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NOVEMBER ROAD by Lou Berney: Book Review

In August 2015 I reviewed Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone.  In that post I wrote that the book was one of my year’s top reads.  Now Lou Berney has written another thriller, and this one also is one of my favorites for the year and well worth the three-year wait.

November Road takes place immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  In Mr. Berney’s novel, the killing was a mob-directed hit, and Lee Harvey Oswald was an innocent dupe who was chosen to “take the fall.”

But because there can be no loose ends, the killings don’t end with Kennedy’s death but continue relentlessly, one after the other, each man killing the one under him and being killed by the one above in a possibly futile effort to erase all traces of the man behind the assassination.

Frank Guidry is a high-level gangster out of New Orleans, but not so high that he can’t be eliminated.  When he realizes that the seemingly insignificant errand he had run in Dallas two weeks before the shooting, dropping a car in a parking garage two blocks from Dealey Plaza, now implicates him in the murder of the president, he knows he’s in danger.

Carlos Marcello, the kingpin of crime in the Big Easy, has a plan to get rid of the car and any possible ties to himself.  The car has already been driven from Dallas to Houston, ready for disposal.  Marcello tells Frank that all he has to do is fly to Houston and drive the car off a pier into a forty-foot ship channel, thus ending any possible connection to the New Orleans syndicate.  What could be easier?

But Frank can put two and two together as well as Carlos, or almost as well.  He realizes that the first thing on Marcello’s agenda is get rid of the car, the second is to get rid of the man who put the car in the Dallas garage in the first place.  And that means him.

While Guidry is trying to figure out how to dispose of the car while still keeping himself alive, another scenario is being played out miles away.  Charlotte, a young housewife and mother of two young daughters, decides to reinvent herself.  After years of dreaming about another life she leaves her alcoholic husband, puts the girls and their dog in her car, and heads to California.

After a day of driving, Charlotte’s car slips into a ditch and needs major and time-delaying repairs.  She and her daughters and their dog go to a motel for the night, and that is where her path crosses with Frank’s.  And the impact of this is life-changing for both of them.

Lou Berney’s novel is a fascinating look into an historic event in American history.  Part of the pleasure in reading November Road is to get another point of view into what possibly happened on November 22, 1963, and another part is following the lives of Guidry and Charlotte, two people who on the surface couldn’t be more different but yet will turn out to have a definite connection.

November Road is a tour de force, a triumph of story-telling that will keep you breathless until the last page.

You can read more about Lou Berney 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.



ORDEAL by Jorn Lier Horst: Book Review

Chief Inspector William Wisting of Stavern, Norway has his hands full.  He receives new information about a high-profile crime, his former lover asks for his help in dealing with a problem at her restaurant, and his pregnant daughter extracts a promise from him to be at the hospital with her when she delivers her first baby.

Jens Hummel was a taxi driver who disappeared in Stavern six months earlier, along with his cab.  Neither man nor vehicle has been seen since.  Norway’s media has been having a field day with this, stating that the police had not done all they could to break open the case, insinuating that poor work and a lack of interest in the fate of Jens were to blame.  Now a call from Suzanne, William’s former girlfriend, gives the inspector some news.

She tells him that a man has been to her restaurant for the past several evenings, and on one of those nights he was reading an article about Jens’ disappearance.  When Suzanne noticed, she made an innocuous comment to him, and his response was, “It’s sitting in the barn.”  Then he picked up the paper, left, and hasn’t returned.

Suzanne also has a problem of her own.  She suspects one of her waitresses is stealing from the till, but she doesn’t want to fire her without knowing for certain that she’s guilty.  So she asks William if he would do surveillance for a day or two, trying to see whether the young woman Suzanne suspects is actually pocketing the restaurant’s money.  William thinks of his overload of police work and his pregnant daughter, but he can’t say no, and thus he agrees to visit the restaurant the following evening.

William’s daughter Line has just moved back to Stavern from Oslo, awaiting the birth of her daughter.  On a shopping expedition to furnish her new home she bumps into an old school friend, Sofie Lund, and Sofie’s year-old daughter.  The two women, both single, renew their friendship over the coincidence of motherhood, being first-time homeowners, and returning to their home town.  But Sofie’s home has a strange story behind it that involves her late, unlamented grandfather, a murderous gangster known as the Smuggler King.

Ordeal is the tenth novel in this series, the fifth published in English.  There’s a fascinating introduction to the book that explains that the author was himself a Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department, just like the protagonist he created.  There is an amazing sense of realism in the book, a deep knowledge of how things work in small-town police departments; the real Stavern, Norway has a population of 3,000.  But, of course, there can be plenty of crime and violence in a small town, certainly enough to keep William Wisting busy.

Jorn Lier Horst is the winner of both the Glass Key and Martin Beck awards for his earlier novel The Hunting Dogs You can read more about him at this website.

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







There was a time when I would have said I wasn’t a fan of historical mysteries.  Luckily, that time has long passed because I’ve come to realize how exciting it is to be taken back a hundred or more years to learn about life in an earlier period.  Note that I didn’t say a simpler period, because I don’t think any age is really simpler than another–it’s just different.  And certainly London in the early part of the 18th century had many, many complex issues with which to deal.

The protagonist of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins is, not surprisingly, Thomas Hawkins himself.  An aristocrat with an unfortunate addiction to gambling, when the novel opens he is in a cart on his way to the gallows.  He is convinced that a royal pardon will come in time; indeed, he has been promised such a pardon, but each turn of the cart’s wheel is bringing him closer to the hangman.  Crowds line both sides of the road, for it’s not every day that a gentleman is hanged; in fact, one hardly ever is.  But today may be the crowd’s lucky day, although that can hardly be said for Mr. Hawkins.

For the past three months, ever since his release from Marshalsea Prison for debt, Thomas has been living with the lovely and wealthy Kitty Sparks.  Thomas would like to marry her, or at least he sometimes thinks he would like to marry her, but Kitty isn’t having that, although she’s barred from many society houses because she’s sharing her roof with a man not her husband.  Under the laws of England at this time, once Kitty marries all her money and the profitable business she owns (a bookstore that surreptitiously sells pornographic literature) would be under her husband’s control.  So Thomas understands Kitty’s reluctance to become his wife.

Given Kitty’s somewhat unsavory background and Thomas’ connection with the underworld, it’s not surprising that the necessity of doing a favor for master criminal James Fleet puts Thomas on a dangerous path.  Before he can fully understand what has happened, Thomas is involved in a spy mission for Queen Caroline on behalf of her lady-in-waiting; interestingly, said lady is also the mistress of Queen Caroline’s husband, King George II.  As I said earlier, life in the past really wasn’t simpler.

At the same time, Thomas’ neighbor, the brutal Joseph Burden, is murdered.  Everyone on their street remembers only too clearly the fight between the two men earlier in the day, with Thomas attempting to break down Burden’s door.  And some of those people are only too glad to see Thomas taken off to Newgate Prison for the murder, guilty or not.

Antonia Hodgson has written a wonderful novel, filled with fascinating characters and a strong sense of history.  Although Thomas Hawkins is less than a perfect role model, it’s hard to be angry at such a charming rogue.  At least I couldn’t be–I was rooting for him to escape the gallows all the way through The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins.

You can read more about Antonia Hodgson at this web site.

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

BLACKOUT by David Rosenfelt: Book Review

Doug Brock is a New Jersey police detective.  He’s honest, aggressive, and, some would say, a loose cannon in his pursuit of criminals.  So it’s no surprise that when Blackout opens he’s been suspended from the force for failing to follow orders.  But, Brock being Brock, that doesn’t deter him from following leads, even as he ends up in a hospital room, unable to remember the events of the past decade.

Doug had been mentoring an orphaned teenager whom he coached in baseball.  He was planning to adopt Johnnie Arroyo as soon as possible.  One night, as they walked along a Teaneck, New Jersey street after dinner, shots were fired at them from a passing car.  Despite Doug’s effort to shield Johnnie, two bullets passed through the young man’s body, killing him instantly.

Certain that he knows the man behind the murder, Doug disobeys orders and starts his own investigation.  Even being put on indefinite suspension doesn’t stop him, and in his downward spiral he has broken off his engagement to fellow officer Jessie Allen.  And then comes his phone call to his partner, Nate Alvarez.

Nate is frankly tired of the emotional basket case that Doug has become.  He’s received too many phone calls about Doug’s unofficial search for Johnnie’s killer, each one more strident and over-the-top than the one before, so only the fact that he’s Doug’s best friend keeps him on the line this time.  In the midst of the call, with Doug telling Nate to call the FBI, the phone on Doug’s end is dropped and Nate hears the devastating sound of two gunshots and then two more.  Then silence.

When Doug awakens five days later from his drug-induced coma, not surprisingly he’s exhausted and weak, barely able to speak.  However, much worse than that is the fact that he believes it is 2005, a decade earlier than the actual date, and that he is twenty-six, ten years younger than his true age.  He’s suffering from retrograde amnesia, with no guarantee that his memory of the last ten years will ever return.

Blackout is a gripping thriller that will captivate the reader from the first chapter.  The police department tells Brock that he apparently was investigating Nicholas Bennett, an important crime figure in the state, but as it’s obvious that Doug has no memory of Bennett or his probable connection to the shooting of Johnnie Arroyo, they withhold some pertinent information from him.

However, there’s enough information for Brock to disregard his captain’s orders to start back to work slowly; he’s frantically hunting his memory for his connection to Bennett and the reason why the crime boss would have tried to have him killed.

All the characters in the novel are terrific–Doug Brock, determined to regain his memory and discover what led to the shooting; Nate Alvarez, trying with little success to rein in his partner and finally agreeing to help him fill in the gaps in his memory; Jessie Allen, the woman Doug can’t remember he was engaged to; and Nicholas Bennett and Ahmat Gharsi, two men of widely disparate backgrounds who are working together to commit a horrific crime.

You can read more about David Rosenfelt at this web site.

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



ONCE A CROOKED MAN by David McCallum: Book Review

Once a Crooked Man is a terrific read.  Starting with an overheard conversation outside the Fiery Dragon Chinese restaurant in New York City, traveling to South America and London and back again to Manhattan with corpses everywhere, David McCallum will have you hooked all the way.

It all begins when Carter Allinson II stops by a Starbucks in New York City and shares a table with a beautiful young woman.  Fiona Walker comes from a wealthy family, and shortly after their meeting the couple become engaged and Carter is welcomed into Fiona’s father’s investment firm.  As a college student Carter had supported himself by a little drug dealing, but with his upcoming wedding he wants to leave that behind him.

Not so fast, says gangster Sal Bruschetti, head of the organization that has been supplying Carter.  You don’t need to be doing any more minor-league dealing, but we need you for another reason.  We’ll be investing money with your father-in-law’s firm, and you’ll be handling all the investments in legitimate ways.  Otherwise, we’ll let the Walkers know about your history.  Carter doesn’t see that he has a choice in the matter, and so begins the long-term relationship between Carter and the three Bruschetti brothers.

None of this has anything to do with Harry Murphy, a fairly successful actor who works in television, on Broadway, and does voiceovers for commercials.  He’s on a Manhattan street when he has an immediate need for a bathroom.  Spotting the Fiery Dragon, he walks in on the Bruschettis in the midst of a “business” talk.  They order him out, but his need is so great that he decides to use the alley outside the building to relieve himself.  Thus he can’t help overhearing their conversation concerning a man in London that the trio is going to have killed.

The plot of Once a Crooked Man is a great one.  Ever impetuous, when Harry learns what the brothers have planned he decides to fly to England and warn the victim.  Once there, there’s no controlling the events that follow.  But Harry is a resourceful man with many talents.  Sometimes he’s a step ahead of the Bruschettis, sometimes a step behind, but he’s always in the midst of the action.

All the characters in this novel are terrific.  I was constantly surprised by the twists and turns the book took because of the things the individuals said and the ways they responded to events.  Carter, Harry, the British detective Lizzie Carswell, and Sal, Enzo, and Max Bruschetti are wonderfully drawn.  The plot goes from one cliffhanger to another, keeping the reader totally engaged up to the last page.

You may remember David McCallum from his many roles, starting with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and continuing to the present in NCIS.  Now he is an author as well.  Let’s hope for many more books from this talented man.

You can read about David McCallum at various sites on the web.

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


IS FAT BOB DEAD YET? by Stephen Dobyns: Book Review

Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? is a crime caper par excellence.  It involves quarreling police detectives, con artists, gangsters, beautiful women, and more name changes than one would have thought possible.  It’s a terrific read.

New London, Connecticut police detectives Manny Streeter and Benny Vikström are partners who can hardly bear to be in the same room or the same police car.  They’re called to an accident on the city’s Bank Street involving a dump truck and a motorcycle that ended with the cyclist’s death.  The truck backed up in an alley and rode over the Harley and its driver, separating the driver’s head from his body.

Benny and Manny investigate, but it seems to have been simply a tragic accident.  The truck driver, Leon Pappalardo, says it was his first time driving the truck and he mistakenly hit the gas instead of the brake, crashing into a nearby car and then driving over the motorcyclist.  Benny, the more dogged of the two detectives, feels there’s something strange about how the accident happened, but he can’t put his finger on it.  “I’m not saying the accident was premeditated…but neither am I saying it wasn’t premeditated.”  So Manny reluctantly agrees with his partner that they should look more closely into the accident.

Connor Raposo is an almost-witness to the crash.  He was inside a cobbler’s shop, picking up the Bruno Magli shoes his older brother passed down to him.  When he goes onto the street to see the crash’s aftermath, he makes the acquaintance of Sal Nicoletti, another almost-witness.  Sal’s car’s battery died during the wait for the accident scene to be cleared, so Connor offers him a ride home.  Connor is almost certain that he’s seen Sal before, but Sal denies knowing him.  Connor, who is almost never completely certain of anything, seems to acquiesce, but the thought keeps nagging at him.

Connor has recently moved from the west coast to New London to be a part of a family business.  Well, sort of a family business.  Now called Bounty, Inc., in its previous incarnations it was known as Step Up, Inc. and A Shot in the Arm, Inc.  Whatever it’s called, it’s phony, preying on credulous people to contribute to the most outrageous charities:  e.g., Childhood Victims of Hoof-and-Mouth Disease and Organ Grinder Monkey Retirement Ranch.  And no, I’m not making these names up; I don’t have the imagination.

Besides the terrific plot and interesting/bizarre characters, another delight of the novel is the narrator’s voice.  Every once in a while the narrator showed up with a pertinent comment, making me laugh out loud.  He’s kind of shadowing the action, urging it to move along when he feels it’s too slow or explaining something that’s not quite clear from the dialog.  It’s a truly clever device.

And if you’re wondering about Fat Bob and his possible death, like many other things in the novel it involves two names:  Fat Bob is the nickname of the man who owns the motorcycle that was involved in the accident, and it’s also the name of the cycle.

Stephen Dobyns is the author of many novels, works of non-fiction, and award-winning poetry.  You can read more about him at various sites on the web.

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

LITTLE CAESAR by W. R. Burnett: Golden Oldies

There aren’t many books that have sparked an entire genre, but Little Caesar has that distinction.  Written at the end of the 1920s by a previously unpublished author, Little Caesar became an overnight success for W. R. Burnett.  Reading this novel is a terrific way to go back to the beginnings of the original gangster story.

Little Caesar is the nickname of Rico, which in turn is the nickname of Caesar Enrico Bandello, a small-time mobster who climbs nearly to the top in the gangland of late twenties Chicago.  Physically unimposing, small and slightly built, Rico is single-minded about becoming the head of Sam Vettori’s mobsters and moving up the ladder from there. 

Rico doesn’t have the usual vices that many of his colleagues have.  He likes women but not enough to get sidetracked into a serious relationship with any one of them.  He doesn’t touch alcohol or drugs and doesn’t gamble, at least not seriously.  And because of his lack of these vices and his ruthless desire to get to the top, he almost manages to claw his way there.  Almost.

Rico’s biggest concern is that one of his men might “turn yellow.”  Squealing to the cops would be, of course, the worst thing a gang member could do, whether he did it voluntarily or was coerced or tricked into it by the police.  Regardless, there is no excuse for this in Rico’s mind, and he seems to have an uncanny knowledge of which man would turn cowardly and thus be a danger to the group.  He is without pity to those he deems to be any sort of risk.

Little Caesar was made into a film two years after the book was published and made Edward G. Robinson, in the title role, a major star.  Although the movie sticks closely to the plot of the book, there are some differences.  Rico’s best friend in the film is Joe Massara rather than Otero, his best friend in the novel, although in the book Rico never trusts Joe and has no use for him.  In the book Rico has two heterosexual relationships, but in the movie there are subtle homosexual overtones between Rico and Joe and Rico and Otero.

Also, for some Hollywood reason, Rico’s last words in the novel, “Mother of God, is this the end of Rico?,” have been changed in the film to “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” 

Burnett went on to write High Sierra, later made into a Humphrey Bogart film, and The Asphalt Jungle, featuring a very young Marilyn Monroe.  Burnett’s interest in and knowledge of the underworld gave his novels and screenplays a tough, gritty verisimilitude that resonated with readers.  There’s very little description and no deep thought by the characters in Little Caesar, just the chilling talk of a group of killers, led by the coldest one of all. 

You can read more about William Riley Burnett at this web site.

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