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Archive for the ‘Suspense novels’ Category

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

The Malice of Fortune” is an historical thriller set in Renaissance Italy during the reign of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia).  Those who are addicted to Showtime’s series on the Borgia family, billed as “the original crime family,” will be fascinated to compare that show with some of the same events as told fictionally through Michael Ennis.

Ennis is an experienced historical researcher. He does his own digging for facts and for how these facts can be woven into a fictional story.  His research for this book consisted of digging into the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and the biographers of the Borgia family, as well as the historical records from the Vatican and major families of the era.  It’s any wonder Ennis ever had time to write such a prodigious work.

Interwoven with what is well-considered historical research is a fascinating story told in two parts from two different perspectives.  The first is Damiata, the courtesan mistress of Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia, the favored son of Pope Alexander who is murdered in 1497 on his way to see his mistress.  Pope Alexander is tortured with the mystery of who killed his son and five years after the murder he sends Damiata off to Imola where Alexander’s other son, Cesare, known as Duke Valentino, has amassed the Vatican and mercenary forces.  She is to figure out who killed Juan or suffer the loss of her son, Giovanni, who is essentially held prisoner by his grandfather, the Pope.

Damiata and the Pope believe there is a connection between the brutal murders and mutilation of several women in the town of Imola because one of the strega who was murdered was found with an amulet that Juan was known to wear. The Pope additionally suspects that Damiata betrayed Juan and gave his killers information about where he could be found the night of his death.  By cooperating with the investigation Damiata hopes to clear her name and rejoin her son.  Only Juan’s killer could have carried the amulet away and deposited it with another victim.  Women known to be witches, or strega, in and around Imola also had a copy of “The Elements” by Plato that was annotated with the names of people purported to be Juan’s killers, or connected with the killing.  Damiata gets a glance at that book when she encounters the witches before mercenaries take the book away.

The second part of the novel is told from the point of view of Niccolo Machiavelli.  Although there is no historical record of his having had a liaison with Damiata, he was known to be enamored of courtesans of his day and so the story fits quite well that he should strike up a relationship with Damiata while they were both in Imola.  Niccolo was the envoy from Florence attached to the court of Duke Valentino.  When he gets involved with Damiata he also takes up the cause of finding the truth about Juan Borgia’s death, and the deaths of a growing number of women in the town.  They follow Leonardo da Vinci, who at the time was Valentino’s military engineer, as da Vinci and his assistants attempt to make sense of the killings.  They find a pattern in the placement of body parts using geometry to map out the locations of body parts of various victims found scattered around the city.

The Malice of Fortune” is a page-turner.  It is easy to be sucked into the book through several different dimensions.  The mystery is compelling, as is the character development and psychological study of several people including Machiavelli, Valentino, Damiata, and some of the henchmen allied to Valentino.  The relationship between Machiavelli and Damiata, however fictional, is also compelling.  I loved this book and could not put it down until it was done.  Now, many hours later, I am still thinking about the book and its characters and will be for a long time to come.

Liz Nichols


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The 13th Target by Mark de Castrique

Well-known mystery writer, Mark de Castrique has written a fascinating, intense suspense novel about an attempt to bring down or, possibly remake, the country’s central banking system in his latest, “The 13th Target.”  The plot of this mystery revolves around the secretive world of the Federal Reserve Bank.  This central bank controls the money supply, but no government entity controls the Federal Reserve.  The President appoints the chairman of the Federal Reserve, but that is really the extent of public control on this shadowy institution. It is actually owned by private entities– large banks and wealthy families.  The plot is disturbingly plausible and reminds me somewhat of the chilling TV drama, “Homeland.”

Former Secret Service Agent, Russell Mullins, takes on a job through a private security company protecting a top Federal Reserve Bank official, Paul Luguire.  Mullins and Luguire become friends, and so Mullins is particularly concerned and suspicious when he is told that Luguire has committed suicide.  Mullins and Luguire had planned on meeting  to watch their grandsons play tee-ball, hardly the kind of date a man about to commit suicide would make.  As details begin to develop in the case it becomes clear that the death is a murder.  Mullins is implicated because of the discovery of a large transfer of funds to an offshore bank with his name on the account.  Mullins investigates not only to find out who killed his friend, but also to clear his own name.  He must solve the mystery before 13 bombs are set off intended to damage or destroy the central bank, its leaders and the branch banks.  Is the plot generated by a foreign terrorist cell or is this a domestic attack similar to that of the Oklahoma City bombing?

Readers will be glued to the pages of “The 13th Target” to the very last chapter.  Great read! The book was planned for a July release from Poisoned Pen Press.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed from a supplied copy.)


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The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

The Leopard”  is the sequel to Norwegian author, Jo Nesbo’s psychological thriller, “The Snowman.”  “The Leopard” is equally gruesome in the way murders are committed and equally suspenseful as former detective Harry Hole tries to find a serial killer before he murders everyone who spent an evening in a mountain cabin with him and everyone who gets close enough to the truth to become a threat.

Just when the reader thinks they know who the killer is, the author throws another twist into the plot.  There are also many subplots that create their own sets of intrigue.  Most importantly, Harry and his former colleagues at the Oslo police crime squad are pitted against the national crime fighters of Kripos to see which team can get to the serial killer first.  The internal politics keeps turning from one team to the other all to the detriment of catching the killer.  Only Harry seems completely focused on solving the crime while all his colleagues and political enemies spend their time posturing and trying to outdo each other.

There is also a personal subtext to this complex thriller.  Harry has his own demons to fight.  The book starts out with one of his crime squad coworkers finding him in a drunken and doped up state in Hong Kong.  He has never forgotten what the Snowman did to break up his family and to unsettle his own psyche.  He suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome among other problems.  He never is able to go cold turkey on his addictions and they serve to hinder his investigations as well as his personal life and threaten his career.  In the end, Harry must go back to Asia to try to find himself.

This book took some patience to get through.  There is such a complicated plot that it was easy to get confused, but in the end it turned out just as it should considering the personalities and weaknesses of the characters.

This book is not for mystery fans with weak stomachs.  The death scenes are horrific.  Those who enjoy sophisticated and complex psychological thrillers and Police procedurals and can stand gruesome murder scenes will love “The Leopard“.

Liz Nichols



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The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

It has been awhile since I’ve read one of Gabaldon’s Outlander series and “The Scottish Prisoner” is a worthy addition to the historical spy thriller series.

In “The Scottish Prisoner” the series’ hero, Lord John Grey, takes charge of a Scottish lord who is now a paroled prisoner worker under a false name as a groom at a Lake District manor.  Grey takes the prisoner, Jamie Fraser, to London to meet with Grey’s brother and to plan a visit to Ireland in order to determine the meaning of an obscure poem written in Erse, the Gaelic common to both Scotland and Ireland.  The translation heightens the suspicion that there is a plot afield to reignite the Jacobean uprising against the British monarch, King George II.

Gabaldon must live and breath this Georgian period of British history because she tells the tale in convincing detail that the reader feels transported to the 18th century. The author’s descriptions take into account all of the senses so that the reader can visualize what it was like to live in that period in Ireland, Scotland, the Lake District or in London in 1760.  As one who has ancestors from England, Scotland and Ireland, I could put myself into that era and picture what life was like for my own kin.

I enjoyed getting reacquainted with this era and with these characters and look forward to the next installment in the Outlanders series.

Liz Nichols

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The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi

The premise of Donato Carrisi’s “The Whisperer” is that there is a rarely identified category of serial killer who instills in other people the urge to kill.  These “whisperers” if you will never get their own hands dirty, but are behind large numbers of murders carried out by their disciples.  The most famous of this category of serial killer is Charles Manson.  Here’s a link to a  video clip by Carrisi explaining his theory.

“The Whisperer” is a gripping story that is hard to put down about a team of law enforcement serial killer specialists who investigate the apparent abduction and murder of six young girls.  Six freshly sawed off left arms are found buried, but only five bodies are eventually recovered in places that help the serial killer to control every move of the crime team. What increases the intensity of the search and the anxiety of the crime team is knowing that there is a sixth girl out there who may still be alive.  An intriguing element of the plot is that by clearing up the case of the missing girls the cops are also solving a number of other, previously unknown, serial killing cases.  The investigators wonder if these killers know each other or have some common connection back to “Albert” the man presumed to be the abductor and killer of the young girls.

The plot builds very effectively with each additional discovery of a body.  By the time the body of the fifth girl is found the team is highly anxious about whether they can find the sixth girl alive.

In addition to being about the highly technical work of locating and stopping a serial killer, the book is also about the tormented life of one of the team members, Mila Vasquez, who is an expert on missing children.  It turns out that she was abducted as a child and now in her work she is forced to relive some of her own horror.  Mila brings in a medium who also provides an important lead.

One thing that particularly bothered me about the book is that there is no specific city or country setting for this book.  We can presume that it is not North America because the translation is British and there is no indication that the team members are from the FBI.  It looks to be either some British team, or more likely, Interpol crime-fighting group. I suppose this could be viewed as clever writing because then no matter what language the book is translated into it can fit that place.  The names of the characters are a mixture of Hispanic and eastern European.  I believe the translation would have been more effective if readers could pinpoint a specific city.  As it is, the procedural details are a little too generic to hold attention.

I noted that in some other review sites commenters felt that the plot did not hold together very well.  Some found the nun who is brought in to extract ideas from the mind of a dying serial killer too hokey to be believed.  It’s true that in order to believe the possibility that there are whisperers who can subliminally get to other people and turn them into killers it takes a little suspension of disbelief.

I feel that the plot has a nice symmetry about it.  I like that in solving this mystery the police find and stop a number of other killers.  The plot doesn’t have to be totally believable to still provide a tense, satisfying psychological thriller.  That is exactly what this book is: an intense, satisfying psychological thriller with a number of interesting characters. The translation from the author’s native Italian is not as clean as I would prefer, and the lack of a specific place for the plot detracts from its effectiveness, but overall I like “The Whisperer.”

Liz Nichols



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The Faces of Angels by Lucretia Grindle

The Faces of Angels” was first published in the U.K. in 2006.  It was just republished in the U.S. in the Felony & Mayhem Mystery series and it is a literary achievement that is just oozing with the atmosphere of Florence, Italy.  The second in Grindle’s mystery series set in Florence has just received the prestigious “Gold Dagger” award in the U.K.

Mary Warren first encounters Florence as a newlywed two years before the main events of the book take place.  Her husband, Ty, was in a teacher exchange program and Mary came along to Florence essentially to honeymoon.  In Florence she met a crime reporter for the local press who was married and they fell in love.  Mary was struggling with what to do about the conflict of being married to someone she liked but did not love and being forbidden by social and religious mores to chuck it all in order to be with this married man.  As Mary and Ty were visiting the Boboli Gardens in Florence Mary was attacked and Ty was killed rescuing her.  The killer was found a few weeks later and was himself killed in an vehicle accident on his way to prison.

Mary goes back to Philadelphia for a couple of years, but finds herself longing for Florence and her lover, Pierangelo, who had since become separated from his wife.  Mary returns to Florence as an adult art student and takes up residence with another American woman, Billy Kalczeska.  While enjoying the atmosphere and the art that permeates Florence, Mary also finds herself fascinated with the details of several murders of women that took place both before and after the attack that cost Ty his life.  She secretly collects pictures of the murder victims and stories that Piero and others have written about these murders and eventually she resolves to solve them once it becomes clear that either her attacker did not die in a fiery accident, or there is a copycat killer lurking in Florence.

The plot is complex and very suspenseful.  It is also beautifully written.  The descriptions are vivid and assault all of the senses.  Each main character is fully developed so that the reader not only has a physical description of many of the characters, but also gets a psychological perspective on what makes many of them tick.

In a sense Florence itself becomes a character.  Consider these two paragraphs from the book where Mary meets the lover of one of the women who was murdered.  These paragraphs are important to defining the meaning behind the title of the book. In them the lover, Gabriel, admits that he sees his dead lover in the streets of Florence all the time:

“‘Sometimes I think there’s a whole other Florence.  A city of the dead that no one ever leaves….Perhaps they’re lonely…and they need to look at us. Or perhaps we’re the ones who are lonely, and we need to look at them.  Maybe that’s why we paint them over and over again.’

He laughs at the look on my face. ‘Haven’t you noticed?’ he asks.  The professors and art historians analyse it and write about it and call it “The Florentine School”, but really all it is is what we see.  Every painting in Florence, centuries of them, they’re nothing but our ghosts. Ghosts, and the faces of angels.'”

Mary has her own guardian angel watching out for her.

The book cover says that fans of Ian McEwan and Daphne du Maurier will like this book.  I would add to that the fans of Dan Brown’s “Demons and Angels” and “DaVinci Code” for those who will particularly like Grindle’s “The Faces of Angels.”  There is an Opus Dei connection in this book, as in Brown’s works.

I can’t wait to read the second in this series!

Liz Nichols


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Field Gray by Philip Kerr

Field Gray” is the 7th in the “A Bernie Gunther Novel” series by Philip Kerr about the Berlin Kripo detective, Bernie Gunther, who was essentially forced into the SS during World War II.

Field Gray” switches from the 1930’s to 1940’s and into 1954 when Gunther was living in Cuba with an Argentinian passport working for a famous underworld figure in Havana. He is roped into taking one of the girls from a brothel to Haiti in a rented boat and is stopped by the American Navy as they pass by Guantanamo.  What ensued is a series of incarcerations and interrogations by American, French and other operatives to try to discover what Gunther knew of Nazi atrocities and other crimes during the war.

Gunther never joins the Nazi party and abhors any killing that does not adhere to standard conventions of war. He is not beyond planting evidence and doing what needs to be done as a cop to put criminals away.  He is not beyond killing other soldiers when they have been proven to be indiscriminate killers of women and children.  He finds he has to figuratively hold his nose and work with certain Nazi leaders in order to survive or to get favors for people he loves.

Bernie’s musings in prison and confessions during his interrogations give a fascinating insight into the war from a democratic-leaning German officer’s point of view.

This book is not only historical fiction, it is also a spy suspense thriller where Gunther is trying to identify and apprehend certain Nazi thugs and chooses secretly to protect one of them, and a war drama.

I was totally absorbed in “Field Gray” and suspect lovers of many genres would also enjoy it.

Liz Nichols

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The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo has taken over where Stieg Larsson left off in the world of Nordic suspense writers.  The Snowman is a suspense and horror-filled tale of how homicide investigator, Harry Hole of the Oslo PD, manages to track down a serial killer dubbed the Snowman.

Elements of The Snowman are predictable: we know that the psychotic killer will come after Harry and his estranged spouse, Rakel, eventually.  Knowing that they are on the hit list just adds to the tension and the suspense.  There are plenty of twists and turns and dead ends before we reach the dramatic climax of the book.  The clues lead Harry to at least two others before he finally comes across the key clue in a blood sample that is hidden in a barn where one of the killings takes place.

Harry is an almost washed up cop at the start of the book.  He is almost kicked off the force by an image-conscious chief of police. Despite one or two sessions of binge drinking Harry manages to pull his life together to keep on trying to salvage his relationship with Rakel and her son, Oleg, who in many ways considers Harry his dad.

He also plods along looking for clues in the disappearances of a string of women over the years in Bergen and Oslo.  The characteristic that they all have in common is that they are all mothers and there are snowmen built during the first snow of the winter that greet the families that are being targeted just before the murders.  Eventually, the Snowman starts leaving clues and body parts, such as a woman’s head stuck on as the head of a snowman.  Then Harry finds the body of a missing cop from Bergen who had been tracking these killings.  Eventually he finds out that the woman detective his office hired was the daughter of the dead Bergen cop.  Is the daughter, Katrine, the Snowman killer, or just an over-zealous cop looking for her dad’s killer?

Other connections begin to fall into place that finally lead to revealing the real killer.

The Snowman is a gritty, bloody novel and is not for the faint of heart.  Those who like a classic horror story will love The Snowman.

Liz Nichols



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Crunch Time by Diane Mott Davidson

Davidson’s Goldy Schultz culinary mysteries are consistently among my favorites. “Crunch Time” is no exception.  Caterer, Goldy Schultz, takes in her good friend and fellow chef, Yolanda Garcia, and Yolanda’s aunt, Ferdinanda, when they are firebombed out of their apartment and out of the home of their friend, Ernest McLeod.

Goldy has several mysteries to solve because when private detective McLeod is murdered he has left several cases unsolved, and any one of his suspects in those cases could be involved in his murder.  One of these suspects may also be involved with the attempt to silence Yolanda and Ferdinanda through destruction of their homes and intimidation. The other mysteries revolve around who stole gems and gold from a Cuban-American bar owner in the area; who is running an illegal puppy mill operation; who is growing illegal marijuana; and which two people are breaking into empty homes and having sex.  Goldy also needs to investigate Kris Nielsen, Yolanda’s former boyfriend, to find out why he is stalking and intimidating her.

There are so many plot lines that it takes over 400 pages to tie them all up.  It’s mind-boggling to see how they all fit together– and some are more plausible than others. It was also sometimes difficult to keep the prodigious number of characters straight and to follow all those plot lines to the end.

A number of the characters are really fun to get to know.  Yolanda is a carry-over character from the last Goldy Schultz novel, and her aunt, Ferdinanda is particularly colorful.  Humberto Captain, another Cuban refugee, is another particularly well-developed character, and one that adds a pretty sinister character to the book.  His girlfriend, Lilly Vanderpool, has also made an appearance in this series before, and may hold an occasional continuing role, if she ever comes back from MIT.

Despite some flaws– some far-fetched and twisted plot lines– I enjoyed this long Diane Mott Davidson culinary mystery and will eagerly await the next installment in the life of Goldy Schultz, the Aspen Meadows, Colorado caterer-sleuth.

Liz Nichols


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Dead Man’s Switch by Tammy Kaehler

Dead Man’s Switch” is the first in a new “Kate Reilly Racing Mystery.” The book was published Aug. 2 by Poisoned Pen Press as is a good example of the well designed and edited books that this publishing house puts out. I received a review copy to read just prior to the publication date.

Kate Reilly is a wanna-be American Le Mans Series (ALMS) race car driver who follows the teams around to every race in hopes that she will get a ride.  She got a taste of being a team member the previous season when a third driver was needed for one of the longer races and she acquitted herself well.  Everyone knows Kate can drive and is a quick study, but in this male-dominated sport, few expect that Kate will actually get a permanent ride.

When Kate finds experienced but unlikeable  racer, Wade Becker,  dead on the track as she about to do a practice run, the police first need to rule Kate out as a suspect.  She is subjected to suspicion from other drivers and their groupies long after the police rule her out as a suspect, especially when she is selected as Wade’s replacement.

As often happens in well written mysteries, there are so many possible suspects that it is difficult to crack the case any earlier than Kate does.  She has a second case to crack and she’s a little faster at solving that one: the onboard computer systems are being tampered with on some teams’ cars.  Is this related to Wade’s death?  Has Wade been blackmailing certain drivers, and is that a reason for his untimely death?

There is a lot of racing detail.  Those who like to watch Le Mans style road racing will look at this book like an insider’s manual to the sport.  Those who have no interest in racing may still appreciate this book because of its strong and interesting protagonist, Kate Reilly.  Picture Danika Patrick in a Corvette and you get the picture!

For me, there was maybe a bit more racing detail than I needed to read, but then I found Kate a really interesting character and one that will be fun to follow in future entries into this series.

The author, Tammy Kaehler, is a technical writer who had an opportunity to work in the world of racing corporate hospitality and obviously absorbed a great deal of the aura of racing, the personalities that are stereotypical of the people who work in that field, and the routines that teams go through to get ready for a race.  Kaehler does a great job of bringing her technical knowledge in to the creative world of mystery writing.  Job well done!

Liz Nichols

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