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Book Reviews

WINTER COUNTS by David Hesla Wanbli Weiden: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about the author at this website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Jeffrey S. Stephens at this website.

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



WATCH HER by Edwin Hill: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwin Hill has written a fascinating study into the behaviors of seemingly ordinary people, people you might know, who will stop at nothing to keep things from being revealed.  You can read more about him at this website.

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

DEEP INTO THE DARK by P. J. Tracy: Book Review

Back in Los Angeles after his tour in Afghanistan, Sam Easton is working at the Pearl Club bar, unable to utilize his engineering degree due to his emotional state.  He’s suffering from PTSD and is dependent on both his psychiatrist and his medications.  He doesn’t always listen to Dr. Frolich’s suggestions and is mixing the antipsychotic medication with way too much liquor.  But he’s doing his best.

Not helping Sam’s mental condition is the recent separation from his wife.  He’s not blaming Yuki, who had stood by him since he returned home, but she had finally reached the breaking point and suggested they put some distance between them.  He had to agree it was best for her, although he’s not sure it’s best for him.

Sam’s co-worker at the Club, Melody Traeger, is also having problems.  She’s been seeing Ryan, a music producer, whom she’s definitely attracted to in spite of his possessiveness and jealousy.  But the day he tells her he wants her to quit the Club because he doesn’t like the way men there hit on her, and she tells him she needs the job to pay her rent and college tuition fees, he punches her in the face and gives her a black eye.  Then she’s out of there, through with Ryan–but is he through with her? 

Melody has become aware of a black Jeep she thinks is following her.  She’s seen it several times, but she tries convincing herself there are hundreds of cars in L. A. that fit that description.  And then someone crawls through a bedroom window in her apartment while she’s away and leaves two dozen red roses in a vase on her dresser.  She texts Ryan about them, but he denies they’re from him.  Can she believe him?  Does she have a stalker?  Is the driver of the Jeep involved?

The following day, Ryan’s maid finds his body in his apartment, and Police Detective Margaret Nolan is put in charge of the case.  Nolan doesn’t suspect either Melody or Sam, but her partner Al Crawford isn’t so sure.  He sees Melody’s black eye as a triggering event for Sam due to his PTSD, and he thinks his colleague is overly forgiving of Sam’s emotional state because her brother died while serving overseas.

Then Sam and Melody become acquainted with a young man at the Club.  He’s Rolf Hesse, and he wants Sam and Melody to star in a film he’s writing.  At first they tell Rolf they’re not interested, but he’s so enthusiastic they finally agree to look at his script.  He’s calling it Deep into the Dark, and despite themselves they find themselves impressed.  It is dark, but so are the things in their own lives.

P. J. Tracy (Traci Lambrecht) is the daughter of the mother-daughter team who wrote the Monkeewrench series; she continued the series after her mother’s death in 2016.  In this, the first mystery featuring Margaret Nolan, she shows the skill in plotting and characterizations that were evident in her earlier books.  Deep into the Dark is an excellent introduction to what readers will hope is a long-running series.

You can read more about P. J. Tracy 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.



HIDDEN TREASURE by Jane K. Cleland: Book Review

Sadly, I don’t own any antiques and have almost no knowledge of them.  But a quick Google search under the general topic brought up dozens, if not more, of antique stores and galleries near me, featuring everything from silver to furniture, paintings to vintage doors.  Who knew?

Josie Prescott is the owner of Prescott’s Antiques and Auctions.  After leaving New York City a number of years earlier to move to the small town of Rocky Point, New Hampshire, she now also has a television show featuring her discoveries that is starting its fifth season.

Josie and her husband have just purchased Gingerbread House from Maudie Wilson, a widow in her seventies.  Shortly after the purchase of their new home but before Josie and Ty move in, Maudie’s niece Celia comes to the gallery with a request.  She tells Josie that she and her sister Stacy, her aunt’s only relatives, had urged their aunt to move into an assisted living facility in town because they believe her memory is slipping.

As partial proof of this, Celia says that when her aunt arrived at her new apartment, she realized that an antique trunk belonging to her late husband’s family hadn’t arrived with the rest of her belongings.  Maudie can’t remember seeing it loaded onto the truck when the movers took everything out of the Gingerbread House or even the last time she saw it.

Celia and Josie search the Gingerbread House, but the trunk is not found.  The following day Stacy, Celia’s younger sister, approaches Josie with a similar concern, but a bit more forcefully, and she is equally distraught about the missing trunk and two objects it apparently contained, a box and a ceramic cat.

It seems to Josie that both women are more concerned about the missing items, which may have a substantial value, than the well-being of Maudie.   Both Celia and Stacy are in need of money, Celia because her husband has just lost his job and they are behind on their mortgage payments, and Stacy because she is creating a new line of high-quality furniture and needs funding.

Then Josie meets Maudie, and the two discuss having an appraisal of some of the valuable items she owns.  Maudie appears excited and grateful, but when Josie returns to the apartment to continue the conversation Maudie is not there.  She’s disappeared, and no one, not her nieces nor her friends, knows where she is.

Jane K. Cleland’s latest novel combines the happenings of Prescott’s Antiques and Auctions with a very clever plot including murder, assault, and theft.  The characters are realistic, and the excitement and love of antiques permeate the book and make for really enjoyable reading.

You can read more about Jane K. Cleland 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 ART OF VIOLENCE by S. J. Rozan: Book Review

Sam Tabor, recently released from prison, has turned to his friend, private investigator Bill Smith, for help.  Sam was sentenced to fifteen years to life for killing Amy Evans, a young woman he met at a party.   There he unknowingly drank punch that had been laced with PCP, and after leaving the party with Amy, he killed her.  He was judged insane but able to participate in his own defense, which he did against the opinions of his brother, his attorney, and Smith.  Sam then proceeded to disregard their advice, pleaded guilty, and happily went to prison.

In prison he was permitted to paint and his art, which had always been Sam’s secret, was discovered by a therapist.  What followed was praise by New York art critics, and a Free Sam Tabor crusade was begun for his early release.  Now that he’s out, he’s overwhelmed by the media attention and is incredibly anxious about an exhibit of his paintings opening at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan.  So once again he wants Smith’s help, but for a very unusual reason.

Since Sam was released, there have been two murders in the city, and he thinks he may be the murderer.  He describes himself as a functioning alcoholic and tells Bill he can’t remember what he was doing on the nights the two young women were killed.  “I came here for help,” he tells Smith.  “Prove it’s me.”

Arrayed against Sam and his desire to return to prison are his brother Peter, Sam’s lawyer Susan Tulis, his artist friend Elissa Cromley, photographer Tony Oakhurst, and Sherron Konecki, the owner of the prestigious art gallery Lemuria.  They all have a vested interest in keeping Sam out of prison–either financial, professional, or personal.

Even Detective Angela Grimaldi of Manhattan’s 19th precinct doesn’t think Sam committed the latest murders.  When Sam went to the precinct to turn himself in, “She told me to get lost,” Sam recounts to Smith.  Grimaldi later tells Bill, “Your guy, Tabor, he doesn’t fit the profile.”  But Sam thinks, or perhaps hopes, that he did commit these two crimes, and it’s up to Bill and his partner Lydia Chin to find the truth.

The Art of Violence is the thirteenth novel in the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series.  Ms. Rozan’s mode of operation is to alternate the protagonist in her novels.  Bill Smith is the lead in this one, but he cannot do it without the help of his partner Lydia.  And for readers of the previous books in this series, there’s an absolutely wonderful chapter toward the end of the novel in which Sam Tabor meets Mrs. Chin, Lydia’s intimidating mother.

It’s terrific to see Bill and Lydia in action again and at the top of their game.  S. J. Rozan is the recipient of many awards, including the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Nero, and Macavity awards for Best Novel and the Edgar for Best Short Story.

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.

GERMANIA by Harald Gilbers: Book Review

Germania.  That was what Adolph Hitler was planning as the new name for Berlin after Nazi Germany won World War II.  Apparently he thought it sounded more grandiose, more befitting his image of the capital of his country .  In an 1848 painting credited to Phillip Veit, Gemania is portrayed as an imposing figure holding a tri-colored flag in her left hand, a sword in her right, wearing a red, blue, and gold robe with the design of an eagle between her breasts.

But, of course, the German victory never happened, although in Harald Gilbers’ debut novel, it is May of 1944 and the war is still ongoing, so the outcome is unknown.  Richard Oppenheimer is awakened in the middle of the night by a member of the Security Protection Service to view a corpse.

As a Jew, Oppenheimer had been removed from his post as a homicide detective and forbidden to take part in any investigations.  So he doesn’t understand why he is being asked to examine a woman’s body which has been terribly mutilated.  He’s given no explanation, just returned to the room he and his wife Lisa share in the Jewish House after he views the corpse.

The next morning Oppenheimer is taken to SS headquarters where he again meets Detective Vogler, the man who was standing over the body the night before.  Vogler tells Oppenheimer that because of his past experience he has been chosen to take part in the murder investigation; in reality, he has no choice but to accept the assignment.

Germania brings the reader into Berlin at the beginning of the end of the war.  Bombs are falling, food and coffee are are almost unobtainable except by the Nazi elite, and the realization is dawning on the populace that the Allies may be winning after all.  But, of course, no one will voice these thoughts on penalty of imprisonment or worse.

The more Oppenheimer looks into the case, the more he becomes convinced that a serial killer is at work.  And not simply a serial killer but one who is copying the crimes of Karl Großmann, a convicted rapist and killer who committed suicide in jail.  But this killer appears to be more careful, more fastidious, and harder to catch.  And then, as Oppenheimer thought would happen, the killer strikes again.

Harald Gilbers has written a spellbinding thriller, not only because of the frightening crimes that the killer commits but also because of his recreation of Berlin in 1944.  Oppenheimer’s fears of the whole investigation being a trap and of being captured by the SS, his love for his Christian wife, the almost daily bombings by the Allies–all of this brings the horrors of war and persecution home to the reader.  Oppenheimer, his wife Lisa, his friend Hilde, Vogler, all come alive as they each play their part as their world is torn apart.

You can read more about Harold Gilbers 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 Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE EIGHTH DETECTIVE by Alex Pavesi: Book Review

The Eighth Detective is definitely one of the most unusual mysteries I’ve read this year.  I can’t recall another book quite like it.

Grant McAllister is a reclusive man, formerly a professor of mathematics, and the author of seven perfectly constructed short story mysteries.  He has hidden himself away on an island in the Mediterranean, perfectly content to be out of touch with the world, living an almost hermit-like existence.

Into his life comes Julia Hart bearing a letter from Blood Type, an English publishing company that wishes to reissue his stories.  She persuades McAllister to allow her to read each story and then discuss it with him.  And as she talks to him about each one, she points out discrepancies in the stories and questions him about them.

As they discuss the first one in the collection, McAllister admits that he purposely added some incorrect details to see if the readers were alert or astute enough to catch them.  He explains how mathematics is related to his literary work.  His aim, he tells Julia, “was to give a mathematical definition of a murder mystery,” which he did in a research paper that was published in Mathematical Recreations.  And so he wrote these stories that each described a different permutation of the mystery genre.

As Julia and Grant review each story, she becomes dismayed at how many incorrect things there are in each and how he doesn’t seem to recall, or won’t tell her, whether he wrote them that way deliberately or accidentally.  He also refuses to answer her most innocent questions about himself, things that she tells him she would like to include in the published volume as background information.  He won’t discuss his reasons for moving to the island, his marriage, his war record, why he no longer writes, or anything else that is personal.

The tales get longer and more involved, and Julia gets more and more intrigued by Grant’s refusal to share anything about himself.  She decides to try one more bluff to force him to tell her what she wants to know.

The Eighth Detective is a very intriguing mystery.  There are really only two characters, Grant McAllister and Julia Hart, and they meet several times on the remote island where he lives.  No one intrudes on their conversations–all the other characters mentioned exist only in the stories they discuss.   I can’t decide what part of the genre it fits into–it’s not a police procedural, not hard-boiled, not a cozy–so perhaps the author has invented a new type of mystery, one for which I don’t have a name.

That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The two characters completely held my interest, as did the seven stories under discussion by Julia and Grant.  They are clever, intricate, and each one has a connection to a mathematical formula or way of thinking.  Not surprisingly, Alex Pavesi has a doctorate in mathematics and is into recreational lockpicking!

You can read more about Alex Pavesi 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 Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



THEY NEVER LEARN by Layne Fargo: Book Review

Scarlett Clark, professor by day, killer by night.  And guess which job she enjoys more?

Scarlett has been at Gorman University for seven years, and each year she has killed a male member of the university.  Student, staff member, or professor–it doesn’t matter to her.  Her only goal is the permanent removal of a predator, a man who uses the power of his position to assault or rape.

They Never Learn is written in two voices in alternate chapters.  When we meet Scarlett in the first chapter she’s in Tyler Elkins’ garage, waiting for the university’s star quarterback to return from his morning run.  She knows very well what he’ll do when he returns; she’s been following him for weeks.

As always, he grabs a bottle of his energy drink from the garage’s mini fridge and begins to gulp it down.  This time, thanks to the special ingredient Scarlett has added, Tyler’s body begins to spasm and cramp.  While he’s writhing on the garage floor, Samantha stands over him, snaps a photo of him, adds an apologetic suicide note, and sends it to his Instagram account.

Last semester Tyler had stood watching while a number of his drunken frat brothers raped the girl they drugged; then, cold sober, he took his turn with her.  That’s what made him Scarlett’s latest victim.

Carly is beginning her freshman year at Gorman, free at last from her controlling and emotionally abusive father and her cowed and tyrannized mother.  But although she is ready for college academically, she’s not at all ready socially.

Her roommate is the beautiful and popular Allison, who for some reason is willing to take Carly under her wing and help her fit into the college girl mold.  But is that really a lucky break?

Scarlett’s revenge killings go even further back than the ones she’s committed since joining the Gorman faculty.  She’s been clever about all of them, using various methods and never choosing a man to whom she can be connected, but now she’s choosing victims closer to home.  Not surprisingly, it’s becoming more dangerous.

Halfway through the book there’s a surprise that literally made me gasp.  And They’ll Never Learn continues with one surprise after another.  The author’s ability to make the reader agree that the crimes the men have committed justify her actions is outstanding, even if this reader felt a bit guilty for that belief.

Underlying the plot is the disheartening message about how easy it is for the predators to continue their abuse, time after time, and how those in authority to whom the victims turn don’t intervene for various reasons.  Sadly, we know this is all too real, and the victims are left to feel even more betrayed by those they should be able to trust.

All the characters in the novel, both good and bad, are totally believable, and the plot pulls you along until the very end.  Layne Fargo has written an outstanding, and all too realistic, mystery.

You can read more about the author at this website.

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

THE HALF SISTER by Sandie Jones

Picture opening your front door one day and being confronted by a stranger who tells you an incredible story.  She says her name is Jess, she’s arrived to talk to your father, not knowing that he has died, and that she’s his daughter, your sister.  Can you imagine your response?  That’s the premise of Sandi Jones’ mystery, The Half Sister.

Lauren and Kate are sisters, but they have grown apart over the years.  Lauren is married, with three children, and now she is home on maternity leave from her job as a nurse.  Kate, also married, is a journalist who has made her name interviewing celebrities around the world.

What neither woman will outwardly acknowledge is that she is jealous of the other–Lauren, for what she views as Kate’s glamorous lifestyle; Kate, for Lauren’s ability to become pregnant three times while Kate has been unsuccessfully trying for several years.

Even before Jess arrives on the scene, there is tension in the family.  Harry, the father, was the glue that held the family together, and since his death there is no one to smooth things over.  Kate, the younger daughter, feels it most keenly as she and her father had a special bond, and she is furious at the thought that Lauren believes that Jess is their half-sister.  But then Lauren tells Kate and their mother the whole story, that in an effort to bring the family closer together, she went on an ancestry website and submitted her DNA.  It turns out that Jess did the same, and their DNAs are a match.

Of course, having a half-sister is not the only secret that Jess’ arrival has uncovered.  We learn the reason why Lauren’s bond with their late father is not as strong as Kate’s and why she is much more willing to accept Jess as part of their family.  A life-changing event in Lauren’s past led to the rupture, but now when she views what happened to her as a teenager through an adult lens, she emerges with a different perspective.  And Rose, Kate and Lauren’s mother, is distraught that this unknown young woman has seen fit to come into their lives and destroy the memory of her late husband.

An interesting point about the book’s title is that the half part of it can also be seen as referring to the life of this family–that only half of their lives was true, the other half being a tangle of lies and misrepresentations.  Of course, as all mystery readers know, once a lie or secret starts to unravel there’s no stopping it.

Sandie Jones has written a mystery with truly believable characters and a plot that will have you breathless until, literally, the book’s last page.

You can read more about the author at this website.

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

NEXT TO LAST STAND by Craig Johnson: Book Review

Every time I read another Walt Longmire mystery I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend.  There is something so real, so down-to-earth, about the Wyoming sheriff that I am always delighted to be in his company again.

In Next to Last Stand, Walt is still recovering from the injuries he received when he traveled south of the border in search of his abducted daughter more than a year ago.  He’s back in Absaroka County, but physically and emotionally he is still carrying the scars from his trip to the northern Mexican desert.

Years earlier, just back from Vietnam, Walt struck up a friendship with several men at the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming, in particular with Charlie Lee Stillwater, an Army vet who fought in the Korean War.  Now Walt gets a call from Carol Williams, the administrator of the Home, to tell him that his friend died during the night and that she would like him to stop by as soon as possible.  When Walt arrives and he and Carol  go to Charlie’s room, she shows him a shoe box she had found that morning, filled with hundred dollar bills adding up to one million dollars.

There’s also a fragment of a painting, an artist’s proof, slipped into the folds of the blanket on Charlie’s bed.  It’s old, still showing vibrant colors, and portrays an Indian and a cavalry officer locked in a struggle to the death.  Neither Carol nor Walt has any idea how the dead man came to have it in his possession, Walt decides to take it to a museum a few towns away to see if anyone there knows where it came from or how Charlie could possibly have gotten it.

One of America’s most famous battles was fought in what was then the Montana Territory.  It has various names–The Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s Last Stand, the Battle of the Greasy Grass (the latter the name given by the Indians who fought there),–and it took place in June, 1876.  It became immortalized in a painting by Cassilly Adams.  Walt is beginning to believe that somehow Charlie Lee had the original Adams painting and sold it, thus explaining the money found in his room.

There are two particularly wonderful scenes in Next to Last Stand that help explain my admiration for Walt Longmire and his creator.  In one, he’s placed a man accused of domestic abuse and kidnapping in a holding cell, and in defiance the prisoner has covered himself with Vaseline so the sheriff can’t grab him and take him out to the transport van that will take him to California to face charges there.  In the following scene, Walt discovers that the van’s drivers have been on the road for seventeen hours straight and not attending to the medical and physical needs of their passengers.  Walt’s handling of both these issues is so clever, so ingenious, that they alone make the novel worth reading.

But, of course, there’s much more–a closer look into Charlie Lee’s death, the possibility of uncovering the missing painting that for years has been presumed burned, the search for the veteran’s heirs, Walt’s unhappy mental state–all these things, plus Walt’s usual sidekicks–his deputy sheriff and romantic interest Victoria, his closest friend Henry Standing Bear, his long-suffering dispatcher Ruby–all combine to make Craig Johnson’s latest mystery one of the year’s best.

You can read more about Craig Johnson 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.


MONEY CREEK by Anne Laughlin: Book Review

The lure of drugs as well as what one will do to get them is at the heart of Anne Laughlin’s MONEY CREEK.  It’s painful reading, but unfortunately it’s a story that is all too familiar to many, either through personal experience or through general knowledge.  Either way, Clare Lehane’s story is one that will resonate with the readers of the author’s latest mystery.

The novel’s prologue sets the scene for what follows.  Clare is at a remote cabin in the woods, where she has gone with Henry, her new drug supplier.  He has insisted she accompany him there and meet the people in his circle.  Almost as soon as they arrive Henry leaves, and Clare is left with three people she doesn’t know.  Angry, yet needing to stay until she gets the drugs she came for, Clare leaves the living room to use the bathroom, and while she’s there gunshots erupt.

Walking back to the living room, she sees three bloody bodies lying on the floor.  After checking that the gunman is gone, she quickly leaves the cabin and calls the police from a pay phone.  Although the last thing she wants is to get involved and to have to explain what she was doing there, her guilt adds to her already distraught state of mind and increases her desire for drugs and, when they are not readily available, alcohol.

The backstory explains how Clare finds herself in this horrific place.  She is a young lawyer, working for a “white shoe” law firm in Chicago.  The term, according to Google, refers to the most prestigious employers in elite professions, and the Windy City law firm where she is a first-year associate is definitely that.  Clare is realizing that the only way she can keep up with the 70-80 hours of work demanded of her each week is to continue what she started while a law school student–taking Adderall to give her more energy and a longer attention span during the day, then taking Valium to relax her at night.  And she discovers she can’t function without either or both.

In a desperate effort to start a new life, she quits her job and moves to a small law firm in southern Illinois.  She actually goes so far as to flush her entire drug supply down the toilet after she arrives there, but she almost immediately realizes that this hasn’t solved her addiction problem.  In fact, she is so desperate that her only recourse is to go to the college in the small town of Money Creek in hopes of finding a student/dealer to resupply her.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes before she meets Henry, a student who is the go-to man on campus when one is looking for drugs.  Despite her intention of quitting, after just one day she’s so desperate for speed that she agrees to have sex with him if he will provide her with what she needs.

Money Creek is a thought-provoking book with a flawed protagonist, one whom you want to succeed.  Reading Clare’s story evokes both despair and hope.  Despair because I felt she was losing her promising life and career to her addiction, hope because she so desperately wants to conquer her need for drugs that I was rooting for her to do so.

You can read more about Anne Laughlin 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 ORPHAN’S GUILT by Archer Mayor: Book Review

Old sins cast long shadows is a proverb that’s never been truer than in Archer Mayor’s latest Joe Gunther novel.

The Orphan’s Guilt opens with the inebriated John Rust being pulled over by a Vermont state trooper.  John doesn’t fight going to the police barracks, even though he knows that because it’s his fourth DUI–Driving Under the Influence–an arrest and conviction will likely cost him his license and possibly a jail term.

The event that triggered John’s drinking was the death of his younger brother Peter earlier that day.  After he’s released from the barracks he contacts attorney Scott Jezek to discuss his legal options, and Scott hires Sally Kravitz, who works for him as an independent investigator, to determine if there are mitigating circumstances that might lead to a lesser sentence or even no penalty at all for his client.

It was always believed by John’s neighbors that Peter had a severe birth defect that resulted in his inability to speak, walk, or take care of himself in any way.  The few people who knew the brothers were uniformly impressed by John’s care of and devotion for Peter.  Their mother had died when John was twelve and Peter eight, and the day that John turned eighteen their father, Daryl Hicks, walked out of the house, leaving the older brother to care for the younger one.

In the aftermath of John’s arrest for drunk driving, things long hidden start coming to the surface.  Sally talks to Marcia Ethier, the midwife who delivered Peter, and is stunned to hear that, as opposed to everyone’s understanding of Peter’s condition, the boy was not born brain damaged.

“I know, by all that is holy, that Peter Rust was damaged by another,” Marcia tells Sally.  She has kept this knowledge to herself, feeling guilty for more than two decades, because she was frightened by the boys’ father.  “I felt like my life was in danger.”

This statement opens up an inquiry by the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, headed by Joe Gunther and his staff.  A very circuitous path, starting with the disappearance of Scott’s client John, takes them into an examination of the Russ/Hicks home life, the death by overdose of the boys’ mother, the criminal record of their father, and a long-forgotten financial crime.

It is always a delight to have an opportunity to spend time with Joe Gunther and his staff.  There’s smart and organized Sammie Martens, cranky but street-smart Willy Kunkle, and friendly and easy-going Lester Spinney.  Working together they solve a case that began with a boy’s birth and ended years later in multiple murders.

A man of many talents and interests, Archer Mayor works as a death investigator for the Vermont State Medical Examiner’s office, a deputy for the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, and a volunteer for his local fire department and EMT squad.  Archer Mayor is a master craftsman, and The Orphan’s Guilt shows him at the top of his game.

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 SILENT PATIENT by Alex Michaelides: Book Review

When clinical psychotherapist Theo Faber leaves his position at Broadmoor, a highly regarded psychiatric hospital in London, to accept a similar position at the Grove, a less prestigious and less respected institution, his colleagues are surprised.  His supervisor tells that him that he’s heard rumors that the Grove is in financial trouble and may be closed shortly.  “You could find yourself out of a job in six months,” he tells Theo.  But Theo won’t change his mind.

What Theo doesn’t say is that he has a very personal, somewhat unprofessional, reason for wanting to join the staff of the Grove.  The hospital’s most celebrated patient is Alicia Berenson, a well-known artist who killed her husband six years earlier by shooting him in the face five times.  Since that day her silence has been total; she has not spoken another word.

Theo himself has had years of psychotherapy, something he believes has saved his life.  His childhood was traumatic, with an emotionally and physically abusive father and a mother unable to intervene or help him.  Now, with his successful career of helping severely mentally disturbed patients and having obtained a better understanding of his own dysfunctional history, he believes he is uniquely able to help Alicia break through her silence, explain the murder, and re-enter the world.  Theo says to himself, “I wanted to fix her.”

However, that doesn’t prove easy.  Alicia is resistant to all the therapy the Grove has offered over the years, and Theo finds himself beginning to blur the boundaries between therapist and patient in an effort to get her to respond to him, to speak again.  He reads her file, but he really doesn’t have any interest in what any other therapist has said or done in working with Alicia.  He believes that his approach will prove to be the successful one.

He determines first to speak to her attorney, Max Berersen, who was the brother of Alicia’s ex-husband.  He feels certain that he would not receive approval for his unorthodox approach to Max, so “better not ask” his supervisor, he decides.  And this becomes the first step on the slippery slope of ignoring not only the hospital rules but those of good therapeutic practice.  But even at this early juncture, Theo realizes “it was too late to stop.  In many ways my fate was already decided….”

Theo’s marriage has been the one bright spot in his personal life.  Kathy is warm, spontaneous, outgoing, all the traits that he himself is missing, and he loves her for them.  Then one day he passes her open laptop and reads several emails that make it obvious that she is having an affair.  And now he must deal with his private problem as well as his professional one.

Alex Michaelides has written a spellbinding novel, one in which we see, or think we see, how one man’s overweening pride does not lead to the result he anticipated.  And you know what they say follows pride….

You can read more about Alex Michaelides 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 Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

AS THE CROW DIES by Kenneth Butcher: Book Review

In scenic Asheville, North Carolina, police detectives Dinah Rudisill and Ira Segal are called to the French Broad River, where a corpse has been found.  Expecting to see a drowning victim, they are instead confronted by a man whose body shows a large exit wound between his shoulder blades.

The man who discovered the victim tells them that his attention had been drawn to the water by the loud cawing of a group of crows.  “Calling to each other like they were upset or excited or something,” he tells the police.

The corpse’s body contains, among other things, a wallet with a business card showing that his name was Charles Atley and his job title was manager, Behavior Augmentation, at a local business called Creatures 2.0.  At the company headquarters, Dinah and Ira learn that the company is involved with the selection, breeding, and training of animals, with special emphasis on crows.  They learn there is a pecking order among the crows (pun intended), with the company’s special project, Richard, the most important and apparently the most intelligent bird.

Richard belongs to Creatures 2.0’s owner and president, Francis Elah.  Francis is currently out of town on a secret, perhaps government, job and has been out of touch for five weeks.  Neither his employees nor his wife knows where he is or how to reach him.

The detectives learn that the Office of Naval Intelligence, in the person of Jerome Guilford, will be joining the Asheville investigation.  “So now I guess what part of the government” is involved in the secret project, Ira tells another police officer.  Guilford wants to be kept abreast of all the information Ira and Dinah gather, but he isn’t willing to share what he knows.  “Reasons of national security” and “classified” are his favorite expressions.

The research that Francis Elah’s company is doing is what he calls “reordering.”  He has taught a monkey to do magic tricks, a mule deer recite the first three letters of the alphabet, and was working on having a raccoon assist in surgical procedures, taking advantage of the animal’s tiny fingers.  At first this all seems unbelievable to Ira, but after seeing videos of the animals in action he is beginning to change his mind.

Kenneth Butcher has created an intriguing plot and a strong detective team in this mystery.  The plot involves homicides, the disappearance of Francis Elah, and the mysterious intervention of the federal government, while the police twosome shows the personal sides of Ira, who carries paperback books as self-soothing devices to help him recover from PTSD brought on by a previous case, and Dinah, who is a roller derby star and local sports legend.  Together they make a perfect professional pair.

You can read more about Kenneth Butcher 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.