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Book Reviews

DARK SITE by Patrick Lee: Book Review

Danica Ellis, a forty-one-year-old divorcée trying to put her life together, and Sam Dryden, a former Special Forces operative, would seem to have nothing in common.  In fact, when they meet each believes the other to be a total stranger.  But it turns out they do share something–on the same day, someone tried to kill both of them.

Dark Site opens with Danica shopping for groceries at two in the morning, just after she completes her second-shift job.  The store is empty except for a single cashier and a young couple just behind her in the checkout line.  After paying for her purchases, Danica heads to her car and is about to begin loading the purchases inside when the man and woman come up behind her, and the man strikes a savage blow to her neck.

Somehow managing to escape, Danica runs into the woods.  When she hears the couple’s van pull out of the lot and speed away, she tries to imagine who would want to abduct her, or worse.  There’s only one person she can think of who could help her, the stepfather from whom she has been estranged for more than two decades.

Carl Gilmore is a retired FBI agent, and when Danica arrives at the house they had shared when her mother was alive and tells him her story, he knows exactly what is happening.  He gives her an envelope that her mother had given him and made him promise never to share with her daughter.  But now he thinks it’s time for Danica to understand her past and why she may be an assassin’s target.

Miles away, Sam is looking at an old house he is considering buying and fixing up for sale.  He tells the realtor he’ll make a decision and will call him soon.  As soon as the agent drives away, he hears another car pull into the driveway.  When Sam turns to look, expecting that the agent has returned for some forgotten item, a man opens the driver’s side door with a pistol pointing at Sam.

Sam is able to overpower his assailant and in the ensuing fight is forced to kill the man.  He looks through his pockets for some identification but finds none.  And then the man’s cell phone rings.

Sam ignores the call but texts to the number.  The person on the other end is the one who ordered the murder, and now, thinking that the assassin has succeeded, the man orders “the killer” to go to another location and murder the woman he will find there. Sam doesn’t know who this woman can be or why either one of them has been targeted for death, but he races to the address to rescue her.

By the time Sam arrives at Carl’s home, Carl has been shot to death and Danica is seconds away from the same fate.  Sam is able to kill her would-be assassin, and Sam and Danica run from the house and drive away with the sound of police sirens in their ears.

The answer to why someone wants the two dead goes back nearly thirty years.  The only clue they have is contained in the file that Danica now possesses.

Dark Site is a nail-biting thriller.  Its plot is exciting, its characters well-drawn, and the motive behind the attempted murders of Danica and Sam are all-too-believable.

You can read more about Patrick Lee 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.

JUDGMENT by Joseph Finder: Book Review

Take one step down a slippery slope, and the next thing you know you’re falling faster than you ever imagined possible.  According to Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, “a slippery slope…is a consequentialist logical fallacy in which a party asserts that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of unrelated events culminating in some significant (usually negative) effect.”

To put it more simply, when something goes wrong or one makes an unwise decision, additional wrong decisions follow until the final one leads to disaster (my definition).  That is certainly the case for Juliana Brody, a respected judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court, who makes a wrong decision, or maybe two such decisions, that may cost her her life.

Juliana has just given a presentation at a national lawyers’ conference in Chicago and is sitting alone on the hotel’s rooftop terrace.  She’s had her self-imposed limit of one drink when a man asks if he may sit at her table.  Matías Sanchez is staying at the hotel too, attending a different conference, and they enter into an interesting discussion about Mallorca, a place with which he’s very familiar.  Unwisely, Juliana has a second drink and before she has time to think it through, she and Matías are spending the night in his hotel suite.

Juliana has always been “miss goody two-shoes,”  in part to make up for her somewhat dysfunctional and chaotic childhood.  She obeys the rules, never goes over the speed limit.  She is, in her own words, “sensible, prudent, and cautious.”  So she determines to put this one misstep behind her and return to her husband, teenage son, and the Massachusetts court system.

The case currently before Juliana is a sexual harassment one.  The plaintiff, a young woman, claims that when she worked for a start-up ride-hailing company the CEO made unwanted advances to her; when she wouldn’t submit to his advances, he fired her.  The company, naturally, disputes these charges.

As Juliana returns to the courtroom after her Chicago trip, a man enters the room and sits down at the defense table.  He stands up to be introduced by his co-counsel and says, “Good afternoon, Your Honor.  My name is Matías Sanchez.”  And later that day, after having a drink with a friend at the Bostonia Club, Juliana is stunned once more to see Sanchez sitting in a chair across the room from her.

He comes to her table and tells her what he wants, a ruling in the company’s favor.  Angry and indignant, Juliana is ready to tell him to forget it when he says, “there’s a video” of their night together and proceeds to show it to her.  And what if she defies him or those who sent him, she asks.  “If you defy them, then the judgment will come,” he says.  “No appeals.  No mercy.  No justice.”

Joseph Finder has written a powerful novel about the fallout that comes from both making a mistake and trying to rectify it.  There are no easy answers for Juliana, and every step she takes seems to bring her and her family into more danger.  Judgment is a page-turner in the best sense of the word.

You can read more about Joseph Finder 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.


DEATH OF A RAINMAKER by Laurie Loewenstein: Book Review

In the 1930s, Oklahoma is a state suffering crop failures, mortgage defaults, and devastating dust storms that creep into every crevice of one’s home and body.  Nowhere is that more true than in the small town of Vermillion, where not a drop of rain has fallen in 240 days.

The townspeople are so desperate that they hire Roland Coombs, a self-professed expert, to bring rain to their parched farms.  Coombs says he learned his craft when he was in charge of munitions in the Army, and he has brought a truckload of TNT to start the process.

One of the few businesses remaining open in Vermillion is the Jewel Movie House, which charges a nickel admission.  Its owner, blind Chester Benton, needs every one of them to stave off bankruptcy.  Barely had the day’s early-bird matinee started, however, when the largest dust storm the town had ever seen barreled into Vermillion, covering stores, houses, and cars, forcing people to hunker down anywhere they could find shelter.

After the dust storm finally subsides the audience leaves the theater to return to their battered homes, and Chester begins the dispiriting task of sweeping up the dust that had accumulated on the seats, in the aisles, and in the cracks of the candy counter’s glass top.  But when he tries to open the fire door to clear that exit, it won’t budge.  Then, when the door finally opens a couple of inches, Chester leans down to measure the height of the dust; instead of dust, he touches cloth and then a man’s leg.  He feels the man’s face and tries to brush the dust away from his mouth and nose, but the man is definitely dead.

Temple Jennings is the Jackson county sheriff, so naturally he is called to investigate.  He and the medical examiner examine the corpse; the cause of death, which at first appears to be accidental suffocation from the dust storm, is now seen to be a murder, with the victim’s skull fractured by a heavy instrument.  And, the doctor says of the body, “It’s the rainmaker.”

Suspicion falls on one of the teenage boys who was seen to have been given a lift by Coombs after the dynamite explosion the previous night and to have had words with the rainmaker at the local bar.  Carmine DiNapoli is a recent arrival at the nearby CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp from Chicago, and he tries to flee when Temple arrives at the campground to question him.

Temple has another problem.  He is running for re-election, and the powerful and successful businessman Vince Doll is running against him.  Doll’s election posters have been plastered all over the county, and even people who supported Temple in the past seem to be leaning toward the challenger.  It’s as if they blame the current sheriff for all the ills that have befallen the town and think that a change in that office will bring prosperity back to Jackson county.

Death of a Rainmaker is a truly powerful book.  The author’s depiction of small-town life during the bleakest times in the state is incredibly realistic, and the characters and their problems are true-to-life.  Laurie Loewenstein has written what I hope will be just the beginning of the Dust Bowl series.

You can read more about Laurie Loewenstein 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.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A SCANDAL IN JAPAN by Keisuke Matsuoka: Book Review

Where was Sherlock Holmes in the years following his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls?  Thanks to Keisuke Matsuoka’s new novel, we now know that having to flee arrest and possible imprisonment for the murder of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock is sent to Japan by his brother Mycroft.

As clever as Sherlock had been in escaping from death at the hands of Professor Moriarty at the Falls, he unfortunately was seen by Moriarty’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Moran.  When Moran returns to London he tells the members of his gang that Sherlock is still alive, thus explaining Mycroft’s insistence that his brother leave London until all the gang members are imprisoned.  So, very reluctantly, Sherlock undertakes a most unpleasant sea voyage to Japan, one of the few countries not part of the British Empire or closely allied to it. 

It turns out that there are two men in Japan whom Sherlock had met when he and Mycroft were urchins on the London streets.  Hirobumi Ito is one of those men.  A former prime minister, he is now head of the Privy Council and one of the emperor’s closest advisors.  It is 1891, a very difficult time for Japan.  The country has become a pawn in the battle between Great Britain and Russia, both of whom see the small nation as a backward place, small and unable to defend itself.

There is a current problem in Japan which, if not handled properly, could result in a war with Russia that would probably be catastrophic for the Eastern nation.  Shortly before Sherlock’s arrival, a Japanese policeman named Sanzo Tsuda attempted to assassinate one of Tsar Nicolas’ sons who was on a royal visit.  This has sparked an international crisis, and the detective appears just in time to be thrust into the middle of it.

Ketsuke Matsuoka has taken actual events and included Sherlock Holmes, whose arrival is very much to the benefit of the Japanese government.  In “real life,” how did they ever manage without him?  The author has been very respectful of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, giving him the dialogue that readers of the canon can imagine him speaking and not adding anything about his past that was not mentioned in the original works.  Except, of course, for his visit to Japan, which Mr. Matsuoka makes totally believable.

Having just taught a class in which we read The Hound of the Baskervilles and several short stories featuring Holmes, I was a bit wary of this new adventure in his life.  However, I was truly impressed and delighted by how seamlessly A Scandal in Japan fit into Doyle’s novels.  Sherlock and his brother behave exactly as this reader imagines they would have if the detective actually had been forced to leave his country and try to acclimate himself to such a different culture.  The portrait of late 19th-century Japan is fascinating.

You can read more about Keisuke Matsuoka 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.



LIKE LIONS by Brian Panowich: Book Review

There are two interesting facts about Clayton Burroughs:  first, he’s the sheriff of a rural North Georgia county; second, his family is the most notorious crime family in that county.  Even the name of the area, Bull Mountain, is enough to set the scene of the novel.

The prologue of Like Lions is chilling.  A young mother of three sons is trying to escape her brutal, abusive husband.  She’s almost out the door of their house, carrying their baby in her arms, when her husband confronts her.  She pleads for her life and to be allowed to take the infant with her; he permits her to leave, but she is forced to leave the boy behind.

Fast forward to the present day, some thirty years later.  Clayton has a lot on his mind.  He’s thinking of his two dead brothers, the constant pain in his leg where he was shot a few months earlier, and his pain-reliever and alcohol problems that are spiraling out of control.

A group of gangsters from another part of Georgia attempt to rob The Chute, a gay bar owned by a man named Tuten.  Everyone knows that the bar is a “cash cow” for the Burroughs’ family and that there would be drugs and money in Tuten’s safe.  But the robbers get an unpleasant surprise by the reaction of the bar’s patrons and its owner; one of the thieves is killed and the others are taken prisoner.

The next morning Clayton gets a call from a member of the Burroughs’ gang, Scabby Mike.  He meets Mike, a man named Wallace, and JoJo, a teenage member of the criminal band who tried to rob The Chute.  Clayton learns that this gang has plans to gain control of the county and use it as a conduit for expanding the drug route through this part of the state.  The sheriff, however, is less than impressed, saying that he’ll deal with the problem when it happens, and starts to leave the scene.

Then JoJo starts to talk trash, vicious trash, to Clayton. He tells him how his Deddy (sic) is going to kill them all (the Burroughs gang), that he knows that Clayton is the man who shot and killed his own brother, that he’s just a drunk cripple who can’t fight any more.  All that the sheriff is able to ignore, but when the teenager starts to brag about how he’s going to deal with Clayton’s “pretty wife,” that’s more than Clayton can handle.

He takes the boy down to the muddy pond on the site and holds his head under water for several seconds. When he’s satisfied that that’s sufficient punishment, he asks the two men to “pull him back some”  and then take him home.  Clayton leaves, and when Mike and Wallace turn around to pick up JoJo, they discover that he has suffocated.

Like Lions is a story filled with violence and love, trauma and redemption.  It’s a story about Clayton Burroughs, who grew up in a family and an area that would corrupt anyone and his fight to redeem himself and his county from the past.  The plot will keep you reading and breathless until the end, when a totally surprising conclusion will make you realize you are in the hands of an outstanding mystery writer.

You can read more about Brian Panowich 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.


FINDING KATARINA M. by Elisabeth Elo: Book Review

Natalie March is a dedicated physician, perhaps obsessively so.  Her life is devoted to her surgical practice, nearly to the exclusion of everything else.  Her closest relationship is with her mother, Vera, the daughter of a Ukrainian woman who was sentenced to life in a Soviet prison camp, leaving three-year-old Vera behind to be cared for by the mother’s brother.  For all of Vera’s life, she has assumed that her mother perished in the camp.

Then into Natalie’s Washington, D. C. office comes a young Russian woman who tells her that they are cousins, that their mothers are half-sisters.  Saldana, a young ballerina in a touring company, is in the United States on a thirty-day visa.  Despite Vera’s belief that her mother died decades ago, Saldana tells Natalie that Katarina Melnikova is alive in a remote village in northern Siberia.  The young dancer, who says that her mother pressured her to go with the company to the States and not to return to Siberia, asks Natalie for her help in getting asylum.

Natalie is reluctant and unsure what she can do, but she agrees to look into the situation.  The two women part but make plans to meet in New York City where the ballet company is scheduled to perform soon, and Natalie goes to the rehabilitation center where her mother lives to tell her the nearly unbelievable news.

Vera March suffers from MS and is confined to a wheelchair, and she is both stunned and elated by her daughter’s news.  She definitely wants to meet Saldana and find out everything about her mother and her second family.

Then she tells her daughter that Natalie must go to Siberia to meet her grandmother and the rest of the family.   “I can’t go….I can’t travel anymore,” she says to Natalie.  “I want her to meet you instead.”  Natalie doesn’t want to go, but she promises to think about it more to appease her mother than for any desire to meet her grandmother and her family.

But that afternoon she receives a phone call from the New York City police.  Her business card was found in Saldana’s purse; the young woman was the victim of a homicide.  And so, partly to please her mother and partly to assuage her own guilt at not having immediately agreed to help Saldana, Natalie leaves for Siberia.

Finding Katarina M. is a page-turner.  Natalie’s safe, organized life is turned upside down when she reaches the Soviet Union, and she must make life-altering decisions every step of the way.  Her resourceful and strong character comes across throughout the novel; interestingly, the reader can see how the trip and her wish to meet her aunt and her grandmother have simultaneously strengthened and softened her.

Elisabeth Elo’s second mystery comes five years after her first, and it was well worth the wait.  You will be completely caught up in Natalie’s voyages–the one to Siberia and her internal one of self-discovery.

You can read more about Elisabeth Elo 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.

STONE MOTHERS by Erin Kelly: Book Review

Growing up in a town where virtually everyone was employed or dependent in some way on a mental hospital has left its mark on Marianne Thackeray.  She had always wanted to leave Nusstead, but with no particular plan in mind that seemed like a forlorn hope.  However, after high school she was able to move to London and begin a successful career, and she determined to put her past behind her.  For Marianne, the saying “you can’t go home again” has another meaning–you don’t want to.

The statement that opens Stone Mothers is a chilling warning of what to expect.  Its author was the Chief Inspector of Asylums and Advisor for the Commission of Lunacy–can you think of a more frightening title?  His report, written in 1868, extols the virtues of the East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum and states that “many women committed due to domestic discord or excess of childbearing request to stay.”  If that were true, one can only imagine the lives these women were trying to escape.

Marianne’s husband Sam thinks he has given her a wonderful gift, an apartment they can use as a getaway from their busy London lives, close to the cottage where she was born and her mother and sister still live.  In fact, Marianne’s reaction is horror, guilt, and fright at having to move into the newly designed Park Royal Manor.  To her it will always be Nazareth Hospital, formerly called the East Anglia Pauper Lunatic Asylum, the very place whose merits were extolled by the 19th-century Chief Inspector of Asylums.

The book’s title comes from an earlier time; the Victorians called their mental hospitals stone mothers.  The asylums were built with one method of dealing with mental illness, but almost as soon as they were completed, psychiatric treatment was much improved and made such places dangerous and obsolete.   For Marianne, the memories of Nazareth can’t be expunged.  Even worse than living at the newly-named Park Royal Manor, she thinks, would be telling Sam what happened at the hospital more than two decades earlier.

For generations Nazareth Hospital was the economic center of Nusstead.  Then, in a campaign spearheaded by Helen Greenlaw, a Tory member of Parliament, the hospital was closed, turning the town into a bankrupt version of its former self.  Entire families were left jobless and destitute, including the father of Marianne’s secret high school lover, Jesse, and her own mother.

Jesse has never forgiven Helen for her part in closing the hospital, and neither has anyone else in the town.  Now he has a plan, he tells Marianne, to make Helen pay.  Marianne responds that the fact is that the three of them are equally to blame for what happened in the aftermath of the hospital’s closing, but Jesse doesn’t perceive it that way and can’t be persuaded to leave it alone.

Consequently, Marianne sees her whole world, which includes her husband and their very vulnerable daughter, crumbling before her eyes.

Erin Kelly has written a thriller in many shades of gray.  The characters do bad things, but mostly not for bad reasons.  Their motives, if not commendable, are understandable, and the reader is torn between condemnation and sympathy.  Stone Mothers is a truly skillful, beautifully written novel.

You can read more about Erin Kelly 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.

BONES OF THE EARTH by Eliot Pattison: Book Review

Reading Bones of the Earth should come with a warning:  This book is dangerous to your complacency, your sense of well-being.  This is the tenth book in the Inspector Shan Tao Yun series, and it is true to the Tibetan people and their land, their struggles against the Chinese occupation and its cruelties, and the importance of the Buddhist creeds that are at the heart of the country.

Shan is an ethnic Chinese inspector who, after being imprisoned in a Chinese work camp, was relocated to Yangkar, in rural Tibet.  While working as a low-level constable there, he has become impressed and respectful of the people and their beliefs, things that he must keep hidden from his Chinese superiors.  This requires a delicate balancing act with his immediate supervisor, Colonel Tan, even though Tan himself has become more understanding of the native community around him.

As the novel opens, Shan is made to witness the execution of a Tibetan prisoner, one who was allegedly tried and convicted of corruption in the building of a huge construction project at the Five Claws Dam.  The dam is located in a mountain area sacred to the Tibetans who live there, something of no interest to the engineers on site or to the powers in Beijing.  But, as Shan learns, there have been innumerable problems connected to its construction, many with no seemingly rational explanation.

The prisoner, Metok Rentzig, had been a prisoner in the Yangkar jail until his summary arrest and execution.  A note he passed to the jail’s janitor gives the real reason for his punishment:  he knew that the deaths of an American woman, Natalie Pike, and a Chinese archaeologist, Professor Gangfen, which had been officially declared a tragic road accident, were in fact deliberate murders at the dam.

A “lowly constable,” as he constantly is reminded by those in power, Shan has no authority to investigate Metok’s death.  But his sense of justice cannot reconcile the speed of the prisoner’s execution with the fact that there were no co-conspirators mentioned in the corruption charge, and he determines to look into the case.  It would take more than one person to be complicit in the corruption to damage a project the size of the Five Claws Dam, Shan thinks.

The director of the project, Ran Yatsen, is eager to show Shan the scope of the dam when the constable pays an unexpected, and unauthorized, visit.  Totally disregarding the Tibetan belief that the site was one of the spiritual power places on the earth, Ran brags of the massive turbines that will be built in the valley, totally submerging it.

The brutality of the Chinese occupation is in direct contrast to the religious, non-violent beliefs of the Tibetan people.  The portrayal of the Chinese work and re-education camps brings to mind similar ones during the Nazi period.  Substitute one totalitarian regime and its trust in its right to subjugate an “inferior” people for another, and you have the same tragic story.

Eliot Pattison has written the final chapter of Inspector Shan, and it is a powerful 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.

THE LOST MAN by Jane Harper: Book Review

If there’s one thing people born and raised in the Australian outback know, it’s how to prepare for the unexpected.  Car problems, flood waters, electrical failures–having the right tools or extra gallons in your car’s double fuel tanks or knowing there are battery-operated lanterns in your home and stables can mean the difference between life and death.

So it’s beyond anyone’s ability to explain the death of Cameron Bright.  He was found about nine kilometers, or six miles, from his car that contained bottled water and food, enough supplies to last a week or more.  Plus there was gasoline in both tanks.  No one, certainly no one as familiar with the outback’s dangers as Cameron, would have left his car and begun walking in the one hundred degree heat.  And yet here he is, miles from nowhere, sunburned, dehydrated, and very dead.

On the surface, Cam seemed to have an enviable life.  He was part owner and manager of the family ranch, married with two small girls, and very popular in the town of Balamara.

His life appeared much smoother than that of either of his brothers.  Nathan, two years older, was divorced with a son he rarely was able to see and was an outcast in the town because of a very bad decision he had made more than a decade earlier.  And the youngest of the Bright boys, Bub, was a bit slow, still living at home in the shadow of his middle brother and feeling very much left out when it came to making decisions about the running of the ranch.

Neither Nathan nor Bub can see any possible reason for Cam to have left his car and walked the impossibly long distance to Stockman’s Grave where he was found, more than twenty-four hours after he left home to do some repair work that should have taken him only a few hours.  In fact, Cam was supposed to have met Bub at Lehmann’s Hill to fix a mechanical problem, but he never arrived there and didn’t answer Bub’s radio calls.  Darkness was falling by the time an intensive search was underway, and when they found Cam’s body he was already dead.

The Lost Man is told from Nathan’s point of view, and it gives us the story of the brothers and their abusive, controlling father.  After Cam’s death, many old secrets, long hidden, come out into the open.  And if Nathan is not the man the people of Balamara thought he was for all these years, neither was Cam.

Jane Harper is also the author of The Dry, a highly-praised mystery and international best-seller that I reviewed in December 2017.  The Lost Man, with its vivid description of the Outback, its compelling plot, and its realistic characters, is equally good.  The novel’s stunning climax will have you thinking about family relationships long after you finish reading.

You can read more about Jane Harper 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.

RUPTURE by Ragnar Jónasson: Book Review

For a very small country–its population is under 350,000–Iceland appears to have a lot of crime.

Things have been quiet, too quiet, in Siglufjördur.  The small town is under quarantine due to a deadly virus brought by a traveler from Africa.  Sadly, the man died the day after he arrived, and one of the nurses caring for him died shortly after that.  So the shops, schools, museum, and library are all closed, and the streets are deserted.

The unnatural silence leaves police detective Ari Thór with time to follow up on a rather strange request.  A man called Hédinn comes to the police station to explain why he is seeking Ari Thór help.  Hédinn tells Ari Thór that fifty years ago his parents, along with his mother’s sister and her husband, bought land in a remote, uninhabited fjörd miles from anywhere.  Hédinn was born the year after the four moved there, and the five of them left the year after that, so obviously he has no memories of his birthplace.

Now Hédinn tells the detective he wants to get to the bottom of the tragic event that occurred shortly after his birth.  His aunt died, the cause of her death uncertain.  She drank rat poison, there was no way to summon a doctor or ambulance in time, and she died shortly after ingesting it.  At the time the official version was that it was a terrible accident that happened because the poison was kept in a cupboard near the sugar, which it closely resembled, but Hédinn says there were always suspicions that it was either suicide or murder, both equally difficult to prove.

Now Hédinn has received a photo taken by his uncle.  In it are his mother, his father, his aunt, and himself as an infant being held by a young, unknown man.  He wants Ari Thór to find out the identity of the man, what he was doing at their remote home, and, if he is alive, what he knows about what happened to the aunt.

A very different scenario is being played out in Iceland’s capital city.  Róbert and his girlfriend Sunna are living in Reykjavik with her toddler son.  While Sunna and her sister are having lunch, the boy is abducted from his pram outside the restaurant where they are eating.  They can see Kjartan from their table, but in the minute that the women take their eyes off him, the child is taken away.

Kidnapping is almost unheard of in Iceland, and it immediately comes to the attention of the police that an incident in Róbert’s past may be the reason that Kjartan was taken.  Róbert has never divulged his secret to Sunna, its guilt and shame still all too prevalent in his mind several years after the terrible event, but the investigating detective tells him, ”…you had better come clean.  Otherwise I’ll have to tell her, in my own words, just why her son was abducted by a stranger.”

I’ve reviewed three of Ragnar Jónasson’s earlier books on this blog, so it’s obvious that I am very much a fan.  His portrayal of Iceland and its people is masterful and gives the reader an insight into how the climate and culture of the country play an important role in the lives of its people.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson 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 STRANGER DIARIES by Elly Griffiths: Book Review

Can a curse from a long-dead writer actually hang over into today?  Can the works of Gothic horror author R. M. Holland bring death to teachers at Talgarth High?

Clare Cassidy is an elementary school teacher in England who also teaches an adult creative writing class.  In that class she has been discussing The Stranger with her students.  What makes the short story particularly horrifying to us, she tells her class, is that Holland actually wrote it in the very building we are in now.  Clare, in fact, is in the process of writing Holland’s biography, although after a good start the words seem to have dried up for her.  She wants to write the story of the mysterious author whose wife’s spirit is reputed to haunt the halls of the house where the couple lived, a house that now is the location of the school’s English department.

And she would also like to clear up the identity of the mysterious Mariana whom Holland refers to in his letters.  Was she his daughter, his previously-unknown second wife, a mistress?  Clare is convinced that if she can solve this issue, her book will definitely be picked up by a publisher.

Now, as she exits her classroom, she receives a phone call from the head of the English department, Rick Lewis.  He’s so sorry to tell her, he says, that her colleague and close friend, Ella, is dead.  Not only dead, but murdered.

Clare knows something about Ella she decides not to share with the police when they question her, that a few months ago Ella had a very brief fling with Rick during an off-site teacher training course.  Although Ella had had an affair that ended badly with the head of the English department at her former school, she apparently didn’t learn from that experience and allowed herself to spend the weekend with the married Rick.

What Clare didn’t tell Ella at the time, although she was extremely angry with her, was that Rick had attempted to start an affair with her earlier in the semester, using the same words, “I’m ill with you,” to express his uncontrollable desire.  Clare berates Ella for her foolishness and writes in the diary that she keeps that she doesn’t think she’ll ever forgive her.  But now that Ella is dead, Clare is feeling guilty.

Clare’s diary is very important to her.  Although she has fallen behind in her biography of Holland, she never misses a day writing in her diary.  So when she re-reads the entry she wrote when Ella told her she was planning on spending the night with Rick, she’s stunned to find a note written at the bottom of that page, in very small capital letters–HALLO, CLARE.  YOU DON’T KNOW ME.

Adding to her sadness about Ella’s death and her less-than-truthful interview with the police, Clare is he concern about her teenage daughter Georgie dating Ty, a young man several years older than she is.

The Stranger Diaries is a terrific book.  Clare, Georgie, Clare’s ex-husband Simon, Georgie’s boyfriend Ty, and even the deceased Ella who is killed before the novel opens, are totally realistic characters that Elly Griffiths skillfully brings to life.  This is a mystery that will keep you enthralled until the last pages.

You can read more about Elly Griffiths 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 RECKONING by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir: Book Review

A little girl is waiting for her father to pick her up after her first day of school.  He’s late, the school doors are locked behind her, and she has no money to make a phone call to him.  Then she sees a classmate, a girl whom she knows lives in one of the houses directly behind the school.

“Maybe I could use the phone at your house?” Vaka bravely asks the other child.  She receives a very reluctant yes, and the two children enter the slovenly-looking house together.

That’s the prologue to The Reckoning, the second book featuring Reykjavik detective Huldar and child psychologist Freya.  (Note – many Icelanders use only first names).  Now it is twelve years after the girl’s disappearance.  Huldar has suffered an ignominious demotion in the city’s Criminal Investigation Division and is reduced to investigating minor crimes that no one else is interested in.

At the moment he is looking into letters written by schoolchildren, placed in a time capsule in 2006, and scheduled to be opened in 2016, the year the novel is set.  Most were typical predictions–everyone will travel in solar-powered helicopters, people will live to the age of 130–but one was disturbing enough for the teacher who opened the capsule to send all the notes to the police.  That letter had a list of people who would be murdered in 2016, giving no names but only initials.  It was unsigned, and now Huldar’s task, which he is not taking very seriously, is to find the author of the note.

Before he can do more than make a cursory beginning in the case, Huldar is sent to investigate an anonymous call that suggests the police might find something interesting if they go to a certain long-abandoned garden.  After searching fruitlessly, Huldar walks up to the garden’s hot tub to warm himself with the escaping steam.  But as he leans against the tub, he recognizes an all-too-familiar smell, and when he opens the lid he sees the horrific sight of two bloody hands floating in the water.

Returning to the cold case he’s investigating, Huldar goes to the Children’s House, a psychological center for abused and neglected children.  He’s there to consult with Freya about that unsigned note.  In fact, both Freya and Huldar were demoted due to the same incident, the one in which Freya shot a man.  Even though her action was ruled self-defense, it was thought inappropriate for her to retain her position.  Now, like Huldar, she is dealing with her feelings; unlike Huldar, who blames only himself for his lowered status, Freya blames Huldar.

The Reckoning is a difficult read, telling the story of child abuse and neglect and the unending ramifications they have.  It is the author’s gift to make the murders understandable in response to a childhood that should never have been allowed to occur.  And, naturally, all this ties together with the missing girl, Vaka.

Whether she is writing characters in a series or stand-alones, Yrsa Sidurdardóttir brings every person in her novels to life. 

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

THE SUSPECT by Fiona Barton: Book Review

Some mysteries start slowly, building up the suspense in a gradual way, while others make your nerves stand on end right from the beginning.  The Suspect definitely falls into the second category.

Fiona Barton’s third novel in this London-based series features Post reporter Kate Waters and police inspector detective Bob Sparkes.  The book opens with a phone call from Jake, Kate’s son, who has been traveling in Thailand and whom she hasn’t heard from in seven months.  “Sorry I missed your birthday,” he says, before the call disconnects or he hangs up, Kate can’t be sure which.

Across London, Lesley and Mal O’Connor have been waiting for a call as well.  Their daughter Alexandra been traveling with a friend, but despite her promise to call or text every day it’s been a week since her parents have heard from her.  Now they’ve made the decision to call the police and declare Alex missing.

The Suspect is told in several voices–Kate’s, Bob’s, Lesley’s, and Alex’s. We hear from Alex, the third voice, when her plane touches down in Bangkok, and immediately things begin to go wrong for her and her traveling mate, Rosie.  Rosie had drunk too much on the flight, despite Alex’s comment that she’d become dehydrated, and the heat in the city doesn’t help.  Things get worse when they can’t find their hostel and end up at the Paradise Bar and Guesthouse, which is about as far from paradise as it is possible to get.

Alex was supposed to go to Thailand with her best friend Mags, but at the last minute Mags admitted that she didn’t have the money to go.  Rather than go alone, Alex decides to go with Rosie, another classmate, but one whom she barely knows.  And the little she does know about Rosie is telling her that this may not be a wise decision.  But now that the girls have made it to Thailand, it’s too late; besides, Alex doesn’t want to admit to her parents and her friends back home that the dream trip is turning into anything but.

In addition to worries about their out-of-touch children, there are other concerns in the lives of all the characters.  Kate is fearful of losing her position in the ever-shrinking newsroom at the Post; Rosie’s parents are divorced, and her mother’s concern about Rosie doesn’t seem to resonate with her ex-husband, making the situation even more painful for her; Bob’s beloved wife Ellen is dying of cancer.  This makes the novel all-the-more poignant, as it reflects real life, where many problems occur simultaneously, and the characters have to deal with them as well as with the central mystery.

I have praised Ms. Barton’s previous novels in this series, The Widow and The Child, on this blog; and The Suspect is equal to those outstanding mysteries.

You can read more about Fiona Barton at this website.

THE TUNNEL by Carl-Johan Vallgren: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl-Johan Vallgren is a novelist, musician, and singer.  His The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot was awarded the August Prize in 2002 for the best Swedish novel that year.  You can read more about him at this website.

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

THE VANISHING MAN by Charles Finch: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Charles Finch at this website.

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