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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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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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Kill Me, Darling by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Once again Max Allan Collins has turned a fragment from the collection of unpublished Mickey Spillane notes and stories into a winner of a new Mike Hammer novel in “Kill Me, Darling.”  The latest in the series that was entrusted to Collins by Spillane shortly before he died is, in my opinion, the best of the Hammer series.

The settings are very well-researched 1950’s New York and Miami while the great Mafia families held sway over most of the major cities in the U.S.  The Mike Hammer we meet in this installment is older, wiser, and trying to recover from an extended bender.  The four month drinking stint comes about when Mike’s girl friend and assistant PI, Velda, walks out on him.

What motivates Mike out of his drunken stupor is the murder of a cop Velda used to work with on the NYPD. Mike wants to find out who killed the cop and also finally recognizes that Velda’s disappearance may be related to a case the cop was working to bust a gangland drug lord named Nolly Quinn.  When Mike finds out that Velda has become Quinn’s girl friend and companion in Miami Beach he sets out for the southland.  Mike skillfully plays along with the local cops, local press and a bevvy of some of the top mafiosi in the country in order to outwit and out-gun Quinn and save Velda.

The plot and the action are totally absorbing.  The new Mike Hammer is a more likeable guy having dried out and gained a little bit of savvy on how to win friends and influence people.  Despite Hammer’s improved awareness of how to more effectively get things done with and through others he still stays true to the rough, tough and deadly Mike Hammer image.  This is a Mike Hammer who can be equally appreciated by the usually male fan of hard-bitten graphic detective novel  and women who enjoy a thriller built around an interesting  storyline, atmospheric location with a more sophisticated and people-aware protagonist.  Now I can say I actually like this Mike Hammer and don’t just appreciate him academically as a classic icon.

Nice character development, Max!  Keep ’em coming.  “Kill Me, Darling” is highly recommended.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)

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Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth

Cathi Unsworth‘s “Weirdo” is another mystery in the British “noir” genre. Unsworth has been called Britain’s “queen of noir.”  The book alternates between events that occur in a small British North Sea town in 1984 with the investigation of what actually occurred back then by a former cop turned private investigator in 2003.

In 1984 quite a crowd of teens within the town of Ernemouth dressed in goth uniform, professed to worship satan and got caught up in what looked like a ritual murder.  One of the girls active in the clique, Corrine Woodrow, was sent to a mental facility for the killing.  There seemed no question as to her guilt in 1984 and she did not do anything positive to help her case.  By 2003 the advent of DNA testing enabled the case to be revisited and PI Sean Ward gets the assignment.  Did Corrine act alone or did she have an accomplice?  Was she framed? What really happened at the old World War II pillbox back in 1984? Sean finds a good deal of defensiveness and protectiveness by the residents of the town as he dredges up the details of this cold case but he does finally get the cooperation of the local constabulary to turn the cold case into a full-fledged investigation.

The juxtaposition of chapters covering events in 1984 followed by events in 2003 works well in unwinding the “Weirdo” story.  The characters are British, but the story is universal.

Recommended.

Liz Nichols

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A Long, Hard Look by Joel D. Canfield

Joel D. Canfield has written a smart, well-crafted gumshoe mystery in “A Long, Hard Look.”

The protagonist is down-and-out PI Phil Brennan, who takes on a case from a rather nervous and troubled young computer programmer named Gilbert Breville to go to the young man’s office and delete a program on his machine in exchange for a lot of cash. When he completes the task Phil finds himself up against other members of Gilbert’s family, and he finds the young programmer has been killed.

Brennan is quickly co-opted by Gilbert’s sister, Darcy, and the executive secretary to Gilbert and Darcy’s father’s company, Millie.  Millie has an even stronger reason to want to protect the company from the evil plots of two other sisters, Gertrude and Stephanie that she eventually reveals to Brennan and to Darcy.

The multi-millionaire tycoon owner of the company Brennan has sabotaged, Everard, hires Brennan to find Gil’s killer and secure the company from its enemies, while at the same time Everard would also like to get rid of Brennan for interfering with his decision to give the company power to the crazy and ruthless sister, Gertrude.  Brennan is constantly walking a tightrope around Everard, Gertrude and another sister, Stephanie, who has been known to waiver between the Gertrude and Gil/Darcy camps.

In the end Brennan is able to save the company for the more responsible members of the family, but it comes at quite an expense.

Long, Hard Look” is a  good, nail-bitting detective story.

Liz Nichols

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Red Devil 4 by Eric C Leuthardt

Red Devil 4” is the brain child of neurosurgeon and biomedical engineer, Eric C. Leuthardt who in real life heads the Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University School of Medicine.  Dr. Leuthardt has written of a world where almost everyone has a computer chip implanted to instantly compute and find information, set environments, music and entertainment selections, control mood, and essentially control the lives of the people living in 2053.  Of course, what people give up in order to have instant information, communication, environmental comforts and other conveniences, is the ability to think and act independently–or at least that is the danger in artificial intelligence when it becomes mind control.   It is the perfect environment for “big brother” to control or for a mistake in the technological model to endanger many lives.  There is much of an ethics nature to consider with the age of artificial intelligence at our door step.

The plot of the book is a series of murders in St. Louis that may be blamed on programming within the implanted chips in some of the area’s most prominent citizens. It appears that a prominent person is behind these murders and the risk exists that the flaw is in the chip not the killer himself.  Will more people go haywire and begin to commit heinous murders?  That is a question detective Edwin Krantz and his ex-Navy SEAL partner, Tara Denzer, are tasked to determine when they go after the serial murderer.  They need to discover answers fast in order to avert a technological mistake that may lead to millions of deaths.

I must admit that the topic is not something I enjoy reading about and I did not complete the book.  However, the book is well-written and chock-full of insights that will keep many a book club discussion going.  “Red Devil 4” is a worthy contribution to the science-fiction and technological thriller genres with a theme that could quickly become technological fact.

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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