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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.

AN UNWANTED GUEST by Shari Lapena: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Shari Lapena at this website.

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

OUT OF THE DARK by Gregg Hurwitz: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Gregg Hurwitz at this website.

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

 

 

 

As I start my tenth year writing Marilyn’s Mystery Reads, I’m once again amazed by how quickly time moves.  It certainly doesn’t seem as if a year has passed since I wrote about my second time leading a course on murder mysteries at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  Both writing this blog and teaching are truly exciting and fulfilling for me.

Now I’m preparing for my fourth BOLLI course, this one entitled WHODUNIT?:  MURDER MOST BRITISH.  The class will begin with two novels, set in England, that take place in the past.  We’ll start with works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reading several short stories as well as The Hound of the Baskervilles, and move on to Dame Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  We’ll arrive at present-day England with Jane Casey’s After the Fire.

Then we’ll move north to Scotland to read Denise Mina’s Garnethill and Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black.  After that we’ll head south to Wales to Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead and finish by crossing the Irish Sea and the North Channel to arrive in Northern Ireland with Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast and Adrian McGinty’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.

As was true in my previous classes, some of these authors, most certainly Doyle and Christie, will be familiar to most if not all of the students.  Other authors may be known to some but not all class members, and still other authors may be new to everyone.  Re-reading old favorites and getting introduced to new authors is, I think, part of the fun of the course.

At the beginning of the discussion of each novel, I show a brief video of the author, if one is available.  As I was putting together the section on Arthur Conan Doyle, I went on YouTube to see if there was an interview with him, not really expecting to find one.  Imagine my delight to view a 20-minute video of Doyle discussing both his interest in the spirit world as well as his iconic fictional detective.  It was amazing to see a video of this man whose personality and kindness come to present-day readers through the magic of Youtube.  Here’s the link to the 1927 video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWjgt9PzYEM&t=44s

The course starts on Monday, March 4th, with an overview of the mystery genre.  We’ll then be reading a book a week (with the exceptions of April 15th and April 22nd, two vacation weeks at Brandeis) until May 13th.  Our last class will be on May 20th with concluding thoughts and opinions of what we’ve read.  Why not read along with us?

In addition to the About Marilyn column, this site contains posts on Book Reviews, Golden Oldies, and Past Masters and Mistresses.  I hope you find books that keep you reading mysteries from the world’s best mystery writers.

Marilyn

 

LIVES LAID AWAY by Stephen Mack Jones: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Stephen Mack Jones at this website.

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

 

 

THE NOWHERE CHILD by Christian White: Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about Christian White at this website.

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