Archive for Reviews

Kathryn Casey: In Plain Sight

Kathryn Casey is America’s greatest living True Crime writer, as evidenced by the fact that her books have been reviewed more often by Aunt Agatha’s than any others in that genre. The reason for this is simple—Casey has a firm grasp of the most important ingredients for any writing, fiction or non. First and foremost is character, and her latest has a doozy of a cast. She has a real talent for presenting the histories of the major actors in such sharp detail that the fatal product of their collision seems somehow inevitable.

Eric Williams and his victim Mike McLelland were both oversized personalities, with swaggering self-confidence, machismo to spare and lots and lots of guns. They’d clashed in local politics, generating a heap of ill will, and when the dust settled, Mike was DA and Eric was Magistrate in their small patch of Texas. When the DA had the chance to go after the Magistrate for a minor and unclear piece of workplace theft he went all in, stripping him of his position, his law license and, perhaps most importantly in today’s America, his health care, particularly crucial for his chronically ailing wife.

Since he had no actual courtroom experience, Mike enlisted the assistance of an experienced trial attack dog, Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse. The two crowed about laying low Eric, who they considered a nerd and wimpy wannabe. Sadly for them, the same ethical vacuity that enabled him to casually walk away with a few computer monitors presented no barriers to revenge killing.

You learn a lot about the actual state of America from a expertly done True Crime book, particularly a state like Texas. The anti-gun control mantra of the efficacy of “a good guy with a gun,” is disproven when the bad guy has the drop on you with an assault rifle, despite your having “a gun in every pocket.” All the players here seem to have large arsenals and cowboy hats, the former no more a deterrent than the latter. As the victim’s son’s said, “It was the most ironic thing that’s ever happened in this world. My dad got shot and he’d been preparing for a gunfight forever.”

The role of law enforcement is another element shown to be much different than found in crime fiction. Not only is there no Poirot brilliantly putting together the pieces to find the killer, there doesn’t even seem to be a dogged Law and Order effort to run down the evidence. With the high profile killings there’s a plethora of cops and Feds, but they seem to confine themselves to running lab tests, looking at surveillance tapes and waiting by the phone for tips. The reader wants to shout at them to drag the pond, check out abandoned vehicles or at least tail the obvious suspect, but they seem incapable of following these simple crime tropes until tipped off. Perhaps another telling point about contemporary American justice is that the perp doesn’t come close to apprehension until he runs out of money for high priced lawyers and lets his own overblown ego lead the defense.

At well over four hundred pages In Plain Sight is quite a read, but it’s certainly worth it. Casey also had the clever idea of integrating the photos with the text, rather than clumping them all in the middle. Nobody does True Crime better, and, as I always say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. (Jamie)

Loren D. Estleman: Black and White Ball

Deep into a now 80 book and counting career, and 27 in to his iconic Amos Walker series, what is Loren Estleman going to come up with that might be new? You might be surprised. In this novel Walker crosses paths with one of Estleman’s other characters, Peter Macklin, who hires Walker to look after his ex-wife. She’s being stalked by his son, Roger, who has gone into the family business – contract killing.

Dividing the segments of the novel into “Me” (Walker), “Him” (Macklin), as well as “Her” (the ex-wife) and “Them” (various, but often Roger) has injected a fresh energy into this novel. As always, Estleman writes tight – this book clocks in at 240 pages – and also as always, his prose and expression are absolute treasures. Reading an Estleman novel is almost like eating a too rich slice of chocolate cake – you have to read slowly, because if you don’t you won’t be able to savor the prose and the witty sleight of hand that comprises Estleman’s dialogue. People in an Estleman novel speak like you wish you could and maybe the way you would if you had a long time to come up with the perfect turn of phrase. Alas, I think there are few human brains that actually operate on that elevated scale, but it’s certainly a delight to encounter it in print.

The set-up is a pretty simple one and Estleman, a writer who hews closely to genre convention, includes a smart dame who can handle trouble. He really writes women well and his women are always worth reading about, another reason I enjoy his books so much. Like all of us, Amos is aging – he has trouble climbing the fire escape and hoping out a window, and at the end he’s too much of a gentleman to hit on a much younger woman (which I also appreciated) but even though he’s older he’s still operating at a high level.

The scenes between Walker and Macklin are charged with electricity as each man takes the other’s measure. Even though he’s a hitman Macklin has a certain code of behavior; Walker, who definitely has a code of behavior and has the much more impoverished lifestyle to prove it, is reluctant to take Macklin’s money but he’s really not given much of a choice. Almost more than anything else, the meeting between these two characters is the meeting between two practical realists.

This novel, mostly set in the smallish town of Milford, has the precise explication of small town life, especially during a Michigan winter, that Estleman readers have come to expect. While we may not be running around heavily armed, slipping through locked doors with a credit card or paying transients to watch our cars, just about every Michigander will relate to the white-knuckle drive Amos takes on a snow-swept highway during the height of a blizzard.

In every way this novel was delicious, and even if you’re new to Walker’s Detroit, it’s a trip well worth making. Jumping in at novel 27 won’t be too unsettling – you should be able to slide right in to Amos’ world. It’s a little gritty, but it’s full of honor.

Elly Griffiths: The Dark Angel

Elly Griffiths goes from strength to strength with her Ruth Galloway series. She’s created a long form look at a main character that most readers not only love, but identify with. In this outing as Ruth hits the beach with her glam friend Shona, her discomfort at wearing her old black one piece in public is something pretty much any woman can relate to. But of course there’s more than an identification with Ruth Galloway that makes Griffiths’ novels a standout – she’s an effortless and energetic storyteller who punctuates her writing with healthy dollops of humor. What’s not to love?

As the book opens, Ruth is reluctantly attending the wedding of policeman “Cloughie” – a likable good guy on DCI Nelson’s team – to a glam actress. Ruth dreads seeing Nelson and his presently pregnant wife Michelle. Regular readers of the series are aware that Ruth and Nelson have an illegitimate daughter, Kate, and that Michelle tolerates Nelson’s small participation in Kate’s life. Spicing things up is a recent affair between Michelle and Tim, another officer who worked for Nelson, and Michelle is far from sure that the baby she’s carrying is Nelson’s.

Despite Kate’s complete appreciation of a sparkly bride, all Ruth can think is that she needs a vacation, and when she gets a call from a former colleague in Italy, asking her to consult on some bones and offering her a free place to stay for two weeks, she hurriedly accepts, taking her friend Shona and her son Louis along.

The bones are certainly curious – the skeleton her friend has discovered was found buried face down with a small stone wedged in his mouth – and Ruth’s professional curiosity (she’s an archeologist) is certainly piqued. She balances work with vacation in this novel, giving the reader a luscious virtual tour of the small village in the Italian hills where they are staying.

All the same, Griffiths is up to her usual tricks – she has a love of the slightly gothic and of history, and she brings in the Romans, Mussolini, an earthquake, a couple blackouts, a mysterious boar’s tooth and of course, a dead body in an appropriately goth location.

Back in King’s Lynn, Ruth’s hometown, Nelson is slightly troubled by the release of a prisoner he put away for killing his family. The man appears to have become a Christian in prison but Nelson is not so sure. Griffiths takes all these elements and creates a great story with them, even somehow believably getting both Nelson and Cathbad to Italy. Plus there’s a real wowser of an ending, with complicated repercussions for just about every major character. This is another great read from this more than reliable author.

Jenny Milchman: Wicked River

Wicked RiverJenny Milchman’s talent for suspense is of a very high order. I read lots and lots of mysteries – obviously – but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me so squirmy I have to put it down a couple times as I read it. She reminds me of Joseph Finder, in that I had to keep telling myself that this was fiction and wasn’t actually happening.

The book opens at a lovely wedding, but of course, as any suspense fan knows, this wedding is not going to end well. In this case, it’s not the wedding that’s the problem, it’s the honeymoon. Natalie and Doug have a camping/canoeing trip planned for their honeymoon, one that takes them deep into the Adirondack wilderness.

Natalie is not so sure about the trip, but the enthusiastic Doug has convinced her that two weeks of hiking, canoeing and portaging will be fun. And at first it is, though since I hate the idea of camping, it didn’t sound fun to me. But then, through a series of calamitous events, they lose their GPS and their way and end up in a part of the park that’s totally wild and rarely traveled.

About half way through, Milchman turns up the heat and makes this excellent chase novel ALSO a detective story with a twist I didn’t see coming. Then she adds to the mix an escaped prisoner who has lived on his own in the woods for a couple years. He’s fit, lonely, and terrifying, and he keeps an eye out for any hikers that come his way.

As Doug and Natalie begin to suffer seriously from their unplanned trek into deep wilderness, the man comes into play in both a good and a bad way. Milchman is expert at making you feel what the characters are feeling, and part of the reason she’s so good at it is that she is able to make the reader invested in what is often a central female character. In this case it’s Natalie, who undergoes an emotional transformation of sorts during the course of the novel.

This is a wonderful, vivid story, with great characters, an unforgettable setting and a bad guy and suspense that doesn’t stop. This was an exhausting read, but a worthwhile one. I have to say I was delighted to have read it on my sofa, not in a tent in front of a campfire. Shiver.

Laura Lippman: Sunburn

SunburnLaura Lippman’s ode to James M. Cain is masterful. As I began reading it, I thought it was going to be based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, and it is, but it’s also based on Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. Cain’s ingenious, scathing stories were pure story, punctuated with the inappropriate yet raging desires on the part of the female characters, whether it was Cora, Mildred or Phyllis, and the somewhat clueless collusion on the part of the males in their orbit. All of Cain’s females have a burning idea of how to proceed. So does Lippman’s Polly – an understatement. She’s also expert at waiting for results.

The book opens with Polly walking out on her husband and daughter and vanishing into the little town of Belleville, Deleware, where she becomes (of course) a waitress. All her careful plans go to hell when P.I. (though she thinks he’s a guy whose truck has broken down) Adam walks into the bar. While Adam is scoping out Polly, the careful Polly is scoping him out as well. A classic triangle emerges: the other waitress, Cath, has a thing for Adam too. While Cath is wily in a somewhat feral way, she’s no match for Polly, who emerges triumphant with Adam.

The first part of the book is the slow burn between Polly and Adam and their eventual raging desire for each other. Before he knows what’s happening, Adam is existing on Polly’s terms rather than the other way around. And up to this point, even with the whole prologue of Polly leaving her family, the book wasn’t grabbing me. It was well done, as Lippman’s novels always are, but it wasn’t until she jumped in with an old story of insurance scams involving Polly’s violent first husband that I was really hooked.

The other thing, of course, that makes this novel so contemporary (even though it’s set in the mid-90’s) is Polly’s awareness of how she’s treated or perceived as a woman. When she leaves her family, she thinks to herself that a man would not be so censured. He would be cut a break. She only ends up in Belleville because the old man who gave her a lift tries to put his hand up her skirt, and she demands to be let out of the car. She’s a good waitress but she doesn’t let herself really relax around her customers; she holds herself back a bit. Human interaction is a bit like a science experiment to her.

As Lippman proceeds to pull back the layers of Polly’s back story – her two husbands, her own violent past – Polly begins to come more and more into focus. Adam loves her but doesn’t trust her. At one point, another character, realizing Polly often wears yellow and looks her best in it, also thinks to himself “Still, he has to admit that yellow, the color used for warnings and caution, suits her.” She’s utterly fascinating.

Lippman is also a master, every bit as much as Cain, at plot, though she goes about it differently. The twists, when they come, are well set up but still something of a shock. I guess bad behavior is shocking. If Cain’s novels – short, brutal and honed to a fine point – were about the breathless committing of a crime, the modern crime novel, while also about committing a crime, is very much about the aftermath. Lippman is a master at aftermath.

This languorous novel, spanning Labor Day to Christmas, is in a tight time frame but unfurls like a slow fever dream. While the homage to Cain is ever present, Polly is all Lippman’s own creation. The complex plot is lightly told and clearly laid out, but chilling all the same. This story will definitely stay with you for quite awhile after you finish it.

Catriona McPherson: Scot Free

Scot FreeThis light, funny, delightful novel from Catriona McPherson introduces readers to native Scot Lexy Campbell. She’d fallen for a hunky American and ended up moving to California where they married and lived in what she describes as a “beige barn,” the type of house familiar to many Americans as a McMansion. Objections to her husband’s lifestyle choices aside, he’s also a cheater, and Lexy walks out on him on the 4th of July, moving in to the Last Ditch Motel. She’s sure this is temporary.

Lexy’s job has been to work as a marriage counselor, and on this same ill fated evening, one half of her only client couple, Clovis Bombaro, is killed by an (apparently intentional) exploding firework. Clovis’s wife, Vi, has been arrested for the crime but Lexy is sure she’s innocent and heads to the courthouse to help Vi post bail. There are plenty of people sympathetic to the plight of long time resident and business owner Mrs. Bombaro, and she is allowed to head home, Lexy at her side.

McPherson then manages to introduce a swath of totally fascinating supporting characters – many of whom live at the Last Ditch. Most memorable is the germ-obsessed Todd, who takes over Lexy’s clothing and underwear choices and redecorates her ratty motel room. At the same time, McPherson is also gently skewering American culture and shining a light on the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Oh, and I forgot to mention – Lexy is deathly afraid of fireworks, so when she’s asked by Mrs. B. to tour the fireworks factory with her she has many, many reservations.

There’s a death in this novel for sure, but it happens off canvas and as readers we don’t really know Clovis, so it’s not a tragedy. Lexy and her self-appointed helper Todd begin to unravel the strands of Clovis’ murder, but there are plenty of twists and surprises thrown in before they get to a solution.

The humor and satire in this book is never forced, it’s completely natural, which makes it all the more hilarious. I found myself snickering and outright laughing as I read (embarrassing in the store) and I can’t recommend this highly enough. A perfect smart escape read that made this reader very ready for another installment.

Mariah Fredericks: A Death of No Importance

A Death of No ImportanceThis kick ass book features ladies’ maid Jane Prescott, who happens to be working for the newly wealthy and somewhat clueless Benchley family when a murder explodes the family’s world. Jane has more or less taken the Benchley girls under her wing. Their mother is a feckless household manager and the girls, Charlotte, beautiful and headstrong, and Louisa, plain and shy, welcome the kind of insider society knowledge Jane possesses after working for various wealthy families. It’s 1910 and a good marriage for each girl is uppermost in their minds – and in the mind of their mother.

Jane is telling the story, and it’s clear she’s looking back in time as she remembers the incidents that so shaped the lives of the Benchley family. While Jane works for one of the wealthiest families in 1910 New York, she’s also friends with an anarchist named Anna who brings her a different view of the world and when the murder occurs, a different view of the importance of the dead person. Jane balances her loyalty and affection for the family she’s serving while hearing Anna’s voice in her head.

The other family affected owned a mine in Pennsylvania where eight children were left for dead after a collapse. This family has been receiving threatening notes from the anarchists referring to the mine tragedy. In this way, Fredericks almost gently points out the vast divide between the upper classes and everyone else, though her main character is ruled more by her heart than by principles.

Jane, at the request of Mr. Benchley, helps to investigate the murder with the help of a tenacious and bold reporter. They ably follow the threads of the mystery back to the source. Jane and her reporter buddy are tormented by the classic dilemma posed in almost every mystery novel: does a killing come down to the killer’s character or the situation? Or both?

Fredericks, a brisk and lively storyteller, takes the reader on a careening ride through the various echelons of 1910 New York society, helping the reader to be invested in Jane from page one. I found this novel extremely difficult to put down and satisfying after I’d finished reading it. This is a wonderful first foray into historical mystery fiction for Ms. Fredericks. I can’t wait to read more.

Denise Swanson: Tart of Darkness

Tart of DarknessDenise Swanson is a wonderful storyteller and one of the things she’s exceptionally good at is creating a “mean girl” character. Herself a high school social worker for many years, I’m sure Ms. Swanson knows the type, but in this outing, the first in a new series, she creates a doozy.

The set-up: central character Dani Sloan has left her HR job and has unexpectedly inherited a Victorian mansion. The mansion has not been totally rehabbed but it does contain a new chef’s kitchen, and Dani, in the middle of reinventing herself as a personal chef and caterer, takes it as a sign that she’s on the right path. When one of her former neighbors, college student Ivy, gets kicked out of her former apartment building, Dani takes Ivy and her friends in as boarders. A perfect setting for a new series.

Dani, while older than the girls and serving as more or less a de facto housemother, gets drawn into their drama. When Ivy begs her to cater a party for the super popular Regina, Dani reluctantly agrees. Regina, the mean girl of the title, is so nasty it really takes the entire book to reveal all of her misdeeds, but since she’s so outstandingly nasty it’s a pretty safe bet that her time on planet earth is limited. Indeed it is, and Dani and Ivy are immediately cast as suspects.

Making things more uncomfortable: a vengeful, spiteful detective in charge of the case. Making things more comfortable: Ivy’s hunky uncle Spencer who swoops in to help out. Dani and Spencer obviously have feelings for one another but Swanson is far too canny a writer to let things take their natural course in a first book.

One of the best definitions of a cozy I’ve ever heard comes from cozy writer Vicki Delaney: “The characters live in a very pleasant world and their goal in solving the crime is to return their community to its pleasant state.” Swanson has created here an extremely pleasant world. The reader desperately wants Dani to get back to her “normal” life. Solving the murder helps to accomplish that, but there’s obviously room left for this vivid and funny new series to continue to grow and flourish.

Nancy Herriman: Searcher of the Dead

Searcher of the Dead by Nancy HarrimanAs Nancy Herriman proved with her books set in 1860’s San Francisco, she is an able and entertaining storyteller, no matter what the era. She’s changed her setting to Elizabethan England, and given readers Bess Ellyott, a widowed herbalist living with her brother. She’s fled London after the suspicious death of her husband and finds herself attempting to comfort her distraught sister, who insists her husband is missing.

As Bess and her brother try to calm their sister Dorothie, they must wait to look for him, as there’s not only a curfew in place, it’s very foggy. When morning comes and her brother-in-law is nowhere to be found, her brother Robert, Dorothie and Bess all set out to search and unfortunately find the man hanging from a tree. A ruling of suicide was devastating; not only could the body not be buried in a church graveyard, all the property of the dead person was confiscated by the crown, and as suicide (or felo-de-se) is in fact the verdict of the coroner, Dorothie sets down to a glum watch as her household is dismantled.

Like any detective worth her salt, however, Bess is not only certain she saw something proving murder on the dead man’s neck, she’s willing to break curfew and dig him up to prove her point. She’s helped out by the local constable (who seems to be sweet on her) and together they set out to prove that the death was murder, not suicide. She’s undertaking all of her investigations while her brother is out of town, and she’s in charge of the household.

Suspicion seems to fall on a local Catholic family, especially as there seems to be some kind of mysterious Jesuit lurking in their woods, and when Bess is called to attend to an injury suffered by one of their servants, she is able to do a little detecting while she’s binding a cut. Her volatile sister is little help, and her niece, infatuated with the scion of the Catholic house, is torn, but Bess and the constable work well together to piece together a solution.

Part of the interest and charm of this novel comes from the time period, and from Herriman’s exploration of customs and mores different from our own. She’s also adept at creating a vivid setting and then in filling that setting with interesting, believable and fleshed-out characters, something that adds depth to any novel, and it certainly does to this one. Moreover she sets a brisk pace for herself with lots of action and twists of the plot. This is an excellent start to a new series.

Laura Joh Rowland: A Mortal Likeness

A Mortal LikenessThe second novel in Laura Joh Rowland’s Sarah Bain series, this one has no need to establish character and setting. It just takes off. Sarah, a photographer, is now working with her friend Lord Hugh as a private detective with a minimal amount of success so far. As the book opens, the two are on the trail of an adulterer, who they follow to the Crystal Palace in hopes of catching and photographing him in a compromising situation. This part of their scheme goes well, and the two take off when the man spots them and chases them off.

When Sarah goes home to develop the photographs, they have clear evidence of wrongdoing for the man’s wife to take to court, but Sarah notices a man in the background who appears to be her long-lost father. She can’t help but return to the Crystal Palace the next day to look for him, but when she gets there she finds the couple has not only been murdered, but they seem to be somehow tied to the kidnapping of baby Robin Mariner, the son of the powerful Sir Gerald Mariner.

Sarah and Hugh decide to take their information to Sir Gerald rather than the police (a sticky wicket, as Sarah’s beau is a policeman) and Sir Gerald hires them on the spot to come to his home and see if they can solve the crime. He suspects a family member, not an outsider, despite the evidence of a ladder outside the nursery window the night of the disappearance.

The two are also required to sign a confidentiality agreement, so Sarah leaves for Sir Gerald’s without telling her policeman boyfriend where she’s headed. She just tells him she’s “visiting a friend.” They also leave in the lurch young Mick, a homeless boy who has recently moved in with them. They give Hugh’s valet with instructions only that Mick should continue to attend school.

To say Sir Gerald’s household is dysfunctional is an understatement, as it’s filled with resentful adult children from other marriages as well as his new young wife (mother of Robin) and her sister, Tabitha, as well as a psychic Lady Alexandra keeps around to help her communicate with Robin. Sarah and Hugh are resented by Sir Gerald’s butler who is loath to give them any inside track on the inner workings of the household.

As they begin their investigation they are hampered in their efforts by a serious fire in their rooms and the death of a member of the household. Rowland is adept at creating a setting, and she’s created some very sturdy and interesting characters to center her series on. Mick of course shows up halfway through the proceedings.

The family dynamics of this story make this very much a psychological mystery, and the resolution is both surprising and creepy. Rowland also left a nice fat juicy thread to pursue in the next book – Sarah still has not found her missing father. There is plenty to discover and relish in this very enjoyable book.