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DEATH UNDER THE PERSEIDS BY Teresa Dovalpage: Book Review

You may be certain that if something seems to be good to be true, it probably is.  That should have occurred to Mercedes Spivey when she’s told that she’s won a cruise for two from Miami to her place of birth, Havana, Cuba.  It’s true that she doesn’t remember entering any contest with that as the prize, but since things aren’t going well in her life at the moment, she decides to simply accept her good fortune.

Her husband Nolan’s teaching contract at Point South College in Gainsville, Florida, has not been renewed, and he has no other job on the horizon.  He is momentarily excited when an invitation to speak at the University of Havana arrives from one of its professors, but with the invitation came a note that “because of the embargo” the university couldn’t buy him a ticket or pay for his stay in Havana.

After he loses his job he realizes there is no money to pay for the expenses involved in the trip.  He is about to contact the professor who had extended the invitation and regretfully decline the opportunity when Mercedes comes home with the news of the free cruise.

While Mercedes and Nolan are waiting to board The Narwhal, Mercedes sees a professor whose class she had taken when she was a student at the University of Havana.  Selfa Segarra had been a colleague and friend of Mercedes’ deceased lover Lorenzo; at least, she had been considered a friend until a rumor started that she had reported one of his books to the political police.

Not eager to have a prolonged conversation with Dr. Segarra, Mercedes is about to get back to her husband when the professor mentions that she’s on the ship because she won a raffle with the cruise as the prize.  She, like Mercedes, doesn’t even remember purchasing a raffle ticket.  The professor tries to convince herself and Mercedes they are simply “a pair of lucky Cubans,” but both women are slightly uneasy about this.

The two women separate, with Mercedes reluctantly agreeing to see Selfa later, and a few minutes later Mercedes spots another familiar face on board.  Javier Jurado was a writer like Lorenzo, but an unpublished one, until after Lorenzo’s tragic death by fire Javier published Lorenzo’s novel under his own name and won the literary prize that rightfully should have gone to the dead man.

Now Mercedes is wondering about all these seeming coincidences.  She, Nolan, Selfa, and now Javier–all on the same ship headed for Havana.  And then Selfa disappears.

Teresa Dovalpage has written an exciting novel with a protagonist who is, as the Cubans says, de ampanga, “a piece of work.”  Although professing her love for the late Lorenzo, Mercedes had at least two affairs while they were together, including one with her now-husband Nolan.  When she wants something, she wants it.  Selfish, determined, persevering?  You decide.

Teresa Dovalpage was born in Havana but left in 1996 for the United States, where she has been living ever since.  She obtained her doctorate in Latin American literature from the University of New Mexico and has published eight novels.

You can read more about Teresa Dovalpage 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.

1979 by Val McDermid: Book Review

When Val McDermid publishes a new novel, readers take notice.  And when she begins a new series, it’s time for readers to celebrate.

As is apparent from the title, 1979 is the year when we first encounter Allie Burns, a reporter at The Clarion, a Scottish daily, who is very much the low person on the newspaper’s totem pole.  However, the country is being inundated by snowstorms, strikes, and demands to become a separate nation, allowing Allie to view this as an opportunity to escape from writing “women’s stories” and to start reporting on the substantial issues of the day.

More from happenstance than planning, she and fellow reporter Danny Sullivan share a train compartment as each returns to Glasgow after celebrating Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s holiday, with their respective parents.  Danny is as eager as Allie to delve into more meaningful stories; his dream is to become an investigative crime reporter.  However, The Clarion already has a journalist covering that beat, and that man is not eager to share.

But Danny has found a lead that the other journalist doesn’t have.  While he was back home, the family’s conversation turned to taxes, and Danny’s older brother Joseph bragged that his clients at Paragon Investment Insurance were “bulletproof.”  His refusal to say more prods Danny into doing his own research into the company, and when he uncovers the malfeasance he realizes he has a major scandal to report.

Danny is torn, though, because he realizes that his brother is involved in the company’s illegal activities.  He convinces himself that he can write the story without involving Joseph, but that proves to be a major error on his part.

Allie, meanwhile, finds herself involved in the battle for Scottish devolution, or separation from Great Britain.  Those in favor want more power for local government, but in order for this to happen the vote has to pass by a majority and a majority of the electorate has to vote.

Not everyone is willing to wait for an election, though, and Allie overhears a conversation she believes may lead to a major story, one that involves a student group, IRA terrorists, and four men who seem determined to make the British government “pay attention the way they’ve been forced to do in Northern Ireland.”

Even though Allie and Danny are relatively new to their “beats” at The Clarion, they are not new to journalism and are able to recognize important stories when they see them.  What they may not be able to recognize is that important, powerful people don’t want to read about themselves in a national daily in a negative way.  And these people are more than willing to make certain that that doesn’t happen.

As always, Val McDermid’s characters jump off the page.  They bring readers back more than forty years to a period of great upheaval in Scotland, with divergent interests desperate to hold onto their power, no holds barred.

Val McDermid considers her work to be part of the “tartan noir” Scottish crime fiction genre.  She is the author of four other series that take place in that country, and she broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland.   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.

DAUGHTER OF THE MORNING STAR by Craig Johnson: Book Review

Did you know that the chance of a Native American woman being murdered is ten times the national average of a non-Native woman being murdered; that twice as many Native women experience violence and rape as do their non-Native counterparts; that the suicide rate of Native teenagers is two and a half times greater than the national average?  These are the horrifying statistics that led Craig Johnson to write his latest Sheriff Walt Longmire mystery, Daughter of the Morning Star.

Jaya Long is a young woman of the Northern Cheyenne Nation who has been receiving threatening letters, so many letters that she’s lost count.  When Longmire asks her if she thinks her life is in danger, her response is, “I am a young woman in modern America, living on the Rez–my life is always in danger.”

And sadly, even beyond the alarming statistics noted above, Jaya’s life is a troubled one.  Her father is in and out of jail, her mother is an alcoholic, one brother was shot to death, another committed suicide, one sister was hit by a car and killed, and her older sister Jeanie went to a party a little more than a year before the book opens and never came home.  Little wonder that Jaya has surrounded herself with almost impenetrable defenses.

Walt is asked by Lolo Long, the tribal police chief of the Northern Cheyenne, to find out who is sending the notes to Jaya.  Before Jeannie’s disappearance, she too had been receiving threats, and it appears that Longmire won’t be able to investigate Jaya’s problems without doing the same regarding her sister’s.

Making things even more tense is the upcoming basketball tournament, the National Native American Invitational.   More than just a high school rivalry with bragging rights, winners of the NNAI are often recruited by elite colleges; without the accompanying scholarships, no girl on Jaya’s Lame Deer team could afford a college education.

Jaya is truly outstanding, the team’s best player, but her attitude is that she can do it all herself.  According to the team’s coach, Jaya has it all “except for being a decent teammate.”  Maybe that’s because in her life outside basketball there’s no one she can depend on–why should it be any different on the team?

As always, Walt Longmire and his colleague Henry Standing Bear make a formidable team, but this time they may be facing powers that are literally outside their realm. 

They may be dealing with the Éveohtsé-heómėse, The Wandering Without, described as an all-knowing being, a black spiritual hole that does nothing but devour souls.  Henry tries to explain it to Walt, telling him it’s something like limbo, a “plain of existence between the two worlds, the camps of the dead and the living.”  It’s easy to dismiss this as superstition, but when Walt himself encounters it, he can’t explain it away.

Always a masterful storyteller, Craig Johnson once again draws us into Absaroka County and its interactions between the Native and white communities.  The characters are so realistic and the story is so poignant that it keeps the reader entranced and terrified until the last page.  And then….

You can read more about Craig Johnson 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.



HEAVEN’S A LIE by Wallace Stroby: Book Review

Watching an accident about to happen is a frightening experience for anyone.  But for Joette Harper it becomes a matter of life and death.

Looking out the window of the motel where she works as a receptionist, she sees a car taking a left across the Taylor Creek bridge way too fast.  It goes into the bridge’s abutment head on, and Joette rushes out of the motel to see if she can help.

Looking past the cracked windshield, she sees the driver; he appears barely conscious.  As he tries to unclip his shoulder harness, flames starts to engulf the car, black smoke begins spewing from the engine.  With great effort Joette pulls the man out of the car, as far as possible from the now burning BMW.

When she finally feels they’re safely away from the vehicle, she sees something floating in the air, landing in front of her in the parking lot.  It’s a hundred dollar bill, Ben Franklin’s image facing up.

The car’s driver looks at her, trying to tell her something, and she wonders if he’s trying to let her know that there’s someone still in the car.  Cautiously she goes back to the BMW, doesn’t see anyone inside but spots a canvas bag inside the open trunk.  She can see piles of cash inside.  She pulls the bag out and runs back to the driver.  Now she notices that he’s bleeding, his shirt and jeans covered in blood.  Then he dies, and Joette hides the sack in her car’s trunk.

Joette is interrogated by the police who quickly arrive at the accident scene.  She answers all their questions but doesn’t mention the sack.  After the interview is finished she drives to her trailer and counts the money.  In denominations of fifties and hundreds it comes out to nearly $300,000.  She puts the money inside her only suitcase, puts the suitcase in the closet.  By doing this she’s reached the point of no return.

No one witnessed the crash except Joette, but she wonders if there is anyone who knows about the money.  The answer is that two men, Cosmo and Travis, do, and they are apprehensive that someone may have seen the accident and found the cash.

Cosmo, Travis, and the driver have been dealing drugs, and now the two remaining men have neither drugs nor the money to restock their supply.  Cosmo has a relationship with a crooked state trooper who knows that the woman who works at the motel saw the accident, and that’s how the men learn about Joette.

Since the trooper doesn’t tell Cosmo anything about the money, the men believe that the witness probably took the cash from the car before the police arrived.  Bad news for Joette.

Wallace Stroby has written another outstanding thriller in which no one is completely innocent or blameless.  Joette knows she should have turned the bills over to the police, but she didn’t.  Now she has to deal with the aftermath of her decision.

You can read more about Wallace Stroby 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.

WATCH HER FALL by Erin Kelly: Book Review

A few weeks ago I wrote about a young woman and the religious sect she joined when she was a teenager (The Night We Burned).  The men and women in that cult were adrift from their families of birth, happy and relieved to be taken in (although, sadly, that happened in more ways than one) by the charismatic leader of the group until bad things start happening.

Watch Her Fall portrays a different type of cult but one almost equally dangerous.  The setting is the London Russian Ballet Company, ruled with an iron hand by Nikolai Kirilov, and it has young dancers from all over the British Isles and beyond vying for places among its exalted performers.  Now the Company is poised to present its latest production in London before embarking on a world-wide tour, and the prima ballerina is Nikolai’s daughter Ava.  It is the opportunity of a lifetime, the ballet she has dreamed of dancing since her childhood.

Tyrant that he is, Nikolai permits no deviations from his vision of any ballet, and that is especially true of “Swan Lake.” The slightest imperfection cannot be allowed, and so when Ava makes a millimeter misstep in rehearsal, she is petrified that her father will give the roles to her understudy.  It is this fear that begins her psychological unraveling.

At the same time, we see a much younger and very gifted student beginning her life in the corps de ballet.  Nikolai calls the young girls of the troupe his creatures, and says, “She sleep and eat and dance and learn and live under my roof and I will create her.”  And this young girl appears to be his favorite, much to Ava’s distress.

During another rehearsal, when Ava asks if there aren’t two possible interpretations of a step, her father falls into a frenzy.  “My work.  My dancing,” he tells the company.  No other way is possible–all must listen and obey him.

Fearful of losing her father’s favor as well as her starring role in “Swan Lake,” Ava determines to work even harder, practice more.  She is certainly willing to put in the hours, be it to please her father or to prove herself the greatest interpreter of the twin roles of Odile and Odette, but an unlucky accident puts an end to her dream.

The novel’s title, Watch Her Fall, has a double meaning.  Ava does, in fact, have a career-ending physical fall from the stage, but she also has a psychological fall into the depths of despair.  If she is not a dancer and the fulfillment of her father’s dream, what and who is she?  The way in which she copes is unexpected and distressing, and yet, at the novel’s end, the steps she takes will be understandable.  The author’s insights into the pressures of achieving success at the highest level of ballet, or in fact at any endeavor, brings life to her novel.

Erin Kelly is a journalist, a creative writing tutor, and the author of other several psychological thrillers; I reviewed her outstanding Stone Mothers in May 2019.  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.

MALICE AFORETHOUGHT by Francis Iles: Golden Oldie

It’s been almost two years since I’ve written a post about a Golden Oldie.  That’s probably because there have been so many outstanding newly-published mysteries that I didn’t give ones I’d read years ago a second thought.  But I started feeling guilty about all the old “masterpieces” that may not be familiar to everyone, so here is a classic.

Malice Aforethought begins with a sentence that will surely grab the reader:  “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.”  Honestly, if that doesn’t make you want to continue reading, I don’t know what will.

The good doctor (emphasis mine) is a general practitioner in a small town in England.  I’ve noticed before that in English society in the early/middle part of the last century, a doctor was considered more of a working man or a skilled laborer than a professional.

Dr. Bickleigh’s marriage to Miss Julia Crewstaton, spinster, was a tepid one, lacking any warmth or passion from the start.  The Crewstatons were a family of position if no longer of means, due to the profligate spending habits of Sir Charles, the twelfth baronet.  Julia, at age thirty five, had given up hope that she would ever marry.

But marry she did, although to a country practitioner.  As she frequently reminded him, her grandmother “would have no more contemplated sitting down to a meal with her doctor than with her butler.”  Marrying him was “enough to make that grandmother turn in her grave.”  But, as the English say, “needs must,” and so Miss Crewstaton and Dr. Bickleigh were wed.

Dr. Bickleigh had carried on a number of flirtations during his marriage, some more serious than others, and his wife didn’t appear too bothered about it.  After his attempt to kiss one neighboring woman is rebuffed, and a steamy relationship he has with another is ending, more on his part than hers, he is ripe for a new affair.

Thus when he meets Madeleine Cranmere, newly arrived to town and obviously very wealthy, he decides she is his soul mate, the love of his life, and he cannot go on without her.  And thus the idea of murdering his wife becomes an obsession.

In a crime novel, as opposed to a detective story or mystery, there is, in fact, no mystery.  The reader knows from the beginning who the criminal is, and the story is told from the criminal’s viewpoint.  Malice Aforethought is a perfect example.

Francis Iles (1893-1971) is one of several pen names used by the English author Anthony Berkeley Cox.  He was a journalist and short story writer as well as a novelist, and along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and several others he was a founder of the Detection Club.  You can read more about Francis Iles at various internet sites.

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 FLIGHT by Julie Clark: Book Review

Two women, strangers to each other, each one in a relationship fraught with danger.  Then a chance meeting at Kennedy Airport in New York City may give both a chance to escape and start over.  Will they be able to take it?

Claire and Eva could not be more different.  Claire is married to multi-millionaire (or it is billionaire?) Rory Cook, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and soon-to-be-announced candidate for United States Senate from New York.  Son of the late Marjorie Cook, a senator admired and respected on both sides of the aisle, Rory wants to follow in her footsteps and is planning to announce his run for office.  The last thing he wants, needs, or will allow is any news of a separation with Claire to go public.  There is nothing he won’t do to prevent that from happening, nothing at all.

Feeling that her life is in danger, Claire makes meticulous plans to leave Rory, with the help of a friend whose brother is connected, as they say, to the Russian mafia.  She wants to leave the country and start her life again in Canada.  But then fate, destiny, or karma intervenes.

Eva’s life has unfolded quite differently, but the end result is that she is as desperate as Claire.  Abandoned by her drug-addicted mother and placed in a series of foster homes, she eventually ended up in a Catholic orphanage where she received a good education and the opportunity to attend the University of California/Berkeley on a scholarship.  But a lack of money, poor judgment, and her old demons led to her expulsion, and she became an easy target for Dex, who soon has her making and selling drugs.

She is earning good money, but the secrecy and fear of being caught makes Eva decide to leave Berkeley and the life she’s living.  But with no family and no friends to turn to for help, how can she escape this life?

The Last Flight is written in alternating chapters, with Claire’s story followed by Eva’s.  While Claire’s escape plans are endangered by Rory’s immense wealth and the many favors people owe him, Eva’s are hobbled by an unknown drug lord called Fish.  Dex tells her Fish is above him in the drug hierarchy and emphasizes Fish’s ability to make certain that no one who works for him is allowed to break free.

Julie Clark has written a spellbinding thriller with a terrific plot and realistic, sensitive characters.  Just when the reader breathes a sign of relief that all is going according to plan, those plans are thrown into disarray.  I promise that you will be holding your breath until the very last page, as if by doing so you can ensure that both women make it to safety.

You can read more about Julie Clark at this website.

And many thanks to Lorry Diehl for this recommendation.  As the author of several books on New York City, she definitely knows good writing.

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.

WHEN A STRANGER COMES TO TOWN edited by Michael Koryta: Book Review

I’m not much of a short story person; I much prefer reading novels, especially mystery novels, because I enjoy thinking about characters and plots and settings for a longer time than a short story allows.  That being said, when my local library re-opened in June (hooray!), one of the featured books on the New Arrivals shelf was this collection of stories edited by Michael Koryta, part of the library of the Mystery Writers of America.

There are stories by nineteen authors, and I was familiar with less than half of them.  I found that really interesting, since their brief bios at the end of the book indicate that only three of them write short stories exclusively.  What that means is that I’ll have to up my reading time to be able to focus on writers whose works I haven’t read.

Of course, I was immediately grabbed by the authors I had previously read–Alafair Burke, Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger, Lori Roy, Michael Koryta, and Steve Hamilton.  But I decided to approach When A Stranger Comes to Town the way I would read a novel–start at the beginning of the collection and read to the end.

With only two exceptions, I found the stories in this collection ranging from really good to outstanding.  Three of them caught my eye because of their location–“Perfect Strangers” by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs since it takes place just a few miles from my home in Massachusetts, “Assignment:  Sheepshead Bay” by Paul A. Barra which takes places in my hometown of Brooklyn, and “P.F.A.” by Michael Koryta because it takes places in Maine, where my older son and his family live.  I’d also like to note “A Six-Letter Word for Neighbor” by Lisa Unger; its ending caught me totally by surprise and yet seemed so perfect.

Michael Koryta, the book’s editor, did a masterful job in choosing these stories.  When A Stranger Comes To Town is an absolutely outstanding addition to the Mystery Writers of America’s library.

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 HERON’S CRY by Ann Cleeves: Book Review

Can one more glass of wine hurt, Detective Jen Rafferty asks herself?
  After all, it’s a party.  Everything is a bit hazy, something she will regret the next day, but in the meantime she helps herself to another glass of red.

A serious-looking man joins her and introduces himself as Nigel Yeo, a surname that means he’s local to South Devon.  He describes himself as in the health field but no longer a medic, and he tells Jen he’s in “the same line of business as you.  Sort of.”  She’s intrigued, but Nigel backs off, saying he will get her number from their hostess and asking if he can call her in the morning.

But when morning comes, it’s a different phone call that Jen gets.  Her boss, Matthew Venn, tells her to come to Westacombe, a group of buildings that have evolved into a small artists’ colony.  When she arrives he tells her there’s been a murder, and when Jen sees the body she recognizes Nigel Yeo.

He was found by his daughter, Eve, in her small studio in Westacombe, with a long shard of glass protruding from his neck.  Now, more than ever, Jen wishes her recall of the night before was sharper as she tries to remember the discussion she had with Nigel and whether there were any clues to his death.

Eve is a glassblower, and the glass is from one of her pieces.  The other artist who lives in the colony is Wesley Curnow, a painter and a musician.  Along with Sarah and John Grieve and their young twin daughters, Eve and Wesley make up the tenants, and Frank Ley, a celebrated investor and philanthropist, is the owner of the land and its buildings.

Everyone agrees that Nigel was a “lovely man” who hadn’t an enemy in the world.  He had worked as a physician but had given up his practice two years earlier to care for his wife, who suffered from dementia.  After her death he changed his focus and became the head of North Devon Patients Together, an advocacy group belonging to the National Health Service.  Certainly not a dangerous position, it would seem, and yet there doesn’t seem to be anything else in Nigel’s life that would lead to murder.

Matthew Venn, Jen’s boss, is not your typical detective.  Born into the Brethren, a strict Protestant sect, he has left that sect and is now married to his husband, Jonathan.  The two men are as different as possible, with Matthew painstaking and stolid, while Jonathan is artistic and sociable.  But their marriage is a good one, and they complement each other.  Venn is highly respected by his team, and his investigative style has solved many cases in the past.  But this one has him and his colleagues stymied.

The police interview Eve, Sarah and John, Wesley, and Frank, but all either have a strong alibi or no discernible reason for Nigel’s murder.  And then there’s a second killing.

Ann Cleeves is the author of many other mysteries, including the Vera Stanhope and the Jimmy Perez/Shetland Island series, as well as many stand-alones.  Both those series have been adapted for television, and the first of the Matthew Venn series, The Long Call, has been adapted as well.  Ms. Cleeves is a talented and prolific mystery author, and The Heron’s Call is an outstanding addition to her catalog of novels.

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.

AN AMBUSH OF WIDOWS by Jeff Abbott: Book Reiew

Two women–one in New Orleans, married to an almost-broke security consultant; one in Austin, married to a multi-millionaire entrepreneur.  They might seem to have nothing in common except for the fact that their husbands are found together in an empty Austin warehouse, shot to death.

When Kirsten North receives a phone call in New Orleans, saying that her husband has been shot to death in that Texas city, her immediate reaction is that it’s a sick, cruel joke.  Henry’s not even in Texas, she tells herself, he’s in New York on business.  But when she calls the hotel where he’s always stayed during his visits to the Big Apple, she’s told there’s no one by that name who has checked in.  Now she’s worried.

Still unbelieving, Kirsten buys a plane ticket to Austin, not aware that she’s being followed.  And she’s totally unaware of the man who followed her to the airport and purchased his last-minute ticket as soon as he saw her purchase hers.  In fact, he’s sitting right next to her on the plane, trying to hide behind sunglasses and and a baseball cap.  He goes by the name of Mender, and he’s following her from New Orleans to Austin to kill her.

In Austin, Flora Zang is trying to get her toddler son to stop crying while attempting to deal with the fact that her husband has been murdered.  It’s been two days since the police gave her the news, and it’s finally sinking in.

She thought she and Adam had a good marriage, not perfect but good.  Now she’s thinking about who could have had a motive to kill him.  She wonders if the police suspect her, since she stands to inherit Adam’s share of his successful businesses.  And she’s also questioning why her husband’s business partner is so eager to buy her out.  It’s all happening too fast.

Kirsten and Flora are at first suspicious of each other, each thinking that the other must know more than she’s telling.  Finally, however, they’re forced to work together in order to solve the mystery of what brought the two men together and who killed them.  

The title of Jeff Abbott’s novel had me wondering.  There’s a website that I discovered,,  that delves into “collective nouns for people and professions.”  A babble of barbers, a tabernacle of bakers, a hastiness of cooks…where did these group names come from?  Since ambush means a surprise attack, perhaps the title is meant to explain what happens when Kirsten and Flora meet and try to discover who murdered their husbands without “showing their hands” and putting themselves in danger.

Of course I have no idea if that’s what Jeff Abbott was thinking when he gave his latest thriller such an intriguing name.  But perhaps that’s part of the mystery of this excellent book.  The plot will keep you reading until the end, and Kirsten and Flora are believably human in their desire to find out who the murderer of their husbands is and the reasons for their deaths.

You can read more about Jeff Abbott 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 NIGHT WE BURNED by S. F. Kosa: Book Review

Have you ever given serious consideration to cults and to those who join them?  Perhaps you’ve believed that people who join cults are weak, easily persuaded, or simply can’t deal with today’s world.  It can be easy to think less of those people, telling ourselves that we could never be taken in by a leader who preaches or teaches things alien to our core belief system; we are smarter, or better, than that.

But we are all vulnerable in some way, and Christy is certainly no exception.  Down to her last two quarters, she’s panhandling on the streets of Portland, Oregon when she’s approached by a young woman about her own age, offering her a delicious smelling cinnamon muffin.  The woman is Eszter, and after a few minutes of conversation the two go to the house where Eszter lives with a group of people she refers to as her family.

Fast forward twenty-one years, and we meet Dora Rodriguez.  She’s working as an investigative reporter for an online newspaper, and at a morning meeting a colleague pitches what he’s convinced will be a major story.  Two decades earlier, Miles tells the group, there was a massive fire at a commune in Bend, Oregon.  The group living there was a cult called the Oracles of Innocence, and some thirty members died, including children, when the blaze destroyed a building on the grounds.

Three adults were charged in the aftermath of these deaths and went to jail.  Now, Miles says, it’s the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy, and he expects that this will “bring out all the crazies.”  He tells the group that the body of a man was just found in Bend in a bathtub, covered with flame retardant.  And there’s one more odd thing–the man had a rock in his mouth, similar to the painted rocks that the police found on the cult’s grounds after the fire.  He’s sure there’s more to be discovered, and he wants to cover the story.

Dora has never told anyone at the paper that she was one of the group’s members.  She’s changed her name, moved out of Oregon to Seattle, invented a fictitious family background, and made a new life for herself.  If Miles finds out what happened in Bend, and to the people involved in the Oracles of Innocence, she can see her life tumbling down around her.  The only thing she can do to prevent this is to accompany him and deflect him from what actually happened and her role in it.

The Night We Burned is a thrilling ride into what draws people into cults and keeps them there.  The characters in the book are exceptionally well drawn and fascinating, and the plot will keep you guessing until the end.

S. F. Kosa is a clinical psychologist by training and the author of more than twenty novels.  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.

FOR YOUR OWN GOOD by Samantha Downing: Book Review

“I’m doing this for your own good.”  How many times have we heard that expression, especially when we were children, but never believed it?

That’s how Teddy Crutcher, Teacher of the Year at Belmont Academy, rationalizes all the cruel, vindictive, and simply nasty things he does to the students in his English classes and to his colleagues.

Being a teacher at Belmont isn’t easy for Teddy.  It’s a college prep academy for entitled students and their entitled parents, in his private opinion.  Of course, that means giving the students the benefit of every doubt about the level of their work and being polite and understanding when the parents complain about their child’s grades or college recommendations.  Teddy doesn’t find it easy to do either one.

Thus Teddy has devised methods of dealing with his students and his colleagues, “for their own good” of course.  For the students, he’ll give the ones he dislikes a grade lower on their book reports or final grades than they deserve or an unfavorable letter of recommendation for college.

For his colleagues, he’s devised a different punishment.  He’s taken note of the type of coffee they drink every morning in the break room.  Luckily for him, if not for his colleagues, each one likes a different flavor.  Frank drinks Ethiopian Roast, Mindy likes Gold Roast, and Sonia prefers Slim Roast.  That makes it so easy for Teddy.

He simply takes a few of the coffee pods each prefers and injects something into them.  Thank goodness for the internet, from which he’s learned these skills.  For those teachers he deems hyper, a shot of Valium helps calm them down, at least for the day.  For another who’s always sad or melancholy, Adderall works wonders.

Sonia Benjamin is another teacher at Belmont, one who is the total opposite of Teddy.   She is kind, caring, and works with her students to help them be the best they can be.  But she’s not confident and is a worrier, and she’s an easy target for Teddy’s vindictiveness.

Now Sonia has become the target of Teddy’s spleen.  Simply because she came into his classroom to ask for a favor for a student, she is now a persona non grata, and he’s figured out a way to throw her off her stride.  Every once in a while he injects something in her morning coffee, not enough to make her really ill, just enough to ensure she has a really uncomfortable day.

On Sonia’s special day, the tenth anniversary of her joining the faculty as well as being named this year’s Teacher of the Year, everyone is in the Stafford Room awaiting the celebration.  Teddy, of course, is there too, waiting for Sonia’s reaction to the drug he slipped into the pod of Slim Roast.  But something goes wrong, and it’s not Sonia who drinks the coffee, collapses, and is rushed to the hospital.

Samantha Downing has written an intriguing mystery, one in which the protagonist sees himself as the center, and ruler, of his domain and has convinced himself that everything he does is for someone else’s good.  It’s an insightful look into a man with a narcissistic personality disorder and the havoc he wreaks with it.

You can read more about Samantha Downing 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.

DREAM GIRL by Laura Lippman: Book Review

When novelist Gerry Andersen has a freak accident in his condo, his life changes dramatically.  And, this being a mystery novel, not in a good way.

Gerry achieved fame at an early age, perhaps earlier than he was ready for it.  All the good things that have happened to him, he believes, are due to his hard work and his talent.  All the not-so-good things, he believes with equal fervor, are due to other people–their demands, their unwillingness to accede to his demands or needs, their jealousy.

One positive thing about Gerry is his devotion to his mother.  The only child of an unhappy marriage, he was born and brought up in Baltimore but moved to New York City after achieving literary success.  His father left the family when he was a child; when his mother falls ill and is told she has only months to live, Gerry returns to Baltimore to be near her.  Not to his old house but to a new luxury building where he has a two-story penthouse.  And then, after her death, he remains there.

Actually, he is forced to remain in his condo because one evening he slid across the slippery living room floor, went directly into his (unused) rowing machine, and onto the condo’s floating staircase.  And now he’s immobilized for eight to twelve weeks, his leg in a “trapeze” over his bed.

He has hired two women to help him through his recovery–Aileen, a nurse’s aide who is in his condo from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m., going through his exercises with him, giving him dinner and his meds, and Victoria, the personal assistant who is helping him with his writing, more exercises, and non-medical needs during the day.

Gerry’s most successful novel was called Dream Girl, and it catapulted him to the top of the best-seller list.  He has spent years denying that Aubrey, the girl in that book, is based on an actual person, but now someone claiming to be Aubrey is contacting him.

It starts with a mysterious letter which he has seen once and cannot find again, nor can Aileen or Victoria.  It’s followed by a phone call in the middle of the night.   When he asks Aileen to check the caller ID and tell him who just called, she shows him the phone.  No one has called in hours.

Dream Girl is a look into one man’s psyche, his defense mechanisms, his insecurities, and his growing fear that, like his late mother, he may be hallucinating.  In his isolation, he’s forced to depend on Aileen and Victoria, and that becomes less and less comforting as the days go by.

Laura Lippman is an outstanding author, and the characters, plot, and setting in her latest novel prove once again that she is at the top of her game.  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.

September has arrived, and that means the beginning of a new school year.  At BOLLI, the Brandeis University adult learning program where I teach classes on mystery novels, we begin the fall term on September 20th.  Classes will be virtual, but nevertheless it will be an opportunity to meet on Zoom with friends and classmates and share opinions on the novels we are reading.

Once again I invite you to read along with my class, which this semester will be discussing International Mysteries, Part II.  We will be visiting various countries vicariously, as most of us were unable to travel in person over the past year and a half (and counting).  Here is the list of the books we’ll be reading and the countries we’ll be touring:

DEATH IN A STRANGE COUNTRY (Italy) by Donna Leon; THE MIST (Iceland) by Ragnar Jónasson; AMONG THE RUINS (Iran and Canada) by Ausma Zehanat Khan; SMOKESCREEN (South Africa) by Dick Francis; BRUNO, CHIEF OF POLICE (France) by Martin Walker; LITTLE BLACK LIES (Falkland Islands) by Sharon Bolton; THE SATURDAY MORNING MURDER (Israel) by Batya Gur; THE KIND WORTH KILLING (the United States) by Peter Swanson.  The last book brings us home, and I chose it because I imagine we’ll probably be tired after all our international journeys and will welcome a return to a more familiar landscape.


“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” people ate inside restaurants, went to movies, plays, and concerts sitting next to strangers, and attended classes and lectures in person.  Oh wait, that was only a year and a half ago.  My wish for us all is that soon we may be able to visit countries that now we can only read about, and upon returning we will be filled with the wonders of international travel but happy to be home again.  Until then, join us for International Murders, Part II.





THE MADNESS OF CROWDS by Louise Penny: Book Review

The COVID pandemic is over, at least in Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds, but the frenzy it has provoked in many places is clearly still around.

Virtually everyone in Québec has been vaccinated against the virus, and things are almost back to normal.  So much so that when Abigail Robinson, a professor of statistics, wants to give a lecture at a small local university, there appears to be no reason to deny her.  Except that her talk has the potential to cause a riot.

Citing freedom of speech, the university’s chancellor, Collette Roberge, refuses to stop the presentation.  Instead, she asks Inspector Armand Gamache, chief of homicide of the Sûreté du Québec, to provide the security for the event.  Having viewed videos of Dr. Robinson’s previous lectures, they both know their incendiary nature, but the chancellor is steadfast in her rejection of Armand’s plea to rescind the invitation, despite the possibility of violence.

Since Gamache doesn’t have the authority to cancel the talk, all he and his officers can do is provide as much security as possible.  In truth neither Armand nor Collette expects many people to attend, given that it’s the Christmas holiday and Professor Robinson’s talk will be in English in the French-speaking province.  But the overflow crowd pushing its way into the university’s gymnasium proves the two of them wrong, and it becomes obvious that people on both sides of the question have come prepared to make their voices heard.

Abigail Robinson’s trademark phrase, Ça va bien aller (All will be well), is a promise that the future holds better times, that the economy will recover, that there will never again be a shortage of either health care facilities or the financial ability to help all.  Well, almost all.

If, and this is the big if, the elderly, the incurably ill, and the severely handicapped are helped to their deaths by involuntary euthanasia, a.k.a mercy killing, then all will be well for everyone else.  “If the pandemic has taught us anything,” she tells the crowd, “it’s that not everyone can be saved.  Sacrifices must be made.”

Professor Robinson begins her speech, and as she says the pivotal line, “It’s called—” three explosions rip through the air.  In the first few seconds after the bangs are heard, the crowd starts to stampede toward the exits, pausing only after Gamache repeatedly says in English and French that the noises were firecrackers.  Isabelle Lacoste, a member of Gamache’s staff, holds up the string of firecrackers and people start to relax and return to their seats.  Until another loud bang is heard, and this time it’s a gunshot.

Louise Penny has written an incredibly timely and fascinating novel.  She obviously began writing during the pandemic, and when the novel was completed, COVID appeared to be under control.  But, as we all know, that was before the Delta variant became widespread, leading to more illness and death, as well as more false information about the efficacy of and need for vaccines, social distancing, and masking.

As of this writing, every newspaper is filled with information/mis-information about vaccines and masks and people’s fear of what could be next.  The Madness of Crowds is a work of fiction, but it is scarily close to what could happen/is happening around the world.

You can read more about Louise Penny 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.