Hank Phillippi Ryan: The Murder List

What makes a thriller good?  What makes one stand out from the pack of – let’s be honest – the many, many books at the moment about women in jeopardy who have lost their memories or are unreliable narrators or have terrible husbands?  Let’s start with the main character.  Lawyer in training Rachel North has none of those problems.  Her memory is intact and her husband seems like a doll in a Red Sox cap.  She seems reliable and balanced.  She’s just – in a situation.

Thrillers need to be plotted like clockwork, without the gears showing to the reader.  So someone as gifted as Hank Phillippi Ryan can introduce many characters onto her canvas, turn the wheel of the plot, and a previously introduced character will unexpectedly show up where you least expect it.  Gears at work here, but not on display.  Masterful. read more

Sujata Massey: The Widows of Malabar Hill

I was a totally geeked out fan of Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura series about a Japanese American antiques dealer living in Japan.  The books became progressively better and better as the series went forward, and Massey has apparently brought all the knowledge and expertise gained in writing those eleven books to good use in delivering this bravura work of historical fiction.

Set in 1920’s India, young Perveen Mistry is a lawyer – extremely unusual for the time and place – working for her father’s law firm, and though she’s not allowed to argue cases in court she can do all the research and contract work needed by the firm.  Coming across her somewhat sparsely populated desk is the case of a will for three widows who were married to the same man.  Their male agent has submitted documents stating that the women want to give up their inheritance and donate it to a charity instead, and the document is signed by all three. read more

Julia Keller: Fast Falls the Night

I have a real respect for writers who pull off the feat of condensing a book into the space of a single day. One of my favorite mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), takes place in the space of a single night, and while Ms. Keller is far removed from Ms. Marsh in time, theme, setting, and protagonist, they share a knack all good storytellers have. I think it’s a matter of pacing, the right amount of being invested in the characters, and some sort of indefinable magic. Marsh’s stories are lighter and more optimistic than Keller’s, who sets hers in a far more brutal time and place. read more

Julia Keller: Sorrow Road

Sorrow Road

Julia Keller has quickly proven to be one of the brightest lights in the present mystery universe, crafting novels where character, plot, sense of place and a genuine human empathy and deep understanding combine seemingly effortlessly. This is another bravura effort by Ms. Keller, whose novels featuring prosecutor Belfa Elkins are set in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. As always Belfa is working flat out, as she’s nursing a broken heart from a self imposed “break” from her boyfriend and trying to adjust to her daughter living in far away Washington DC. read more

Allison Leotta: Law of Attraction

Law-of-AttractionAllison Leotta’s first novel featuring prosecuting attorney Anna Curtis is a hard- to-stop-reading type thriller, with an interesting central character and a tight plot. Leotta’s Anna has a background including domestic violence – her father beating her mother – and she’s become an attorney for that very reason: to help people like her mother. As the book opens she is on “papering room” duty – processing papers as cases come in, and one of them involves a bleeding young woman who has been beaten by her boyfriend. read more

Julia Keller: Summer of the Dead

Summer of the Dead by Julia KellerJulia Keller is quite simply a spectacular writer. Her Bell Elkins series, set in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, has been deepening and improving with each installment. In this novel, Bell’s sister Shirley has returned from a long stint in prison, and the two are uncomfortably adjusting to living together. Bell is also dealing with a number of murders county wide, some of which seem related, some of which don’t. The atmosphere hanging over Acker’s Gap, like the summer heat, is oppressive and stifling. read more

Nancy Allen: The Code of the Hills

Code-of-the-HillsNancy Allen refers to her first novel as “hillbilly noir” but I’d call it “legal noir,” as it’s a harrowing, inside look at the legal system and its many faults. It’s also a harrowing look at life in a small town in the Ozarks: Barton, Missouri. Allen’s main character is a prosecutor named Elsie who apparently has the world’s most horrible boss and she’s working on the world’s most horrible case.

I think folks who work sex crimes are probably vastly underpaid for the heartbreaking and soul-sucking work they do – unless they are each paid a million bucks a year, they’re working for us for free. Despite Elsie’s flaws and blind spots she’s still fighting to do what’s right because that’s the way she works. Elsie has a special soft spot for child victims, and the case she’s assigned in this novel is a doozy. read more

Adam Mitzner: A Case of Redemption

While there are many, many legal thrillers out there, there are few of them that I personally enjoy.  I am a big fan of David Ellis, as well as a sometime fan of Scott Turow, Linda Fairstein and Lisa Scottoline, and now I can add to that short list Adam Mitzner.  This is apparently his second novel, though, like Ellis, he doesn’t write a series.  Like many other writers of legal thrillers, he is also an attorney.  The legal backdrop, to this non-attorney, seems very authentic.

Taking a plausibly ripped from the headlines storyline, the novel centers on murder charges against a rapper whose stage name is Legally Dead.  His back story is that he was shot four times and left for dead, thus the name.  L.D. (as he’s called by his friends) is in prison for clubbing his girlfriend, a famous singer (think Beyonce or Rihanna type famous) named Roxanne.   The thing that seems to clinch his guilt is the fact that one of his songs – now getting constant airplay – discusses killing a singer with a baseball bat.  As a final nail in his coffin, it was written before Roxanne’s murder. read more