Lucky Bastard
Sheila M. Merritt

The slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is quite comforting, but where’s the fun in that for the rest of us? In Lucky Bastard, author Deborah Coonts teases and satisfies with an up-close-and-intimate narrative set in Sin City. The novel is a 21st-century take on Damon Runyon, full of guys and dolls, but updated with modern references—and puzzling murders. High stakes gambling factors in on many levels, be it poker or games of the heart. Cynical yet laced with sighs in the appropriate places, Lucky Bastard is a sardonic and simultaneously sentimental delight.

Wisecracking Lucky O’Toole is in charge of customer relations at a lavish luxury resort. The Babylon, as its name indicates, caters to its customers’ indulgences. Lucky’s job is to iron out any kinks, and be tolerant of any possible kinkiness. She is well suited to the job, as the offspring of two very Vegas success stories. Her parents both came from relatively sordid backgrounds (Mom is a “working girl” turned political and social activist, and Dad, who had a history of shady business operations, is now the owner of The Babylon), but are now socially and economically elevated, and Lucky’s business acumen is a trait that she has inherited from them in spades. Though privileged, the savvy protagonist knows how to deal with shocking circumstances. She’s also, as the title of the book implies, an illegitimate child and a fortunate financial heir.

When a mega-babe is found dead, her body draped across a showroom Ferrari with the heel of a designer shoe embedded in her carotid artery, Lucky does damage control and engages in covert sleuthing. With her keen mind and penchant for puns, she is mentally armed to cope with a barrage of mixed messages and hidden agendas, such as the murder victim’s very flirty spouse who turns out to have kept his marriage secret.

As smart and seasoned as she is, though, Lucky is extremely vulnerable when it comes to intimacy. She is attracted and repelled by the victim’s husband, and is still recovering from an aborted romance with a crooner whose renewed wooing is perfectly pitched. Plus, there’s a luscious French chef who can whip Lucky into peaks of desire. Stirring as all this is, there are crimes to be solved: two obvious murders, another questionable death, and illegal activities that challenge even the liberal standards of Las Vegas.

Laden with glitzy and glamorous characters, but also attentive to the city’s downtrodden, the narrative nicely captures the feel of the gambling mecca. Coonts is highly adept at fusing the sequined and the seedy when touching on the dichotomy of the fabled city where poverty lurks in the shadows of the glitter. Primarily an effervescent escapade, Lucky Bastard has depth beneath its flamboyant surface. With her fourth novel featuring Lucky O’Toole, Deborah Coonts puts her cards on the table and plays a winning hand.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 11:07

The slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is quite comforting, but where’s the fun in that for the rest of us? In Lucky Bastard, author Deborah Coonts teases and satisfies with an up-close-and-intimate narrative set in Sin City. The novel is a 21st-century take on Damon Runyon, full of guys and dolls, but updated with modern references—and puzzling murders. High stakes gambling factors in on many levels, be it poker or games of the heart. Cynical yet laced with sighs in the appropriate places, Lucky Bastard is a sardonic and simultaneously sentimental delight.

Wisecracking Lucky O’Toole is in charge of customer relations at a lavish luxury resort. The Babylon, as its name indicates, caters to its customers’ indulgences. Lucky’s job is to iron out any kinks, and be tolerant of any possible kinkiness. She is well suited to the job, as the offspring of two very Vegas success stories. Her parents both came from relatively sordid backgrounds (Mom is a “working girl” turned political and social activist, and Dad, who had a history of shady business operations, is now the owner of The Babylon), but are now socially and economically elevated, and Lucky’s business acumen is a trait that she has inherited from them in spades. Though privileged, the savvy protagonist knows how to deal with shocking circumstances. She’s also, as the title of the book implies, an illegitimate child and a fortunate financial heir.

When a mega-babe is found dead, her body draped across a showroom Ferrari with the heel of a designer shoe embedded in her carotid artery, Lucky does damage control and engages in covert sleuthing. With her keen mind and penchant for puns, she is mentally armed to cope with a barrage of mixed messages and hidden agendas, such as the murder victim’s very flirty spouse who turns out to have kept his marriage secret.

As smart and seasoned as she is, though, Lucky is extremely vulnerable when it comes to intimacy. She is attracted and repelled by the victim’s husband, and is still recovering from an aborted romance with a crooner whose renewed wooing is perfectly pitched. Plus, there’s a luscious French chef who can whip Lucky into peaks of desire. Stirring as all this is, there are crimes to be solved: two obvious murders, another questionable death, and illegal activities that challenge even the liberal standards of Las Vegas.

Laden with glitzy and glamorous characters, but also attentive to the city’s downtrodden, the narrative nicely captures the feel of the gambling mecca. Coonts is highly adept at fusing the sequined and the seedy when touching on the dichotomy of the fabled city where poverty lurks in the shadows of the glitter. Primarily an effervescent escapade, Lucky Bastard has depth beneath its flamboyant surface. With her fourth novel featuring Lucky O’Toole, Deborah Coonts puts her cards on the table and plays a winning hand.

Loyalty
Kevin Burton Smith

Loyalty kicks off with a strange blend of dysfunctional family and legal drama—think Dynasty meets LA Law—but once Fina Ludlow, Boston private eye and black-sheep daughter of the powerful Ludlow clan of high-priced shysters, hits the mean streets, all is forgiven.

There are some unfortunate (and unneeded) early lapses into Janet Evanovich territory in an attempt to make Fina “quirky”—the Pop Tarts and junk food diet might pass, but does she really have to keep her thong on a kitchen sideboard? And is it really necessary for her to (already) be torn between two lovers, hunky masseuse (and sometime muscle) Milloy and equally hunky, exasperated police detective Cristian?

Meanwhile, the intrusive third-person narration too often undermines the action, as when we’re condescendingly informed that “there’s a world of morally ambiguous and outright criminal activity that is always pulsing and known to few...”

Gosh...Really?

Still, when her sister-in-law Melanie disappears, Fina proves she’s got plenty of the right stuff, digging relentlessly into the case, cracking wise, and taking on all comers, even as her father (and boss) Carl, the control-freak patriarch of both the family and Ludlow & Associates, cautions his daughter not to do anything to attract unwarranted negative attention or besmirch the reputation of either.

Ooops! Too late!

Especially when Melanie’s body is discovered and her brother Rand is arrested for murder.

Not since Spenser hung up his gumshoes has a private eye ruffled the feathers of Beantown propriety with such gusto, as the cocky Fina tears deep into closely guarded secrets—and not just those of the contentious Ludlow clan. There’s also a snooty madame, her son the disgraced doctor, and plenty of people in places both high and low with more than just reputations to protect. Plus a wild card teenage niece who may—or may not—be hooking on the side.

Overwritten at times and too eager by half, maybe, and the third-place narration needs to be slapped down, but Fina’s hands-on approach to detective work, her determination to stand on her own, and her easy-going banter with Milloy, a pleasant blend of wit and grit, bode well for this new series. And Ingrid Thoft’s willingness to probe some surprisingly dark familial shadows is to be applauded. Ditch the cop and let Fina speak for herself next time, and I’ll be there.

(Hmmm. Does that mean I’m in Camp Milloy?)

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 11:07

Loyalty kicks off with a strange blend of dysfunctional family and legal drama—think Dynasty meets LA Law—but once Fina Ludlow, Boston private eye and black-sheep daughter of the powerful Ludlow clan of high-priced shysters, hits the mean streets, all is forgiven.

There are some unfortunate (and unneeded) early lapses into Janet Evanovich territory in an attempt to make Fina “quirky”—the Pop Tarts and junk food diet might pass, but does she really have to keep her thong on a kitchen sideboard? And is it really necessary for her to (already) be torn between two lovers, hunky masseuse (and sometime muscle) Milloy and equally hunky, exasperated police detective Cristian?

Meanwhile, the intrusive third-person narration too often undermines the action, as when we’re condescendingly informed that “there’s a world of morally ambiguous and outright criminal activity that is always pulsing and known to few...”

Gosh...Really?

Still, when her sister-in-law Melanie disappears, Fina proves she’s got plenty of the right stuff, digging relentlessly into the case, cracking wise, and taking on all comers, even as her father (and boss) Carl, the control-freak patriarch of both the family and Ludlow & Associates, cautions his daughter not to do anything to attract unwarranted negative attention or besmirch the reputation of either.

Ooops! Too late!

Especially when Melanie’s body is discovered and her brother Rand is arrested for murder.

Not since Spenser hung up his gumshoes has a private eye ruffled the feathers of Beantown propriety with such gusto, as the cocky Fina tears deep into closely guarded secrets—and not just those of the contentious Ludlow clan. There’s also a snooty madame, her son the disgraced doctor, and plenty of people in places both high and low with more than just reputations to protect. Plus a wild card teenage niece who may—or may not—be hooking on the side.

Overwritten at times and too eager by half, maybe, and the third-place narration needs to be slapped down, but Fina’s hands-on approach to detective work, her determination to stand on her own, and her easy-going banter with Milloy, a pleasant blend of wit and grit, bode well for this new series. And Ingrid Thoft’s willingness to probe some surprisingly dark familial shadows is to be applauded. Ditch the cop and let Fina speak for herself next time, and I’ll be there.

(Hmmm. Does that mean I’m in Camp Milloy?)

Lost
Kristin Centorcelli

Two beautiful boys, brothers, have been found dead on the bank of the Thames in London. To Detective Inspector Dana Tulloch, they look as if they’re asleep. This makes a total of four boys dead in the span of two months, and another is missing. The killer’s pace is escalating, and Dana is terrified. She has a hunch that there’s something different about these killings, and there’s no blood at the scene, although the boys’ throats have been cut. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Barney, a lonely boy who longs for the mother who left him when he was very young, has a gift for seeing patterns that others don’t, and is very interested in the killings. He and his friends begin their own investigation while dodging the eagle eyes of their parents, who certainly don’t want them running around alone after dark. Barney’s neighbor, Detective Constable Lacey Flint, is on leave from the force and is also keeping an eye on him, while trying not to get involved in the investigation herself. She’s still reeling from the events in Dead Scared and is emotionally vulnerable, so navigating a new case is a terrifying prospect for her, but she may not be able to keep her curiosity in check.

This is my first book by SJ Bolton, and the third in the Lacey Flint series, and what a treat! As a reader coming into the middle of a series, I did wish I knew more about the case that put Lacey Flint into such a spiral of despair; however, I don’t feel like it took away from my experience of this psychologically harrowing novel. The author has a gift for balancing more than a few story lines without confusing the reader. And not only is the investigation fascinating, but the scenes with Barney and his friends capture perfectly the poignancy of adolescents on the verge of adulthood, and in fact, Barney’s story of abandonment is particularly tragic. There were quite a few times when I thought I knew exactly who the killer was, but I was wrong every time. Lost is a very atmospheric, complex, and emotional procedural with a true shocker of an ending.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 11:07

Two beautiful boys, brothers, have been found dead on the bank of the Thames in London. To Detective Inspector Dana Tulloch, they look as if they’re asleep. This makes a total of four boys dead in the span of two months, and another is missing. The killer’s pace is escalating, and Dana is terrified. She has a hunch that there’s something different about these killings, and there’s no blood at the scene, although the boys’ throats have been cut. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Barney, a lonely boy who longs for the mother who left him when he was very young, has a gift for seeing patterns that others don’t, and is very interested in the killings. He and his friends begin their own investigation while dodging the eagle eyes of their parents, who certainly don’t want them running around alone after dark. Barney’s neighbor, Detective Constable Lacey Flint, is on leave from the force and is also keeping an eye on him, while trying not to get involved in the investigation herself. She’s still reeling from the events in Dead Scared and is emotionally vulnerable, so navigating a new case is a terrifying prospect for her, but she may not be able to keep her curiosity in check.

This is my first book by SJ Bolton, and the third in the Lacey Flint series, and what a treat! As a reader coming into the middle of a series, I did wish I knew more about the case that put Lacey Flint into such a spiral of despair; however, I don’t feel like it took away from my experience of this psychologically harrowing novel. The author has a gift for balancing more than a few story lines without confusing the reader. And not only is the investigation fascinating, but the scenes with Barney and his friends capture perfectly the poignancy of adolescents on the verge of adulthood, and in fact, Barney’s story of abandonment is particularly tragic. There were quite a few times when I thought I knew exactly who the killer was, but I was wrong every time. Lost is a very atmospheric, complex, and emotional procedural with a true shocker of an ending.

The Shadow Tracer
Kevin Burton Smith

If Mary Higgins Clark ever wrote an action flick, it might come off something like this. Oklahoma skip tracer (and devoted single mom) Sarah Keller has built a respectable, no-drama life for her precocious, precious five-year-old daughter Zoe and herself—except when she’s at work, tracking down deadbeat dads, delinquent witnesses, and the like. But a freak school bus accident (damn those cellphones!) shatters the quiet domesticity when an ER medical test reveals Sarah’s big secret—Zoe is not her daughter.

In fact, Zoe’s her niece, the daughter of Sarah’s sister Bethany who was murdered by the Fiery Branch of the New Covenant, a cult of meth-dealing, Bible-thumping Looney Tunes led by the charismatic Eldrick Worthe, Zoe’s paternal grandfather. And Eldrick wants his granddaughter brought back into the family fold.

Unsure of whom to trust and afraid Zoe will be taken from her, Sarah and Zoe take it on the lam. From then on, it’s essentially one long, Ludlumesque cross-country odyssey, full of shootouts, car chases, radical nuns, and lots of things blowing up as the two fugitives try to dodge a trio of almost-cartoonish Fiery Branch psychos, assorted local police, an obsessed (and possibly rogue) FBI agent, and Michael Lawless, a handsome-but-tormented US marshall who has his own secrets.

Yes, “handsome.” There are also a fair share of romance conventions woven into this tale, giving it an odd, Lifetime vibe. But it’s the opening scenes, when Sarah is simply doing her job, serving legal papers on a woman embezzler, that really hooked me and made me care what ultimately happens. It’s good old-fashioned detective work, capped by a little scam that would do Rockford proud. And the payoff is delicious. A whole book of this would have been fine with me.

But once the hunter becomes the hunted, the full range of Sarah’s formidable skills are back-burnered and the plot unfolds in a more or less linear fashion, filled with extended, ready-for-the-multiplex action set pieces (including an awesome showdown in an aircraft graveyard) that don’t so much drive the story as fill it. Many of these would be real kick-the-seat-in-front-of-you stuff on the big screen, but they too often fall a little short on a cold, dry page.

Still, it’s clear Edgar-winner Meg Gardiner knows her stuff. It may just be a chase, but it’s one helluva chase. Pass the popcorn.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 11:07

If Mary Higgins Clark ever wrote an action flick, it might come off something like this. Oklahoma skip tracer (and devoted single mom) Sarah Keller has built a respectable, no-drama life for her precocious, precious five-year-old daughter Zoe and herself—except when she’s at work, tracking down deadbeat dads, delinquent witnesses, and the like. But a freak school bus accident (damn those cellphones!) shatters the quiet domesticity when an ER medical test reveals Sarah’s big secret—Zoe is not her daughter.

In fact, Zoe’s her niece, the daughter of Sarah’s sister Bethany who was murdered by the Fiery Branch of the New Covenant, a cult of meth-dealing, Bible-thumping Looney Tunes led by the charismatic Eldrick Worthe, Zoe’s paternal grandfather. And Eldrick wants his granddaughter brought back into the family fold.

Unsure of whom to trust and afraid Zoe will be taken from her, Sarah and Zoe take it on the lam. From then on, it’s essentially one long, Ludlumesque cross-country odyssey, full of shootouts, car chases, radical nuns, and lots of things blowing up as the two fugitives try to dodge a trio of almost-cartoonish Fiery Branch psychos, assorted local police, an obsessed (and possibly rogue) FBI agent, and Michael Lawless, a handsome-but-tormented US marshall who has his own secrets.

Yes, “handsome.” There are also a fair share of romance conventions woven into this tale, giving it an odd, Lifetime vibe. But it’s the opening scenes, when Sarah is simply doing her job, serving legal papers on a woman embezzler, that really hooked me and made me care what ultimately happens. It’s good old-fashioned detective work, capped by a little scam that would do Rockford proud. And the payoff is delicious. A whole book of this would have been fine with me.

But once the hunter becomes the hunted, the full range of Sarah’s formidable skills are back-burnered and the plot unfolds in a more or less linear fashion, filled with extended, ready-for-the-multiplex action set pieces (including an awesome showdown in an aircraft graveyard) that don’t so much drive the story as fill it. Many of these would be real kick-the-seat-in-front-of-you stuff on the big screen, but they too often fall a little short on a cold, dry page.

Still, it’s clear Edgar-winner Meg Gardiner knows her stuff. It may just be a chase, but it’s one helluva chase. Pass the popcorn.

Brilliance
Sharon Magee

Federal Agent Nick Cooper lives in an alternate 2013, a world very similar to our own except that it’s just slightly skewed; one percent of all infants exhibit superpowers. In the civilization that Marcus Sakey so vividly creates in the first of a new three-book saga, these superhumans are called "brilliants," "abnorms," "gifted," or derogatory variations. The government tests children, who, if they score in the top one or two tiers of gifted powers, are forced into academies where the humanity is drained from their souls. With multilayered characters, Sakey immerses us in the world and life of Cooper, a tier-one brilliant, who can read people’s movements before they make them. He’s a True Believer and, as an agent for a government he believes is infallible, tracks down rogue abnorms who endanger the nation.

His world is shaken when his four-year-old daughter Katie exhibits signs of superpowers. Cooper pleads with his boss to exempt her from testing and inevitable admission to an academy. When he is refused, Cooper makes a deal with the devil that finds him not only questioning his belief system, but running for his life and the lives of those he loves. Don’t mistake this for another comic-book-superhero saga. The characters and story are unique, yet grounded in realism. The brilliants could be anyone’s family member, friend, or next-door neighbor. Award-winning Sakey’s previous books are standalone crime fiction, most recently The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes. This departure into the realm of speculative fiction was a gutsy move that paid off, with movie rights already sold to the production company Legendary Pictures. If the second and third books in this trilogy please as much as this first, Sakey has a solid winner on his hands.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 11:07

Federal Agent Nick Cooper lives in an alternate 2013, a world very similar to our own except that it’s just slightly skewed; one percent of all infants exhibit superpowers. In the civilization that Marcus Sakey so vividly creates in the first of a new three-book saga, these superhumans are called "brilliants," "abnorms," "gifted," or derogatory variations. The government tests children, who, if they score in the top one or two tiers of gifted powers, are forced into academies where the humanity is drained from their souls. With multilayered characters, Sakey immerses us in the world and life of Cooper, a tier-one brilliant, who can read people’s movements before they make them. He’s a True Believer and, as an agent for a government he believes is infallible, tracks down rogue abnorms who endanger the nation.

His world is shaken when his four-year-old daughter Katie exhibits signs of superpowers. Cooper pleads with his boss to exempt her from testing and inevitable admission to an academy. When he is refused, Cooper makes a deal with the devil that finds him not only questioning his belief system, but running for his life and the lives of those he loves. Don’t mistake this for another comic-book-superhero saga. The characters and story are unique, yet grounded in realism. The brilliants could be anyone’s family member, friend, or next-door neighbor. Award-winning Sakey’s previous books are standalone crime fiction, most recently The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes. This departure into the realm of speculative fiction was a gutsy move that paid off, with movie rights already sold to the production company Legendary Pictures. If the second and third books in this trilogy please as much as this first, Sakey has a solid winner on his hands.

Crime of Privilege
Robin Agnew

I always find it interesting when writers take a real-life story and change it slightly for their own fictional purposes. This is a formula that was used to great effect for years on Law & Order, and it’s one used here as Walter Walker explores the high-society world of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and a powerful family called the Gregorys. They are so famous and powerful, with a senator as a member, that merely to be a satellite of the family conveys status.

The book opens with the story of a fancy cocktail party in Palm Beach, Florida, where the narrator, George Becket, witnesses—though does not take part in—the sexual assault of one of the party guests. He manages to put a stop to some of it. In his account, written from a male point of view, he’s not sure if he’s witnessed a rape.

When he’s approached a short time later by a representative of the girl’s family, asking him to tell what he knows, he takes the cowardly route and says she was drunk but wasn’t objecting to what was happening. His decision has long-reaching repercussions for him, as the girl’s family appears to be every bit as powerful as the Gregorys. It has long-reaching repercussions for the girl as well, whose life ends tragically.

Fast forward a few years and our hero, George Becket, is a low-level DA on the Cape, stuck in the basement of the office working DUI cases. His unvarying routine is to go to a certain bar and enjoy a beer, a little basketball, and the local cuisine. He’s content enough. Then one night he’s approached by a distressed father, and he listens to his story of his daughter, discovered dead on a golf course with her head bashed in, several years back. The father has been sharing “tips” with the police and prosecutors for years to no avail. The father may have finally found the receptive ear he’s been hoping for.

George’s discomfort with his part in the rape and its aftermath many years ago makes him more open to listening to the father’s pleas, and almost despite himself, he finds that he’s questioning everyone involved in the case, sometimes completely on his own. It of course appears to be connected to the Gregorys, though there’s never been any actual proof. The real-life case with a “Kennedy connection,” in which Michael Skakel was convicted of the 1975 murder of his 15-year-old neighbor in Greenwich, Connecticut, bears a strong resemblance to the story Walker is telling.

While Walker has constructed a pretty tight thriller—there are some powerful folks behind the scenes, and they seem to be pulling all the strings in George’s hapless life—what he’s really concerned with seems to be the moral redemption of his main character. A witness to a crime in which he failed to speak for the victim, he spends the rest of the book atoning for his sins, right up to the denouement of the murder case. It’s up to the reader to decide how well he succeeds.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 12:07

I always find it interesting when writers take a real-life story and change it slightly for their own fictional purposes. This is a formula that was used to great effect for years on Law & Order, and it’s one used here as Walter Walker explores the high-society world of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and a powerful family called the Gregorys. They are so famous and powerful, with a senator as a member, that merely to be a satellite of the family conveys status.

The book opens with the story of a fancy cocktail party in Palm Beach, Florida, where the narrator, George Becket, witnesses—though does not take part in—the sexual assault of one of the party guests. He manages to put a stop to some of it. In his account, written from a male point of view, he’s not sure if he’s witnessed a rape.

When he’s approached a short time later by a representative of the girl’s family, asking him to tell what he knows, he takes the cowardly route and says she was drunk but wasn’t objecting to what was happening. His decision has long-reaching repercussions for him, as the girl’s family appears to be every bit as powerful as the Gregorys. It has long-reaching repercussions for the girl as well, whose life ends tragically.

Fast forward a few years and our hero, George Becket, is a low-level DA on the Cape, stuck in the basement of the office working DUI cases. His unvarying routine is to go to a certain bar and enjoy a beer, a little basketball, and the local cuisine. He’s content enough. Then one night he’s approached by a distressed father, and he listens to his story of his daughter, discovered dead on a golf course with her head bashed in, several years back. The father has been sharing “tips” with the police and prosecutors for years to no avail. The father may have finally found the receptive ear he’s been hoping for.

George’s discomfort with his part in the rape and its aftermath many years ago makes him more open to listening to the father’s pleas, and almost despite himself, he finds that he’s questioning everyone involved in the case, sometimes completely on his own. It of course appears to be connected to the Gregorys, though there’s never been any actual proof. The real-life case with a “Kennedy connection,” in which Michael Skakel was convicted of the 1975 murder of his 15-year-old neighbor in Greenwich, Connecticut, bears a strong resemblance to the story Walker is telling.

While Walker has constructed a pretty tight thriller—there are some powerful folks behind the scenes, and they seem to be pulling all the strings in George’s hapless life—what he’s really concerned with seems to be the moral redemption of his main character. A witness to a crime in which he failed to speak for the victim, he spends the rest of the book atoning for his sins, right up to the denouement of the murder case. It’s up to the reader to decide how well he succeeds.

The Trojan Colt
Kevin Burton Smith

Award-winning sci-fi author Mike Resnick serves up another amiable mystery featuring Cincinnati gumshoe Eli Paxton, the sad-sack everyman last seen in The Dog in the Manger, reprinted last year but originally published back in 2001. I suspect this “new” one might date from the same era, because Eli hasn’t aged noticeably and the running gag about his aversion to technology seems even more forced—and even more unlikely—than ever. A middle-aged man working as a contemporary private investigator not owning (or even knowing how to use) a cellphone? Or a computer? That would be like Philip Marlowe riding a horse in The Big Sleep.

Still, if you can swallow that big gob of disbelief, that sense of deliberate anachronism might actually be part of the book’s charm. Because The Trojan Colt is all about delivering on expectations; it’s a deliberate love letter to the PI mid-list, an unapologetic comfort read. It’s telling that when Eli watches old movies on the late show in his hotel they’re not stone-cold, heart-wrenching classics of the genre, but pleasantly dependable old B-flicks featuring Mike Shayne and Boston Blackie. As Eli himself says at one point, “I’m just a detective. Being a hero is another union.”

There’s something reassuring in someone so defiantly old school. And while Eli may be your classic journeyman, soft-boiled shamus—a nice guy who asks questions, tries to get along with the cops, and holds a chair out for his date—he’s no sap. Leaving his troublesome dog Marlowe with an unsuspecting neighbor, Eli journeys to nearby Lexington, Kentucky, to guard Trojan, a prize racehorse whose stud services are about to be auctioned off. But when Tony, the yearling’s young groom, disappears, Eli’s quick to act. As he doggedly works the case, we get to see what Eli’s really made of, as well as receive an intriguing glimpse into the racing game and the astronomical amounts of money up for grabs when it comes to the breeding of future (potential) champions. When Eli discovers that Trojan’s previous groom also went missing, and that an out-of-town assassin has been spotted in the area, Eli himself becomes a target.

Along the way Resnick makes sure that many of the genre’s most beloved tropes are trotted out. The author doesn’t break any new ground, perhaps, but in the gallop to the fair-play finish line, it’s clear he doesn’t have to.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 12:07

Award-winning sci-fi author Mike Resnick serves up another amiable mystery featuring Cincinnati gumshoe Eli Paxton, the sad-sack everyman last seen in The Dog in the Manger, reprinted last year but originally published back in 2001. I suspect this “new” one might date from the same era, because Eli hasn’t aged noticeably and the running gag about his aversion to technology seems even more forced—and even more unlikely—than ever. A middle-aged man working as a contemporary private investigator not owning (or even knowing how to use) a cellphone? Or a computer? That would be like Philip Marlowe riding a horse in The Big Sleep.

Still, if you can swallow that big gob of disbelief, that sense of deliberate anachronism might actually be part of the book’s charm. Because The Trojan Colt is all about delivering on expectations; it’s a deliberate love letter to the PI mid-list, an unapologetic comfort read. It’s telling that when Eli watches old movies on the late show in his hotel they’re not stone-cold, heart-wrenching classics of the genre, but pleasantly dependable old B-flicks featuring Mike Shayne and Boston Blackie. As Eli himself says at one point, “I’m just a detective. Being a hero is another union.”

There’s something reassuring in someone so defiantly old school. And while Eli may be your classic journeyman, soft-boiled shamus—a nice guy who asks questions, tries to get along with the cops, and holds a chair out for his date—he’s no sap. Leaving his troublesome dog Marlowe with an unsuspecting neighbor, Eli journeys to nearby Lexington, Kentucky, to guard Trojan, a prize racehorse whose stud services are about to be auctioned off. But when Tony, the yearling’s young groom, disappears, Eli’s quick to act. As he doggedly works the case, we get to see what Eli’s really made of, as well as receive an intriguing glimpse into the racing game and the astronomical amounts of money up for grabs when it comes to the breeding of future (potential) champions. When Eli discovers that Trojan’s previous groom also went missing, and that an out-of-town assassin has been spotted in the area, Eli himself becomes a target.

Along the way Resnick makes sure that many of the genre’s most beloved tropes are trotted out. The author doesn’t break any new ground, perhaps, but in the gallop to the fair-play finish line, it’s clear he doesn’t have to.

Dream With Little Angels
Robin Agnew

This is a so-called “literary” mystery (i.e., it has some gorgeous prose and some thoughtful characterizations, with attention given to theme and setting). My problem with many efforts of the more literary type is that the mystery part is forgotten about. I like nice writing; but I also like a good plot. I think the mix that makes a great book combines prose, character, setting, and plot.

Michael Hiebert’s debut delivers on all those fronts. When I read his bio and saw that he lived in Canada I was puzzled that he set his novel in the American South in 1987, so puzzled that I emailed him to find out why. It turns out he had spent some time in the South and loved the romance and what he referred to as its “innocence and tenderness.” In addition, he was smitten by a re-reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

That’s all pretty heavy stuff to lay on your first mystery novel, but Hiebert delivers. It’s the coming-of-age-story of Abe Teal (though mystery readers may be reminded more strongly of John Hart’s The Last Child or William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace than To Kill a Mockingbird), the son of single mom Leah Teal, also a detective in the tiny town of Alvin, Alabama.

The book opens with a flashback to the now-12-year-old discovery of a young girl’s body under a tree; fast forward to the present (or to 1987), and there’s another little girl gone missing. Abe’s mother has never gotten over the first disappearance; she’s not taking the new one well. In addition, her daughter Carry, Abe’s older sister, is just hitting teenage-hood and all that it implies. Leah is stretched pretty thin all around and Abe is left trying to make sense of it all.

Hiebert does touch on racism a bit in his book, but is not message-y on the topic; it’s part of the fabric of the story. What he turns out to be good at is pacing and character. He’s enough of a natural mystery writer, maybe, to even use a red herring or two as he tells his story, though I think he’s primarily interested in Abe.

Abe is 11 and he’s a good, if overly prescient, narrator. He figures things out in his head and manages to steer his way pretty well, trying to do what’s right as he sees it. His counterpoint is his friend Dewey, whose thinking is less sophisticated than Abe’s but somehow less straightforward. The two make for an interesting combination.

The end of the story is a breathless, will-they-get-there-in-time affair, with a heartbreaking resolution. Hiebert’s skill at character and storytelling should take him a long way; he has at least two more books planned featuring Abe’s family, and I’m looking forward to them.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 02:07

This is a so-called “literary” mystery (i.e., it has some gorgeous prose and some thoughtful characterizations, with attention given to theme and setting). My problem with many efforts of the more literary type is that the mystery part is forgotten about. I like nice writing; but I also like a good plot. I think the mix that makes a great book combines prose, character, setting, and plot.

Michael Hiebert’s debut delivers on all those fronts. When I read his bio and saw that he lived in Canada I was puzzled that he set his novel in the American South in 1987, so puzzled that I emailed him to find out why. It turns out he had spent some time in the South and loved the romance and what he referred to as its “innocence and tenderness.” In addition, he was smitten by a re-reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

That’s all pretty heavy stuff to lay on your first mystery novel, but Hiebert delivers. It’s the coming-of-age-story of Abe Teal (though mystery readers may be reminded more strongly of John Hart’s The Last Child or William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace than To Kill a Mockingbird), the son of single mom Leah Teal, also a detective in the tiny town of Alvin, Alabama.

The book opens with a flashback to the now-12-year-old discovery of a young girl’s body under a tree; fast forward to the present (or to 1987), and there’s another little girl gone missing. Abe’s mother has never gotten over the first disappearance; she’s not taking the new one well. In addition, her daughter Carry, Abe’s older sister, is just hitting teenage-hood and all that it implies. Leah is stretched pretty thin all around and Abe is left trying to make sense of it all.

Hiebert does touch on racism a bit in his book, but is not message-y on the topic; it’s part of the fabric of the story. What he turns out to be good at is pacing and character. He’s enough of a natural mystery writer, maybe, to even use a red herring or two as he tells his story, though I think he’s primarily interested in Abe.

Abe is 11 and he’s a good, if overly prescient, narrator. He figures things out in his head and manages to steer his way pretty well, trying to do what’s right as he sees it. His counterpoint is his friend Dewey, whose thinking is less sophisticated than Abe’s but somehow less straightforward. The two make for an interesting combination.

The end of the story is a breathless, will-they-get-there-in-time affair, with a heartbreaking resolution. Hiebert’s skill at character and storytelling should take him a long way; he has at least two more books planned featuring Abe’s family, and I’m looking forward to them.

The Square of Revenge
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

When a jewelry store in Bruges, Belgium, is broken into, Detective Inspector Van In is called upon to solve the crime. When he arrives, however, he discovers that none of the expensive jewels and gold have been taken. Instead, they’ve been dissolved in jars of a corrosive acid. The only clue to the bizarre crime is a piece of paper with a strange square of Latin words.

Before he can begin his investigation, Van In is told by his superior to basically shelve the case since the jewelry store owner is politically connected and has requested that it be kept out of the news. The perpetrators, however, leak the story to the press and Van In is asked to solve the puzzle. Complicating matters is the presence of an attractive female DA who is also interested in the investigation. When the jewelry store owner's grandson is kidnapped and an unusual ransom is demanded, solving the mystery becomes even more important.

What is the motive for the crimes, and what does the strange assortment of Latin words mean? As the few leads are followed, both the case and the relationship between Van In and the attractive DA become more complex.

This is a very good police procedural, with the investigation hampered by political infighting and a few false clues. Van In is an interesting detective, prone to drink and sometimes swayed by the political pressure, but possessed of a sharp eye and a unique nose for ferreting out the truth. I enjoyed the verbal byplay between him and his associates, some friendly and others not so much.

This is the first Van In book translated into English in a series that has already sold millions of copies worldwide. The author lives in Bruges.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 02:07

When a jewelry store in Bruges, Belgium, is broken into, Detective Inspector Van In is called upon to solve the crime. When he arrives, however, he discovers that none of the expensive jewels and gold have been taken. Instead, they’ve been dissolved in jars of a corrosive acid. The only clue to the bizarre crime is a piece of paper with a strange square of Latin words.

Before he can begin his investigation, Van In is told by his superior to basically shelve the case since the jewelry store owner is politically connected and has requested that it be kept out of the news. The perpetrators, however, leak the story to the press and Van In is asked to solve the puzzle. Complicating matters is the presence of an attractive female DA who is also interested in the investigation. When the jewelry store owner's grandson is kidnapped and an unusual ransom is demanded, solving the mystery becomes even more important.

What is the motive for the crimes, and what does the strange assortment of Latin words mean? As the few leads are followed, both the case and the relationship between Van In and the attractive DA become more complex.

This is a very good police procedural, with the investigation hampered by political infighting and a few false clues. Van In is an interesting detective, prone to drink and sometimes swayed by the political pressure, but possessed of a sharp eye and a unique nose for ferreting out the truth. I enjoyed the verbal byplay between him and his associates, some friendly and others not so much.

This is the first Van In book translated into English in a series that has already sold millions of copies worldwide. The author lives in Bruges.

Nemesis (Pronzini)
Kevin Burton Smith

For the last decade or so, Bill Pronzini’s long-running (36 novels and countless novellas and short stories since 1968), name-challenged hero has too often been relegated to a co-starring role in his own books. The spotlight has instead shone increasingly on his fellow associates (who know him as “Bill”) in his small San Francisco detective agency—Tamara Corbin, the feisty young office manager, and Jake Runyon, a brooding former cop who’s become the agency’s primary operative—while the semi-retired Nameless himself has been shunted off to the sidelines, mostly to deal with various domestic issues revolving around his wife Kerry and their adopted daughter Emily.

The books have become three-ring circuses: thematically linked, multiple-viewpoint juggling acts alternating between Tamara, Jake, and Nameless that, while always intriguing and well-written, too often lack the emotional drive and pulpy zest of earlier installments of the series, much to the dismay of longtime fans. Also missing has been the rambunctious glee with which the MWA Grand Master used to pay homage to—while simultaneously subverting—the genre and its expectations. Such early classics as Blowback, Undercurrent, and particularly Shackled (a 1988 tour de force that stepped outside the genre’s comfort zone and ratcheted up the tension to Stephen King levels) were a joy to read; a continuing narrative of a man and his times that kept readers both off-balance and enthralled.

So it’s fitting that the events of Shackled are referred to more than once in Nemesis, a welcome return to form. This time out, Nameless, ostensibly retired, is once more relegated to a supporting role, at least at first, content to stay at home and nurse the emotionally fragile Kerry back to health. But to paraphrase a certain Samuel Spade, when a man’s partner is in a jam, you’re supposed to do something about it. And Jake has landed himself in one helluva jam.

An already suspicious Jake is hired by twitchy young (and newly rich) Verity Daniels to investigate the death threats and demands for money she’s been receiving from an anonymous caller. But Verity turns out to be less than truthful—and more than a little unstable. When things blow up, Jake and the agency are ground zero for a Kafkaesque legal witch hunt that could destroy them both, prompting Nameless back onto the playing field after too long on the bench.

Over the course of this series, he’s faced down heartbreak, health scares, psychopaths, betrayals, and enough assorted slings and arrows to fill a lifetime, and it’s good to see him being put through the wringer once more, gearing up for a battle that truly matters. Welcome back, Bill.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 02:07

For the last decade or so, Bill Pronzini’s long-running (36 novels and countless novellas and short stories since 1968), name-challenged hero has too often been relegated to a co-starring role in his own books. The spotlight has instead shone increasingly on his fellow associates (who know him as “Bill”) in his small San Francisco detective agency—Tamara Corbin, the feisty young office manager, and Jake Runyon, a brooding former cop who’s become the agency’s primary operative—while the semi-retired Nameless himself has been shunted off to the sidelines, mostly to deal with various domestic issues revolving around his wife Kerry and their adopted daughter Emily.

The books have become three-ring circuses: thematically linked, multiple-viewpoint juggling acts alternating between Tamara, Jake, and Nameless that, while always intriguing and well-written, too often lack the emotional drive and pulpy zest of earlier installments of the series, much to the dismay of longtime fans. Also missing has been the rambunctious glee with which the MWA Grand Master used to pay homage to—while simultaneously subverting—the genre and its expectations. Such early classics as Blowback, Undercurrent, and particularly Shackled (a 1988 tour de force that stepped outside the genre’s comfort zone and ratcheted up the tension to Stephen King levels) were a joy to read; a continuing narrative of a man and his times that kept readers both off-balance and enthralled.

So it’s fitting that the events of Shackled are referred to more than once in Nemesis, a welcome return to form. This time out, Nameless, ostensibly retired, is once more relegated to a supporting role, at least at first, content to stay at home and nurse the emotionally fragile Kerry back to health. But to paraphrase a certain Samuel Spade, when a man’s partner is in a jam, you’re supposed to do something about it. And Jake has landed himself in one helluva jam.

An already suspicious Jake is hired by twitchy young (and newly rich) Verity Daniels to investigate the death threats and demands for money she’s been receiving from an anonymous caller. But Verity turns out to be less than truthful—and more than a little unstable. When things blow up, Jake and the agency are ground zero for a Kafkaesque legal witch hunt that could destroy them both, prompting Nameless back onto the playing field after too long on the bench.

Over the course of this series, he’s faced down heartbreak, health scares, psychopaths, betrayals, and enough assorted slings and arrows to fill a lifetime, and it’s good to see him being put through the wringer once more, gearing up for a battle that truly matters. Welcome back, Bill.

Massacre Pond
Hank Wagner

Paul Doiron’s fourth Mike Bowditch novel series begins as the Maine game warden is called to an unusual crime scene, a grisly killing ground containing the corpses of several moose. The authorities quickly adopt the theory that the crimes are meant as revenge against local land owner Elizabeth Morse, a wealthy animal rights activist whose efforts have cost many locals their jobs.

Although purposely kept on the edges of the case by his superiors, Bowditch finds himself intimately involved, putting him at odds with his commanders, and longtime pal Billy Cronk, who is considered a suspect. It also takes time away from his personal life, at a time when he can ill afford it. Despite this pressure, Bowditch pursues the leads he painstakingly uncovers, even as the ante is raised to include human targets.

Like Nevada Barr writing about Anne Pigeon, or C. J. Box writing about Joe Pickett, Doiron does a wonderful job of detailing the daunting combination of personal, professional, and political challenges faced by those who work to preserve and protect the nation’s natural resources. Bowditch is an extremely relatable protagonist, whose reactions to the trials and tribulations his creator throws at him are entirely believable. Doiron has also created a fascinating personal life for his hero—readers can see him changing as the series progresses, affected both by his human relationships and his experiences on the job. Besides focusing on his human cast, Doiron, the editor in chief of Down East magazine and a registered Maine guide, also takes great pains to bring Bowditch’s home state of Maine to vivid life.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 02:07

doiron_massacrepondMike Bowditch, the rugged and righteous Maine game warden, is back for a solid fourth outing. 

Circle of Shadows
Sue Emmons

Imogen Robertson continues her delightful, historical tales of the widowed Harriet Westerman, an amateur sleuth, and her reclusive cohort, Gabriel Crowther, an anatomist whose forensic skills aid and abet her investigations.

In their fourth outing, the duo is summoned by Westerman’s younger sister, the recently wed Rachel whose husband, Daniel Clode, has been accused of a particularly gruesome killing in the court of the Duchy of Maulberg in rural Germany in 1784. In the middle of their post-wedding European tour, Clode, still clad in the fool’s costume he wore to a Shrove Tuesday Carnival (also known as Mardi Gras), is found in the back room of a haberdashery with the butchered body of the lovely Lady Martesen. He claims no memory of the events that led him there, nor can he explain how his own wrist was slit. The German authorities charge Clode with the crime and his execution looms if the real culprit is not found.

Westerman and Crowther are welcomed to the court and mingle in German society where they discover intrigue raging and secrecy rampant. They unmask undercover spy Jacob Pegel, who was sent to the duchy to probe the motivations of the Minervals, a particularly vicious offshoot of the secretive Freemasons. Pegel’s discoveries, combined with the skills of Westerman and Crowther, unravel a nasty scheme that veers into absurdity in many of its strange elements.

Robertson is a virtuoso at capturing the nuances and customs of the period and culture. This entry in the Georgian mystery series follows Instruments of Darkness (2011), Anatomy of Murder (2012), and the CWA Ellis Peter Historical Award short-listed Island of Bones (2012).

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 02:07

Imogen Robertson continues her delightful, historical tales of the widowed Harriet Westerman, an amateur sleuth, and her reclusive cohort, Gabriel Crowther, an anatomist whose forensic skills aid and abet her investigations.

In their fourth outing, the duo is summoned by Westerman’s younger sister, the recently wed Rachel whose husband, Daniel Clode, has been accused of a particularly gruesome killing in the court of the Duchy of Maulberg in rural Germany in 1784. In the middle of their post-wedding European tour, Clode, still clad in the fool’s costume he wore to a Shrove Tuesday Carnival (also known as Mardi Gras), is found in the back room of a haberdashery with the butchered body of the lovely Lady Martesen. He claims no memory of the events that led him there, nor can he explain how his own wrist was slit. The German authorities charge Clode with the crime and his execution looms if the real culprit is not found.

Westerman and Crowther are welcomed to the court and mingle in German society where they discover intrigue raging and secrecy rampant. They unmask undercover spy Jacob Pegel, who was sent to the duchy to probe the motivations of the Minervals, a particularly vicious offshoot of the secretive Freemasons. Pegel’s discoveries, combined with the skills of Westerman and Crowther, unravel a nasty scheme that veers into absurdity in many of its strange elements.

Robertson is a virtuoso at capturing the nuances and customs of the period and culture. This entry in the Georgian mystery series follows Instruments of Darkness (2011), Anatomy of Murder (2012), and the CWA Ellis Peter Historical Award short-listed Island of Bones (2012).

The Silent Wife
Hilary Daninhirsch

Fans of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling Gone Girl will be thrilled to discover the brilliant novel The Silent Wife about a toxic marriage on a path to disaster. In this case, the path leads to murder.

Jodi and Todd have been together for several decades, living as common-law husband and wife. He is a successful real estate developer; she is a part-time therapist. Jodi has the convenient ability to hide her feelings from herself, or, more accurately, the inability to face her darkest fears. She likes everything wrapped up in neat little packages; her household is perfect and her routine never varies from day to day.

While the two love each other, Todd has a problem with fidelity. While he doesn’t flaunt it, Jodi is well aware of Todd’s cheating. Even when Todd tells Jodi that he is leaving her for his friend’s young daughter, Jodi doesn’t process the information, believing that Todd will come back home to her. When it is apparent he has left her for good, something comes unglued inside Jodi, albeit slowly.

The drama escalates, as Todd continues the “leaving” process, and Jodi starts to comprehend what is really happening. Each partner has a turn to speak in the novel; much is learned from the transcripts of Jodi’s session with a psychotherapist regarding an event in her past that causes her to be the “silent” type.

Neither character is particularly likable, though Jodi’s character is more fully developed than Todd’s. Psychologically, Jodi is very damaged, and that is the part of her character that comes through. Todd doesn’t have as much depth—he is simply a philanderer who thinks he can get away with having his cake and eating it too. Regardless, the atmosphere of dysfunction and the intelligent writing will likely launch this novel into book club circles.

Sadly, the author’s pen has run out of ink: A.S.A. Harrison passed away in April. Harrison had written several works of nonfiction; The Silent Wife was her first novel. The mystery genre has lost an author of great potential.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 02:07

Fans of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling Gone Girl will be thrilled to discover the brilliant novel The Silent Wife about a toxic marriage on a path to disaster. In this case, the path leads to murder.

Jodi and Todd have been together for several decades, living as common-law husband and wife. He is a successful real estate developer; she is a part-time therapist. Jodi has the convenient ability to hide her feelings from herself, or, more accurately, the inability to face her darkest fears. She likes everything wrapped up in neat little packages; her household is perfect and her routine never varies from day to day.

While the two love each other, Todd has a problem with fidelity. While he doesn’t flaunt it, Jodi is well aware of Todd’s cheating. Even when Todd tells Jodi that he is leaving her for his friend’s young daughter, Jodi doesn’t process the information, believing that Todd will come back home to her. When it is apparent he has left her for good, something comes unglued inside Jodi, albeit slowly.

The drama escalates, as Todd continues the “leaving” process, and Jodi starts to comprehend what is really happening. Each partner has a turn to speak in the novel; much is learned from the transcripts of Jodi’s session with a psychotherapist regarding an event in her past that causes her to be the “silent” type.

Neither character is particularly likable, though Jodi’s character is more fully developed than Todd’s. Psychologically, Jodi is very damaged, and that is the part of her character that comes through. Todd doesn’t have as much depth—he is simply a philanderer who thinks he can get away with having his cake and eating it too. Regardless, the atmosphere of dysfunction and the intelligent writing will likely launch this novel into book club circles.

Sadly, the author’s pen has run out of ink: A.S.A. Harrison passed away in April. Harrison had written several works of nonfiction; The Silent Wife was her first novel. The mystery genre has lost an author of great potential.

The Summer of Dead Toys
M. Schlecht

The ominous title sets the tone in Spanish author Antonio Hill’s debut. Detective inspector Hector Salgado is back in his Barcelona office after a mandatory leave of absence—he got too rough with a suspect in a child-trafficking case. The recipient of his outrage, a practitioner named Dr. Omar who manipulated his young female “patients,” vows revenge on Salgado’s recently separated wife and their son.

But Salgado’s attention is required—cigarettes help with that—on a new case involving 19-year-old Marc Castells, who has fallen to his death from a balcony. The boy’s mother, though estranged from her child, is convinced it was not a suicide, and as Salgado, along with agent Leire Castro, interviews the boy's friends, he is inclined to agree. Gina, a girl with an unrequited crush on Marc, and Aleix, a boy whose maturity has not yet caught up to his smarts and boldness, both seem to be hiding something. Salgado himself seems tucked under a blanket of sleepless resignation throughout the novel, letting his professional duties take the wheel for a while.

Dead Toys unfolds in an atmosphere hot and claustrophobic, like a room with the windows closed on a July afternoon. The Barcelona summer radiates from the pages, to the extent that when Salgado and Castro sip their mojitos after a long shift readers may find themselves refreshed. But such moments of cool escape are few and far between. Although, as the full extent of the title’s meaning is revealed, some may find themselves breaking out in a cold sweat.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

The ominous title sets the tone in Spanish author Antonio Hill’s debut. Detective inspector Hector Salgado is back in his Barcelona office after a mandatory leave of absence—he got too rough with a suspect in a child-trafficking case. The recipient of his outrage, a practitioner named Dr. Omar who manipulated his young female “patients,” vows revenge on Salgado’s recently separated wife and their son.

But Salgado’s attention is required—cigarettes help with that—on a new case involving 19-year-old Marc Castells, who has fallen to his death from a balcony. The boy’s mother, though estranged from her child, is convinced it was not a suicide, and as Salgado, along with agent Leire Castro, interviews the boy's friends, he is inclined to agree. Gina, a girl with an unrequited crush on Marc, and Aleix, a boy whose maturity has not yet caught up to his smarts and boldness, both seem to be hiding something. Salgado himself seems tucked under a blanket of sleepless resignation throughout the novel, letting his professional duties take the wheel for a while.

Dead Toys unfolds in an atmosphere hot and claustrophobic, like a room with the windows closed on a July afternoon. The Barcelona summer radiates from the pages, to the extent that when Salgado and Castro sip their mojitos after a long shift readers may find themselves refreshed. But such moments of cool escape are few and far between. Although, as the full extent of the title’s meaning is revealed, some may find themselves breaking out in a cold sweat.

The Ides of April
Kevin Burton Smith

After 20 novels following Falco Didius Marcus down the mean streets of Ancient Rome, best-selling author Lindsey Davis has spun off a new series featuring his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. There’s a distinct whiff of chick-lit trendiness here—Albia, now 28, is a decidedly modern girl, a professional woman with her own business, her own apartment, and her own unique fashion sense, free to live—and love—as she pleases, but don’t expect Sex and the City with togas.

That’s because Albia’s taken over Dad’s old Fountain Court office in the Surbura district, and is now working as a private “informer” herself. She’s a little angrier and more impulsive than her old man, perhaps, but just as outraged by hypocrisy and corruption as dear old Dad ever was, and just as adept at spouting her own era-appropriate Chandlerisms, whether it’s a display of crushed idealism disguised as cynicism (“Even the Vestals weren’t virgins anymore”) or a wiseass simile (“I was in there like a louse up a tramp’s tunic”). Which makes her an ideal traveling companion as we once more revel in the colorful characters and sharply etched period detail Davis is known for.

Particularly ideal since the book’s a little slow when it comes to actual plot. Set 10 years after the events in the last Falco mystery, Nemesis (2010), Albia, already married and widowed, is short on cash and reluctantly working for an unpleasant woman, Salvidia, a general contractor being sued for negligence in the death of a young boy. When Salvidia’s untimely death is revealed to be yet another in a string of unexplained deaths sweeping through Rome, the unpaid Albia starts asking questions, much to the dismay of her parents (gotta keep those mommy/daddy issues simmering) and the local authorities, who aren’t too keen on having a woman poking around on their turf.

But as the deaths pile up, it becomes clear a serial killer is in their midst, and the local vigiles need all the help they can get. A handsome but secretive archivist, an uneasy alliance with the local aedile’s surly investigator (who has some secrets of his own), and a PETA-approved (if slightly anachronistic) subplot revolving around cruelty to foxes used during the upcoming Feast of Ceres add welcome curves and help move the rather straightforward plot along to a predictable but satisfying conclusion. The gods willing, we’ll be seeing more of this girl.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

After 20 novels following Falco Didius Marcus down the mean streets of Ancient Rome, best-selling author Lindsey Davis has spun off a new series featuring his adopted daughter Flavia Albia. There’s a distinct whiff of chick-lit trendiness here—Albia, now 28, is a decidedly modern girl, a professional woman with her own business, her own apartment, and her own unique fashion sense, free to live—and love—as she pleases, but don’t expect Sex and the City with togas.

That’s because Albia’s taken over Dad’s old Fountain Court office in the Surbura district, and is now working as a private “informer” herself. She’s a little angrier and more impulsive than her old man, perhaps, but just as outraged by hypocrisy and corruption as dear old Dad ever was, and just as adept at spouting her own era-appropriate Chandlerisms, whether it’s a display of crushed idealism disguised as cynicism (“Even the Vestals weren’t virgins anymore”) or a wiseass simile (“I was in there like a louse up a tramp’s tunic”). Which makes her an ideal traveling companion as we once more revel in the colorful characters and sharply etched period detail Davis is known for.

Particularly ideal since the book’s a little slow when it comes to actual plot. Set 10 years after the events in the last Falco mystery, Nemesis (2010), Albia, already married and widowed, is short on cash and reluctantly working for an unpleasant woman, Salvidia, a general contractor being sued for negligence in the death of a young boy. When Salvidia’s untimely death is revealed to be yet another in a string of unexplained deaths sweeping through Rome, the unpaid Albia starts asking questions, much to the dismay of her parents (gotta keep those mommy/daddy issues simmering) and the local authorities, who aren’t too keen on having a woman poking around on their turf.

But as the deaths pile up, it becomes clear a serial killer is in their midst, and the local vigiles need all the help they can get. A handsome but secretive archivist, an uneasy alliance with the local aedile’s surly investigator (who has some secrets of his own), and a PETA-approved (if slightly anachronistic) subplot revolving around cruelty to foxes used during the upcoming Feast of Ceres add welcome curves and help move the rather straightforward plot along to a predictable but satisfying conclusion. The gods willing, we’ll be seeing more of this girl.

The Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

This is one of the most unusual mysteries I’ve ever read. First of all, the main character’s name is Benjamin Constable, the same name as the author (this makes more sense later on in the novel). He is a Brit living in Paris, and involved in an enigmatic, platonic, and mostly intellectual relationship with a beautiful young Japanese girl named Tomomi Ishikawa. His other important friend is an imaginary cat named Cat.

When he receives a suicide note from Tomomi after the fact, he is devastated. In the note, she confesses to a mercy killing, tells him that another friend has removed her body, and sets him off on an unusual scavenger hunt to learn more about her past and the reasons for her suicide. From Paris to New York, and back again, Ben is caught up in a mystery that he is desperate to solve. Did she actually kill someone, or even more than one person as the strange notes he keeps receiving seem to indicate? Is she even dead, or is this all a game...and, if so, to what purpose?

Although I usually prefer whodunnits, I found myself eagerly flipping through the pages to find out what in the world this story was all about and how it would end. Also, having recently adopted a cat myself (a real one), I was amused by Benjamin’s interaction with his imaginary cat. If you’re ready for something different in the mystery genre, you may want to give this well-written novel a try. You may find yourself as caught up in the story as I was, and as intrigued to discover what it was all about.

The author was born in Bristol, England, and now lives in Paris where he teaches English and writes fiction. This is his first novel.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

This is one of the most unusual mysteries I’ve ever read. First of all, the main character’s name is Benjamin Constable, the same name as the author (this makes more sense later on in the novel). He is a Brit living in Paris, and involved in an enigmatic, platonic, and mostly intellectual relationship with a beautiful young Japanese girl named Tomomi Ishikawa. His other important friend is an imaginary cat named Cat.

When he receives a suicide note from Tomomi after the fact, he is devastated. In the note, she confesses to a mercy killing, tells him that another friend has removed her body, and sets him off on an unusual scavenger hunt to learn more about her past and the reasons for her suicide. From Paris to New York, and back again, Ben is caught up in a mystery that he is desperate to solve. Did she actually kill someone, or even more than one person as the strange notes he keeps receiving seem to indicate? Is she even dead, or is this all a game...and, if so, to what purpose?

Although I usually prefer whodunnits, I found myself eagerly flipping through the pages to find out what in the world this story was all about and how it would end. Also, having recently adopted a cat myself (a real one), I was amused by Benjamin’s interaction with his imaginary cat. If you’re ready for something different in the mystery genre, you may want to give this well-written novel a try. You may find yourself as caught up in the story as I was, and as intrigued to discover what it was all about.

The author was born in Bristol, England, and now lives in Paris where he teaches English and writes fiction. This is his first novel.

Anonymous Sources
M. Schlecht

Alexandra James is the newspaper journalist at the heart of this novel from former NPR Pentagon correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, and Anonymous Sources begins with a story that might warrant coverage on page B3. A former Harvard student, Thomas Carlyle, returns to Boston after spending time in Cambridge, England, as a visiting scholar, and falls to his death while visiting his old campus. James, on the education beat, is assigned to cover the investigation. She sneaks into a dormitory and meets a cute cop along the way. Pretty pedestrian stuff, and the opening 50 pages or so seem to have the makings of a fine cozy.

Then Kelly decides to make things interesting. With the knowledge that Carlyle’s father is White House counsel, James convinces her editor to greenlight a trip to England to investigate further. After a couple of interviews, she stumbles into a huge get: an international plot with national security implications for the United States.

Kelly pulls off this stretch in ambition—despite a few liberties with plot—by trodding ground she has no doubt covered in her journalism career. James’ interactions with her editor and fellow reporters, along with her movements around Washington, DC, give Anonymous Sources the energy of a newsroom in high gear. Despite the decidedly non-thrilling opening, Kelly shows that she can crank up the action when she needs to, realistically setting up a full-blown bomb scenario at the White House. And this time, the reporter is at the center of the story.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

Alexandra James is the newspaper journalist at the heart of this novel from former NPR Pentagon correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, and Anonymous Sources begins with a story that might warrant coverage on page B3. A former Harvard student, Thomas Carlyle, returns to Boston after spending time in Cambridge, England, as a visiting scholar, and falls to his death while visiting his old campus. James, on the education beat, is assigned to cover the investigation. She sneaks into a dormitory and meets a cute cop along the way. Pretty pedestrian stuff, and the opening 50 pages or so seem to have the makings of a fine cozy.

Then Kelly decides to make things interesting. With the knowledge that Carlyle’s father is White House counsel, James convinces her editor to greenlight a trip to England to investigate further. After a couple of interviews, she stumbles into a huge get: an international plot with national security implications for the United States.

Kelly pulls off this stretch in ambition—despite a few liberties with plot—by trodding ground she has no doubt covered in her journalism career. James’ interactions with her editor and fellow reporters, along with her movements around Washington, DC, give Anonymous Sources the energy of a newsroom in high gear. Despite the decidedly non-thrilling opening, Kelly shows that she can crank up the action when she needs to, realistically setting up a full-blown bomb scenario at the White House. And this time, the reporter is at the center of the story.

Mojo
Sarah Prindle

High school can be hard enough, but for 16-year-old Dylan Jones, finding the body of fellow student Hector Maldonado in a dumpster only makes things worse. Already unpopular (he’d dived into the garbage to ditch the two bullies chasing him), now Dylan has a new nickname: Body Bag. Then a rich girl named Ashton Browning—who attends the prestigious school across town—goes missing. Dylan decides to find her in order to become a hero, lose the nickname, and get the “mojo” he’s looking for. The investigation leads him beyond his neighborhood in an Oklahoma City suburb and into the elite world of Ashton’s wealthy classmates, a secret exclusive club called Gangland, and luxury limos. Soon Dylan has reason to believe Ashton’s disappearance may be linked to Hector Maldonado’s death by supposed accidental overdose.

Helped by his longtime best friend, Audrey, and Randy, his coworker at the local grocery store, Dylan dives into the mystery. He encounters Nash, Ashton’s wealthy and smooth-talking ex-boyfriend; Beto, a boy from a poorer side of town who is Hector’s cousin; and Ashton’s secretive brother, Tres. Search parties, car chases, and a creepy man with a switchblade all surround this double mystery, as the bumbling Dylan tries to make sense of the various motives and clues. Readers will happily follow Dylan as he stumbles his way through the investigation. The deeper into the mystery Dylan gets, however, the more he could lose sight of who are his true friends—and who are his enemies. Tim Tharp’s fourth young-adult novel, Mojo, is a fun read, full of suspense, twists, and comical moments. Readers will thoroughly enjoy the time they spend with Dylan Jones.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

tharp_mojoSuspense, loser comedy, a dead classmate, and a missing girl. High school is tough.

The Wicked Girls
Eileen Brady

British author Alex Marwood (a pseudonym for UK journalist Serena Mackesy) hits her stride with this uncompromising mystery. What happens to two 11-year-old girls convicted of murdering a young child? They grow up. Shielded by the British system of sending youthful offenders back into society with new names and identities, Jade and Bel are settled far away from each other. But murder in a picturesque coastal village brings them together 25 years later in a terrifying way.

Wicked Girls is set in the seaside village of Whitmouth, England. A resort town that’s showing its age. Whitmouth depends on vacationing tourists for its survival, but it’s an uneasy dynamic between hard-vacationing tourists and the underpaid locals tired of cleaning up after them. The discovery of a body barely slows down the rowdy crowds who hang out down by the pier and the old-fashioned amusement park called Funnland, but things aren’t that funny when another victim is found. Suspecting a serial killer is on the loose, hoards of reporters descend on the village. All of them are eager to interview Amber Gordon, the park’s cleaning crew supervisor, who discovered a victim in the amusement park’s mirror maze, the corpse garishly multiplied ad infinitum.

Among the media is Kirsty Lindsay, a stringer reporter for a London newspaper. Kirsty recognizes Amber as her partner in crime from long ago, and since conditions of their parole include never seeing each other again, they could both go back to jail if found together.

Characterization drives the plot as the two women desperately struggle to keep their identities hidden. An award-winning reporter, wife, and mother, Kirsty has a lot to lose if her murderous past is revealed. Amber lives a different kind of existence, sharing her small home with Vic Cantrell, a handsome womanizer who works the rides in the amusement park. All she wants is to keep the tiny piece of happiness she has carved out for herself.

Through skillful writing, the town takes on a life of its own. Filled with those crazy names meant to attract tourists and their money, visitors drink at the Koh-Z-Nook, dine in The Best Fish and Chips on the South Coast, and visit Dr. Wicked’s House of Giggles. The contrast between the carefree day trippers and the residents of the town is well drawn and simmers with resentment. The tensions reach a fever pitch when the macabre motive for the murders is revealed. Kirsty and Amber can run or face down their past as it threatens the new lives they’ve built for themselves. Each must make difficult choices as the book races to an emotional finish.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

marwood_thewickedgirlsMurder in an English town brings two women, convicted of murder as children, back together after 25 years.

Hour of the Rat
Oline H. Cogdill

Tart-tongued, Iraq War veteran Ellie McEnroe proves to be a near-perfect tour guide to Beijing, where her business as an art dealer for Chinese political artists is thriving. Ellie loves the city, the country, the food, and all the quirks that come with living here.

But Ellie doesn’t love the smog, which can reach a level that can only be described as “crazy-bad.” And she especially hates the politics that often put her under surveillance because of her clientele. After the Chinese secret police invite her to “tea” to ask about her elusive ex-husband, Ellie decides a change of scenery would be good.

Fellow veteran Doug “Dog” Turner wants Ellie to find his brother, Jason, who was last in Yangshuo, “a major hub on the banana-pancake backpacker circuit.” Finding someone in a country as vast as China isn’t that difficult if the person is a Westerner, Ellie reasons.

But the search quickly becomes complicated. Jason, an activist, is hiding from shady Chinese and American businessmen and doesn’t know whom to trust. It doesn’t help that Ellie has to bring along her visiting mother, who shows no signs of returning to America, and her mom’s newly acquired Asian boyfriend.

In the second of this series, Hour of the Rat showcases an insider’s view of China and works as a character study of a woman who is equally tough and vulnerable. China is a country of contrasts, with crowded metro areas and lush countryside; economic inequality and the world’s largest IKEA store.

Brakemann mixes acerbic humor with a serious look at a veteran’s recovery. (Ellie, who often punctuates her sentences with curse words, is still contending with a leg injury that occurred during combat, as well as with war flashbacks.) Brackmann delves deep into Ellie’s psyche, showing the myriad changes she undergoes in rebuilding herself physically and mentally. Ellie finds being a stranger in a strange land suits her emotional growth.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

Tart-tongued, Iraq War veteran Ellie McEnroe proves to be a near-perfect tour guide to Beijing, where her business as an art dealer for Chinese political artists is thriving. Ellie loves the city, the country, the food, and all the quirks that come with living here.

But Ellie doesn’t love the smog, which can reach a level that can only be described as “crazy-bad.” And she especially hates the politics that often put her under surveillance because of her clientele. After the Chinese secret police invite her to “tea” to ask about her elusive ex-husband, Ellie decides a change of scenery would be good.

Fellow veteran Doug “Dog” Turner wants Ellie to find his brother, Jason, who was last in Yangshuo, “a major hub on the banana-pancake backpacker circuit.” Finding someone in a country as vast as China isn’t that difficult if the person is a Westerner, Ellie reasons.

But the search quickly becomes complicated. Jason, an activist, is hiding from shady Chinese and American businessmen and doesn’t know whom to trust. It doesn’t help that Ellie has to bring along her visiting mother, who shows no signs of returning to America, and her mom’s newly acquired Asian boyfriend.

In the second of this series, Hour of the Rat showcases an insider’s view of China and works as a character study of a woman who is equally tough and vulnerable. China is a country of contrasts, with crowded metro areas and lush countryside; economic inequality and the world’s largest IKEA store.

Brakemann mixes acerbic humor with a serious look at a veteran’s recovery. (Ellie, who often punctuates her sentences with curse words, is still contending with a leg injury that occurred during combat, as well as with war flashbacks.) Brackmann delves deep into Ellie’s psyche, showing the myriad changes she undergoes in rebuilding herself physically and mentally. Ellie finds being a stranger in a strange land suits her emotional growth.

Claire Dewitt and the Bohemian Highway
Hilary Daninhirsch

As soon as you realize that the narrator is a drug-abusing detective who employs unorthodox methods and has questionable morals, you know that this is no standard whodunit—and that the protagonist is no Nancy Drew.

Thirtysomething Claire DeWitt stumbles through life, using one-night stands and cocaine to help her mask the pain she’s felt since her childhood best friend disappeared without a trace. Claire is a depressed loner, and any relationships she has are fractured. Despite her shambles of a personal life, Claire knows that she is a born detective, but she also knows that finding the truth of a mystery can break a person. Her working bible is a book called Detection by the fictional detective Jacques Silette, though Silette was never able to solve his own daughter’s disappearance.

Claire’s former boyfriend, Paul, a musician, is murdered in what police feel is a robbery gone wrong (several of his treasured guitars are missing). Claire, however, knows in her bones that there is more to the story. But before she solves the case, she needs to face her feelings for Paul head-on.

As Claire immerses herself in Paul’s life, the answers unfold slowly, though the story never drags. The narrative also flashes back in time to Claire’s teenage years when she and her now-missing best friend started reading mystery novels and becoming junior sleuths, trying to locate their missing friend, Chloe.

Bohemian Highway is dark and raw, some scenes are disturbing, and Claire is so complex that she often doesn’t make sense even to herself. This, however, is in contrast with the author’s lyrical and often insightful prose. Case in point: “Mysteries never end,” writes Gran, “And we solve them anyway, knowing we are solving both everything and nothing.... But this is the piece of life we have been given authority over, nothing else; and while we may ask why over and over, no one yet has been given an answer.” This book is a thinking person’s mystery novel, rooted in a little bit of philosophy about solving mysteries. This is the second book in a series; the first one, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, was well-received by readers and critics alike.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

As soon as you realize that the narrator is a drug-abusing detective who employs unorthodox methods and has questionable morals, you know that this is no standard whodunit—and that the protagonist is no Nancy Drew.

Thirtysomething Claire DeWitt stumbles through life, using one-night stands and cocaine to help her mask the pain she’s felt since her childhood best friend disappeared without a trace. Claire is a depressed loner, and any relationships she has are fractured. Despite her shambles of a personal life, Claire knows that she is a born detective, but she also knows that finding the truth of a mystery can break a person. Her working bible is a book called Detection by the fictional detective Jacques Silette, though Silette was never able to solve his own daughter’s disappearance.

Claire’s former boyfriend, Paul, a musician, is murdered in what police feel is a robbery gone wrong (several of his treasured guitars are missing). Claire, however, knows in her bones that there is more to the story. But before she solves the case, she needs to face her feelings for Paul head-on.

As Claire immerses herself in Paul’s life, the answers unfold slowly, though the story never drags. The narrative also flashes back in time to Claire’s teenage years when she and her now-missing best friend started reading mystery novels and becoming junior sleuths, trying to locate their missing friend, Chloe.

Bohemian Highway is dark and raw, some scenes are disturbing, and Claire is so complex that she often doesn’t make sense even to herself. This, however, is in contrast with the author’s lyrical and often insightful prose. Case in point: “Mysteries never end,” writes Gran, “And we solve them anyway, knowing we are solving both everything and nothing.... But this is the piece of life we have been given authority over, nothing else; and while we may ask why over and over, no one yet has been given an answer.” This book is a thinking person’s mystery novel, rooted in a little bit of philosophy about solving mysteries. This is the second book in a series; the first one, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, was well-received by readers and critics alike.

The Never List
Tea Dee

The setup of Koethi Zan’s novel centered on three survivors of kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment at the hands of a sadist takes on an eerie and unnerving parallel to recent events concerning the escape and return of three young women held captive for a decade by a man in Cleveland, Ohio. In a genre where fans gleefully consume shocking and graphic violence, visiting such a topic as entertainment can take on a sobering reality.

It is with this in mind that readers will appreciate Zan’s focus on central heroine Sarah’s arc, from victim to survivor, rather than the novel’s lurid and sensational setup. When we meet her, Sarah’s been holed up in a pristine, white Manhattan apartment for the last decade, telecommuting as an insurance actuary, living on takeout, and avoiding anything and anyone beyond her securely triple-bolted doors. Sarah made it through three years of deprivation and relentless physical and mental torture alongside three other women, Christine, Tracy, and her best friend Jenny—the last of whom did not make it. Thirteen years after her brave escape, Sarah’s yet to cease mourning Jenny or to begin living again. When her kidnapper, the charismatic former psychology professor Jack Derber, is poised to be released on parole, Sarah is compelled to venture into the world despite numerous and deep phobias, believing that if she can find out where Jenny’s never-recovered body rests, she’ll have the evidence needed to lock Jack up permanently. Sarah soon admits that she can’t do this alone, and picks up Tracy and Christine—along with all three women’s mess of interpersonal guilt, loyalty, resentment, and anger.

Zan has a background in film and television as an entertainment lawyer, and the measured, calculated plot and tidy characterizations of Sarah (the prissy, OCD one), Christine (the pretty, together one), and Tracy (the tough, edgy one), and their textbook survivor psychologies, are the sorts of polished, palatable, and, well, entertaining devices one might expect from someone with more than 15 years in the biz. She’s thrown in the currently “it” hooks of BDSM (bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism)—thank you E.L. James—and an idiosyncratic OCD lead. It’s easy enough to imagine the teaser pitch for Zan’s screenplay. But while the characterizations and writing are more slick than deep, they aren’t devoid of thought either. Zan has labored carefully to plot her world, and even while exploiting the tropes of a genre obsessed with violence against women, she attempts to frame her narrative in an empowering way for each of her heroines, Sarah, Tracy, and Christine—though whether readers buy that you can have your cake and eat it, too, in this regard may be up for debate. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to relay that, by the end of her hunt for her dead friend and for justice, Sarah, no longer hiding away from the world, is inspired to find and help other women who are as lost as she once was. And thus begins a solid new series by a capable new writer.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 05 July 2013 03:07

The setup of Koethi Zan’s novel centered on three survivors of kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment at the hands of a sadist takes on an eerie and unnerving parallel to recent events concerning the escape and return of three young women held captive for a decade by a man in Cleveland, Ohio. In a genre where fans gleefully consume shocking and graphic violence, visiting such a topic as entertainment can take on a sobering reality.

It is with this in mind that readers will appreciate Zan’s focus on central heroine Sarah’s arc, from victim to survivor, rather than the novel’s lurid and sensational setup. When we meet her, Sarah’s been holed up in a pristine, white Manhattan apartment for the last decade, telecommuting as an insurance actuary, living on takeout, and avoiding anything and anyone beyond her securely triple-bolted doors. Sarah made it through three years of deprivation and relentless physical and mental torture alongside three other women, Christine, Tracy, and her best friend Jenny—the last of whom did not make it. Thirteen years after her brave escape, Sarah’s yet to cease mourning Jenny or to begin living again. When her kidnapper, the charismatic former psychology professor Jack Derber, is poised to be released on parole, Sarah is compelled to venture into the world despite numerous and deep phobias, believing that if she can find out where Jenny’s never-recovered body rests, she’ll have the evidence needed to lock Jack up permanently. Sarah soon admits that she can’t do this alone, and picks up Tracy and Christine—along with all three women’s mess of interpersonal guilt, loyalty, resentment, and anger.

Zan has a background in film and television as an entertainment lawyer, and the measured, calculated plot and tidy characterizations of Sarah (the prissy, OCD one), Christine (the pretty, together one), and Tracy (the tough, edgy one), and their textbook survivor psychologies, are the sorts of polished, palatable, and, well, entertaining devices one might expect from someone with more than 15 years in the biz. She’s thrown in the currently “it” hooks of BDSM (bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism)—thank you E.L. James—and an idiosyncratic OCD lead. It’s easy enough to imagine the teaser pitch for Zan’s screenplay. But while the characterizations and writing are more slick than deep, they aren’t devoid of thought either. Zan has labored carefully to plot her world, and even while exploiting the tropes of a genre obsessed with violence against women, she attempts to frame her narrative in an empowering way for each of her heroines, Sarah, Tracy, and Christine—though whether readers buy that you can have your cake and eat it, too, in this regard may be up for debate. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to relay that, by the end of her hunt for her dead friend and for justice, Sarah, no longer hiding away from the world, is inspired to find and help other women who are as lost as she once was. And thus begins a solid new series by a capable new writer.

The Shining Girls
Vanessa Orr

It’s hard to classify The Shining Girls: part time-traveling adventure, part serial-killer drama, part victim-empowerment story. It follows the trail of Harper Curtis, a murderer who travels through time to kill the “shining girls,” bright, young women who excel in their respective eras. Among them are Jeanette, a dancing girl in the 1930s, Zora, a “colored” female welder working during WWII, and Kirby, a college student in 1989. When Kirby lives through Harper’s vicious attack, she turns the tables and begins tracking him.

Readers get a strong sense of time and place through Lauren Beukes’ commitment to historical detail. Harper first meets Jeanette in the hospital, where she is suffering from radium poisoning—the result of using the toxin to make her skin glow in the dark when she performs. Zora, a war widow, deals with the racism rampant in shipbuilding factories of the ’40s

As his only surviving victim, Kirby is a strong protagonist. She uses the resources of the newspaper where she interns to delve into the attacks on the shining girls. The reader senses her disbelief as she tries to work through what, at first, seems impossible, as well as her underlying fear that she could again become a victim at any time.

While Kirby is a very well-developed character, and easy to identify with, my only wish was that the other shining girls got as much space. I would have preferred fewer victims to more detail about what truly made them unique.

Because each chapter jumps to a different time and place, and from victims to the killer at various points in their lives, this book does require the reader to pay close attention. One may be introduced to a future shining girl when Harper meets her as a child, and again when he stalks her many years later and decides to take her life. As the catalyst behind all of these women’s murders, Harper is a terrifying specter; a stalker who can appear at any time, in any place, to complete his mission.

In the battle between Kirby and the relentless Harper, the final conflict is not a matter of if, but when. And whether, as time goes on, it is ever really over.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 08 July 2013 05:07

beukes_shininggirlsPart time-traveling adventure, part serial-killer drama, all summertime thrills.

Eight Sizzling Summer Reads of 2013
Mystery Scene

Something fun, something thrilling, something silly - something for everyone this season. Mystery Scene picks some of our favorite books for the summer months.

beukes_shininggirls

The Shining Girls
by Lauren Beukes
Mulholland Books, June 2013, $25.99

It’s hard to classify The Shining Girls: part time-traveling adventure, part serial-killer drama, part victim-empowerment story. It follows the trail of Harper Curtis, a murderer who travels through time to kill the “shining girls,” bright, young women who excel in their respective eras. Among them are Jeanette, a dancing girl in the 1930s, Zora, a “colored” female welder working during WWII, and Kirby, a college student in 1989. When Kirby lives through Harper’s vicious attack, she turns the tables and begins tracking him. (Read the full review.)



sakey_brilliance

Brilliance
by Marcus Sakey
Thomas & Mercer, July 2013, $14.95

Federal Agent Nick Cooper lives in an alternate 2013, a world very similar to our own except that it’s just slightly skewed; one percent of all infants exhibit superpowers. In the civilization that Marcus Sakey so vividly creates in the first of a new three-book saga, these superhumans are called "brilliants," "abnorms," "gifted," or derogatory variations. The government tests children, who, if they score in the top one or two tiers of gifted powers, are forced into academies where the humanity is drained from their souls. Cooper's world is shaken when his four-year-old daughter Katie exhibits signs of superpowers. Cooper pleads with his boss to exempt her from testing and inevitable admission to an academy. When he is refused, Cooper makes a deal with the devil that finds him not only questioning his belief system, but running for his life and the lives of those he loves. (Read the full review.)


brackmann_houroftherat

Hour of the Rat
by Lisa Brackmann
Soho Crime, June 2013, $25.00

Tart-tongued, Iraq War veteran Ellie McEnroe proves to be a near-perfect tour guide to Beijing, where her business as an art dealer for Chinese political artists is thriving. Ellie loves the city, the country, the food, and all the quirks that come with living here.

When fellow veteran Doug “Dog” Turner wants Ellie to find his brother, Jason, finding someone in a country as vast as China isn’t that difficult if the person is a Westerner, Ellie reasons. But the search quickly becomes complicated.

In the second of this series, Hour of the Rat showcases an insider’s view of China and works as a character study of a woman who is equally tough and vulnerable. Brackmann mixes acerbic humor with a serious look at a veteran’s recovery. (Read the full review.)


hallinan_famethief

The Fame Thief
by Timothy Hallinan
Soho Crime, July 2013, $25.00

This third installment of Timothy Hallinan's pitch-perfect, hardboiled Junior Bender series finds the former criminal turned PI digging up ghosts from the Golden Age of Hollywood after nonagenarian crime boss Irwin Dressler asks Bender to uncover the truth behind the long-ago downfall of a beautiful young movie starlet, Dolores La Marr. Sixty years after the fact, the story of La Marr still has the power to move men to murder and Bender is dodging danger on the case.

The wisacre demeanor of Junior and his associates and their spitfire dialogue are big winners for fans of the mystery series, as well as the glam-meets-grime setting of Hallinan's Los Angeles. The Fame Thief continues to deliver in spades. (Read reviews of Hallinan's Crashed and Little Elvises.)


lutz_lastword

The Last Word
by Lisa Lutz
Simon & Schuster, July 2013, $25.00

The Spellmans, led (reluctantly) by PI Isabel "Izzy" Spellman, are back just in time to sleuth away those summertime blues. The Last Word launches with Spellman Investigations embroiled in a labor dispute—Izzy has staged an agency coup, and mom and dad have gone on strike in protest. What's more, rebellious kid sister Rae comes back to the fold trailing nothing but trouble behind her, and now Izzy has been accused of embezzling from one of the agency's VIP clients—an accusation that threatens to strip Spellman of her license, her reputation, and Spellman Investigations.

Will the contentious clan be able to set aside their quarrels long enough to kiss and save the family business? Family dysfunction has never been so madcap, hilarious, or ultimately poignant. Perhaps the best Spellman novel yet. (Read a review of Curse of the Spellmans, the 2008 book that began the series.)


gardiner_theshadowtracer

The Shadow Tracer
by Meg Gardiner
Dutton, June 2013, $26.95

Oklahoma skip tracer (and devoted single mom) Sarah Keller has built a respectable, no-drama life for her precocious, precious five-year-old daughter Zoe and herself—except when she’s at work, tracking down deadbeat dads, delinquent witnesses, and the like. But a freak school bus accident (damn those cellphones!) shatters the quiet domesticity when an ER medical test reveals Sarah’s big secret—Zoe is not her daughter.

In fact, Zoe’s her niece, the daughter of Sarah’s sister Bethany who was murdered by the Fiery Branch of the New Covenant, a cult of meth-dealing, Bible-thumping Looney Tunes led by the charismatic Eldrick Worthe, Zoe’s paternal grandfather. And Eldrick wants his granddaughter brought back into the family fold.

Edgar-winner Meg Gardiner knows her stuff. It may just be a chase as Eldrick hunts down Sarah and Zoe, but it’s one helluva chase. Pass the popcorn. (Read the full review.)


pochoda_visitationstreet

Visitation Street
by Ivy Pochoda
Dennis Lehane Books, July 2013, $25.99

Brooklynite author Ivy Pochoda crafts a slow-burning literary mystery set in the changing waterside neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where hipster eateries push up against housing projects and working docks on the small strip of south Brooklyn where the East River opens out into the bay.

When two restless 15-year-old girls disappear one summer night on a raft adventure and only one returns, washed up on the banks nearly dead, it sets off a series of events in the community that fan out through a complex and varied cast of neighborhood characters: Fadi, a Lebanese bodega owner; Acretious "Cree," a man accused of murdering his own father; and a mysterious youth named "Rundown," stand out as some of the most memorable. It's a meditative mystery that reads more as an ambitious portrait of Red Hook and the many intersecting lives of its colorful inhabitants.


king_joyland

Joyland
by Stephen King
Hard Case Crime, June 2013, $12.95

Set in 1973, Joyland takes place at a North Carolina seaside carnival of the same name. Having just lost his best girl, heartbroken 21-year-old Devin Jones lands a summer job at the seedy carny. He makes new friends with a whole range of colorful carny veterans, as well as single mother Annie Ross, and her young, preternaturally gifted, but terminally ill son, Mike.

Devin is fascinated by the theme park’s lore, which includes a tale of an unsolved murder in its fun house. It seems that the ghost of the victim still haunts the ride, making her presence felt to only a select few, among them Mike Ross.

Joyland doesn’t deliver the hardboiled type of mystery you would expect from Charles Ardai’s fine line of crime novels. But for the almost essential mystery at its core (an unsolved murder at a theme park), it’s more of a nostalgic coming-of-age novel with touches of the supernatural. Cynical but also wistful, serious but also humorous, it’s both a celebration of and an elegy for a time long past. (Read the full review.)

Teri Duerr
Monday, 08 July 2013 07:07

2013summerreadsSomething fun, something serious, something thrilling, something silly, something spooky—something for everyone this season.

The Thrill of a Thriller
Oline Cogdill

thrillerfest8_logo
Hundreds of writers, readers and industry people will gather in New York City, beginning today for ThrillerFest VIII. ThrillerFest is Wednesday, July 10, 2013, through Saturday, July 13, 2013.

As at most mystery conferences, ThrillerFest will feature an array of panels, workshops, discussions, interviews, and lots of meetings at the bar. ThrillerMaster will be Anne Rice, who will be interviewed on Friday by her son, author Christopher Rice.

Spotlight Guests will be Michael Connelly, Michael Palmer, T. Jefferson Parker. Steve Berry will be the Silver Bullet Award recipient. The Thriller Awards also will be presented Saturday night.

Conferernces geared toward the mystery readerand writerkeep popping up, and I am glad there are so many.

Just to name a few, Bouchercon, which will be in Albany, N.Y., this year, appeals to all mystery fiction readers while Malice Domestic targets the traditional mystery reader. Sleuthfest is a writers' conference attracting published authors and those trying to get published.

And ThrillerFest attracts those who enjoy the thriller.

But what really is a thriller?

There are shelves of books and essays about crime fiction and thrillers. But I haven’t really seen the definitive answer about what constitutes a thriller as opposed to a mystery.

connelly_michael3.jpg
Myself, I prefer crime fiction as an umbrella term for the entire genre. Of course, the genre includes myriad categories from amateur sleuth, legal thriller, and more.

The mystery genre is one that is ever-evolving. Police procedurals can deliver a hard-boiled character study such as those by Michael Connelly, at right. Private detection fiction can mix with social issues such as those of George Pelecanos.

The private eye novel can encompass the efforts of the amateur sleuth such as in Jan Burke’s Irene Kelly novels or Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels.

Historicals range from Lindsay Davis’ ancient Roman setting to P.J. Parrish’s Louis Kincaid series and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels, both set during the 1980s.

The traditional mystery can be as hard boiled as S.J. Rozan or Harlan Coben. The screwball comedy can support Janet Evanovich.

Take Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which took the Edgar for best novel this year and also was my top pick of the year. By no means is this a traditional mystery, and the reader is richer because Lehane does take chances.

Live by Night looks at Prohibition and the organized crime that flourished because of it. Beginning in Boston during 1926, Live by Night moves to Tampa and Cuba, showing a decade in the life of Joe Coughlin.

The brother of a cop and the son of a Boston police captain, Joe revels in the glory of being “an outlaw,” working for one of Boston’s most feared mobsters and bootleggers. But the job requires one to have “amputated conscience” as Joe’s life is fraught with betrayal, double crossing and brutality. And, as his father knows but Joe refuses to acknowledge, “violence procreates.”

Live by Night melds the historical, the police procedural, the heist, organized crime and, also, a very personal look at one man.

It’s crime fiction, a thriller, a mystery.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Box also stretches those various genre categories—bringing together the historical, the police procedural, a character study and even hints of the private eye novel. In this 19th Harry Bosch novel, Connelly mirrors contemporary issues and Los Angeles’ vagaries in an edgy, labyrinthine plot. The Black Box chronicles Harry’s role as a cop and how it has changed through the years. The novel opens in 1992, when Los Angeles is in chaos as riots pummel the city following the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King. (“Flames from a thousand fires reflected like the devil dancing in the dark sky.”)

The Black Box becomes a contemporary novel when a gun used in a recent murder is linked to a shell casing found at a 1992 murder.

But back to trying to define a thriller.

The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert states that “thrillers are stories of heroic adventure set to criminal situations” and that “the requisites for a thriller are both an overt plot of action and a latent representation of common psychology.”

But couldn’t that describe any crime fiction?

Bruce Murphy’s The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery contends that the term thriller is “a piece of literary terminology nearly as useless as ‘suspense.’ Publishers often refer to books as thrillers when they do not want to admit they are spy novels or mysteries.”

I don’t agree with that rather useless definition.

The best definition I found was on ThrillerPress.com:

In thrillers “the plots are scary, the characters are at great risk and the reader can’t wait to turn the page. It’s good storytelling in which the protagonist tries to solve a problem that only gets worse. If you can’t put it down, if it has you biting your nails and staying up late at night, double-checking that the windows are locked and worrying and fretting about whether the characters are going to survive, chances are it is a thriller.”

And again, doesn’t that describe most crime fiction?

Oline Cogdill
Tuesday, 09 July 2013 11:07

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Hundreds of writers, readers and industry people will gather in New York City, beginning today for ThrillerFest VIII. ThrillerFest is Wednesday, July 10, 2013, through Saturday, July 13, 2013.

As at most mystery conferences, ThrillerFest will feature an array of panels, workshops, discussions, interviews, and lots of meetings at the bar. ThrillerMaster will be Anne Rice, who will be interviewed on Friday by her son, author Christopher Rice.

Spotlight Guests will be Michael Connelly, Michael Palmer, T. Jefferson Parker. Steve Berry will be the Silver Bullet Award recipient. The Thriller Awards also will be presented Saturday night.

Conferernces geared toward the mystery readerand writerkeep popping up, and I am glad there are so many.

Just to name a few, Bouchercon, which will be in Albany, N.Y., this year, appeals to all mystery fiction readers while Malice Domestic targets the traditional mystery reader. Sleuthfest is a writers' conference attracting published authors and those trying to get published.

And ThrillerFest attracts those who enjoy the thriller.

But what really is a thriller?

There are shelves of books and essays about crime fiction and thrillers. But I haven’t really seen the definitive answer about what constitutes a thriller as opposed to a mystery.

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Myself, I prefer crime fiction as an umbrella term for the entire genre. Of course, the genre includes myriad categories from amateur sleuth, legal thriller, and more.

The mystery genre is one that is ever-evolving. Police procedurals can deliver a hard-boiled character study such as those by Michael Connelly, at right. Private detection fiction can mix with social issues such as those of George Pelecanos.

The private eye novel can encompass the efforts of the amateur sleuth such as in Jan Burke’s Irene Kelly novels or Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels.

Historicals range from Lindsay Davis’ ancient Roman setting to P.J. Parrish’s Louis Kincaid series and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels, both set during the 1980s.

The traditional mystery can be as hard boiled as S.J. Rozan or Harlan Coben. The screwball comedy can support Janet Evanovich.

Take Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which took the Edgar for best novel this year and also was my top pick of the year. By no means is this a traditional mystery, and the reader is richer because Lehane does take chances.

Live by Night looks at Prohibition and the organized crime that flourished because of it. Beginning in Boston during 1926, Live by Night moves to Tampa and Cuba, showing a decade in the life of Joe Coughlin.

The brother of a cop and the son of a Boston police captain, Joe revels in the glory of being “an outlaw,” working for one of Boston’s most feared mobsters and bootleggers. But the job requires one to have “amputated conscience” as Joe’s life is fraught with betrayal, double crossing and brutality. And, as his father knows but Joe refuses to acknowledge, “violence procreates.”

Live by Night melds the historical, the police procedural, the heist, organized crime and, also, a very personal look at one man.

It’s crime fiction, a thriller, a mystery.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Box also stretches those various genre categories—bringing together the historical, the police procedural, a character study and even hints of the private eye novel. In this 19th Harry Bosch novel, Connelly mirrors contemporary issues and Los Angeles’ vagaries in an edgy, labyrinthine plot. The Black Box chronicles Harry’s role as a cop and how it has changed through the years. The novel opens in 1992, when Los Angeles is in chaos as riots pummel the city following the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King. (“Flames from a thousand fires reflected like the devil dancing in the dark sky.”)

The Black Box becomes a contemporary novel when a gun used in a recent murder is linked to a shell casing found at a 1992 murder.

But back to trying to define a thriller.

The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert states that “thrillers are stories of heroic adventure set to criminal situations” and that “the requisites for a thriller are both an overt plot of action and a latent representation of common psychology.”

But couldn’t that describe any crime fiction?

Bruce Murphy’s The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery contends that the term thriller is “a piece of literary terminology nearly as useless as ‘suspense.’ Publishers often refer to books as thrillers when they do not want to admit they are spy novels or mysteries.”

I don’t agree with that rather useless definition.

The best definition I found was on ThrillerPress.com:

In thrillers “the plots are scary, the characters are at great risk and the reader can’t wait to turn the page. It’s good storytelling in which the protagonist tries to solve a problem that only gets worse. If you can’t put it down, if it has you biting your nails and staying up late at night, double-checking that the windows are locked and worrying and fretting about whether the characters are going to survive, chances are it is a thriller.”

And again, doesn’t that describe most crime fiction?