The Forgers
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

If you’re looking for a challenging whodunit mystery, this isn’t it. What you have here is a first-person narrative by a high-level literary forger about a murder and its aftermath. The murder occurs very early and the victim is the brother of the narrator’s girlfriend. The brother, a reclusive collector of rare books and artifacts, is found with his hands severed and most of his collection trashed.

The identity of the murderer in The Forgers is less important than the effect of the crime on its characters. The situation is exacerbated by the appearance of a threatening letter to the narrator. As an expert forger of manuscripts himself, he recognizes the handwriting as that of a long-dead author whom he has forged over the years. When more blackmail letters appear in the handwriting of various other dead authors, he decides to set up a meeting with the letterwriter to get to the bottom of things, and the situation goes from bad to worse. One of the intriguing questions in this story is whether the narrator is a good guy at heart, despite his forgery talents.

Written by an author who obviously knows the antiquarian book world intimately, we are given a comprehensive look into the workings of literary forgery, how it is accomplished, who is involved, and how much money is at stake. Written in a highly polished style befitting an author who is a professor of literature and who has been called “one of America’s major literary voices” by Publisher’s Weekly, The Forgers is an unusual blend of mystery, romance, and the fine art of the fake.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 22:14:51
Riders on the Storm
Kevin Burton Smith

Here’s that damned war again. Make no mistake—Vietnam was always a presence in this acclaimed series of historical mysteries featuring Sam McCain, Black River Falls, Iowa’s “least successful lawyer.”

In the earliest books, set in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Vietnam was simply a fly somewhere out there in the dark, buzzing insistently but never quite landing. But as time marches on, the war (and the debate about it) has become harder to ignore, finally coming home to roost at the end of Bad Moon Rising (2012), when National Guardsman Sam is called up.

Riders on the Storm, then, presents the aftermath, and it’s at least as dark and unsettling as the Doors song that inspired its title. The veneer of innocence this series has always hinted at is chopped and broken. Sam is back home after months in a military hospital, his brains scrambled to the point where he didn’t know who he was for several weeks. But the cruelest irony of all may be that his injuries weren’t even received “over there”—the accident occurred stateside, while he was still in boot camp. But there’s more cruelty in store—while he was out of commission, his mother suffered a stroke and is now living in Chicago with his sister, and his fiancée sent him a Dear John letter.

Welcome home, soldier.

It’s 1971, and there’s a lot of hatred and spit in the air, directed at both anti-war protestors and returning vets, and Sam, still shaky, is caught up in the middle. But “that piece of shit war” isn’t over yet, not for Sam, or for anyone else. Soon enough he finds himself defending Will Cullen, an old friend he’s known since First Communion, a quiet-spoken, recently returned veteran who’s been charged with the brutal murder of another returning vet. Steve Donovan, a rising young pro-war politician, was found beaten to death in a parking lot with a tire iron, just hours after he had savagely pummeled Will in a very public dispute.

Nothing, of course, is quite as simple or straightforward as it seems. Not Will’s guilt or innocence, not the war, not Sam’s tentative steps back into civilian life.

In a world of black-and-white political rhetoric and dumbed-down history, the always effective Ed Gorman brings a full box of Crayolas to the party. These are not stick figures mouthing empty talking points— these are real people with real hopes and real dreams, feeling real pain.

Color me impressed.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 22:27:53
A Nip of Murder
Vanessa Orr

It’s no surprise that moonshine, hidden treasure, and guns are a major part of A Nip of Murder, set in the Appalachian region of southern Virginia. What is surprising is that the person taking charge of investigating the stabbing of a robber in her bakery is a young woman named Daisy McGovern, who gives the good old boys a run for their money when it comes to unraveling a series of crimes.

The main characters are likable, though as expected in a rural Southern story, somewhat eccentric—I especially appreciated the fact that everyone, from Daisy to her genteel Aunt Emily, was always ready to pick up either a gun or a glass of ’shine, depending on the situation. While some of the small-town characters are stereotypical, such as the inept sheriff’s deputy and the bad-boy moonshine dealer with a heart of gold, other characters are more cleverly drawn. Miller has a way with description, portraying not-so-bright Bobby Balsam during his school days as “the only one to eat an entire box of crayons, repeatedly,” and Daisy’s best friend, Beulah, as looking “like Medusa with a double heap of windblown snakes.”

This is a charming, easy read of a book. And while I can’t say that I was surprised by the ending, I did have an enjoyable time getting there. The action moved at a fast pace, and author Carol Miller threw in an adequate number of red herrings—as well as a geocaching conference that increased the number of suspects in town. While I’d like to see Miller use her gift of description even more in her next book, this second installment of The Moonshine Mysteries goes down pretty easily.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 22:33:37
Sweet Sunday
Kevin Burton Smith

Sweet Sunday is an ambitious 2003 standalone, re-released in part thanks to the belated discovery stateside of the author’s excellent Inspector Troy series, which has meandered its way, so far, from WWII to about 1963. But anyone expecting a graceful, literate period piece, full of British resolve and the stiff upper lip of aching regret, may need to adjust their expectations. Sweet Sunday, told in a series of occasionally disjointed flashbacks, offers a different time, a different war, and a different country: the sweaty, turbulent and divisive American summer of 1969.

Dropped into the maelstrom is Turner Raines, a displaced 31-year-old Texan now living in New York City. He’s a failed lawyer, disillusioned civil rights activist, and a so-so journalist who’s finally stumbled onto his niche. A little old for the love generation, maybe, but it seems Turner, now a licensed private investigator, is a whiz at tracking down young draft dodgers who’ve found shelter from the storm in Canada—and reassuring their parents that little Johnny is doing okay in Toronto.

But things take a nasty hop when Turner’s best friend, Mel Kisser, a self-styled muckraker for the Village Voice, is murdered. In Turner’s office. With an icepick in his head. Of course, when a man’s friend is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it. Was it something Mel was working on that got him killed? Turner wants to know.

Unfortunately, Lawton is so intent on nailing the flavor and texture of the times that he doesn’t so much capture its essence, as occasionally smother it. I mean, it’s all here in a mad jumble of ’60s Greatest Hits: Norman Mailer’s ill-fated bid to be mayor of New York City, the Mississippi Freedom Riders, the moon landing, the Chicago riots, the hippies and yippies, the casual sex, the generation gap, Bob Dylan, Jerry Rubin and Gloria Steinem, tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, Woodstock, and, of course, Vietnam. But the author’s insistence on Turner bearing witness to almost every key historical event makes him seem more like Forrest Gump than Sam Spade.

Nor do the holes in Lawton’s research help. A passport for Americans to get into Canada? In 1969? Really?

Still, Lawson’s great at the touchstone emotional moments. And the investigation of the case—and Turner’s personal journey—is a long, strange trip well worth going on. Once the author’s focus shifts from the headlines to the actual characters in the book, the past does come alive, and the freak flag of the era flies high and free, capturing all too well the seething, swirling turmoil of a country at war with itself.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 22:41:17
Saving Grace
Sharon Magee

Grace Chapman feels she has an almost perfect life. She and her husband, Ted, a bestselling novelist, live in a beautiful house on the Hudson River in New York, have a grown daughter who seems to have her life well in hand, and Grace has her cooking and volunteer work with Harmont House, a shelter for homeless women, to more than occupy her time.

The perfect life, that is, if only Ted could curb his volcanic temper. Whenever he loses it, Grace reverts to her miserable childhood with a mother who suffered from bipolar disorder. Ted’s tantrums and Grace’s discomfort escalate when their Jill-of-all-trades assistant Ellen leaves them to care for her ill mother. Their normally smoothly run home and Ted’s career begin to show signs of crumbling. Enter Beth, a frumpy young woman who is an organizational dream and who runs their household and Ted’s career effortlessly.

At first Grace wonders at their good luck. Then a favorite scarf of Grace’s disappears only to reappear around Beth’s neck. The plans for a charity function at Harmont House go awry. And a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the one thing Grace fears the most, leaves her flattened. Medicated into an almost comatose state, she watches from the sidelines as Beth usurps more and more of her life and her husband. And Grace wonders: does she have the strength, both mentally and physically, to fight for her life as she once knew it?

Author of 15 New York Times bestselling novels centered on women’s issues, Jane Green writes what she knows. In Saving Grace, her 16th, she uses her personal experience of misdiagnosed bipolar disorder and over-medication to weave a cautionary tale of love and betrayal that chills to the bone. A chef trained at the French Culinary Institute, Green includes recipes from her own recipe file. As with most of Green’s books, it’s almost impossible to put down.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 22:49:04
Bad Country
Betty Webb

This debut mystery won the respected Tony Hillerman Prize and it’s easy to see why. Set mainly in a fictional southern Arizona county where only snakes and Gila monsters feel truly at home, the book beautifully depicts the hardscrabble life of its human inhabitants. As if the rigors of the Arizona desert weren’t enough, a serial killer has been gunning down members of local Indian tribes—particularly Seri, Yaqui, and the Tohono O’Odham.

When Rodeo Garnet, a half Yaqui who runs a largely unsuccessful PI business, tries to stem the violence, he, too, winds up in the killer’s crosshairs. Like almost every character in this demanding book, Rodeo has lived a life so troubled that a quick death via shotgun would seem almost a mercy. His mother committed suicide, his father disappeared, his stripper ex-girlfriend is stalking him, and his no-name dog is so aged and infirm that Rodeo has to carry him around. But Rodeo’s own tortured background provides him with an access the local cops don’t always have, so he is able to cadge interviews with the kinds of witnesses who normally give the cops a wide berth.

Knowing of Rodeo’s facility with the lost and seldom found, the grandmother of one victim hires Rodeo to look into her grandson’s death. Young Samuel Rocha was a complicated boy, a talented published poet, and a suspected dope dealer whom the police believe had somehow incurred the wrath of rival dealers. Only his grandmother, herself a complicated person, believes otherwise. Rodeo’s investigation into Samuel’s death parallels his search for the serial killer, which climaxes in a shocking reveal. Bad Country isn’t an easy book to get through, because its greatest strength—sublime poetic imagery—often pushes the envelope of believability.

Too many characters, even uneducated down-and- outers, speak in grand literary soliloquies. Adding to this problem is the book’s lack of standard punctuation, which makes reading more burdensome than it needs to be. Quotation marks exist for a reason, and the complete lack of them creates unnecessary confusion in many major passages.

But regardless of its overly self-conscious style, Bad Country opens up a window into Arizona’s vicious badlands.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 22:57:32
Death of a Bovver Boy
Hank Wagner

Leo Bruce is the pen name of Rupert Croft-Cooke, who wrote almost two dozen highly praised mysteries featuring schoolmaster and amateur detective Carolus Deene. Death of a Bovver Boy was the last of those novels.

“The ugliest case which Carolus Deene ever chose to investigate” is brought to him by his housekeeper, Mrs. Stick, who informs him that her husband has encountered the corpse of a naked man in a field outside of town. Before he calls the police, with whom he seems to have a rather cozy relationship, Deene has Mr. Stick bring him to the site, where he confirms the existence of said corpse and begins to gather the clues that will unmask a murderer. But before he opines on that matter, he will encounter a plethora of suspects, including denizens of the local crime underworld, members of the victim’s strange, disjointed family, and a collection of unsavory thugs and punks (whom the genteel Deene handles with surprising ease).

Originally published in 1974, this slim novel holds up extremely well. Although time has diminished its shock value, it’s still a quality read, notable for its tight, efficient plotting and memorable cast. Deene is a sturdy, durable, colorful character; you’ll enjoy his exploits here, and will no doubt want to sample previous installments if you haven’t yet had the pleasure.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 23:02:05

The last of Leo Bruce's almost two dozen highly praised mysteries featuring schoolmaster and amateur detective Carolus Deene. 

The Burning Room
Jackie Houchin

In Michael Connelly’s latest mystery, a cold case becomes active when Orlando Merced, the victim of a 10-year-old unsolved shooting, dies of blood poisoning from a bullet still lodged in his spine. Detective Harry Bosch of the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit is assigned to the murder investigation with rookie detective Lucia “Lucky Lucy” Soto.

After working three cases with Soto, Bosch thinks the 28-year-old with a kick-butt reputation is a good investigator who could become solid. Training a young detective and closing the Merced case seem like a good way to finish his last year before retirement. New blood taking over from old; it’s fitting.

When the bullet removed from Merced is identified as coming from a hunting rifle instead of a handgun, the focus of the investigation changes from a random driveby to a targeted assassination. After raking through the old murder book for leads, Bosch hits the streets, following his gut, while Soto searches police data banks.

Bosch agrees to take on a second cold case “under the table,” after he discovers Soto illegally researching it. A fire that killed nine kids and their teacher in a barrio apartment preschool 20 years before was ruled accidental until an accelerant was discovered a month later. By then, it was too late to follow any leads and the case went cold. Digging through the file, Bosch discovers a clipping about a bank heist the same day, just blocks away. Had the fire been a distraction for the robbery?

Working together in interviews, stakeouts, and interstate travel, the team builds momentum on both cases, determined that those who are evil will not remain hidden in darkness forever. But what happens if, when found, the killers lie beyond prosecution?

The Burning Room is meticulously plotted and paced, fascinating and suspenseful. Once begun, it’s hard to put down. While Connelly’s attention to detail, including the latest LAPD regulations, investigative tools, and techniques lends realism to the story, his sympathetic characters are what readers love about his series. Connelly alludes to three possibilities for his title: the place where children trapped by fire died, a session of “enhanced” interrogation better left unrecorded, and the hollow place inside a good detective where the demand for justice burns.

Teri Duerr
2014-12-31 23:10:55

Harry Bosch and new partner Lucia “Lucky Lucy” Soto are on cold case that quickly heats up in Connelly's latest.

Mystery in White
Matthew Fowler

A massive snowstorm delays a train and its passengers, forcing an intrepid group to disembark in the hopes of continuing on to their holiday destinations. The group, which includes a well-meaning brother and sister, a chorus girl, a curmudgeon, and an inquisitive snoop, quickly understands the blunder they have made and are forced to take up refuge in an empty house. As the story unfolds, questions involving the passengers as well as the missing occupants of the house come to the forefront. Amidst ensuing murder and intrigue, the characters discuss the importance of the holiday season as if lives aren’t in jeopardy.

J. Jefferson Farjeon’s greatest strength in this reissue of his 1937 novel is the ability to find the voice of his characters. The descriptions of persons and setting in Mystery in White are insubstantial at best, but the dialog, though markedly of its time, remains lively and readable. Farjeon’s experience as a playwright is noticeable in the banter between his characters. Protagonist and antagonist, female and male, all the voices in the novel work in harmony counterbalancing the thin narrative it exists in.

The problem is that Mystery in White isn’t sure what it wants to be. At points along the way, the novel feels like a social satire more occupied with commenting on class than dealing with the actual mystery. While funny, the story doesn’t feel grounded in tone and loses its way as the central mystery shifts too often between the missing homeowners and the weary travelers. And, in order to untangle the web the author has created, the story introduces even more characters near the end, requiring even more exposition, with a final result that may leave readers unsatisfied.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 20:41:15
Bed of Nails
Hank Wagner

Working for a special unit in Paris in charge of investigating suicides, veteran police lieutenant Richard Guerin has seen his share of disturbing scenes. Usually, determining that suicide is the cause of death takes little effort. Some situations are not so clear cut, however. Such is the case with a recent spate of deaths. All are apparent suicides, but Guerin can’t help but think there is something more to them.

One such case involves the very public death of performer Alan Mustgrave, who dies on stage during his act, which is geared toward devotees of S and M. Although it seems that he intended to end his life, there are some strange circumstances surrounding his death. Guerin teams with Mustgrave’s best friend, an eccentric American named John Nichols, to probe the actor’s death, uncovering evidence of a widespread, and pernicious, conspiracy.

Bed of Nails is the kind of book whose details reviewers should avoid discussing, instead allowing readers to discover the novel’s myriad dark pleasures on their own. Suffice it to say that Antonin Varenne’s debut is noir at its best; his distinctive characters wander a nightmarish landscape, searching for the truth, persevering despite the soul-crushing nature of their quest. Varenne has a way with the telling detail, such as the evidence cache in the police station, which, during rainstorms, leaches fluids from bloodstained articles, creating a disturbing stain in the ceiling of the room below. Set pieces and tableaus like this can be found virtually on every page, letting readers know they are experiencing something distinctly outside the norm.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 21:26:46
The Murder Man
Oline Cogdill

Privileged youths who commit horrific acts that come back to wreck their lives—the trope has been fodder for many a crime fiction tale, not to mention more than a few horror films.

But Tony Parsons, the author of numerous award-winning bestsellers in Great Britain, makes this plot device seem fresh thanks to his energetic storytelling and his appealing hero, Det. Constable Max Wolfe. In The Murder Man, Parsons explores social class, morality, and politics in a multilayered, character-driven plot with numerous hairpin twists. The first of a new series, The Murder Man was released earlier this year in England as The Murder Bag.

Max is a good cop, but he also makes mistakes, takes chances, and sometimes acts on his intuition rather than the facts. That attitude occasionally works, such as when he disobeyed orders in order to head off a suicide bomber headed for a London train station. Max’s actions saved hundreds of lives and made him a hero. But whether his reassignment to homicide is a reward or a punishment is still to be seen.

His latest cases—the murder of Adam Jones, a homeless junkie, and the killing of Hugo Buck, an arrogant investment banker— at first seem to have no connection to each other. But the two men were once in the same class at Potter’s Field, an exclusive boarding school for the upper class. And the murderer is targeting more of their classmates from the same school.

Max isn’t always successful as he tries to skirt the land mines of upper class snobbery and office politics. He makes mistakes, and his bosses don’t always trust or believe him. But Max’s determination and sincere belief in justice propel him through his cases. At home, Max walks a tightrope as a single father to Scout, his five-year-old daughter, and as the new owner of a dog, Stan, whom he’s trying to housebreak. Parsons deftly balances the scenes of Max’s professional life and the often-heartbreaking scenes at home (Scout can’t understand why her mother left Max and her for another man, and neither does Max).

The complex plot moves at a fast clip and Parsons leaves plenty of room for Max’s next adventure which is great news for readers.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 21:43:56
Only the Dead
Robin Agnew

Author Vidar Sundstøl is Norwegian, yet sets his story on the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota. His main character is a US Forest Services officer, Lance Hansen. The second of a trilogy, following 2013’s The Land of Dreams, this self-contained novel stands well on its own. It assumes the intelligence of the reader and hits the ground running, demanding that the reader catch up.

Sundstøl flashes between the story of Lance and his brother Andy, deer hunting in the woods, and a story of survival set during the brutal Minnesota winter of 1892.

In the first, a trek through the forest is fraught with tension for the Hansen brothers. The brothers are reluctant to even talk, afraid of what might come out in their conversation. Lance thinks Andy is a killer, responsible for the brutal death of a tourist, though another man is in prison for the crime. As the weather gets more brutal, the seeping of the cold into Lance’s bones is all too vividly described. The brothers, on edge, follow each other through the forest, unsure of the outcome, Lance’s suspicions and Andy’s possible guilt resting between them,

In the past is the story of a Christian pioneer who nearly freezes to death, but who is rescued by a Native American man. The nearly frozen man thinks his savior is actually trying to kill or poison him with what he perceives as a witch’s brew.

In both stories the magnificence of the north woods in winter is fully embraced, as is its sometimes death-dealing ferocity. In both, the characters are wary of and suspicious of one another—with or without reason—and past sheds a ray of doubt on readers’ interpretation of the present. Is Andy guilty? Lance’s evidence is slender. Even more profoundly, the book wrestles with the nature of dreams. Lance hasn’t dreamt in several years and that places him, in Native American terms, among the dead. Only the dead do not dream. As his dreams come back to him toward the end of the book thanks to the almost hallucinogenic nature of the ice storm that envelops him, his perceptions assume an unreality that has the reader questioning Lance’s assumptions.

This book is brief, intense, thoughtful, and profound. I almost wanted to pick it up again when I finished it because I’m sure there are nuances I missed on the first reading. When I am provided with an unexpected reading experience, I am nothing but grateful, and I am grateful for this lovely book.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 21:49:57
The Perfect Mother
Vanessa Orr

It’s the call every mother dreads; the middle- of-the-night message that your child is in trouble. In the case of Jennifer Lewis, her daughter Emma has been arrested for murder while studying abroad in Spain. While Jennifer believes that her daughter can do no wrong, the police, Emma’s defense team, and even her father have their doubts.

When Jennifer rushes to Spain to be by her daughter’s side, it becomes obvious that the picture-perfect view that she has of Emma and their relationship is skewed. Jennifer’s marriage is also in trouble, and she all but ignores her other two children to stay with Emma, even after Emma says that she doesn’t want her help.

The plotline itself is familiar: anyone who has followed the Amanda Knox case will see a very similar story here. What’s different is that the focus isn’t on Emma as much as it’s on Jennifer and how she deals with the fact that her daughter has now shown everyone—through the world media following the case—that their perfect family isn’t perfect.

It’s fascinating to watch Emma manipulate her mother, and to watch Jennifer make excuse after excuse for her daughter as more sordid facts come to light. It’s not hard to understand how Emma learned this talent either—Jennifer is also a master manipulator, most especially of her husband, and of Roberto Ortiz, the private detective in charge of investigating the case for Emma’s lawyer.

It’s absorbing to watch Jennifer’s flawless façade crack; and in fact, I read the book all in one sitting because I was riveted by her actions. While you would expect any mother to help her child in a bad situation, it left me wondering: Was she protecting her daughter or protecting herself?

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 21:53:12
A Billion Ways to Die
Oline H. Cogdill

After a year of living under aliases and dodging false charges, market researcher Arthur Cathcart and his girlfriend Natsumi Fitzgerald want only one thing—to get their lives back. But the couple knows that won’t be simple. First, they have to dodge cops, criminals, and more bogus charges.

Arthur has been on the run since his wife was murdered by the same men who put a bullet in his head. Brain-damaged after being legally declared dead, Arthur has put his skills to work, helping to set up those who ruined his life. Along the way, he found a soul mate in blackjack dealer Natsumi, a dog, and a home in the Caribbean.

Arthur and Natsumi’s quiet life is interrupted when armed men board their sailboat, threatening them with torture unless they tell where they hid a missing billion dollars. The couple has no idea, but they know that they will never be safe unless they can prove that the charges against them of fraud, embezzlement, and murder in the US are false.

A Billion Ways to Die, the finale of Chris Knopf’s inventive three-novel series, works as an adventure story as well as a cerebral tale about two people who only want a normal life. Although part of Arthur’s brain is “pulpy,” that doesn’t stop this genius for using as much brain power as possible, with a little help from former FBI agent Shelly Gross, cyber expert Strider, and Arthur’s physician sister, Evelyn. Together, they utilize high-tech sleuthing and old-fashioned detective work throughout Knopf’s series.

Knopf ends his trilogy on a high note, with a resolution that gives peace to Arthur and Natsumi, and satisfaction to the readers who have followed their troubles.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 21:59:04
Seven Wonders

Jack Grady, the hero of author Ben Mezrich’s latest thriller Seven Wonders, is an anthropologist cut from the same cloth as Indiana Jones. If you jump on board, you’re in for a fast ride around the globe, with the bad guys only a half-step behind. It starts off with Jack’s autistic, savant-like twin brother, Jeremy, discovering a hidden mathematical pattern in the Ancient and Modern Wonders of the World. Unfortunately for Jeremy, this discovery seals his fate. When Jack flies back from Ephesus, Turkey, after learning of his brother’s murder, he decides to investigate the circumstances himself. With the help of his two plucky grad students, he breaks into MIT and his brother’s lab. Stir in a beautiful botanist named Sloane Costa, who is searching for a strange plant, and the adventure begins.

If you think this plot would make a great movie, well, you aren’t the only one. Twentieth Century Fox has already acquired the movie rights. Unfortunately, the book reads more like a screenplay, light on characterization and heavy on fast-paced action scenes that don’t always make sense. How many escapes from elaborate death traps do you need? However, the descriptions of the Modern Wonders of the World are spot on, allowing you to experience them without leaving your armchair. I found the drive up the Peruvian mountains to Machu Picchu, with the bus skirting the edge of the cliff, particularly vivid. So, if you’re in the mood for a light read, chock-full of gorgeous javelinthrowing Amazons, secret societies, ancient traps, and a hidden underwater entrance into the Taj Mahal, then this might be the one for you.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 22:03:38
Tradition of Deceit
Robin Agnew

The fifth novel in Kathleen Ernst’s series about historical museum curator Chloe Ellefson takes Chloe away from her work in Wisconsin to Minneapolis. It’s 1983 and Chloe’s friend Ariel is working to convert an old Gold Medal Flour mill into a museum when her boss turns up murdered. As Chloe tries to help her friend, she works off her anxiety by baking her way through old Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe books. That’s a response to stress I can get behind.

Meanwhile Chloe’s boyfriend, Officer Roehlke McKenn, is dealing with a second murder back home in Wisconsin—his partner and best friend, Rick. Roehlke shuts out Chloe after Rick is killed, and he takes on the task of finding his friend’s killer himself.

In keeping with the series style, there is also a historical story line set in the past. Reminding me a bit of Jeanne Dams’ view of turn-of-the-century South Bend, Indiana, in her Hilda Johanssen series, Ernst illuminates the hardscrabble life of the mill workers, starting around 1880, using a particular Polish-American family and a woman named Lidia as her focus. Lidia is one of the first to work in a section of the mill for female employees only called “No Man’s Land.”

Ernst illustrates the fundamental importance of grain for human life through her depiction of the mill, which at its peak produced flour for 12 million loaves of bread daily. She also gets to the heart of some elemental truths about male-female relationships, highlighting the problem of domestic abuse from 1917 forward.

If it sounds like the author is cramming a lot of material into her novel, she is, but she handles it easily, moving effortlessly between story threads. She also had me Googling madly for images of the Mill City Museum and for information on wycinanki, the Polish art of paper cutting that pops up throughout the novel.

With a wry voice and a light touch, this was a pleasant read with a really strong central female character. I liked Chloe’s unusual job, and along with enjoying a good story, I enjoyed learning a bit. The book includes a few photos at the end which brought things even more to life. Having lived in Minneapolis myself in the ’80s, where I worked across from the Pillsbury building, it held even more resonance to me. All in all, a very enjoyable reading experience.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 22:09:54
Enter Pale Death
Jackie Houchin

Enter Pale Death is the seventh in Cleverly’s intricately plotted historical mystery series starring Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Joe Sandilands, who first made his appearance in 2002 in The Last Kashmiri Rose.

This novel is set in London and rural Suffolk County in 1933. A death by misadventure, an art theft, and a suspicious suicide all take place on the country estate of Sir James Truelove. It’s good enough reason for Sandilands to throw aside caution, and perhaps his job, to pay an official visit to Suffolk County. The story begins with a detailed account of an unusual and ghastly death. The victim is Lady Lavinia Truelove, the jealous and mean-spirited wife of philandering estate owner and aspiring Home Secretary Sir James Truelove. The malicious killer is a great Suffolk stallion. Death by misadventure is pronounced, but there are whispers, and eventually Sandilands hears them.

Unexpectedly, Sir Truelove asks Sandilands for a favor: thwart a notorious art dealer and purchase a pair of family portraits for him at auction, portraits Truelove claims were secretly stolen from his estate years before. Also interested in the portraits is Suffolk Police Superintendent Adam Hunnyton, who is Truelove’s illegitimate half-brother.

Lastly, fast approaching is the 25th anniversary of the suicide of a young housemaid in Truelove’s employ, a suicide disclaimed vehemently by Hunnyton, her lover at the time. It takes another grisly murder and two near-miss attempts on his own life before the commissioner is satisfied, despite knowing that his evidence of the three murders will never stand up in court.

Cleverly weaves her web of mystery and intrigue so tightly that sometimes it is hard to follow. This is not a book to be breezed through lightly. Readers must consider every word and nuance, lest they miss a vital clue. The author’s meticulous research of the period gives readers a rich experience, but one that may entail consulting a dictionary now and then. Offhand quotes from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and other classics will enhance the tale and the enjoyment of language-lovers. Definitely worth the read to see it all untangled, the horse vindicated, and a twist of winsome romance at the end.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 22:26:41

Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Joe Sandilands is back in an intricately plotted historical mystery set in 1933 England.

Blue Avenue

It’s been 25 years since William “BB” Byrd has seen Belinda Mabry, the first, and possibly only, girl he ever loved, when she turns up dead at the start of Michael Wiley’s extremely graphic and downright unpleasant opening chapter.

BB lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife, Susan, and 16-year-old son, Thomas, and it’s far from a happy family: Susan has slept in the guest bedroom since Thomas’ birth and Thomas contempt for his father, who routinely sleeps with a prostitute, is almost palpable.

Called to the scene of Belinda’s murder by his old friend Lt. Daniel Turner to identify the body, BB decides to take justice into his own hands and find the killer, who’s also murdered two other women. With the help of the mysterious, and very violent, Charles, who came to BB’s assistance during a long-ago altercation, BB starts piecing together Belinda’s life, leading him to her brother, Bobby, and son, Terrence. As he hones in on the killer—whose identity most readers will figure out long before he does—BB realizes that the murders are tied to an even wider scandal involving some noteworthy Florida men and a party gone horribly wrong in Jamaica.

While it’s far from necessary to have a likable hero, BB barely inspires the smallest spark of empathy in readers, and with the in-your-face depictions of sexual violence, Wiley’s new series is off to a lackluster start.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 22:30:10
Die Again
Jordan Foster

The gruesome death of a big-game hunter and well-known taxidermist propels homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles on a journey that takes them from the streets of Boston to the African bush in Tess Gerritsen’s 11th series installment (after 2012’s Last to Die).

Leon Gott is found skinned and eviscerated much in the same way as the menagerie mounted on his wall. The killer also stole a rare snow leopard pelt, causing Jane and Maura to wonder if the murder is the work of a jealous competitor or a rabid animal rights activist. Digging further into Gott’s history, the pair discover that the dead man’s son, Elliot, perished during a Botswana safari trip gone horribly awry.

Interspersed with the present-day investigation are chapters told from the viewpoint of the safari’s only surviving member, Millie, recounting the deadly trip six years earlier.

Though the connections are tenuous at first, Jane and Maura become convinced that not only is Gott’s death—along with a seemingly random homicide in the area—linked to the doomed safari, but that the killer could be part of an Africa-based cult with ties to murders across the country.

Jane and Maura’s friendship deepens with each series installment and readers—and viewers of TNT’s hit Rizzoli & Isles, based on Gerritsen’s work—will enjoy accompanying the two on what proves to be one of their most dangerous cases.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 22:38:06

gerritsen dieagainJane Rizzoli's latest investigation takes her from the streets of Boston to the African bush in Gerritsen’s 11th series installment.

Oline H. Cogdill

Virgil Flowers may not have the name recognition of Lucas Davenport in John Sandford’s other series. After all, Sandford has only written about Virgil eight times as opposed to his 24 novels about Lucas. But what Virgil lacks in longevity, he makes up for with his laconic charm, energetic investigations, and wry outlook on humanity and the urges that drive people to crime. Deadline is a prime example of why Virgil, an agent who reports to Lucas in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, resonates with readers. Sandford’s latest outing finds Virgil tracking two cases that intersect in the Minnesota town of Trippton, located on the Mississippi River. Virgil’s old friend Johnson Johnson asks him to look into a string of dognappings that have local pet owners furious.The owners accuse the local “hillbillies,” led by smalltime motorcycle hood Roy Zorn, of augmenting their meth dealing by selling dogs to “bunchers” for resale to medical laboratories. If Virgil doesn’t do something, the dog owners are armed and ready to take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, Trippton has another problem— the murder of local reporter Clancy Conley. In a closed-door meeting, members of the Buchanan County Consolidated School Board unanimously agreed to kill Clancy, who discovered that the board was embezzling from the school system. Virgil’s comment to Johnson, “You got a colorful town here,” is an understatement. With no help from the local sheriff, Virgil is pretty much on his own in dealing with panicky school board members, paranoid dognappers, and vengeful dog owners, although a 12-year-old boy and a high school janitor come to his aid to surprising effect. Sandford’s brisk pacing and affinity for twists and surprises lead Deadline to a thrilling conclusion. (The scene in which irate dog owners, nefarious dognappers, and several hundred extremely excited dogs all converge is a showstopper.) As for Lucas, he’s back in Minneapolis, no doubt working on a case that will find its way into Sandford’s next novel. That’s just fine with the laid-back Virgil, who finds his boss “a trifle intense.”

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 22:42:07
The Best American Mystery Stories 2014
Jon L. Breen

This annual compilation is too consistent in pure quality for serious complaint, but to get my usual gripe out of the way first, the current volume represents a reversion (after last year’s refreshingly mystery-centric program) to a collection dominated by mainstream short stories with high literary aspirations and some connection to a crime.

Do I regret having read them? Not for a second. Would I like more of the distinctive elements (detection, surprise, reader misdirection) that characterize the mystery genre? Absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with drawing on the literary journals (ten of this year’s 20 entries) or The New Yorker (two more), but were there really only six from genre-specific periodicals, and one from a genre-specific original anthology worthy of selection?

As usual, the stories are arranged alphabetically by author, and this year the practice provides a fine curtain-raiser, for me the strongest tale in the book. Megan Abbott’s “My Heart Is Either Broken,” inspired by a notorious Florida case, concerns the abduction of an infant, its effect on the relationship of the parents, and the tabloid media’s suspicions of the partying mother. The case is solved, but the final scene is more chilling than the crime itself.

Roxane Gay’s deeply disturbing and believable “I Will Follow You,” in its combination of literary quality and appropriateness to a crime/mystery collection ranks second only to the Abbott story, with which it shares the subject of child abduction, though from an entirely different angle. We meet the victims in adulthood, two sisters who have always been inseparable, then learn of their horrible six weeks at ages ten and 11 with the evil Mr. Peter.

Sibling relationships are central to two other stories. Arguably outside the crime fiction genre, though it certainly presents a mystery, is Patricia Engel’s sensitively written “Aida,” in which one of twin teenage daughters disappears. It’s interesting as a study of twinship, but no solution is provided. Jodi Angel’s “Snuff” believably depicts the relationship of a teenage brother and sister in the 1970s, but despite the use of a snuff movie as a framing device, it isn’t really a crime story, and certainly not a mystery.

Some of the better entries in the book present a commendable variety of settings and approaches. Daniel Alarcón’s “Collectors” shows us inmates in a Latin American prison performing the work of a dissident playwright. James Lee Burke, as usual, provides one beautiful sentence after another in “Going Across Jordan,” an engrossing account of labor organizers among migrant workers in the 1930s. Ernest Finney’s “The Wrecker,” about a tow truck driver in Sacramento, California, has a solid fiction noir plot with just enough ambiguity in the ending. In Michelle Butler Hallett’s “Bush-Hammer Finish,” based on an actual Canadian murder case, literati clash in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Charlaine Harris’ “Small Kingdoms,” a sure-fire grabber of the what’s-going-on-here variety, begins with a high school principal killing her attacker and calmly going on to work. David H. Ingram’s “The Covering Storm,” a murder plot against the effective backdrop of the 1900 Galveston disaster, has a good surprise twist. Ed Kurtz’s suburban noir “A Good Marriage” goes from humorous, everyday start to shocking conclusion. Scott Loring Sanders’ “Pleasant Grove,” set in the Virginia mountain country, takes a dysfunctional family saga in unexpected directions.

Only three of the stories have (at least apparently) a detective-story structure. Jim Allyn’s “Princess Anne” is the best of them, and includes some subtly clever reader manipulation. A Michigan family makes a shrine of a dog’s grave on the grounds of their new home, and the previous owner turns up to reclaim the remains. But why the interest of the state police? Some suspicious readers may anticipate a particular twist ending—but are we right? Nancy Pauline Simpson’s “Festered Wounds,” set in the early 20th-century South, introduces a likable Holmes-Watson team, a young county nurse and an admiring deputy sheriff, but the actual mystery plot is disappointingly thin. Laura van den Berg’s “Antarctica,” about a young Massachusetts academic investigating the death of her brother in an explosion at an Antarctic research station, acts like a detective story for most of its length but, in withholding a real solution, turns out an anti-detective story.

Some literary heavyweights make an appearance. The title of Russell Banks’ “Former Marine” refers to an elderly hospitalized bank robber visited by his three sons, all in law enforcement. The shock ending is well handled, though the reason for one action by the sons may strain credibility. It’s hard to imagine why Joseph Heller’s lynch-mob story “Almost Like Christmas” was not published in his lifetime. Annie Proulx’s murder story “Rough Deeds,” set in early 1900s Canada, is a chapter from a novel-in-progress, and probably it will be a fine historical saga.

The two remaining stories struck me as some combination of overwritten, pretentious, and uninspired. But 90 percent is an A grade in most classrooms.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 22:55:11

lippman bestamericanmysterystories2014Though high-quality all around, a reversion (after last year’s refreshingly mystery-centric program) to a collection dominated by short stories with high literary aspirations and some connection to a crime.

The Hunting Dogs
Betty Webb

Perhaps because of the Nordic countries’ frigid climates, their mysteries have a tendency to be on the bleak side, and Jørn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs,  gracefully translated into English from the original Norwegian by Anne Bruce, is no exception.

Horst’s Detective William Wisting was first introduced to Norwegian readers in 2004’s Key Witness, but his work didn’t become available to the English-speaking world until 2010’s Dregs. Since then, Wisting’s wife, a foreign aid worker, was killed in Africa, he acquired a lover, and his daughter Line became a journalist. In this new outing, Wisting is on the verge of losing both his girlfriend and his title as Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Larvik (Norway) Police Force. His superiors have accused him of faking evidence that put Rudolph Haglund, an innocent man, in prison. Now suspended from duty, it is up to Wisting to prove he didn’t orchestrate the transfer of Haglund’s DNA to cigarettes found at the crime scene where young Cecilia Linde was kidnapped, then murdered. Wisting’s daughter, certain that her father would never fabricate evidence, uses her own considerable newsroom savvy to uncover the truth.

Although there are no American-style car chases or shoot-outs in this mystery, the lack of flashy action is more than compensated for by the book’s depth. The Chief Inspector may not wear his heart on his sleeve, but because of Horst’s moody, nuanced writing, we know Wisting even better than he knows himself. We sympathize with his grief over his deceased wife, we understand his fears for his daughter’s safety, and we share his sorrow at being separated from the job he loves. Yet Wisting isn’t naive about the limits of police work. In one scene he muses that in the Haglund case, he and his colleagues acted like a pack of hunting dogs. “Rudolf Haglund was the man they had caught, but like any other hunting dogs, they had followed the warmest scene without further thought.”

It takes a brave man to admit to his mistakes, and by the conclusion of The Hunting Dogs, we are given further proof that Wisting is that man.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-03 23:14:24
State-by-State Authors

korytamichael 3
I try not to get involved with those games or quizzes on Facebook. Thank you very much, but I can waste time on my own.

But the one that is still circulating about how many states you’ve visited drew me in. I wasn’t too surprised that the quiz showed that the only states I haven’t visited are Hawaii, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

I immediately had two thoughts: "I need a road trip" and "I thought I had been to many of these states." 

And I have…through mysteries.

When the novels are so detailed in their scenery, it makes me feel as if I am there. As they should.

So here’s a look at why I thought I had been to some of these states.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels are set in Wyoming, but he also has dipped into other states such as in A Serpent’s Tooth, which deals with polygamy groups in Wyoming, which is right across the border from South Dakota, Utah, and Colorado.

C.J. Box's series about Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden, gives us breathtaking scenery, area politics, and a complex hero.

Andrew Hunt’s 2012 novel City of Saints took us to Salt Lake City in 1930 when it was a fast-growing town with big-city concerns, dominated by the large, striking divisions between the wealthy and the middle class, and between those who follow the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and those who are not Mormons. The rough-hewn countryside, both beautiful and unforgiving, shrinks as the city limits expand. This Depression-era Utah background proves to be an evocative and mesmerizing setting for City of Saints. (Description comes from my review of City of Saints.)

Nevada Barr can be counted on to take us to just about every state in the union with her series heroine, park ranger Anna Pigeon. In The Rope, Barr takes us back to how Anna became a ranger, spending the summer working at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which encompasses more than 1.2 million acres from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah.

Patricia Cornwell gave us a quick trip to Utah in her 1997 novel Unnatural Exposure in which Kay Scarpetta visits the U.S. government's huge biological defense
facility in Utah.

Nevada Barr comes through again with her 2001 Blood Lure that takes place in the Glacier/Waterton National Peace Park in Montana.

Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, which I think is one of the best novels of 2013, skillfully melds a thrilling adventure story set against the Montana wilderness with a poignant coming of age story. To keep him safe, a teenage witness to murder is placed in a Montana wilderness training program for troubled teens run by a survival expert. Koryta, photo above, portrays vivid Montana landscapes pulsating with the smells and sounds of the great outdoors.

C.J. Box’s The Highway probably scared me more than any novel has. With three-dimensional characters and a gripping plot, The Highway is even more frightening because of its backstory. Box bases his story on the real hunt for a murderer working as a long-haul trucker—the FBI’s Highway Serial Killer Task Force. While the FBI’s task force statistics are numbing, Box never stoops to the prurient while delivering an edgy, compelling novel.  Set in the remote corners of Montana, the isolated landscape lends a chilling atmosphere where the whine of an 18-wheeler and an unlit back road ratchet up the suspense. (Description comes from my review of The Highway.)

Carrie La Seur’s debut The Home Place, which I also listed as one of the best of 2013, chronicles a woman’s complicated relationship with her hometown of Billings, Montana, her relatives who stayed behind, and her ancestral history. In The Home Place, La Seur poignantly shows how characters are influenced by a sense of place, affecting their choices in life. The Montana land that makes up “the home place” has been owned by a family for generations, representing all that the family was, what it will be, and what it struggles with now. No one lives on the property, yet no one wants to sell the homestead either. This home place, about an hour from Billings, is a refuge, an offer of security, a place of contention, paralleling the family’s lives. (Description comes from my review of The Home Place.)

little elizabeth

Elizabeth Little’s debut, Dear Daughter, which I also listed as one of the best of 2013, revolves around an unlikable protagonist with a biting personality who was sent to prison for her mother’s brutal murder. The case was sketchy at the time, and now, 10 years later, the conviction has been overturned because of mismanaged evidence. Scant clues lead Jane to the tiny, crumbling town of Adeline, South Dakota, and the adjacent community of Ardelle. The barren, soulless South Dakota towns succinctly mirror a struggle with identity in this exciting debut by Little, photo at right.

Lori G. Armstrong has two series set in her home state. Former Black Ops Army sniper Mercy Gunderson has an uneasy return to civilian life on her family’s ranch in South Dakota in three novels. Private investigator Julie Collins looks into crime near Bear Butte in four novels.

Photos: Michael Koryta, top, Elizabeth Little, right.

Oline Cogdill
2015-01-03 20:20:00
James Patterson and Bookstores

patterson jamesms4
Eighty-one independent bookstores across the country got a lovely holiday present when author James Patterson, left, donated a total of $473,000 to those stores at the end of 2014.

This marks the third and final round of pledges that Patterson made last year. Patterson had pledged to donate $1 million to established bookstores that have dedicated children’s sections.

The third and final round of grants brings his total donation to $1,008,300 for 178 independent bookstores with children’s book sections. His first round of grants amounted to over $267,000, with 55 stores receiving funds, and the second round amounted to over $268,000, with 43 stores receiving funds    

Patterson, best known for his thrillers about Alex Cross and his YA novels, also is a major supporter of literacy programs.

Patterson and two-time Miami Heat champion and New York Times bestselling author Dwyane Wade (A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball) have teamed up for two years in a row to promote children’s literacy. This past year, they also enlisted other NBA players, including LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Terrence Ross, and Dirk Nowitzki.

Patterson has twice been named Author of the Year by Children’s Choice Book Award, and is scheduled to be the guest speaker at this year’s Sleuthfest, Feb. 29 to March 1, in Deerfield Beach, Florida.

Oline Cogdill
2015-01-07 15:20:00
WEB Griffin on War and Writing

Griffin WEB 2014



"So have at it, you dumb son of a [expletive]. Write a [expletive] novel.”

And that's an order...



I went to Korea as a 22-year-old regular Army sergeant and became the "Go-For” of Lieutenant General ID White, who had been sent there to straighten-out the X United States Army Corps Group.

As his Go-For I performed varied assignments, which General White decided I could do more efficiently than other members of his staff, but I was surprised to learn that I was now also the Public Information Sergeant of X Corps Group. General White had relieved the full colonel who had been PIO (public information officer), and replaced him with a second lieutenant who knew something about public relations.

Understandably, the second lieutenant was having difficulty controlling his 13 combat correspondents. These were well-educated young PFCs (private first class) and corporals who had been journalists before being drafted. I was to do two things in my new assignment: first, control these wild men, and second, make sure that none of their dispatches—which were distributed around the world as Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service stories—mentioned his name.

I knew this was going to be interesting when I went to the mess tent and saw sitting at a table a tall hawk-featured PFC wearing a combat correspondent’s insignia and the combat infantry badge. On the table was a sign that read “4th Grade Thru College.” Across the tent, where the senior sergeants like me dined, was a sign reading, “First Three Grades Only.”

The PFC was John Sack, fresh from Harvard, where he had not only published the first two of his many books, but also had been the first man to be simultaneously editor of The Harvard Crimson and The Harvard Lampoonand the first Jew to be editor of either.

Truth being stranger than fiction, John and I became friends, and remained friends, until his death 60 years later.

One day, some months after we met, while sharing a bottle of Haig & Haig I had purloined from the general’s mess, I confessed that the few stories I had written and seen sent out “on the wire” had made me wonder if I too might hope one day to be a writer.

“[Expletive] Butterballs, you’re a better [expletive] writer now than anybody here but me. So have at it, you dumb son of a [expletive]. Write a [expletive] novel.”

butterworth comfortmewithlove

The first chapters of my first novel, Comfort Me With Love, were written in Kwanda-Ri, North Korea, shortly before John and I came home and got out of the Army, and General White left X Corps, to ultimately become Commander-in-Chief, Pacific.


W.E.B. Griffin is the #1 best-selling author of more than 50 epic novels in seven series, all of which have made The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and other bestseller lists. More than 50 million of the books are in print in more than ten languages, including Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and Hungarian.

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews January 2015 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2015-01-08 16:02:00