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HELL BENT by Gregg Hurwitz: Book Review

Hell Bent is the third in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, and it’s the most sensitive and exciting one so far.  Yes, those two adjectives can be in the same sentence, and it’s a mark of the author’s skill that this mystery is simultaneously both thrilling and poignant.

Evan Smoak is the name the novel’s protagonist know him by, but in his professional life he was called Orphan X.  Evan had been taken from a group home when he was twelve and groomed to be a professional assassin embedded down deep in the most secret layers of the Department of Defense.  But Evan went rogue after spending years in the Department, determined to use his unique skill set to help those without other resources to right the wrongs done to them.

He has a special phone number that he always answers, but the call he receives now is the most personal one he has ever received.  It’s from his mentor, Jack Johns the man  who rescued him from the group home, and his answer to Evan’s automatic response to the call–Do you need my help?–is Yes.   Then the line goes dead.  The call starts Evan on a journey to avenge the death of his friend, a journey that will bring him face to face with the man determined to kill him, Charles Van Sciver.

Bu deciphering an elaborate series of coded messages, Evan uncovers Jack’s last request.  It’s stark, with no explanation, just GET PACKAGE followed by an address in Oregon.  And when Evan arrives at the address, nothing is at all what he expected.  Rather, the package is a teenage girl who attacks him and knocks him to the floor.

The girl, Joey, is another of the Orphans trained to be an assassin by Van Sciver.  However, she “washed out,” to use her words, and now she is on his “kill” list.  Now both Evan and Joey are in his sights, and he is drawing ever closer to them.

Like Gregg Hurwitz’s previous two novels featuring Orphan X, Hell Bent is a riveting page turner.  The odds that Evan and Joey are facing are formidable, to understate the situation considerably, all the more so because the reader knows something they don’t.  Although Van Sciver is the head of the group desperately trying to find the two and kill them, he is actually taking orders from someone higher up.  And that person is even more ruthless than he is.

Terrifying and spellbinding are almost insufficient to describe the events in Hell BentThe author is taking his readers on a wild and dangerous ride through the underbelly of a United States government agency.  It’s not pretty, but it makes for terrific reading.

You can read more about Gregg Hurwitz at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

Another year has passed, even more quickly than those before, and I’ve just celebrated my eighth anniversary writing Marilyn’s Mystery ReadsThis past year has been an especially exciting one for me, as I taught one mystery course in the fall and will begin leading another next month.

Last March I was asked to teach a course on crime novels to begin in September at BOLLI, the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA.  I loved teaching WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND last semester.  There were 20 students in the class, each with her/his point of view, and the discussions were always vibrant and interesting.  When I was asked to create another course for the spring term, I happily accepted the invitation.  My new course, which begins on March 5th, is called WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES.

This semester will take us farther afield, as we cross the United States and view crime in various locations.  If you’d like to be an armchair traveler and join the members of the class as we discuss these novels, here they are:  The Ritual Bath (Orthodox Judaism) by Faye Kellerman–California; Invisible City (Orthodox Judaism) by Julia Dahl–New York City; The Bishop’s Wife (Mormon) by Mette Ivie Harrison–Utah; No Witness but the Moon (Hispanic) by Susan Chazin–upstate New York; A Killing Gift (Chinese-American) by Leslie Glass–New York City; Among the Wicked (Amish) by Linda Castillo–Ohio; Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (African-American) by Barbara Neely–Maine; and Dance Hall of the Dead (Native American) by Tony Hillerman–New Mexico.

Our March 5th class will be an overview of the genre, so our first discussion of a specific novel, The Ritual Bath, will be on March 12th.  The books listed above will be read in order during the following weeks, with the exception of two Mondays when there are no classes–April 2nd and April 16th–and we’ll conclude the class on May 21st with our thoughts about what we’ve read.  You’re welcome to read along with us as we tour the United States in search of murder, mystery, and mayhem!

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

Marilyn

THE DIME by Kathleen Kent: Book Review

What happens when you transplant a tough, lesbian, third-generation detective from Brooklyn to Dallas?  You get a woman who knows how to handle sexual harassment, violent drug dealers, and uppity real estate brokers, that’s what happens.

Elizabeth Rhyzyk, known to all as Betty, comes from a family with deep roots in the New York City Police Department.  Her grandfathers, father, uncle, and brother were all members of the Department, but she is the first woman in the family to join.  She’s compiled an outstanding record of arrests, but when the last member of her family dies she moves to Dallas, the home of her lover Jackie’s family.

Not that Jackie’s mother, grandmother, aunts, and uncles welcome this Northern transplant.  They blame her for corrupting Jackie into this “alternative” lifestyle, and Betty is finding it as difficult to be with them as it is to deal with the influx of drugs that is creating a war between the homegrown gangsters and the Mexican cartels, with bodies littering the Texas landscape.

A carefully planned surveillance by Betty’s narcotics team is interrupted by a well-meaning woman, and it ends with three people dead–the woman, the drug dealer the detectives are trying to arrest, and a local cop who has nothing to do with the anticipated arrest.  It leaves Betty and the other members of the team struggling to deal with the violent ending to what should have been a peaceful major drug bust.

The tentacles of the drug trade are nothing new in the city, but the violence is beyond what the Dallas police have been used to.  Betty is familiar with hazards at work, but now it’s becoming personal.  While she’s out jogging in the early morning, someone comes into the double-locked apartment that she and Jackie share and leaves a bizarre souvenir on Betty’s side of the bed, all without waking her sleeping partner.  And things escalate from there.

Kathleen Kent has written a spectacular first novel.  I’m a little late in coming to The Dime, since it’s already been nominated for an Edgar® for the Best Novel by the Mystery Writers of America, but I totally agree with the nomination.  The writing is excellent, the plot original, and the characters are great creations.  Betty’s Dallas narcotics team is totally believable, as is her relationship with Jackie.  The reality of creating a loving homosexual relationship in a not-very-accepting community is made clear, when even something as mundane as trying to place an order in a restaurant can prove to be a difficult experience.

You can read more about Kathleen Kent at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

FINAL GIRLS by Riley Sager: Book Review

Imagine what life is like for Quincy Carpenter, the only survivor of a brutal attack that leaves six of her college dorm mates dead.  Ten years have gone by, but there’s not a day that she doesn’t think about that night.  And now someone has come into her life to bring it back into even sharper focus.

As Final Girls opens, Quincy is one of three girls who have been given that name by the media.  Each of the girls, actually women now, were the sole survivors of three different murderous attacks.  Lisa Milner’s took place at her college sorority house; Samantha Boyd was working at a motel when three guests were killed; and Quincy was with her friends at the remote Pine Cottage to celebrate the birthday of one of them.

Quincy has done her best to move on with her life.  She has a live-in boyfriend, she is the author of the Baking is Better than Therapy website, and she is still friends with the man who rescued her from the Cottage.  After Quincy ran screaming from the Cottage into the woods, it was Coop, a member of the local police force, who found her and took her to the hospital.  And he’s been a part of her life ever since.

Now Coop calls and asks her to meet him at their usual place.  Whatever he wants to talk about must be serious, Quincy thinks, because it’s a three hour drive from his home to Manhattan.  And it is serious–one of the three Final Girls, Lisa Milner, has been found dead by her own hand, according to local police.

Of course Lisa’s death brings out the media in full force, camped in front of Quincy’s condo.  When she returns from a jog in Central Park, hoping that the crowd has dispersed, she spots a familiar face among the reporters.  At first she can’t remember who the woman is, although judging from the outfit she’s wearing, she must write for some type of alternative paper or blog, Quincy thinks.  But that turns out not to be the case.  In fact the woman with the raven black hair, combat boots, fishnet stockings, blood red lips, and goth eyeliner is Samantha Boyd, the other surviving Final Girl.

Both Jeff, Quincy’s almost fiancé, and Coop, her detective/father figure, are suspicious of Sam’s motives in coming to Quincy immediately after Lisa’s death.  Quincy herself is unsure about Sam, but there’s a connection between them that she can’t ignore.  So she doesn’t, to her peril.

Final Girls is a thriller that will keep you reading faster and faster until you reach the unexpected ending.  Riley Sager has written a terrific page-turner.

Riley Sager is the pseudonym of an editor and graphic designer.  You can read more about him at his website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

THE WANTED by Robert Crais: Book Review

It’s not often, in fact it’s almost never, that I finish a mystery and think, that was beautiful Exciting, thrilling, suspenseful–those are my go-to adjectives for outstanding mysteries.  And The Wanted is all of those.  But beautiful is what I thought when I turned the last page of Robert Crais’ latest novel.  Robert Crais has always been one of my favorite authors, and this book proves once again that he’s absolutely one of the best writers in the mystery genre.

Elvis Cole is called to the home of Devon Connor over concerns she has about her teenage son Tyson.  He’s often had problems in school, difficulties making friends and handling the work, but on the whole he has been a good son.  Now, however, Devon knows Tyson has things he shouldn’t–expensive clothing, a Rolex watch, and several thousand dollars in cash in his room–and he has become extremely secretive as well.  There’s absolutely no way he can afford the clothing and watch, and there can’t be any explanation for him to have this much money, Devon tells Cole.

Devon thinks the problem started at his new school.  He met a girl there, whom he won’t introduce to his mother, and she introduced him to a slightly older man; the three of them are apparently spending a lot of time together.  Elvis agrees to look into where the Rolex came from, which seems the simplest way to start investigating; it turns out that it was stolen, along with a lot of other valuables, from a household in Beverly Hills.

Robert Crais’ writing, as always, keeps the reader engrossed throughout.  Over the years readers have gotten to know Cole and his sometimes partner Joe Pike, and in The Wanted the two work as smoothly as ever to find Tyson after he leaves home, before he can make an irreversible mistake that will land him in jail or worse.

The true skill in Crais’ writing is evident in his ability to make his one-time characters come alive, people you won’t meet again in other books but will remember for a long time.  Devon, Tyson’s mother, is shown as a woman concerned about her son’s lying and apparent thievery, and as the story progresses her reactions to the danger Tyson is in are portrayed expertly and realistically.

Equally well done are Crais’ portrayals of Harvey and Stemms, the two gangsters who are also looking for Tyson.  We know from the beginning that they are stone killers, intent on their job and letting nothing stand in their way of getting what they want or what the person who hired them wants.  But there are two vignettes–one when Stemms becomes extremely upset at Harvey’s use of the word “retarded” and another that takes place in Mexico and shows the incredible musical ability that Stemms possesses–that show another side of each man, and so the reader is reluctantly made aware that in spite of their brutality they are human.  You wonder what made these two men, who are sensitive and talented in some ways, go so wrong.

And the last, short chapter of The Wanted is simply outstanding.  I know the year is just beginning, but there’s no question that this novel will be on my Best of 2018 list.

You can read more about Robert Crais at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE GLASS HOUSE by Louise Penny: Book Review

We return to Three Pines, a Quebéc village so remote that it appears on no map but not so remote that it doesn’t have its share, or more, of murder.  Once again, the quiet place where Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté of Quebéc, and his wife Reine-Marie live has become not a refuge from crime but a location filled with it.

The Glass House begins with Gamache seated on the witness stand in a murder trial.  It’s becoming obvious to the court reporters and especially to the judge that there’s something distinctly odd going on between Gamache and the crown prosecutor.  There’s a strong animosity in the questions that the prosecutor is putting to the chief inspector, and although the two men should be on the same side, it’s almost as if the attorney wants to catch his witness in some untruth or misrepresentation.

The novel goes back and forth between the courtroom and the events that precede the trial.  When the Gamaches and their friends gather for a Halloween party at the bistro in Three Pine, a figure dressed in a long black robe and a black hat appears on the town common.  Although several villagers try to speak to the person wearing the costume, they get no response.  The party continues and then breaks up, but the next morning the figure is still standing on the common.

It’s an eerie situation, but when the townspeople come to Armand for help he tells them there’s nothing he can do.  The figure, no one knows whether it’s a man or a woman, isn’t disturbing the peace in a way for which the chief inspector can arrest him/her or order him/her to leave.  No one is happy with Gamache’s answer, but the figure continues to stand on the common, visible to all.

At the same time, the Sûreté of Quebéc is dealing with its own problems, trying to overcome its history of malfeasance and corruption.  Gamache, who was brought back from retirement to command the province’s police force, is under intense scrutiny, and a media campaign is beginning throughout the province that is meant to underscore his department’s ineffectiveness in fighting crime, most particularly the drug issue.  In fact, Gamache has a plan to combat these problems and restore respect to the Sûreté, but his idea is so outrageous and dangerous that he feels compelled to keep it under wraps, with only a handful of his most trusted colleagues privy to it.

Louise Penny has written a masterful novel in The Glass House For much of the book we aren’t sure who was murdered, and we don’t know until almost the end the identity of the defendant.  We do see, however, the toll this trial and its undercurrents are taking on Gamache and his subordinates as they try to control the drugs inundating Quebéc, taking the lives of thousands in Canada and across the border in the United States.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee: Book Review

Back when there really was a British Empire, India was “the jewel in the crown.”  Its incredible mineral riches, its variety of desirable goods such as cotton and spices, and its huge population of workers all made the subcontinent the most valuable part of Great Britain’s holdings.  But times change, and in 1919 things were changing in India more quickly than could be dealt with by the ruling class.

A Rising Man opens with the arrival in Calcutta, capital of the state of Bengal, of Captain Sam Wyndham.  He’s fresh from the Great War and from London’s Metropolitan Police Force.  Devastated by death and trauma–the death of his bride just three weeks after their wedding, the deaths of his half-brother and their father during the war, as well as the injury he suffered in France–Sam jumps at the opportunity he’s offered to join the police in Calcutta, about as far from England as he can get.

Barely has he arrived than he has his first murder case.  The body of an Englishman, dressed in evening clothes but with his throat slashed, is found in the city’s native section called Black Town, a place where no respectable British citizen would go.  Even worse, the corpse is in front of a brothel, making it clear that the case will have to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity.

The body is that of Alexander MacAuley, a man of great importance in the Bengali government.  In fact, so important was MacAuley that there is a dispute over which department should take over the investigation–the Imperial Police Force or Military Intelligence–with Military Intelligence having more power.  So Sam and his two assistants, Digby and Banerjee, have only a very short time to solve the case before it’s taken from them.

In addition to the murder, Sam is dealing with another crime that may be related, although his superiors aren’t certain of that.  A mail train was stopped by a group of robbers, dacoits; a railway guard was killed but the safes on the train, usually filled with cash, were empty.  The whole set-up is strange, the train’s driver tells Sam:  it’s unusual for a train to be robbed this close to Calcutta, the guard’s murder seems pointless, and why didn’t the dacoits rob the first-class passengers if they were thwarted by the empty safes?

This novel is as rich as India itself was at the time it takes place.  There’s so much going on–the murder, the robbery, the daily buildup of tensions between the ruling British and the Indian natives, and the fight for power among the various government departments.  Added to this are Sam’s personal problems–his understandable depression about his wife’s untimely death, his increasing dependence on drugs to help control his physical and mental pain, and his newness to a culture so different from his own.

Abir Mukherjee’s debut novel is stunning in its complexity.  The plot and characters shine, and I was delighted to discover that the second book in the series, A Necessary Evil, was published earlier this year.  It’s a must read for me.

You can read more about Abir Mukherjee at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

Such a sad way for mystery fans to greet the New Year, with the death of Sue Grafton.  As a reader who has read the Kinsey Millhone series from the beginning, it’s hard to imagine that this is the end of the alphabet.

A is for Alibi was published in 1982, and although it was not Ms. Grafton’s first work, it was the first stop on her road to literary fame.  It received widespread publicity and acknowledgement as one of the earliest mystery series to feature the new type of female protagonist–independent, tough, smart, and sure enough of herself (most of the time) to believe she could make it in the mostly male world of private investigators.

Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series debuted in 1977, and that helped pave the way for Kinsey.  Right from A is for Alibi Kinsey is upfront about who she is–twice-divorced, no children, no family (although she finds relatives much later in the alphabet), unconcerned about her physical appearance but dedicated to jogging to keep herself in shape.  She gives the reader the impression of “take it or leave it,” this is who I am.

In my opinion, it was Sue Grafton’s writing style that made her a reader’s favorite.  She had a knack of drawing you into the story immediately, and you were rooting for Kinsey all the way.  Kinsey wasn’t fearless and she made mistakes and misjudgments along the way, but you felt her heart was always in the right place.

Halfway through the series, when she meets her mother’s birth family (whom she hadn’t known existed, much less that they were practically neighbors), her sense of their betrayal of her mother is so strong that you understand why she has no desire to become a part of the clan, even knowing that some benefits might come with belonging.  She feels that it would be disloyal to her late mother to forgive, or at least to forgive easily.  Kinsey is never a cardboard character simply working her way through the plot; she has feelings the reader can emphasize with and understand.

In a loving tribute to her mother, Jamie Clark wrote on Sue Grafton’s Facebook page that “as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”  Amen to that.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

THE DRY by Jane Harper: Book Review

It’s a never-ending drought, sucking the life out of the land and the people of Australia, that is described in Jane Harper’s debut novel.  Farmers are on edge, looking at their once-profitable ranches that now are barren of crops and animal feed.  Tempers are at the breaking point, waiting for the smallest event to set them off.  And when that event comes, it’s catastrophic–the murder of three family members in the town of Kiewarra.

A delivery man finds the mother first, shot dead at the entrance of her farmhouse, and calls the police.  When Sergeant Raco arrives, he hears a cry.  Following the sound to a small bedroom, he sees a toddler in her crib, and he’s thankful that she’s unhurt.  But then he looks across the hall to another bedroom and sees the dead body of a young boy, apparently the older brother in the family.

A search is started for Luke Hadler, the husband and father of the victims.  The police don’t know whether he’s the killer or another victim, but in short order they find Luke in the back of his truck, his head nearly completely destroyed by a shotgun.  At first glance it looks open-and-shut:  a father goes crazy, kills his family.  But, says Raco, there are a couple of things that don’t seem to fit.  First, Luke didn’t kill his entire family and then himself; he let his baby daughter live, which apparently is unusual when a family member goes on a killing spree.  Second, although the shotgun used in the two murders and the suicide belonged to Luke, they were filled with Remington bullets, and the only cartridges on the Hadlers’ property were Winchesters.

It’s been over twenty years since Aaron Falk, now a federal police officer, left Kiewarra, hoping and planning never to return.  But a cryptic note from Luke’s father, “Luke lied.  You lied,” brings him back to relive the events of the past.  Is the death that occurred when Aaron and Luke were teenagers the reason for the current murders?  If so, why would someone wait all this time?  If not, what is the motive for these deaths?

Aaron’s field is investigating financial fraud, not murders.  He tells this to Luke’s father, but the man doesn’t care.  Gerry Hadler doesn’t think the police are looking deeply enough into the murders, and his hold on Aaron is strong enough that Aaron promises to stay for a week to investigate.  And that decision brings the townspeople’s never-forgotten hatred of their former neighbor out in full force, pulling to the surface the suspicions about the death of Aaron’s girlfriend two decades earlier.

The Dry is the tense, suspenseful story of a small town that has never recovered from the death of one of its teenagers more than two decades ago.  Ellie Deacon was Aaron’s off-again, on-again girlfriend, and her death by drowning could never be proved as either an accident or a suicide.  Even though Aaron was never charged with any crime, the hostility of the other townspeople forced him and his father to move to Melbourne.  And there Aaron would have gladly stayed for the remainder of his life had he not received that note from Luke’s father.

You can read more about Jane Harper at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

THE MIDNIGHT LINE by Lee Child: Book Review

It’s pretty safe to say that wherever Jack Reacher goes, trouble will find him.  Even as he follows his usual random method of travel, going to a bus station and taking the first bus that leaves regardless of its direction, somehow Reacher will find himself in the middle of a situation that needs his special skills.  And a quick stop in a small town in Wisconsin proves no different.

Having just come to the end of a very brief romantic interlude–too brief to call it a relationship in any sense of the word–Reacher hops on the first bus out of Milwaukee.  It’s heading northwest, but as he has no particular destination in mind, that direction will work as well as any other.

And he would have continued on that route until the bus reached its destination except that when the bus halts for a rest stop, Reacher goes out to stretch his legs.  Passing a pawnshop, he glances in the window and sees the items one usually finds in such a store–musical instruments, small electronics, and class rings.  But a closer look at the rings shows that one of them is from West Point, Jack’s alma mater, and its size shows it belonged to a female alum.  Knowing how difficult it is to graduate from the military academy, Jack wonders what the circumstances could be that would explain the necessity of pawning an item of such personal value.

After getting the name of the person who pawned the ring, Jack finds the man, nicknamed Jimmy Rat, where the shop owner said he would be–at a nearby bar where a number of Harley-Davidsons are parked.  Jimmy is a small guy, but he’s surrounded by a group of seven men.  Jimmy refuses to tell Reacher where he got the ring, and a fight becomes imminent.  The nine men leave the bar to fight outside, and in less than five minutes only Jimmy and Jack are still standing.  Jimmy finally gives Jack the name and location where the ring came from, but that information comes with a warning.  “This is not a guy you want to meet.”  “Neither were you,” Reacher says, “but here I am anyway.”

In The Midnight Line, Reacher is not alone.  He’s joined by Terry Bramall, a former F.B.I. agent who is working for Jane Mackenzie, an Illinois woman searching for her missing sister.  In addition, there’s Gloria Nakamura, a detective in the small Rapid City, South Dakota police department that has long been aware of a criminal enterprise led by local businessman Arthur Scorpio but has been unable to prove his guilt.  Now, the search for the missing sister, the owner of the West Point ring, and the illegal activities of Scorpio will meet, and it will take the combined efforts of Reacher, Mackenzie, Bramall, and Nakamura  to bring the case to its conclusion.

As is true of all of Lee Child’s thrillers, The Midnight Line is a compulsive read.  You know that Jack Reacher will prevail in the end, that there will be violence and murders, but that Jack and the person/people he’s protecting will be saved.  But that won’t stop you from holding your breath and reading until the very last word.

You can read more about Lee Child at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

A BAKER’S DOZEN OF THE BEST BOOKS OF 2017

I started out planning on suggesting this year’s ten best books, but when I started re-reading my book review posts I came up with more than that number for my list.  Best is such a subjective word, anyway, something I learned this fall when I taught WHODUNIT?:  MURDER IN NEW ENGLAND at BOLLI (Brandeis University Lifelong Learning Institute).  In a class of twenty adults, no one mystery novel was the overwhelming choice as “best.”  In fact, one of the books that one class member picked as the best written, another picked as the most poorly written.  As I have said in the past, that’s why Howard Johnson made twenty-eight flavors.

So I prefer to say that the books I’m listing in this column are books that I am happy to recommend to any fan of the genre.  That doesn’t mean that everyone would enjoy every book assuming she/he would read them all.  It’s more that I feel that each book is extremely well written, has a plot that makes you want to read to the end, has believable characters throughout, and leaves you thinking about the novel after you’ve finished it.  Some are part of a series, others are stand-alones.  They range in location from Boston to Japan, from Stockholm to Maine.  Some feature an amateur detective, others an official member of a police force.  But what they all have in common are the attributes I mentioned above, and those make each one worth your time.

LET THE DEAD SPEAK by Jane Casey – A SINGLE SPY by William Christie – KNIFE CREEK by Paul Doiron – LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint – PULSE by Felix Francis – DARK SATURDAY by Nicci French – THE ICE BENEATH HER by Camilla Grebe – AUGUST SNOW by Stephen Mack Jones – FAST FALLS THE NIGHT by Julia Keller – SINCE WE FELL by Dennis Lehane – A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee – BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA by Nicolas Obregón – HER EVERY FEAR by Peter Swanson

The nights are long now, and in many places the temperature is cold and getting colder.  It’s the perfect time to curl up with your favorite beverage and a mystery novel that will grab hold of you and not let you go until the last page.  I suggest you try one or more of these–you won’t be disappointed.

Happy Reading and Happy Holidays!

Marilyn

NIGHTBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson: Book Review

I don’t know whether it’s the long snowy winters, the soothing hot springs, or something completely unknown, but the mysteries coming out of Iceland recently are uniformly excellent.

Ari Thór Arason is settling into his life in the small village of Siglufjördur in the northern part of the country.  Small as Siglufjördur is, it’s not as remote as it once was due to the recent construction of a tunnel bringing it closer to the capital Reykjavik.  But with that convenience come crimes that never had been part of village life before.

Ari Thór is one of the town’s two-man police force, consisting of a detective (Ari Thór) and a supervising inspector.  The previous inspector moved to Reykjavik and has been replaced by Herjølfur (many people in Iceland don’t have last names), although Ari Thór himself had hoped to be chosen for that job.  So there’s a bit of tension between the two men, although they are trying hard to work things out.

As Nightblind opens, Herjølfur is approaching an old, seemingly vacant house several miles from the center of Siglufjördur.  There’s something about the abandoned home that’s making him very uneasy, and he wonders if it is wise to investigate it by himself.  But he has no choice after receiving a call stating drug deals were going down there, as Ari Thór has been home ill with the flu for several days.

Herjølfur tries to dispel his fear by walking up to the house and shouting that he is from the police.  Even as he does so he’s aware he’s ignoring his feeling of something really wrong, but he continues onward toward the building.  And then there’s a fatal shot.

Meanwhile, Ari Thór is at home, still very much under the weather.  When the phone rings he expects it to be Herjølfur, asking whether he’ll be at work tomorrow.  Instead, it’s the inspector’s wife, telling Ari Thór that she’s been unable to reach her husband on his cell or the station and that he hadn’t slept at home the previous night.  Ari Thór drags himself into town, looking everywhere for his colleague, and when he’s unable to find him he is sure something really bad has happened.  And, of course, he’s right.

Nightblind is the second of five books in the author’s Dark Iceland series, all featuring Ari Thór.  In the prequel to the series, he is a young theology student.  But in the first book of the series, Snowblind, he has given up his studies and moved to Siglufjördur to think things out.  He has also moved away from his girlfriend Kristín and gotten involved with a village woman.  You can read my review of Snowblind here– http://www.marilynsmysteryreads.com/book-author/ragnar-jonasson.  By the time Nightblind opens, five years after the events in Snowblind, he and Kristín have cautiously reconciled and are the parents of a ten-month old son.

Ari Thór wants to continue to live in Siglufjördur and become the police department’s head, but Kristín is having second thoughts about her move there.  She’s a physician at the local hospital, obviously a much smaller facility than the one she was working at in the capital, and she’s finding herself attracted to another doctor.

Ragar Jónasson has written a spellbinding novel, with deep insights into the many conflicted characters in the book.  You can read about him at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

THE CHILD by Fiona Barton: Book Review

Who is the mother of the child whose corpse is found years after its burial?  There are four women in The Child, and each one has a story to tell.

The novel begins with Emma, a forty-something woman with a history of mental illness.  Married to a wonderful man and employed as an editor for celebrity memoirs, she constantly relives a past that threatens to overwhelm her.

Kate is a journalist at the Daily Post, a London newspaper, always looking for the next story.  A small piece from a competing paper catches her eye with its headline “Baby’s Body Found.”  She believes she has found the big scoop she is looking for in the piece about a baby’s skeleton unearthed while contractors were demolishing old houses.

Angela is getting ready for March 20th, the anniversary of the day her newborn daughter was taken from her room at the hospital, never to be seen again.  It’s been decades since the abduction, and she’s married with two other children, but of course she’s never forgotten the infant she’d had for less than twenty-four hours.

Jude is Emma’s mother, a single mother with her own emotional problems.  She and her daughter once had a close relationship, but that ended when Jude met Will and determined that he was more important to her than her own daughter.  After years of separation, the mother and daughter have reconciled, but their tenuous, tense relationship always leaves one or both unhappy or angry.

The book follows the paths of these four women over a period of a week.  The story of the Building Site Baby has grabbed Kate, and she gets permission from her reluctant editor to go to the run-down neighborhood where the corpse was found and try to interview any people still living there who had been residents at the time the baby was believed to have been buried.

The Child is Fiona Barton’s second mystery, and two of the characters appeared in The Widow as well, both in the same jobs they held in the earlier novel.  At a farewell function for a fellow journalist, Kate sees Bob Sparkes, a police detective she met while covering another story.  She tells him about her interest in the baby, and Bob is quickly drawn into the story because of his own interest in missing children.  Now, hoping for some assistance from the police, Kate is even more eager to find out the truth about the infant who has been buried for years.

Fiona Barton was a journalist in London for many years, and on her website she says that the ideas for both The Widow and The Child came from news stories she’d read.  In both novels she has taken the painful subjects of domestic abuse and child kidnapping and turned them into beautifully written, suspenseful thrillers with believable characters whose painful secrets and emotional problems will grip the reader from the first page.

You can read more about Fiona Barton at her website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

PULSE by Felix Francis: Book Review

In May I wrote an About Marilyn column regarding families with more than one mystery author.  Naturally I included the late Dick Francis and his son Felix.  Dick Francis wrote more than thirty mysteries, he and Felix collaborated on four, and after his father’s death Felix has written seven more, including the latest, Pulse.

Felix Francis’ main character, Chris Rankin, is an emergency room physician suffering from, and denying, her own medical and emotional issues.  Married with a loving husband, twin teenage sons, and a challenging but rewarding professional life, she nevertheless is dealing with depression and anorexia.

A man is wheeled into the emergency room, unconscious and with a weak but rapid heartbeat, where she is on duty.  He was found in a stall in the men’s room of the nearby Cheltenham Racecourse, hours after the last race.  After running various tests that prove inconclusive, Chris orders an injection of adenosine, hoping to restart the man’s heart back into a normal rate; while she is called away to another emergency, the man dies, and an autopsy shows he had ingested a huge amount of cocaine immediately before his death.

His death feeds into all of Chris’ vulnerabilities and causes another of her all-too-frequent panic attacks.  She’s been seeing a psychiatrist, but so far nothing has been able to relieve her feeling of professional inadequacy that has led, in turn, to feelings of personal worthlessness and body dysmorphic disorder.  She knows she should eat, but her mind is telling her that bad things–her husband leaving her, their sons having an accident, their house burning down–will happen if she eats even a bite, so she doesn’t.

In the midst of these overpowering emotional problems, Chris becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the man who died under her care.  She talks to the local police, who believe that “death by misadventure” is the right call; their consensus is that he either committed suicide or else accidentally overdosed.  Chris believes neither answer is right, but her stubborn insistence on looking into the case overwhelms her already shaky mental state, and she is sent to a mental hospital to recover, with the possibility of losing her medical license after her release.

In addition to being a first-rate mystery, Pulse is a close look into Chris’ denial of her deteriorating physical and mental condition.  Her desire to get better and return to her life in the emergency room and to normal family life is overwhelmed by the voice in her head demanding that she not eat.  It’s a terrifying portrait of how the forces of mental illness can destroy a person from within.

Felix Francis continues his string of outstanding novels with Pulse The plot is first-rate, and all the characters, including Chris, her husband, their sons, and the various men who run or race at Cheltenham will keep you engrossed until the last page.

You can read more about Felix Francis at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

 

 

SULFUR SPRINGS by William Kent Krueger: Book Review

A stranger in a strange land is how Cork O’Connor feels when he finds himself far from his beloved Minnesota woods, thrust into the desert of southern Arizona.

Cork and his bride, Rainy, have known each other for several years but married only a few months ago.  The first time Cork met his wife’s son and daughter was at their wedding, and Cork admits to himself that he doesn’t have strong feelings toward them.

But when Rainy gets a garbled message left on her cell phone from her son, saying that he’s killed a man, Cork and Rainy are thrust into a search for Peter that leads them into a deadly web of international crime.

The couple leave for Arizona the following morning, and on the trip Rainy tells Cork that there are many important things he doesn’t know about her, one being that if her son did kill someone in Arizona, he’s not the only one in his family who has done that.  Obviously that’s a major secret, and it turns out to be not the only one that she has kept from Cork.

Peter had gone to Arizona to recover from an addiction to pain medication, the result of a sports injury.  After he was clean, the Goodman Center, an alcohol and drug treatment facility, hired him, and as far as his mother and stepfather knew, he was still on their staff.  But after they arrive in Tucson and drive to the Center, they discover that Peter hasn’t worked there in over a year.

The Center’s director tells them that she believes he has been working at a vineyard owned by Jayne and Frank Harris, so Cork and Rainy head to the vineyard’s location in Sulfur Springs.  The Harrises acknowledge that Peter is employed there but tell Cork and Rainy that although he’s been an extremely reliable worker, he hasn’t been at work that day.  And visits to the Sulfur Springs post office and police station turn up no further information on the missing man.

The issue of immigrants trying to enter the United States from Mexico ties into the racism faced by Rainy, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, when a sheriff stops Rainy and Cork while they’re driving and examines her closely to make certain she actually is the Native American she says she is and not someone trying to get into the country from Mexico.  As Rainy says to her husband after they continue on their way, “If I was white, he wouldn’t have taken a second look at me.”

Cork is a former sheriff and a quarter Native American, and he brings to the search for his stepson his law background, his feelings about racism, and his love for his new wife.   This is a masterful novel, with issues that resonate all-too-clearly in today’s world.  There’s a lot going on–drug addiction, illegal aliens, Mexican drug cartels, blended families, and racism–with each part adding to the whole.

I’ve reviewed two of William Kent Kruger’s earlier books, Trickster’s Point and Ordinary Grace, the latter the winner of the 2014 Edgar for Best Novel.  You can read more about the author at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.