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THE BITTERROOTS by C. J. Box: Book Review

The Bitterroots are a mountain range situated in western Montana and the panhandle of Idaho, part of the Rocky Mountain chain.  In spite of its harsh-sounding name, it’s filled with natural beauty, featuring outstanding hunting, fishing, boating, and other outdoor activities.  But in C. J. Box’s latest novel, its beauty hides pockets of corruption, greed, and self-enclosed communities with secrets they want to remain hidden.

Cassie Dewell, once a deputy sheriff, is now the founder of Dewell Investigations, LLC.  As the novel opens she receives a phone call from Rachel Mitchell, a partner in a Missoula law firm, and a woman whom Cassie owes a favor.  Rachel wants her to investigate everything about the arrest of Blake Kleinsasser, who has been accused of raping his niece Franny; Cassie’s initial response is “No way.”

The Kleinsasser family is the dictionary definition of dysfunctional.  Blake, the eldest son of Horst and Margaret, is the only one who left the family ranch; in Kleinsasser terms, that’s treason and “the ultimate act of disloyalty.”  Blake has had a successful career in New York City; after a long absence he returns home with the intention of helping his siblings sell the ranch, which he tells them is in their best financial interest.  But his sister and two brothers don’t believe he came for unselfish reasons and say don’t want to sell the ranch at all.

Blake explains to Cassie and Rachel that many of his clan’s problems stem from the Kleinsasser Family Trust, a document drawn up by Blake’s grandfather.  According to that document, everything must be left to the oldest son in each generation, which is Blake in this case.  It is up to that son whether to keep the entire bequest or to share it with other family members.  The only way that heir would not receive the entire bequest, which currently consists of the ranch, is to denounce the family name or by committing “moral turpitude.”

Blake admits to having been drinking heavily for several days before the alleged rape took place.  He remembers picking up his niece from church that evening after she phoned him to do so, but he claims a total blackout about the rest of that night until the deputies came to arrest him the next morning.

The physical evidence against him appears overwhelming–his semen on Fanny’s underwear, his car’s tire tracks at the remote cabin where she told the deputies the attack took place, a whiskey glass at the cabin covered with Blake’s fingerprints–and then there’s Fanny’s testimony of what happened.  But Cassie does owe Rachel a favor, a big favor from a previous case, so despite her near certainty about the client’s guilt she agrees to investigate.

Luchsa County, home to the Kleinsassers, seems to be totally in their grasp.  It soon becomes apparent that the police and the courts are beholden to the family, thwarting Cassie’s efforts to discover the truth of what happened between Blake and his niece.  But she perseveres, and little by little a story different from the original one gets uncovered.

C. J. Box is the author of more than twenty novels, including the best-selling Joe Pickett series.  His mysteries have won the Edgar, Anthony, and Barry awards, among other prizes. 

You can read more about C. J. Box 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.



PANDORA’S BOY by Lindsey Davis: Book Review

The ever-delightful Flavia Albia is back, informer par excellence.  Following in the footsteps of her adoptive father, Marcus Didio Falco, she is now a well-established informer (in ancient Rome, the term informer was used as we would use private investigator or detective today).  In addition, she is newly married to Tiberius Manlius Faustus, an aedile, or official, of the Roman Republic.

Both were married before.  Flavia was a young widow, Tiberius was divorced by Laia Gratiana.  But now Laia comes asking for help from Flavia for a family friend who has just experienced the death of her teenage daughter.

Clodia Volumnia had been found dead in her bed, and the aftermath of this tragedy is that her mother and father have separated and their mothers, Clodia’s grandmothers, actually have come to blows.  Reluctantly, because she hates to appear beholden to her husband’s ex-wife, Flavia agrees to meet with Clodia’s father to discuss the case.  Using the soft approach, Flavia tells him how sorry she is about the unexpected death of his only daughter and offers her professional assistance; he agrees to hire her.

The father, Volumnius Firmus, tells Flavia that Clodia simply went to bed one night while both her parents were out and didn’t wake up the next morning.  Firmus stresses what a good daughter Clodia was, but he admits that he was unhappy with her choice of friends.  They were several years older than she and possibly had not been a good influence on her.  In addition, she had seemingly developed a crush on one of the young men, and he belonged to a family not up to the Volumnius family standards, at least according to Firmus.

The streets of ancient Rome were filled with gossip, sexual behaviors, and violence that make it seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Certainly the behavior of Clodia’s family–the “perfect” daughter who turns out to be not quite so perfect after all, the mothers-in-law who cannot abide each other, the preoccupation of various people with substance over style–are not unfamiliar to modern readers.  Apparently human nature hasn’t change that much since 89 C. E.

As readers know from other books in the series, Flavia was found begging on the streets of Londonium when she was young and brought to Rome by Marcus and Helena.  Originally she was a nanny to their children, but they eventually adopted her and she became a free citizen of the Republic.  Also, Marcus and Helena were probably impressed by Flavia’s sense of self and her confidence.  “They soon saw I would not accept being treated like a slave….No one could impose on me.”  You admire and respect her throughout the novel.

When Flavia thinks about how she has become involved with sorcery and magic to find out the truth about Clodia’s death she comes to the conclusion that “There was no need of a blood relationship to inherit crazy behavior.”   As her adoptive father was always coming up with wild ideas that led him into trouble, “now so was I.”

Pandora’s Boy is the sixth novel featuring Flavia Albia; more than a dozen earlier novels featured her father as the protagonist.  Readers will enjoy both informers, but my heart belongs to Flavia.

You can read more about Lindsey Davis 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 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.



HOME BY NIGHTFALL by Charles Finch: Book Review

Charles Lenox is one of the most charming protagonists around.  The younger son of a baronet, Charles has recently returned to his first love, detecting, after spending several years in the House of Lords.  Although it’s considered not quite “the thing” for a member of the nobility to be “in trade,” Charles has decided that this is what he wants to do with his life and so is now the senior partner of Lenox, Strickland, and Dallington, private enquiry agents in London.

The novel opens with all of the city, and indeed the entire country, in upheaval following the disappearance of Muller, the renowned German pianist.  Muller got up from the piano bench at the end of a concert, walked into his dressing room, and hasn’t been seen since.  The entire concert hall was searched, as was his hotel room and all the various sites around London that the musician was known to frequent, but without result.  To coin a cliché, apparently the man disappeared into thin air.

Charles offers his services to Scotland Yard; instead, the firm of his former business partner Lemaire is chosen to find the missing man.  Naturally, this has made Charles and his partners, Polly Strickland and Lord John Dallington, even more determined to solve the case, score against Lemaire, and gain the publicity that would go with locating Muller.

At the same time, Charles is trying to help his older brother, Edmund, who is dealing with the unexpected death of his beloved wife.  Molly died suddenly after the onset of a fever, and Edmund is deep in mourning.  Making the situation even more unbearable is the fact that both their grown sons are away, one in Kenya and the other in the navy, so the ordeal of informing them of their mother’s death still hangs over Edmund.

Some of the most enjoyable aspects of Home By Nightfall are the clever asides that place the reader firmly in 19th-century England.  Did you know that at that time it was possible to rent, rather than subscribe to, the daily editions of The Times; a year’s subscription cost nine pounds, “not an inconsiderable sum.”  Instead, most readers rented the paper for a hour a day, which cost about a pound per year, while renting the previous day’s paper cost a quarter of a pound per year!  And at the time the novel takes place, there were six daily mail deliveries a day in London, four in the countryside.  No wonder no one thought to invent e-mail!

Home Before Nightfall is the ninth Charles Lenox adventure, so there’s a lot of catching up to do if this is your first look at the series.  Although this book can certainly be read on its own, it’s much more enjoyable when you know the backstory of Charles, his aristocratic wife Lady Jane, and his partners in the firm.  But if you’re too impatient to start at the beginning of the series with A Beautiful Blue Death, you can start with Home Before Nightfall.  It’s a terrific read, with believable characters and an engrossing plot.

You can read more about Charles Finch at various sites on the web.

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


THE GRAVE SOUL by Ellen Hart: Book Review

Jane Lawless is busy running the Lyme House restaurant in Minneapolis, so busy that her first impulse is to decline a case brought to her by her friend and former employee Guthrie Hewitt.  Jane has put a hold on her private investigations practice, but Guthrie has come to Jane because he’s worried about his girlfriend, Kira Adler.  He wants to propose to her on Christmas Eve, but a long-ago tragedy in her family has recently been giving her nightmares.

Nearly twenty years ago, when Kira was five, her mother fell to her death from the family porch.  After an investigation, the death was ruled an accident.  Now, on the eve of a visit to her grandmother’s home for the Thanksgiving holiday, Kira has another horrific dream.  She tells Guthrie that in all of them she is watching her mother being strangled; although she is a witness, she can never stop it.  The murder happens in various places with different murderers, but every one contains the same elements–her mother is strangled, she sees what’s happening, and she cannot prevent it.

Guthrie and Kira arrive at her grandmother’s house, with Guthrie trying to uncover the reason for Kira’s nightmares and fears.  He questions the various family members–her grandmother, father, two uncles and their wives–subtly, he thinks, but after his return home he receives a package with a note saying that what happened to Delia Adler will happen to him if he continues bothering the family.  In addition to the written message, there are several photos showing the splayed body of Delia lying at the edge of a deep, snow-filled ravine.

The Adlers are a rather odd family.  Kira’s widowed grandmother Evangeline is the matriarch, an elegant woman who seems to rule with an iron fist in a velvet glove.  Her two sons, Kevin and Douglas, still live near her.  Kevin, Kira’s father, never remarried after the death of his wife, and Douglas, who obviously has a drinking problem, lives a bitter, meager existence with his wife Laurie.  The only successful sibling appears to be their sister Hannah Adler, a physician who has chosen to remain single and, perhaps most importantly, to move away from her mother and brothers in New Dresden.

Guthrie again turns to Jane for help after his trip to Kira’s hometown, but once more she pleads her hectic schedule and tries to find another detective to investigate the Adlers.  When that fails, she reluctantly agrees to look into the matter, but only for a limited time, two days being all she’s able/willing to spend away from her restaurant.  A grateful Guthrie accepts that, and danger ensues.

The Grave Soul is, by my count, number twenty-three in the Jane Lawless series.  Obviously there’s a lot of backstory here, but you can easily start with this novel and then read the earlier books.  Ellen Hart has won the Lambda Award, called Lammys, five times for books that celebrate LGBT themes, but there is no lesbian theme in this book, and only a brief hint of gay relationships.  The Grave Soul is simply a well-written mystery, featuring a clever and resourceful heroine who happens to be gay, a compelling plot, and interesting supporting characters who add flavor to the novel.

You can read more about Ellen Hart at this web site.

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


BRUSH BACK by Sara Paretsky: Book Review

V. I. Warshawski is back, albeit a bit older and not quite as rash as before.  But her moral outrage is just as strong as ever when she believes there’s been wrongdoing or corruption, and she can’t seem to totally stop herself from getting into situations that put her in danger.

In baseball terminology, a brush back is a pitch thrown at the batter as a means to intimidate him.  It’s usually a fast ball aimed at the batter’s head, obviously a risky situation.  And while V. I. isn’t a batter, the danger to her is as real as if she were on the mound facing a ruthless pitcher.

V. I. grew up in a tough South Chicago neighborhood, and although she has moved onward and upward she has never forgotten where she came from and the friends she had there.  But she’s still surprised when a man comes into her office and greets her with unwelcome familiarity.  However, after a minute and a closer look she realizes he’s Frank Guzzo, a teenage boyfriend she hasn’t seen in thirty years.

Frank is now married and a father, working for a large trucking company.  He has reluctantly come to talk to his former girlfriend about his mother, Stella, recently released from prison after serving a twenty year sentence, or, in the local parlance, two dimes.  Stella was convicted of killing her daughter Annie, beating her to death and then leaving her body while she went to play bingo at the local church.

After all this time, Stella is claiming she was framed, that the young and inept lawyer who was provided by friends didn’t do anything to prove her innocence.  Frank is asking V. I. to look into the case, to help find evidence to exonerate his mother.

V. I.’s first response is to refuse, remembering how hateful Stella had always been to her family, jealous of the close bond between Annie and V. I.’s mother.  Stella was always violent, giving her children bruises and black eyes as punishments for their supposed misbehaviors and sins, so the private investigator has had no difficulty over the years believing that Stella killed her own child.  But Frank was V. I.’s boyfriend at a very difficult time in her life, and she finally agrees to visit Stella for “One free hour, Frank.  I’ll ask questions for sixty minutes.”  But that, of course, proves to be just the beginning of a case that involves Mob figures, police corruption, and multiple murders.

Once again, Sara Paretsky gives readers an intimate look into Chicago’s mean streets and obsession with sports.  Now pushing middle age, V. I. is trying to stand back a bit from the dangers she sees around her.  But circumstances, and her teenage cousin, push her into an investigation that nearly costs V. I. her life and the lives of others as well.

It’s a delight to see V. I. again.  Some familiar characters are here, Lotty Herschel, Max Lowenthal, and Bobby Mallory included.  But we also are introduced to V. I.’s cousin Pierre Fouchard and his seventeen-year-old daughter Bernie.  Bernie is staying with V. I. for a few weeks while she looks into Northwestern University and its women’s hockey program, and her intensity and desire for the truth remind the investigator of her own younger self.  But those two qualities can prove to be very dangerous to all concerned.

You can read more about Sara Paretsky at this web site.

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



THE LEFT-HANDED DOLLAR by Loren D. Estleman: Book Review

It’s been three years and counting since Amos Walker traversed the mean streets of Detroit.  Welcome back.

The Left-Handed Dollar is the twentieth Walker novel.  And although Walker has aged, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

As the book opens, Walker is approached by famed defense attorney Lucille Lettermore–“Lefty Lucy” to the Michigan police and federal authorities for her political views.  Lucy wants Walker to find evidence to overturn the conviction of a Detroit mobster for a hit twenty years earlier; by erasing that conviction and doing some legal maneuvering, she can get the ankle bracelet off “Joey Ballistic,” re-model him as a first offender, and earn a substantial fee.

Joey B. comes from a Mafia family, has an ex-wife and two former mistresses, and a once-opulent house where nearly all the furnishings have been sold off.  He’s an old, sick man who’s still denying his role in the two-decades-old attack, a car bombing that left Walker’s close friend, Barry Stackpole, with a prosthetic leg and a hand with less than the usual number of fingers.

If he’s convicted of the minor crime he’s been arrested for now, Joey B. will go to prison for the rest of his life based on his record.  So Lucy wants Walker to prove that her client was innocent of the car bombing, thus clearing his record of that crime and allowing him to plead guilty to a lesser charge for the current crime.

Although Joey has certainly committed any number of violent crimes, he may not have been guilty of the attack on Stackpole.  Ever the bleeding heart, although he would never admit it, Walker takes the case.

As in all Loren Estleman’s books, there’s an interesting array of characters. There’s Lettermore, the foul-mouthed lawyer; Joey B.’s former wife Iona, now a successful interior designer; her partner Marcine, former model and former mistress of Iona’s ex-husband; Randolph Severin, the retired detective who investigated the original crime; and Lee Tan the younger, a physical therapist, and her aunt Lee Tan the elder, former heroin importer who worked with Joey B. years before.

In addition, Barry Stackpole and Detroit Police Inspector John Alderdyce return, the former the victim of the car bombing who is not happy that Walker is investigating the case, the latter the cop who is just an inch away from taking Walker’s P.I. license away for good.  Walker is losing friends fast, and he didn’t have that many to begin with.

It’s good to see Amos Walker again, although I do feel that the repartee between Walker and everyone else strikes a false note. It’s very arch and can be amusing, but reading page after page of it, it gets old.  “I’m riding the water wagon for a little, just to see what the Mormons are shouting about.”  “Next you’re going to tell me they’re breaking up the USSR.”  “Don’t teetotal just for me.  I left my hatchet in my other suit.”  It’s clever, but it gets a bit wearing after a while.  And not very realistic, I think.

That being said, I’m glad to see Walker again.  He’s a rare breed these days–a tough guy with a liberal interior who’s might bend the law but won’t bend his ethics.

You can read more about Loren D. Estleman at his web site.