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Book Reviews

RED QUEEN by Juan Gómez-Jurado: Book Review

Red Queen, the first mystery in the trilogy by Spanish author Juan Gómez-Jurado, is an outstanding combination of thriller and police procedural.  Its two protagonists, polymath Antonia Scott and Inspector Jon Gutiérrez of the Bilbao police could not be more different, but it is their very differences that make them a most formidable team.

Antonia Scott has hidden herself from the world following a tragic event that left her beloved husband in a coma three years ago.  As the novel progresses, readers will learn that what happened to Marcos was in no way her fault, but nevertheless she blames herself. 

Jon Gutiérrez is dealing with his own trauma, but this one is on him.  Attempting to rescue a teenage prostitute from her abusive pimp, he decides to put heroin in the pimp’s car and have him arrested.  However, as no good deed goes unpunished, he foolishly tells the young woman what he plans to do, not realizing that Desi is still in love with the man.  Desi and her procurer arrange for Gutiérrez to be filmed on her cell phone while he plants the drugs; now Jon has been suspended and is facing criminal charges.

A man calling himself Mentor offers Jon a prid pro quo option, Jon takes him up on it, and the video is removed from television stations and video sites.  The next step, which if successful would allow Jon to return to the police force, is up to him.  He must get Antonia, whom he’s never met, to go with him to Mentor.

When Jon first visits Antonia, she wants nothing to do with whatever it is that Mentor wants her to do.  She’s dealt with him before and is done with him.  Then she has a change of heart, and she and the inspector go to the mansion where Mentor is.  There a horrific scene awaits them.  The body of a teenager is arranged on the living room couch, dressed in a white shirt and pants, but his body is nearly transparent.  He has bled to death.

The combination of Antonia’s gifts in language, technology, and mathematics and Jon’s investigative ability are the reasons that Mentor has chosen them to solve this crime.  The young boy was the son of the head of a major Spanish bank, and his family is cooperating, almost completely, with the police.

At the same time, Carla Ortiz, the daughter of the world’s wealthiest man, is on her way to an equestrian meet with her beloved mare Maggie.  Her automobile, an enormous Porsche Cayenne, is stopped on a back road, her driver is killed, and she’s abducted and imprisoned.

How are these two crimes, one the murder of a teenager from a millionaire’s family, the other the kidnapping of the daughter of a billionaire’s family, related?  And why is neither family willing to be completely open to the police about the ransoms demanded, which they are not willing to pay?

Red Queen is a fascinating mystery that brings the reader into the Basque part of Spain.  Learning why Antonia has removed herself from the world and how Jon has armored himself against the homosexual slurs and prejudices of his colleagues is a major part of the appeal of this outstanding novel.

You can read about Juan Gómez-Jurado 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



CLARK AND DIVISION by Naomi Hirahara: Book Review

One of the most shameful episodes in American history is brought to life in the mystery Clark and Division Naomi Hirahara has taken the stories of the internment of thousands of Japanese-born and native-born Americans of Japanese ancestry following the Pearl Harbor attack and brilliantly woven it into a novel that will touch readers’ hearts as well as keep them guessing until the last page.

The Ito family has just been released from Manzanar, a “War Relocation Center” established by the United States government to house Japanese living in the States who are not eligible for citizenship.  Rose and Aki are teenagers born in the United States (Nisei) and are eligible for citizenship, but their parents, born in Japan (Issei), aren’t, so the entire family is sent to the center in 1942.

As the novel opens, Aki and her parents are set to join Rose in Chicago, where the War Relocation Authority has sent her, along with other Nisei, to help convince the public that Japanese born in America are loyal to the United States and not to the Empire of Japan.

When the three Itos arrive at Union Station, they’re surprised that Rose is not among the people waiting to greet them.  In the midst of the crowd is a young man they know from Manzanar.  He tells them, “There was an accident at the subway station last night,” and Aki immediately realizes that her beloved sister is dead.

At the coroner’s office the following morning, Aki is dealt a further blow.  She is told that Rose’s death was not an accident but suicide and that she recently had had an abortion.  Aki is devastated by the fact that her sister had had to go through the abortion alone, and she doesn’t believe she would have killed herself the day before her family was arriving in Chicago.  She determines to find out what really happened to Rose.

The book’s title refers to the subway station where Rose’s body was found, and it’s also Aki’s launching point in her investigation into her sister’s death.  Aki is fearless, traveling alone around the metropolitan area, talking to the police, fellow members of the established Japanese community, and recent Japanese arrivals from other internment camps to discover the truth.  She hears pieces of Rose’s story from members of each group, but it’s up to her to put them together to solve the mystery of her sister’s death.

Clark and Division is a fascinating and disturbing look into what was happening in the United States during World War II, the prejudices its government and its citizens held against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and the retaliation against immigrant and native-born Japanese alike.

Naomi Hirahara is the author of many novels, short stories, and biographies, and was formerly the editor of the Rafu Shimpo newspaper.  She also is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Edgar for the third mystery in her Mas Arai series, Snakeskin Shamishen.  You can read more about her at this website.

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


REYKJAVÍK by Ragnar Jónasson and Katrín Jakobsdóttir: Book Review

The disappearance of fifteen-year-old Lára Marteinsdóttir is a crime that remained unsolved for thirty years.  Fiercely independent, Lára persuaded her parents to let her take a summer job on the island of Videy, off the coast of Reykjavík.  Her cousin had worked there the previous summer at a cottage owned by Ólöf Blödal and her husband, Óttar Óskarsson, and she had had a good time.

At the time the novel opens in 1956, there are very few violent crimes and almost no murders in Iceland.  Thus when Lára didn’t call her parents at the usual time, they were at first only slightly concerned, but as the days went by they became worried, then frantic.  A young policeman, Kristján Kristjánsson, is sent to Videy to look around, but it’s obvious that the teenager isn’t there.

Óttar tells Kristján that Lára had told them, not long after she arrived, that she wanted to go home.  Although he and his wife were annoyed at her abrupt departure, he tells the police officer, they didn’t try to stop her, and so she took her luggage and headed for the harbor.

A phone call from Kristján’s supervisor while he’s at the cottage is a not-so-discreet reminder of the couple’s high status in Iceland.  Kristjánsson is told that they are not to be bothered any further, and the policeman leaves the island without any more information about Lára’s whereabouts.  He’s uneasy, but it’s been taken out of his hands.

And that’s the situation three decades later, in 1986.  As sometimes happens, however, various seemingly unrelated things come into play to bring about the solution to Iceland’s longest-running mystery.

Valur Róbertsson is a young journalist on the staff of the tabloid Vikubladid.  He has persuaded its editor, Dagbjartur Steinsson, to write a series of articles about Lára, her life and her disappearance.  Dagbjartur is reluctant at first but is won over when the first issue featuring a front page story about the missing teenager is the best-selling issue in the paper’s history, and the two subsequent issues sell out even more quickly.  Now Valur needs to finish the series with a big splash, the editor informs him.

Then Valur gets a phone call at work from a woman who won’t leave her name, and he can tell she’s calling from a phone booth to make certain she remains anonymous.  “It’s been a long time and the girl deserves better.”  She says she knows that Lára is dead, not missing, and it doesn’t matter how she knows.  “I just know she was killed.”  She says she’ll contact him again, then hangs up.

What brings about the beginning of the solution to Lára’s disappearance is the death of a man whose name was never even mentioned in connection with the missing girl.  When Finnur Stephensen, a wealthy businessman, lays dying in a Reykjávik hospital, his last words to his wife Thórdís are “Videy.  You have to go to Videy.”  Then he dies.

In their first collaboration, Ragnar Jónasson, the author of more than one dozen novels, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the prime minister of Iceland, have created a spellbinding mystery.  Their characters are alive, the plot keeps moving at a rapid pace, and the descriptions of Reykjavík and Icelandic society from 1956 to 1986 are wonderfully drawn.  Even though the novel begins nearly three-quarters of a century ago, the disappearance of a teenage girl is, unfortunately, as timely now as it was then.

You can read more about Ragnar Jónasson at this website and Katrín Jacobsdóttir 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.




AN EVIL HEART by Linda Castillo: Book Review

Returning to Ohio’s Amish Country is always a pleasure because it means spending time with Kate Burkholder, the Painters Mills Chief of Police.   Just days away from her wedding to John Thomasetti, himself a police detective for the state, Kate is called to investigate a particularly brutal death.

Aden Karn, a young Amish man, is riding his bicycle on his way to work, admiring the beauty of the countryside, when he’s struck by a bolt from a crossbow.  It has gone completely through him, sticking out of his back.  Then the killer stands over him, a second bolt is placed in his mouth, and his life is over.

When Kate goes to Karn’s parents and his girlfriend Emily to give them the sad news, they are unbelieving.  According to them and to Emily’s mother as well, Aden was funny, charming, never argued with anyone.  So why was he killed, and in such a barbaric way?

As the investigation progresses, however, certain things seem to point to another side of Aden.  He and his housemate, Wayne Graber, sold a reconditioned truck to one of the local toughs.  When the truck stopped working, Vernon Fisher demanded his down payment back, but Aden refused to return it.  Vernon, in turn, refused to pay the remainder of the price for the non-working truck, so Aden and Wayne went to Vernon’s house in the middle of the night and repossessed it.  Not unexpectedly, feelings ran high between the two men, but Vernon denies owning a crossbow or having any involvement in the death.

In addition, Kate is hearing disquieting stories about Aden and young women in the area. The Amish lead a restricted life until their mid or late teens, at which point many take advantage of rumspringa, literally “running around.”  During rumspringa they can drink, smoke, drive cars, use electricity, even have sexual relations, all of which are forbidden to the adults in the community.  It is hoped that after being a part of the non-Amish world for a period of time, the young people will realize the importance of the Amish way of life and return to it, and approximately ninety percent do.  But, of course, that leaves another ten percent who decide they prefer the alternative way.

Is this what caused Aden Karn’s death?  Did he become too fond of all the “English” things that are normally banned by the Amish?  The more deeply Kate looks into his life during his period of rumspringa, the more possible motives she discovers.

Linda Castillo has written another excellent novel in the Kate Burkholder series.  The novel’s plot is believable, Kate and John are wonderful characters, and the Amish and “English” communities both come alive in An Evil Heart.  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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


THE RAGING STORM by Ann Cleeves: Book Review

For Detective Inspector Matthew Venn, going home is always difficult.  Greystone is close enough to where he grew up to bring back unhappy memories.  It’s where his parents belonged to the ultra-conservative Barum Brethren, an evangelical Christian group in Scotland he left when he was eighteen.

But, of course, Matt must go where his job leads him, and now it’s to the small village where the naked body of famous adventurer Jem Rosco was found.  Rosco had grown up in Greystone, but since he became a world-wide celebrity, known for sailing around the world solo, trekking to the North and South Poles, and walking up the Amazon, he hadn’t returned.

Then, suddenly, a few weeks before his death, he walked into the local pub, the Maiden’s Prayer, had two pints and left.  But he returned every night after that, saying in response to questions, “I’m here to meet someone….I’m expecting them any day.”

It’s a strange case, Matt thinks.  The lack of blood in the small dinghy in which he was found shows he wasn’t murdered there, so why did the murderer send out a Mayday call to make certain the body was discovered?

Those living in Greystone rarely leave and move to other places, so there are still many people who knew Rosco when he was a small child and then a schoolboy.  They all have a story or an opinion to share with Venn and his team:  Mary Ford, who wrote numerous fan letters to him when she was a teenager and he was already famous; Mary’s father Alan, desperate for funding to send his grandson to the United States for medical treatment that he believes will save the boy’s life; Sammy Barton, who says Jem had a reputation as a “bit of a cocky bastard” even as a teenager; Davy Gregory, part-time taxi driver who picked Jem up at the railway station and brought him to Greystone and whose father was forced to sell the cottage where Jem had been staying; Barty Lawson, commodore of the town’s sailing club who describes the deceased as an “irritating oik” who never quite fit in; Eleanor Lawson, the woman Rosco named his first boat after; and his former wife Selina, who describes him as “a charmer” who believed all his own fantasies.

There is a strong sense of claustrophobia in The Raging Storm.  Some of that is due to the smallness and isolation of the village, and some is due to the hurricane-like storm that is cutting Greystone off from nearby towns.  There is also a sense of an almost inbred community, where families have lived for generations, doing the same work their parents and grandparents did, as well as the overwhelming influence and moral values of the Brethren.  It’s a mix that doesn’t bode well for Matt and his fellow investigators.

Ann Cleeves is a truly gifted storyteller, whether she is writing about Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, or Detective Inspector Matthew Venn.  All three series featuring these protagonists have been adapted for television.  Her characters are true-to-life, her plots are believable, and her settings take readers right to the place where the action is.

You can read more about her about her at this website.

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

THE DARK EDGE OF NIGHT by Mark Pryor: Book Review

It’s December 2, 1940, six months almost to the day that Paris fell to the Nazis, and Police Inspector Henri Lefort is called into his superior’s office to probe the disappearance of a missing German physician. 

Dr. Viktor Brandt had arrived in Paris a week earlier but hasn’t been seen at the Blériot Hospital for several days. However, before Henri can begin looking into this case he’s handed another, one that at first glance appears to be a burglary gone wrong.  However, when he turns the corpse over, he looks “at what once was the face of a man, … a visage beaten flat, bloody, and utterly unrecognizable.”

That night Henri’s neighbor Mimi comes to him with a request.  Mimi’s full name and title is Princess Marie Bonaparte, and she is Napoleon’s great-grand niece.  She tells him about the disappearance of two physically disabled teenaged boys at the children’s home where she volunteers.

Three people had come to the home a few days earlier and taken the boys away.  They had shown the home’s director some papers that seemed official, but Mimi is disturbed by the occurrence.  Lefort promises to investigate but tells her that it has to take second place to the investigation of the doctor’s disappearance.  Or maybe even third place, given the investigation of the man found in the apartment.

Returning to his first case, arguably the most important one given that it was assigned to him by the Gestapo, Lefort sees Denis Berger, a colleague of the missing physician.  The detective follows Berger to an address all too well-known to the police, One-Two-Two rue de Provence.

After a brief conversation with the owner, Henri opens the door to the room where Berger is visiting one of the brothel’s dominatrixes and finds the doctor strapped to a cross, awaiting the attention of the woman wielding a thin horsewhip.  Eager to continue the whipping he paid for, Berger is adamant that he knows nothing about Brandt’s whereabouts.  Henri believes him.

Then Henri is called to the scene of another death, this one a man whose body was found on the railroad tracks.  Is the corpse is that of the missing German doctor?  Did this man lie down on the tracks, waiting for a train to end his life?  Did he fall, unable to get up?  Or did someone place him there, unconscious, knowing that a train would soon pass over him?

One of the pleasures of reading Mark Pryor’s mysteries is coming across historical figures who were in Paris in the 1940s.  In The Dark Edge of Night we meet, in addition to the princess, CBS News reporter Eric Sevareid and journalist/spy Virginia Hall, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 for services to the Allies during the War.

Not surprisingly, all four cases–the man murdered in his apartment, the missing German doctor, the corpse on the train tracks, and the boys removed from the Children’s Home–are connected.  Mark Pryor has done a masterful job in bringing occupied Paris to life, and all his characters are believable–the emotions of the French dealing with the invaders in their city as well as the Germans who believe they are on the way to world conquest.

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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

DEAD MAN’S WAKE by Paul Doiron: Book Review

Trouble follows Mike Bowditch everywhere.  Even on what should be a joyous occasion, a small engagement party for Mike and his fiancée Stacey given by his stepfather and his new wife, the get-together isn’t over when the sound of a terrifying crash is heard.

Mike is a warden investigator with the Wildlife Crimes Investigation Division of the Maine Warden Service.  Given the large size of Maine, much of it either wilderness or water, the wardens are responsible for law enforcement, search and rescue missions, and hunting related shooting incidents, as well as other types of administration.  They carry weapons, issue citations, and make arrests, much like any other police officer.

Mike and several other members of the party rush out of the house to see what happened, and in just a few minutes he, his stepfather Neil, his fiancée Stacey, and her father Charley are aboard Neil’s new Leisure Kraft pontoon, looking for the site of the crash and hoping for survivors.  As they approach nearby Mouse Island, named for the similarity of its shape to the rodent, Stacey thinks she sees something floating in the water.  It turns out to be a human arm.

The owner of Mouse Island is Dianne Fenton-Whitcomb, and it’s a property that has been in her family for generations.  Now, confined to a wheelchair by MS, she hasn’t been on the island for years, but according to the lake constable Galen Webb, her husband is a frequent visitor.  And he never comes alone.

One of the pleasures of reading any mystery series from the beginning is observing the growth of the protagonist.  When readers first meet Mike Bowditch in The Poacher’s Son, he’s just beginning his career in the Maine Warden Service.  Although smart and hard-working, he was overly eager and often overstepped boundaries in his attempts to prove himself worthy of his new job and the respect of his colleagues.

Now he’s ten years older, with a great deal more experience, and it’s amusing to read his reactions to Webb, who suffers from the same need for immediate gratification and recognition that Bowditch did a decade earlier.

Another pleasure of reading a series is that many characters return from previous Bowditch novels, as they do in this one.   Stacey is, of course, present at the celebration, as are her parents Charley and Ora, as well as Neil Turner, his wife Jubilee, and game warden Kathy Frost and her cadaver dog Maple.

Paul Doiron is the former editor of Down East, The Magazine of Maine, as well as a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly fishing.  The Mike Bowditch mysteries have been translated into 11 languages.  He is the recipient of the Barry Award and the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel as well as twice receiving the Maine Literary Award.  As with his previous mysteries, in Dead Man’s Wake the author combines fascinating characters, an outstanding plot, and his love for the state of Maine.

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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


SMALL MERCIES by Dennis Lehane: Book Review

The summer of 1974 was one of the worst in Boston’s history.  After years of legal challenges, U. S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity rules that the Boston public schools must desegregate.  As part of that plan, Black students from Roxbury High School would be bused to Boston South High School and white students from Boston South would be bused to Roxbury High School.

Protests and riots followed, with students and police being assaulted and gravely injured.  Small Mercies opens two months before the desegregation order is to take effect, and the hot, steamy Boston summer does nothing to cool tempers.

Southie, an almost exclusively white Catholic enclave in the city, is home to Mary Pat Fennessey and her teenage daughter Jules.  Widowed once and deserted/divorced once, Mary Pat is barely holding it together by adding a second shift at her second job at a shoe warehouse.  She’s working as hard as she can, but she can’t seem to get ahead–her gas has been shut off–“But she still has three more shifts and a trip to the billing office before we can boil water or roast a chicken again….”  In the midst of all this, there are two major upheavals in her life.

The first is the busing issue itself, and Mary Pat is creating signs for a protest in front of City Hall Plaza to demonstrate the white community’s opposition to the judge’s ruling.  The second, more personal, is the disappearance of her seventeen-year-old daughter Jules, who goes out with three friends one afternoon and doesn’t return home that evening.

At first Mary Pat is not overly worried because her daughter has spent the night away from home before.  However, when Jules isn’t home by breakfast time the next morning, Mary Pat starts getting concerned.  She makes a couple of phone calls to the parents of one of the friends that her daughter went out with the day before and is assured that Jules isn’t there.  Don’t worry, says the girl’s mother, “….they alway turn up.”  But, Mary Pat thinks, sometimes they don’t.

When she arrives at work, Mary Pat gets her first look at the day’s paper which features a story about a Black man found dead on the tracks of the Columbia Station.  The consensus of the other white women at the Meadow Lane Manor is that he was a drug dealer, otherwise why would he be in the subway station heading toward Southie, which is in the opposite direction of Roxbury where, as a Black man, he surely must have lived?  But as Mary Pat takes a closer look at the article, she realizes that the young man was the son of one of their co-workers, the only Black hospital aide at the nursing home.

So now there are two grieving mothers, one with a missing daughter and one with a dead son.  What is the connection?

As always, Dennis Lehane has written a compelling novel filled with suspense, humor, and humanity.  You can read more about him at and view him discussing Small Mercies on the CBS program

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


SYMPHONY OF SECRETS by Brendan Slocumb: Book Review

The life of a university professor is turned upside down when he’s offered an exceptional opportunity–to authenticate a long-lost classical masterpiece written by his idol, Frederic Delaney. 

Bern Hendricks is a young assistant professor at the University of Virginia who believes he owes his career to the opportunities the Foundation, started after the composer’s death,  gave him.

Bern receives a call from Mallory Delaney Roberts, the Delaney Foundation’s executive director and Delany’s niece.  Mallory is very discreet, even secretive, and she tells Bern that a piece of music has been found that she believes belonged to her uncle, and she would like Bern to  authenticate it.

Before the day is over he’s in a private office in the Foundation’s building, working on something so hush-hush he’s not really certain what it is.  But whatever it is, as long as it has a connection to Frederic Delaney, Bern is thrilled to be a part of it.

Symphony of Secrets is told in two voices in two time periods.  The first is Bern’s in the present, the second is Fredric Delaney’s in the 1920s.

In 1920, Delaney began composing his most famous opus, Five Rings of Olympia, an homage to the first Olympics held after World War I.  Each opera was named after a color of one of the Olympic rings.  Praise was heaped on the works BLUE, YELLOW, BLACK, and GREEN, and the world eagerly awaited the debut of RED, the ending to the mythical tale.  However, a decade went by, and there was no RED, until finally, in 1935, Delaney announced the opera was ready to be performed.

Triumph of the Americas:  The Red Rings of Olympia opened for five consecutive nights at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.  Delaney was prepared to enjoy every minute of his triumph after the insults and snide remarks he had received from critics wondering about the long hiatus between GREEN and RED.  However, what the audience at the premiere of RED heard was boring repetition and hackneyed melodies, and the critics were merciless.  The following morning, Delaney’s valet found him dead of a mixture of pills and alcohol.  His reputation never recovered.

Now Hendricks has the chance to bring the final, revised part of the Rings to the public and critics, based on the newly-discovered document.  However, as he works on RED, he notices some strange things about the document and the secrecy surrounding his employment.  His cell phone is taken away the moment he enters the Foundation’s building, he’s given a windowless basement office, he has to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, and he’s not allowed to see the original document that was found, only the scanned version.

Bern is so thrilled to be working on RED, however, that he doesn’t linger on these unusual aspects of his job.  But when he calls on an old friend, tech-savvy Eboni Washington, to help him  with some aspects of the opera, she is much more aware than he of the strangeness of the situation and what could be behind it

Symphony of Secrets is a beautifully written mystery with a compelling plot and memorable characters.  The author is a musician with a degree in music education who has performed with orchestras throughout Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D. C.   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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

DEADLOCK by James Byrne: Book Review

Barely a year after his debut mystery featuring Desmond Aloysius Limerick, James Byrne has written a second novel as outstanding as his first.  I had nothing but praise for The Gatekeeper, a novel that introduced Dez to the world last June, and I was more than ready for the follow-up to his first adventure.  Deadlock does not disappoint.

Dez’s resume is a bit mysterious, but it does include a degree in engineering, an incredible ability to hack into nearly every secure facility in the world, and the talent to play electric guitar in both jazz and blues bands.  His skill in entering buildings (breaking into may be the more accurate description) is one that he employs numerous times in Deadlock.

Thinking he would like a brief holiday in the United States, Dez leaves England and has just spent his first day in Los Angeles when he receives a phone call from Raziah Swann, a young musician/songwriter he has worked with.  When she tells him that her sister Laleh is in danger and is in a hospital, he’s on the next flight to Portland, Oregon.

Raziah tells Dez that her sister’s apartment was ransacked and a day after that she was mugged and almost killed.  The two go to the hospital, and Dez immediately spots two men who are waiting for Raziah.  He dispatches them without any trouble as well as two others who are inside Laleh’s room, apparently ready to abduct her.

When he puts the last thug out of commission with a Thai boxing move, he looks over the man and thinks, he has “heard the expression you should never hit a man when he’s down.  Stupid advice, that.  There’s no better time to hit a man than when he’s down.”  (Italics mine.)

Laleh insists that she doesn’t know why anyone would attack her.  She’s a business reporter, she tells the police and Dez, not an investigative journalist, and the only story she’s working on at the moment is a profile of a forensic accountant who was murdered a couple of days before she was attacked.  She’s sure there’s no connection, but Dez has his own opinion.

The accountant who was killed was doing an audit on Oregon’s largest and most influential employer, Clockjack Solutions.  The company was started three decades earlier by four Portland State University professors, but two have died.  To Dez it seems unlikely, to say the least, that two of the four entrepreneurs died at such young ages.  And now there have been two recent attacks related, if peripherally, to the company–the accountant and Laleh.

I must confess I was eagerly awaiting every “spot of trouble,” as the Brits put it, that Dez got into so that I could marvel at the way he got out of each one.  James Byrne has created a skilled, funny, personable character with whom I loved spending the afternoon.  Dez is surrounded by a wonderful cast of characters–good, bad, and truly evil–but there’s no doubt that he is the star.

James Byrne is the pen name of a man who has worked as a journalist and in politics for more than two decades.  You can read about him 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.





THE BITTER PAST by Bruce Borgos: Book Review

Depending on how one views it, the High Desert is either an area of great beauty or a desolate landscape. Its very small population is spread over a very large area, and it definitely takes a certain type of mindset to live there.

Porter Beck is the sheriff of Lincoln County, Nevada, which is part of the High Desert, as was his father before him.  Murders there are rare, but now he is faced with a particularly heinous one.  The murdered man was Ralph Atterbury, a retired FBI agent, and he was brutally tortured, apparently for hours, before his death.

Beck, as everyone calls him, served in an Intelligence unit in the Army.  Now he thinks, “It’s a level of torture I’ve never witnessed, and that includes what I’ve seen the Taliban do.”  He has one of his deputies call the FBI office in Las Vegas to inform them of the crime and continues his search of Atterbury’s home, one thing standing out from all the blood and butchery.  It’s a small box containing Thallium salts, which Beck recognizes from a past experience.  Very, very poisonous, odorless, and tasteless.

The next day FBI Agent Sana Locke enters Beck’s office.  Together they return to the scene of the crime and afterward to the Las Vegas field office to view Atterbury’s corpse.

Then The Bitter Past goes back to 1955, when Las Vegas was a newly emerging vacation spot and fears of the Cold War were everywhere.   A young man called Freddie Meyer gets an interim job as a dealer in one of the city’s casinos, and there he meets Katherine Ellison.  The two click immediately, and after a few dates she takes him home to meet her father, a physicist working on a secret weapon who has ultra-high security clearance.

The two men hit it off, partly due to Freddie’s interest in and knowledge of physics, and Dr. Ellison is able to get Freddie a job as a security guard at the newly named Nevada Testing Site.  Although he passed the security clearance for this position, the reader knows there’s something “off” about Freddie.

Why is he so determined to learn all he can about his fellow guards?  Why does he downplay his ability with firearms?  And, given his relatively low status as a security guard, why is he aiming to obtain as much information as he can about the science of atomic testing?

Four weeks into his new job Freddie has a few days off and leaves the testing site, returning to his Las Vegas apartment.  Picking up his mail, he sees a small package from his Aunt Sally.  When he opens it, inside is the camera he is expecting.  It will permit Freddie, also known as Lieutenant Georgiy Dudko of the Committee for State Security (KGB), to take photos without being observed, inside the United States’ most secret facility.

Bruce Borgos has written a mystery with multiple layers.  Its protagonist, Porter Beck, is charming, funny, and a lawman with incredible credentials, and the book’s other characters bring their own strengths and personalities to the novel.  The Bitter Past is an outstanding debut, and I hope to see much more of Beck and his colleagues in the future.

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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

MOTHERS’ INSTINCT by Barbara Abel: Book Review

The Brunelles and the Geniots are next-door neighbors and have been best friends for years.  Each couple has a son, and the boys are the same age.  It’s a perfect relationship until a tragic accident tears everything apart.

Milo Brunelle was the first child to arrive, followed by Maxime Geniot three months later.  The night of Maxime’s birth, David Brunelle and Sylvain Geniot went out drinking to celebrate.  Each had always been open about his past, David thought, but this night brings an unsetting confession from Sylvain.  Years earlier he tried to help a close friend who had written a prescription for a woman without asking her if she were pregnant.  She was, and the dosage of the medication caused her to have a miscarriage.

If only he could retrieve his hand-written prescription from the pharmacy and substitute one listing the correct dosage, the doctor told Sylvain, he would be in the clear.  Otherwise he would lose his medical license and perhaps even go to jail.  So Sylvain visited the pharmacy, and with a sleight-of-hand he took the original form and left the corrected one in the shop’s files.  Thus Sylvain’s friend kept his license.

But the fly in the ointment was that Sylvain was attracted to the pharmacist, dated her, and now he and Tiphaine are married and the parents of newborn Maxime.  Until now, Sylvain tells David, he has kept this secret from everyone, including his wife.  Helping his friend meant that Tiphaine lost her license, paid a heavy fine, and was forbidden to work as a pharmacist again.  Sylvain feels she would never forgive him if she knew he was responsible for ending her career.

Six years later Maxime dies in a fall from his upstairs bedroom window, with Laetitia Brunelle a horrified witness, unable to reach the boy in time to prevent his death.  The Brunelles want to comfort their neighbors in any way they can, but the Geniots are not receptive for a long time.  Finally, however, the friendships resume, although they are not as strong as before.  The Brunells and the Geniots seem on edge, both sides often responding to the other couple with hurt looks and cutting remarks.

Then a series of “accidents” occur, but are they truly accidents?

Mothers’ Instinct is located in an unnamed city in Belgium, but it could take place anywhere.  The horror of a child’s death, the unravelling of a friendship, the blaming, the guilt, are all sadly universal.  What makes this novel unique is the quiet pace that leads to its shocking conclusion.

Barbara Abel is the author of fourteen novels.  You can read about her 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.



THE LIE MAKER by Linwood Barclay: Book Review

We all know that people are complicated, that there may be many, many aspects to an individual.  In The Lie Maker, Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, we learn that the relationship between a criminal father and his son leads to an outcome no one could have predicted.

When the book opens, a man is taken away from his wife and young son and put into the Witness Protection Program.  His wife refuses to go with him, and the child remains with her.  As the father is about to enter the government car that will take him to his new life, his son runs after him, pleading for his father to say he’s sorry so that he can remain home with his family.  “Sorry isn’t good enough sometimes….I killed people.  Sorry just doesn’t cut it.”

The son grows up to be an author, although not a financially successful one.  He’s written two novels under a pen name, and even his “real name” isn’t the name he was born with.  After his father left, his mother remarried; he took his stepfather’s name, so his name is now Jack Givens.

Jack is definitely down on his luck, and he’s even more disheartened when his agent tells him that his editor isn’t interested in the book he just completed.  However, the agent says he’s been contacted by someone who may have a job for Jack, one that could turn out to be more remunerative than his book would have been.  It all seems a bit strange to Jack, having to contact an unknown person on a burner phone, but he’s desperate enough to listen to almost any opportunity.

When he arrives at the Boston office of Pandora Importing, he discovers that it’s a cover for the U. S. Marshals Service, the government agency that put his father in the Witness Protection Program.  The marshal, Gwen Kaminsky, appears ignorant of that fact, and Jack doesn’t inform her of it.

She tells him that members of the Service who have read his two published novels are impressed “by the characters, how developed they were…I’m told the characters were very authentic, very three dimensional.”  The Service, Gwen informs him, is looking for people who can create realistic backstories for those who enter the Program, and Jack’s name was given to her.  The money is more than Jack had received for his previous novels, so he agrees to start creating a story for a man in the Program.

What Jack doesn’t tell Gwen is that a major reason he’s agreeing to take the job is the possibility that it will help him locate his father.  Although it was forbidden, Jack’s father had made contact with him several times over the years, although it had been some time since their last meeting.

Gwen impresses upon Jack that everything he does is totally confidential, not to be shared with anyone.  Jack agrees, but the woman he’s dating, an investigative reporter, naturally wants to find out about his new job, and the more he says he can’t tell her anything about it, the more she is determined to get the information on her own.

“I should warn you,” she says.  “You’ve presented a challenge to me.”

As were all of Linwood Barclay’s previous novels, this one is outstanding.  The characters are believable, the plot is clever, and the twists and turns will keep you guessing throughout the book.  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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


THE LAST DROP OF HEMLOCK by Katharine Schellman: Book Review

The Roaring Twenties–jazz, Prohibition, gangsters, speakeasies–it’s all there in Katharine Schellman’s second novel in the Nightingale series, The Last Drop of Hemlock.

Vivian Kelly is working as a waitress/dance partner at the Nightingale, a New York City nightclub featuring hot jazz, cold (alcoholic) drinks, and young people looking for a fun evening.  Her best friend at the club is Bea Henry, the sultry singer who makes the club the hot spot that it is.  Bea enters late one night, an hour and a half after she was due to begin singing with the band, and tells Vivian in a whisper that her Uncle Pearlie, recently employed as a bouncer at the club, is dead.

Pearlie had moved to Manhattan from Baltimore a short time earlier, and Bea’s entire family immediately bonded with him.  He had stayed with the Henrys for a while, then moved into his own apartment, telling them that he would soon be coming into money and would use it to make their lives easier.  Thus his death has come as a huge shock.

The neighborhood’s local physician, Dr. Harris, has called Pearlie’s death a suicide, but Bea doesn’t believe that, and neither does Vivian.  Bea says the doctor’s visit after the death was superficial, merely saying that sometimes a man gets so despondent about his life and prospects that he simply can’t deal with it any longer and kills himself, as Pearlie apparently did by putting arsenic in his bottle of liquor.  However, Bea tells Vivian that her uncle felt he was on the way up, and that appears to be true when they visit his apartment, along with Vivian’s friend Leo Green.

It’s small but cozy, Vivian thinks, and she wonders how he was able to afford the well-made suit hanging on a wall hook as well as the silk handkerchiefs she finds in the small nightstand next to his bed.  Bea admits that Pearlie had told her he was working for a mob boss, that he had just “one more job to finish…He wasn’t despairing…He was downright jaunty.”

With Leo, who has his own connection to a New York City mob, Vivian begins her investigation into Pearlie’s death.  Vivian and Leo visit the morgue, and the medical examiner tells them that the death is suspicious, although looking into it more closely isn’t something he can do.  Leo had taken the liquor they found in Pearlie’s apartment and brought it to the medical examiner, and the doctor says that it was full of arsenic.  “If someone drank it, I can’t imagine they lived through the night,” the examiner says.

The Last Drop of Hemlock features an outstanding plot as well as a fascinating cast of characters.  In addition to Vivian, Bea, and Leo, readers will meet Alba, another waitress at the Nightingale and Pearlie’s girlfriend; Honor Huxley, the club’s owner with her own ties to the underworld; Florence, Vivian’s much less worldly sister; and Danny Chin, the bartender who just might urge Florence out of her shell.  The novel is a wonderful look into The Jazz Age in 1920’s Manhattan.

Katherine Schellman is a former actor, one-time political consultant, and current writer.  You can read more about her at this website.

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

A DISAPPEARANCE IN FIJI by Nilima Rao: Book Review

Fiji is, to me, one of those magical places almost outside reality.  A republic in the South Pacific, it consists of more than 300 islands, of which slightly over 100 are inhabited by native Fijians, Indians, Australians, and members of other island nations.  Its history encompasses native rule and English rule, and it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary as an independent nation in 2020.  Its history, however, has not always been a happy one.

A country rich in alcoholic spirits, minerals, wood, sugar, and cotton, it was ripe for exploitation by colonial powers.  In 1914, the time A Disappearance in Fiji takes place, Fiji is a Crown Colony.  It is subject to the British practice of bringing indentured servants, working for miniscule pay, to the islands as workers on the numerous and profitable sugar and cotton plantations.  This practice lasted from 1833 until 1920.

Sergeant Akal Singh was a star in the Hong Kong police force, but a major professional mistake resulted in his being sent to Suva, the capital of Fiji, where he is definitely unwanted by most of his colleagues and the head of the colony’s police force.

Since he is the highest ranking Indian in the colony, police inspector-general Jonathon Thurstrom reluctantly assigns Akal his first major case, that of a young Indian woman, an indentured servant on a sugar planation, who has either run away or been abducted, depending on whom one believes.

Only because the Catholic priest in Suva has written a letter to the local press expressing outrage at Kunti’s disappearance and the lack of follow-up, as well as the upcoming visit of an Indian dignitary, is Thurstrom willing to send Singh to investigate.

The plantation where Kunti worked is owned by Susan and Henry Parkins, a wealthy English couple highly placed in Fiji’s society.  Mrs. Parkins denies any knowledge of what goes on with “the coolies,” a derogatory term for the workers used by the British.  She doesn’t know, she tells Akal, and she doesn’t care.

The plantation is everything Akal fears.  The workers live in windowless huts without sanitary facilities.  Their wages are paid by the day, and if they don’t work for a day due to illness they don’t get paid and a day is added to their contract.  They come to Fiji in search of a better life than they had or could have in India, but the reality is far short of their hopes.  And once there, there is no way to return home.

Mr. Parkins tells Singh that Kunti hasn’t been abducted and that he believes that she ran away with the plantation’s overseer.  However, the other workers don’t believe that, telling the sergeant that Kunti would never have left her young daughter behind.  Thus the investigation begins.

Nilima Rao is a Fijian Indian Australian, having been born in Fiji of Indian heritage and raised in Australia, a combination not too unusual in Oceania, as she writes in the Author’s Note at the end of her debut novel.  A Disappearance in Fiji is a fascinating mystery, with well-written characters and a plot that will keep you reading until the last page.  You can read more about the author 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 OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.