Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

When the Stars Go Dark, by Paula McClain***-****

I have never read Paula McClain’s work before, but a number of Goodreads friends expressed enthusiasm about her novels, so I decided to see what the excitement was about. I came away a little underwhelmed, but nevertheless, thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Anna Hart, and she’s a missing persons detective in San Francisco. A tragedy has sent her running off to lick her wounds, and the bulk of the story is dark and brooding in tone. Then a missing persons case appears that bears striking similarity to one she was confronted with many years ago, and she becomes a dog on the hunt. There’s a bit of magical realism sprinkled in, things she “just knows” that help her solve the case.

Here is a note I wrote during the first half of the book, and it effectively sums up how I felt for most of the story:

“This is one of those stories where the first person narrator bobs and weaves, trying to tell us a few things while withholding all sorts of important, motivating events in her past. It’s getting tiresome, and I want her to just fucking spit it out so that we can move on.”

I suspect that if McClain had used a lighter hand with the veiled references, mentioning them less frequently and then returning to them later, I might have had a more charitable viewpoint.

As it stands, I wouldn’t call this a bad novel, just not a great one. If you are a fan of her earlier work, you may love this book just as much. But if you haven’t read McClain before and are about to lay down your money for just one book within this genre, I advise you to choose something else.

Fox Creek, by William Kent Krueger*****

I’d been in a reading slump, with most of my reading carrying an element of obligation; I love reviewing except when I don’t. Something had poked a hole in my reservoir of joyful discovery, and all the juice was leaking out. William Kent Krueger’s new entry in the Cork O’Connor series, Fox Creek, put a stop to all that. I found myself looking for extra openings in my day, craving the chance to bury myself in this absorbing mystery. I haven’t felt this great about a galley since last winter.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review.

The story is set way up north in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, in the tiny community of Aurora. Cork, our protagonist, has left law enforcement and instead runs a diner, hiring himself out as a private investigator when the opportunity arises, which doesn’t happen often. When a man comes to the diner and asks Cork to help find his wife, Cork says he’ll think about it. Meanwhile, Dolores, the wife in question, is engaging in a sweat ritual out in the woods where the ancient and very wise Ojibwe healer Henry Meloux lives. It turns out that Cork’s would-be client is not her husband, and she doesn’t know him at all. He’s got a hidden agenda, alrighty, and he’s brought some rented thugs along to make his chore easier. Now there are two tasks: the first is to hide Dolores, and the second is to find out who these guys are and why they want her so much. Meanwhile, Cork’s wife, Rainy, guides Dolores deep into the woods near the Boundary Waters; Henry joins them. What follows is one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read recently. I have a hunch that Cork will be okay, since killing him would also kill the series, but the others—Henry, Rainy, and Dolores—might make it out, or they might not.

I was about to say that this is character-based fiction, so well rounded are the main characters, but the setting is resonant and important to the characters and the plot. All told, this is the way a novel is supposed to work, with strong characters and settings that make the plot believable and urgent. And as always happens when I read Krueger, I also learn some things about the setting, and about Ojibwe culture and history. (His depiction of the art of disappearing and eluding pursuers reminds me a little bit of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, but that’s all the two series have in common, apart from genre.)

This is the 18th book in the series. Can you dive in, right here right now?  Emphatically, yes! I began with the prequel to the series, which came out last year, and I loved it so much that I went to the library to check out the first book in the series—and then, I found it disappointing, because over the course of this long series, Krueger’s skill has increased, so the first book, Iron Lake, is decent, but nowhere near as brilliant as his more recent work. Now I look forward to more of this series, but always going forward, never back.

This riveting novel will be available to the public on August 23, 2022. If you love this genre, you should get this book and read it—or better still, preorder it right now. You won’t be sorry.

Buried in a Good Book, by Tamara Berry****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

I’ve been enjoying Berry’s Eleanor Wilde series, which I read and reviewed from the first book forward; when I found this one, Buried in a Good Book, the start of a brand new series, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Poisoned Pen Press for the review copy.

I’m a bit skeptical of novels that feature the words book, library, reading, bookstore and such because obviously, potential buyers are likely to get all warm and fuzzy-feeling just seeing the title. It’s a soft landing, that’s for sure, marketing books and book-related topics to booklovers; and then I wonder if the author is just too lazy to take on something more challenging. But every time Berry embraces the obvious, it turns out to be with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, and by the end of the book I am laughing out loud. That holds true for this one as well.

Tess Harrow is newly divorced, and her adolescent daughter, Gertrude is heartbroken, because her father has more or less ghosted on her. When an elderly relative dies and leaves his cabin and his hardware store to Tess, it seems like an omen. She’ll get her girl out of Seattle and the heartbreak she’s experienced there; get off the grid, more or less, and enjoy Nature. Yikes.

Be careful what you wish for!

The day is nearly over when they pull up to the cabin, a fixer if ever there was one; Tess knew it might be rugged, but she didn’t know that the lovely little pond out back would be fully stocked with body parts, too. And whereas some might be daunted by such an occurrence, she looks at all of it as excellent material for her next bestselling thriller.

This novel is different from the Ellie Wilde mysteries in that we are more than half into it before the author moves in for the laughs. Just as I conclude that this time Berry is playing it straight, something happens—no, I will NOT tell you what—and I am guffawing and snorting, neither of which is becoming while one is eating lunch, but it simply cannot be helped. Berry is a sly one, all right. My notes say, “I never knew metacognition could be so damn funny.”

I enjoy everything she does here, and the fact that it’s set in my own stomping grounds of Washington State makes me love it all the better. Recommended to any reader that is ready for a good story and a good laugh. It’s for sale now.

Every Cloak Rolled in Blood, by James Lee Burke***-****

James Lee Burke is an icon, a Grand Master who’s written mystery novels, along with the occasional work of historical fiction, since the 1960s. Now he is 85 years old, and he recently lost his beloved daughter, Pamala. This novel is a tribute to her.

My thanks to go Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Every Cloak Rolled in Blood is the fourth in the Holland Family saga. Our protagonist is Aaron Broussard. He is an 85 year old novelist who has recently lost his daughter, Fannie Mae. He feels a “loneliness that is almost unbearable.” He tells us,

“I will not accept my daughter’s death. I will find a way to pull her back through the veil or untether myself and lie down in the bottom of a boat that has no oars and float down the Columbia and into the Pacific, where she will be waiting for me somewhere behind the sun.”

There’s a horrifying passage in which he places the barrel of his gun in his mouth; but he doesn’t go through with it, and later tells us that he believes he will not be permitted to join her if he leaves this world by his own hand.

The story commences with a young man vandalizing Aaron’s barn. Aaron recalls some local cops being unnecessarily nasty to Fannie Mae, so instead of turning the boy over to the cops, he makes a deal with him to have the kid work off the damage. There are other remarks laced in here and there that give a nod to our current national state of affairs regarding police brutality, and I appreciate these.

In fact, the story is laced with a number of social justice issues, and Burke is, as usual, on the side of the angels each time; foremost is the horrific manner in which indigenous people of the Northern Rockies have been treated by the U.S. government, and continue to be.

Over his last few novels, Burke has increased the amount of supernatural content in his work. For decades this aspect of his work was muted, smoldering as a part of the general ambience of the story. He’s always used the occasional Biblical reference, occasionally also borrowing from Greek mythology. In A Private Cathedral, a recent Robicheaux novel—the series that has met with the greatest public acclaim and for good reason—he included a scene that could not be perceived as anything other than supernatural. In fact, it is one in which both the protagonist and his lovable sidekick, Clete Purcel, witness the same event, so there can be no supposing it’s all in the protagonist’s head. It was brilliantly conceived and executed. Unfortunately, this book is not of the same caliber.

I wrestled a great deal with my rating and review; a large part of me thought that when a beloved novelist is in his eighties and has recently lost a child, I should just give him the five stars. Yet another part of me, the part that won the internal debate, feels that to do so is unworthy of the respect this author has earned. It would be patronizing to say this is a great book when I am so ambivalent about it. So I’m playing it straight here. The supernatural aspect, as it is used here, overwhelms this story and damages it organizationally. It also causes the pacing to lag a bit. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not up to Burke’s usual standard.

But the aspect that bothers me most is the way the younger women in the story—not just one, mind you, but two—cannot wait, apparently, to get Aaron in the sack. Sister Ginny isn’t a good person, but she tries to seduce him anyway. Ruby Spotted Horse is a good, honorable woman, that rarest of all things: an ethical cop. She’s in her thirties, but when Aaron comes onto her, she doesn’t even hesitate. We learn that she was raising her niece, who died, and there’s a clumsy passage in which Aaron wonders aloud if Ruby is really up for a relationship with him given his age, but she assures him that they are bound together by their mutual losses.

Right. Whatever.

There are many lovely moments in this novel, all of them owned by Fannie Mae. There is such clear, obvious affection in the descriptions that I am a little surprised the pages don’t glow.

The denouement, a mighty struggle involving the living and the dead, leaves me shaking my head, though. And when one of the latter, an evil spirit representing a horrible cavalry officer that once lived and killed in the vicinity, tells Aaron, “Pardon me for saying this, but you’re not the good father you think you are,” I want to sit right down and cry.

This book is recommended to diehard Burke fans, and to anyone that needs a grief book.

Fifty-Four Pigs, by Philipp Schott***-****

3.75 stars, rounded upward.

Fifty-Four Pigs is the first in the Dr. Bannerman vet mystery series, set in a tiny town in Manitoba, Canada. My thanks go to Net Galley and ECW for the audio review copy. This book is for sale now.

Peter Bannerman is a quirky guy, a rural veterinarian with particular tastes and a fierce loyalty to his friends. When his good buddy Tom’s barn is torched in the middle of the night, killing all 54 of his pigs and leaving behind a mysterious human corpse, the Mounties want to question him, but he’s nowhere to be found. Has Tom been killed? Kidnapped? Perhaps he’s on the run, panic-stricken. Peter is eager to try out his amateur sleuthing skills on this case; Kevin, his brother-in-law as well as the local law enforcer, is equally eager that he should not. Yet, Peter is concerned that his friend, whom he knows to be a decent, peaceable soul, could never commit murder, and who surely wouldn’t harm his own pigs. If he doesn’t clear Tom’s name, who will?

This novel is a cozy mystery, despite all the dead porkers (about whom there is blessedly little detail.) It’s humorous in places, and is already building a budding fan base. I love Peter’s dogs, Merry and Pippin; the latter goes just about everywhere with him, and is helpful when push comes to shove. Some of the vet cases make me snicker out loud; I’m gardening as I listen, and hope the neighbors won’t think I’ve lost my mind, all alone and cackling in my lettuce bed.

As for me, I find the first half to be a bit on the slow side, with more extraneous details that aren’t directly relevant to the story than I would prefer. However, I usually am not a cozy mystery lover, either. The second half of the story ramps up the suspense and the intrigue, and when Bannerman heads out to the ice fishermen’s shacks with a storm in the immediate forecast, it’s impossible to put this book down.

The audio is performed by actor Miles Meili, and I find his narrative to be an acquired taste; he tends to sound wryly amused even during the serious parts of the story, and during the first half, I wish wholeheartedly for a print version to refer to. However, once the excitement begins, I can’t think about anybody except poor Peter, who’s out there in that raging storm, and so Mr. Meili’s stylized delivery no longer distracts me.   

The ending is hilarious.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, and I do lean toward the print version, but if you are an audio-or-nothing reader, go ahead and get it in the form you love best.

Overboard, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is one of my all-time favorite writers; I’ve been reading her Victoria Warshawski detective novels for most of my adult life. Paretsky is one of four living authors to have received both the Grand Masters Award from the Mystery Writers of America and Cartier Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She, together with the late Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, have pioneered the image of women detectives in fiction, departing from the femme fatale of yesteryear who could only reveal the truth by using her sexuality to coax disclosures from men, instead creating capable women professionals that can ferret out the truth using their brains and bulldog persistence. A sympathetic cop friend tells Vic, “You’re a pit bull, Warshawski. You’ll go into the ring with anyone, as long as they’re at least three times your size.”

My thanks go to Net Galley and William Morrow for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

If I knew nothing of this author and her scrappy detective, the first line in the book would have reeled me in: “It was Mitch who found the girl.” As it is, I already know that Mitch is one of the two dogs she shares with her elderly neighbor friend, Mr. Contreras, and I feel as if I am greeting an old comrade.

The girl in question is in bad shape, and she doesn’t speak. For a while her identity is a mystery. Vic would be happy to offload her to medical professionals and get back to her own life; she’s got a lot of clients, and Lotty, her doctor friend that serves as a mother-figure in Vic’s life, is urging her to investigate the rash of attacks on the local synagogue. She doesn’t need more work.

But the cops—generally not friends of Vic’s at the best of times—are ready to haul Vic in. In fact, given their track record, Vic is amazed at the attention the girl is getting. All manner of monied movers and shakers show intense interest in the girl, and it makes Vic suspicious.

She’s right.

A sixteen year old boy comes to her office, asking her to look into a dicey situation involving his father. He believes his dad is in danger, and his parents won’t tell him anything. And so, there’s this kiddo, and there’s the girl: “Two teens, two life-threatening secrets—I have to assume they’re connected somewhere, somehow.”

She’s right again.

Before we know it, her apartment and office have been searched and bugs are left; her phone is being tracked; and Vic has to resolve the case in order to get her life back. She’s jumping in the cold river to elude capture, hiding in the least likely places, and keeping the kids safe from the forces that would harm them. Her attorney chuckles that “You get in over your head faster than Houdini in a water tank.”

He’s right, too.

When I opened this galley, I was already reading a handful of others that I liked, and figured I’d put this one into the rotation, but as often happens when I read Paretsky, everything else sat untouched until I’d torn through this book feverishly, as if the lives of Vic, her clients, and Chicago’s working class depended upon it.

Highly recommended to those that love strong detective fiction; feminists; and champions of the working class.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich*****

I wasn’t able to get a galley this time, and so I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This turned out to be the best possible way to read it, because Erdrich narrates it herself.

The Sentence is set in Minneapolis during the pandemic, from November 2019 to November 2020. It starts with the world’s most hilarious crime, one which sends our protagonist, Tookie, to prison; however, most of the meat of the story takes place once she’s out again. Tookie develops a love of writing (“with murderous intent,”) while she’s incarcerated, and so, once she is released, what more natural place is there for her to look for work, than a bookstore? But this bookstore is special. It’s haunted.

Tookie’s story is wrapped around a number of social issues and current events; most prominently, of course, is that of American Indians’ rights; this is the time and place of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, and so the demonstrations of outraged citizens are folded into the novel as well. And of course, this is not one bit funny.

I came to read Erdrich late in the game, when The Night Watchman, which won the Pulitzer, came out in 2020. That one novel persuaded me that from now on, I would read every blessed thing Erdrich writes. The Sentence strengthens this resolution.

Highly recommended.

City of the Dead, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

The Alex Delaware series began in 1985 with the publication of When the Bough Breaks, and it’s been going strong ever since. City of the Dead is number 37, and in many ways, its style is closer to the original than more recent editions, and I consider this a good thing. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is available for purchase today.

The story begins with a moving van, and two drivers looking to beat that nasty Los Angeles traffic by starting early. They’re making their way through an upscale residential neighborhood when something hurtles toward them in the dark, and the van makes a sickening crunch as it rolls over it. It’s a man, clad in his birthday suit alone; nobody can see the face anymore, because that’s where the wheels went. Once it becomes clear that the man was already dead when he was tossed into the street, Detective Lieutenant Milo Sturgis is called in. Milo is a homicide cop; Alex Delaware, our protagonist, is a child psychologist as well as Milo’s best friend. Milo often consults with Alex—sometimes officially, sometimes not—when a case has tricky psychological contours.

There are two threads to our plot. The first is the aforementioned corpse under the van; a small trail of blood leads the police to the house from which it came, where they find another body, that of the woman that lived there. There are all sorts of twists and turns; the woman turns out to be someone Alex knows slightly from a case in which he testified, but the man proves much harder to identify.  The second thread is more straightforward, a custody case he’s been asked to evaluate for the court. Ultimately, there is some overlap between the two threads, and this is not something I can recall seeing in other books in the series. It’s very well done.

One thing I often forget between Delaware novels is how funny Kellerman can be. In this case, the story unfolds fast, and it isn’t until about the 70 percent mark that the humor is interjected. Delaware and Sturgis are interviewing a couple of enormous bodyguards, and the scene makes me snicker out loud. The pacing never flags, and there is a lot of dialogue that crackles and makes the pages turn

There are two elements I’ve complained about in recent Delaware novels. The first is the sordid stuff; kinky sex that comes off as a bit seedy and leaves me with a sour gut. None of that this time! I’m so pleased. The second is the unrealistic elements in which Alex does way too much cop stuff for a civilian. There have been times, in other books, where Alex tackles bad guys, or is given a Kevlar vest, and when that happens, the magic is compromised. It makes me think about the author, because I’ve stopped believing 100 percent in the characters. Again, that is scaled way back here. In fact, there’s one instance where Alex suggests that he be the one to entice a suspect into giving up a coffee cup or something else containing DNA, and Milo shuts that down. It’s not necessary, and they’re not doing that.

The last several Delaware novels have been four stars from me, because although I did enjoy them, the elements that I just mentioned kept me from going all in. This time I feel everything was exactly right. You can jump in if you’re new to the series, but once you do, you’ll want to go back for the others. Highly recommended.

Psycho by the Sea, by Lynne Truss*****

Lynne Truss is hilarious, but with this fourth installment of the Constable Twitten series, she has outdone herself. My thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for the review copy. This book is riotously funny, and it’s for sale now.

Truss first came on my radar with her monstrously successful nonfiction grammar primer, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. A decade later I began reviewing, and one of my first reviews was for Cat Out of Hell, and later, the first in the Constable Twitten series, A Shot in the Dark, followed by the second, The Man That Got Away. I somehow missed the review copy for the third, Murder by Milk Bottle, which I discovered when I received the review copy for this fourth in the series; after sulking for a bit, I took myself to Seattle Bibliocommons and checked it out so that I’d be up to date when I began reading this one. It proved to be a good idea.

I tell you all this so you’ll see why I thought I had this author figured out. She had proven to have a distinctive, rather odd fiction writing style, which began in a sort of corny, groaning, oh-my-God-is-this-the-best-you-can-do style, but then sneakily grew better and funnier until by the second half, I’d be laughing my butt off. So as I open Psycho by the Sea, I have fortified myself to give Truss a minute or two to warm up. It will be funny, I am sure, but probably not just yet.

Surprise! This time, Truss had me laughing right out of the gate.

For the uninitiated, this satirical series is set in Brighton, a coastal resort town in England, in the 1950s. Our protagonist, Constable Twitten, is brilliant but irritating. He joins a small force that consists of Chief Inspector Steine, who has, until recently, been more interested in boosting tourism by pretending that Brighton has no crime, than in breaking up the formidable organized crime gang that runs amok, than in solving any of the crimes that have been committed. That was true until the last installment, when he inadvertently covered himself in glory and is now basking in the limelight, some of it literal as he is invited to speak on television or receive yet another award for his cleverness and courage. We also have Sergeant Brunswick, who would solve crimes gladly if he weren’t so everlastingly stupid; instead, he yearns to go undercover, even when there is no earthly purpose in it; when he does, he always manages to be shot in the leg at least once.

By now the readers know that the cleaning lady in charge of the station is a criminal mastermind. Mrs. Groynes is part cleaner, part den mother, and part overlord, and she makes herself loved and indispensable by showing up with cake, providing constant cups of tea, and listening to the cops to make sure that her operation is nowhere close to being discovered. In the first of the series, Twitten discovers what Groynes has been up to, but not a single, solitary cop or civilian will believe him. He’s new, after all, and they’ve known Palmyra Groynes forever. Mrs. Groynes, a crime lord? Don’t be ridiculous!

Now it seems that Palmyra has a competitor, someone that wants her turf and is willing to mow down her operatives in order to take it. I never would have seen this coming, and it’s an ingenious development. Old characters come back, and a new one, a formidable secretary sent down from London, turns the cop shop into a much more legitimate enterprise, and also sends Groynes packing. Even Twitten wants her back.

My favorite moment is when Twitten is being held at gunpoint, and he is so pedantic and obnoxious that he bores his assailant out of shooting him.

Not only does this book hit my funny bone right away, it also features a more complex, well balanced plot, and more character development. Until now, I had assumed no real character development was being attempted, because it’s satire, satire, satire, but now, it appears one can do both, and Truss does both bally splendidly.

“Flipping hedgehogs!” You have to get this book, but it will be more enjoyable if you read the other three first. Highly recommended.