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DAISY IN CHAINS by Sharon Bolton: Book Review

Maggie Rose is used to getting requests from convicted killers to help them in their fight for freedom.  Of course they’ve been wrongly imprisoned–isn’t everyone in jail innocent?

Hamish Wolfe is one of those men.  A strikingly handsome man, a successful physician, a gifted athlete, he nonetheless has been convicted of murdering three women and is suspected in the disappearance of a fourth.  Their crimes?  Being fat.

Hamish Wolfe’s mother and a number of his supporters have a website devoted to proclaiming his innocence.  His mother meets Maggie and implores her to look into the case and free Hamish, as she has been able to do with several other men.  In addition to being a defense attorney, or barrister as they are called in England, Maggie is the author of several books recounting the trials of the men she has been able to free.  It’s not that she necessarily thinks each man is innocent but simply that their trials weren’t properly conducted, the evidence was mishandled, or the defending barristers were incompetent.  It doesn’t appear to matter to her that these men are probably, in fact, killers; what’s important is that they were improperly convicted and thus should be freed.

Detective Sergeant Pete Weston has been closely monitoring the Wolfe case, even after its conclusion. He visits Maggie to reiterate his belief that Hamish is indeed guilty and to try to persuade her not to get involved.  Her response?  “…for what it’s worth, I agree with you.  I have no plans to take on his case….If I were to decide to do so, no amount of pressure on your part would put me off.”  It couldn’t be more clear than that, Pete thinks.

But Hamish’s mother and his “fan club” aren’t about to give up.  They become more intrusive in Maggie’s life, there’s a forced entry into her home, and continued mail from Hamish himself asking for her help.  So between her own curiosity and the pressure from those who believe that the prisoner is innocent, Maggie decides she must start her own investigation.  From there it’s a slippery slope, and she is propelled ever faster into the mystery that is Hamish Wolfe.

Daisy in Chains is a taut, suspenseful thriller.  Just like the previous book by Ms. Bolton that I reviewed, Little Black Lies, this mystery grabs you and won’t let go.  Is Hamish Wolfe innocent?  Who is the recipient of the letters he’s writing from jail, the letters that proclaim his undying love?  Does Maggie think he truly is innocent, or is the desire to write another best-selling true-crime book too irresistible to pass up?

Sharon Bolton has written an extraordinary novel, one that will keep you reading far into the night.  You can read more about her at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

MOST WANTED by Lisa Scottoline: Book Review

What would you do if you thought that the man who had donated his sperm to you might be a serial killer?  It’s hard to imagine a worse scenario.

Christine and Marcus Nilsson have been trying to have a baby for several years, but without luck.  After various medical tests and procedures, they discover that Marcus does not have viable sperm, a blow to both of them but especially to Marcus and his self-esteem.  After much soul-searching the couple decide to use a donor from the highly reputable Homestead donor bank, a company endorsed by Christine’s doctor.

Then, on the afternoon of her going-away party from the Nutmeg Hill Elementary School where she has been teaching for eight years, Christine sees a CNN news video of a man who has just been arrested; to her he looks exactly like the photo of her sperm donor.  Marcus doesn’t agree and thinks she’s imagining the resemblance, but Christine can’t be reassured.  She watches the video over and over, obsessing over the man’s fine blond hair and round blue eyes that look exactly like those in the photo the donor was required to submit to Homestead.

When contacted, Homestead refuses to tell the couple whether their donor is the man who has been arrested.  It appears that a legally binding non-disclosure agreement was signed by the donor, and the company cannot disclose any additional information about him.  While Marcus gets angrier and angrier at what he sees as a coverup, Christine determines to discover on her own whether Zachary Jeffcoat is in fact her donor, a serial killer, or both.

The title, Most Wanted, is a clever double-play on words.  Its first meaning concerns the unborn baby, Christine and Marcus’ most wanted child.  The second meaning is the possibility that the man now being held for the murder of a nurse in Pennsylvania and suspected by authorities of being the murderer of two other nurses in two different states is most wanted for those deaths.

Emotions run deep throughout the novel.  Christine, who has wanted children as far back as she can remember, has gone from disappointment at not being pregnant to ecstasy at finally becoming pregnant to fear that the baby’s biological father is a criminal.  Marcus has gone from disappointment and shame at being unable to biologically father a child to anger at Christine’s doctor and the sperm bank and finally to anger at Christine.  What should have been the happiest time for them has now become the worst time, putting their marriage in danger from which it may not recover.

As always, Lisa Scottoline has written a novel that will challenge you to look beyond the excellent plot and focus on the issues that this couple is facing.  In spite of all the tests that Homestead has done, there is still the possibility that the mental instability of one of their donors has compromised the pregnancy of a recipient.  Donor banks are barely regulated by states or the federal government, and Most Wanted is a reminder that this may lead to horrific results.  And what happens when each parent has a different thought about what to do if, in fact, Zachary Jeffcoat turns out to be what they most fear?

You can read more about Lisa Scottoline at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

 

 

 

RAGE AGAINST THE DYING by Becky Masterman: Book Review

I’m not aware of any other mystery novels featuring a gray-haired fifty-nine-year-old female retired F.B.I. agent.  That’s one of the reasons that Rage Against the Dying is a most enjoyable read.

Brigid Quinn is trying to start a new life for herself in Tucson.  She’s happily married to Carlo, a charming ex-Catholic priest whom she met while taking his Buddhism course.  They’ve been married just a year, her first marriage and his second.  But Brigid is keeping lots of secrets from her husband because a former lover wasn’t able to deal with the violent and dangerous aspects of her job, and she’s worried that Carlo will feel the same way.

So even though Brigid is no longer an active agent, she’s fearful of letting Carlo know all the details of her past career.  Her specialty, she tells him as she tells anyone who asks, was copyright fraud, dull enough to stop inquisitive conversations dead in their tracks.

Her carefully kept secret life starts to unravel when Brigid is accosted in the desert by Gerald Peasil, who takes her by surprise and drags her into the cab of his truck.  When she sees the blood on the cab’s floor, she realizes she’s not his first victim. Surprising Gerald by her strength, in the ensuing fight she stabs his leg with the blade of her specially-designed walking stick, and he dies. Terrified at having to explain the homicide to Carlo, even though it was justified, Brigid manages to tip the truck into a nearby wash and heads home to clean herself off.

A week afterwards, deputy sheriff Max Coyote comes to the house to tell Brigid that they have caught the infamous Route 66 killer.  A man arrested two weeks earlier on a minor charge has now confessed to killing six young women, including Jessica Robertson, an F.B.I. agent who was Brigid’s protege.  Brigid has never forgiven herself for allowing Jessica to be used as a decoy to trap the Route 66 killer; she has agonized for years, fearing that she sent the young agent out before she was ready.  Jessica’s body was never recovered.

At first Laura Coleman, the young agent who interrogated the prisoner, Floyd Lynch, has no doubt of the truth of his confession and his guilt of the several murders abutting Route 66.  But as the interrogation tape is replayed, she begins to have doubts.  However, no one will listen to her; even Floyd’s own defense attorney believes in his admitted guilt.  So Laura turns to Brigid for help.

Brigid Quinn is a very interesting heroine.  A successful federal agent, she was forced to resign after an outcry to her fully justified shooting of a murderer.  That, in combination with her feelings of guilt over Jessica’s disappearance and presumed death, has made her a keeper of secrets, fearful that those closest to her will be horrified and unable to love her.  So her lies keep getting more and more involved, even as she agrees with Laura that Floyd Lynch is not the true Route 66 killer.  But if he’s not, who is?  And how did Floyd come to know details about those killings that were never released?

Becky Masterman has created a fascinating cast of characters in her debut novel, and Brigid Quinn is a protagonist worth following.  You can read more about her at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.

FALL FROM GRACE by Wayne Arthurson: Book Review

Every once in a while I open a first novel by an author and know within a few pages that I’m going to love that book. That happened to me when I read the opening chapter of Fall From Grace.

Wayne Arthurson’s protagonist is Leo Desroches, a journalist in Edmonton, Alberta.  He’s half Cree Aboriginal and half French Canadian, a man who takes medicine for an unnamed emotional illness, a divorced father of two who hasn’t seen his children in five years, and a compulsive gambler.  There’s only one problem, or at least it’s his most troubling one–whenever he’s stressed or trying to avoid his gambling compulsion, he robs banks.  Some people do yoga, Desroches steals money.

He’s also a first-rate newspaper reporter, trying to take advantage of a lucky break to get his career back on track.  He’s gotten another chance with an Edmonton daily because years earlier he had worked with the paper’s current managing editor at a small town weekly.  Shortly before the novel opens Desroches was a scab who crossed union picket lines during a month-long strike.  When the strike was over, he was invited to stay on as a reporter on the police beat.

As the book begins, Desroches is viewing the body of a young Indian woman who was strangled. Although assured by the police detective in charge of the case that all murder victims are equal and all police efforts are expended to find the murderer, Desroches believes that when the victim is “known to the police for her high-risk life style” (p. c. talk for being a prostitute), there is the feeling that she was partly responsible for her own death.

The more Desroches finds out about Grace, the murdered young woman, the more involved he gets.  After some additional research, he believes that the city of Edmonton has been stalked over a period of years by a serial killer whose victims are prostitutes, mostly Native Americans.  The police decry this theory, mainly because the city has never had a serial killer before; the murder of Grace Cardinal seems to fall through the cracks.

Following this story is proving hazardous to Desroches’ mental and physical health. During the course of the novel he’s beaten up and Tasered; so, of course, to relieve his stress, he robs two banks.  But nothing stops him from continuing to follow the story of the dead women.

Desroches is also trying to make amends to his wife and children for his abandonment of them.  Although he respects his wife and her ability to create a warm and safe home for their two children without him, he calls her in hopes that she will allow him a brief meeting with the children.  His evening with his adolescent son is one of the most touching in the novel.

Wayne Arthurson puts the reader into a big city in the Canadian prairie.  It has some of the problems that similar-size American cities have, but there are differences too.  Arthurson makes the most of his own ethnic background of Cree and French-Canadian parents by giving Desroches the same mix.  Desroches is battling a lot of demons, not all of which we understand, but we do understand that he’s pretty much an outsider in this Western Canadian place.  That can make it easier to be an objective journalist and make it harder to simply be a man.

You can read more about Wayne Arthurson at this web site.

THINK OF A NUMB3R by John Verdon: Book Review

Imagine if someone told you to think of a number, any number, from one to one thousand. You do, and that person hands you a previously written note with the number you had in mind.  How did he do it?  It’s not your age, your house number, the number of children you have, the year you were born–it’s just a number that you pulled from the top of your head.  How did he know the number you would choose? This is the problem that opens Think of a Numb3r by John Verdon.

Retired police detective Dave Gurney is trying to settle down to a peaceful life with his wife in a small village in upstate New York. Out of the blue he gets an e-mail from a college classmate, a man he hasn’t heard from in more than twenty years.  The letter’s author is Mark Mellery, now a well-known author and director of a nearby spiritual retreat, and in his letter he asks for Gurney’s help.  Reluctantly Gurney agrees to see him the following day, and when Mellery arrives he explains what is troubling him.

Years ago Mellery had a serious alcohol problem, and there are black holes in his memory, weeks and weeks of which he has no memory.  It’s been years since he’s taken a drink, but now he has received a letter in which the letter writer appears to know some secret from that time.

To prove that he knows all about Mellery, the letter writer asked him pick a number from one to one thousand; Mellery picked six fifty eight, a number he swears to Gurney simply came to him with no association to any part of his life.  When he opened the envelope that was enclosed in the letter, the number six fifty eight is what was written.  Of course, part of Mellery’s problem is that the number has no association to any part of his life that he remembers, given the many alcoholic blackouts he had, and he’s now convinced that the letter writer knows some disreputable secret about his past.

He refuses Gurney’s suggestion that he go to the police, saying that that would be a lose-lose situation: either they’ll treat the whole thing as a joke or they’ll start poking around his Institute for Spiritual Renewal, upsetting his clients, and that would be worse.

Reluctantly Gurney tells Mellery he’ll look into the problem–there has to be a simple solution, no one could possibly have known what number he would choose. Then Mellery receives a phone call in which he’s asked to pick another number.  He chooses nineteen, again for no apparent reason, and is told to go to the mailbox outside his home and open the envelope that’s there.  He does, and there’s a slip of paper inside with the number nineteen written on it.  And then Mellery is killed.

This novel is truly a thriller. The reader knows there has to be some logical explanation for the numbers game and for the bizarre way that Mellery is murdered–shot, his throat slashed numerous times, footprints in the snow leading away from the body and then simply disappearing, and a chair abandoned in the middle of a snow-covered lawn with cigarettes strewn around it.  Unless you’re a believer in ESP, which Gurney isn’t, you have to believe there’s a logical explanation.  But what is it?

Think of a Numb3r is an incredible debut. The plotting is fast-paced, page-turning, and the various characters that Gurney encounters in his search for Mellery’s killer ring true.  And Gurney’s strained relationship with his wife and his difficulty in truly leaving behind his sleuthing days are well written and believable.

You can read more about John Verdon in this interview.

THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN by Susan Hill: Book Review

It’s very exciting when you come upon an enjoyable series strictly by accident. Now that I’ve read the first in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler mysteries, I plan to read the others as quickly as possible.*

Although this novel is billed as a Simon Serrailler mystery, the English Detective Chief Inspector plays a rather peripheral part.  The novel actually revolves around several other characters, all living in the small English cathedral town of Lafferton.  I do so love British expressions–when would you ever hear an American town or city referred to as a cathedral/temple/ church/mosque/synagogue town?

A number of chapters are written in the first person by the killer.  Other chapters are told from the third-person points of view of Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham, new to the Lafferton police force and coming off an unhappy marriage in London; Catherine Serrailler Deerbon, general practitioner and sister of the Detective Chief Inspector; three women who become victims of the serial killer; and various other members of the town.  As many characters as there are in The Various Haunts of Men, you never lose track of who is who; Susan Hill has an outstanding ability to bring each character to life.

Angela Randall is a middle-aged woman, never married, who works in a facility for elderly people with dementia.  She goes for a run early one morning after completing her tour of duty, and she never returns.  Victim number one.

Debbie Parker is a young woman, unemployed, overweight, and depressed.  She goes for a walk early one morning and never returns.  Victim number two.

And there are others.

The town of Lafferton is small and very close knit.  It’s a refuge for DS Graffham, who eagerly joins the local choir and begins to make friends.  She’s enjoying her new life, until she meets her supervisor who had been on vacation when she was posted there.  Simon Serrailler takes her breath away, and despite herself she falls instantly, and seemingly hopelessly, in love.  She’s warned by a fellow chorister as well as by Catherine, Simon’s sister, that he has left a trail of broken hearts behind him, but Freya is unable to control her thoughts about him.

The plot is a tense one, with things moving swiftly. The characters, as I’ve said, are sharply delineated.  The only false note, I thought, was the instant emotional reaction Freya had to Serrailler; I guess I’m not really a believer in love at first sight, particularly on the part of a professional woman fresh from a disastrous marriage.  But this is truly nit-picking, since Serrailler’s charm and personality are obviously meant to be irresistible.

In a way, he reminded me of a much more modern Sir Peter Whimsey, a man of distinguished background and many talents, who chooses to pursue a career that is slightly “off” what would be expected from one of his class.  In fact, one of the interesting side issues is the estrangement between the Detective Chief Inspector and his father, a man who can’t understand why his son chose to ignore the three generations of physicians in the family and became a policeman instead.

*And I did just that.  One of the things I liked best about this book is the backstory.  I wrote in my About Marilyn post of March 9 how much more enjoyable I find books/series when I know more about the character and how he/she developed.  I said in that post that it’s more important to me when it’s a female character, but now I don’t know if I can stand by that statement.   In the past month, since I wrote the post you’re now reading, I’ve read three more novels in this series.  Each one gave me a deeper insight into Simon Serrailler and his family, and I’ve enjoyed the series more because of it.

The Various Haunts of Men is a compelling mystery with a shocking ending.  Now that I’ve read the three novels that follow it, I can hardly wait to read the fifth book in the series.

You can read more about Susan Hill at her web site.

A WHISPER TO THE LIVING by Stuart M. Kaminsky: Book Review

The recent death in October 2009 of Stuart M. Kaminsky left a huge void in the mystery world. He was the author of more than 60 mysteries, featuring four fascinating and different protagonists. His Toby Peters series features a down-at-the-heels private eye circa World War II who solve crimes involving such movie luminaries as Clark Gable, Gary Grant, Bette Davis, and Judy Garland. His Lew Fonesca series has as its hero a depressive process server in Florida trying to deal with the hit-and-run death of his wife. The Abe Lieberman series (the only one I’m not familiar with) features a Chicago police detective (called the rabbi) and his partner Bill Hanrahan (called the priest) as they walk the streets of the Windy City. And his Porfiry Rosnikov novels portray a Moscow police officer starting during the Soviet communist regime and continuing to present-day Russia.

A Whisper to the Living is the last of Mr. Kaminsky’s books about Rosnikov, who, in the words of the book’s jacket, is “one of the last honest civil servants in a very dishonest post-Soviet Russia.” The system may have changed in these post-communist times, but the struggle for power continues among those who have survived. Rosnikov is often given cases that no one else wants or will take, and very often his superior, known as The Yak, gives him a case with the unvoiced hope that he will fail to bring the perpetrator to justice if that would in any way bring trouble to The Yak or to the untouchables in power. The Yak, much as he admires Rosnikov, is willing to sacrifice him and his team if that proves necessary for his own protection and advancement.

In A Whisper to the Living Rosnikov and his team, as usual, are dealing with several crimes. The Maniac is a serial killer strangling mostly elderly men in a Moscow park; Ivan Medivkin, also known as The Giant, is a professional wrestler whom the police believe has killed his wife and her lover; and the detective’s team is trying to protect an English journalist investigating a story of prostitution in Russia. Kaminsky weaves the stories back and forth effortlessly, and his characters, both good and evil ones, are incredibly alive.

The death of Stuart Kaminsky was one of five in the past year that, in my mind, removed a major talent from this genre. The others are Philip R. Craig, author of the Vineyard mysteries featuring J. W. Jackson; Dick Francis, author of many stand-alone racing novels; Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall novels; and William Tapply, author of the Brady Coyne series that features a Boston lawyer. It’s painful to realize that we have either read the last works by these gifted writers or from now on we will read novels that are published posthumously. How lucky we were that they shared their literary gifts with us.

There is no dedicated web site about Kaminsky, but there are many interviews with him and reviews of his books available on the web.