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MONEY CREEK by Anne Laughlin: Book Review

The lure of drugs as well as what one will do to get them is at the heart of Anne Laughlin’s MONEY CREEK.  It’s painful reading, but unfortunately it’s a story that is all too familiar to many, either through personal experience or through general knowledge.  Either way, Clare Lehane’s story is one that will resonate with the readers of the author’s latest mystery.

The novel’s prologue sets the scene for what follows.  Clare is at a remote cabin in the woods, where she has gone with Henry, her new drug supplier.  He has insisted she accompany him there and meet the people in his circle.  Almost as soon as they arrive Henry leaves, and Clare is left with three people she doesn’t know.  Angry, yet needing to stay until she gets the drugs she came for, Clare leaves the living room to use the bathroom, and while she’s there gunshots erupt.

Walking back to the living room, she sees three bloody bodies lying on the floor.  After checking that the gunman is gone, she quickly leaves the cabin and calls the police from a pay phone.  Although the last thing she wants is to get involved and to have to explain what she was doing there, her guilt adds to her already distraught state of mind and increases her desire for drugs and, when they are not readily available, alcohol.

The backstory explains how Clare finds herself in this horrific place.  She is a young lawyer, working for a “white shoe” law firm in Chicago.  The term, according to Google, refers to the most prestigious employers in elite professions, and the Windy City law firm where she is a first-year associate is definitely that.  Clare is realizing that the only way she can keep up with the 70-80 hours of work demanded of her each week is to continue what she started while a law school student–taking Adderall to give her more energy and a longer attention span during the day, then taking Valium to relax her at night.  And she discovers she can’t function without either or both.

In a desperate effort to start a new life, she quits her job and moves to a small law firm in southern Illinois.  She actually goes so far as to flush her entire drug supply down the toilet after she arrives there, but she almost immediately realizes that this hasn’t solved her addiction problem.  In fact, she is so desperate that her only recourse is to go to the college in the small town of Money Creek in hopes of finding a student/dealer to resupply her.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes before she meets Henry, a student who is the go-to man on campus when one is looking for drugs.  Despite her intention of quitting, after just one day she’s so desperate for speed that she agrees to have sex with him if he will provide her with what she needs.

Money Creek is a thought-provoking book with a flawed protagonist, one whom you want to succeed.  Reading Clare’s story evokes both despair and hope.  Despair because I felt she was losing her promising life and career to her addiction, hope because she so desperately wants to conquer her need for drugs that I was rooting for her to do so.

You can read more about Anne Laughlin at this website.

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

THE TUNNEL by Carl-Johan Vallgren: Book Review

Of course I’d read Scandinavian mysteries before I taught a class on this topic last fall, and I thought I was very familiar with crime stories in the Nordic countries.  But then, reading novel after novel that went ever deeper inside the “dark side” of these nations made me rethink the stereotype of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark being populated by healthy, outdoor-loving, and liberal/socialist people who were among the happiest in the world.

Now comes another black, bleak look into the underside of Stockholm, with the drug and sex trades combining for the worst possible reasons and achieving the worst possible outcome.

The Tunnel is the second mystery to feature Danny Katz, one of the one-quarter of one percent of the Jewish population in Sweden.  Always an outlier, Danny survives by using his phenomenal ability with language sand computers and his quick fists to make a place for himself in that society.  Having lived through a difficult childhood, which included being placed in a foster home situation, he fell victim to drugs and spent years on the streets of Stockholm.

As the book begins Danny has been clean for ten years, although it is a daily struggle to resist the lure of heroin.  One of the very few friends he has kept in touch with through the years is a Swedish-born ethnic Finn named Jorma.  Jorma had a difficult life also, but he too has turned himself around and recently has been living a crime-free life.

However, he has just been approached to take part in a very lucrative armored car robbery, and the temptation is too much for him to resist.  When Jorma asks himself why he is willing to do this, his only answer is that his life has become boring, that he needs the excitement and rush of crime to feel alive.

In the meantime, Katz has reconnected with another person from his past.  He knows Ramón “from before,” he tells Ramón’s druggie girlfriend when she opens the door to their apartment.  “From before” is when both men were drug users, and at that time Ramón saved Katz from an overdose.

Now Ramón tells Katz that he and his girlfriend Jenny have come into big money and a large amount of heroin, and he wonders if Danny wants to become a partner in their business.  The latter declines but leaves the apartment with several packages of heroin that Ramón insists he take to “share with friends,” if he’d like.  And, he assures Danny, “Anyone who uses this will definitely be back to buy more.”

This book is almost unrelentingly depressing.  Drugs, sexual exploitation, and violence are on virtually every page, and the difficulties of leaving behind one’s traumatic early years are all too clear.  So, you may ask, why am I blogging about The Tunnel?  Simply because it’s a beautifully written book that looks into the above-mentioned problems as well as the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Sweden.  It’s a difficult read but a worthwhile one.  And the novel’s last sentence is one of the saddest I’ve read in a long time.

Carl-Johan Vallgren is a novelist, musician, and singer.  His The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot was awarded the August Prize in 2002 for the best Swedish novel that year.  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 Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

SULFUR SPRINGS by William Kent Krueger: Book Review

A stranger in a strange land is how Cork O’Connor feels when he finds himself far from his beloved Minnesota woods, thrust into the desert of southern Arizona.

Cork and his bride, Rainy, have known each other for several years but married only a few months ago.  The first time Cork met his wife’s son and daughter was at their wedding, and Cork admits to himself that he doesn’t have strong feelings toward them.

But when Rainy gets a garbled message left on her cell phone from her son, saying that he’s killed a man, Cork and Rainy are thrust into a search for Peter that leads them into a deadly web of international crime.

The couple leave for Arizona the following morning, and on the trip Rainy tells Cork that there are many important things he doesn’t know about her, one being that if her son did kill someone in Arizona, he’s not the only one in his family who has done that.  Obviously that’s a major secret, and it turns out to be not the only one that she has kept from Cork.

Peter had gone to Arizona to recover from an addiction to pain medication, the result of a sports injury.  After he was clean, the Goodman Center, an alcohol and drug treatment facility, hired him, and as far as his mother and stepfather knew, he was still on their staff.  But after they arrive in Tucson and drive to the Center, they discover that Peter hasn’t worked there in over a year.

The Center’s director tells them that she believes he has been working at a vineyard owned by Jayne and Frank Harris, so Cork and Rainy head to the vineyard’s location in Sulfur Springs.  The Harrises acknowledge that Peter is employed there but tell Cork and Rainy that although he’s been an extremely reliable worker, he hasn’t been at work that day.  And visits to the Sulfur Springs post office and police station turn up no further information on the missing man.

The issue of immigrants trying to enter the United States from Mexico ties into the racism faced by Rainy, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, when a sheriff stops Rainy and Cork while they’re driving and examines her closely to make certain she actually is the Native American she says she is and not someone trying to get into the country from Mexico.  As Rainy says to her husband after they continue on their way, “If I was white, he wouldn’t have taken a second look at me.”

Cork is a former sheriff and a quarter Native American, and he brings to the search for his stepson his law background, his feelings about racism, and his love for his new wife.   This is a masterful novel, with issues that resonate all-too-clearly in today’s world.  There’s a lot going on–drug addiction, illegal aliens, Mexican drug cartels, blended families, and racism–with each part adding to the whole.

I’ve reviewed two of William Kent Kruger’s earlier books, Trickster’s Point and Ordinary Grace, the latter the winner of the 2014 Edgar for Best Novel.  You can read more about the author at this website.

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

WALLEYE JUNCTION by Karin Salvalaggio: Book Review

Macy Greeley, a detective with the State Police in Montana, is nearing a house in Walleye Junction where the police believe a hostage is being held.  The hostage is Philip Long, a controversial radio personality in the area,  and Macy is slowing down her car and getting ready to search the building when Long staggers into the road.  Macy can’t stop quickly enough, however, and Long is thrown into her windshield and then flung on the ground.  Her car nearly careens into a ditch and she’s pinned upside down by the seat belt, unable to get loose, with her cell phone out of reach and her gun thrown out of the SUV.

Frantically trying to free herself, she hears a motor behind her and watches helplessly as a motorcycle plows into Long.  Macy watches in horror as a figure dismounts from the cycle, picks up her gun, and fires directly at Long.  As the shooter gets back on his machine and pulls away, Macy’s car spills over the ditch and she hits the water.  Somehow she’s able to pull herself out and limp toward the road, where a rescue vehicle picks her up, shaking, bruised, but thankfully alive.

Several days later she’s called to the scene of what at first appears to be the fatal drug overdoses of a local couple.  Walleye Junction police identify them as Carla and Lloyd Spencer, long-time drug addicts, although Carla had been in rehab recently.  The fingerprints on the van parked near the bodies match those in the house where Long had been kept, so it appears that there is a quick resolution to the abduction.  Then Macy notices gravel from the parking area on Lloyd’s cowboy boots, and she voices her opinion that Lloyd was dragged from the vehicle onto the field and that Carla was carried.  So it becomes apparent that a third person was involved in their deaths and probably in Long’s kidnapping as well.

Emma Long, Philip’s daughter, has returned for the funeral, twelve years after she left home.  She’d been in touch with her father during this time and had seen him several times, but the breach between Emma and her mother has only grown wider.  It’s been six years since they’ve seen each other, and it doesn’t look as if Emma’s homecoming is going to resolve any of the issues that drove them apart.  And now Emma also has to face her former boyfriend and the cruel taunting from her peers that drove her away in the first place.  It’s almost too much for her to handle.

Karin Salvalaggio has written a novel that will keep you guessing until the last chapter.  There are many undercurrents in the small town of Walleye Junction, conflicts that have gone on for years with no resolution.  But the murder of Philip Long and the deaths of the Spencers are bringing them to the surface.

You can read more about Karin Salvalaggio at this web site.

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

THE PROMISE by Robert Crais: Book Review

Elvis Cole, the private investigator who is the protagonist of many of Robert Crais’ crime novels, has a very mysterious client.  Meryl Lawrence comes to him with a strange request–she wants him to find her colleague, Amy Breslyn, who has been missing for a couple of days, but she insists that the search must be conducted in complete secrecy.

She hands Elvis two thousand dollars in cash, an address for a friend of the missing woman’s late son, and a personnel file that she believes will help locate Amy.  Meryl’s desire for secrecy is so over-the-top that she won’t even come to Elvis’ office; instead, they meet in a parking lot behind a book store in Pasadena.

Both Amy and Meryl work at Woodson Energy Solutions, a chemical firm where Amy is employed as an engineer.  Meryl tells Elvis that because their work is classified, no indication of his investigation must get out and insists that Elvis make this promise.  “Swear to me.  Swear you won’t breathe a word.”  “I promise.” Bound by his word, Elvis is finding it increasingly difficult to probe into Amy’s disappearance.

Amy’s only son Jacob was a photographer who was killed, along with thirteen other people, by a terrorist explosion in Nigeria.  That was nearly a year and a half before the book opens, and since then Amy has become more and more reclusive.  Now she has disappeared.

Elvis goes to the address that Meryl has given him and is surprised to find it surrounded by Los Angeles police, with a helicopter overhead.  As he’s deciding how to handle the situation a man comes running out of the house, and Elvis gives chase.  He’s not able to catch him and is forced to stop when a policeman with a pistol confronts him.  Believing that Elvis has acted suspiciously, the cop puts him in a squad car without explanation.  But when Elvis sees the words on the police car he begins to understand what all the commotion is about:  they read Bomb Squad.

Cole is joined in the case by his long-time friend and colleague, Joe Pike, plus two relatively new characters to Elvis’ world:  Scott James and Jon Stone.  Scott is a former Marine who is presently a dog handler in the L. A. police department’s K-9 division; Jon Stone, a friend of Pike’s, is a former Delta Force member turned mercenary, with expertise in technology.  Together, the four men, with assistance from Scott’s dog Maggie, team up to find Amy Breslyn and solve the mystery surrounding her.

As always, it’s a delight to reconnect with Elvis Cole.  He’s a protagonist who has grown with the series, a fascinating man with his own set of quirks and strengths.  He is perfectly described by Raymond Chandler’s famous quote about mean streets (my edits):  “a man…who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  He is the hero; he is everything….If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

You can read more about Robert Crais at this web site.

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

ICE SHEAR by M. P. Cooley: Book Review

Ice Shear is M. P. Cooley’s debut novel, and it’s terrific.  June Lyons is a former FBI agent, now a police officer, who has come back to live in the upstate New York town where she was born, Hopewell Falls.  If you change the second syllable of the first word to less, you have a description of this small town; it has fallen on hard times without much hope for the future.

June is living with her young daughter, Lucy, and her father, a retired detective on the Hopewell Falls’ police force.  June’s husband, Kevin, also a former FBI agent, died three years ago, prompting her return home. 

It’s a place where murder is rare, perhaps one per year, but today is the day for the body of Danielle Brouillette, daughter of the town’s representative to the U.S. Congress, to be found on the frozen banks of the Mohawk River.  At first glance it looks as if Danielle might have fallen from the cliffs above the river, but a closer examination shows that she was dead before hitting the ice spike that tore her body apart.

Danielle was a beautiful, bright, and troubled young woman.  Exceedingly headstrong, she was expelled from college in California for unacceptable behavior and substance abuse issues.  She didn’t get in touch with her parents for several months after this, and when she did it was to turn up on their doorstep with her new husband.  Her well-to-do and politically powerful parents refused to accept him, and so the estrangement between Danielle and her parents continued.

Danielle’s husband, Marty Jelickson, is a former member of the outlaw motorcycle gang the Abominations.  Marty’s father, Zeke, is the head of the gang, and Marty’s younger brother Ray is also a member.  Now the Abominations, including Marty’s parents, are headed to Hopewell Falls for Danielle’s funeral, and June is certain there will be a major confrontation between the two sets of parents.

Ms. Cooley draws a wonderful picture of this small New York town, financially devastated by the Great Recession.  The downtown is nearly nonexistent, jobs are few and menial, and young people move out as soon as they can.  So why was Danielle so eager to leave California and return home?

The characters are extremely well-drawn.  June has the problems of most single mothers, not enough time with her child and stress at work.  There’s tension between the police force, the district attorney Jerry Defoe, and the FBI, which has been called to join the investigation since the victim was the daughter of a congresswoman. 

The FBI agent sent to assist the police is Hale Bascom, who was a close friend of June’s and Kevin’s until the latter got cancer; then he disappeared from their lives.  June hasn’t spoken to or seen Hale since before Kevin’s death, and she has bitter feelings toward him now.

Ice Shear marks the beginning, I hope, of a new series.  You can read more about M. P. Cooley at this web site.

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





THIRD RAIL by Rory Flynn: Book Review

Third rail, a symbol of danger.  According to Wikipedia, “the electric rail threatens electrocution of anyone wandering or falling onto the tracks.”  As a metaphor, it’s perfect for the life of Eddy Harkness–dangers surround him at every turn.

Formerly a high-profile narcotics detective on the Boston police force, Eddy became the butt of a thousand jokes when he failed in his attempt to save a man from being thrown off a bridge.  The tragedy was captured digitally by onlookers and put on YouTube where, as they say, it went viral. 

After that, there was no way that the Harvard Cop, as Eddy was known, could remain in the city; he was placed on a year’s unpaid administrative leave.  The police captain of his hometown, Nagog, offered him a patrolman’s job for the year, and Eddy was glad to accept. 

Much of Third Rail revolves around Eddy’s search for his missing gun.  The morning following a drunken, drug-riddled party, Eddy wakes up at his girlfriend’s apartment to discover that his Glock is missing.  Retracing their steps from the party to the apartment yields nothing, and Eddy knows that a lost or stolen gun could be the end of his career in Nagog.  So he goes into the town’s small variety store, owned by an old friend, and gets a plastic gun similar in style to his Glock.  And he hopes no one will notice the toy gun and hopes that he won’t need to use it.

In this novel, Third Rail is the name of a new designer drug that is about to hit the streets.  Unlike other drugs that make the users forget things, Third Rail “rewrites history and unmakes the mistakes,” according to an expert Eddy interviews.  Although that sounds positive, when the drug wears off the users experience anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.  That means they must search for bigger thrills, bigger risks, in order to feel something, anything.  And that can lead to some dangerous pursuits.

There are a lot of threads in Third Rail.  In addition to Eddy’s search for his missing gun (losing one’s weapon may lead to dismissal from the police force) and the possibility of the new drug becoming readily available in Nagog, he is also contending with a corrupt politician’s run for mayor of Boston, his own suspicions about his drinking-and-drug-taking girlfriend, his hair-tempered brother, his dementia-suffering mother, and the memory of his larcenous father who committed suicide rather than face an investigation and prison.  Oh, and a Laotian gangster who deals in drugs and underage Thai girls.

The characters in the novel are fascinating, and the plot is fast-paced and believable.  There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the book without flaws; certainly Eddy Harkness has more than his share.  But he also has virtues and strengths in his ability to know right from wrong and his desire to make both Nagog and Boston better places than they currently are.

Third Rail is the first in a proposed series, and I am certainly looking forward to seeing Eddy Harkness back in action.

You can read more about Rory Flynn at this web site.  You can also view a trailer for the book on YouTube.

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








A KILLING IN THE HILLS by Julia Keller: Book Review

The brooding mountains of West Virginia hang over the small town of Acker’s Gap. And so do poverty, ill health, and lack of education.  It’s a tough place to live, but attorney Bell Elkins has returned home from a more affluent life in Washington, D.C. to “give back” to her community.

Bell, short for Belfa, had a hard childhood in Acker’s Gap.  Her mother deserted the family when Bell was six, leaving Bell’s older sister Shirley to cope with grinding poverty and their drunken, abusive father.  Bell doesn’t talk about her sister any more, hasn’t seen her in nearly thirty years, and Bell’s daughter Carla wonders what the mystery is.

The drug problem in the state, and particularly in small towns such as Acker’s Gap, is growing fast. Spurred by lack of employment and poor educational opportunities, prescription drugs have made big inroads into the town, bringing increased crime to its citizens.  Still, the whole town is shocked when a trio of elderly men, sitting over their morning coffee at the Salty Dawg fast-food restaurant, is gunned down in front of the other diners.  And Bell’s daughter, Carla, is a witness to the carnage.

There are three narratives in A Killing in the Hills. The prologue and much of the story is told by Bell.  The first chapter is told by Carla, an unhappy sixteen-year-old, who is sitting at the Salty Dawg when a gunman comes in and shoots the three men.  In the seconds it takes before the shooter runs away, Carla catches a glimpse of his face, a “piggy face” that stirs a memory.  The third narrator is Charlie Sowards, the hired gun, whose dismal life has led him to murder for hire at the behest of a powerful figure.  And the next victim, Charlie is told, will be Bell.

Bell Elkins is a complex protagonist. She grew up in a life of grinding poverty and abuse, married her high school sweetheart, went to college and law school, had a child, and was headed for a comfortable life in the nation’s capital.  But she felt compelled to return to her hometown and offer what she could to the community.  Her husband, by that time a very successful lawyer-turned-lobbyist, wanted no part of the life he’d gladly left behind, so Bell returned home with her young daughter and carved out a life as a single mother and prosecuting attorney.

The influx of prescription drugs into the state and more specifically her community has strengthened Bell’s resolve to stay in Acker’s Gap despite the hand-to-mouth life she’s living.  But with the downturn in the state’s never-robust economy, there’s less and less money available for criminal investigation and fewer people on Bell’s staff.  Bell’s closest friends, sheriff Nick Fogelsong and Ruthie and Tom Cox, help out as much as they can, but between the demands of a never-ending workday and a rebellious teenage daughter, Bell’s life seems to be in a downward spiral.

Julia Keller has perfectly captured life in this small town, a place with almost no resources and a population with few opportunities.  Her portrait of young people who either drop out of school or finish high school only to find that the best jobs in their hometown are flipping burgers is a searing one.   Sketches of children who are undersized because of lack of food or are missing teeth because they’ve never seen a dentist will make readers wonder if this is America or a third world country.

Julia Keller’s first book is an absolute winner. You can read more about her at her web site.

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

THE DAMAGE DONE by Hilary Davidson: Book Review

Imagine you’re in Spain, writing a travel book about Barcelona that is a follow-up to your guide on Madrid.  You get a phone call from the New York Police Department saying that your sister has been found dead in your apartment and that you need to come home to identify her body.

Claudia has always been in trouble, has been a drug addict for years, so although it’s sad that she’s died so young it’s not really surprising.  The surprise comes when the detective brings you to the city morgue and you look at the body and say, “That woman isn’t my sister….I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

That’s how The Damage Done opens. The older sister, Lily Moore, has always been the responsible one, the one who took charge after their father’s sudden death one Christmas, their mother’s descent into alcoholism and her suicide one New Year’s Eve.  But now Lily is bewildered, and things are spiraling out of control all around her.

Her former fiancee, wealthy hotel magnate Martin Sklar, still hasn’t given up pursuing her and is putting pressure on her to return to New York permanently and marry him.  Her sister’s neighbor, Sarah Lyons, is taking an extraordinary interest in Claudia’s disappearance.  The two detectives assigned to the case aren’t sure it’s not simply an accidental death, but they can’t explain why the woman found in the apartment introduced herself to the superintendent, who knew Claudia, as Claudia’s cousin, and to Sarah Lyons, who didn’t know Claudia, as Claudia Moore herself.

Lily tries to follow the trail that her sister left behind. It takes her to the apartment of her sister’s friend, a Pakistani man named Tariq, whom Lily has always suspected was involved in Claudia’s drug use; while she’s there, Tariq’s girlfriend attacks her.  Then Martin tells Lily that Claudia had been in touch with him, asking him for money for another attempt at rehab, but when he agreed and told her to pick up his check, she never showed.  And then there’s the mysterious woman from Hong Kong who spoke to the police about Claudia but now seems to have disappeared.

Hilary Davidson has created a very believable heroine in Lily Moore. At the beginning of the novel she appears to be the opposite of her sister, a very successful, put-together professional woman who has endured a life that would have destroyed someone weaker, as it appeared to have done to her sister.  But the more one reads, the more Lily’s own demons come out.

She’s still dealing with the deaths of her parents–her beloved father, who perhaps wasn’t quite as wonderful as she remembers; her emotionally disturbed mother, who used to lock Lily and Claudia in a closet for hours to protect them from some imagined harm; her off-again, on-again feelings for her former fiancee, whose business practices she abhors but whose touch still arouses her.

The supporting characters are well-drawn too–Jesse, a gay photographer, Lily’s best friend; the two police detectives; Tariq, a very successful businessman who travels with bodyguards; the ex-fiancee Martin; and Martin’s son Ridley, a sullen teenager with emotional problems that his father will not see.  This is a debut worthy of the three awards for which it has been nominated.

You can read more about Hilary Davidson at her web site.