Archive for Reviews

Deborah Crombie: Garden of Lamentations

I look forward to few novels more than I do those of Deborah Crombie, whose Gemma James/Duncan Kincaid books have become one of my favorite series. As the series has progressed and the working partners became marital ones, I also have become a fan of these characters who are good, decent human beings dealing with life as it comes at them. They are a family of five with all the chaos that entails and juggling family and work is not always easy. In this novel, Gemma and Duncan seem a bit estranged.

Originally, the two worked together, with Duncan outranking Gemma, but now they are equals in rank and they no longer work together. In this novel, as in the previous several, each one has their own case they are pursuing and the two don’t mix. Crombie, who obviously is a big fan of order and structure, is able to nimbly navigate this complex plotting structure with ease.

Gemma’s case concerns a nanny who was found dead in the private, shared garden behind the house where she lived and worked, so in this scenario, Crombie creates a locked room mystery of a sort as Gemma and her temporary boss, Boatman, who has requested Gemma as she has a tenuous personal connection to the victim. This story really captivated me as Crombie delves into the lifestyles and personalities of the families surrounding the garden area. For those not familiar either with London or the movie Notting Hill, the garden is a fenced, locked one, accessible only to the neighbors whose houses back up to it.

Duncan’s case is more complex and has threads tied to the past several books, and involves police corruption at the highest level. Duncan is mostly working in the dark as he tries to figure out why his old boss, Denis Childs, who had disappeared and reappeared, requesting a meeting, and who warns him to be careful has given him this warning. Duncan is worried and doesn’t share his worries with Gemma, thus straining their relationship, and when Childs is conked on the head and is in an induced coma, Duncan is really on his own.

He gets to work with his old mates, Melody and Doug, on the sly, as they use their various skill sets and connections to figure out what’s happening. In the last book, the story was set off by a bomb blast in St. Pancras station. Melody was a witness and it’s clear she is probably suffering from PTSD. A working knowledge of that novel (The Sound of Broken Glass) helps to navigate this one. The wrap-up of both cases is both satisfying and surprising.

Crombie is at all times a complex, intelligent writer, who uses her rich characters and settings and complex situations to create truly memorable novels. She weaves her stories back and forth through time in some cases (Duncan’s, here) and interweaves her different plot lines, integrating them with the character’s personal lives. This is the bravura work of a master of her craft.

Stephen Mack Jones: August Snow

As I started this book I have to admit I was a tad suspicious – the author is a poet and a playwright, not always the recipe for creating a down and dirty private eye novel. But as I read this novel set in Detroit’s Mexicantown and featuring half African American, half Mexican ex-cop August Snow, I found instead that the book fitted neatly in with work by Loren Estleman and Steve Hamilton, being a refreshingly straightforward, if gritty, private eye novel and making no bones about it.

Like David Housewright’s Minnesota P.I. Mackenzie, who has a ton of money at his disposal, so does August Snow, who won a settlement against the Detroit Police Department and is using the money in his own way to recreate the warm Mexicantown neighborhood he fondly remembers from his childhood. He’s been on the run – more or less – for a year and is back home, settling into his life in Detroit, when he gets a call from an old client, one who helped cause much of the ruckus that got him on the outs with the Detroit cops. Reluctantly, he makes the trek across town to the woman’s Grosse Pointe mansion to see what he can help her with.

He turns down her request to look into possibly shady happenings at the wealth management firm and bank she owns, but when she’s discovered dead shortly after they’ve talked, August, being the true white knight private eye hero, thinks there’s something wrong about her apparent suicide and can’t get it out of his head.

The back and forth of the street characters and hackers August deals with, contrasted with the ultra wealthy banker types, creates a good back and forth dynamic as the book unfolds. And even the name of this detective – August Snow – summer, winter, two opposites in the same name – helps define the way he’s able to straddle the street, the FBI and police and his wealthy clients.

I thought this book took a bit of time to get warmed up – as though Mack Jones was finding his footing and establishing his bonafides, but once he gets rolling, this is a wonderfully plotted P.I. novel, full of action and great characters. As readers we also meet the one of the few African American private eyes on the scene, so this is a welcome book and I hope the start of a series. There just aren’t enough books like this one being written at the moment.

Chevy Stevens: Never Let You Go

When Robin asked me to write a review of Chevy Stevens’s new book in advance of Chevy’s appearance at the store, she wondered if I’d have to reread the book in order to refresh my memory. But, despite the fact that I’d devoured Never Let You Go  back in early September, and have read many mysteries since, the answer was an emphatic no. Believe me, consuming one of Chevy’s books is such a powerful and enthralling experience that you’re not going to forget it anytime soon.

In a thriller the initial setup is crucial, and as usual in her work, Never Let You Go has a compelling hook that lands the reader into her hold. There are two lines of narrative, one told in the voice of Lindsey in 2005, a young and somewhat naive wife trapped in an abusive relationship. At a vacation resort her Machiavellian husband Andrew pulls a power trip that endangers their daughter Sophie, making Lindsey realize once and for all that she and Sophie must escape from him.

Flash forward to 2016 where Lindsey and Sophie have rebuilt their lives on an isolated Canadian island. Unfortunately Andrew has gotten out of prison, mysterious and vaguely menacing things have started to happen, and the drastic measures Lindsey used to get Andrew incarcerated in the first place haunt her in more ways than one.

As we learn how she escaped from her previous hell we also see the fresh one developing around her. Then there’s the narrative from teen Sophie, who doesn’t really remember her father, has been surreptitiously corresponding with him in prison, and is rebelliously sympathetic to his attempts to forge a relationship now that he’s out.

The result is very hard to put down. Stevens knows how to twist a plot without tying it into implausible knots and the unexpected ending makes you wonder how you didn’t see it coming rather than filling you with a desire to throw the book across the room. In a thriller landscape infested with zombie Gone Girl on the Train clones, she stands out because of the deep humanity of all her characters, as well as the sincere empathy she brings to even the most horrifying scenarios. The result is a book that is sensational without being sensationalistic, one that, like many classic “women in peril” mysteries, is, in fact, a commentary on the relative powerlessness of women in society. You’ll race through Never Let You Go, but it will reverberate for a long time. (Jamie)

Vicki Delany: Elementary, She Read

This is a charming book, and Vicki Delany is a total pro at telling a story. Brisk, entertaining, and memorable – the whole package. As far as cozies go, she’s top of the line. The set-up is great. Main character Gemma Doyle lives on Cape Cod and owns a Sherlock Holmes themed bookshop and teashop along with her uncle, who is the real Holmes buff but more of a silent partner as he’s off on collecting trips. I’ve read books about bookstores before that I found pretty unrealistic, but Cape Cod is a tourist area and because Gemma’s shop sells more than books, I could believe that she was briskly selling lots of decks of Sherlock playing cards, figurines and other tchotchkes.

As the book opens, the shop is busy with a bridge group on a tour, who swarm the tearoom and the shop. Gemma notices a woman who doesn’t seem to belong come in and then loses sight of her as she waits on customers. The woman disappears but when the crowd clears, Gemma finds a bag with an apparently almost priceless copy of a 19th century magazine with an original Sherlock story in it. She locks it in her safe and from there her troubles begin.

Gemma, who has the deductive reasoning powers of our hero, figures out where the mystery woman must be and tracks her to a local motel, but when she finds her, the woman is dead. Gemma becomes prime suspect #1 and the main investigator is a former boyfriend. Things go from bad to worse as Gemma’s house is trashed, the police continue to show up at her home and business for questioning, and she feels she’s being followed. When her ex is taken off the case and the officer in charge clearly thinks Gemma is the guilty party, Gemma takes things into her own hands.

She repeatedly says to herself that the police have greater resources than she does but she can’t help herself and finds her way nimbly through a thicket of clues. The story, the surrounding characters, and the Cape Cod setting all make this a more than delightful read. It feels like a set up to a nice long-lived series, and I hope it is.

Jane Harper: The Dry

The DryTwo things to keep in mind when reading The Dry:

  1. It’s an awesome book to read in the cold, cold winter, as it’s set in the burning draught of Australia as meticulously delineated by Jane Harper.
  2. If you start reading it early in the evening, forget about getting any sleep. You won’t be able to put it down.

This is a wonderful first novel, featuring Melbourne financial detective Aaron Falk, who has returned to his tiny hometown of Kiewarra for the most tragic of reasons: his boyhood friend, Luke, has apparently killed his wife and toddler son in a murder-suicide. Aaron has gotten a note from Luke’s father demanding his attendance at the funeral. As he arrives, it’s like he’s walking into a terrible steam bath. Harper wraps the suffocating heat around him like a blanket and he’s plunged into the tiny church where the funeral is being held, surrounded by his long ago neighbors and frenemies.

Kind of like the frog in the water that’s boiling but doesn’t realize it until it’s too late, Aaron eases back into Kiewarra despite some terrible past memories and the fresh new grief of losing his old friend Luke. In a room over the pub he’s visited by the local cop in charge, who asks him to unofficially look into the case with him, as he feels something is off.

Unlike many contemporary detective novels, neither Aaron nor the local, Raco, are the tormented type. Yes, Aaron has some baggage that makes him a bit standoffish, but he and Raco are both are at heart good, decent men who want to discover the truth because that’s what’s right. This is almost a western, and they may as well be wearing the white hats of the good sheriff.

This novel is far from corny, however, and Harper uses the setting—the dry, hot landscape—to her advantage as she tells her story, winding it in as part of her plot. That’s a trick only some of the very best writers can pull off (Kent Krueger and Julia Keller both come to mind) and Harper is a very powerful writer. As she interweaves the past and present, creating an incredibly painful backstory, she’s also laid the groundwork for a true mystery with a solution that is a surprise in one way and in another way, it’s not, as she’s set it up so well.

I often feel mysteries can get away with a good story and decent characters. That’s a good read. When all the elements—prose, plot, setting and character are present—that’s a great read. The Dry is a great read. Don’t miss it.

Doug Allyn: The Jukebox Kings

Doug Allyn has long been known as one of the masters of the modern mystery short story—it’s probably harder to find an issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine that doesn’t have an Allyn story in it than to find one that does, and it’s a rare year that he’s not nominated for an Edgar award. But he’s also a fine novelist as well, my personal favorite being the the Mitch Mitchell series, which feature a female Michigan based deepwater diver.

The latest exhibit of his mastery in the longer form is called The Jukebox Kings. It’s not so much a mystery as a crime novel, a story of the rise of a gangster in the Little Caesar tradition. Mick Shannon is a boxer, fresh out of prison, who, after losing a tough fight, finds himself deeply in debt to the mob, in the person of Moishe Abrams, an extremely dangerous relic of the Purple Gang era, who still controls jukeboxes and collections in the black parts of Detroit. Things get rough quickly, and soon Mick finds himself taking the place of Moishe in an extremely fraught environment.

At first the book is reminiscent of early Elmore Leonard (not the worst thing to be reminiscent of!) in its portrayal of a tough, canny protagonist dealing with the changing Detroit of the early sixties. Allyn puts his own stamp on it by introducing another element of his expertise, music.

Mick seizes a tiny music studio from a deadbeat then dead client, and proceeds to learn the ins and outs of the exploding Motown scene with the help of Martika, a savvy and attractive soul sister who happens to harbor a performing talent herself. The synergy between the studio, the jukeboxes that play the products of the studio and a soon acquired nightclub creates a new and successful operation, but also one that attracts the attention of the new look but just as brutal Mafia whose “takeover and acquisition” strategy Mick and his new associates must resist.

There’s plenty of action, atmosphere and snappy dialogue in The Jukebox Kings, as well as an insightful look at the music business and a changing Detroit. The long sweep of the story, which reaches from the Supremes to rap, must have been liberating for an author used to a more restricted form. Although Mick is a violent man who turns to violent means when necessary, he’s a sympathetic character and his story is a winning one.

Laura Joh Rowland: The Ripper’s Shadow

Laura Joh Rowland is well known to mystery fans as the author of the Sano Ichiro mysteries set in 17th century Japan. She’s also taken on Charlotte Bronte in other novels, and here she creates a new character, photographer Sarah Bain, who lives in Victorian London at the same time as Jack the Ripper. While there are many, many books about Jack the Ripper—the fact that he was never found will always be fuel for speculation—he’s almost like Sherlock Holmes in that the permutations and impressions of his life (and crimes) are varied and plentiful, and the interpretations can range from the dull to the nutty to the creative. Rowland goes for the creative.

She creates a central tent pole character who is interesting, flawed, and human at the same time. Sarah is a female photographer struggling to make ends meet on her own, and has found a path to success taking naughty photographs of prostitutes. The photos were the idea of one of the women, but when the women start to die at the hands of the Ripper, Sarah feels her photographs are the reason why. Interweaving fact and fiction, Rowland of course posits a solution to the crimes, but that is almost a McGuffin. To me the real interest of the novel lay in the characters which Rowland chooses to surround Sarah.

They are a varied and disparate lot, yet they seem to have a common thread—some horrible, painful pasts or innate character traits that make them societal outliers. There are the Lipskys, who Sarah meets when she goes to photograph their dead child; Jews expelled from Russia, their painful past can almost be assumed. There’s young Mick, who cadges his living on the streets but takes a liking to Sarah, who ends up feeding him on a pretty regular basis. There’s the dashing Lord Hugh whose secret is that he prefers men to women; in Victorian London, of course, this was an illegal lifestyle choice that could result in prison. And finally there’s the lovely actress and model Catherine, who has posed for Sarah and who the little band unites around in a kind of protective custody arrangement.

As this group searches for the Ripper, Sarah is afraid to reveal the reason for her alarm to the police, fearing her photos could get her arrested. As she hides this essential fact she becomes a target of the investigation herself and finds a frenemy in one PC Barrett.

As Rowland takes the reader on a tour of many of the seamier parts of London, you can almost smell the city as Sarah and crew take their stations in the fog, protecting prostitutes and hoping to catch the Ripper. Sarah’s lonely present is assuaged by her new band of companions, and it’s the growing friendship between all of them—as little bits of their pasts are teased out throughout the narrative—that give this novel real charm. It certainly felt to me like it was set up for a sequel, and I hope it is, as these are characters I hope to revisit.

Kathryn Casey: Possessed: The Infamous Texas Stiletto Murder

PossessedEver since the loss of Ann Rule, the True Crime world has been in a bit of a funk. To some extent the books that used to come out by the dozens have been replaced by semi-documentaries that proliferate on television. Of course, like so many, these programs suffer from a lack of depth and a questionable “reality” show standard of journalism. So thank goodness for Rule’s friend Kathryn Casey, who with her new book Possessed: The Infamous Texas Stiletto Murder serves up a delectable slice of real life crime, detailed research, twisted personality and plain old you-couldn’t-make-this stuff-up goodness.

The first hook is one you might already be familiar with:

The woman’s face twisted into a pained grimace, and she pointed a bloody finger toward something on the floor near the dead man’s head, a size-nine, cobalt blue suede stiletto, its five-and-a-half-inch heel stained with blood that held tufts of what appeared to be strands of the dead man’s white hair.

The woman is Ana Trujillo, who on June 9th, 2013 killed her former boyfriend Stefan Andersson by beating him over the head with the stiletto heel of her shoe. Casey begins her tale with the shocked first responders, and their quick realization that there’s something a little hinky with Ana’s tale of deadly force in self defense.

The book then rewinds, taking a deep look at the biographies of both victim and killer, expertly detailing their characters, until there seems an almost tragic inevitability that when the trajectories of these two star crossed people intersect something awful will occur.

Stefan Andersson was born in Sweden, blessed with a brilliant mind but cursed with a father who was abusive to his family and jealous of a son who would outshine him. Eventually Stefan escaped to the United States in order to pursue biochemistry in corporate and academic jobs, but he remained damaged, popular and successful, with many friends, yet insecure, uncomfortable with true intimacy and saddled with a bit of a drinking problem. Getting older, with a failed marriage and a string of unsatisfying romances, he longed to shake his life, hoping for, perhaps, a spicy Latina to spice things up. Be careful what you wish for.

Ana Trujillo, a woman whose outgoing nature verged on exhibitionism, had risen from her own humble roots to become, at one time, a successful wife, mother and businesswoman. Gradually, however, perhaps because she had forced to be prematurely responsible at an early age, taking care of her younger brothers and sisters, she slowly slipped into a life of careless hedonism. It was a slow spiral downward into drugs, sex and bad company, her fitful and grandiose attempts at providing for herself regularly ruined by her inability to apply herself to anything but hedonism for any length of time. There were always guys, though, to pay for drinks, crash with and generally pick up the pieces. These relationships would just as regularly be sabotaged by her increasingly unhinged behavior and inexplicable eruptions of violence.

In each, the other initially found a savior of sorts. Only later would it all turn out to be misimpression and camouflage.

When Stefan and Ana met in the lobby of his high rise apartment building he saw her as the missing piece of his life. Even when he learned enough to want to avoid her, he can’t be firm enough to make a clean break or avoid her appeals to his compassion, haunted, perhaps, by the memory of his father’s brutality to his mother. As Max used to say on Hart to Hart, when these two met it was murder.

Once the deed is done the ever manipulative Ana tries to game the system, claiming to be a battered woman who feared for her life. The police and prosecutor soon see through her, but her claims make for a powerful defence in court.

As Ann Rule herself said, Casey is “one of the best true crime writers today,” and Possessed is a truly compelling read, with not only a precise presentation of the facts, but also a novelist’s eye for character and setting, the whole producing one of the best examples of the genre to appear this year. (Jamie)

Jonathan Moore: The Dark Room

I like starting a new year with a new discovery. I read an advance reading copy of this novel, which I plucked from the giant slush pile we have of such books. Sometimes one will call to me, and this one did. It feels very much like a series book though it apparently is not (that would be my one objection). Set in San Francisco, we meet homicide cop Gavin Cain, who is called in by the mayor after the mayor receives some compromising photographs with a request from the anonymous sender that the mayor do the world a favor and kill himself. When Gavin has his initial meeting with him, the mayor denies knowing anything about the photographs, which show a woman handcuffed, then undressed and obviously drugged.

Initially annoyed to be called in, Gavin’s been taken away from the culmination of another case involving the exhumation of a body. He has to dispatch his new, green partner to keep watch in the ME’s office and make sure everything goes as it should.

The FBI is involved with the mayor’s case as well, and the FBI agent in charge and Gavin form a good working partnership. As Gavin makes headway he also meets with the mayor’s disturbing family – a wife who is obviously an alcoholic and a daughter in art school who seems to take off all her clothes every time she’s around Gavin. He makes sure not to be alone with her. At that point, I was strongly reminded of Ross MacDonald’s California stories of wealthy and dysfunctional families.

Telling too much more of the plot would involve massive spoilers, but it’s not giving much away to say that the two cases are connected. There’s also a personal wrinkle for Gavin: he lives with a woman who hasn’t left her home in several years because of a traumatic incident in her past. The book is stuffed with great backstories begging to be revealed, an interesting main character, and good police procedural detail that makes a tricky, well crafted plot move ahead like lightning. As mentioned before, I wish this was a first in a series, but it’s a well told, enjoyable story. I would definitely seek out more titles by this author.

Carrie Smith: Forgotten City

Forgotten CityCarrie shared the manuscript of this novel with me – I inhaled it and loved it and then didn’t (or forgot to) write my review. I had to come back to it and re-read it thoughtfully. I still love this book and this author. Carrie is part of a long line of beloved authors (for me at least) that include Lillian O’Donnell, Barbara D’Amato, Leslie Glass, Lynn Hightower, and Lee Martin/Anne Wingate, women who wrote about female police officers or detectives who are juggling family and personal issues along with the day to day sexism they encounter on the job. O’Donnell’s first novel was published in 1972 and the sexism doesn’t seem to have changed much.

While Smith’s main character Claire Codella is not juggling marriage and children along with her job, she is juggling a bout with cancer and her subsequent follow up care along with a new relationship with a fellow detective. She’s cautious, personally (the reasons for that are explicated in this novel) and not so cautious professionally, making the intuitive leaps that a great detective makes, much to the annoyance of her superior officer.

The story centers on an exclusive Alzheimer’s care facility in Manhattan, final home to many of New York’s rich and powerful. The book opens with the death of Broadway legend Lucy Merchant, who suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and is found dead in her room one morning at the relatively young age of 56. Merchant’s daughter is not satisfied with the “natural causes” explanation, and pushes Codella, who at the moment is without a case, to look into her mother’s death. Codella reluctantly does so, getting more and more invested as each new revelation comes out. It quickly appears that Lucy has died of a drug overdose.

Smith’s storytelling style is both intimate – we get to know Clare, her fellow detectives, and the characters in the case, thoroughly – and epic, as she includes plot lines about a transgender character, sexual assault, the privileges of power, and the care of older people while taking a look at the class divide between cared for and caregiver. None of this is a polemic, but it’s folded neatly into Smith’s brisk story, which is ultimately a great example of the police procedural novel.

Smith’s prose is frequently lovely, as well, which is an added bonus. Two books into this series, I am already a diehard fan.