Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stephenson****

When life gets you down, it’s time to kick back and relax with a nice little book about multiple murders. Benjamin Stevenson’s nifty little mystery is just the ticket. This book is for sale now.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy.

Once in a while, a novelist will disarm his audience by speaking to them directly; this is known as breaking the fourth wall. Stevenson doesn’t just chip a corner of plaster; he comes in with a wrecking ball, because that’s just the kind of writer he is. The product is as funny as the title. Each chapter is devoted to a family member, and some of them get more than one.

The premise is this: narrator Ernest Cunningham is invited to a family reunion at an out of the way mountain lodge, a ski resort in the dead of winter. The event is timed to coincide with Ernest’s brother, Michael’s, release from prison, where he was sent for…well. You know. And as is true with all families, there’s all kinds of baggage, both literal and figurative; there are grudges, guilt, and oh yes, secrets. So many secrets!

The first body turns up in less than twenty-four hours. Is there a mass murderer at large, perhaps the one in the news dubbed “The Black Tongue?” If so, is s/he a Cunningham?

The whole story is told in a jocular, familiar tone, explaining to the reader what the rules are when writing a murder mystery. He assures us that he is a thoroughly reliable narrator, which immediately makes us wonder, because if so, why bring it up? Most narrators are reliable. So…?

I enjoy reading this thing, and am impressed at how well the author juggles a sizeable collection of characters. It doesn’t take me long to straighten out who everyone is, and this may be because we are apprised of who is annoyed with whom over what, fairly quickly. When he brings in reasons why certain people avoid each other, it helps me recall who they are.

There are two things I would change if I could. The book would be even funnier if he cut back on the side remarks to the reader long enough to let us forget he’s doing it; then, when it surfaced again, it would get more laughs. I note that toward the end, he tells us—in another side reference—that his editor has suggested he pare back some of the chatty parts, and that he isn’t going to do it. That makes me laugh too, because I have been harboring the same notion.

The other thing that I’d change is a detail that distracts me. The author refers early on, and then another time later, to a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, but he never tells us what it is; possibly the detail that distracts me is the thing he refers to. Early on in the story—so probably not a spoiler—Ernest is badly injured, to the point where one of his hands isn’t usable. Yet throughout the story, when he could go to a hospital, he doesn’t do so, and he doesn’t even address the possibility. People come; people go. Yet there’s Ernest, with an oven mitt stuck over one hand to protect it, and nobody suggests he hop into town and have it looked at. Toward the end of the story there’s a general reference to the Cunningham stubbornness preventing family members from leaving the reunion, but it doesn’t hold water with me.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book. While I was reading it, I was reading several others, but this one became the go-to at lunchtime and whenever I had a spare minute, and so I recommend this book to those looking for a light, amusing read.

The Furies, by John Connolly*****

The Furies is #20 in the Charlie Parker detective series, by John Connolly. Several entries ago, Connolly began introducing supernatural elements so that each novel now is either a detective story laced with elements of horror, or else a true hybrid. Friends, nobody does this better than Connolly. Nobody.

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

This particular book is singular in that it is a pair of novellas in one volume, but they share the same characters, and flow so smoothly that I forget, at times, that it’s two different stories. Each of them has women that are either at risk of death or grave bodily harm, or that appear to be. The characters are brilliantly crafted; some are old favorites that Connolly’s faithful readers will recognize. We have Angel and Louis, not much, but enough to satisfy; the Fulci Brothers return, and these guys make me laugh out loud. (Notice that I don’t say that Connolly makes me laugh. I believe the characters enough that most of the time, my readerly relationship isn’t with the author, but with the characters themselves.) And we have some brand new baddies as well.

I won’t even tell you about all of the ne’er-do-wells that frequent these pages, because there are a host of them, but the most memorable and salient are Raum Buker, a career criminal, and Bobby Wadlin, an opportunistic slumlord who runs a boardinghouse for the formerly incarcerated. Let’s take a look at Raum:

“There are men who are born into this world blighted, men who are blighted by the world, and men who are intent upon blighting themselves and the world along with them. Raum Buker somehow contrived to be all three in one person, like a toxic, inverted deity….Raum became his own worst enemy by election, and decided by extension to become the worst enemy of a lot of other people, too….Gradually, like fecal matter flowing down a drain, gravity brought Raum to Portland. He kept company with men whom others avoided, and women who were too foolish, desperate, or worn down by abuse to make better life choices.”

Unfortunately for Raum, he has obtained, extralegally, of course, a rare coin that is also a supernatural talisman. It’s a bit like the ring that Bilbo Baggins and Gollum vie for in The Hobbit, but the coin is loose in modern society among humans during the pandemic.

Bobby Wadlin runs The Braycott Arms where Raum lives, along with some other questionable people. Wadlin is too lazy to be truly evil; he inherited this pile from his late daddy, and he rents rooms to former convicts because they are the least likely to make a fuss over repairs and such that most people expect from their rental lodgings. Wadlin sits behind the front desk during most of his waking hours and sometimes other hours, too, watching endless Westerns on his little television. When things start to go sideways, he turns to an herbal product that is named in the book, and as I read, I became sold on its anti-anxiety attributes and bought some for myself. It works, too! As long as it doesn’t turn me into Bobby Wadlin, I’ll be okay.

There are small but important ways in which Connolly’s skill sets him apart from other writers. An essential component is his timing. Less experienced and analytical authors might create an amusing character or situation, and it’s funny, and then it’s over. For others, they know they’ve struck gold, so then they beat it to death to where it’s stale and loses its magic. Connolly seems to know precisely at what point to bring back the humorous bits for maximum effect. He lets us forget all about that hysterical situation or person back there, earlier in the novel, and so when he brings it out again, the hilarity hits us right in the funny bone. There’s never a wasted word, with everything carefully measured and edited down for maximum effect.

If there is one area in which this author might improve, it’s in the way he writes female characters. When I finish a Parker novel, it’s always the men that I remember. Connolly demonstrates tremendous respect for women, but he doesn’t fully develop any of them. There it is, a challenge.

Nonetheless, The Furies is brilliant and entertaining, and I recommend it enthusiastically to you.  

Murder Book, by Thomas Perry*****

Harry Duncan is a former cop, now a private investigator. His ex-wife, Ellen, is the U.S. Attorney for the region, and she asks him to check out a small town that appears to have a racketeering problem. Is it serious enough to warrant the attention of the FBI? Harry agrees to explore the situation, which turns out to be far more serious than either of them imagined.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This high octane thriller is for sale now.

Perry’s feet have hardly hit the ground in this tiny Indiana backwater before he discovers a protection racket. A local businesswoman is determined not to pay; how can a bar or restaurant pay $300 daily and still stay open? The profit margin just doesn’t allow for it. And the thugs know that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rather than give anything away, I’ll just say that there’s more to this than meets the eye in this tiny, out of the way burg.

Perry is king when it comes to details involving stealth and unobtrusive investigation. Whereas a cop cannot use the unorthodox (and okay, illegal) methods that Duncan employs, a consultant can and does, or at least, he can and does in this story.

And if one were to criticize this novel, that’s the soft spot—because almost nothing about this tale is realistic. It’s so much fun to read, though, that by the time I thought, “Wait a minute…” the rest of my thoughts shushed my inner cynic as if it were a noisy jerk in the back row at a movie theater.

Highly recommended.

The Devil Aspect, by Craig Russell

3.5 stars, rounded upward. I read this creepy tale during the last half of October, and it is indeed a good way to get into the Halloween spirit. I am disgracefully late with my review—3.5 years late, as it happens—but I do thank Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is, of course, for sale now.

Here is what drew me in. This is horror of the old school variety, with gothic towers and half a dozen criminally insane inmates. It’s set in Czechoslovakia, which I seldom see. The flavor, overall, is similar to the stories we told as children around campfires or late at night during slumber parties. Of course, it has a more adult approach, but even so, this is classic horror.

Our protagonists are Viktor Kusarek, a Jungian psychiatrist who comes to the asylum to conduct experiments on the patients, or inmates, in order to prove a theory, and police chief Lukas Smolak, who is pursuing a serial killer that is running amok in Prague.

This is a story that is more about the journey than the destination, though perhaps not intentionally so. Hearing about each of the six savage killers as Viktor interviews them is vastly entertaining. There’s one spot about a third of the way in, where a patient, partially sedated, is explaining that he is innocent, and also that a guest sorely provoked him. Always so critical! He was determined to impress her with his cooking, and indeed, the longer he worked at the stove, the more reasonable she became. Viktor points out that the guest had stopped complaining because he had her head in the skillet. I laughed out loud! The middle of this novel is unmissable.

There are three things I would change. First, the book is a little overlong, and could bear some tightening. Second, the whole Nazi menace has nothing to do with the problem or its resolution. It seems more like window dressing than anything else, but it doesn’t add a thing to the story. If I were the editor, I would cut that part of it out and voila, some of the tightening would be achieved. And third, the ending is so, so predictable. I stuck with the story until around the 85 percent mark, at which point I figured all hope of an ending other than what I expected was pretty much gone. At that point I skipped to the end. Yup. There it was. I would have liked a less formulaic ending.

Still and all, fans of old fashioned horror could do a lot worse. If this sounds like your kind of book after everything I have said, then go for it. I am old and cranky, and what seems obvious to me might seem new and clever to those that haven’t read many books of this ilk. And one way or the other, getting there is a lot of fun.

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.

Unlikely Animals, by Annie Hartnett*****

There are indifferent writers; good writers; outstanding writers; and then there are writers like Hartnett, that leave me with my jaw dropped down to my knees, thinking that I like to write, and you probably do, too, but friend, neither one of us will ever write like this. Not ever.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy.

Emma Starling is our protagonist, and she was born with healing powers in her hands. She went away to medical school, but was expelled for reasons that we don’t understand until later, and her healing touch is gone. She has quietly left school without telling a soul back home. She hasn’t even returned for a visit, but now she has been summoned unequivocally; her father is dying, and her mama wants her to come home. NOW.

There are enough points of view in this story to make your head spin. We have the graveyard crowd, for example, and since Everton, New Hampshire is such a tiny town, everybody knows everybody, dead or alive. When I first see that the dead are discussing the affairs of the living, I am dismayed, because the legendary Fannie Farmer has already done this in The Whole Town’s Talking. But soon it becomes obvious that this story isn’t derivative in the least; Hartnett takes this device and uses it in a different way, and it doesn’t dominate the story as Flagg’s does; these characters are there to provide a slightly more objective perspective than those that still live.

There are several points of view from among the living, too. And there are references throughout to the writings of Harold Baines, a naturalist instrumental in shaping the town and in particular, the iconic yet bizarre Corbin Park, which is open only to a chosen few. There are points of view offered from the critters as well; not all of the critters are real, however. And at the EXACT moment when I begin to think that the author should have pared this thing down, for heaven’s sake, because the organization appears to be all over the place, the narrative explains that “A good story doesn’t always follow an arrow, sometimes it meanders a little instead, so we hope you’ll excuse this tangent…It might seem unrelated, but sometimes a minor character doesn’t become important until later…The lives of the living often get tangled up in unexpected ways, especially in a town as small as ours, even when a ten-foot electrified fence splits it up.”

I howled, because it felt as if the author had read my mind!

An important plot point is the disappearance of Crystal Nash. Crystal was Emma’s best friend, and had lived with the Starling family as sort of an informal foster child. Crystal developed an addiction and disappeared; Emma and Crystal had had a falling out, and Emma tries not to think about her too much now. Clive, Emma’s father, seldom thinks about anybody else. He’s turned over every rock; slapped a poster on every telephone pole.

To say the least, it’s an interesting homecoming for Emma.

As if the many points of view don’t make for a complex enough story, Hartnett takes us back in time—sometimes just a few years, at other times, way back in the past—and I am awestruck at the way she pulls all of it together at the end, with no loose ends hanging. At the outset I had been sure that this story should have been streamlined, but at the end, when I look back to see what, if anything, could be cut without detracting from the story, there is nothing that’s superfluous. Not one thing. All of these odd bits and pieces are essential to the story she is telling; “meandering,” indeed.

Because I had fallen behind in my reading, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it is brilliantly performed. Usually a story this complicated doesn’t work for me as an audiobook, but this one is outstanding and not hard to follow (although I did go back over the DRC for some quotes.)  Mark Bramhall and Kirby Heyborne do an exceptional job as narrators.

This is undoubtedly one of the finest novels we’ll see in 2022. Highly recommended in whatever format makes your heart happy.

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.

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.

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.

Hypnosis is for Hacks, by Tamara Berry****

Eleanor Wilde is a sham medium, a fraud who’s used her dramatic talents and the trust of her clients to bilk them. But lately things have changed; she has received intelligence from the great beyond, specifically from her deceased sister. As a businesswoman that now resides in a small town in the UK and doesn’t want her neighbors to hate her, she’s shifted most of her business to herbal cures and such. As it happens, this doesn’t keep all hell from busting loose.

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

Eleanor–you may call her Ellie—is the protagonist in a satirical cozy mystery series, and this is the fourth. I read and reviewed the first two, but somehow missed out on the third. The first two took place in a tiny village where the ruling family lives in an honest-to-goodness castle. She went there, in the first in the series, to conduct a bogus séance, but instead fell in love with Nicholas, heir to the estate. Now the castle is in need of serious repairs. It’s summer, and the castle is hot enough to be uninhabitable, and so Ellie accompanies the elderly Vivian, matriarch of the castle, to the seaside. Her brother Liam, who is visiting, joins them. And once there, all sorts of things go wrong. We have a menacing, possessed doll that reappears in or near Ellie’s room, no matter what she does to destroy it, and a sinister figure from Ellie’s checkered past shows up as well. And of course, of course, of course, Ellie witnesses a murder shortly after arriving, but nobody will believe her.

I came away of two minds about this particular installment. The thing I’ve appreciated most about this series is that Berry’s writing is hilarious, and whenever an obvious plot device is utilized, it’s done in such an over-the-top manner that we can imagine the author winking and guffawing. Nothing here is to be taken seriously. In the past there’s been very little character development, and I was okay with that, because I wasn’t looking for great literature; I was looking for a laugh.

Here I find some changes. There’s less humor, although two particular bits, one involving lobsters and another involving, per the title, hypnosis, made me snicker. But I also find more character development. Realistically speaking, a series can’t last long if there’s no character development, and so I’m pleased to see Berry adding a bit of depth, but at the same time, what I really want is to laugh out loud. We live in tense times, and there’s a growing body of evidence that we live longer if we laugh. A silly, escapist novel that lets us forget current events entirely for a brief while, forget our own troubles, whatever they may be, and sit back and howl at what our clever author has cooked up, is worth more than many can imagine.

Nonetheless, this story is better by far than most of what’s out there within the humor genre, and I recommend it to you. Now…where’s that cat?