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A BEAUTIFUL CORPSE by Christi Daugherty: Book Review

Harper McClain lives for violence.  It’s not that she’s cruel or uncaring, it’s that she’s the journalist on the Savannah Daily News’ crime beat.  So a day without a hit-and-run, a major robbery, or a murder leaves Harper nothing about which to write.

Still, she’s overcome when she arrives at River Street, the most photographed place in the city, in response to a phone call from the cameraman with whom she works.  The victim, who has been shot to death, is someone she knows; it’s Naomi Scott, a law student by day and a bartender at Harper’s favorite pub, The Library Bar, at night.  Naomi was beautiful but reserved, a quiet young woman who would not seem to be the type of person to be gunned down in the middle of the night.

Bonnie Larson, who was with Harper when she got the call at The Library and goes with her to River Street, tells the police that Naomi had a boyfriend, Wilson Shepherd, a fellow student at the law school.  Wilson is a likeable young man, very devoted to her, Bonnie insists, but she admits that the two were “taking a break” in their relationship.  That, given the young man’s juvenile record, makes him suspect number one.

Hours later, the Savannah police have Wilson surrounded on a city street.  He’s protesting his innocence, but he has a gun pointed at the officers.  The more they yell at him to surrender, the more agitated he becomes, until members of the department’s SWAT team leap onto his back, throw him into the gutter, and handcuff him.

The police are confident that they have the killer, but Jarrod Scott, Naomi’s father, doesn’t believe it.  Jarrod contacts Harper at work and tells her that he knows Naomi was frightened of another man, although he doesn’t know exactly why.  The name he gives Harper is another of Naomi’s classmates, Peyton Anderson, son of the county’s former district attorney and a member of one of the city’s most prestigious families.

Harper has never met Peyton, but everyone in Savannah knows his family.  They meet at the memorial service for Naomi, and he admits to Harper that they were more than friends before she met Wilson but denies he knows anything about her murder.

On the strictly personal side, Harper is struggling with her sense that an intruder has been in her home more than once.  The clues are slight–a glass where she is certain she hadn’t put it when she left that morning, a faint smell of smoke–but they are making her apprehensive.  Why would anyone enter her place?  Is it done to intimidate her, or is the whole thing just her over-active imagination?

A Beautiful Corpse is a powerful follow-up to Christi Daugherty’s first Harper McClain novel, The Echo Killings.  Harper is a terrific protagonist, smart and independent but with a vulnerability that dates back to her childhood when she returned home from school and found her mother murdered.  That crime was never solved, and it is never far from Harper’s mind.

You can read more about Christi Daugherty 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.


GRAVE EXPECTATIONS by Heather Redmond: Book Review

We return to 19th-century London in Heather Redmond’s Grave Expectations, her second mystery featuring Charles Dickens.  Dickens is in a slightly better situation now, with his journalistic sketches selling well and his love for Kate Hogarth having culminated in their engagement.

Dickens and his younger brother, Fred, have taken rooms for the summer in Chelsea to be closer to Kate.  However, the downside to this is that he now has an additional expense which, added to the frequent bailing out of his parents due to his father’s inability to stay within a budget, means that his marriage has been postponed yet again.

Nevertheless, he and Kate have been spending more time together, always properly chaperoned by either Fred or Mary, Kate’s younger sister.  As the novel opens, Kate and Charles have been enjoying an afternoon together when, in an effort to prolong their time together, Charles suggests that they pay a visit to his elderly upstairs neighbor, Miss Haverstock.

But as they climb the stairs, an unmistakable odor becomes evident.  “Maybe she is ill?” Kate asks hopefully.  But Charles responds, “It’s death, Kate.  It can be nothing else.”

It turns out that Miss Haverstock kept a lot of things about herself hidden.  She had a past life no one seemed to know about, no one except perhaps the person who murdered her.  And when Charles’ neighbor, Mr. Jones, is arrested and jailed for the murder on the flimsiest evidence, Charles and Kate decide to do whatever it takes to find the truth.

Some of the characters in Grave Expectations appeared in Ms. Redmond’s previous novel, so again we meet William and Julie, newlyweds who seem to be having some marital difficulties; Fred Dickens, anxious to leave school and start earning money; the charming Hogarth family, proper and upright; the impecunious Dickens family, always seeming to be one step away from financial ruin.

And, of course, we meet new characters:  Breese Gadfly, Charles’ Jewish neighbor; the Jones family, about to be evicted from their shabby home for nonpayment of rent after the father is jailed; and the neighborhood’s nasty landlord, Mr. Ferrazi.  And everyone has a part to play in the investigation of Miss Haverstock’s brutal murder.

As in the first mystery in this series, A Tale of Two Murders, Heather Redmond expertly brings Dickens’ London to life.  The fashions, the food, the class distinctions, the societal norms are all present, and the reader will find him/herself taken back more than 150 years.  Those touches, in addition to the clever plot and the delight in learning more about Charles Dickens, make this novel a perfect sequel to the first one.

You can read more about Heather Redmond 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.

DECEPTION COVE by Owen Laukkanen: Book Review

Former U. S. Marine Jess Winslow has returned home after three tours in Afghanistan, but that country won’t let go of her.  Jess received a medical discharge due to PTSD, a condition caused by her blaming herself for failing to save the life of an Afghani woman who was aiding the Marines in their fight against the Taliban.

She has come back to Deception Cove, Washington, the town she was raised in, but there’s nothing left for her there.  Her brief marriage to her high school sweetheart Ty was basically over when she re-upped for her third and final tour; by the time she returned home she was a widow, Ty having been drowned while on his fishing boat.

Given Jess’ lack of family and the loneliness she feels in Deception Cove, the only positive in her life is Lucy, the “comfort dog” the Corps allowed her to take home.  Lucy has literally been a life-saver, sensitive to Jess’ despair and depression, perhaps the only reason Jess has not taken her own life during one of the many flashbacks she continues to endure.

More than a thousand miles to the east, Mason Burke has just been released from jail at the end of a fifteen-year sentence for murder, a crime committed when he was a juvenile.  The only positive thing in his life was that same dog, the one he trained under the auspices of Rover’s Redemption, a dog-training program that encourages rehabilitation of prisoners.

Mason’s first goal upon gaining his freedom is to find out that Lucy is alive and well with her new owner, and he is disbelieving when the woman he speaks to at Redemption tells him that Lucy attacked someone and is about to be destroyed.  From the background on an old photo of the dog that was sent to him while he was imprisoned, he manages to read the name of the town where Lucy was sent–Deception Cove, Washington.

In Mason’s heart he knows that Lucy would never have bitten anyone without strong provocation.  He borrows two thousand dollars from his sister, his only surviving relative, and begins the trek to find the dog, not to reclaim her but to get to the truth of why she attacked someone and hopefully to rescue her from death.

The man Lucy bit is Deception Cove’s sheriff, Kirby Harwood.  He had come to Jess’ cottage shortly before the novel opens, determined to find something he said Jess’ late husband had hidden.  Jess told him she knows nothing about this, but Kirby didn’t believe her and moved towards her as if to attack.  The dog then bit him, and the next morning the sheriff and his deputies came to take Lucy away to have her put down.

Now Mason has arrived in the Cove, going to Jess’ place and telling her why he’s made the trip west.  After hearing her story, he’s determined to rescue Lucy, and together he and Jess start out on an adventure that will become life-threatening for both of them.

Deception Cove is pure thriller, with the suspense escalating from page to page.  Owen Laukkanen, who writes both outstanding stand-alones and a wonderful series about Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Carla Windermere of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has written another mystery with an exciting plot and believable characters.

You can read more about Owen Laukkanen 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 UNSETTLED GRAVE by Bernard Schaffer: Book Review

Police detective Carrie Santero is doing her best to be a good cop, but it’s not easy in the small town Pennsylvania department where she works.  Policing there is casual, and it appears to her that it’s much more important to the powers-that-be to keep from prying too deeply into anything that might embarrass its officers than it is to solve every crime.

A case in point is that of Monica Grimes.  She was driving home late at night from her gym when she was pulled over by what appeared to be a police car.  The man in uniform pulled Monica out of her car, handcuffed her, and then raped her.  When Carrie goes to interview her in the hospital, Monica is so traumatized she can’t speak coherently and refuses to answer any questions.

Then, when Carrie attempts to look into the police logs of various nearby communities to see who was on duty at the time of the rape, her chief’s comments tell Carrie where his sympathies lie.  “Some lunatic is claiming a cop raped her?” he asks, and refuses to allow any investigation into the charge.  Instead, to make certain she obeys, he sends her across the state to help with a “nice, simple call for assistance” from another department.  But it seems that Carrie brings “trouble” with her wherever she goes.

When Carrie arrives at the Liston-Patterson Township, she’s told that the police have just discovered part of a child’s corpse buried in the woods.  The only missing child anyone can remember is Hope Pugh, who disappeared from her home more than three decades earlier.

Depending on one’s view of things, there was either corruption or an incredible lack of interest in solving Hope’s case.  In her first night in town Carrie discovers more clues than the police did in thirty years.  And there’s definitely something strange in the fact that the former police chief Oliver Rein committed suicide and the much-revered assistant who took over for him was killed immediately thereafter, allegedly in the line of duty.

To make the situation even more complicated, Oliver Rein was the father of Carrie’s mentor Jacob, and his father and his death are two topics Jacob Rein never discusses.

Bernard Schaffer has written an intriguing novel about what happens when small-town crimes, police coverups, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder collide.  The novel serves both as an indictment of a community’s desire to keep its problems quiet and honors the commitment of those who strive to solve crimes, both old and new, against tough odds.

An Unsettled Grave is the second in the Santero and Rein series, and I hope for a third book soon.

You can read more about Bernard Schaeffer 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.


BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM by Peter Swanson: Book Review

After reviewing hundreds of books over the past nine and a half years, I can honestly say that I’ve never read one quite like Peter Swanson’s latest  mystery.  It is truly a one-of-a-kind novel.

Before She Knew Him starts calmly, slowly.  Two married, childless couples live side-by-side in identical Colonial houses in a suburban Massachusetts community.  Hen, short for Henrietta, and Lloyd have recently moved to West Dartford and have been invited by their neighbors to a block party.  Hen is reluctant to go, preferring to stay home rather than mingle with people she doesn’t know, but Lloyd persuades her and they get introduced to the couple next door, Mira and Matthew.

Several days later Mira invites Hen and Lloyd over for dinner.  Not seeing a polite way to refuse, Hen accepts, and a few evenings later the two couples get together.  After dinner, Mira offers the guests a tour of their house so they can perhaps get some decorating ideas.

It is when the four of them get to Matthew’s study that things go awry.  It’s very different from the other rooms, filled almost to overcrowding with knickknacks, photographs, and books.  When Hen sees, in the midst of an otherwise seemingly ordinary display of objects, the small figure of a fencer on top of a silver pedestal, she nearly faints.

She recognizes, or thinks she does, that figurine.  She asks Matthew if he fences, and he says that the statuette is just one of the many items he had bought because it caught his eye.  She passes off her reaction as dizziness, and she and Lloyd go home.  But the more Hen thinks about what she’s seen, the more uncomfortable she is.

In very small letters on the bottom of the figure were the words THIRD PLACE ÉPÉE and JUNIOR OLYMPICS, with a date too small for her to read.  Could it be a simple coincidence that Dustin Miller, a former neighbor of theirs when they lived in Cambridge, was a fencer and that Matthew teaches at the school Dustin attended before he was murdered years earlier?

Hen suffers from bipolar disorder, although she is currently on medication.  When she was in college she had a particularly violent episode and was hospitalized.  Although it has been years since the last manic event, both she and Lloyd are wary about her becoming obsessed with particular thoughts that perhaps would lead to a recurrence of mania.  And now she can’t stop thinking about Dustin and his still-unsolved murder.

Hen thinks her past mental illness will stop the police from taking her seriously, so she decides to investigate on her own before involving them or telling Lloyd her suspicions about their neighbor.  But tracking someone you believe is a killer is a dangerous business.

Peter Swanson has proved in his four previous novels that he is a master of suspense, and Before She Knew Him only reconfirms that.  The reader will be with Hen all the way as she tries to prove that Matthew did murder Dustin.  The book’s plot is taut and its characters totally believable.  You may never look at your neighbors the same way again.

You can read more about Peter Swanson 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.

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.

Can a person be a bibliophile and a bibliophobe at the same time?  If so, I think I am one.

Being a bibliophile comes naturally to me.  My late mother used to tell people, perhaps with a bit of motherly exaggeration, that I was reading at the age of four.  That was her story for years, but then she lowered my reading age to three and finally to two-and-a-half.  Just wondering if she mis-remembered….

But getting back to the first sentence of this post.  Frankly, I feel somewhat of a bond with Eudora Welty’s character, the one who lived at the post office.  I (almost) live at the Needham library, visiting at least twice a week in search of the perfect mystery/mysteries about which to blog.

If I have fewer than three library books in my study, I go into a slight panic mode.  What if there’s an unexpected snowstorm?  (Yes, I know it’s June now, but stranger things have happened–haven’t they?)  What if the library loses electricity and has to close unexpectedly?  Or a thief empties all the shelves?

In addition to library books, there are also the novels that I’m fortunate enough to receive from various publishers/publicity agents who would like me to review their authors’ mysteries.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m delighted when there’s a package containing a mystery novel in my mailbox, and this happens several times a month.

But that’s where bibliphobia comes in.  Merriam-Webster defines that condition as a “strong dislike of books.”  Of course, that doesn’t apply to me, but it’s the closest I can come to in explaining a panic similar to the one I experience as a bibliophile.  For example, at the moment I have five books sent by publishers and four library books on the shelves in my study, one more waiting for me at the library, and ten on reserve.  What happens if they all arrive at once?

My husband’s solution for me is not to reserve so many books but simply to arrive at the library and see what’s available.  I suppose that makes sense, but what happens if I read someone’s review of a great mystery this week and don’t reserve it?  I might (probably will) forget about it until some time later, and by that time there are 50 people who have already reserved it.  There’s a word for that condition too–fear of missing out, or FOMO.

Now I have three problems which with to deal.


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.