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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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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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Write to Die by Charles Rosenberg

Charles Rosenberg is a Los Angeles attorney who has also consulted on a number of legal-themed television shows and been a legal consultant for an entertainment news show.  The most successful novels are generally written by people who are experts in the same field as their protagonists and Rosenberg is no exception. “Write to Die” is Rosenberg’s fourth mystery-thriller.

Write to Die” is a legal thriller/trial procedural where the protagonists are a Hollywood intellectual property litigator, Rory Calburton, and his new assistant attorney, Sarah Gold.  Their styles and personalities are such that sparks fly often because Sarah prefers to skirt the law when it comes to gathering evidence and Rory goes strictly by the book.  The senior partners are willing to put up with more shenannigans from Sarah because she comes with prestigious experience as a law clerk for a Supreme Court justice.

The plot revolves around the murder of the general counsel for a Hollywood studio that is being represented in a plagiarism case by Rory and his law firm.  Eventually the senior partner of the firm is accused of the murder.  Are the plagiarism case and the murder related?  Sarah gets in and out of scrapes trying to find out.

Write to Die” is a lengthy and detailed, but entertaining and enlightening look into entertainment law through the eyes of a legal expert who happens to be pretty good as a mystery writer.  I look forward to reading more about the legal team at The Harold Firm, and particularly Sarah Gold and Rory Calburton.

Recommended.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Off the Grid by C J Box

The themes of C. J. Box’s “A Joe Pickett Novel” series are getting scarrier.  In “Off The Grid” Joe Pickett’s survivalist friend, Nate Romanowski, is recruited to help a super-secret special-ops unit to investigate the real intentions of a Middle-Eastern falconer who is living in a remote part of Wyoming.  The falconer’s organization has at the same time recruited Joe Pickett’s daughter’s roommate (and by extension, Sheridan) to do some volunteer work at the remote encampment.  The plot revolves around the question of how far the government should go to spy on everyone’s communication channels in order to protect against a domestic terrorist attack and what is being done covertly to thwart both government incursions on our 4th Amendment rights and on terrorist cells operating in the US.  When one of those terrorist cells infiltrates the falconer’s operation things go seriously wrong for both Nate Romanowski and Sheridan Pickett.

Box has a knack for telling a thought-provoking story, and from that stand-point “Off the Grid” is one of his best in the Pickett series.  Box doesn’t waste time preaching.  He doesn’t sensationalize.  He just tells a story and lets the reader reach his or her own conclusion.

Off the Grid” is a fast read and a hair-raising thriller with a plot that seems quite possible to occur for real.

Recommended.

Liz Nichols

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Brain Storm by Elaine Viets

The protagonist of “Brain Storm” is a death investigator names Angela Richman, of an imaginary county 30 miles west of St. Louis named Chouteau County, after the French fur-trading family that pioneered the area.  Viets portrays the area as full of a privileged class of people with definite ideas about what kind of people should be let into the area.  Richman is among the less privileged members of the community and the more entitled police officers from the Forest PD who work with Angela on crime scene investigation never let her live it down.

What stands this police procedural apart from all the rest is that Angela, while in the midst of an investigation, suffers a catastrophic stroke and is misdiagnosed by one of the right-side-of-the-tracks emergency room doctors at the local hospital.  The surgeon who saves her life is an outsider, but married into one of the wealthy local families.  He is accused of killing the misdiagnosing doctor and is almost prosecuted for the crime until the recovering Angela discovers the real killer.

The descriptions of what Angela experiences during the brain attack and during her slow recovery are very realistic because the author, Viets, experienced something very similar.

Brain Storm” is a chillingly realistic, high-tension thriller from start to finish and is highly recommended.

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Two Mysteries About Early 20th Century Labor Unrest

I have recently finished two somewhat similar mysteries set in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

All Men Fear Me,” by Donis Casey is the first of these mysteries. This book is the eighth in the “An Alafair Tucker Mystery” series.  The book is set just after the US joined World War I and the town of Boynton, Oklahoma is at heightened alert for German traitors and union activists fomenting unrest.  In the midst of all this unrest the Tucker family is trying to stay together with the older sons all contemplating joining the Army and heading for France, and a son-in-law afraid for his life because of his German heritage.  All of the foreign-born people in town are keeping a low profile because of prejudice and suspicion that has become very prevalent among the residents.  Alfair’s brother, a union organizer, comes to town ostensibly for a visit, but is suspected of really being in town to stir up trouble at a local factory. There is worry that trouble will brew at the “Liberty Sing” following the drawing of names for the draft lottery.  A man, called Old Nick, is another recent addition to the town, a very mysterious person no one knows.

The author, Donis Casey, has done an excellent job of researching the era and making the reader feel as if they are back in state-side life during the 1st World War with FDA-mandated austerity measures, suspicion about neighbors who may not originally have been from the area, formation of a chapter of the Knights of Liberty to offer vigilante justice to anyone who appears to be unpatriotic or unwilling to serve.

All Men Fear Me” is a nostalgic novel that will take the reader back to the days at the beginning of America’s involvement in the Great War.

Jack H. Bailey’s “Orchard” attempts to mix fact with fiction.  Bailey uses historic mine unrest in and around Coeur d’Alene in the late 1890s and early 1900’s and the efforts of mine owners to break the control of the Western Federation of Miners and weaves a fictional story around the shadowy life of a real union contract killer named Harry Orchard, a man who was finally sent to prison for the killing of the former governor of Idaho in 1906, Governor Steuenenber.  Orchard’s arch-rival and eventual captor is Pinkerton Agent, Charlie Siringo.  The details of exactly what activities Orchard and Siringo engage in and the dialog as they interact with their union and law enforcement associates is made up, but gives a fascenating picture of what may have taken place.  It is clear that there were many wrongs to redress on both sides.

Bailey succeeds in making both Orchard and Siringo more than just two-dimensional characters.  We have a sense of what makes both men tick.  There are times when we are ready to root for Orchard as a champion of poor minors and their families, and times when we want Siringo to capture the killer in order to stop the bombings and contract killings.

All Men Fear Me” and “Orchard” are both highly recommended.

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Clawback by J.A. Jance

Those of you who have followed my blog for awhile will know that I am a fan of J. A. Jance and particularly her Ali Reynolds Novel series and her Joanna Brady Mysteries series.  Both are set in Arizona, a state Jance knows well.  The latest, “Clawback,” is part of the Ali Reynolds series set in Sedona, AZ.

In this new novel Ali’s father is caught at the scene of a double homocide of his friends, Dan and Millie Frazier, and it takes a concerted effort by the staff of Ali’s security company, High Noon Enterprises, to clear Bob Larson of the crime.  Dan is the insurance agent who got Bob and Edie Larson to put all of their retirement funds in Ocotillo Fund Management which turns out to be a Ponzi scheme.  “Clawback” refers to the process whereby money distributed to participants, unwitting or otherwise, in a Ponzi scheme are recalled and redistributed equitably to all of the innocent participants.  There is some fear that Bob and Edie will lose out twice because they had started to receive payouts from the fund because they were among the early participants in the scheme.  Bob discovers Dan and Millie nearly dead at their home in Sedona when he goes to question Dan about what had caused Ocotillo to declare bankruptcy.  Through the high tech efforts of High Noon staff, with the assistance of Bob and Edie in sorting through lots of documentation, the real scoundrels are brought to justice, but not without some harrowing rescues and some additional murders.

Jance always does such a great job of describing all of the characters and making it clear what makes each person tick, both the good guys and the bad ones.  The reader also finds out a lot about cybercrime and financial crime in “Clawback,” particularly interesting current topics for a mystery.

Clawback” is a fast and interesting read for Jance’s army of enthusiastic readers.