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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 British Mysteries from British Library Crime Classics

I was recently introduced to a revival series of long-forgotten British mysteries and crime novels from the 1920s and 1930s republished into the British Library of Crime Classics and made available in the U.S. through Poisoned Pen Press.  I found my first two reads in this series quite delightful.  They were “The Sussex Downs Murder” by John Bude and “Murder in Piccadilly” by Charles Kingston.

John Bude wrote “The Sussex Downs Murder” in 1936.  He was a full time mystery writer for 20 years before his untimely death at the age of 56 in 1957.  During World War II he remained at home in charge of the local Home Guard.  After the war he was a founding member of the Crime Writers’ Association.  Charles Kingston also published “Murder in Piccadilly” in 1936 but little is known about the writer.  He began writing crime novels in 1921 and continued for about 25 years producing about a book a year.

Of the two I find the plot and characters, as well as the setting, more memorable in “The Sussex Downs Murder.” It is set along the dramatic white cliffs of Sussex in England where the Rother brothers have a family farmhouse and a lime kiln business.  One day John takes off on a trip and never comes back.  His car is found abandoned. Suspicion builds among the investigating police on the brother, and also on the brother’s wife.  There had been rumors about an affair between the wife and her brother-in-law.  When human bones are found mixed into bags of lime from the Rother’s kiln the police confirm that John Rother was murdered.  There are a number of clever twists in the plot that will leave the reader second-guessing the killer.  “The Sussex Downs Murder” was one of those books that was hard to put down until the very end.

In “Murder in Piccadilly” a young member of the aristocratic Cheldon family, Bobbie, has fallen for a dancer named Nancy Curzon who works at a Piccadilly night club called the Frozen Fang owned by a gangland character named Nosey Ruslin.  Nancy is invited to the family estate to meet the family.  Bobbie wants to get his uncle’s blessing and a hand with his monthly expenses so he can afford to marry.  Nancy does not realize that her suitor is not already financially set.  Bobbie is initially the prime suspect when Uncle Massy Curzon is found murdered.  Is he just a fall-guy for someone else’s greed?

Any lover of the Golden Age of murder mysteries will love this duo of British crime novels.

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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Neurotic November by Barbara Levenson

Neurotic November” is the 4th in the “Mary Magruder Katz Mystery” series.  The author, Barbara Levenson, is a retired Miami area judge and she really knows how to make a suspenseful tale out of her expertise in the law and court proceedings.  She also is very good at describing Miami settings and lifestyles.

Mary Magruder Katz is Levenson’s fictional defense attorney in the Miami area.  In “Neurotic November”  Mary acquires a university football player as a client who is accused of statutory rape against minor.  He admits to having sex with the complainant, but Magruder Katz’s client claims to have been entrapped by a girl who misrepresented herself as a college student who had consensual sex.  The book brings up a very important message for all young adults to know.  In many states it is considered rape when anyone over 18 has sex with someone under the age of consent, usually set at age 16.  A few states will allow for a lesser charge, or will consider dropping charges, if there is less than a 5 year difference in age between the teen and the older partner.  In many states, however, judges have very little leeway but to send even those who had no idea they were dealing with a minor to prison and to put them on the sex offender list once they are out of prison.  Obviously, such a conviction would ruin someone for life.

Mary also agrees to defend her boyfriend’s father who is being questioned in connection with a money-laundering case.  This particular thread is only begun in this book and promises to be one of the main themes in Levenson’s next mystery. At the same time, Mary tries to aid her assistant, Catherine Aynsworth, who comes in bruised and battered from an ex-spouse.  When the former husband turns up dead the police accuse Catherine’s current love interest, Mary’s private investigator, Marco Perez.  Mary sets out to find out who really killed Brady Aynsworth and in the process Mary and her boyfriend, Carlos, become targets themselves.

There are enough twists and turns, plots and subplots to keep any mystery reader involved from the very first page of “Neurotic November.”  One of my favorite mysteries of 2014.  I could not put it down until I had read the book cover to cover.

Liz Nichols

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Joyland by Stephen King

Stephen King is arguably America’s best storyteller.  His new ghost story/mystery, “Joyland” proves the point.

Joyland” is the perfect read for that summer vacation at the beach.  It’s a fast page-turner that almost anyone can enjoy because it has likeable characters, a plot that almost everyone can relate to from their own past, and the story is spun out in King’s best “round the campfire” style.

The story is told in the first person by a young man, Devin Jones, during his first  job away from home on his summer break from the University of New Hampshire.  He works as a carney at an old-fashioned amusement park right on the border between North and South Carolina.  The park saw a murder 5 years before that was never solved.  A young woman’s throat was slit while she was on the Horror House ride with a guy who was seen accompanying her throughout the park.  There were pictures, but the man’s disguise could have made him almost any young to middle-aged man.  Now the ghost of the dead girl is said to haunt the park.

During that summer, Devin saves two lives, loses his girl friend back home, makes a friend in an 11 year old boy with muscular dystrophy, loses his virginity to the mother of the sick boy, and, with one of his friends from the summer work at the park, he tries to solve the mystery of who killed the girl, Linda Gray.  Devin also receives help along the way from a couple of psychics.

Joyland” will appeal to readers of many genres and period pieces as it has elements of the romance, ghost story/paranormal, mystery, horror story, sick kid tear-jerker, and 70’s nostalgic story.  Anyone who has ever visited an old-time amusement park or the midway at a state fair; anyone who loved and lost during the college years; anyone who ever had a summer job during college; anyone who lived through the 70’s– will appreciate “Joyland.”  Devin is super-likable, as is Mike, the kid with MDA, his mom, and several of the characters Devin meets during his summer at the park.  Even the bad guy and the “carney from carney” curmudgeons that are introduced in this book are likeable (or at least entertaining)  in their own way.

A definite summer read.

Reviewed with a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Deadly Stakes by J.A. Jance

Deadly Stakes” is number 8 in the “Ali Reynolds Mysteries” series.  This series has been steadily growing on me since Jance introduced her new sleuth several years ago.  Reynolds is a former television news personality who was fired from her job as a Los Angeles news anchor about the same time she is divorced by her news executive husband.  She moves back to Sedona with her son to work with her parents in their diner.  Along the way she meets B. Simpson, an independently wealthy security company owner, who helps her crack a number of cases.  For several books in the series she waffles between her affection for the local sheriff and B, but has finally settled on the security mogul.  After Ali’s parents retire from the diner she settles into life with B. and being the executive director of a scholarship fund for underprivileged girls.  Technically, she can’t accept sleuthing assignments because that would require a PI license, but she can work undercover as a journalist who is looking for leads on a story, and that is the cover she uses in “Deadly Stakes.”

In this tale a divorcee is found nearly dead by a teenager who has been led to the location by his estranged father.  A.J. Sanders’ dad is a parolee who did a long stint in a federal penitentiary after helping a group of his friends counterfeit some cash.  James Sanders lives and works at a half-way house in the Las Vegas area.  On A.J.’s 16th birthday he presents the boy with a nice used car and the following year he sends A.J. a secret note with instructions on where to find a treasure that James, the dad, buried in the desert outside of Phoenix where A. J. and his mother live.  A. J. knows his mother would not approve, so he keeps secret the fact that he ditches school in order to go dig up the treasure. One mystery to crack is to determine where James got the money to give to his son.  Another is to determine whether he was responsible for the hit on Gemma Ralston and perhaps got the money for killing her.  A.J. finds the nearly dead Gemma Ralston where the treasure should be.  He later learns that nearby his dad is found dead of a bullet wound slumped over the steering wheel of a car.  No one knows if the two murders are related, but Gemma’s ex-husband and his current girl friend are accused of her murder.  The girl friend’s mom hires Ali to find evidence to exonerate her daughter.  In the course of interviewing people who might know something about the Ralston murder, Ali interviews A. J. and his mom, as well as the mother and sister of Dr. Chip Ralston, one of the suspects, and a number of other people who saw the various players in this drama on the day Gemma was abducted and killed and the day James died as well.

As usual, Jance’s plot is full of twists and turns.  There are lots of details placed either to help the reader figure out who the real killer, or killers, is/are or to bury the obvious in so much detail as to make it more difficult to sort things out.  It is easy to get carried along by a Jance story, and this one is no exception.

Jance fans will find “Deadly Stakes” up to this author’s high standards of storytelling.

Liz Nichols

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Girl Gone by Gillian Flynn

A friend recommended that I read “Girl Gone,” and I’m glad I picked this book up.  It is the most perfectly constructed psychological thriller I have ever read.

The book is almost equally divided by chapters written in the voice of Nick Dunne alternating with chapters written in the voice of his wife, Amy.  They start out as a typical New York professional couple.  She writes quiz questions and he writes articles for a magazine.  Amy is a trust fund child who’s parents capitalized on her childhood by writing the “Amazing Amy” series of children’s books.  The happy marriage storyline ebbs into the unemployed Nick and Amy take over as they become increasingly disillusioned about their marriage.  Then Nick discovers that his mother is sick with cancer and his dad’s Alzheimer’s is getting beyond the ability of his sister, Margo’s ability to cope, so Nick convinces Amy to buy a bar in Nick’s hometown in Missouri and they move.  Amy hates this new life.  Long story short, Amy disappears and Nick is suspected of murdering his wife.  I won’t reveal more of the plot in order to let readers discover the ingenious plot for themselves.

The plot twists and turns as more clues of the alleged murder are revealed.  Nick fervently believes (or is he just trying to make the detectives think he believes??) that his wife is alive and orchestrated everything.  He uncovers a couple of witnesses who were on the receiving end of Amy’s vengeance in the past and that gives him the idea that maybe Amy is playing an elaborate and deadly joke on him.  Or, has Amy actually been kidnapped and held hostage against her will?  One twist after another will keep the reader turning those pages as fast as they can.

I can’t emphasize enough to my mystery reading friends, read “Girl Gone.”

Liz Nichols


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As the Pig Turns by M.C. Beaton

As the Pig Turns” is the 23rd Agatha Raisin Mystery set in the Cotswold town of Mircester, UK.  Agatha Raisin is implicated initially in the gruesome murder of a local policeman because of a grudge she held against the cop.  Once she is cleared she resolves to have her detective agency solve the murder, despite repeated warnings by the local police chief that Raisin’s agency is to stay out of the investigation.  Raisin ignores the police because she knows, and they know, that she has a fabulous track record in solving crimes ahead of the police.

As usual, Beaton effectively winds a number of subplots into the story.  Raisin has been particularly hard on her young crackerjack detective, Toni.  Raisin had the audacity to order another of her agents to stop seeing Toni socially because Toni was, in Raisin’s opinion, too young to get married.  The other agent responded by quitting the company and joining the Army.  Raisin is also very fickle about her love interests and her feelings about her neighbor and ex-spouse, James, her friend, Charles, and other men who come into her life, varies depending on whether they are around or not and how attentive they are when they are in town.

As I’ve said in previous reviews, Agatha is a hard character to like, but you have to admire her hutzpah and her success.  She reminds me very much of a boss I once had.  She was someone you loved and hated at the same time, but you always had to admire her ability. I can relate to Agatha even though I don’t really like her.

As the Pig Turns” will appeal to many British cozy mystery readers and to those who have been long-time fans of this series.

Liz Nichols

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Pray for Silence by Linda Castillo

“Pray for Silence” is the second in Linda Castillo’s “Silence” mystery series set in Amish Ohio. The protagonist is Police Chief, Kate Burkholder, who was born into the Amish community and left after a rape as a teenage girl where she found no support among her family and Amish friends.

While her past has made Burkholder a fearsome crime fighter, it has also left her with bouts of physical and mental anguish, as well as a mean streak that can cause her to lash out without thinking about the consequences. While it is easy to be sympathetic with Burkholder, it is not easy to read some of the passages where she has lost her objectivity as a police officer because of her personal history. It is scary to contemplate what might eventually happen to Burkholder’s career and to her personally if she does not get her personal demons under control.

Her sometime boyfriend and colleague from the state crime lab, John Tomasetti, has his own demons to deal with. He fights a case of traumatic stress syndrome that leaves him depressed and unable to do his job objectively as well. His past trauma relates to the brutal murder of his wife and two daughters. Tomasetti and Burkholder make quite a pair.

In this case an Amish teenage girl falls for an Englisher (a non-Amish person) who ends up brutalizing her, drugging her and using her for porn flicks. She ends of pregnant and she tells her parents, who plan on telling the police and the bishop of their church. When the boyfriend gets wind of the fact that he may be discovered he brutally murders the girl and her family. Burkholder and Tomasetti set out to discover which of several possible suspects was involved in the killings.

This is not an easy book to read. It is extremely graphic and the description of all that was done to the girl and her family, as well as to people who could rat out the murderer, are nauseating. This is one case where I think the author may have gone a little over the top to get across her points about rape and child pornography.

For those who like the ugliness of rape and murder to be out there for everyone to see, this is the book to get. For those who prefer to leave some details left unspoken, this is not the book to read.

Liz Nichols

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