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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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Mysteries by Bill Stackhouse

I have had a couple of Bill Stackhouse mysteries read and ready to review for some time now.  One is “Creature of Habit” a Caitlin O’Rourke Mystery.  The other is “Thin Ice” an Ed McAvoy Mystery.

I read “Thin Ice in the winter of 2013 and just never got around to writing about it.  In honor of the end of the terrible winter of 2014 here’s the review.  After his medical retirement from the Detroit Police Ed McAvoy takes the position of chief of police of the sleepy little Catskill mountain town of Peekamoose Heights, NY thinking life will be a little slower.  He ends up having to solve the murder of the owner of a mobile food truck and the attack and injury of a figure skating champion who is practicing for the annual Peekamoose Heights Winter Carnival.  Shades of the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding incident.  There is also a significant mobster theme in this book, as is the case with the Caitlin O’Rourke  series.  Again, as is typical of Stackhouse novels there are lots of colorful characters to keep the reader entertained–and confused about who to blame for all the shenanigans.

Caitlin O’Rourke is a retired women’s Italian League pro volleyball player who starts a detective agency out of her apartment above the Irish pub she owns with her brother and sister-in-law in Nashville, TN.  She takes on the case of who killed a nun by pretending to be one herself.  This is the perfect disguise for protecting a young autistic girl who attends a convent school who may have witnessed the murder.  It takes Caitlin and the police detectives she works with a long time to realize that the is not just talking gibberish every time she is asked about what happened to Sister Joyce actually is giving her helpers clues.   Before that happens, however, Caitlin and her charges at the convent school are nearly taken out in a bombing to their dormitory.

I have a few qualms about the way Caitlin resolves this particular murder.  She leaves it up to a local mafia boss to police his own.  The longer the case goes on the more lies Caitlin tells the police and everyone else to protect her mafia sources.  Something tells me eventually her consorting with shady types will get her into big trouble.

Aside from having some ethical qualms about how Caitlin gets things done, she is a strong character and one who will appeal to many mystery fans.

Thin Ice” and “Creature of Habit” are b0th recommended.

Liz Nichols


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Dying to Know by TJ OConnor

Dying to Know” is the first installment in a brand new mystery series “A Gumshoe Ghost Mystery.”  It was published by Midnight Ink in January.  Using a ghost as a detective is not new to the cosy subgenre.  Carolyn Hart’s Bailey Ruth also offers ghostly investigations, but is a very different ghost than O’Connor’s version.

O’Connor’s Oliver “Tuck” Tucker is unique.  He has been a police detective for 15 years and is suddenly murdered in the middle of the night by an intruder who does not also kill Tuck’s wife, Angel, or the family dog, Hercule.  Is Angel somehow part of a plot to get rid of Tuck?  Is his best friend, and detective partner, Theodore “Bear” Braddock the perpetrator of the crime?  Bear’s attentive interest in Angel may not just be the natural desire to comfort and protect the grieving widow.  Then again, there are plenty of other suspects that range from a retired mob killer, to a local businessman who wants to buy a farm where Angel’s archeological dig team is unearthing Civil War relics.  Even fellow academics from Angel’s university are suspects.  Plenty of potential perps for a recently deceased detective to investigate.

Tuck the ghost does not experience the stereotypical ghostly hijinx.  He can’t just flit around appearing and disappearing at will.  He must find an electrical source regularly to power up or he will be unable to do anything.  He must rely on Angel, the only person who is able to sense his presence, for transportation and to voice his questions to suspects and witnesses.  The interesting new relationship that Angel and Tuck develop after his death is a complex co-dependence that inevitably will hold both back and at the same time empower both in new and unique ways.  I am looking forward to seeing how that relationship develops.

Dying to Know” is a fast-paced, humorous exploration of the netherworld and how life goes on after death.  Inevitably crimes will be committed and, fortunately, Tuck will be on the job ready to investigate through the Gumshoe Ghost series.

Liz Nichols


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Jaspar’s War by Cym Lowell

Jaspar’s War” is Cym Lowell’s first novel, and it is an interesting, imaginative start to what may well become a significant career as a novelist.  Lowell’s previous career was as an international tax specialist and it is that prospective that informs Lowell’s knowledge about what brought about the Great Recession.  With “Jaspar’s War” Lowell has put a sinister twist not only on the causes of the downturn, but also the dangers to real recovery embedded in government-funded economic stimulus.  His theory is probably simplistic, but could at least in theory be plausible.

Jaspar Moran is the wife of the Treasury Secretary, Trevor Moran, who is presumed dead on a flight from London that disappears.  At the time that Jaspar learns of her husband’s presumed death her two young children are kidnapped.  Jaspar is soon whisked away under deep cover in the protection of an Australian soldier of fortune/contract killer who is known to Jaspar’s priest.  Nulandi is a very enigmatic character and is probably the weakest element of “Jaspar’s War.”  The aboriginal Australian fighter has almost super-human abilities, as does his side-kick dog, Alice.  He has a heart of gold that stands in stark contrast to his no mercy approach to fighting his enemies.  Typically, serial killers are psychopaths with no capacity to feel compassion or to have a conscience.  Nulandi displays both compassion and a conscience.  He just does not come across as believable.  It is also not believable that an upper-middle class mother of two could turn into a ninja warrior with three months of intensive bootcamp, even with the tremendous incentive of saving her children.

The plot is very exciting and the many international settings (the Australian Outback, Rome, Tuscany, Washington DC to name a few) make the descriptions exceptionally colorful.  There is also a strong cultural mix.  Nulandi and his sister are aboriginal people from Australia.  Jaspar is white and a devout Catholic mother and wife from suburbia.  They interact with a band of Vietnamese emigrants to Italy who were set up in business in a Tuscany vineyard by Nulandi after the Vietnamese War.  They are Nulandi’s operatives in many of his contract kills and play key roles in the effort to find out who has kidnapped the kids and to get them back.  There is a gang of mafiosi Nulandi and his crew must defeat and various sinister financial barrons on three continents to defeat.  To add to the ethnic mix, there is even an American Indian tribal chief who is also a financial wizard who helps Nulandi to pull off this seemingly impossible mission.

All in all, I found “Jaspar’s War” an exciting, nail-biting read, but I had to suspend my belief in what is possible in order to feel any real connection to the cast of characters.

Liz Nichols

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Moving Target by J.A. Jance

Moving Target” is the 9th in Jance’s Ali Reynolds Mysteries series and is one of the most satisfying in the Reynolds saga.  With this book the major characters have reached pretty complete development.  Ali knows what she wants in her life and is going for it.  Her butler-companion, Leland also becomes a focus of the “Moving Target” storyline and we learn a lot more about him and where he comes from.  Sister Anselm is back and helps to shape the story of a young fire victim and amputee who’s life is in danger because he won’t give up a computer program he wrote to hack into computers without being discovered.  As usual, Jance has two or three major themes all going at one time and several murders and kidnappings to keep the suspense constantly at a high level.

Ali and Leland go to England to visit Leland’s nephew and possibly reconcile with his sisters-in-law and other relatives.  Ali decides it is a good opportunity to shop for a wedding dress for her Christmastime wedding to B. Simpson, the computer security consultant.  At the same time, a young man who B.’s company helped to put into prison for breaking into his high school’s computer system is injured in a fire and a fall from a ladder while he is decorating a Christmas tree in the prison’s recreation center.  B. gets involved because the fire seems suspicious and B. believes the boy got a raw deal by being given the maximum sentence for doing something lots of kids try. Besides, the young man has created a computer program that B. would very much like to buy.  It seems that other computer companies would just like to steal the program from the young man.  As the story unfolds it appears that people who try to help the young man, Lance, are threatened or kidnapped, and the police are slow to respond to the threat.  B. makes sure Sister Anselm is put in place as a patient advocate to keep Lance safe while he is hospitalized with his injuries.

Meanwhile, back in England, Leland finds out that his father was murdered 30 years before and apparently was willing to accept the fact that Leland is gay.  For all those years Leland had believed that his father disowned him because of his sexual orientation.  Ali helps to investigate who was really involved in killing Leland’s father and disparaging Leland’s name within the family ranks.

Moving Target” displays J.A. Jance’s usual complex plots and twists and turns in the storyline to keep the reader thoroughly engrossed.

Liz Nichols


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Eyes Closed Tight by Peter Leonard

As the son of master thriller writer, Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard was born with mystery writing in his blood.  “Eyes Closed Tight” is his fifth novel.  It is a very satisfying read for those who like hard-bitten, no non-sense detective thrillers and Police procedurals.

Former Detroit police detective, O’Clair has retired to run a small motel on Pompano Beach with his twenty-something girl friend, Virginia.  He is hoping to get away from the daily grind of solving murders, but the murders just seem to follow him.  He discovers a dead woman arranged on a lounge chair on the beach in front of his motel.  The way the woman is left with her eyes excised with an x-acto knife reminds him of a couple murders he thought had been solved in the Detroit area.  If a similar murder is brought to his doorstep a thousand miles away from Detroit, then they either convicted the wrong guy of the crime, or there is a copy-cat killer running around Florida now.

Because of his knowledge of the old crime, his expertise, and the location of the latest case, O’Clair is quickly recruited by the local police to work on the case.  He also takes a trip to Detroit to work with his old police detective pals to determine whether they locked up the right guy in Detroit, or whether this is a new pattern of crimes with a similar MO.  It becomes apparent that whoever is perpetrating the murders in Pompano Beach is now interested in attacking O’Clair’s girl friend, Virginia, and the local PD need to keep a police bodyguard with her at least during the night while O’Clair is in Detroit.  Some of the murder and stalking scenes are real nail-bitters.

Eyes Closed Tight” is a very well-written and engaging detective thriller.  It’s an absorbing crime story that has enough twists and turns to keep the attention of even the most jaded detective thriller reader.  Chapters written in the voice of the killer add to the tension without really revealing who this cold-blooded killer really is until very close to the end.  Even though the primary reader of Leonard’s novel will be middle-aged men, the book is a little more sensitive to women than the typical hard-bitten detective story.  Virginia comes across as a very capable gal-pal who is equipped with her own toolbox and her own ability to get herself out of a fix.  Women readers will particularly appreciate Virginia.


Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Ghost Gone Wild by Carolyn Hart

Carolyn Hart has come up with another adventure in “Ghosts Gone Wild” for her human-saving ghost, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, formerly of Adelaide, OK.  This time Hart has invented a side-kick for Bailey Ruth who has a very different personality, Delilah Delahunt Duvall, the horse-riding ghost who was Aunt Dee to Nick Magruder, the guy who is the one Bailey Ruth is supposed to save.  Nick made it big as an entrepreneur and has retired back home to Adelaide.  Jealous former high school friends goad him into being everyone’s least favorite town citizen until someone actually takes a shot at him and he is saved by Bailey Ruth just to be accused of killing one of these former friends.  Nick’s personality is such that the head of celestial visiting to earth, Wiggins, never actually sent Bailey Ruth back to earth to save the man; it was all connived by Delilah Duvall.  Therefore, once Bailey Ruth makes herself visible during her rescue visit to Nick she is unable to turn herself back into a ghost, and she worries that she will be stuck in a half-life state forever unable to get back to heaven.

Bailey Ruth and Dee are delightfully contrasting characters, and yet they make a good team.  It is pretty clear by the end of the adventure that they could easily be paired up again for another book plot.  I was not an easy convert to the Bailey Ruth Ghost Novel series.  It all seems pretty silly, but rescuer-ghosts have been a successful part of literature for centuries amusing readers in a way that seems almost timeless.  “Ghost Gone Wild” is not necessarily great literature (unlike Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”) but it does provide a few amusing evenings of laugh-out-loud reading for the cosy mystery lover.

Liz Nichols

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