schwartz returns there after a decade-long absence.

It came as no surprise that Rachel had left her hometown without a word to her parents or friends.  She was too lively, too daring, too dismissive of the strict rules that were meant to keep young Amish girls in their “proper place.”   She rode horses, smoked and drank alcohol, wore dresses that were inappropriately short, questioned the authority of the church, and finally was placed under a bann by the bishop in hopes that it would control her behavior.  But it didn’t.

As Fallen opens, Rachel returns to Painters Mill to “rectify the one wrong that still kept her up nights.”  She checks into the Willowdell Motel and is awakened in the middle of the night by a knock on the door.  She’s glad to see her visitor, moves to turn on the light by the bedside, and is struck down by the first of a number of blows that render her helpless.  And then dead.

Kate Burkholder, the town’s chief of police, visits Rachel’s parents to tell them the heart-breaking news.  The Schwartzes didn’t know that their daughter was in town and know virtually nothing about her life since she’s left their home.

They think that Rachel’s only contact with Painters Mill, aside from her yearly visit to them, is her best friend Loretta Bontrager, although the two girls could not have been more different.  Loretta was shy while Rachel was outgoing, obedient while Rachel was reckless, and happy with her life in their hometown while Rachel left for the city and never returned except for brief Christmas visits.  But the bond between them remained strong.

One of the many ways Rachel had alienated her hometown was by publishing “AMISH NIGHTMARE:  How I Escaped the Clutches of Righteousness.”  It’s not difficult to imagine that the Painters Mills community wasn’t happy to read the author’s scathing memoir of her life there, although the publisher had Rachel note at the book’s beginning that the names of the people mentioned had been changed to protect their identities.  Nevertheless, it was easy to figure out who the characters really were, many of whom were described with malice and animosity and with enough description to make their identities obvious.

Kate has to decide whether the seeds for the murder lay in Rachel’s life in Painters Mills or in her recent life in Cleveland, where she continued her rather contentious life with her business partner and a former lover.  And then Kate’s realization of the motive for the murder and its perpetrator puts her in the path of the killer who will do anything, including a second murder, to protect a secret.

Linda Castillo’s Kate Buckholder series is one that never disappoints, with its sharply drawn characters and sense of place.  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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

FIND YOU FIRST by Linwood Barclay: Book Review

Linwood Barclay is an absolute master of new mystery tropes.  He proves that once again in his latest novel, FIND YOU FIRST.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a similar storyline.

The first thread of the novel concerns Miles Cookson, a tech billionaire, a man so focused on his career that he never has had a serious romantic relationship, much less a wife.  When he was young, he donated his sperm for some much-needed money but never thought about it again.  Now, however, he has received a devastating diagnosis–he has Huntington’s Disease Chorea, a rare, inherited disease that causes a breakdown in the nerve cells in the brain, with symptoms including difficulty in speaking, walking, and controlling involuntary jerking movements.

When Miles hears the news from his physician, his first thoughts are for himself and his brother.  Then the doctor, trying to soften the blow, tells him, “There is one piece of good news….You have no children,” because the children of someone with Huntington’s have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease.  That’s when Miles becomes aware of the devastating repercussions of his long-ago sperm donation.  Does he have children and, if so, how many and how can he find out?  And then, what can he do about it?

The second thread concerns another billionaire, Jeremy Pritkin.  A friend of the rich and famous, Jeremy is concerned only with himself, his pleasures and desires.  His predilection for using young girls, and sharing them with his friends, is only  one of his many undesirable characteristics, and there’s nothing he won’t stop at to keep his hold on others–truly, nothing.

In the midst of hosting one of his parties, Jeremy gets a call from his sister, informing him that she’s found out something “that doesn’t make any sense at all” and wondering if he knows anything about it.  “Is it possible that we have relatives we’ve never even heard of?” she asks him.  And that is where the two threads connect.

Although both Miles and Jeremy are equally successful, their reactions to the information they receive are diametrically opposed.  As each man struggles to assimilate the news and how it affects him, the reader gains insight into the qualities that make us human.  And perhaps it makes us wonder how we might react if we heard that we had a fatal disease, one that unknowingly we might have passed on to future generations.

Linwood Barclay has written another outstanding novel, one that goes beyond the conventions of the mystery genre and asks us to consider questions we may not have thought of before.  Good and evil are exhibited to perfection in Find You First, as in a medieval morality play.

You can read more about Linwood Barclay 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 ABDUCTION OF PRETTY PENNY by Leonard Goldberg: Book Review

Is is possible?  Can Jack the Ripper actually be back in London, brutalizing and murdering young women on the streets of the city?

Genes will tell, and Joanna Holmes Blalock, daughter of Sherlock Holmes, is now a highly regarded investigator herself.  As the novel opens, Joanna looks out the window of the flat at 221B Baker Street that she shares with her husband John and his father, Dr. Watson, the colleague of her late father, and asks them to give her their impressions of the woman standing in front of the building.  Although both men are physicians and are accustomed to making skilled medical diagnoses, their skill sets cannot compare to Joanna’s abilities in this specialized area.

After her husband minutely describes the woman’s clothing, he deduces that she is a housewife on a shopping tour.  Joanna begins her response with complimenting his keen eye for colors.  “But unfortunately,” she continues, “you have missed everything of importance.”  So Holmesian, don’t you agree?

Joanna’s explanation of why the woman is there, looking up at their windows, is of course correct.  Judging by the anxious expression on the woman’s face, she intuits she has come to seek help, and her deduction is proven correct when Miss Hudson, their landlady, enters and asks their permission to bring the woman upstairs.

Emma Adams introduces herself and explains that she is the owner of the Whitechapel Playhouse in London’s East End.  The players are currently putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet, and Penny Martin, the young woman who plays Juliet, has disappeared.  Mrs. Adams emphasizes that everyone loves the beautiful actress and that she was thrilled to star in the play, but she had confided to Mrs. Adams that she was fearful that she was surrounded by danger.  And then she disappeared.

Penny’s disappearance is followed by a string of gruesome murders of young women, each one more horrifying than the one before.  Joanna and Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard are fearful that the way in which the killings have been carried out indicate that they may have been committed by Jack the Ripper, who last plied his trade nearly three decades earlier, or possibly by a copycat killer who has studied the Ripper’s crimes only too well.

There can be no doubt that Joanna has inherited her father’s investigative talent as well as her mother’s intelligence, looks, and poise, her mother being Irene Adler, the only woman who ever outwitted Holmes.  Combining the best attributes of both parents, Joanna has made a name for herself in London, and like her father she relishes solving cases that have stymied Scotland Yard.  Jack the Ripper had evaded the law twenty-eight years earlier, and Joanna is determined that if he has returned he shall not escape justice this time.

Leonard Goldberg is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the UCLA Medical Center and an author whose books have been translated into a dozen languages.  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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

A ROGUE’S COMPANY by Allison Montclair: Book Review

The joint owners of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau are as different, as the British expression goes, as chalk and cheese.

Iris Sparks, dark and petite, is single, worked for an unnamed government agency during the Second World War, had several love affairs, and is currently single but sexually involved with a mid-level gangster.

Gwendolyn Bainbridge, tall and blonde, is the widow of an army officer and mother of six-year-old Ronnie, who is the heir to the Bainbridge family fortune.  Heartbroken by the death of her young husband, Gwen spent a year in a sanatorium, held there against her will due to the influence of her father-in-law Lord Bainbridge, who has been given custody of her young son.

Lord Bainbridge’s return from Africa has put the entire household in a turmoil as he makes everyone from the lowliest housemaid to his wife unhappy and on edge.  And something is taking him out of the house and to his club every night, even on his first night home after six months away, something he refuses to explain.

Although it was Gwen’s late husband’s express wish that their son not be sent to St. Frideswide’s, the boarding school all the male Bainbridges attended, Lord Bainbridge is insistent that the boy be sent there.  Unfortunately for both Gwen and Ronnie, the boy’s grandfather has complete control over Ronnie’s care and eduction until Gwen’s psychiatrist certifies that she is completely recovered from the breakdown over her husband’s death, something the doctor is not willing to do, at least not yet.

There is a lot going on in the lives of Gwen and Iris, both in their private lives and their professional lives.  While Gwen is trying to deal with her antagonistic father-in-law, Iris is trying to come to terms with her past career in espionage and the rather unsavory affairs she had at that time.

Both women are attempting to make their business venture a success.   Working together at their nascent match-making bureau, the women meet a new client, Mr. Daile.  He has arrived in England after serving in the Royal British Navy during the war, and he tells Iris and Gwen he wishes to meet a good Christian woman with proper values who is willing to live in a rural community in England or elsewhere.  Perhaps even in Nyasaland, his home country, for Mr. Daile is the agency’s first African client, as well as its first non-white one.

Gwen is bothered by her feeling that Mr. Daile seems to be everywhere she is.  Once could be a coincidence, she thinks, but the second or third time she is seriously unnerved by the man and his motorcycle.  When she confides her feelings to her partner, Iris secretly contacts her boyfriend to see what he can find out about their new client.

Although the book takes place more than seventy years ago, there is a timelessness about Iris and Gwen.  Both are living through a period of unprecedented change that has come about after World War II.  It includes new opportunities for women but still encumbers them with the stereotypes they hoped had been left behind.

Allison Montclair is the pseudonym of an author who has written fantasy, horror, and science fiction.  You can read more about her at various sites on the web.

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

THIEF OF SOULS by Brian Klingborg: Book Review

Wuxi, a small town in China where the crime rate is extremely low, is the new home of Inspector Lu Fei.  Exiled there because of disagreements with his former boss, Lu frequents the Red Lotus bar several times a week, mainly for lack of anything better to do, but also because its owner, Yanyan, is easy to look at and a pleasure to talk to.

It’s Lu’s night off, so he’s surprised when his cell phone rings.  It’s a call from the paichusuo, the local Public Security Bureau station.  The paichusuo has the same functions as a Western police station, being in charge of crime prevention, public safety, and traffic control, plus a few other duties that are essential in China–including keeping watch on foreigners and visitors in Wuxi.

Lu is informed that there’s been a murder in town, so he and several officers go to the scene.  The house belonged to the murder victim,Yang Fenfang, a young woman from Wuxi whose mother recently died.   So recently, in fact, that a funeral portrait of Yang Hong, Fenfang’s mother, is still on a shelf, near an altar with her ancestral tablet and offerings of food and drink to follow Mother Yang into the afterlife.

A neighbor informs Lu about Zang Zhaoxing, an admirer of Fenfang’s, and Lu goes to interview him.  Zang tells the police that he works at the local pork processing plant, so it’s not too surprising when they find a set of coveralls in the yard with stains that could be blood.  After Zang makes an unwise attempt to flee, Lu and the other officers capture him and bring him to the paichusuo for more interrogation.

But before the questioning can occur, Lu calls the Criminal Investigation Bureau and is told by Superintendent Song that he and his staff will arrive in Wuxi in the morning and take over the case.  When Song arrives, he’s accompanied by Ma Xiulan, a forensic physician.   When Dr. Ma begins her examination of Fenfang, she and the police discover that an autopsy has already been performed on the corpse.  Or, at least someone has cut open the body and stitched it closed again.

Brian Klingborg has written a fascinating novel of life in today’s China.  In Lu Fei he has created a character with intelligence, personality, and morality who must live within the authoritarian political system while maintaining his integrity in the face of those who more readily accept an easy solution to a crime.  I hope that Lu Fei will appear in many more novels that provide readers insight into modern-day China.

Brian Klingborg has a master’s in East Asian Studies and lived and traveled in Asia for years.   You can read more about him at various 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


WHAT DOESN’T KILL US by David Housewright: Book Review

It started off innocently enough, with a favor for a close friend.  Rushmore McKenzie is approached by his long-time buddy David Deese, who has a problem that is becoming increasingly common in this internet age.  Deese’s sister T (never Terry or Rese or any other logical nickname for her given name of Teresa) had sent a sample of her DNA to an ancestry-testing website and had been pestering her brother to do the same.  He ignored her request for a while but then suddenly, and secretly, sent his DNA sample to the same company.

And, like many unexpected things, this one proves to have unexpected consequences.  Instead of the result Deese expects, his DNA shows that he and T are only half-siblings, and that the man whom he believed was his biological father was, in fact, no relation to him at all.  Severely shaken by this news, Deese tells neither his wife nor his sister, but instead confides in McKenzie and asks him to find out more about his new family.  So McKenzie, who can never turn down a request for a favor, starts out to do just that.

What Doesn’t Kill Us has a storyline I haven’t come across before.  In the book’s foreward called Just So You Know, the reader learns that in the course of his investigation McKenzie was shot in the back by a .32 caliber handgun “yet did not die, at least not permanently.”  Because his heart stopped twice, the second time for four minutes and ten seconds, he was placed in a medically-induced coma, and much of the narrative consists of things that happened while he was unconscious and were told to him after the fact.  It’s a very clever device.

Because McKenzie has done so many favors for so many people, his friends rush to find the person who attempted to kill him.  Those friends are a disparate group–his closest friend Bobby Dunston, a police commander in St. Paul; “Chopper” Coleman, a former drug pusher, now a ticket scalper who is one step ahead of the law; Chopper’s assistant Herzog, who has been in and out of prison multiple times for burglary, manslaughter, and weapons charges; Riley Brodin-Mulally, a wealthy corporate executive; Dave Deese, of course; and several others who feel that they owe McKenzie big-time and will do anything to help him.

The only person who is less than enthusiastic about McKenzie is Jean Shipman, a detective on the St. Paul police force.  She’d rather be investigating anything, even jaywalking, than looking into the shooting, but Bobby Dunston is adamant.  You are my best investigator, he tells her, and I want you on the case to the exclusion of everything else.  Put that way, she can hardly refuse.

The Rushmore McKenzie series is a long one, but What Doesn’t Kill Us, number eighteen, gives the reader enough information to understand McKenzie’s background, how he came to resign from the police force, become an unlicensed private investigator, and meet and marry his wife Nina.  David Housewright is a skilled author whose plots are riveting and whose characters are alive and realistic.  He never disappoints.

David Housewright is an Edgar-winning author and past President of the Private Eye Writers of America.  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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

A PECULIAR COMBINATION by Ashley Weaver: Book Review

Is it nature or nurture that has made Electra McDonnell an expert safecracker?  Her ability to bypass the most sophisticated locks may be a product of nature since she is the niece of master cracksman Mick McDonnell.  Or it may be a product of nurture, growing up in his household and being taken on jobs with him for years.

Either way, Ellie as she is known, has a talent that, strangely enough, brings her to the attention of the authorities during the dark days of the Second World War.

Ellie and Mick are consistently cautious when they decide to do a job, but this time, despite their care, Ellie has an uncomfortable feeling that she can’t shake.  As always, she’s in awe of her uncle’s ability to master any safe’s combination, and she feels that “watching Uncle Mick open a safe was like watching an artist paint a picture or a violinist play a complicated piece of music.”

Mick naturally has no trouble opening the safe at the site of their latest job, and reaching inside he takes out various pieces of jewelry.  As the two leave the house as stealthily as they entered, Ellie feels a change in the air.  Almost before she knows what’s happened, her hands are pulled behind her back and she and her uncle are in handcuffs.

To Ellie’s surprise, she and Mick aren’t brought to a police station but rather to what appears to be a private residence.  Ellie’s interrogator tells her he has a proposition for her, an exchange of favors, and if they accept she and Mick will be freed.  “He needed a safecracker,” she realizes.  It’s agreeing to the proposal or going to prison, so Ellie and Mick feel there’s really very little choice.  And so begins their work for the British Secret Service and the war effort.

The interrogator is Major Gabriel Ramsay, and he tells Ellie he needs her to recover some papers from a man who may or may not be a German spy.  They make their plans, and two days later Ellie and Ramsay enter the house of the suspect and go up to the room where the safe is hidden.  But as she flashes her torch around the room, she sees that the large painting that would have hidden the safe is askew and the safe is open.  And on the floor lies a man in a pool of blood.

As she has shown in her Amory Ames series, Ashley Weaver has an amazing knack for bringing English history to life.  A Peculiar Combination takes readers to the darkened streets of London as the city deals with the fear of a German invasion and possible espionage.  In addition to the main story there’s a mystery about Ellie’s past, and it’s clear that it’s an issue that will continue in the next novel of this intriguing new series.

You can read more about Ashley Weaver at this website.

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

DENIED by Mary Keliikoa: Book Review

Like father, like daughter?  Kelly Pruett’s father had been a private investigator, and since his death she has continued to run his one-person agency.  Her previous case left her with a gunshot wound to her arm, but she’s determined to keep R & K Investigations going.

In Denied, Kelly is approached by an old friend, Stephanie Burnotas.  Actually, the two were best friends all through school, in and out of each other’s houses, but then time and circumstances drove them apart.  Now Stephanie wants to hire Kelly to find her missing father.

She explains to Kelly that there had been a rift with her father and that she hadn’t spoken to him since Thanksgiving, six months earlier.  But now she’s pregnant with her first child, and she says she wants to make things right between them.

“I hated him sometimes but loved him.  Know what I mean?” she asks Kelly.  And Kelly knows only too well, having learned some very surprising things about her own father.   It’s too late to do anything about her situation now, so she’s eager to help clear up things for her friend.

That, of course, proves easier to say than to do.  Vince Burnotas was a man with a quick temper who had held a variety of semi-skilled jobs, none for long.  He apparently didn’t have any close friends, and his neighbors rarely saw him.  So although Kelly reassures her friend that he probably came into some money and is “sipping a margarita in Mexico” right now, she’s not sure she believes her own words.

Having obtained the key to Vince’s house, Kelly begins going through his scant belongings when she’s assailed by a foul odor.  Looking around the kitchen, she locates the garbage pail; in it is a single bloody finger.

As if that were not bad enough, the door to the house suddenly swings open and a furious woman enters.  She tells Kelly that she’s Vince’s girlfriend Marilyn, that Vince had left her stranded at a bar several weeks earlier and she’s been looking for him ever since.  When Kelly asks her about Vince’s gambling, as evidenced by the numerous gaming tickets strewn around the living room, Marilyn responds that he gambled “more than any person should.”  And judging by the many times he’d asked Marilyn for rent and gambling money, he wasn’t often a winner.

In the midst of the investigation, Vince’s car and his body are found, and Kelly identifies the corpse.  Although the police think that the car falling over a cliff was suspicious, Kelly feels they may not be putting enough time or manpower into the case.  She can’t leave Stephanie without a definite answer, so her search continues.

Kelly Pruett is an exciting new heroine, a young woman who may be a bit over her head working as a private investigator but is giving it all she has.  If hard work and perseverance can solve this crime, Kelly will solve it.  This is the second book in the series, and I hope for many more.

You can read more about Mary Keliikoa 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 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.

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.