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THE SUSPECT by Fiona Barton: Book Review

Some mysteries start slowly, building up the suspense in a gradual way, while others make your nerves stand on end right from the beginning.  The Suspect definitely falls into the second category.

Fiona Barton’s third novel in this London-based series features Post reporter Kate Waters and police inspector detective Bob Sparkes.  The book opens with a phone call from Jake, Kate’s son, who has been traveling in Thailand and whom she hasn’t heard from in seven months.  “Sorry I missed your birthday,” he says, before the call disconnects or he hangs up, Kate can’t be sure which.

Across London, Lesley and Mal O’Connor have been waiting for a call as well.  Their daughter Alexandra been traveling with a friend, but despite her promise to call or text every day it’s been a week since her parents have heard from her.  Now they’ve made the decision to call the police and declare Alex missing.

The Suspect is told in several voices–Kate’s, Bob’s, Lesley’s, and Alex’s. We hear from Alex, the third voice, when her plane touches down in Bangkok, and immediately things begin to go wrong for her and her traveling mate, Rosie.  Rosie had drunk too much on the flight, despite Alex’s comment that she’d become dehydrated, and the heat in the city doesn’t help.  Things get worse when they can’t find their hostel and end up at the Paradise Bar and Guesthouse, which is about as far from paradise as it is possible to get.

Alex was supposed to go to Thailand with her best friend Mags, but at the last minute Mags admitted that she didn’t have the money to go.  Rather than go alone, Alex decides to go with Rosie, another classmate, but one whom she barely knows.  And the little she does know about Rosie is telling her that this may not be a wise decision.  But now that the girls have made it to Thailand, it’s too late; besides, Alex doesn’t want to admit to her parents and her friends back home that the dream trip is turning into anything but.

In addition to worries about their out-of-touch children, there are other concerns in the lives of all the characters.  Kate is fearful of losing her position in the ever-shrinking newsroom at the Post; Rosie’s parents are divorced, and her mother’s concern about Rosie doesn’t seem to resonate with her ex-husband, making the situation even more painful for her; Bob’s beloved wife Ellen is dying of cancer.  This makes the novel all-the-more poignant, as it reflects real life, where many problems occur simultaneously, and the characters have to deal with them as well as with the central mystery.

I have praised Ms. Barton’s previous novels in this series, The Widow and The Child, on this blog; and The Suspect is equal to those outstanding mysteries.

You can read more about Fiona Barton at this website.

THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK by Kristen Lepionka: Book Review

Still recovering from her father’s death and the mixed feelings she has about him, private investigator Roxane Weary takes on a new case.  She’s called by Danielle Stockton, the sister of a man on death row who’s two months away from being executed, to search for the person Danielle believes can prove her brother’s innocence.

Danielle is convinced that Brad was unjustly convicted of killing his girlfriend’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Cook.  Brad has always maintained his innocence despite the fact that the police found the murder weapon, a Kershaw folding knife, in his car.  The Cooks’ daughter, Sarah, disappeared on the night of the murder and hasn’t been seen in the fifteen years since.

The police consensus is that Brad killed Sarah as well, moving her body and disposing of it, something he also denies.  But when his attorney suggested that he name Sarah as the possible killer at the trial, Brad refused, vehemently denying she could have done any such thing.

Now Danielle tells Roxane that she saw Sarah the previous week walking out of a gas station; by the time Danielle was able to cross the busy intersection Sarah had driven away.  Danielle is certain Sarah would be able to exonerate Brad if Roxane could find her.   But Roxane has a lot of questions.  Can it be that Sarah has really reappeared after so long?  If it’s really Sarah, why didn’t she come forward at the trial to save her boyfriend, assuming his story is true?  What if Sarah doesn’t want to be found?  Or, if found, she says that Brad is in fact guilty?

At her mother’s house shortly after accepting the case, Roxane jimmies the lock on the door of the study, a room no one in the family except her father was allowed to enter.  Once inside she starts looking through the logs of cases he investigated while a police detective and comes across the one she herself is investigating.  She discovers that Sarah was not the only missing teenage girl in town, that there were at least two others.  Does this help or hurt her case?  Does it help to validate Brad’s story, or does it mean that he had killed before?

Roxane’s persistence in looking into the case is getting her in trouble with the police in Belmont, the town where the Cooks were knifed to death.  One officer after another pulls her car over or requests that she talk to them about why she’s in Belmont, and each one tells her he is convinced that the actual killer is in jail.  Even though Roxane brings up the unsolved cases of the other missing girls to the police chief, she’s not convincing anyone that Brad may be innocent or that Sarah may still be alive.

Roxane, as the popular saying goes, carries a lot of baggage.  There are the difficulties she’s had with her parents, her often out-of-control drinking, and her confusing sexual relations.  All of those things impinge on her personal life but not on her ability to investigate Brad’s case.  She’s tough, determined, often reckless, and you will be rooting for her success every step of the way.  The Last Place You Look is a terrific debut that will keep you mystified until the final chapter.

You can read about Kristen Lepionka at this website.

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



THE DROWNING GROUND by James Marrison: Book Review

Three teenage girls, missing.  One stepmother, dead.  One father, dead.  What do they have in common?

Moreton-in-Marsh is a small market town in the English Cotswolds, certainly too small to have so many disappearances and deaths. But the string that ties them together is slowly being unraveled by Detective Chief Inspector Guillermo Downes and his new partner, Detective Graves.

The first death is deemed accidental, that of Sarah Hurst.  She was the second wife of Frank Hurst and stepmother to his teenage daughter Rebecca.  All the people in Moreton knew that Sarah spent every afternoon lying in the sun next to the swimming pool on the Hurst family estate.  By the time she was found at the deep end of the pool by the family’s housekeeper and was pulled into the shallow end, she was already dead.  The verdict:  accidental drowning.

That was five years before the opening of James Marrison’s excellent debut mystery, The Drowning Ground.  Since then, two young teenage girls have gone missing from their homes, and seventeen-year-old Rebecca Hurst left for London and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Then, on the day after Sergeant Graves arrives in Moreton for his new assignment, Frank Hurst is found in his field, skewered through the neck with a pitchfork.

Frank had become a recluse after the disappearance of his only child.  His life certainly had been tragic enough to explain him removing himself from the world–both his first and second wives died, and his daughter disappeared without a word or a trace.  Frank employed a private investigator for years, desperately trying to find Rebecca, his only clue being the very infrequent postcards he received from her from London.  The investigator, however, had no luck, unable to find even a trace of the girl after she left home.

There’s not much mourning in Moreton-in-Marsh for Frank Hurst.  He always was a strange man, quick with his fists and unfriendly to all his neighbors.  Even the brutal manner of his death does little to elicit sympathy, a fact that the newly-arrived detective finds shocking.  But Detective Chief Inspector Downes tells Graves that there’s always been the feeling that Frank was guilty of his second wife’s murder, even though it was officially ruled an accident and Frank had an ironclad alibi.  However, the gossip continued and got even worse as Hurst locked himself in his house, seldom to be seen outside it.

Then, the night after Hurst’s death, his house is set on fire, burned down to it studs.  And a body is discovered in a hidden room below ground, opening old wounds and suspicions.

James Marrison has written a masterful novel.  It’s filled with interesting characters, from the mother of one of the missing girls to the Hurst’s housekeeper who has returned to pay her respects at her late employer’s funeral to the psychologist who saw young Rebecca over a period of years.

The protagonists in The Drowning Ground, both Downes and Graves, are wonderfully portrayed.  Downes is a bit of a mystery, a man born in Buenos Aires of a Argentinian mother and an English father.  What led him to leave his homeland and make a life for himself in this small English town?  Perhaps the answer will be revealed in the next novel in the series, something I’m eagerly anticipating.

You can read more about James Marrison at this web site.

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







GONE MISSING by Linda Castillo: Book Review

Many people, myself included, think of the Amish as a people far removed from life as we know it today.  They don’t use electricity, ride in motorized vehicles, play popular music, or continue their education past the eighth grade.  But, however much they don’t want an un-Amish way of life, they cannot protect themselves from the outside world completely.  Amish or not, human nature is human nature.

Gone Missing is the fourth novel in the Kate Burkholder series.  Kate is the chief of police of Painters Mills, a small Ohio community that includes a number of Amish families as well as the “Englischers,” which is what the Amish call all those who are non-Amish.  The Amish try to avoid outsiders as much as possible, particularly those in the police and the legal system, in order to keep to their own way of life.  So it’s a bit surprising to Kate when she gets a call from John Tomasetti, an agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, asking for her help with the case of a missing teenager.  Kate says that missing persons cases are not her area of expertise, but John responds, “It is when they’re Amish.”  Born Amish and fluent in the Pennsylvania Dutch tongue that the community speaks, Kate is the go-to person when followers of that religion are involved.

It turns out that there are four teenage Amish girls who are missing, not just one.  Each has gone outside the strict confines of the church–dating non-Amish boys, dressing in non-Amish ways, listening to non-church music.  Each has had problems with her family, but all the parents stress that their daughters are good girls who would never willingly leave home.  So where could they be?

Kate Buckholder understands only too well the temptations these girls face.  She, too, was a wild child who left home at eighteen to become a policewoman, alienating her from her parents and siblings.  But now it is Kate’s sister Sarah who asks for her help, because one of the missing girls, Sadie Miller, is Sarah’s niece.

Several local men are persons of interest, as the police say.  Justin Treece, a teenage boy, is the Englischer boyfriend of one of the girls; he recently spent time in juvenile detention for assaulting his mother.  Stacy Karns is a prize-winning photographer; his most famous photos are of teenage Amish girls who were unknowingly photographed in various stages of undress.  And there’s Gideon Stolzfus, formerly Amish and now the pastor of his own church, who runs a kind of Underground Railroad to help unhappy teenagers leave the Amish way.

Linda Castillo paints a moving, sympathetic portrait of a tight-knit community that wants only to be left alone to keep its ways without the Englischers intruding.  But have the temptations of that world been too much for the teenagers?  Have they been led into danger, perhaps fatally?

Gone Missing is an intriguing portrait of Ohio’s Amish and English communities, living side by side in an uneasy peace.  Linda Castillo brings the various characters, sympathetic and not, to life in a way every reader will recognize, regardless of their own ethnicity.

You can read more about Linda Castillo at this web site.

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