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Two Mysteries Set in the Wilderness

The first mystery with a wilderness theme I’d like to review today is “Deep North” by Barry Knister.  This is the second in Knister’s “A Brenda Contay Novel of Suspense” series.  Contay is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who goes on a week-long fishing trip to Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota with an attorney friend, Marion Ross, and two of Marion’s friends from the Milwaukee area, Heather and Tina.  Tina is confined to a wheelchair with MS.  Rather than roughing-it, the group will be renting a houseboat.  On their wat to the northwoods resort where they are to pick up the houseboat they meet an attractive part-time resident of the lake area, Charlie Schmidt and he and Brenda seem to hit it off after Charlie stops to fix a flat tire for the women.  Charlie has during that same week a couple of guests ostensibly in to fish.  Charlie does not know these men well,  and they turn out to be deadly trouble.

Knister dives deep behind the psyche and motivations of each character. The villains are not just one-dimensional characters.  They have motivations we can understand, even if we don’t accept their rationales for doing evil things. We also learn a lot about the lives of the middle-aged women who are unsuspecting victims and who must do some terrible things in order to save themselves.  Middle-aged women readers will especially relate to this foursome of strong women.

Deep North” is fast-paced and absorbing.

There are similarities between “Deep North” and Warren C. Easley’s “Dead Float.”  Both murder mysteries take place in a wilderness area on a fishing trip.  “Deep North” is set in Northern Minnesota while “Dead Float“takes place along the Deschutes River in Oregon’s trout fishing region.  “Dead Float” is the second in Easley’s Cal Claxton Mystery series.
Claxton is an LA prosecuting attorney who decides to leave the high profile life in LA for the serenity of a small town practice in rural Oregon.  He agrees to help a friend who has a fishing guide business, Philip Lone Deer, lead a group of business executives from Portland on a trout fishing trip that is to double as a retreat with a management consultant. The trip goes terribly wrong.  A murder occurs on the fishing trip and Cal is set up to take the fall for it.  He spends most of the book talking with potential witnesses and finding clues to clear his name.  Almost as fast as he finds things that will help his case, the real killers plant things to further incriminate him so there is constant tension between characters and elements of the plot that drives the story forward with increasing intensity.  The story is told so descriptively that the reader almost feels like they are along for the ride with the protagonist, Cal Claxton.

Dead Float is one of the best mysteries of the year and will be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers.



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Two Period Mysteries

The last couple weeks I’ve completed two newer period mysteries and one fantasy title, all through supplied review copies.  Two of them fit together pretty well because they are both period Americana mysteries.

One is “The Good Know Nothing” by Ken Kuhlken, “A Tom Hickey Novel”  set in 1936 Los Angeles, Catalina Island, and other parts of California.  The book is absolutely steeped in Great Depression California history and characters who actually lived in that era.  The language, the settings, the music– everything about the novel feels authentic to the era.  The cover write-up says this is the last of the Tom Hickey novels.  That’s a shame as I am just getting to know this smart LAPD cop and detective.  It will be worth going back to read the earlier books in the series, but this one stands on its own very well.

Tom Hickey is trying to keep his marriage to a Big Band singer together, be a good father to his young daughter, and still be a good detective for the LAPD.  He also tries to be a good brother to his sister who is a personal assistant to evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson.  Tom had been the responsible “parent” for his sister since their father disappeared after being accused of killing someone.  Years later, a friend of the family receives a manuscript for a book, “The Death Ship” that had been published under another person’s name, B. Traven, but the friend says their long lost father claims to have written.  The book is considered a modern classic and they attempt to woo the author back.  When someone other than their father shows up, Tom and his sister, Florence, believe their father has been killed by someone who then claimed their father’s work as their own.  The search to find out what happened to their father leads them to the likes of Harry Longabough (aka Sundance Kid), William Randolph Hurst and his mistress Marion Davies.  I was hooked almost from the first chapter on “The Good Know Nothing.”

My second mystery read was another in Reavis Z Wortham’s “A Red River Mystery,” “Dark Places.”  This novel is set in the era of flower children in 1967.  Pepper, the 14 year old grandchild of our protagonist, Constable Ned Parker from Center Springs, Texas, decides to run away with her sometime boyfriend, Cale Westlake in hopes of reaching San Francisco to start a new, carefree life.  The trials and tribulations of being on the road with very little money and no food or supplies soon brings both Cale and Pepper face to face with reality, but not before they run into trouble with some underhanded store owners, some pimps and prostitutes and a bunch of hippies, and a motorcycle gang.  Meanwhile, Ned goes after Pepper and meets up with an American Indian named Crow who has some ulterior motives for helping out.

Dark Places” is a nostalgic ride down Highway 66 from Texas to Barstow exploring some of the darker sides of the “summer of love” in 1967.  I enjoyed this book every bit as much as Worthham’s other books in this series.

Liz Nichols

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Death in Salem by Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor Kuhns is the librarian-turned historical mystery writer.  I am in awe of her ability to work full time as assistant director of Goshen Public Library in New York and still have the time to do all the research and writing that is required to produce a high quality historical mystery series.  “Death in Salem” again features itinerant weaver Will Rees and his wife Lydia and is set in Maine and surrounding states in the 1790s.

Rees embarks on the trip south from Maine to Massachusetts to sell his wares to earn a few extra dollars for his growing family.  In the last novel in the “A Will Rees Mystery” series Rees and his wife acquire a brood of kids when they encounter a woman who is dying and who’s orphaned children they decide to adopt.  In Salem Will visits with his Revolutionary War compatriot nicknamed Twig, who has become the town undertaker.  Will accompanies his friend to the funeral averil (wake or post-funeral gathering) for the wife of a prominent merchant fleet owner who has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances after years of being bed-ridden.  She was a member of a prominent whaling family that lives several miles from Salem.  When the black slave servant of the dead woman’s household is arrested for her murder on little to no evidence, Twig asks Will to investigate to save the life of his lover, the black woman.

It is clear that the Sheriff is either incompetent or in on some wider plot tied in to this case.  Leads investigated by Will are far-ranging and suggest the possibility of an insurance fraud cover-up, possible smuggling, possible mercy killing, and several other potential reasons for the growing number of murders.

The one thing that I find a little bothersome, and particularly as the author moves forward with this series, is the lack of opportunity to include Lydia on the whole plot.  Lydia arrives late on the scene in “Death in Salem,” and while her insights do help to solve the case, this series is more satisfying when Will and Lydia work as a team from the start. Because the children clearly need Lydia at home the author is somewhat boxed in because someone must stay home with the kids while Will is plying his wares throughout the northeast. Perhaps the next novel will need to be set at their farm in Maine because there are a growing number of family issues to resolve that could be woven into the pattern of the next mystery.

Death in Salem” is a most insightful mystery.  So few mysteries these days are based on such thorough scholarship.  I learned a lot I did not know before about everything from slavery in the early northern states to the differences between the merchant ship trade and the whaling trade in late 18th century America.  Lovers of Historical mysteries set in colonial America will love this one!

Liz Nichols

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Blood on Snow byJo Nesbo

Blood on Snow” is a bit of a departure for Jo Nesbo.  We are used to seeing serial killers through the eyes of his police detective, Harry Hole.  This tale is told in the first person by the contract serial killer himself, Olav, a “fixer” for an Oslo crime family.  He is a fixer with a moral compass, and that is what ultimately gets him in trouble.  Olav can do anything for his boss except drive a get-away car, deal in drugs, participate in a robbery, or deal in prostitution.  Mostly, he deals in killing people who, in his opinion, deserve it.

The main thrust of Olav’s tale is how he deals with the order to kill the boss’s wife, Corina.  Olav makes the mistake of wanting time to think about it, which dooms him to becoming expendable once the deed is done.  Even after Olav agrees to the job he stalls.  He concentrates first on killing the wife’s supposed lover, who turns out to be the boss’s son and then he tries to make it seem like he has accomplished his task while actually protecting the wife.  But is Corina to be trusted?  Will Olav’s other love interest, Maria live or die?

This is a rather simple tale with an unusually principaled killer acting as anti-hero.  The characterizations of Olav and some of the people surrounding him are finely drawn, even though some of the characters seen through Olav’s eyes are romanticized and badly mis-judged.  Near the beginning of the book Olav describes a black widow spider who will devour her mate if he outlasts his stay.  This becomes a metaphor for the actions of Corina and women like her.

I am a big fan of Jo Nesbo, and “Blood on Snow” does not disappoint.  He takes the horror and thriller genres beyond their usual levels of literary sophistication.  His characters are always fascinatingly complex.  A recommended read for lovers of this genre.

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Unleashed by Eileen Brady

Unleashed” is the second in the “A Kate Turner, D.V.M. Mystery” series by veterinarian-writer Eileen Brady.  Brady has succeeded in creating a multi-dimensional protagonist in Kate Turner who has the same struggles as many other young professionals who are trying to pay off student loans while building practices, becoming established in a community, making friends and building lasting relationships all within the confines of the 24 hour day in a small town environment.  Kate Turner just happens to add on top of all that an interest in helping the police (mostly without their support) solve murder mysteries.

In “Unleashed” one of Kate’s clients is killed and, once Kate proves it was murder and not suicide that did in her accomplished artist client, a mentally challenged aide at the vet clinic is blamed for the murder.  Kate knows that Eugene could not have been responsible for the death, even though he seemed to have confessed his guilt to the police.  There are lots of potential killers and many blind leads that Kate follows. Possible motives range from lover jealousy, to art forgeries and blackmail, family inheritance, to accidental and unintentional injury. Just as in her first Kate Turner book, there is a lot of tension, both of the legal and sexual kind, between Kate and police deputy Luke Gianetti.

I felt that the first book in this series was stronger, overall, than “Unleashed.”  I did not find the killer very convincing.  Without giving too much of a spoiler, the people who were in the killer’s circle are portrayed as innocent bystanders, and there is even a person who is being kept against his will who certainly would have been noticed in such a small community and might have come forward to spoil the plot. At the very least more should have been developed in the storyline surrounding the killer and his circle of associates in order to justify how the killer could have carried this off successfully.

I just don’t think aspects of the plot were well thought out, and for that reason it would have been better for the killer to have been someone who had equally strong motivation and seemed to fit the clues better.

That being said, I still enjoyed reading “Unleashed” and will look forward to seeing what happens in the next book.

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Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles by A L Herbert

Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles” is the first in “A Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery” series. The sleuth in this cosy “food” mystery is Mahalia Watkins, owner of purportedly the best restaurant in Prince Georges County, Maryland.  The book contains mouth-watering recipes for what can only be described as gourmet soul food such as “Halia’s Sweet Corn Casserole.”

Halia, not surprisingly, also becomes a sleuth to solve a murder that takes place in her restaurant after she finds out that her cousin is the prime suspect.  Halia knows that her cousin did not commit the murder but the police seem to stop investigating once they focus on the cousin, Wavonne.  Halia also has a vested interest in turning the heat away from her kitchen because she and Wavonne are guilty of tampering with the body and other evidence when they decide to move the body to the back alley and away from the restaurant.

The Mahalia-Wavonne pair remind me of Stephanie Plum and Lula in the Evanovich series in the zany relationship between the two main characters and the hair-brained capers they engage in.  Somehow, though, I mind more that Watkins and her cousin skirt on the other side of the law and try to justify their law-breaking, than I do when Plum and Lula rationalize similar brushes with the law.  I really do not buy Mahalia’s justification for tampering with evidence, let alone covering up her cousin’s theft of the dead guy’s credit cards and use of those cards to buy expensive goods.  I lose empathy with characters who skate that far outside the law, frankly and it significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Nonetheless, the writing and characters in “Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles” are engaging, and I anticipate I will pick up and review the next book in this series when it comes out.  There will be many others who will be enthusiastic about this new food mystery/cosy series.  This series is particularly significant in that I cannot recall another where the main characters are black and it is set in an area that is primarily African-American.  It is about time!

Liz Nichols

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Two Mysteries Set in 1700s

I generally like historical fiction, and specifically, mysteries set during an age when England was flexing its merchant muscle and coming to terms with such issues as making it illegal to import slaves.  In the Colonies the French and Indian War was setting the stage for revolution ten or fifteen years later.

The two books I’ve read over the past two or three weeks are “The Hidden Man” by Robin Blake and “The Constable’s Tale” by Donald Smith.  Smith’s book is due to be published Sept. 15, but can be ordered now through Amazon.  Blake’s book came out last March.

The Hidden Man” is set in Preston, Lancashire, England in 1742.  The protagonist is the town coroner who is charged with investigating suspicious deaths and holding inquests to determine cause of death.  The Coroner, Titus Cragg, has a partner in his investigations, Dr. Luke Fidelis, who ministers among both the aristocratic folk and the poor within the region.  They are constantly at odds with the local magistrate in trying to determine who murdered a local goldsmith and pawnbroker, Mr. Pimbo and left him in an office locked from the inside.  When it becomes difficult to explain how the murderer got out the Dr. makes the supposition that the killer escaped when the room was opened and a number of curious onlookers rushed in to see what was going on.  It seems far-fetched by both Cragg and the magistrate, but will Fidelis be proven correct?  It appears that Pimbo had invested in a shipping venture to buy slaves off the coast of Africa, take them to Barbados, and trade them for rum and other goods to be sold in the Colonies.  The venture was being investigated by a marine insurance agency because a claim had been made that the ship had been lost a sea. The insurance company investigator has a young black servant with him who turns out to be a young woman.

The Hidden Man” plot is fairly convoluted and there are multiple suspects for two separate murders that take place, including the young black woman.  There are so many details and characters it is easy to get lost and also easy to get impatient with the many blind alleys this story goes down before the mystery is resolved.  It brings up some major social issues, such as the slave trade, but then the discussion is dropped and never goes anywhere.

If I had only time to read one of the two books set in this time period, it would be Donald Smith’s “Constable’s Tale.”  The protagonist in this tale is also a lawman, the constable of Craven County, North Carolina, Harry Woodyard.  A family friend, Comet Elijah, an elderly American Indian wiseman, is accused of savagely killing a farm family on the edge of New Bern, North Carolina, and Harry is obliged to take him into custody.  He can’t believe his friend, Elijah, could kill a family in cold blood, and he finds a Masonic emblem pin at the crime scene that might indicate someone else visited the farm family and could have been responsible.  Harry goes on a lengthy quest to find the owner of the pin.  His travels take him to Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia and points north into Canada, where Harry gets mixed up with the seige on Quebec, British and French double-agent, and several encounters with an old flame. The ending was a surprise I did not see coming.

The Constable’s Tale” as an exciting read from start to finish and I had a hard time putting it down until I was finished.  It is supenseful and provides insight into a violent and formative time in American history.  “The Constable’s Tale” is highly recommended.

Liz Nichols

(“The Constable’s Tale” was reviewed from a provided copy.




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The Charlemagne Connection by R M Cartmel

Cote-de-Nuits region of Burgundy, France

Cote-de-Nuits region of Burgundy, France








The Charlemagne Connection” is the second in Cartmel’s Commander Charlemagne Truchaud series set in the Cote de Nuits region of Burgundy, France.  The second book picks up just months after the last book’s action.

A young German who spends a season in the vineyards of the Truchaud’s LaForge neighbors disappears without a trace.  No one thinks anything about it until the RV park where the young man’s camper has been sitting abandoned asks the gendarmerie of Nuits-St-Georges to investigate.  That leads to a visit from the German man’s sister and her best friend from Chemnitz, Germany.  Truchaud finds an excuse to recall his trusty team member from Paris, Sergeant Natalie Dutoit, because she speaks and understands German better than anyone locally and can communicate with the two German girls.  The return of Natalie rekindles the love interest that Truchaud feels and continually tries to hide.  Truchaud’s extended absense from the Paris Division of the National Police also seems to be placing his long term prospects as a commander in that force in jeapardy.  His divisional commander formally lends him out to the local gendarmerie seeing as how the person Truchaud killed in the last book was the crooked local police chief.

The Charlemagne Connection” feels like a continuation of a long and evolving story about the Truchaud family, their neighbors the Laforge’s.  Rather like the J.A. Jance characters it is easy to get wound up in the lives of Cartmel’s main characters and to look forward to new installments, just as one would look forward to receiving news about the developments in the lives of one’s own family and friends.  I will look forward to the next installment to find out what happens to Truchaud’s responsibilities in Paris, his relationship with Natalie, the health and condition of his father who has Alzheimer’s, and now also the budding relationship between Dagmar Witter and winemaker Simon Marechale.

That being said, I felt that “The Charlemagne Connection” dragged a bit in parts compared to the very intense and action-filled “Richebourg Affair.”  The excuse made for bringing back Natalie was a little improbable.  I don’t see a busy police force letting a brand new, up-and-coming sergeant head out on a remote assignment so soon after promotion.  This installment is more police procedural and less thriller than the last book.

I did enjoy “The Charlemagne Connection” for the most part, because it rekindled an interest in this particular group of characters, the winemaking industry, and this particular part of France and I look forward to the next chapter in the lives of the Truchaud and Laforge families.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)

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Killing Maine by Mike Bond

Mike Bond has produced another nail-bitter in his Pono Hawkins series in “Killing Maine.”  Once again, the wind energy industry is portrayed as the bad guys– the very bad guys and gals who are responsible for scamming people out of Mike Bondtheir properties, intimidating and even killing people who object to the installation of wind generators on increasing numbers of hills and mountains in Bond’s home state of Maine.

In “Saving Paradise” Pono Hawkins was able to expose illegal activity before wind power companies got a major foothold in the state.  His challenge in “Killing Maine” is several wind energy companies have already bought property and have installed many wind-farms.  The results have become painfully obvious to many of the people living near these wind farms and to those who sold land and now find their remaining property worthless and unsaleable.  Pono finds that a very significant portion of the legislature has been paid off by the wind lobby and local government officials and police departments are also taking orders from wind energy companies.

The plot goes like this:  Pono Hawkins is asked to come back to his Hawkins family ancestral home near Augusta, Maine because one of his Special Forces buddies from Afghanistan, Bucky Franklin, has been arrested and accused of killing the husband of a woman he has had a romantic relationship with.  Everywhere Pono turns to get Bucky exonerated he gets stopped.  Pono gets accused of trumped up charges by the police.  He has to travel under assumed identity in order to get back to Hawaii in order to see his dying father.  It takes the help of his genius computer tech friend, Mitchell, and the support of three beautiful women to unwind the mystery, keep Pono from being assassinated, and eventually expose the perpetrators among the wind energy lobby.

As someone who lives in Iowa, a state that now gets 30% of its power from wind, the book’s accusations are disturbing.  I agree with Bond that companies that take advantage of the wind energy subsidies to build wind farms that do not produce energy and never can produce energy because of their location, obviously, should be stopped.  It is also important to minimize other problems, such as the impact on migrating birds and bats.  They also should not be placed in locations that are heavily populated because turbines do have a negative impact on humans and animals and they will reduce land values for those who live around these generators.  When wind is placed where it makes sense and the companies running these wind farms make fair offers to landowners and prove to be good corporate neighbors, then wind is a positive addition to the energy mix and a boost to a state’s economy.

Unfortunately, there is evidence to support many of Bond’s claims and something needs to be done on a national level to stop inappropriate uses of this form of power.  Rules for getting subsidies must be tightened, or ended, and companies that use strong-arm tactics and bribery to gain a foothold in a state or a city must be stopped.  Campaign financing reform would help to lessen the likelihood of political corruption.

Bond not only addresses a very concerning issue in “Killing Maine” he does so with an absorbing, well written thriller with a complex and interesting main character, Pono Hawkins.  “Killing Maine” just sucks in the reader and makes it difficult to put the book down until the very last page– even when the reader does not totally agree with all of the conclusions about wind energy.

A winner of a thriller.
Liz Nichols


(Reviewd from a supplied copy.  Due for publication July 22, 2015.)

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Two British Mysteries from British Library Crime Classics

I was recently introduced to a revival series of long-forgotten British mysteries and crime novels from the 1920s and 1930s republished into the British Library of Crime Classics and made available in the U.S. through Poisoned Pen Press.  I found my first two reads in this series quite delightful.  They were “The Sussex Downs Murder” by John Bude and “Murder in Piccadilly” by Charles Kingston.

John Bude wrote “The Sussex Downs Murder” in 1936.  He was a full time mystery writer for 20 years before his untimely death at the age of 56 in 1957.  During World War II he remained at home in charge of the local Home Guard.  After the war he was a founding member of the Crime Writers’ Association.  Charles Kingston also published “Murder in Piccadilly” in 1936 but little is known about the writer.  He began writing crime novels in 1921 and continued for about 25 years producing about a book a year.

Of the two I find the plot and characters, as well as the setting, more memorable in “The Sussex Downs Murder.” It is set along the dramatic white cliffs of Sussex in England where the Rother brothers have a family farmhouse and a lime kiln business.  One day John takes off on a trip and never comes back.  His car is found abandoned. Suspicion builds among the investigating police on the brother, and also on the brother’s wife.  There had been rumors about an affair between the wife and her brother-in-law.  When human bones are found mixed into bags of lime from the Rother’s kiln the police confirm that John Rother was murdered.  There are a number of clever twists in the plot that will leave the reader second-guessing the killer.  “The Sussex Downs Murder” was one of those books that was hard to put down until the very end.

In “Murder in Piccadilly” a young member of the aristocratic Cheldon family, Bobbie, has fallen for a dancer named Nancy Curzon who works at a Piccadilly night club called the Frozen Fang owned by a gangland character named Nosey Ruslin.  Nancy is invited to the family estate to meet the family.  Bobbie wants to get his uncle’s blessing and a hand with his monthly expenses so he can afford to marry.  Nancy does not realize that her suitor is not already financially set.  Bobbie is initially the prime suspect when Uncle Massy Curzon is found murdered.  Is he just a fall-guy for someone else’s greed?

Any lover of the Golden Age of murder mysteries will love this duo of British crime novels.

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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