The Counterfeit Heiress
Eileen Brady

The Counterfeit Heiress is the latest outing for Lady Emily and a very enjoyable one it is. Fans of the Victorian mystery series are in for a treat, as Lady Emily and her dashing husband Colin Hargreaves attend a fancy dress ball that ends in murder. Who is the dead woman at the glittering affair posing as the shy but wealthy heiress Estella Lamar? Did the killer know the victim was an imposter? Lady Emily realizes no one has seen the real Estella in years. Clever and relentless, Emily travels to France determined to find the missing woman—whether she wants to be found or not. Helping Lady Emily as she travels across the English Channel in search of the real Estella are her friends, the delightful Cecile, the ever-devoted Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge, and perhaps Estella herself.

The author was inspired by two real-life incidents: finding a trove of photographs of a 1897 masquerade ball given by the Duchess of Devonshire, and reading about the life of reclusive American heiress Haugette Clark. Descriptions of the lush costumes, many couture from The House of Worth in Paris, draw you into the overall merriment. I was fascinated to find that partygoers back then had the resources to light up a crescent moon shaped headdress with electricity, making a guest glow in the dark.

Readers may be surprised at the modern psychological twist that Alexander masterfully weaves into this Victorian-era novel and an unexpected ending that is particularly ingenious.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 04:12
Five
Betty Webb

Although the clues in Five are difficult (GPS coordinates, complicated math problems, references to classical composers and German poets), Five is so intriguing that few readers will mind. In fact, they’ll become increasingly intrigued.

At first, Ursula Archer’s debut mystery/thriller appears fairly straightforward. A young woman is found dead at the bottom of a cliff outside Salzburg, Austria, with her hands tied behind her back and GPS coordinates tattooed on the bottom of her foot. When Detective Beatrice Kaspary and her partner Florin follow coordinates through briars, brambles, and forest to a hidden plastic container, they discover that the killer has lured them into a game of “geocaching.”

For the uninitiated, geocaching is a modern-day form of treasure hunting, where the “owner” hides a small box called a “cache,” and leaves GPS coordinates as clues to the cache’s whereabouts. The finders remove a trinket left in the cache and trade it for one of their own, usually a coin or something else of low value. However, in Five, the cache’s owner leaves freshly removed body parts as well as complicated clues to the next cache’s whereabouts.

Before the book’s shocking ending, five caches (thus the title) have been found, and Kaspary and Florin have amassed a bloody hoard of fingers, ears, and in one particularly grisly instance, a freshly decapitated human head. Only by discovering what links the seemingly random victims—four and counting—can Kaspary and Florin hope to track down the owner and end his killing spree.

Author Archer builds her book with horror upon horror, clue upon careful clue, until Kaspary begins to crumble under the pressure. Obviously, Five is not for the weak-stomached or the impatient, but it is so masterfully written and structured that even squeamish readers probably won’t bail. What makes this all so extraordinary is that Five is not only Ursula Archer’s first thriller, it’s her first adult book. She is a children’s and YA writer, which might remind us that blood and other assorted gore are no strangers to classic children’s literature. Still, Five could scare the pants off both Brothers Grimm.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 05:12

A complex police procedural from a promising new voice in international crime writing

The Skeleton Road
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

With the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s as a backdrop, Val McDermid has created a modern-day cold case murder mystery featuring Scottish police, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and survivors of that cruel conflict.

When a skeleton is found hidden near the top of an Edinburgh skyscraper marked for demolition, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie must first identify the victim before she can begin the hunt for the killer. Little does she know that before the case is concluded the investigation’s trail will take her to a Croatian village, and into a political sparring contest with the former Yugoslavia’s criminal tribunal, which is searching for a serial killer of Serbian war criminals.

At more than 400 pages, this is a far-ranging novel that not only delves deeply into the horrendous Serbo-Croatian conflict, but also into the minds of some of its survivors. McDermid has obviously done a lot of research on the Balkan war. I, for one, was unaware of the centuries-old conflicts and savagery that have plagued these neighbors who would seem to have much in common. I enjoyed the intelligence and determination of Chief Inspector Pirie and the camaraderie she shares with her less intelligent but willing assistant Detective Constable Jason Murray. I even enjoyed the internecine political conflicts within the tribunal.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 05:12
Trapline
Matt Fowler

Two mysteries, one involving a corpse discovered in the mountains of Colorado, and the other concerning the attempted assassination of a political candidate, converge in the novel Trapline by Mark Stevens.

In the third book in the Allison Coil Mystery series, Stevens relishes the opportunity to thoroughly discuss the topic of immigration in the US through his well-defined protagonist’s world. While Allison Coil, a hunting guide, refrains from giving a perspective on gun control, the highly charged subject matter stays at the forefront of the reader’s mind as the two investigations build to their inevitable climax—though it’s only toward the middle of the novel when the two story lines converge that the reader understands the significance of the overarching plot.

Though Trapline clearly wants to establish Coil as the star, what’s unexpected is the quality of the story’s tertiary characters: Trudy, a health food business owner, and Duncan, a news reporter, are both more distinct than Allison herself. Though the protagonist may lack more unique qualities, Allison is still likable, and readers will enjoy the fast-paced action.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 05:12
The Murder of Harriet Krohn
Robin Agnew

This excellent, if bleak, volume from Karin Fossum is a riff on Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” where the guilty party is driven crazy by his own guilt. Fossum, who is also a poet, has the poet’s gift of concise, tight phrasing and storytelling. I don’t know how her books read in the original Norwegian, but even in translation her crisp prose is high on my list of favorites.

I’m also a fan of her Inspector Sejer, a matter-of-fact detective who has a dog in his office, and who always gets his man. This novel, the tenth story in the series, features Sejer quite minimally, as it is told from murderer Charlo Torp’s perspective. It begins with a letter to Torp’s daughter, who, it becomes clear, is estranged from her widowed father. As Torp’s tale unfolds the reasons for the estrangement become clear. Torp was a compulsive gambler who was fired for embezzlement, and who even took money from his own young child. He’s lost his wife to cancer and he’s surrounded—engulfed—by unpayable debts.

Faced with despair, he makes an impossible situation worse with a desperate plan to rob a wealthy woman and use the spoils to pay off his debts. It goes horribly wrong and the old woman is murdered, an act that Charlo is able to justify to himself—it was her fault, he thinks, for fighting back.

In fact, Charlo is able to justify most everything to himself after he counts the old woman’s money, pays off his debts, and buys his daughter a horse to get back in her good graces. His daughter, only 17 and horse-mad, is charmed despite little blips of suspicion of things not quite right. Charlo is able to talk her out of her worries, but has no such luck with Sejer when the inspector turns up at his apartment to question him.

The crime is kept in the background as you follow Charlo through his life journey, one that readers may suspect will end differently from what Charlo optimistically hopes. Fossum keeps the reader firmly inside Charlo’s head throughout. I thought it was a particular achievement that, as a reader, you feel some measure of sympathy for Charlo despite his depraved behavior. You can understand his desperation and most of his actions.

The person I was left with the most sympathy for, though, was Torp’s daughter, who, after all, just wants to love her father. If there’s anyone better than Fossum at using crime to profoundly illustrate human morality and motive, I’m not sure who it would be, except perhaps for Ruth Rendell. This tense, bleak, thought-provoking novel is highly recommended.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 05:12
The Mystery of the Invisible Hand
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

This is one of the most unusual mysteries I’ve ever read. Its protagonist is a unique blend of economist Adam Smith with a dash of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot mixed in. I mention Adam Smith first because most of the book deals with economics and not murder. However, surprisingly, I enjoyed the economics even more than the mystery and its solution!

When Harvard economics professor and sometime sleuth Henry Spearman wins a Nobel Prize, he is invited to lecture at a San Antonio university for a semester at a very generous salary, and there finds himself at the center of skullduggery and a suspicious death. The skullduggery is the recent theft of very valuable paintings, and the suspicious death is that of the artist, initially ruled a suicide by hanging.

Coincidentally, Spearman’s topic for the semester is Economics and Art, and the vigorous give and take with students in the classroom is both entertaining and informative. In the end, it is this very give and take that helps solve the mystery. I must say I learned more about economics from this novel than I ever did from any economics book I’ve ever read...and enjoyed it a lot more.

The author, unsurprisingly, is a professor of economics at the University of Virginia and has coauthored three other Henry Spearman mystery novels.—Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 05:12
The Wolf in Winter
Betty Webb

John Connolly is fond of adding an otherworldly entity or two into the crime fiction mix, and his latest work is no exception. This time, instead of one lone creature (the series’ evil Travelling Man) from the netherworld, Connolly serves up an entire town.

Something is amiss in Prosperity, Maine, a picturesque little village founded in the 1600s by religious dissidents from England. The town’s idyllic appearance and lifestyle is seemingly at odds with the fact that young women have been disappearing there for centuries. When Jude, a homeless man living on the streets of Portland, realizes his daughter has gone missing after being hired by a couple from Prosperity, he amasses enough money to hire PI Charlie Parker to locate her. Unfortunately, Jude is found hanged, a probable suicide, before he can meet with Parker, but Parker takes up the investigation anyway.

Before long, Charlie zeroes in on the village’s ancient church, transported brick by brick from northeast England by Prosperity’s original founders. Despite its claims to be “non-denominational,” the church’s carvings hint at the worship of gods much older than Christianity. Accordingly, there is a Lovecraftian sense of creeping menace to The Wolf in Winter, and a slow peeling back of religious history that Connolly expands upon in the acknowledgments. We learn that one of the sects mentioned in the book did once exist, which isn’t necessarily a comforting thought.

The ability to mix fact with fiction has always been one of the great strengths of Connolly’s writing. As Lovecraft knew, there is no better way to scare the pants off a reader than to hint that vicious old gods are still beloved by the family next door. The Wolf in Winter is a terrific story, but a word to the wise: Don’t read it on a dark and stormy night.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 05:12
Die I Will Not
Sharon Magee

Dryden Leach, editor of a Tory newspaper in 1813 London, is stabbed to death by a mysterious figure who is seen running from his offices. All fingers point to a rogue using the name Collantinus to publish treasonous letters against the Prince Regent. Twenty years earlier, Penelope Wolfe’s father wrote letters under the same alias before fleeing England, and the young mother fears suspicion will fall on her and her family.

Within days of her husband’s murder, Leach’s wife Mary, an acquaintance of Penelope’s, also dies under mysterious circumstances. Even though well-respected married ladies risked disgrace by becoming involved with politics or crime, Penelope knows she must find who’s behind the murders, and whether they are connected to her exiled father. A woman in a man’s world, Penelope can’t rely on her ne’er-do-well husband (an artist who has squandered her money), so she calls on two men for help: John Chase, a Bow Street Runner (London’s first professional police force), who helps Penelope at the risk of expulsion from his department; and barrister Edward Buckler, who also puts his job and reputation on the line to assist Penelope (with whom he shares a mutual attraction).

This is the third in Rizzolo’s John Chase series to feature these three intriguing and contrasting investigators. Rizzolo neatly sets up early 19th-century London with her superb descriptions of time and place as she takes us from the stink and filth of the streets to the overheated drawing rooms of the rich and powerful. Fans of regency mysteries are in for a treat.

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 30 December 2014 05:12
The Forgers
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 05:12
Riders on the Storm
Kevin Burton Smith

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

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

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

Welcome home, soldier.

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

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

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

Color me impressed.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 05:12
A Nip of Murder
Vanessa Orr

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 05:12
Sweet Sunday
Kevin Burton Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 05:12
Saving Grace
Sharon Magee

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 05:12
Bad Country
Betty Webb

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 05:12
Death of a Bovver Boy
Hank Wagner

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 06:12

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

Mystery in White
Matthew Fowler

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 03:01
The Burning Room
Jackie Houchin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 06:12

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

Bed of Nails
Hank Wagner

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 04:01
The Murder Man
Oline Cogdill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 04:01
Only the Dead
Robin Agnew

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 04:01
The Perfect Mother
Vanessa Orr

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 04:01
A Billion Ways to Die
Oline H. Cogdill

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 04:01
Seven Wonders

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 05:01
Tradition of Deceit
Robin Agnew

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 05:01
Enter Pale Death
Jackie Houchin

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

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

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

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

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

Teri Duerr
Saturday, 03 January 2015 05:01

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