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A CAST OF VULTURES by Judith Flanders: Book Review

If I may start this post by lifting part of a quote from the Daily Mail (UK) on the book’s back cover–“You want Samantha Clair to be your new best friend.”  That’s how I felt when I read A Cast of Vultures, the third mystery in Judith Flanders’ series featuring her engaging protagonist, a London book editor.

Samantha has become a go-between for her reclusive upstairs neighbor, the mysterious Mr. Rudiger, and Viv, her friend who lives a few blocks away.  The two exchange seeds and cuttings, with Samantha dropping Mr. Rudiger’s offerings at Viv’s and returning to Mr. Rudiger with Viv’s offerings.  The elderly Viv is a tiny force of nature, never hesitant or shy, always sure of the right thing to do, but this time when Sam stops in to see her she finds her friend distraught and uneasy.

Viv’s upstairs neighbor, Dennis Harefield, hasn’t been home in several days.  A man of regular habits, he and Viv had made plans to have dinner together at Viv’s a few days earlier but he never turned up.  Viv had been keeping alert for sounds from the flat upstairs, but she’s heard nothing for three days.  Now she insists that she and Samantha go there to check on whether Dennis might have fallen or become ill, unable to call for help.

The next thing Samantha knows, she’s climbing over another neighbor’s balcony and illegally entering the missing man’s flat.  Dennis isn’t there; it’s hard to tell whether he left willingly or not, and Samantha leaves an unhappy Viv to continue her vigil.  Then, a few days later, there’s a middle-of-the-night fire a few houses away from Samantha’s, not the first in the area.  It’s an old, decrepit building that several people have been squatting in for years.  At first it appears that all got out safely, but then a body is discovered.  It turns out to be Viv’s missing neighbor, Dennis Harefield.

In addition to her worries about the series of fires in her neighborhood, Sam’s anxious about an organizational change at work, concerned about a book scheduled to be published by her firm that may be an exercise in fiction rather than the non-fiction memoir it purports to be, and upset that her effort to help one of the men who lived in the burned-down building is meeting with resistance from her significant other, Jake, a London police detective.

Judith Flanders has written another delightfully witty mystery, one that will keep you smiling while you are turning the pages faster and faster to learn the truth of what has been happening around Samantha.  Samantha, her lover Jake, the agoraphobic Mr. Rudiger, Sam’s newly promoted assistant Miranda, and Harriet, Sam’s brilliant mother, all combine to make A Cast of Vultures a novel that will leave you anxiously awaiting Ms. Clair’s next adventure.

You can read more about Judith Flanders at this web site.

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


ROGUE ISLAND by Bruce DeSilva: Book Review

“Dear Bruce, MALICE is a nice little story.  In fact, it could serve as the outline for a novel.  Have you considered this?”

Imagine receiving such positive feedback for a short story you wrote.  Now imagine receiving that note from Evan Hunter, a/k/a Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct mysteries.  Of course you would have no choice but to write that novel.

Well, it took Bruce DeSilva more than twenty years to do that, but the result is Rogue Island.  It’s worth the wait.

Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the United States based on area, but apparently it’s quite large in terms of corruption, political chicanery, active mob bosses, and the like. Liam Mulligan, who answers only to his last name, is a reporter for a Providence paper which is quickly shrinking the size of its staff due to lowered circulation.  But Mulligan is a newspaperman through and through, and even though he’s worried about his job, he’s more worried about the rash of fires plaguing his old neighborhood, Mount Hope.  As the book opens the fires have destroyed unoccupied buildings only, but soon things take a turn for the worse as two squatters are killed in an abandoned house in the neighborhood.

Arson seems the only explanation, but Mulligan can’t figure out a reason.  Some of the house are vacant, some are occupied, and at least five different companies are the insurers.  There doesn’t appear to be a reason for anyone to want Mount Hope aflame.

Polecki and Roselli, the city’s inept arson investigators, aren’t making any progress.  Called “Dumb and Dumber” by insurance investigators, their animosity toward Mulligan seems to be more important to them than looking into the causes of the fires.

Mulligan’s personal and professional lives are messy. He’s romantically involved with Veronica Tang, a reporter on the newspaper, but he’s being stalked via his cell phone by his soon-to-be ex-wife.  At work he’s been saddled with the son of the newspaper’s publisher, a recent Columbia J-School grad who needs a mentor.  And his editor keeps assigning him fluff pieces instead of letting him work on the arson case.  Doggie stories, anyone?

Then comes the night when five fires on four streets are set simultaneously. That makes it less certain that a pyromaniac is setting the fires, as there’s no way he could watch them all at the same time.  But where does that leave the investigation?

Bruce DeSilva’s first mystery is utterly absorbing. After forty-one years as an investigative journalist, part of that on the Providence Journal, his prose is tight and honed.  There’s not an extra line in the book.  His characters are believable, whether they’re good or bad.  And when the good characters got hurt or worse in the story, I felt a rush of sympathy as if they were real people.

Publishers Weekly named Rogue Island as one of the top ten first mysteries of 2010, and it won an Edgar for best first novel of the year.

You can read more about Bruce DeSilva and watch an interview with him at his web site,