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An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson

The Longmire series got another new addition last fall with “An Obvious Fact.”  The name is derived from a Sherlock Holmes quote, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” The setting is western South Dakota/eastern Wyoming around Hulett and the Devils Tower, an impressive shaft of igneous rock that shoots out of the plains unexpectedly, and the site of the nation’s first national monument.  The other major setting is Sturgis, SD, the site of the annual motorcycle meet.

The biking events and the general Wyoming/South Dakota Black Hills location affords the author a lot of colorful characters to populate this mystery and Henry Standing Bear is entered in some of the biker events while Walt Longmire helps the Hulett police investigate why a young member of one motorcycle gang and the son of one of Henry’s former lovers, has been run off the road.  The young man is in a coma at a hospital in Rapid City.  Tension mounts as Lola, the youth’s mother implies that Henry was the father some 30 years earlier.

As always, this chapter in the Longmire saga is full of sage wisdom from the Indian philosopher, and hard fighting from both Henry and Walt. “An Obvious Fact” a sufficiently fast-paced page-turner to please fans of the Walt Longmire series and could win over new fans because of the colorful setting and interesting situations Henry and Walt continue to get involved in.

I continue to be a Longmire fan of both the books and the TV series.

Liz Nichols

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Two Mysteries About Fracking and Sex Slavery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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The Highwayman by Craig Johnson

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

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

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

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

Liz Nichols

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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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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.


Liz Nichols

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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.


Stone Cold by C J Box

Lovers of western mysteries and thrillers are probably already fans of C. J. Box, the author of the Joe Pickett Novel series.  This is about my third time with this series and this is easily my favorite of Box’s most recent books.

In “Stone Cold” Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden, is posted to help out another game warden in the remote northeast corner of the state near the Black Hills.  Joe discovers something rotten going on in Medicine Wheel County, including the murder of a federal agent, that will eventually lead to a full-fledged FBI raid.  The nail biting question is whether the Feds can get in to take the bad guys under arrest before Joe Pickett is killed to remove his eye-witness accounting of the multiple layers of crime he uncovers.  He plays quite a cat and mouse game with the bad guys he quickly pinpoints but has to take a number of big risks in order to prove the role of an important landowner and philanthropist in the county when so many residents have been bribed or bamboozled into supporting the big-shot rancher.

I read “Stone Cold” in a couple of sittings.  It is a hard book to put down because the book is so action-packed and the characters, both good guys and bad, are so vividly drawn that it is easy for the reader to imagine being in Joe’s boots.

There is also an interesting side-story about a seemingly disaffected loner who moves in to the dorm at the University of Wyoming on the same floor as Joe’s daughter, Sheridan.  Sheridan does exactly what students who witness strange behavior are supposed to do to stop a potential campus shooting: she told her parents and they contacted the local authorities to watch this kid.  There is an interesting– and tragic– twist to this story toward the end of “Stone Cold” that will generate a lot of discussion around dinner tables between parents and their high school and college age children on a topic that is timely, thought-provoking and chilling: how to stop shootings and other random acts of violence on campus.  The book points out that stereotypes can lead to bad conclusions, but that vigilance is needed despite the danger of making a mistake.  Parents of troubled teens particularly need to get help early and often and not try to hide potentially unstable behaviors in the hopes that they will go away.

Stone Cold” is a thought-provoking addition to the Joe Pickett series and well worth reading for many reasons.

Liz Nichols

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The Right Side of Wrong by Reavis Z Wortham

Reavis Z. Wortham knows intimately the area that he writes about– Texas’ Red River Valley.  He grew up hunting and fishing in the area and has taught and written in and about Texas throughout his life.  His imaginary Red River Valley town of Center Springs and the people who inhabit this town as are prototypical of that part of Texas in the mid-1960s as the characters of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon are of northern Minnesota.  Like Keillor, Wortham brings a folksy humor to his “Red River Mystery” series, but overall the subject matter is very serious.  “The Right Side of Wrong” weaves many historical and economic markers into this tale about the beginnings of  marijuana smuggling into Texas from Mexico and drug trafficking in the 1960s.  It is a fascinating read.

There are characters to warm your heart in “The Right Side of Wrong.” The story is about an extended family which includes  the two constables of Center Springs, Ned Parker and his nephew Cody, their wives, and grandchildren who are cousins, Top and Pepper.  Part of the story is told in the first person by Top to add a more humorous and innocent touch to the story.  The kids help a mysterious neighbor, Tom Bell, fix up the old ranch house near Ned and Becky Parker’s ranch and discover a secret about this man’s past.  They also stow away in Bell’s car on an adventure to the border to help Ned Parker free Cody from a Mexican border town jail run by associates of a drug cartel.  A black constable by the name of John Washington also has the Parkers’ backs on a number of occasions and we experience through this character many instances of discrimination accurately and painfully depicted as it routinely occurred in Texas and throughout the South especially in the 1960s and earlier.  Because Becky Parker is Choctaw and Cody is half-Choctaw there is also some native culture and lore woven into the story.

The story will especially bring those of us who are baby boomers back to what was going on in the mid-1960s.  Using the two pre-teen kids to tell part of the story is a stroke of genius because it will trigger vivid memories for many baby boomer readers who were the age of Top and Pepper during the 1960s.   In addition to being nostalgic this historical mystery is also action-packed and full of twists and turns.  It was hard to put down.

The Right Side of Wrong” is the third in Wortham’s mystery series.  It would definitely be worth checking out the earlier titles in “A Red River Mystery” series.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Killing Custer by Margaret Coel

Killing Custer” is number 17 in Coel’s “A Wind River Mystery” series.  I’m surprised that I have never run in to another title in this series, or at least not for a long time.  I plan on going back to some of the earlier titles in the series.  Those who are fans of  Tony Hillerman, J.A. Jance or Nevada Barr will find Coel’s series particularly compelling.

The setting for this series is the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and surrounding towns.  “Killing Custer” is set in Lander, Wyoming, just outside of the reservation.  A group of reenactors pretending to be 7th Calvary members are encircled during a rodeo days parade in Lander by a group of Arapahoe warriors and the man dressed as General George Armstrong Custer, Edward Garrett, is shot dead.  Everyone assumes one of the young Arapahoes shot Garrett and members of both the Lander Police Department and BIA police swarm the reservation to question and lock up some of the young men.  The suspicion zeroes in on Colin Morningside, a descendant of Crazy Horse, and Mike Longshot, the man who taught the other warriors how to control their horses while closing in on the reenactors.

The two who team up to investigate, since the police and BIA officers seem unwilling to look beyond the reservation for the killers, are Father John O’Malley, the priest in charge of the Wind River mission, and Vicky Holden, an attorney who grew up on the reservation and now practices in Lander for both native and non-native clients.

Margaret Coel, who is trained as an historian, demonstrates a very intimate understanding of the history, cultural, and socio-economic impact of reservation life and interactions between natives and whites.  She makes it very clear that mixing Little Bighorn reenactors with a large community of Native Americans is an effrontery of enormous proportions and the story that unfolds in this incident is almost inevitable.  Did the real killer understand the ramifications and use the events as a coverup for the real murderer?

I highly recommend “Killing Custer” for anyone interested in looking at the actions of General Custer and his death at Little Bighorn through the lens of the Native Americans who are descendants of those who took revenge on Custer and his men.  A solid mystery is intertwined with the social commentary.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Cold Wind by C. J. Box

Cold Wind” is a combination western, mystery and thriller set in Wyoming.  It is the 11th in the Joe Pickett Novel series by C. J. Box who lives in Wyoming with his family.  He has won many award for this fiction including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Gumshoe and Barry awards.  His protagonist, Joe Pickett, is a game warden not far from the remote Hole-in-the-Wall canyon that served as the hide-out for the infamous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and other outlaw gangs.

Joe’s mother-in-law, Missy Alden, is accused of killing her husband, Earl by shooting him and stringing the body up on the blades of one of the wind turbines Earl built on one of the hills on his ranch.  This was property they essentially cheated out of Missy’s former husband, Bud Longbrake.  Bud has been hurt and resentful ever since and is also threatening to tell the court how Missy talked him into helping her get rid of Earl because her current husband was threatening to divorce her.  Missy hires one of the best defense lawyers in the country to present her defense.  Joe agrees to investigate the case and search for the missing Bud Longbrake even though he has never gotten along well with his selfish and over-privileged mother-in-law.

Meanwhile, Joe’s friend, Nate Romanowski, is hiding in the hole-in-the-wall canyon because there is a contract on his head from The Five, a group of black-ops he has worked with who know Nate has enough dirt on each of them to put them away for life.  He doesn’t figure on the source of the trouble that actually comes looking for him in that canyon hide-away while he is camping out with his girlfriend, Alisha.

Cold Wind” is very descriptive, action-packed and highly entertaining.  We get to understand what motivates many of the main characters, whether we agree with their rationales or not.  Joe and Nate especially live by a code that was more typical of the 19th century wild west than the 21st century.  Essentially the old west ethos is brought into the 21st century by virtue of the heavy-duty automatic armament that is brought to the battle.  The information about the flaws in the wind energy business and all the money to be made purely in government subsidies is also a slice of the 21st century and quite eye-opening.

What I don’t find appealing, especially in view of the many acts of gun violence this year, is the glorification of these assault weapons and the ease with which the main characters can justify their use of these weapons to kill people.  There are many instances of vigilante justice, and no one is punished for it. This is common in thriller and western genres where the protagonist is allowed to go after a bad guy (or gal) himself and take them out without any consequences.  I don’t like the message, but as a plot line, it makes for exciting reading.

Liz Nichols


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