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If I Run by Terri Blackstock

If I Run” is a detective thriller in the tradition of “The Fugitive” but with a Christian twist.  Casey Cox, a young woman who finds her father dead when she is 12, finds her best friend murdered 13 years later.  Since Casey is convinced her father was also murdered, she believes that if she stays around she will be framed for her friend, Brent’s, murder.  She runs even though it makes her look guilty.  “If I Run” is the story of how Casey evades detection and how others gradually come to believe in her innocence.  The story is by no means resolved by the end of the book.

The Shreveport Police Department hires a returning veteran, one of Brent’s oldest friends, Dylan Roberts, to track the girl down and bring her back.  Dylan is an aspiring cop with investigative experience in the Army.  Brent’s parents hire him as a PI to find the fugitive.  The cops in the homicide division at Shreveport PD agree to let Dylan investigate, but they throw a lot of blocks into the investigation, and especially when he asks for access to crime scene evidence.  After he talks with the evidence clerk at the police station that clerk mysteriously ends up dead.  Every piece of evidence Dylan uncovers seems to point to other people involved in Brent’s murder and possibly also to Casey’s dad’s murder.

Although Casey lost much of her faith in God when her father died, she meets a number of people on her run as a fugitive who help to restore her faith.  While at the end of the book Casey is still on the run, I believe the theme of this series will gradually restore her faith while her journey restores the faith others have in her and in her innocence.

If I Run” is not the most original story, but it is a well told thriller with a likeable heroine and a thoughtful and fair PI who is following her every step.  The bad guys are predictably pure evil.  Fans will await the next book to see how the bad guys are defeated.

Available February 16, 2016.

Reviewed from an Advance Reader’s Copy.

Liz Nichols

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The Newsmakers by Lis Wiehl

The Newsmakers” is the first title in a new series by Fox News legal analyst, Lis Wiehl, and it promises to be a blockbuster.  Her protagonist, Erica Sparks, is the deeply flawed but talented and tenatious reporter who we meet on her first day of work as a reporter for GNN, the Global News Network, an up-and-coming cable news channel owned by a brilliant but vindictive and possibly psychotic billionaire, Nylan Hastings.  Erica’s first assignment puts her into the midst of a freak ferry accident that soon is revealed to be a cyber-terror plot.  The notariety Erica gains in handling the ferry disaster story lands her in the middle of an assassination situation with a potential presidential candidate.  Is it coincidence or is some evil hand putting Erica in the way of blockbuster stories?  Erica digs until she finds the solution to both crimes and in the process puts herself and many of the people around her in danger.

What I particularly like about this fast-paced page-turner are the complex characters– Erica herself and the people around her at GNN.  We get to know many of these characters very well, warts and all.  Readers who are paying attention can also see what is about to happen to Erica before she can see the outcome herself.  Instead of ruining the plot, having a somewhat obvious outcome actually heightens the intrigue because we can’t wait to see how Erica extricates herself from the mess, whether she screws up and goes back to her ways of drink and ruin, and whether some of the innocents she has dragged into her messy world will come out alive.

Lis Wiehl knows the cable news business and she knows how to deliver a heart-pounding thriller.  “The Newsmakers” formula should be a recipe for another best seller for Wiehl and her co-author Sebastian Stuart.  Two thumbs up!

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)

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Karma’s a Killer by Tracy Weber

Early in January 2016 Midnight Ink Books of Woodbury, MN published a charming little cozy mystery by award-winning author Tracy Weber, “Karma’s a Killer,” featuring amateur sleuth and Seattle yoga instructor, Kate Davidson. Weber lives in Seattle and she’s a yoga therapist, so she knows her subject matter.

The plot starts out at a fund-raiser for an animal rescue called DogMa where Kate has agreed to teach a yoga for dogs class (doga) with their owners.  When a bossy rabbit owner insists on attending the crowded class with her pet, all hell breaks loose.  The same event is invaded by a group of animal rights activists led by a former employee at DogMa and two of her friends.  The older woman in the animal rights group turns out to be Kate’s estranged mother, Dharma, or Daisy.  The younger protester is found murdered and Dharma is arrested on suspicion of murder, based on a presumption of jealousy because the two women were dating the same man.

Karma’s a Killer” is both highly entertaining, and very thought-provoking in ways that make it almost a psychological thriller.  Dharma’s presence forces Kate to examine the nightmares she has regularly and many of the personal flaws of mistrust and deception that have made it difficult for her to open up to others.  It also makes her question the mythology that she has built around her parents and the circumstances that led to her being raised exclusively by her now deceased father.  The difficult task of coming to terms with her mother and why her mother abandoned her is handled very intelligently and sensitively in “Karma’s a Killer” and it sets up this “A Downward Dog Mystery” series to show more growth in Kate’s relationship with her boyfriend, her best friend, her mother, and herself in future installments.

Karma’s a Killer” is a two-thumbs up mystery for me.

Liz Nichols

Reviewed from a supplied Reader’s Advance copy.

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The Winemaker Detective by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen

I received a pre-publication uncorrected proof copy of “The Winemaker Detective” by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen, translated into English by Le French Book translators Anne Trager and Sally Pane.  The paperback version was published in English translation in December 2015.  This French cozy mystery is aimed at those who enjoy “Murder She Wrote” type plots in French wine country settings.  Like “Murder She Wrote” the books in the Winemaker Detective Series are being made into a successful television series seen in France and other French-speaking countries.  This collection includes the first three books in the series.

Each book represents an independent plot tied together with two amateur detectives and winemakers, Benjamin Cooker and his young employee, Virgile Lanssien.  Cooker is a fifty-something product of a French mother and British father.  He grew up in London but spent his summers on the acreage owned by his French grandparents, which he eventually inherited.  Cooker is a curious mixture in personality, temperament and interests of his Franco-Britsh heritage.  He spends a lot of his time driving around the French countryside in his beloved Mercedes exploring different wine-making regions and reviewing the best vintages in each one.  Along the way he runs into many eccentric and a good many shady characters.  The plots include industrial sabotage of the product of a winemaker in Bordeaux; the murder of a call girl and a hotel clerk, and theft of fine wines in the Loire Valley; and the murder of two graffitti artists in Burgundy.

Each book is highly descriptive.  Those who enjoy travel will get to know the French wine regions quite well through  Cooker’s adventures.  The plots are intriguing, as well, so that it is easy to see why this mystery series makes for successful television in France.  I have to admit, however, that some of the detective work drags on as Cooker and Virgile find themselves retracing their steps in order to pick up new pieces of information, and there is not a lot of  action.  The pace is more sedate than I generally like– again, rather like episodes of “Murder She Wrote”.

Still, the series will have wide appeal within the British and American mystery-reading market, and particularly for those who enjoy a bit of armchair travel and lots of detailed descriptions of great French food and wine.

I give “The Winemaker Detective” French cozy mystery compilation a one-thumb up.

Liz Nichols

 

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A Three Mystery Review

I have reviews for three of the several books I read during the month of December.  All are by American novelists and all have a strong ethnic presence.  All are part of mystery series of varying degrees of maturity.  While the protagonist of the first is a private investigator, the other two books feature amateur sleuths.  They are:  “Caught dead” by Andrew Lanh, which is a pen name for the experienced mystery writer, Ed Ifkovic (A Rick Van Lam Mystery); “The Puffin of death” by Betty Webb (A Gunn Zoo Mystery); and “Brooklyn secrets” by Triss Stein (An Erica Donato Mystery).  All were published within the last couple months.

Rick Van Lam, as far as I can tell, is the only Vietnamese sleuth in American mystery literature.  He’s definitely not your stereotypical “Charlie Chan” type detective.  Rick is bui doi, an Amerasian product of the Vietnam Conflict who was brought to America at the age of thirteen to be raised by an American family in New Jersey. After attending John Jay College in criminal justice in New York he moved to Hartford, CT to become part of that city’s police force, but wiped out after a close encounter with death and joined a private investigator’s office instead.  He developed close ties to the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon in Hartford and it is with that community that he interacts in trying to solve the deaths of “the beautiful” Le sisters, Mary and Molly.  One sister is married to a small-time Asian market in the heart of Little Saigon while the other is married to a rich and successful Anglo entrepreneur. The separate crimes both appear to be staged in order to blame drug traffickers in a crime-infested neighborhood.  It takes being able to bridge both the Vietnamese community and the community at large in order to solve the crimes and Rick goes about it with a great deal of sensitivity and skill.  “Caught dead” maintains the suspense of “who done it” right up to the last couple chapters.

Betty Webb’s “The Puffin of death” is the fourth in the “Gunn Zoo Mystery” series featuring the professional zookeeper and amateur sleuth, Theodora Bentley.  The setting for this installment of this series is Iceland where Teddy is sent to collect several animals for its new Northern Climes exhibit, including a couple puffins and a polar bear cub.  Because Teddy is invited to stay with an Icelandic zookeeper while she is in Iceland, she has a very up close and personal experience with modern day Icelandic culture.  Her hostess and her boyfriend are both members of an Icelandic heavy metal band.  She also spends a lot of time with a birdwatching tour group from Arizona, and it is the leader of that group who comes up dead shortly after Teddy arrives on the scene.  The body has been badly chewed by a puffin by the time Teddy discovers the body.  Like Webb’s previous books in this series, the author sprinkles a heavy dose of humor in the plot and the memorable cast of characters.  While the book drags a little in the middle chapters, overall I enjoyed “The Puffin of death.”

The third book I would like to feature is Triss Stein’s “Brooklyn secrets.”  Like the author, the protagonist, Erica Donato, is a researcher who is well-versed in the history of Brooklyn, New York.  Stein is not a native of Brooklyn, but she has spent many years in New York City and once worked at the Brooklyn branch library used as one of the settings for the book.  She is also very familiar with the history of the Brownsville projects and the different ethnic groups that have populated this ghetto area since the 1930s.  Donato spends time in that area in order to do research for her graduate program disseration on the members of Murder, Inc. who dominated the Brownsville housing project in the 1930s.  She finds in the 2000s the deadly gang influence has changed little except in ethnicity and language.  Now the residents are largely Black and those in gangs control drug and human trafficking.  The book is very well written to show a lot of parallels between the Brownsville of then and now.  The author admits that the book is not reflective of the very most current trends and language among Black teens in Brownsville today but Stein does what she can to paint a realistic picture of life in the projects today.  “Brooklyn secrets” is a chillingly convincing page-turner of a mystery.

Reviewed with supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Swedish journalist, David Lagercrantz, has taken over the Lisbeth Salander series that appeared to be ended with the passing of Stieg Larsson.  I have been fascenated by the series since the very first novel and Lagercrantz is, for the most part, living up to the legend.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web” carries the Salander story forward a couple years after the last Larsson novel.  Lisbeth is back in Sweden after lengthy stays in the Caribbean and other parts of the world and she has become even more famous within the hacker community under the handle “the Wasp.”  The story revolves around a famous computer scientist, Frans Balder, who leaves his Silicon Valley job developing an artificial intelligence program for a supercomputer in order to return to his native Sweden in order to take care of his mentally disabled but savant son, August, and to get his son removed from the home of his former wife and her abusive boyfriend.  Balder is murdered for his scientific discoveries and August is targeted for death because he witnessed the murder and has a gift for drawing and mathematics and might be able to identify the killer even without language skills.

Lisbeth Salander is asked by her journalist friend, Mikael Blomkvist, to look into the murder of Balder and to locate his missing computer files.  In the process she saves the boy and hides him from the perpetrators, a rogue cyber spies led by her estranged sister, Camilla, called the Spiders.  Lisbeth also dodges an arrest and extradition by the NSA for having hacked their computers. The fact that Camilla escapes most likely sets up the next installment in the series.

The writing of the Salander series is not as elegant as it was coming from Larsson and there are sections toward the middle of the book that drag whereas every page of the Larsson novels was a page-turner.  Still, the plot is intricate and interesting, and Lagercrantz does a lot to humanize Salander far beyond anything in the earlier books.  It turns out Salander can actually be a caring person who has the capacity to show compassion for and the patience to take care of a young boy.  She also takes the time to observe the extraordinary gifts of young August and to see to it that they are developed by arranging to fund his education.  I like the direction of this new Salander novel, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” and look forward to reading many more installments of Salander’s story.

Liz Nichols

 

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Rise of the Enemy by Rob Sinclair

Rise of the Enemy” is a good, old-fashioned spy thriller, the second in “The Enemy” series by Rob Sinclair. Sinclair is a forensic accountant living in northeast England.  He was challenged to write this series on a promise to his wife that he could pen thrillers that she could not put down.  I think he’s done it!

The protagonist, Carl Logan, is an experienced special agent working for a joint US-UK agency called the Joint Intelligence Agency sent in to Russia to do some industrial spying.  He and his accomplice are challenged almost immediately by officers from the FSB (formerly the KGB) and Logan is exposed to months of torture and deprivation in a Russian prison before he manages to escape.  It seems the worst of Logan’s enemies are not the Russians but people from within his own organization who would like to see him dead.

Logan is a likeable hero and someone who seems a lot more like the reader than the stereotypical, Bond-like spy.  He is a complex character who gets into an almost impossible situation.  We can especially feel for him when he is given such a raw deal by his own people, even though this theme has been explored by other series (the Bourne titles, Homeland).  It is hard to see how Logan can get out of the fix where he will be hunted down whether he tries to hide in Russia or he goes back to the UK or the USA.  The seemingly impossible situations Logan experiences make this a nail-biter of a thriller.

While the main character is certainly explored in all his complexities, I don’t feel the villains in the novel are given enough development.  They come off a bit one-dimensional.  Perhaps in future titles the author can make more of Logan’s main opponents.

In all, “Rise of the Enemy” is an excellent spy thriller and I look forward to reading more of this series.

(Reviewed from a provided copy.)

Liz Nichols

 

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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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