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Shattered by Death by Catherine Finger

Shattered by Death” is the second in the “A Jo Oliver Thriller” by Catherine Finger.  The protagonist is small town police chief, Jo Oliver, who is locked out of the investigation of the brutal killings of her estranged husband and his girl friend in a double homicide.  Oliver finds them in the boat house of the property she and her husband still own together.  Oliver’s close friend and budding romantic interest, FBI agent Nick Vitarello, presents evidence to clear Oliver of the crime, against the police chief’s will.

Many women will identify strongly with Oliver.  She is generous with her time in that she volunteers at a couple of women’s shelters.  This fact she wants to keep secret to protect the identies of the battered women who are sheltered, even though security tapes from the shelters will prove here whereabouts during the murders. She is in the process of adopting a child, even as she fights a contentious divorce. She is bull-headed, full of self-doubt about her worthiness to ever be loved (doubts Nick constantly tries to assuage), and she is a born-again Christian who frequently calls on God for guidance and support.

The identity of the serial killer who tries to frame the Chief is not a particular surprise to me, but the twists and turns that lead to the ending keep “Shattered by Death” a suspenseful read.  Two thumbs up.

Review copy was provided.

Liz Nichols

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Death at St Vedast by Mary Lawrence

I enjoy a good historical mystery where you can tell the author has at least one foot in that era.  Such a mystery is “Death at St. Vedast” by Mary Lawrence.  Lawrence proved in her first “A Bianca Goddard Mystery,” “The Alchemist’s Daughter,” that she had thoroughly researched the social, economic, political and cultural history of England at the time of Henry VIII.  “Death at St. Vedast” is an inventive continuation of alchemist, healer and amateur sleuth, Bianca Goddard’s story.

This new story is set in 1543 in London and in a small village outside London called Dinmow. Bianca and her husband, John, have rented John’s master’s house when the Silversmith, Boisvert, prepares to move to the home of his bride, Odile Farendon, a wealthy widow of a Goldsmith.  Several suspicious deaths occur in and around St. Vedast, the church where Odile and Boisvert are to be married.  The deaths could be signs of poisoning, bewitching, or both.  Boisvert and the priest who marries the couple, Father Nelson, are both accused.  Similar strange deaths occur in the village of Dinmow, the place where the flour used to make communion wafers and a pax bread given to the bride before her marriage.  Bianca observes a number of suspicious happenings between members of the Goldsmiths Guild, the White and Brown Bread Bakers Guilds, an attorney, the warden at St. Vedast, and others, that cause her to suspect people are being framed to protect those who are really guilty.  She and John need to take a trip to Dinmow to investigate and start to unlock what really happened.

Lawrence carefully explains in an afterword where she has changed some details to fit the storyline, primarily in where she locates some of the guildhalls.  It is clear that she has a very good grasp of what life in Tudor England was really like.  There are plenty of colorful descriptions, interesting plots, exciting action and authentic dialogue to make “Death at St. Vedast” a page-turner for all who appreciate fiction set in early Renaissance England.

Reviewed from a supplied advance edition. This book is now available from Kensington Books.

Liz Nichols

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Two Mysteries About Fracking and Sex Slavery

I recently completed two novels with very similar themes, “Black Hills” by Franklin Schneider and Jennifer Schneider, a brother-sister writing duo, and “Coyote” by Kelly Oliver.  Both focus on the fate of exploited native women and Indian reservation communities in boomtowns where oil workers are forcing oil out of the ground through fracking.  Apparently, the authors of both books used similar source material and reached many of the same disturbing conclusions.

Both books were pretty rough to read because they pull no punches about what happens to sex slave workers in these oil boomtowns, the mountains of synthetic drugs (“dust”) that is consumed, and the fraud and murder that occurs in order to keep the people involved in business.

The heroine in Oliver’s “Coyote” is a philosophy graduate student from Montana who returns home for the summer to work at Glacier Park, Jessica James.  Her roommate is a member of the Blackfeet tribe who is distraught that her younger sisters seem to have been kidnapped by sex slavers.  Jessica takes a Glacier Park bus to help her roommate, Kimi Redfox, to find the missing sisters, and to investigate the death of her cousin, Mike, in a lumber mill accident.  They are assisted by a Russian emigre named Lolita, who seems to know her way around the big-shots in the community who own the fracking and lumber mill businesses.  “Coyote” is a straight-forward detective and mystery story with a likeable amature sleuth.

The heroine of the Schneiders’ “Black Hills” is Alice Riley, a Brooklyn Private Investigator hired by the wife of an employee of the fracking company in Whitehurst, South Dakota, to investigate why he has been taken into custody for assaulting a prostitute.  Alice befriends the Native American prostitute girlfriend of the man who has been jailed and they go after the truth together.  Neither Alice nor her friend, Kim, are innocents in this story.  They both partake in plenty of drugs and sex in their effort to gain information and take down the CEO of the fracking company.  The fracking company, they learn, is also behind a huge drug operation, the sex trafficking in the area, and nearly everthing else that is killing Native American people and their heritage.

“Black Hills” is a strong literary achievement by Franklin Schneider, who is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but many will also find the unrelenting drugs and sex and the very dark take on the fracking business to be disturbing.

I’m glad I read both “Coyote” and “Black Hills,” despite their strong thematic and character similarities.  They both leave a very concerning message about fracking and the companies and communities swallowed up by that business.

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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The Highwayman by Craig Johnson

Johnson’s “The Highwayman” is a modern-day ghost story by one of the country’s foremost storytellers.  This novel is part of the series “A Longmire Story.”

Sheriff Walt Longmire of Wyoming’s Absaroka County receives a request to assess the credibility of a highway patrol officer’s reports of ghost radio messages while the officer is patrolling near a series of three tunnels that had been the scene of a searing accident that killed another highway patrol officer over 30 years before.  Reportedly, the message that an officer was in need of assistance came from that deceased HP officer.  When some of the same messages were received in Walt’s presence he and his side-kick, Henry Standing Bear, attempted to explain the phenomenon by determining who might be breaking into the HP’s radio frequency.  Things get a little scarier when the distraught HP officer falls into the raging Wind River and Walt is helped to grab her out by a mysterious stranger who also seems to be dropping 1888 Morgan dollars, the same Morgans the long-dead HP officer was accused of hi-jacking.

As always, this Longmire story is an engrossing and well written western mystery/ghost story.

The Highwayman” is recommended, especially for the many Longmire fans out there.

Liz Nichols

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Bright Midnight by Chris Formant

Chris Formant is a life-long student of classic rock and roll and a collector of rock memorabilia. He holds a seat on the Board of Trustees of the Rock and Role Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  “Bright Midnight” is his first novel and it will be a crowd-pleaser for all the baby boomers who love classic rock and all those conspiracy theorists who believe in the “Myth of 27.”

For the uninitiated, the  “Myth of 27” hypothesizes that there is simply too much coincidence around the fact that so many rock stars, and particularly during the height of rock and roll post-Woodstock, died of mysterious causes at the age of 27– too many for it to simply be coincidence.  While Formant’s work is fiction, he has thoroughly researched each of the artists who died within a few years of each other in  the late 1960s and early 1970s including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ron McKernan, Peter Ham, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Al Wilson.  Formant uses modern forensic analysis techniques to combined with clues from research of memorabilia and historical records to pose plausible explanations as to why all these deaths were not just accidental deaths or suicides, and how they were related.  Certain sinister aspects of the rock and roll record industry seem to have doomed some of the more rebellious and independent artists to short lives.

The protagonist is a classic rock editor for Rolling Stone, Gantry Elliot.  He is an aging “has been” struggling to keep up with the the changes in rock music until he begins to receive anonymous tips about the rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s who all died at age 27.  The tipster maintains that all of these artists were murdered and presents clues with each package to support the claim.  By the time Gantry has received several of these packages he takes the evidence to the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit who, after expressing initial doubts, decides to take on the cold cases and involves associates in Scotland Yard and the French National Police to take the lead on solving the deaths that occurred within their jurisdictions. Gantry involves his boss, the editor of Rolling Stone and eventually gains his full support.

There are fascinating details about the music industry, and modern day forensics.  It turns out that as good as technical forensics is now, old-fashioned interviewing of former associates of the dead and people who might shed light on the commonalities between all of the victims is what actually breaks the case.  The closer Gantry gets to breaking some of these cases, the more dangerous the international crime thriller gets for Gantry and the people who open up to him and the FBI.

Bright Midnight” is an inventive read sure to please those who are nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius and its rock legends and those who enjoy speculating on conspiracy theories such as the “Myth of 27.”

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Downfall by J A Jance

Once again J.A. Jance has produced a suspenseful and timely police procedural in the “Brady Novel of Suspense” series.  “Downfall” is about an investigation by Sheriff Joanna Brady and her Cochise County (AZ) Sheriff Department into a double homicide that appears to be instigated by a high school teacher’s statutory rape of one or more teenage boy student.  The reactions of the parents and students to the realization that a pedophile has been teaching at the school for years and getting away with seducing teenage boys run the gamut from parents blaming the boy more than the teacher to outrage and a desire to sue the school for not doing something to stop this behavior.  Some parents wish they had gotten to the teacher first before her actual killer.

This story about a teacher pedophile takes place amid Joanna’s own personal tragedy in that she has just lost her mother and step-father to a highway sharp-shooter and is also several months pregnant with a baby girl. She is supposed to be taking time off to plan and host a funeral service for Eleanor and George when the deaths of two women who appear to have been pushed off a cliff occurs.  The book contains some poignant moments where Joanna comes to a better understanding about her mother and the reasons why Eleanor has always been so hard on her ambitious tomboy of a daughter.  Longtime readers of the Brady series will appreciate the closure Joanna is able to put on this complex relationship with her mother and will also admire the ingenuity Brady and her staff use to solve the mystery of the double-murder and Joanna’s own kidnapping.  To add to the complexity there is another murder in the mix, the death by golf club of a man who appears to also have been poisoned with arsenic by his wife.  That investigation raises the question of how far the DA should go to offer a reduced sentence just to settle when it appears likely the murder was premeditated.  Unfortunately, there is little the sheriff can do once the police have turned the case over to the DA, other that to offer her two-cents worth.

As always, the action is so suspenseful it was hard to put down “Downfall” until the very last page.

Highly recommended.

Liz Nichols

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Erroneous Report

I received a message that this site has been labeled as suspicious. This is completely false and should be ignored. Those who have been logging in to get current mystery and thriller reviews for years can rest assured that we will continue to publish reviews regularly at this site. Liz Nichols, Blog publisher

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris

Behind Closed Doors” by B.A. Paris was an instant best seller in the UK perhaps because it taps into the fears every woman has when she starts a new relationship that may lead to marriage.  It is, in some ways, the British answer to “Gone Girl.”  The novel will keep the reader constantly engaged, but it will be depressing as well.  It was published in the US in hardcopy on August 9, 2016 and is doing well in sales in the US also.

Behind Closed Doors” is about what seems to the outside world to be an ideal marriage of two professionally-oriented people, an attorney who takes on domestic abuse cases, Jack Angel, and a buyer for Harrods, Grace.  Jack wants her to give up her career when then get married, and Grace agrees both to have more time with Jack and to prepare to take care of her sister with Down’s syndrome, Millie, who will live them them in the countryside once she completes school.  Jack buys and decorates the perfect house and the newlywed couple befriend a few of the neighbors.  Things look deceptively rosy in the beginning.

Very shortly, Jack holds Grace hostage even when they go on vacation in Thailand. He subjects her to brutal psychological torture.  Grace initially believes that she can get away and convince others that she is being held against her will, but Jack is always two or three steps ahead and is good at convincing anyone who is asked to help by his wife that she is mentally ill.  The preparations to take Millie captive and to take even more than psychological punishment out on the mentally disabled girl becomes heart-wrenching for Grace and for the reader as attempt after attempt to foil Jack’s plan fails.

Readers who liked “Gone Girl” will also like “Behind Closed Doors.”  It is tightly written, the characters are multi-dimensional and explored in detail, and the plot is complex and heart-wrenching.

The sad thing is, almost everyone knows someone who is, or has, suffered psychological and/or physical abuse at the hands of the person who should be most trusted.  I have a niece who is not allowed to contact her parents or any of her old friends. She is closely monitored by a jealous husband. She and her daughter are held virtually as prisoners by her husband and his family and yet no one has been able to get her out of this situation because of the constant psychological abuse she has received and her reluctance or inability to turn her husband in for abuse.  “Behind Closed Doors” is a frighteningly real piece of fiction written to expose this type of domestic abuse.  It’s not a pleasant book to read, but it gives a message that must be heard.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed from a supplied early readers edition.

Liz Nichols

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Peregrine Island by Diane B Saxton

Saxton’s “Peregrine Island” left me dissatisfied for one primary reason.  The three main characters alternate chapters in first person and yet all of the voices sound alike to me.  We get to know the matriarch best, Winter Peregrine, the owner of a small island off Long Island Sound.  She owns a painting by a major twentieth century artist who disappeared about thirty years earlier.  Two art experts and the son of the missing artist show up on the island to examine and appraise the painting and to determine its authenticity.  The son gains a romantic attachment to Winter’s daughter, Elsie.  The third main character is Peda, Elsie’s young daughter, who speaks too remarkably like her grandmother to be believable as a young girl who has discovered and befriended a homeless man living under their pier.

Peregrine Island” is interesting enough and there are twists and turns sufficient to keep the reader interested– it is just that the author should have either had Winter, Elsie and Peda use language and word complexities that are different and appropriate for their own ages and points of view, or written the whole book in third person.

Readers can skip this first-time novel by Diane Saxton, a journalist and activist, unless there is a particular interest in the Long Island Sound area or the art thriller genre.  Perhaps her next novel will improve.

Reviewed with a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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The Candidate by Lis Wiehl

Lis Wiehl is a an attorney, faculty member at the University of Washington School of Law, and a legal analyst for Fox News.  She has several successful novel series.  “The Candidate” is the second in the “Newsmakers Novels” series with protagonist, Erica Sparks, a cable news network anchor.  The subject matter is chillingly appropriate in this presidential political season.  In fact, the only political campaign more strange than the one that is being played out this year for real, is the plot that Lis Wiehl weaves in “The Candidate.”

Without having to put out a spoiler alert I’ll just note that Sparks comes to suspect that one of the candidates is being manipulated using a Chinese mind control technique and she sets out to test that hypothesis.  Unfortunately, the more she tests the more she puts herself and everyone she comes in contact with in danger.

While not every aspect of this political thriller’s plot seems that plausible enough rings true to keep the reader intrigued.  There is certainly a lot of action to hold interest as well.  The book starts out with a bang (literally) when one political candidate and a number of by-standers are blown up by a domestic terrorist and then the bomber is taken out immediately by an assassin before he can be questioned– very reminiscent of JFK conspiracy theory.

Lis Wiehl’s writing style is very matter-of-fact and literal.  “The Candidate” is certainly not a literary masterpiece, but it makes up for it in fast-paced action and intensity.

Recommended with a few reservations in terms of believability.

Reviewed from a supplied advance copy.

Liz Nichols

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