Wednesday, January 31

Death on the Nevskii Prospekt by David Dickinson

Review by Theodore Feit 

Lord Powerscourt, as he recovered from a near fatal wound two years before, was convinced by his wife, Lady Lucy, to retire as an investigator.  Now, in the year 1904 he is coaxed out of retirement to undertake a secret mission to St. Petersburg on behalf of the British Foreign Office to learn the details of the death of a diplomat who himself was on a secret mission to the Russian capital.

The plot revolves around a secret presumably known by the murdered man, but which is unknown to everyone but King Edward.  Powerscourt becomes involved with the Russian secret intelligence service head who also wants to know the secret, among others.  He witnesses the bloody massacre of workers at a peasant demonstration, the torture chambers of the secret police, and is even subjected to whipping by the palace intelligence service after he meets with the Tsar.

In the end, Powerscourt applies logic to unlock the mystery of the diplomat's death, but not before the author takes us on a vast tour of the pre-revolutionary era, the royal family and even Rasputin as he enters the picture.   It is a tale well told and worth reading.  The real question is: was this Powerscourt's last investigation, and will he finally retire for good?

Recommended.

Trap Door by Sarah Graves

Review by Gloria Feit

Jacobia ["Jake"] Tiptree, her two dogs, her cat, and her best friend, Ellie, are back, as is Jake's ex-husband's ghost.

Uncharacteristically for this series [if memory serves], the "bad guy" in Sarah Graves' newest Home Repair is Homicide mystery, is a paid assassin, Walter Henderson.  But the murder he is planning on page 1 of "Trap Door" is personal, not professional.  Despite his planned retirement from a "long, successful career of killing people for money," and but for one loose end he still has to tie up, he's now decided that the only way to get rid of the punk who has charmed his beloved teenage daughter is by the means he knows best.  But it seems that the boy has saved him the trouble, for Walter finds his body hanging below the trap door of the loft in Walter's barn.  Is it really the suicide it appears to be?  Al though I was skeptical that a couple of tiny threads of fabric stuck on a hangnail of the victim's hand would really warrant such a suspicion; but maybe that's just me.

But back to that loose end, who turns out to be a wiseguy, Jemmy Wechsler, Jake's friend from her former life as money manager to the mob.  Jemmy knows Walter plans to kill him, and calls in a favor by asking Jake to let him hide out in her cottage in Eastport, Maine, where Walter also lives.  The spotlight turned on Walter by the body found in his barn, though, is certainly a complicating factor, from anyone's point of view.

The trademark home repair tips that preface every chapter but the first, as in the preceding books in the series, are always interesting and practical.  There are poignant thoughts of mothers of teenage sons over whom they have little if any control.  The final scene is the always satisfying gather-all-the-suspects-in-one-room-and-identify-the-killer, though somewhat implausible in this instance.

Eastport, Maine, where the author as well as her protagonist make their home, is on an island a few miles off the coast of Maine [although hopefully the author's home is sans ghost, ex-husband or otherwise], and is beautifully depicted, and the book is as charming as its protagonist.

A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong

Review by Gloria Feit 

Inspector Chen is caught up in the web of inscrutable Chinese politics.  He is appointed to investigate corruption by a high official of the party, and given a blank check for authority.  The investigation involves an individual and his family who have fled to the United States, but may also involve many party cadres, bureaucrats and others.

How to proceed against the institutionalized Chinese system?  Chen wends his way alone seeking leads from various sources.  One of them is raped and murdered before giving him information.  As he begins to learn more, he is suddenly appointed chairman of a literary delegation leaving for Los Angeles in a couple of days.  Was the appointment an effort to sidetrack the investigation, or really deserved (after all he is a respected poet and translator)?

Before leaving on his new mission, Chen deputizes his assistant to carry on the investigation in Shanghai.   In the United States, Chen continues his efforts and gains assistance from U.S. Marshall Catherine Rhon, with whom he previously worked in Shanghai.

Like its predecessors in the series, this novel provides deep insights into contemporary China, while giving the reader a crime story that is compelling.

Recommended.

All's Well That Ends by Gillian Roberts

Review by Gloria Feit 

I opened Gillian Roberts' new book with conflicting feelings:  Happy anticipation at again entering the world of Amanda Pepper, Philadelphia high school English teacher and investigator-in-training, but dismay at the knowledge that this is the last of the 14 books in the series.

Amanda is asked by her friend, Sasha, to look into the death of her stepmother, whose body Sasha had discovered, her death apparently caused by a lethal combination of alcohol and sleeping pills.  The fact that the woman was dressed for an evening out or at least one entertaining a guest, her outfit complete with 4" stiletto heels, is enough of a reason for her to be convinced it could not have been suicide, and she persuades Amanda to help her prove it.    The stepmother had been married five times--divorced four times, widowed most recently--and had one son, described as worthless and uninterested, his only virtue being that he lived far away from his mother.  But no immediate suspects are apparent.  Amanda's husband, a licensed investiga tor and former homicide cop, now attending grad school, is dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which has devastated the lives of his parents and other relatives, and is not sympathetic to the task.  But then Amanda and Sasha discover a second body, in the same house.  And now the investigation begins in earnest.

The wit, literary allusions and interesting plot make All's Well That Ends among the best of the novels Ms. Roberts has written.  The ending is a satisfying one.  Amanda will be missed, but who knows what new sleuth this author has in store for her many fans? 
 

The Watchman by Robert Crais

Review by Gloria Feit 

Robert Crais plunges the reader into the action from the first pages of The Watchman.  In a well-plotted novel which brings the welcome return of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, the book reverses their usual roles, with Cole, the p.i. who calls himself the World's Greatest Detective, playing back-up to Pike, ex-cop and former mercenary, who has been hired to protect a 22-year-old girl who is in Witness Protection before an impending grand jury investigation.  The body count starts to mount early and rapidly.  Joe Pike is on the case, and Robert Crais fans will be pleased.  Several attempts are made on the life of the girl [a Paris Hilton-type rich girl, described as the 'classic LA wild child'], three before Pike is hired and two more in the first 24 hours since, and then the bad guys come after Pike.

Mr. Crais has in this novel has somewhat self-consciously given the reader insight into what makes Pike, variously described here as a "monster" and a man whose skills include the ability to rise "with the slowness of melting ice," tick.  He is, as always, enigmatic [though a bit less so in this book, with background details filled in this time], self-sufficient, but then again, classic Joe Pike.

The book is set for the most part in Southern California, including the Echo Park area most recently inhabited by Michael Connelly, an author with whose writing Mr. Crais' is frequently compared, not without reason.  My overriding thought as the book got closer to the suspense-filled conclusion:  This just keeps getting better.

Recommended.
 

Sinners and Saints by Eileen Dryer

Review by Diana Bane

Chastity Byrne, a forensic nurse, goes to New Orleans looking for her missing
sister and finds a whole lot of trouble instead, including a hurricane named
Bob that looms over and haunts the city as it grows ever larger and closer.

Eileen Dryer, a forensic nurse who writes suspense novels, went to New
Orleans and found a whole lot of trouble, including a hurricane named Katrina. The
hardcover debut of Sinners and Saints happened just a few days before Katrina
struck. Sometimes real life is not just stranger, it's worse than fiction. A
whole lot worse.

Reading Dryer's book in paperback now makes for a poignant experience,
because the atmosphere of New Orleans, as it was before Katrina, permeates every
scene. Though "innocent" is not an adjective one would normally ever apply to New
Orleans, a kind of innocence seems to hang over these characters as they go
about their fictional business, not having a clue how bad a hurricane can be.
The main character, Chastity Byrnes, who hails from St. Louis, roams from the
French Quarter out to the bayous and back, from cemeteries to Gallatoire's,
from one vividly described scene to another. Most of the time she's in the
company of a former fireman called James who turned cab driver after being burned
down one side of his body. Chastity is a feisty survivor of a family that is
beyond dysfunctional -- the family secrets emerge as Chastity's search
progresses, and they are horrendous. She is an engaging character who becomes moreso
with each revelation. Her sidekick and fellow forensic nurse, Kareena, is a
hoot, with a mind like a razor.  The more these three uncover, the more there
seems yet to be discovered -- and all this time the police are not idle either.
Just to make things more complicated there's the pending Hurricane Bob, and the
fact that Chastity is frightened to her very soul of water.  Eventually we
find out the very good reason why.

I hope that many, many people will read this book, not just because it
deserves to be read for its story alone, but also because with a year's distance
from Katrina, the reality of that tragedy now enhances the book in a way that is
almost eerie. One need only think of a heroine frightened by water, juxtaposed
against our memory of the flooding that we all saw on our tv sets, to
understand just how much courage it takes for the fictional Chastity to remain in New
Orleans for her sister's sake although she knows that the hurricane is
coming. We want to yell "Heads-up, woman!" at Kareena, who can't quite believe the
hurricane will really hit -- and she's a trauma nurse at the city's biggest
hospital for its poorest people. And there is more that resonates in this way,
much more than I can tell in a review. Read Sinners and Saints for yourself.
You won't be sorry.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jeb Rubenfeld

Review by Claire McManus
 
The Interpretation of Murder was our book club's reading choice for January.  We'd taken a couple of months off for the holidays, and several of us had put this book on our Christmas wish lists!   Which made it the perfect book for January.
 
The set-up of the story is very intriguing indeed.  This is a historic murder mystery based on true events.   Sigmund Freud visited the United States only once and never returned.  He had apparently taken quite a dislike to America while he was here, and when he returned to Europe he referred to Americans as "savages."  In The Interpretation of Murder, the author creates a story to explain Freud's perceptions.
 
In a nutshell, it's New York City, c. 1909, and a beautiful out-of-towner has been murdered in an upscale apartment building called the Balmoral (based on a famous NYC building called the Ansonia).  The murder coincides with Freud's first trip to America to deliver a lecture at Clark College.  Dr. Stratham Younger, a burgeoning Freudian, is called in to psychoanalyze the murderer's second victim, who managed to escape.  
 
It is a very intriguing set-up, and one that piqued all of our interest.  But the book is not an unqualified success.
 
First, the pros.  The author has done an excellent job with his research.   Many of the details of New York City are very well done, including details about high society at the time (the feud between the Vanderbilts and the Astors).  We all enjoyed the details about the mechanical feats of engineering that allowed the Manhattan Bridge to be built.  We also liked the details about Gramercy Park (one of us used to live in that neighborhood).
 
But now the cons.  While some of us thought the book moved along at a nice clip, most of us felt it was plodding, with too many things going on.   The author is given to lengthy explanations of things like Shakespearean drama and the inner workings of Freudian theory, which lead to a sort of textbook feel.   The plot is pretty convoluted, with a bunch of red herrings and subplots that muddy the waters, including one to discredit Freud before he even gets to speak at the university.  Several of us had to read the resolution of the mystery several times to "get" it, and two of us gave up on trying to figure it all out.
 
There are some other disappointments, too.  Most of us had been under the impression that Freud himself would be actively investigating the mystery—that's not the case.   He's more of an advisor to Dr. Stratham Younger, who isn't very interesting as a narrator.  The narration keeps switching back and forth between first person and third, which can work (some of  us very much like books with multiple viewpoints) but in this case, it seemed like a mishmash.   The portrait of Carl Jung (who accompanied Freud on his trip to the U.S.) seemed really unfair.  None of us knew a tremendous amount about Jung, but the portrait of him in the book seems negative in the extreme (though the author says in his afterword that his fictional recreations of Freud and Jung are based on extensive research, which we didn't doubt).  
 
The characters are sort of lifeless, too—no real flesh and blood there, not even the narrator.  But the biggest problem we thought was the way the book reads.   Freudian psychology has receded quite a bit…it's no longer what's going on in the field of psychology today, which is becoming increasingly focused on the brain and biochemistry.   The Interpretation of Murder makes it seem as if Freudian psychology has been the salvation of the field, but we know that it really hasn't been (even though its influence of course cannot be denied).   Now we may be wrong about this (none of us are psychologists or trained in that area) but even a casual reading of the popular press tells the common reader that it's all about biopsychology these days, not the Oedipus Complex.   So the book feels like much ado about nothing…almost like a historical footnote that is out of touch.
 
Overall, I can't say that we disliked or hated the book, but many were disappointed in it and felt it did not live up to the hype.   We took away from it a sense that the author really does love NYC and did a great job on the research.  But as a mystery it leaves a lot to be desired, and in terms of suspense—it's almost nonexistent.   Several of us finished it out of a sense of obligation, not because we wanted to.  All told, not one of our favorite books, but to be fair, we are just a small group of people and others may love it.   There is a publisher's website set up for the book if anyone is interested: www.interpretationofmurder.com <http://www.interpretationofmurder.com/> .

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John Mortimer

Review by Gloria Feit 

John Mortimer has, to the delight of his fans, brought back Rumpole of the Bailey, self-described as having a 'slightly raffish air…, a little tarnished, jovial but not quite respectable.'  In a case very much of the times, Rumpole is called upon to defend a man who has been picked up by the police and detained, without benefit of counsel, or even of formal charges having been brought.  To make matters worse, the man, a doctor, is a Pakistani, and most make an assumption of guilt on his part, including She Who Must Be Obeyed, Rumpole's wife, Hilda.  And the laws, and the Courts, have changed – he is told "That's the trouble with your sort of lawyer, Mr. Rumpole.  You can't move with the times.  Things like jury trials and the presumption of innocence may have been all very well in their day.  But times change.  History moves on."  Rumpole despairs of adherence to things like the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights any longer.  But being Rumpole, he knows he must find a way despite it all.

Even more frightening to him than the abridgement of civil rights in the name of fighting terror, Rumpole must deal with the fact that his beloved wife has started writing her memoirs, to parts of which the reader is made privy in these pages.  Utterly charming, as is this novel.  Recommended.

Well Bred and Dead by Catherine O'Connell

Review by Gloria Feit 

 

The first page of Well Bred and Dead, Catherine O'Connell's second published novel, had this reader intrigued, describing as it does our protagonist, Pauline Cook, gagged and bound on her bed in the luxurious penthouse apartment on the Gold Coast of Chicago, her captors having left her to die.  Pauline, described as a "devastatingly elegant and wealthy widow,'' [although known to very few to be in much more straitened circumstances just lately], can trace her current predicament to her close friendship with Ethan Campbell, a social columnist and author of biographies of famous socialites, and the fact of his shocking death, an apparent suicide.  Pauline was the one who discovered the body and has now had to pay for his funeral when no close relatives can be found.  Pauline soon finds that there was much sh e didn't know about Ethan, her best friend for over five years, including perhaps his real identify when multiple birth certificates are found among his things.  As Pauline says, it is incredible "how little we know those we think we know best."  The mystery only intensifies as her investigation gleans some further tidbits of information, which only leads to further efforts to get to the truth.

 

The writing is for the most part light-hearted, witty and fast-paced, the view afforded by the author into the world of the social elite is a wry and interesting one, though it is almost by definition a superficial vista.  Some of the attitudes are mildly offensive, but these are reflective of the times and strata.  And then, of course, we get to the harrowing scene described in the prologue, and its aftermath, and Pauline has to find a way not to become one who is, um, well bred and dead.  A quick and enjoyable read.

 

Sight Unseen by Robert Goddard

Review by Theodore Feit

 

In this highly readable novel, David Umber is caught up in a web of intrigue that so complicates his life that he just drifts away into oblivion from a promising career as an historian.  He is working on his PhD on an obscure topic—the Junius Letters—written in the 1700s by an unidentified person critical of the King, when he is promised a look at a rare edition of the bound volumes prepared for the author.   He is to meet the person in Avebury, but instead is witness to the kidnapping pf a two-year-old girl and the hit-and-run murder of her sister.

 

As a result of the tragedy, David befriends the nanny who was in charge of the children, ultimately marrying her.  They leave England, but his wife never really recovers from the incident, and leaves him when she discovers a clue as to the identity of the missing child years later.  She is then found electrocuted in her bathtub in England, while David is shilling away his days in Prague, living from hand to mouth.

 

A retired detective, originally on the case, seeks Umber out and convinces him to assist in investigating the truth of the incident, even though a convicted sex offender had confessed to the kidnapping.  Soon after, the confessor is murdered in prison.  Their efforts proceed, and the theory arises that David's wife also was murdered.   The trail leads to Jersey, where the little girl's father, now remarried, and her brother now live. The detective is framed and placed in jail for drug smuggling and the brother commits suicide.

 

Meanwhile, David identifies the missing girl, now in her twenties, when he accidentally discovers the clue that sent his wife off on her quest.  [None of this constitutes a spoiler, BTW—reference to much of it is to be found on the back outside cover.]  The Junius volumes play a key role in the mystery, and David's expertise is essential in unraveling the mystery.   The twists at each phase of the story keep the reader on edge.  And the denouement is so wholly unexpected that the reader is left in awe.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 17

Sinners and Saints by Eileen Dreyer

Review by Gloria Feit

 

In what can only be described as prescience, Eileen Dreyer's Sinners and Saints takes place in a New Orleans that is bracing for a hurricane, what would be the earliest ever to hit that City.   The book was published days before New Orleans was struck by Hurricane Katrina, a devastating event from which it is still trying to recover, and it was obviously written much earlier than that.  Reading it now is an erie experience. 

 

Chastity Byrnes is a 26-year-old former trauma nurse in St. Louis, now "one of two new forensic nurse liaisons at St. Michael's, her job being not only to save patients, but preserve any viable forensic evidence that might prove a possible criminal or civil case.  She made sure abuse victims didn't fall through the cracks, rape victims got better treatment from the hospital than they did from their attackers, and unknown patients were identified.  She helped police and hospital personnel work more efficiently together."  And she needs to call upon all of those skills when she receives a call one day from a brother-in-law she didn't even know she had, the husband of a sister she had had no contact with for ten years, ever since the day that sister and their mother left their home without a word.  She is told her sister has gone missing, and five days later finds herself in New Orleans, having agreed to try to help in the search for her sister, Faith.  (The third sister was called "Hope.")  Chastity is the survivor of an unspeakably horrendous abusive childhood (her accusations against her father having resulted in his incarceration), the effects of which have barely diminished over the years.  She finds she has to "protect herself from old sins and older secrets."  Each time she thinks she knows all of the secrets, she finds more are yet to be unearthed.

 

The writing is wonderfully evocative, most strikingly in its descriptions of New Orleans.  On Jackson Square: "Chastity stopped at the edge of the square, enchanted.   She wasn't really a mystical person.  She'd given up her faith with her virginity, long before she could comprehend either.  If she could, though, she thought, she might look for it again here in the dark, where the trees dripped shadows and the church bells tolled into the night.  Where usually raucous voices quieted to a murmur, and the only real lights were the candles that flickered on the psychics' tables.  If there was magic, she thought, it was here."  The ominous presence of the impending storm is a living, breathing thing - one cannot help but feel the winds and the lashing waters that surround Chastity throughout the novel, embodying her worst nightmare from the scarred days of her nightmare-filled world from her earliest memories.  The suspense builds as Chastity continues her search.  People to whom she speaks are killed, and her own life is in danger.   Chastity and her friends, Kareena, a New Orleans nurse who helps her, and Kareena's cousin, James, a survivor himself although of entirely different circumstances, a cabdriver who Chastity hires as a chauffeur, among other things, are terrific creations.  Recommended.

Plum Lovin' by Janet Evanovich

Review by Theodore Feit 
 

Yenta the Matchmaker has nothing on Stephanie Plum, who in this short novel trades in her bounty hunting skills for making four couples a great Valentine's Day.  The reason is that the mysterious Diesel (as opposed to the mysterious Ranger) shows up unexpectedly offering her a deal: in exchange for Stephanie playing matchmaker, he'll trade Annie Hart, a relationship expert who skipped out on her bail bond for armed robbery.

 

With Valentine's Day only a few days away, Stephanie has her work cut out for her.  A series of amusing situations arise, and she has to apply lots of ingenuity to solving the problems, not the least of which is that of a gangster who has captured Annie.

 

The story is somewhat different than others in the series, but, after all, it is a Valentine's Day saga rather than a light-hearted mystery novel.  Of course, it is equal in quality to the preceding entries in the series, a fast read and kind of cute.

The Rex Stout Reader with Introduction by Otto Penzler

Review by Theodore Feit

 

Nero Wolfe fans beware:  this volume contains two novels and a short story that preceded Rex Stout's creation of the armchair detective.  Her Forbidden Knight, Stout's first novel, was serialized in 1913, and not published in book form until 1997.  A Prize for Princes, his third, was serialized in 1914 and published in book form in 1985.  It wasn't till 1934 that Nero Wolfe was born, but not before Stout had authored other novels, honing his craft.

 

The two novels in this volume are a product of the times, heavily influenced by 19th century writing and the demands of the reading public of the times.  Much of the writing, by modern comparison, could be called stilted, but it is in keeping with the style of the publication, and characters and story lines.

 

Forbidden Knight follows the fortunes of a pretty telegraph operator in a New York City hotel under the "protection" of several hangers-on in the lobby.  She falls in love with a stranger who is under a cloud in his hometown and is passing bogus currency in the Big Apple.  It is more of a romance than a crime story.

 

Prize, while full of romance, comes with murder and mystery and intrigue.  A young American rescues two women amid a brutal Turkish assault on a convent and falls in love with one, a beautiful but dangerous woman who is accused of poisoning her husband, unbeknownst to him.  She schemes and plots to rise to marry the Prince of Marisi, poisoning two others along the way.

 

The short story, Out of the Line, is more modern and is a tale of pathos.  A bored woman, widow of a rich man to whom she was married for seven years, celebrates her birthday by giving money to homeless men on lower Broadway.  One of the men is a former lover who she presumably wronged.  Invited to visit her, he rejects her in no uncertain terms.

 

It was interesting reading Stout's early works even if it does not appeal to the modern eye.  As a forerunner of his later accomplishments, the novels and short story certainly are indicative of what was yet to come.   If only for that reason they are worth reading.  But there is another: they are well-written and enjoyable.

Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke

Review by Gloria Feit

 

Pegasus Descending opens with a recounting of Dave Robicheaux' time in an exchange program between the New Orleans Police Dept. and a training academy for police cadets in South Florida, where his hours are divided between the homicide unit at the Miami P.D. and a criminal justice class at a community college a bit further north.  That was in his drinking days, when most of his down-time was spent in bars.  He says of those with whom he spent that time:  "Most of them drank with a self-deprecating resignation and long ago had given up rationalizing the lives they led, I suspect allowing themselves a certain degree of peace."  He tries to go on the wagon, but finds himself back in the bar, pretending "once ag ain I could drop lighted matches in a gas tank without consequence."  One of his few friends among the regular bar customers is a young man names Dallas Klein, a highly decorated Vietnam war hero who works for an armored car company, with a 6-year-old daughter and an addiction to gambling.  One afternoon when Dave is, as usual, seriously drunk, Dallas, his best friend, is gunned down in an armored car holdup/bank robbery in front of Dave, and the moment has haunted him ever since.

 

Fast forward two decades.   Dave has long since been sober, having joined AA shortly after the bank robbery, the perpetrators of which were never caught.  He has left New Orleans and returned to New Iberia, and is a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department.  When he is called out to investigate a relatively minor incident involving possibly stolen money, the woman in possession of the bills turns out to be Trish Klein, Dallas' daughter.  The more Dave discovers about Trish, the less sure he is of anything about her.  What is he to make of her friends, who strike him "like people who met at a bus depot and decide to live together?"   And he must determine what, if any, connection she had with the apparent suicide of a local girl, described as "young and beautiful and full of promise," whose body is discovered the same day Dave first meets Trish.  As the author says, crediting Faulkner with the line, "the past is not only still with us, it is not even the past."  Pegasus Descending is full of surprises, passion, tragedy and fascinating characters, including, as usual in the series, Dave's old NOPD partner, Clete Purcel, and Helen Soileau, now the Sheriff.  It is well-plotted, with wonderful prose and.a setting lovingly, nostalgically  and wonderfully evoked.  In short, it is everything we have come to expect from this author, and is recommended.

Death of a Maid by M. C. Beaton

Review by Theodore Feit   

The customary elements of this long-standing wonderful series remain in place: Constable Hamish Macbeth's romantic life remains in flux, he is content to solve crimes in the little fishing village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands but give credit to anyone else because he doesn't want a promotion and wants to remain there with his dog and tamed wild cat.

 

In this case, a cleaning woman famous for gossiping and fairly poor work is discovered by Hamish outside the home of one of her clients with her head bashed in, apparently hit with her own cleaning pail.  The list of suspects includes all five of her clients because Hamish suspects that while cleaning, the woman discovered secrets and blackmailed the clients.

 

It is a simple tale, but Hamish's investigation is anything but.  As in past entries he doggedly pursues clues right up to the end.  As usual, the book is well-written, the plot well-staked out and Hamish's love life more than complicated.   A delight to read.

Death of a Dreamer by M. C. Beaton

Review by Theodore Feit 
 

This long-standing series, set in the Scottish Highlands, finds Constable Hamish Macbeth surrounded by several females, all providing some kind of romantic interest.   Then one of the women (not romantically linked to Hamish) is found dead up in the mountains.  The official police decision is suicide.  But Hamish isn't sure, and persists.   Indeed, it turns out to be a case of murder.  Later, another woman is murdered.

 

With a few of his former girlfriends distracting him, Hamish fumbles around, but in the end, reaches the proper conclusion.  As in previous novels in the series, the writing and color are in keeping with the setting, and the story and characters charming.  The next in the series is to be published in February, 2007.  Look forward shortly to our reading of Death of a Maid.

How to Seduce a Ghost by Hope McIntyre

Review by Theodore Feit

 

Having read the sequel before this, the initial entry into the series, I got the feeling that the main character, Lee Bartholomew, a 40-year-old ghostwriter, was a complete professional in her business life, but a somewhat flighty and mixed-up person in her personal life. After reading this novel, that belief has been confirmed.  In this opening tale, we find her in the midst of an eight-year relationship with Tommy, her long-time boyfriend, but passionately attracted to the husband/manager of her new client, a soap opera star.  Both she and Tommy have affairs, the result of their on-again/off-again association.  Frankly, Lee's love life really doesn't contribute much to the over-all story in either of the novels, both of which are, however, interesting.

 

In "Seduce," the mystery begins with the arson murder of a television personality in a house near to the one Lee lives in rent-free in London (it is owned by her parents who split up in this tale but come together in the next).  Then a small summer home behind Lee's is burned and later the house itself is set on fire with Lee and her client asleep in it.  The client's husband is one of the suspects. (He batters his wife regularly, providing her with a reason to have a book written on the subject of battered wives.)

 

Well-written, the novel is a little too cutesy for this reviewer when it comes to Lee's personal life.  The mystery in both "Seduce" and the second in the series, "How to Marry a Ghost," are well-plotted and carry the reader forth.   Now, if the conclusion of the next in the series leads to some maturity in Lee's romantic life, a third story might be even more enjoyable.

Field of Fire by James O. Born

Review by Gloria Feit

 

Alex "Rocket" Duarte, ambitious ATF agent and explosives specialist [his nickname was given him in high school—he 'took off fast…and couldn't change direction once he got going"] , is asked to head up an investigation into the latest in a series of bombings in disparate locations across the US, which appear to have implications of union harassment.  The latest incident occurs at the site of a migrant labor camp where Duarte tries, and ultimately fails, to arrest a fugitive wanted on an illegal gun trafficking charge.  Another interesting character is Mike Garretti, reluctant hitman, who muses at one point that "for a guy who kills people with bombs, he was way too judgmental." 

Caren Larson is a Dept. of Justice attorney assigned to work with Duarte on the investigation, who must decide whether and to what extent to compromise her ethics on the altar of ambition, something faced by Duarte as well.  The death toll mounts as Alex becomes more and more determined to get to the bottom of what increasingly looks like some sort of conspiracy, with intimidation of union organizers being just a smokescreen.  The suspense mounts steadily, as it becomes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad.

 

Duarte seemed to this reader to be surprisingly naïve for an experienced agent, another trait he shares with Mr. Larson.  We are reminded several times that he lacks skill in interviewing and reading people.   I thought Duarte's naivete extended as well to his social life, though he becomes a bit more adept at both by novel's end. 

 

James Born's writing has been compared to that of Elmore Leonard [one of two men to whom Born has dedicated this novel].  I wouldn't go that far, but Duarte's an interesting new protagonist introduced by the author in Field of Fire, and the book is recommended.

The Deadly Bride Edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg

Review by Theodore Feit

 

 

Not only does this volume feature 22 crime and mystery short stories, but the annual feature highlighting an overview of the year in  criminal fiction--from a comprehensive list of award winners to essays on the subject to obituaries of those lost in the last two years.

 

This collection features such writers as Jeffrey Deaver, J.A. Jance and Rick Mofina and a host of others.  The subjects vary, but the quality of the writing and stories is up there with the best.

 

If only for the yearbook, the volume is worth the cover price.  The short stories are icing on the cake.

How to Marry a Ghost by Hope McIntyre

Review by Theodore Feit

 

Second in the series (this reviewer is reading the first at the time of this writing) featuring Lee Bartholomew, ghostwriter, this mystery  finds Lee in the Hamptons for a dual purpose.  First is a "commitment" ceremony between her mother and a wealthy man to take place on the beach.   The second is to secure the job of writing an aging rock star's autobiography.   He is a recluse, and reluctant to tell his story, and after a couple of sessions, he breaks off the venture.

 

The key to the would-be book is the death of a young groupie in his bed in London many years before.  The rock star was never charged, but the mystery of who murdered the girl is still the subject of rampant speculation, which has haunted him all his life.

 

Soon after her arrival, Lee sees a body of a woman dressed in a bridesmaid's dress drifting in from the ocean.  It turns out to be the rock star's son.  Another murder takes place shortly thereafter, and the plot doesn't unravel until Lee returns to London.  The story flows fluidly and is well-written

Homicide 69 by Sam Reaves

Review by Gloria Feit

 

On a rainy day in 1969 Chicago, homicide detective Mike Dooley, along with his partner, Pete Olson, are called to the scene of a murder.  They find the naked body of a woman who had been badly beaten, burned, hog-tied, strangled, and left along the riverbank.

 

A veteran who'd served in the Pacific in WWII, Dooley now worries about his son, serving in Vietnam.  The era of the Black Panthers, Woodstock, the aftermath of the 1968 riots, the Manson murders and the first moon landing is brought vividly to life and perfectly recreated. 

 

The investigation into the girl's death discloses that she was a former Playboy bunny and mobster's girlfriend, and leads to the possibility of Mafia connections and, this being late '60's Chicago, political corruption.  The corruption takes place on all levels, of course.  In interviewing an employee at a local bar, these exchanges take place:  We're not exactly fond of cops around here."  "And why is that?" Dooley said, knowing the answer…"Well, let's see.  It might be the payoffs.  Yeah, I'd say that's it.  It's the bag full of money we have to give your colleagues every month…I'm a skeptic, that's all.   People with more experience than me have told me it's kind of hard to tell the difference between the cops and the mob sometimes."  Interspersed with the police work are scenes of Mike's domestic life, typical of a household with sullen teenagers and the tension normal when one child is fighting a war overseas, an unpopular war with an uncertain outcome, with constant fear for those at home waiting. 

 

The book is well crafted.  Dooley is a good cop and a very human protagonist.  The investigation is realistically portrayed, with relentless routines and gradual progress.   And of course other crimes take place that must be dealt with as well. 

 

This is a long book, but it never feels padded.  It has a mostly unexpected conclusion but one that makes perfect sense.  Homicide 69 is a terrific novel, very well-written, and is recommended.   The book jacket reads A Dooley Crime Novel, and one can therefore hope that it is the beginning of a series.

Depths by Henning Mankell

Review by Theodore Feit 
 

Be forewarned: This is not an Inspector Wallender novel.  It is a standalone depicting a Swedish naval officer during the First World War.   He is a despicable character, and the story is one of deceit and lies, and comes to a tragic, but, perhaps, fitting end.   He is assigned to measure depths along the coast to chart new shipping paths, and while performing his task, he encounters a barren skerry [a rocky isle along a coastline] on which a woman lives.  He becomes fascinated with her and destroys his life and his wife in the process.

 

The writing is powerful, and Mankell delves deeply into the man's psyche   The story keeps the reader on the edge of the seat until its conclusion.  Highly recommended.    

 

[This book is only available in or through the UK and Canada at this time; hopefully it will be available in the US before too long.]

Dust by Martha Grimes

Review by Theodore Feit 
 

This is the story of two "L's:"  Lust and Literature.  It begins with Inspector Richard Jury in the throes of post-coital rapture.  His girlfriend, a Scotland Yard pathologist, is in the shower.   Then the telephone rings, ruining the mood.  A man has been murdered in a posh hotel and off-and-running the pair goes to the scene.  So much for libido, so far.

 

There, Jury meets Lu Aguilar, the lead detective.  When they leave, Jury and Lu fall into more than rigorous sex at his home.  Twice in a few hours.  What a man.

 

The second "L" is more literary.  The murder victim was in residence at The Lamb, home of Henry James--references to his work are sprinkled throughout as quasi-leads or clues (although Jury lacks clues almost until the end).

 

In sifting through the victim's past, there are numerous conflicting and false leads.  It takes all kinds of assistance and analysis for Jury to track the mystery of these "clues."   Enigmatic Harry Johnson reappears from the previous novel in the series to provide Jury with more doubts and thrown curves while they drink wine at Dust, a trendy bar at which the murder victim was last seen before going to the hotel.

 

As excellent as any in the series, the book draws the reader back and forth—just as Jury is—without a real clue to solving the case (or his love life).  It's no surprise that in the end, Jury and his off-beat assistants come to an unusual conclusion, but doubts remain on his romantic future.

The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle

Review by Theodore Feit

 

Matt Worth is a cop in Omaha.  He is on probation for messing up—the latest incident:  punching a detective who is sleeping with Matt's ex-wife.  As punishment he is assigned to the graveyard shift at a local supermarket that has been robbed a couple of times.   To keep busy, he bags groceries and becomes friendly with a checkout clerk.

 

The clerk has a boyfriend who bashes her around one time too many.  She clobbers him to death.  Matt becomes involved when she asks his help.  He undertakes a cover-up of the murder, taking the body in the victim's car to his ex-con brother's junkyard in the next state.   There, the brother incinerates the corpse and chops up the car—but not before discovering a quarter of a million dollars in cash.

 

From this point on the plot evolves in all kinds of unexpected twists and turns.  At each step of the way, it looks like Matt is going to be discovered.  But each time he develops a new subterfuge, half-truth, fact or excuse.  The action continues unabated right down to the final page, and so should you.

 

Recommended.

The Dirt Brown Derby by Ed Lynskey

Review by Theodore Feit 

 

Frank Johnson, a hard-boiled PI, one of a long line tracing their ancestry  back to Mickey Spillane, makes his debut in this novel, the first of what promises to be a series - the second is scheduled for 2007.  Right at the start of the story, he is confronted by violence, attacked by roughnecks in the Virginia horse breeding country, on the way to meet a client, a rich widow whose daughter died of a crushed head attributed to a fall from a horse on which she was riding.  The mother believes she was murdered.

 

The rest of the plot, consistent with the genre, chronicles Frank's attempts to unravel the mystery of the death, while experiencing all kinds of mishaps and mayhem.  Lots of shooting, physical violence and other diversions.

 

One has to like this kind of plot and character.  If in keeping with one's taste, it is amusing and interesting.  If not…

Calling the Dead by Marilyn Meredith

Review by Theodore Feit   

Deputy Tempe Crabtree is confronted by two situations, both of which, she is told by her superior, is no business of hers.  Stick to your patrolling and supervision of the volunteers, she is warned.   Nevertheless, Tempe can't ignore either.

 

First is the death of a young woman.  Was she pushed or did she jump to her death in a river off a bridge?  Tempe, who is part native American, solves the mystery by relying on traditional Indian methods to converse with the dead woman to learn what really happened.

 

The second involves one of her volunteers who also is a parishioner of Tempe's husband, Hutch.  The woman's husband dies suddenly and Hutch is suspicious, setting Tempe off on another unauthorized investigation.

 

This short novel speeds along to an exciting conclusion.  It is a fast read and entirely enjoyable

Find Me By Carol O’Connell

Review by Theodore Feit

 

As this novel opens, a body is discovered in Mallory's apartment.  Is it murder or suicide?  Mallory has disappeared, and her detective partner, Riker, has fears that Mallory has or is beginning to crack up.   Meanwhile, she is traveling to Chicago in a souped up 'Bug" to begin retracing her father's travels along the mother road, Route 66.

 

When she arrives at the beginning of the famed Route she immediately becomes embroiled in a murder and begins assisting a Chicago detective, delaying her trip.  It seems wherever she goes, friends and admirers of her foster father abound.  This is the beginning of a plot that intertwines her travels in quest of her father and a serial killer.

Riker and a psychologist begin trailing Mallory in hope of "saving" her if, indeed, she is in trouble.

 

The story progresses along the Route as Mallory traces landmarks listed in letters from her father and graves of more than 100 six- or seven-year-old girls, victims of the serial killer whose bodies are being dug up by an FBI task force.  Along the route are a gathering of parents led by a defrocked priest-psychologist seeking their lost children.  While the caravan progresses, the killer takes to murdering adults as well.

 

The duality of the plot—Mallory seeking her own self as well as the serial killer—makes for an interesting interplay.  It is a haunting combination.  The complexity of the tale is overwhelming, and the revelations—one by one—are mesmerizing.  And it doesn't end until Route 66 does.

 

Recommended.

The Commission By Michael Norman

Review by Theodore Feit

 

The murder of the Chairman of the Utah Board of  Pardons sets off a wild and wooly story in which kinky sex throws  Sam Kincaid, who heads the Special Investigations Branch of the Utah Department of Corrections, off on a series of tangents, before he and his counterpart, a female Lieutenant from the police department on the right track.  But not before two suspects, one of whom actually did the initial killing, also are murdered.

 

The mystery unfolds slowly, as each investigative step uncovers new facts, with twists and turns to keep the reader in suspense until the mystery's conclusion.  This well-written and –constructed  tale is very much worth reading.

Bad Blood By Linda Fairstein

Review by Theodore Feit

 

Alex Cooper and her sidekicks, detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, have been with us now for several excellent novels.  In Bad Blood, they are fine-tuned to the nth degree.   Combining a fast-paced mystery with little-known facts about underground New York City, the author has created perhaps her best work to date.

 

The story starts off with Alex trying a murder case that is beginning to look hopeless, with the defendant likely to get off.  However, as in previous novels, the investigation is ongoing even as the trial progresses.   The defendant, accused of murdering, or arranging the strangulation of, his wife, a few days into the trial overpowers the officer guarding him and grabs her pistol, shooting her in the head, harming two other court officers and escaping custody.  [Not a spoiler – this happens very early on in the novel.]

 

Meanwhile, Chapman and Wallace uncover facts relating to a prior strangulation many years before following a blast in Water Tunnel #3, in which three workers were killed, one of whom was the defendant's brother.  The body of the earlier victim is exhumed, allowing the author to discuss the latest forensic breakthroughs involving DNA evidence.  Needless to say complications abound, especially with a blood feud between two families of tunnel workers.

 

An exciting finish to this narrative takes place in a little-known subway station—the original—but abandoned—City Hall stop of the city's first rapid transit system, still probably the most elegant ever constructed in the Big Apple to which nobody has access anymore.  This time there's less courtroom drama, but more legwork to tell the story.  But the reader races along never tiring right down to the final page. 

 

Highly recommended.

Limitations By Scott Turow

Review by Theodore Feit

 

Originally published serially in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, some additional material has been added to this slender volume to flesh it out.  Like Turow himself, the novel has a legal background.

 

George Mason is an appellate judge sitting on a three-member panel in Kindle County (revisited, perhaps for nostalgic reason because there does not seem to be any other reason)  hearing an appeal by four defendants convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl many years before.  There are apparently three possible decisions: affirmation, backed by one judge, reversal based on inadmissible evidence favored by a second, or reversal because of the statute of limitations, to which Mason leans.

 

Mason is the swing vote; he can decide to affirm or go with one of the other two choices.  While he wrestles with his decision, he confronts his past.  While a young man he participated in a similar incident and he has to face his guilty conscience.   Meanwhile, he has been getting threatening e-mails and text messages and his wife is being treated with nuclear medicine for a thyroid condition.  Life is complicated, as are the decision-making process and his need to file papers for reelection.

 

It all comes together in the end, with Mason writing the decision.  One would have expected a soaring writing worthy of a Brandeis or Holmes.  Instead, we read a fairly pedestrian and somewhat disjointed draft.   At least the discovery of the person issuing the various threats is an unexpected surprise.  Despite these objections, the novel reads well and the tale is well-told.

Cross by James Patterson

Review by Gloria Feit


The main characters in this book are Alex Cross, Michael Sullivan and John Sampson.  Alex, the protagonist in this very popular series by James Patterson, after three years of private practice as a psychologist, became a full-time Washington, DC homicide detective before joining the FBI, working primarily as a profiler.   Michael Sullivan is a serial killer/rapist/mob hitman, nicknamed The Butcher.  John Sampson is Alex' former partner from his cop days, and still his close friend.   The book opens with the murder in 1993 of Alex' wife, Maria, as she greeted him when he came to pick her up after work – she died in his arms, and he has never stopped grieving for her.  Since her death, he has continued to work for the FBI, raising his three children with the help of 'Nana Mama,' Alex' grandmother.

 

Fast forward to 2005.  In order to devote more time to his family, Alex quits the FBI, returning to private practice, but remains available as a consultant.  Things change when the police are told by a mob guy trying to broker a plea bargain that he can give them information on Alex' wife's murderer, but the man is killed while in jail before he can divulge that long-sought information.  Alex feels he may finally be able to catch the man who has managed to elude capture for over a decade, and he and Sampson go on the hunt. 

 

Cliches abound – the psychopath who was abused as a child, who feels nothing but a rush as he adds victims to an ever-growing list.  The acts themselves will bring a grimace, at least, to the reader's face.  Michael Sullivan is a man who enjoys his work.

 

Cross has already topped the bestseller list, and it is a fast and pretty enjoyable read.  Nonetheless it felt somewhat bloated to this reader and I thought the book, and the sadistic acts committed in it, could have been edited a bit more.

St. Alban's Fire by Archer Mayor

Review by Theodore Feit 

Having read the sequel, The Second Mouse, it seemed advisable to read the predecessor novel for sheer enjoyment.  Joe Gunther is an excellent protagonist, and the Vermont setting and descriptions in both novels are excellent.   Only this time, Joe is taken far afield from the snow and hills of New England to urban Newark.

 

A series of mysterious barn burnings, in one of which a young man is burned to death, followed by sales of the farms on which they were located sets the stage for this mystery.  Two other farm sales made after accidents may or may not be related.  The only clue seems to be a common modus operandi in two of the fires.  The investigation proceeds to find the arsonist, who may be based in Newark.   But who hired him and for what purpose?

 

The tale is painstakingly told and well-written.  Gunther and his love face danger from the killer.  The conclusion, while logical, is totally unexpected.   Reading the first novel lived up to the expectations raised by the second.

An Eye for Murder by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Review by Theodore Feit

 

One of the characters in this novel tells Ellie Foreman, the protagonist, that she has a propensity for getting involved in all kinds of weird situations.  It was true in preceding entries in this series, and even truer in this one.  It all begins when Ms. Foreman receives a letter from the landlady of a 90-year-old boarder who has just died of an apparent heart attack - or was it murder?

 

From such an inauspicious beginning the ramifications almost defy belief.  Ellie begins by visiting the landlady because her tenant had mentioned the Foreman name to her.   There Ellie finds three cartons of belongings, two of clothes, the third papers, plus a metal box and a photograph of a man, woman and child near a bridge and castle.  An hour later, after Ellie runs an errand for the woman, she returns to find her dead and one carton and the strongbox missing.  A series of further murders follows, presumably all related to the original.

 

Ellie's home is broken into and the two cartons stolen.  Her father is beaten, perhaps because he has some knowledge relating to the original victim.  The progression of violence proceeds unhampered.  It all stems from an episode during World War II and a document passed by a resistance fighter to an OSS operative.

 

The story flows forward, the plot is intriguing, the writing fluid.  The novel was originally published in 2002, and this reissue by Poisoned Pen Press is most welcome.

Plague by Gary Birken, MD

Review by Pat Brown

I love finding new bioterrorism, end of the world books. There are so few written it seems, though it's a hot topic, and even fewer good ones. This one, sadly, is not one of the good ones.

Since the author, Gary Birken is a doctor, I can believe what he writes about hospitals, diseases and all the plot points dealing with the bioterrorism facts. But his characters are lacking in depth to put it mildly. The main protag, a French born woman with an extremely wealthy father seems more like a perfect princess than a real human being. She is super smart, super beautiful and as far as I can tell is loved by all, except the bad guy.

She is also the one who first diagnoses the mysterious illness that has a young boy on death's door. She is the one who first suspects that the boy was deliberately infected with the disease. Of course her suspicions are pooh-poohed by the hospital administrator, but like any good  super sleuth, she ploughs ahead anyway and uncovers more damning proof. Her love interest is another brilliant incredibly sexy doctor who vaguely tries to talk reason to her, but in the end supports her fully. For the most part all the other people, mostly hospital employees from lab technicians to other doctors answer all of the protag's inquiries without question. The good guys are all really really good and only wants what's best for the hospital, even the top administrator.

I have to say for a novel that is called Plague I expected a bit more actual disease to be going on. In truth 2 children die of different illnesses and one woman is killed 'because she somehow knows too much' The child who dies of pneumonic plague, which is highly contagious as well as being very lethal, so it's correct that the girl should die. But how is it between the time she's infected and the time she's put in isolation not one other person, including her mother, is infected?  The pneumonic version of the disease is the one favored by bioterrorists because of its lethality and the fact it spreads so quickly, so in my opinion the author missed a great opportunity to raise the stakes. Instead, each new attack is discovered very quickly (by the protag,natch) and contained. Or in the case of the girl with the plague, simply dies without affecting anyone else.

Fairly quickly she determines who is doing this and even the hospital
administration has to admit something terrible is happening. So the FBI is called in. In the course of their investigation they interview the protag, who becomes upset at being questioned. At no point is she accused in even the most oblique way of being involved, but even so, I would expect someone who's supposed to be as smart as she is to realize the police question everyone. Her reaction is out of character and makes no sense then or later except to set up the cliched antagonism between the protag and the authorities.   Oddly enough, one of the things which bothered me the most was the death of the adult woman who the killer suspected of knowing too much. One: why kill her, but not the protag, who's so much closer to finding
out the truth? Two: we learn she was killed in the same manner as the Bulgarian diplomat who was poisoned by having a pellet of ricin jabbed into his leg. It's a nasty death and can take days. This woman is a member of the same hospital as all the other characters, but she's never mentioned again. Were told she dies a drawn out death and since her death would be a mystery a full autopsy would be performed. It's hard to believe the puncture mark and ricin pellet would be missed. But the fact is she simply disappears from the story. It's like the author forgot about her.

There was little mystery as to who the antagonists were. The  only
thing that I didn't figure out was why. I didn't find it terribly believable, not given the fact that only about 5 people were infected with 3 different diseases, only one of which was actually that contagious. And only 2 died. How many people die in a hospital in any given week? Two deaths are a blip on the radar. The only thing that might generate some real excitement is if Ebola broke out in the hospital. Then if wouldn't matter how many people got it or died of it, it would make headlines.

In truth to accomplish what the antagonist wanted he should have infected a large office building with the pneumonic plague. Then he would have got the country's attention.

So I'm still waiting for the ultimate plague book. The truth is I still think The Hot Zone by Richard Preston leads the pack and it's not even fiction. So if anyone has a yen to write about death on a massive scale please, please try your hand at a disaster book featuring some kind of man made or natural plague. I'm almost tempted to write one myself but I don't know anything about the medical end of things. Or the military, either. I even have a bare bones plot for such a book.

In the meantime, sadly, I have to give this book a C- The book has a great tag line on the back that as an author I would kill for - it's the main reason I picked the book up in the first place.

No one can survive him.

... an inexplicable disease is reaching terrifying proportions
- Er, 5 sick kids, 2 of whom die is not terrifying proportions.

No one can predict him.

No one can stop him
.

Unfortunately they don't live up to the hype. It they did it would have been a great story.

The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields

Review by Theodore Feit 
 

Detail piled on detail characterizes this unusual story set in England during World War I.  When Catherine's husband Charles leaves to join his regiment in France he stipulates that their mansion and estate be used as a military hospital.  The transformation in the home and Catherine's life is momentous, soon made even more so with the news that Charles has been killed at the front.

 

A hospital for surgery on soldiers with grotesquely wounded or destroyed faces is established. At the time, little is known about the procedures for reconstructing destroyed faces.  The surgeons improvise and pioneer many new methods.   Meanwhile an artist is transferred from the front to assist the surgeons in their efforts.

 

One of the artist's tasks is to make a mask for one patient to hide his face, since further surgery is not considered possible.  He bears some resemblance to Charles, and Catherine in an effort to bring her husband back substitutes his photograph for that of the patient.

 

The novel explores the medical staff's difficulties, along with the psychological traumas of the wounded, as well as Catherine's attempt to create a loving relationship.  It is a deep study of human nature and individual identity.  It is well-written and the characters are excellently drawn, as nature takes its course.

Exile by Richard North Patterson

Review by Theodore Feit 

A graduate of Harvard Law, David Wolfe since graduation has led a charmed life.  Successful prosecutor, outstanding criminal defense attorney, engaged to a socially and politically active woman who is the daughter of a holocaust survivor, to be married in seven months, now groomed to seek and probably win a Congressional seat.  A careful, well-planned life.  Then his world is turned upside down.

 

During his final weeks at Harvard, David, a Jew, had an intense but brief love affair with another student, Hana, a Palestinian.  Throwing caution to the winds, something he had never done before or since, he proposed marriage.   She turned him down, citing cultural differences, and left him to marry the man chosen by her parents.  Now, 13 years later, she is in San Francisco and calls him; they meet for a few minutes.

 

The next day, the Prime Minister of Israel is assassinated by a suicide bomber.  Hana, arrested as the bomber's "handler," asks David to represent her.  A Jew acting as attorney for a Palestinian "terrorist":  It is the makings—or unmaking—of a career.  In David's case it is the opposite of all his plans, the end of his engagement and his political career.   But it gives the author license to deeply explore the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians as David seeks proof that Hana is innocent.

 

In a three-week visit to Israel, David visits various representatives and factions, learning about terrorist activities and Palestinian grievances, giving the author the wherewithal to write in depth of various facets of the differences and attitudes of both, powerfully and at length.  Along the way two possible participants in the assassination conspiracy are met and in turn killed after David meets them, ending promising lines of inquiry.  The evidence against Hana is problematical, but no alternatives other than that she was framed are available.  Her trial as depicted is well drawn and the denouement, while somewhat predictable in its conclusion, cannot be anticipated as it turns out.  This very interesting and well-presented novel is a study in international relations and history—of the past grievances and lack of progress in finding a solution, if indeed there is one.  It is disheartening in all aspects, but informative and rewarding.

The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson

Review by Gloria Feit

 

The first two brief chapters of The Blood Spilt describers a murder, one as it is being committed, from the p.o.v. of the murderer [the only such chapter so written], the second as her body is later discovered, hanging by a chain from a church organ loft in the Swedish mountain town of Kiruna, the victim having been done awful, pointless violence as well.  Thus is the reader introduced to the world of Asa Larsson and her protagonist, Rebecka Martinsson, an attorney who has been on extended sick leave after an incident during which she killed three people in that same town, Kiruna, where she was born and raised.    The murder of the woman, Mildred Nillson, a priest, is reminiscent of that of a male priest murdered in the area in the past.  It was in the aftermath of that earlier killing that Rebecka's traumatic event took place, his murderer one of those she shot.  Her firm's attempts to establish a professional relationship with the Church following the woman priest's death reluctantly brings Rebecka back to Kiruna for the first time since those killings nearly two years prior.  The question arises whether Mildred's murder was committed by someone 'who'd been keeping a scrapbook after the first murder and decided to make a sequel of their own,' or was entirely unrelated to the earlier event.  Mildred was known as Kiruna's foremast local feminist, with a passionate, indomitable personality, and had made many enemies.  Rebecka inevitably ends up involved in the investigation.

 

This new book by Asa Larsson, in a translation by Marlaine Delaroy, contains wonderful descriptions of the Swedish countryside, particularly its forests, as well as those of inner landscapes and reminiscences of  times past, of loved ones lost, whether parent or spouse, and a she-wolf known as "Yellow Legs," whose story is like a running theme throughout the book.    The scenes become palpable:  "At first the thoughts in your head are like a tangled skein of wool.  The branches scrape against your face or catch in your hair.   One by one the threads are drawn from the skein.  Get caught in the trees.  Fly away with the wind.  In the end your head is empty.  And you are transported.   Through the forest.  Over steaming bogs, heavy with scent, where your feet sink between the still frozen tussocks and your body feels sticky.  Up a hill.  Fresh breeze.   The dwarf birch creeping, glowing on the ground.  You lie down.  And then the snow begins to fall."  And, later on, "The snow has completely gone.  The ground is steaming, quivering with longing for life. &n bsp; Everywhere things are crawling, chirruping, crackling and playing.  Leaves burst open on the aching trees.  Summer is coming from below like a green, unstoppable wave."   The Blood Spilt is not a book of pulse-pounding suspense [until the final pages, at any rate], but exerts a more subtle pull as it moves toward the horrifying resolution.  It is a well-wrought, disturbing and beautifully written novel.

When Darkness Falls by James Grippando

Review by Gloria Feit 
 

As this novel opens, the homeless man known as Falcon, for the third time in eighteen months, has climbed atop a bridge in Miami and declares his intention to jump.  Each time he is successfully talked down.  Sgt. Vincent Paulo, who despite his recent blindness continues to work as a crisis negotiator with the City of Miami P.D., although now primarily teaching at the Police Academy, has again succeeded in preventing Falcon's suicide.  Falcon is jailed on a number of charges resulting from this latest incident, and Jack Swyteck, an attorney and the son of Florida's former governor, has agreed to defend him pro bono.  But then, this man whose place of abode had been an abandoned car, comes up with not only Jack's fee, but the $10,000 cash bail as well.  After he is freed from jail, a body turns up, found in the trunk of that very vehicle.  Falcon is the prime suspect, and he runs.

 

Jack and Theo Knight – the latter a black high school dropout 'with the brawn of a linebacker and the height of an NBA star" – whom Jack had successful represented long enough to overturn a death row murder conviction, make an unlikely duo as protagonists, along with Vince Paulo.  The book goes on into hidden agendas and deadly secrets in standard thriller fare.  But a much more important story is being told here:  that of the "Desaparecidos," the 'disappeared ones' of Argentina of the late 1970's and '80's, with tens of thousands of people having been abducted – tortured and/or killed – by the military junta which had taken control of the government, with ramifications extending to present-day Miami, Florida.  These elements are drawn together by the author, but I have to say that the tale didn't really work for me on either level. 

 

The major portion of the book deals with a hostage situation with the suspense rising till nearly the conclusion of the book, with all the aforementioned major characters involved.  The references of those frightening times in Argentina with ramifications to the present day are all interesting and horrifying, but the book was a disappointment for me – I had read this author in the past and enjoyed his writing, but not this time.  However, YMMV.

Big City, Bad Blood by Sean Chercover

Review by Gloria Feit

 

Ray Dudgeon is a 38-year-old Chicago p.i. hired to protect a witness in a building scam, the last of four potential witnesses at an impending fraud trial left alive to testify.  It seems that the Mob is involved [or the Outfit as it is apparently called in Chicago], not atypical for that city it seems.  Corruption caused Ray to lose his idealism as well as his prior job as a journalist, only to see it rear its ugly head again as he tries to keep his client alive.  One more scandal would be nothing unusual: "Chicago politics: another day, another scandal.  I suppose that shows some progress.  They've always pulled the same crap, but in the good old days, they never got caught.   Now at least some people were trying to keep things on the level.  Noble, if naïve."  In his personal life, Ray has fallen in love with a nurse who would rather Ray be anything other than a man who has to carry a gun, and is struggling to find a solution to that.  And she also needs him to 'open up' a little, which is even more of a struggle for Ray.

 

The dialogue, characterizations and settings – both Chicago and LA, where a side trip in his bodyguarding duties takes him - are all well rendered, and the protagonist clever and genuinely, eminently likeable, despite his tendency to break the law when circumstances demand it, in sometimes violent ways.  And the man has excellent taste in music.

 

Early in the book, Ray muses: "In a different life I'd have been a musician.  But in this life I was utterly without talent.  I'd proved that to myself and to a succession of tolerant music teachers in my younger years.   Eventually I learned to be content with listening.  One must accept one's limitations."  Unspectacular but typical of the solid writing that often put a smile on my face while engrossed in this book.   On second thought, perhaps spectacular is just the word for this wonderful debut novel.

Capital Crimes by Jonathan and Faye Kellerman

Review by Gloria Feit

 

Capital Crimes is comprised of two novellas by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan and Faye Kellerman.  It is the second collaboration [after Double Homicide ] by these popular authors who usually write individually.  The authors' protagonists from their respective series books, Peter Decker and Alex Delaware, make cameo appearances.

 

The settings are Berkeley and Sacramento, California, in the first of the two novellas, My Sister's Keeper, and Nashville in the second, Music City Breakdown.  In the former, Davida Grayson, a liberal and activist State representative, is murdered while working late in her Berkeley office.  There are several suspects, including a few right-wingers who resented her in-your-face style both with her support of stem-cell research as well as her open lesbianism – she had received threatening letters and had been 'egged' on the steps of the State Capitol building. 

 

In Music City Breakdown, a former folk/rock/country singing star, part of a hugely popular trio back in the day, is murdered in Nashville, where he has gone after years in retirement to perform at a benefit concert.  He is discovered to have been trying to re-establish long-ignored connections.  As one of the detectives muses, "It always comes down to family."   There is an exploration of the dreams of young people with perhaps a distorted vision of the extent of their own talent, and the heartbreak which ofttimes arises when those dreams become nightmares of disappointment.

 

There are several common threads in these two novellas:  There are interesting portrayals of the detectives involved in the respective cases, there is homosexuality, there are a few red herrings, and the culprit is revealed in an unexpected ending in each.  On a negative note, to this reader, the writing was a disappointment and not up to the level usually found in these authors' books. 

A False Mirror by Charles Todd

Review by Theodore Feit

 

In A False Mirror, ninth in this series written by a mother and son writing team, Inspector Rutledge continues to be haunted by his experiences in the trenches in France during the First World War.  An unusual co-protagonist is the "ghost" of a corporal executed for failure to follow orders in the conflict to whom the inspector supplied the coup de grace; he continually speaks to Rutledge with warnings and advice.

 

Rutledge is summoned from London to a southern English seaside hamlet when a man he has no respect for, a lieutenant who served under him in France, takes as hostage a  woman to whom he was formerly engaged in an attempt to stave off arrest for an assault on her husband.  He professes innocence and the local police have him targeted as the culprit.   He seeks the inspector's aid in finding the real attacker.

 

The emotional strains on all the characters is overwhelming, especially on Rutledge, suffering from shell shock and his own lost love when he left for France.  Not only does he have to overcome his own demons affecting his objectivity, but must also find the person responsible for the attack as well as a careful and methodical murderer of two persons.

 

I'm sorry to have discovered this series so late in the game because it is so interestingly written and characterized that I suspect its predecessors are equally well-drawn.  Well, better late than never, there are always eight others to turn to.

Conan Doyle Detective by Peter Costello

Review by Theodore Feit

 

This is a scholarly attempt to trace the development of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a writer and of Sherlock Holmes, and to draw parallels between them.  The work also traces any number of actual cases which Conan Doyle investigated himself, and upon which he drew for his various detective stories.

 

The author relies on a wide variety of sources, documented at the back of the book, to substantiate his thesis: Conan Doyle's literary output directly resulted from his own hidden career as a consulting detective and criminologist.  There certainly are similarities between the deductive reasoning of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and the methods his creator used in his real-life consultations.

 

The book traces Conan Doyle's life from that of a young boy to medical school to his medical practice, before he turned his attention full-time to writing.  There are numerous case studies—from Jack the Ripper to Sacco and Vanzetti—to illustrate the interest and ability of Holmes' creator as a criminologist., as well as his fascination with spiritualism in his later life in attempting to draw clues from crimes.

 

For anyone interested in Sherlock Holmes, this work is a major source of information.

Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh

Review by Theodore Feit 

This book is classic Wambaugh at his best; it's been a long time since his last one.  It appears that he collected all kinds of anecdotes, situations and observances from many police officers in several jurisdictions and wove many of them into this novel.  The cop talk and descriptions of every day patrol and response certainly is up there with the best he has written in the past.

 

Threaded into the string of tales and descriptions is a sort of plot that comes and goes.  It begins when a couple of tweakers [smokers of crystal meth, to the uninitiated] rifle a mail box and get hold of a letter indicating arrival of a diamond shipment to a local jewelry store.  They pass the letter along to a couple who then rob the jeweler, improvising an ingenious escape:  a hand grenade is placed between the victim's knees with the admonition that pressure be maintained or the pin would fall out and the grenade explode.  Naturally, when the LAPD officers arrive on the scene, the knees give way, setting up for an act of heroism as everyone waits for the explosion.

 

The robbers are not finished.  They are told of a delivery of cash to an ATM that should be an easy job.  It turns out that the man has to shoot one of the guards, murdering him as they get the $93,000.   The getaway car is a clunker and they narrowly escape.  The rest of the story is sort of serendipity, along with irony and poetic justice.

 

The long wait certainly was worth it because this novel is most readable and enjoyable.  The cast of characters is poignant and their lives and personalities are made real.   The reader is immersed in the daily comings and goings of the men and women—those on patrol, in the station house and detectives—of Hollywood Station.

Sunday, January 7

Death of a Maid by MC Beaton

Review by Theodore Feit

The customary elements of this long-standing wonderful series remain in place: Constable Hamish Macbeth’s romantic life remains in flux, he is content to solve crimes in the little fishing village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands but give credit to anyone else because he doesn‚t want a promotion and wants to remain there with his dog and tamed wild cat.
 
In this case, a cleaning woman famous for gossiping and fairly poor work is discovered by Hamish outside the home of one of her clients with her head bashed in, apparently hit with her own cleaning pail.  The list of suspects includes all five of her clients because Hamish suspects that while cleaning, the woman discovered secrets and blackmailed the clients.
 
It is a simple tale, but Hamish‚s investigation is anything but.  As in past entries he doggedly pursues clues right up to the end.  As usual, the book is well-written, the plot well-staked out and Hamish’s love life more than complicated.  A delight to read.

Hunters of the Dark Sea by Mel Odom

Review by Bill Bennett

Mel Odom weaves an intricate tale in his historical horror and sci-fi adventure in Hunters of the Dark Sea. The main story opens in 1813. The young United States is at war with Great Britain and the high seas are crawling with British war-ships, privateers, cutthroat pirates and a visitor from not of this world.
  
Twenty-six year old Ethan Swain is first mate of the whaling ship Reliant. He and the crew have been at sea for two years and the ships holds are half full with the precious cargo of whale oil. Ethan has a dark past he must hide in order to keep his life intact. Keeping his past a secrete and being torn between the ships captain and the crew which is on the verge of a mutiny is only a small part of the turmoil he must juggle.
  
On board the research ship Brown-Eyed Sue is Professor Bullock and his intelligent and artistic daughter Katherine. They have been dispatched by the President of the United Sates to investigate reports of a sea monster named Death-in-the-water by the natives of Easter Island. Bullock soon learns the beginning of the reports coincide with a falling star hitting the water 16 years back. While anchored off the coast of Easter Island a dying man washes ashore with his painful and swollen skin practically blistering off the bone. A futile attempt by Bullock at saving the mans life renders an unknown venom the monster uses to kill its prey.
  
Vengeful Jonah McAfee, part of Ethan Swain’s dark past, is captain of the pirate ship Sunfisher. McAfee in pursuit of Ethan for revenge, catches wind of the monster and focuses his efforts on finding the monster.
 
Hunters of the Dark Sea
ends with Ethan battling McAfee, a British war ship, and the sea monster in a dynamite finish. This is one of my favorite books of all time. Odom brings the characters to life in a way comparable to King. I also enjoyed the life-like setting of the high seas, and the day-to-day life that in my opinion was probably close to the real thing for the whalers of that time period. It’s quite obvious Mel Odom did his research for this book.

Wednesday, January 3

Cattery Row by Clea Simon

Review by Dawn Dowdle

Tough times have hit Theda Krakow, a freelance journalist. She had a blowup with Tim, an editor of The Boston Morning Mail, which means she isn't writing for them any more. Plus she's not sure about her relationship with Bill, a Boston homicide detective.

Plus her friends are having their own problems. Rose has received a blackmail phone call. She doesn't have the money they asked for. If she doesn't pay, they will kill her cats. Violet has had some sick kittens stolen from her shelter.

Theda gets hired to write a follow up about 4 women. Her friend Rose is one of those women. When Theda goes to interview her, she finds Rose murdered. She figures the blackmailer killed her. The police figure she was involved in the string of robberies of purebred cats.

To muddy the waters even more, her ex-boyfriend returns. Should Theda get back with him or work on her relationship with Bill?

Can Theda figure out who the killer is and what is really going on without using up her one life?

I really enjoy Theda. She's such a fun character. I love the Boston setting as well. I like this series with cats. The author really knows cats. That comes through in the way she has them interact with the humans. Yet, she doesn't feel a need to make them "talk."

I felt this was even better than her debut novel in this series. I can't wait for the next one to be published. I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, January 2

Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden

Review by Dawn Dowdle

No mystery author should be without this book.  It is chock full of examples and information needed for writing mysteries.  Editors should use it as well. 

She touches on just about every aspect of mystery writing.  She gives lots of examples from published mystery writers and explains in layman's terms the do's and don'ts. 

This is not just another how-to book.  It is geared specifically for mysteries. You may have a great plot and great characters, but there is so much more in writing a mystery.  Many don't make it past the first few pages when being read by agents and publishers.  This book will help your manuscript shine above the others.  

I highly recommend this book to all writers and editors.  I use it in my editing and recommend it to my clients.   Dawn Dowdle, Sleuth Editing.

Wreath of Deception by Mary Ellen Hughes

Review by Dawn Dowdle 

Jo McAllister is opening Jo's Craft Corner.  She was recently widowed and her best friend Carrie has helped her getting the store ready to open.  She is also helping her run the store.  The grand opening goes great except for Cuddles the Clown.  Every time Jo sees him he is grumbling.  By the end of the day she is ready to throttle him.  But instead she pays him.  Last she sees him he is going to the back room to change. 

Later that night after celebrating with Carrie and her family, Jo stops by the store.  Unfortunately she finds Cuddles the Clown whom she hired dead in her store room.  Jo becomes the prime suspect. 

The gals in her craft classes and Carrie help her set out to clear her name.  Carrie's son Charlie is a great help as well. 

Who is feeing the police lieutenant information about Jo's past and encouraging them to look at her as the prime suspect?  Can Jo find the real killer before the killer gets to her? 

I really enjoyed this book.  I've never read anything else by this author, but this will not be the last.  I can't wait until the next book is out in this series. 

Jo is such a likeable character.  Her relationship with her friend Carrie is great, too.  I like the craft store setting in the small town.  Really lends itself to this fast reading cozy.  I highly recommend this book.

Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter by Blaize Clement

Review by Dawn Dowdle 

Dixie Hemingway left the police force after the accidental death of her husband and daughter.  She felt unable to deal with people, so she became a pet sitter. 

After arriving at the home of a wealthy client, Marilee, to care for her cat, Dixie discovers a man who apparently drowned in the cat's water bowl.    She cannot locate Marilee, and soon finds herself in the middle of the investigation. 

Dixie meets quite a cast of characters and is soon looking for answers the police don't seem to be finding.  This puts her in some sticky situations as well as finding another dead person.  Can she prove her innocence by finding the guilty party without putting herself in danger? 

I really enjoyed Dixie.  She is fun but also still grieving her loss.  I also enjoyed the descriptions of the various pets she cares for.  Her brother and his partner really added to the story as well.   

I enjoyed this first installment and cannot wait for the next book to be published.  I highly recommend this book.

Hung Out to Die by Sharon Short

Review by Dawn Dowdle 

Josie Toadfern has been separated from her family since she was eight.  Her parents dropped her off in the local orphanage, and her dad's family refused to have anything to do with her.   

Now her grandma "Mamaw" Toadfern wants her to come to Thanksgiving dinner.  Against her better judgment, she accepts.  Once there, she regrets going.  Even more so when her long lost parents show up for dinner.  Things go from bad to worse when she finds a dead relative while out walking with a friend. 

Her mom begs her to help clear her father's name.  She doesn't want to do it.  But to keep peace in the town, she decides to help.  Can she clear her father's name and keep them from ruining the town with their new get-rich scheme?  Can she do all this without putting herself in danger? 

In the meantime, she is having second thoughts about her situation with her boyfriend.   

Josie is a great character.  I always enjoy reading a book in this series.  She is so down to earth and likeable.  It doesn't surprise me all the situations she gets into.   

The author has done a great job of creating a town full of quirky but likeable characters.  I can't wait for the next book.  I highly recommend this book and the whole series.

A Wedding to Die For by Radine Trees Nehring

Review by Dawn Dowdle 

Senior sleuths Carrie McCrite and Henry King are going to get married.  Carrie is concerned what a senior bride would wear, so she enlists the help of her two friends, only they start taking over the planning.  Since they suggested The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs for the wedding, Carrie gets Henry to go check it out with her.  While there, Carrie sees a ghost bride wearing red.  Their caterers are shot at while talking to them. 

Then they find out someone has been attacking their florists.  It appears another florist in town has targeted them.  After there is a murder and their florists shop is bombed, Carrie and Henry decide to try to locate the culprit behind all these acts.  Can they do so without putting themselves or anyone else in danger? 

In the meantime, Carrie has invited Henry's half-sister to the wedding without Henry's knowledge.  Will he be upset if she shows up? 

This is the first book in this series that I've read.  I can assure you it won't be the last.  I really enjoyed Carrie and Henry.  They are great senior sleuths.  Henry is a former cop so he has a lot of knowledge about investigations.  Carrie just wants to help and gets into many situations. 

I also like that Carrie has good morals and isn't another twenty-something sleuth.  She also has a good head on her shoulders which comes in handy in investigations. 

I can't wait to read more in this series.  I highly recommend this book.

Relative Danger by June Shaw

Review by Dawn Dowdle

Caelie Gunther arrives in town a few days before her granddaughter Kat's graduation only to find out Kat may not graduate at all.  Caelie made a deathbed promise to Kat's mother that she would see Kat graduate, so she is determined to make Kat graduate.   

Kat explains that a school janitor was killed.  Her favorite teacher is no longer speaking to her so she has no interest in going to school.  Caelie signs up to be a substitute teacher at the high school to get Kat back in classes. 

In the school Caelie encounters some rude students and there are some mysterious incidents as well as more violence.  Can she find the killer in time for Kat to complete her final exams and graduate?  Will the fact that her ex-lover Gil Thurman is in town at his new restaurant sidetrack her plans? 

I enjoyed Caelie.  She is a great senior sleuth.  She is a lot of fun and cares about her family but doesn't want to be tied down to them or them to her.   Apparently she moves around a lot.  She doesn't want to get tied down in a relationship either.  This makes her a very interesting character and also very three-dimensional in my eyes. 

The sparks always fly when she's with Gil.  There is a lot of mystery as to what might develop between them.  I hope that eventually something does. 

I like the way Caelie interacts with her granddaughter and son as well.   

I highly recommend this book.

On the Twelfth Night of Christmas by Jo A. Hiestand

Review by Dawn Dowdle

The Salt family, a British family, celebrates Twelfth Night.  Mercedes, their oldest son's wife, announces she wants a divorce.  She also says she's going to vote no for the upcoming expansion of the family business, making high-quality harpsichords. 

The next morning she goes for a walk and ends up being found drowned in the pond that's iced over. The pond is between the Salt estate and her brother's home.  Mark, the Salt's middle son, is a police detective in this district and is soon one of the prime suspects.  Some of his time while searching for Mercedes is unaccounted for.   

The book is set on the Salt estate, and most of it is conducted there, even with the detectives staying at the estate.  This family has so many issues with each other, the police are inundated with motives.  Then there is a second murder.  Can the police figure out who the real killer is before there are any more deaths? 

Brenna Taylor, one of the detectives, has feelings for two of her colleagues, but due to policy, she doesn't act on them.  I do hope she will have a romantic interest in one of the upcoming books.  She is a very likeable character.   

I normally don't like British mysteries, but it helps me a lot when they are written by an American author as this is.  This is the first book I've read by this author, but I hope to read more.  I recommend this book.