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A Long, Hard Look by Joel D. Canfield

Joel D. Canfield has written a smart, well-crafted gumshoe mystery in “A Long, Hard Look.”

The protagonist is down-and-out PI Phil Brennan, who takes on a case from a rather nervous and troubled young computer programmer named Gilbert Breville to go to the young man’s office and delete a program on his machine in exchange for a lot of cash. When he completes the task Phil finds himself up against other members of Gilbert’s family, and he finds the young programmer has been killed.

Brennan is quickly co-opted by Gilbert’s sister, Darcy, and the executive secretary to Gilbert and Darcy’s father’s company, Millie.  Millie has an even stronger reason to want to protect the company from the evil plots of two other sisters, Gertrude and Stephanie that she eventually reveals to Brennan and to Darcy.

The multi-millionaire tycoon owner of the company Brennan has sabotaged, Everard, hires Brennan to find Gil’s killer and secure the company from its enemies, while at the same time Everard would also like to get rid of Brennan for interfering with his decision to give the company power to the crazy and ruthless sister, Gertrude.  Brennan is constantly walking a tightrope around Everard, Gertrude and another sister, Stephanie, who has been known to waiver between the Gertrude and Gil/Darcy camps.

In the end Brennan is able to save the company for the more responsible members of the family, but it comes at quite an expense.

“Long, Hard Look” is a  good, nail-bitting detective story.

Liz Nichols

Stone Cold by C J Box

Lovers of western mysteries and thrillers are probably already fans of C. J. Box, the author of the Joe Pickett Novel series.  This is about my third time with this series and this is easily my favorite of Box’s most recent books.

In “Stone Cold” Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden, is posted to help out another game warden in the remote northeast corner of the state near the Black Hills.  Joe discovers something rotten going on in Medicine Wheel County, including the murder of a federal agent, that will eventually lead to a full-fledged FBI raid.  The nail biting question is whether the Feds can get in to take the bad guys under arrest before Joe Pickett is killed to remove his eye-witness accounting of the multiple layers of crime he uncovers.  He plays quite a cat and mouse game with the bad guys he quickly pinpoints but has to take a number of big risks in order to prove the role of an important landowner and philanthropist in the county when so many residents have been bribed or bamboozled into supporting the big-shot rancher.

I read “Stone Cold” in a couple of sittings.  It is a hard book to put down because the book is so action-packed and the characters, both good guys and bad, are so vividly drawn that it is easy for the reader to imagine being in Joe’s boots.

There is also an interesting side-story about a seemingly disaffected loner who moves in to the dorm at the University of Wyoming on the same floor as Joe’s daughter, Sheridan.  Sheridan does exactly what students who witness strange behavior are supposed to do to stop a potential campus shooting: she told her parents and they contacted the local authorities to watch this kid.  There is an interesting– and tragic– twist to this story toward the end of “Stone Cold” that will generate a lot of discussion around dinner tables between parents and their high school and college age children on a topic that is timely, thought-provoking and chilling: how to stop shootings and other random acts of violence on campus.  The book points out that stereotypes can lead to bad conclusions, but that vigilance is needed despite the danger of making a mistake.  Parents of troubled teens particularly need to get help early and often and not try to hide potentially unstable behaviors in the hopes that they will go away.

Stone Cold” is a thought-provoking addition to the Joe Pickett series and well worth reading for many reasons.

Liz Nichols

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Deadly Glance by Dallas Taylor

Deadly Glance” is about an attempted takeover of the United State and the U.S. economy by a transplant industrialist who grew up in Cuba and entered the U.S. via Mexico.  As this megalomaniac, Al Chord, steadily acquired companies he also built a non-profit called World One with a seemingly positive message of world unity.  What Chord only made clear to a select few leaders in World One was that the world would be unified  under one dictator– himself.

A former CIA agent and current attorney for a firm with offices in Dallas and Washington D.C., Jeff Walker, is the one to save the world from this new autocratic threat.  His firm comes to the attention of Chord when Walker’s D.C. partners, Bob Wright and Lil Turner, began to lobby on Capitol Hill on behalf of affirmative action legislation. This cause runs counter to Chord’s concept of who should get ahead in the world and jeopardizes some of his business interests.  Bob and Lil get threats that they believe are tied to the World One movement.  The police chalk up the threatening calls Bob receives to pranksters– until Bob turns up dead. Intrigue further surrounds Walker and his best friend, Holly, when they meet a club singer named Victoria who apparently also works for Chord. The more Jeff learns about Chord and World One the more convinced he becomes that World One is a threat not only to himself and his friends, but to the free world as we know it.

Deadly Glance” is a highly suspenseful thriller, although Dallas Taylor could have come up with a cause that is more hotly contested politically such as the energy issue or the privacy issue than affirmative action/diversity.  In the end the trigger issue is just an excuse to begin the process of world take-over by World One and probably does not matter.  I look forward to more political/international thrillers with Jeff Walker as the protagonist.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Top Secret Twenty-one by Janet Evanovich

Once again, Trenton NJ bond enforcer, Stephanie Plum is off to another batch of zany assignments in “Top Secret Twenty-One.”

Stephanie starts out on the latest adventure working as a look-out for her occasional boss, Ranger, in an attempt to bring down a high ticket bond-jumper and gangland thug, Emilio Gardi to extradite back to Miami.  Next up is a local businessman, Jimmy Poletti, who seems to have disappeared.  Everyone, including his wife, is after him. In looking for Poletti Stephanie and her side-kick, Lula, run into Poletti’s accountant, Briggs who admits he has been cooking the books for Poletti.  When Brigg’s apartment is blown up and other people who know too much about Poletti start showing up dead, it becomes apparent that Poletti is out to remove any evidence of his mis-deeds before he is caught.  Briggs, who comes across as a Danny Davito look-alike, obviously needs protection and shelter, and Stephanie reluctantly provides it.  Briggs and Lula play off their nearly opposite personalities for some pretty funny reading.

As usual, Evanovich intertwines several mysteries into one mad-cap story with vivid characters for another entertaining read in “”Top Secret Twenty-one.”

Liz Nichols

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Hell with the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey

Hell with the Lid Blown Off” is the 7th in the Alafair Tucker Mysteries by Donis Casey.  Alafair Tucker is an Oklahoma farm wife and mother in the early years of the 20th century.  In this installment the Tucker family and their neighbors experience a huge, destructive twister.  Not all of their neighbors make it through including a conniving, disliked young man.  The coroner discovers that that victim, Jubal Beldon, was killed before the twister and was then repositioned to make it look like he died in the storm. Alafair helps the sheriff and his deputy to figure out who had something to gain from Beldon’s demise and who had the means and ability to kill the man.

The book is written from the point of view of Trenton Calder, the deputy sheriff and secret admirer of  Ruth Tucker, the 17 year old daughter of Alafair and a talented pianist.  Ruth generally stays in town with her piano teacher, Beckie MacKenzie.

The book is full of great character descriptions and amusing scenarios between characters that bring back the nostalgia of the early 20th century in rural America.  The nostalgia is tempered by the menacing storm and the strange and seemingly random destruction it wreaks. Those charming vignettes about ordinary life in Boynton, OK are also punctuated by the investigation into the death of Jubal Beldon and discovery about what a despicable rat he was.  In the end it is impossible to really blame anyone for his death.  Good riddance!

Hell with the Lid Blown Off” is a charming and nostalgic stroll through the lives of families in small town America in 1916 and the destructive forces, both natural and human, that can tear these lives apart in an instant.

Recommended reading for all lovers of early Americana and Historical mysteries.

Liz Nichols

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Red Devil 4 by Eric C Leuthardt

Red Devil 4” is the brain child of neurosurgeon and biomedical engineer, Eric C. Leuthardt who in real life heads the Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University School of Medicine.  Dr. Leuthardt has written of a world where almost everyone has a computer chip implanted to instantly compute and find information, set environments, music and entertainment selections, control mood, and essentially control the lives of the people living in 2053.  Of course, what people give up in order to have instant information, communication, environmental comforts and other conveniences, is the ability to think and act independently–or at least that is the danger in artificial intelligence when it becomes mind control.   It is the perfect environment for “big brother” to control or for a mistake in the technological model to endanger many lives.  There is much of an ethics nature to consider with the age of artificial intelligence at our door step.

The plot of the book is a series of murders in St. Louis that may be blamed on programming within the implanted chips in some of the area’s most prominent citizens. It appears that a prominent person is behind these murders and the risk exists that the flaw is in the chip not the killer himself.  Will more people go haywire and begin to commit heinous murders?  That is a question detective Edwin Krantz and his ex-Navy SEAL partner, Tara Denzer, are tasked to determine when they go after the serial murderer.  They need to discover answers fast in order to avert a technological mistake that may lead to millions of deaths.

I must admit that the topic is not something I enjoy reading about and I did not complete the book.  However, the book is well-written and chock-full of insights that will keep many a book club discussion going.  “Red Devil 4” is a worthy contribution to the science-fiction and technological thriller genres with a theme that could quickly become technological fact.

Liz Nichols

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Two Pet Noir Mysteries

I’ve recently read two offerings in the “pet noir” mystery sub-genre.  They are “Panthers Play for Keeps” by Clea Simon and “Muzzled” by Eileen Brady.  Clea Simon is a former journalist who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and cat, Musetta. (See her site, www.cleasimon.com.)  “Panthers” is the fourth novel in her Pru Marlowe series.  Eileen Brady’s “Muzzled” is the first in the Kate Turner, DVM Mystery series.  Brady, who is a veterinarian with 20 years of experience in that field, decided to submit this book to Poisoned Press’ 2013 Discover Mystery Award and won.  Brady’s site is www.eileenbradymysteries.com. Both books are very well written and edited.  Both are quite humorous page-turners published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Pru Marlowe, the “Panthers” heroine, trains dogs to become service animals.  The dog she is currently training to assist a man who is rapidly going blind discovers the dead body of a woman who appears to have been mauled by a wild animal.  Pru decides to use her unique power to decipher what animals are thinking and saying to help the police figure out what happened.  Pru and her animal informants determine that this was not just a random animal attack, but a case of murder.

Dr. Kate Turner in “Muzzled” is the substitute vet in an upstate New York practice while the long-time owner takes a lengthy trip. While making a house call at the home of some champion Cavalier King Charles spaniels Kate discovers the dead bodies of the owners in what initially looks like a murder-suicide.  The more Kate discovers about the crotchety and vindictive Langthorne’s, the more likely it appears to Kate that the couple were murdered.  She is almost the victim of the killer before she gets a chance to report irrefutable evidence of murder and other ancillary crimes to the police.

While I recommend both of these entertaining “pet noirs” I admit that “Muzzled” is more to my taste.  I liked getting a realistic taste of what it is like to be in the shoes of a real vet.  The plot is totally believable and it builds with increasing drama to the final tense and exciting chapters.  With “Panthers Play for Keeps” I enjoyed the humor and how in tune Pru is with her surroundings and the animals under her care. The thought process between Pru and her cat, Wallis, are especially humorous. Even though I believe the author and her protagonist do have a finely-tuned “animal whisperer” sensitivity, I must admit I am not a fan of books where the animals’ thoughts are put into quotes as if they are speaking to the protagonist.  This anthropomorphism makes “Panthers” less believable to me.  It also bothers me that panthers and cougars seem to be used interchangeably in the book and my brief research into these animals indicates that it has not necessarily been proven that they are the same.

Still, there will be many fans who will enjoy both pet noirs, “Muzzled” and “Panthers Play for Keeps,” and I give a thumbs up for both.

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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All the Sons of Abraham by Eldred Buck

Eldred Buck, who has experience as an investment banker in London, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, has written a novel about living as an expatriot in Saudi Arabia called “All the Sons of Abraham.”  Buck clearly has extensive knowledge about international investment banking and understands what it is like to live as a foreign national in Islamic society.  Anyone looking for information on what life would be like working for a Saudi company and living in one of the international neighborhoods outside of Jeddah would do well to read this book.  The book may also be important in documenting some of the lead-up in the 1990’s to the conflicts between Islamic fundamentalists and the economic, cultural and political leadership in the West.

On the other hand, anyone looking for a fast-paced international financial thriller will not find it in “All the Sons of Abraham.”  It is simply not very thrilling.  At 802 pages it is just too long and convoluted to hold attention as a novel.  I slogged through half the book in two weeks and never got anywhere with the plot.  It is not until nearly half-way through the book that the more important elements of the plot are introduced– a financial debacle in the making precipitated by one of the managers of the Saudi bank that employes a unit of western investment bankers at their Jeddah headquarters; the radicalization of one of the sons of one of the Saudi trainees working with the western group of investment bankers; and the conflicts between western social, cultural and economic thought and practice and those of Islamic and Saudi culture.

The book is not well edited.  The first 400 pages should have been reduced to about 100 with tightly written story arcs that keep the reader looking for what happens next page after page.  The elements of intrigue and potential conflict needed to be introduced much earlier with less time spent on the issue of the main character’s mistress and how he could get away from that relationship without letting his wife know about it.  That appears to be a side-issue in the book that is really the only story arc that occupies the first 200 pages or so.  The main characters need to be developed so that the reader grows to care about what happens to at least some of them.  In half the book I still have not run into a character I really like or care about except possibly Omar, the bank financier in training who is increasingly in conflict with the very strict Islamic laws and increasingly under the surveillance of a relative who is a member of the religious police.

With some relief, I finally decided to put down “All the Sons of Abraham” and move on to one of the other many books that awaited me in my “to be read” pile.

Reviewed from a provided copy.

Liz Nichols

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Courier by Terry Irving

Terry Irving, long-time writer and producer for television and radio news programs, has written a real corker of a political thriller in “Courier”  published in April by Exhibit A Books.  On Irving’s website, he claims he fashioned the main character, a motorcycle courier for a television network office in Washington DC, after a young Nicholas Cage.  I could see a scruffed-up Ryan Gosling playing the part in what would could be a first-rate thriller movie.

Rick Putnam, the central character of “Courier,” is a Vietnam vet determined not to be swallowed up in an alcoholic haze following his stint in the service.  His nerdy roommates tolerate Rick’s loud PTSD-induced nightmares and his thrill-seeking lifestyle.  Putnam’s bosses at the television network take full advantage of his dare-devil motorcycling through the streets of Washington DC to bring them canisters of news feed faster than anyone else in the network’s courier pool.  The book is set in 1972, a particularly significant era for Washington DC news because of the Watergate hearings on election fraud and bribes going on in the Nixon White House and re-election campaign committee and Kissinger’s failed attempts to end the war through negotiation. Irving does a masterful job of setting the reader in the middle of this era of Washington intrigue.

Things go wrong in a hurry for Putnam and everyone connected to him when he picks up a camera that includes some news feed and supporting documentation that could blow the Watergate story sky-high.  The material is so hot that suddenly Rick is subjected to several attempts to run him off the road.  These incidents, combined with the sudden death of the whole news crew that gathered the story, and an apparent attack on Rick’s roommates at their rented house, make it clear that none of these situations are tragic accidents– they are attempts at assassination.  Irving’s description of all these connected incidents makes for nail-biting reading.

All of the characterizations in the book are little gems that leave vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.  So many vets and their family members will identify with Rick and his thrill-seeking, PSTD behaviors and yet he never asks for pity or to be cut any slack because of his horrendous war experiences. Many will also identify with Rick’s early experiences leaving home to join the Army to get away from an alcoholic mother.  Even minor characters, and the bad guys are memorably described in this book.  The computer-geek roommates are very memorable and play a pivotal role in breaking open the conspiracy behind the attempts on Rick’s life. Even the Vietnamese thugs who relentlessly pursue Rick, and the woman who controls their actions, Mrs. Jin, are described in a way so that the reader can understand the rationale behind their villainous actions.

The conspiracy behind this political thriller is chillingly plausible.  Irving’s fictional account posits that there was a conspiracy to thwart the Vietnamese War peace talks on the part of the Thieu government that involved flooding the Committee to Re-elect the President (Nixon campaign committee) with illegal contributions from Vietnam.  That is the secret Rick discovers is on the films he carries in his courier’s pouch and that the Vietnamese assassins want to destroy.

Courier” is without question one of the best thrillers of the year and a very good candidate for turning into a highly entertaining movie.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

 

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Killer Weed by Michael Castleman

Michael Castleman has written an interesting new “Ed Rosenberg Mystery” called “Killer Weed.”  It is a well-researched nod to the  “Summer of Love” of San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury District during 1967-68 and how the culture of free love, rock-and-roll and drugs have played out for the Baby Boomer generation over the years.  While the characters are fictional, for the most part, their experiences have historical roots.  The protagonist does a really good job of tracing the start of marijuana trafficking along the West coast and that information almost gets Rosenberg killed.

This is also the second book I’ve read this year where the protagonist is a newspaper journalist who has gotten canned due to the extreme bloodletting in the newspaper industry.  Ed Rosenberg has just lost his job at the “Foghorn” a San Francisco daily paper, followed shortly thereafter by the pink slip to Ed’s wife who has been a publicist for the paper.  Ed settles into the life of a freelance writer and accepts an assignment working for a billionaire who wants to detail what happened during the Summer of Love and also wants to find out about his own past as the kid of one of the flower children who was murdered during that time.  Ed discovers certain patterns in a more recent murder that point to a connection to that earlier one.  Meanwhile, Ed’s wife has gone to work for a politico who, if elected, should bring Julie, Ed’s wife, on board as his press secretary– only he is assassinated in a scene reminiscent of Harvey Milk.  Yet another murder for Ed to investigate.

Meanwhile, Ed’s daughter, Sonya, refuses to accept the school’s drug prevention information because it runs counter to what she has learned from her weed-smoking dad and her wine-drinking mom.  As punishment she must do a research project that compares and contrasts the school’s curriculum with latest medical research on the use and abuse of marijuana and the author uses this device to provide a balanced understanding of the issues about marijuana use and whether or not it is addictive and/or dangerous to use.

Killer Weed” is a blast from the past where I found myself learning new things while getting nostalgic about the 1960’s and enjoying a well-constructed murder mystery all at the same time.  Well done, Michael Castleman!

Liz Nichols

 

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