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Shattered by Death by Catherine Finger

Shattered by Death” is the second in the “A Jo Oliver Thriller” by Catherine Finger.  The protagonist is small town police chief, Jo Oliver, who is locked out of the investigation of the brutal killings of her estranged husband and his girl friend in a double homicide.  Oliver finds them in the boat house of the property she and her husband still own together.  Oliver’s close friend and budding romantic interest, FBI agent Nick Vitarello, presents evidence to clear Oliver of the crime, against the police chief’s will.

Many women will identify strongly with Oliver.  She is generous with her time in that she volunteers at a couple of women’s shelters.  This fact she wants to keep secret to protect the identies of the battered women who are sheltered, even though security tapes from the shelters will prove here whereabouts during the murders. She is in the process of adopting a child, even as she fights a contentious divorce. She is bull-headed, full of self-doubt about her worthiness to ever be loved (doubts Nick constantly tries to assuage), and she is a born-again Christian who frequently calls on God for guidance and support.

The identity of the serial killer who tries to frame the Chief is not a particular surprise to me, but the twists and turns that lead to the ending keep “Shattered by Death” a suspenseful read.  Two thumbs up.

Review copy was provided.

Liz Nichols

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Blood on Snow byJo Nesbo

Blood on Snow” is a bit of a departure for Jo Nesbo.  We are used to seeing serial killers through the eyes of his police detective, Harry Hole.  This tale is told in the first person by the contract serial killer himself, Olav, a “fixer” for an Oslo crime family.  He is a fixer with a moral compass, and that is what ultimately gets him in trouble.  Olav can do anything for his boss except drive a get-away car, deal in drugs, participate in a robbery, or deal in prostitution.  Mostly, he deals in killing people who, in his opinion, deserve it.

The main thrust of Olav’s tale is how he deals with the order to kill the boss’s wife, Corina.  Olav makes the mistake of wanting time to think about it, which dooms him to becoming expendable once the deed is done.  Even after Olav agrees to the job he stalls.  He concentrates first on killing the wife’s supposed lover, who turns out to be the boss’s son and then he tries to make it seem like he has accomplished his task while actually protecting the wife.  But is Corina to be trusted?  Will Olav’s other love interest, Maria live or die?

This is a rather simple tale with an unusually principaled killer acting as anti-hero.  The characterizations of Olav and some of the people surrounding him are finely drawn, even though some of the characters seen through Olav’s eyes are romanticized and badly mis-judged.  Near the beginning of the book Olav describes a black widow spider who will devour her mate if he outlasts his stay.  This becomes a metaphor for the actions of Corina and women like her.

I am a big fan of Jo Nesbo, and “Blood on Snow” does not disappoint.  He takes the horror and thriller genres beyond their usual levels of literary sophistication.  His characters are always fascinatingly complex.  A recommended read for lovers of this genre.

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Five by Ursula Archer

Five” is a psychological thriller set in beautiful Salzburg, Austria which pits a brilliant p0lice inspector, Beatrice Kaspary, against a serial killer who sets out clues using a popular kind of scavenger hunt called geocaching.

To find out more about geocaching I signed up for a free membership (there is also a premium level that allows for filtering and more features.) Geocachers hide small treasure troves for others to find and identify them with clues that require solving puzzles or problems and following GPS to specific coordinates.  Normally the treasure boxes are left in place and the finder simply signs a logbook found in the treasure box and also indicates the find online.  I learned that there are dozens of geocaches within a mile of my home.  Who knew?

In “Five” the serial killer takes the treasure hunt theme to a gruesome extreme by leaving body parts for Beatrice and her police team to find.  In some cases kidnapped victims are themselves left as the treasures to find.  The ingenious and sadistic killer controls the hunt by leaving clues on his own terms. First the team must figure out what each of the victims has in common.  That takes a long and frustrating series of interviews with family and associates of the victims, and an almost futile look for mistakes that the killer may have made.

Beatrice and the team really only start making progress in solving the murders when she starts turning the game against the killer causing him anger and frustration.  He starts making little mistakes in his frustration. This tactic also makes Beatrice a target for the serial killer.  She virtually invites him to come after her–and he does with terrifying results.  But will the cops be successful at getting the killer before he kills Beatrice and goes on harming other victims?

I found “Five” absolutely addictive and hard to put down until the last thrilling page.  Highly recommended, though not for the squeamish!

Liz Nichols

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Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich

Janet Evanovich has served up one of the most entertaining Stephanie Plum novels in recent memory with “Takedown Twenty.”

Things get very serious in the Trenton bail bond business– serious in Stephanie’s usual zany way.  She helps Ranger figure out who is murdering older women and stuffing their strangled bodies in dumpsters.  She also has two dangerous bond jumpers who almost get the best of her.  One is a Mafia wiseguy named Sunny Sunnuchi, a relative of Stephanie’s boyfriend, Joe Morelli.  Stephanie is nearly taken out a number of times trying to capture Uncle Sunny, and she gains the ire of the neighborhood and Joe’s Grandma Bella because Sunny is a favorite son to many inhabitants of the Burg.  Grandma Bella carries out a couple of serious curses on Stephanie and makes our favorite bail bonds enforcer unwelcome around the Morelli family home.  The second bounty hunt is against a young guy who is wanted for murder.  As a result of her attempt to capture the young thug she manages to fracture a finger and break her nose.  Her luck seems so bad on all fronts that she decides to quit the bond business and become a butcher’s assistant for the owner of a deli–until disaster strikes on that brief stint at the deli.

To add a little quirky humor to the plot, Lula keeps seeing a real giraffe loping down the streets surrounding Uncle Sunny’s establishment and she keeps following it just at times when Stephanie needs her help.  The whole mystery behind the giraffe is explained toward the end as Stephanie gets all the story threads tied up.

As usual for an Evanovich novel, “Takedown Twenty” is a funny, fast-paced read that will please the legion of Stephanie Plum lovers.

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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Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert

It’s rare that I read such a lyrical, almost poetic novel.  Holbert vividly captures the essence of his characters and of the place that spawned them in “Lonesome Animals.”

Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a native of the Okanogan Mountains of northeastern Washington state that serve as the backdrop for this novel.

The author has fictionalized an account of his great-grandfather, Arthur Strahl, who was an early settler of Grand Coulee and an Indian Scout.  I am sure that the tale contains some combination of facts turned into family lore and fiction to make it a really exciting story.

We meet Holbert’s main character,  Russell Strawl, and his family in the 1930s. Strawl is a rancher and a retired lawman with a reputation for having a short fuse and a quick trigger.  His step-son, Elijah, not only learned old-fashioned vigilante law from Strawl, his violent streak seems even more pronounced and unpredictable because of his hell-fire and brimstone Old Testament viewpoint.  Elijah identifies with, and his actions are reminiscent of,  God’s avenging prophet and namesake, Elijah.

It’s possible to understand and accept some of the violence that pervades this book when the protagonists are seen as instruments of God’s righteous retribution.  Strawl and Elijah cast their vengeance on anyone who gets in their way or slows them down in the quest for a particularly gruesome serial killer.  Still, not every instance of torture, maiming or killing has an apparent purpose except for shock value, and that is the one element of the book that bothers me.  It makes it extremely difficult for the reader to feel any sympathy for Strawl or Elijah or to care what happens to them.  The revelation about who has actually committed the series of extremely violent murders that are described in great detail by the author comes as no surprise.

So, in the end, this is a mixed review of Holbert’s “Lonesome Animals.”  It is beautifully written in poetic prose.  There is lots of action, suspense and drama.  But ultimately, the protagonists are flawed and damaged making it difficult to feel any sense of empathy for the difficulties that beset them.  Many readers will react negatively to the extreme violence of the book—others will find it adds the kind of vicarious thrill similar to that can be experienced in a graphic horror novel or movie.  To each his own.

The book was reviewed from a supplied pre-pub copy and should now be available in libraries and bookstores.

[Name of the main character has been corrected.]

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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