Biblio Mysteries, by Otto Penzler*****

 

“…Diaz realized he was stabbed by guilt at the thought that he’d just planted a bomb that would take the life of a man at his most vulnerable, doing something he loved and found comfort in: reading a book.” (Jeffrey Deaver)

 

BibliomysteriesOtto Penzler doesn’t mess around, and so when I saw this collection, I was all in. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Pegasus Books for the digital review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This title is now for sale.

All of the stories included here are themed around books; we have bookstores of course, and libraries, both public and private, magical and actual. All of them are copyrighted between 2011 and 2013. In addition to the excellent name of the editor here, some of whose other collections I have enjoyed, I saw three authors that I knew I wanted to read right away: John Connolly, Thomas H Cook, and Max Allan Collins. Sure enough, all three of their contributions were excellent; I have to admit Connolly’s was my favorite–featuring book characters that had come to life, which made me laugh out loud—but the quality was strong throughout. The very first story is by Jeffrey Deaver; I had never read his work before and it is excellent, so now I have a new author to follow. I confess I didn’t like the second story, which is by C.J. Box; I found his writing style curiously abrasive and I bailed. The third story likewise didn’t strike a chord. However, that still gives me 12 or 13 outstanding stories, and the collection is thick and juicy, like a terrific steak. Or tofu burger, depending on the reader’s tastes.

I can’t think of a more congenial collection than mysteries and books. For those that love the genre, this book is highly recommended.

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Lockdown, by Laurie R. King*****

lockdownI am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s contemporary thrillers, and this one is no exception. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale today, so now everyone can read it.

King’s feminist fiction is made more delicious by her careful attention to detail. There is NEVER a single moment in which the setting—which is primarily at Guadalupe Middle School—slips and shows the reader that the Great and Powerful Oz is really just a human behind a curtain. Her magic never falters. Every fine detail regarding school schedules, culture, and protocol is true to life. This reviewer spent a couple of decades teaching in a middle school not much different from King’s fictional one, and I have never seen any novelist get everything so completely right in using school as the main setting.

As the cover suggests, this story is centered around a school shooting in California that takes place on career day. This is ticklish business to say the very least, one that authors dared not approach for a long time. Now, with Columbine significantly in our rear-view mirror but with school shootings an increasing, ever-present concern, King works it like a pro. A large measure of her success has to do with the way she builds her characters. We have a complex blend, from the school administrator, Linda McDonald; to her spouse Gordon, who has secrets that must not be revealed; to Tio, the custodian, another man that holds his cards closely; to the kids, the kids, the kids. We have Mina, the perfect student who has worries all her own, to Chaco—my personal favorite—to a host of others. By the time we reach the climax, we feel as if we know each one of these people, and so it isn’t a story of violence in the broad sense, but the fates of real people that collide.

This white-knuckle read treats issues of class, ethnicity and gender with the sensitivity one might expect from a master of the genre.  When I finish, it is replete with the satisfaction I receive at the end of Thanksgiving dinner—but this feast is one I don’t have to cook up myself, which makes it all the better. I’ve read 11 other books, mostly galleys, since I read Lockdown, and yet in my memory this one stands out as exceptionally strong fiction, the kind of book one wants to read a second time. And I know that when I do, some things will leap out from the pages brand new, because such a layered, intricate story is full of delightful niches and crannies that aren’t necessarily seen the first time through.

I wholeheartedly recommend this story to good people that love novels of suspense.  If it means you have to pay full freight—do it anyway. I would have.

Ultimatum, by Anders de la Motte***

UltimatumFans of Swedish crime fiction rejoice; Ultimatum is available to the public today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. Although it is the second in a series, I was able to follow along fine without having read the first in the series.

The story weaves together a cast of complex characters within the Swedish police intelligence network and organized crime. Frequent changes of point of view heighten the suspense, which grows to a screamingly tense climax.

Those that are even a little squeamish may want to pass on this one. My threshold for explicit gore is at the level of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not related to this book, but likely those considering this story will have read that one.) This one went past that, and over the top of my personal limit. I found myself skimming every time some graphically sadistic detail rose to the fore; I had hoped that once we were past the beginning and the discovery of the first murder, it would ease up, but I stuck it out all the way through and it didn’t. Another precaution goes out to those—most likely not a lot of people, but if this is you, you need to know—that have lost a loved one to drowning. Again, the description of the recovered body is very graphic and jarring enough that I had to disengage from the story until I was past it.

I would have liked to see less body shaming (“fat bastard” and so on), and more than one female in this large cast of characters who is in the story for some reason other than to nurture or assist the male characters.

That said, the male characters are well drawn, and the settings are well rendered. Those that aren’t upset by the level of detail to corpses, torture, injuries and personal bodily functions will likely enjoy this white-knuckle thriller.

I found one part of the denouement trite, but then I have read so many of these things that I am pickier than most.

 

If you want this book, you can buy it now.

The Road to Jonestown, by Jeff Guinn*****

Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple

theroadtojonestownThe good news is that Jeff Guinn tells us everything there is to know about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

The bad news is that Jeff Guinn tells everything there is to know about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

This reviewer was just out of high school when the media frenzy emerged around the mass suicide of hundreds of Americans living in a cult called The Peoples Temple, which was sequestered in the equatorial jungles in Guyana, South America. No one could understand it; why would so many people follow such a flimflam man, and why would they be persuaded to ‘drink the Koolaid’?  I wanted to know; the whole thing boggles the imagination. I read it free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. I read it more slowly than I usually do, not because the narrative isn’t compelling, but because of the content.  The opening chapters of the story are darkly funny, but as we move forward, there are times when I feel as if I am gargling sewage. I deal with the conflicting emotions by alternating it with other books, and I finish all of them and move on to other things before I finish this one.  I could only take so much in one sitting! Just so you know; you’ve been warned.

Jones was obsessed with religion, even as a child. Unfortunately, he was also the kind of kid that would trick a puppy into walking out of a high window and falling to its death.

He just really liked control, and as he got older, the compulsion grew worse instead of better.

In the early 1960s, Jones started a church in Indianapolis. His wife, Marceline, was proud to be the preacher’s wife, and they shared a genuine desire to integrate the city at a time when the deep South was being forced to end Jim Crow, but nobody else was asking anything of the sort of Northern industrial cities. He funded his mission by conducting traveling revivals tent-style. He persuaded gullible audiences that he had a supernatural capacity to heal others; the audience plants that he brought understood that sometimes faith required a little help.

Fear and control enabled Jones to move much of his congregation with him when he packed up and headed for the supposedly nuke-proof town of Ukiah, California. After that, it was like a downhill snowball.  The amazing thing is that this man and his oddball group were so widely accepted for many years, even praised by local politicians and celebrities. But then things began to unravel, and he told his followers it was time for the most ardent believers to move with him to The Promised Land.

The most amazing thing to me is that he didn’t have to rope people in to move to the jungle; he made them compete for the honor.

Guinn’s documentation is strong, mostly based on interviews with survivors and the vast files left behind by Jones and his people. The narrative flows well and never slows, and part of that is due to the lack of formal footnotes, but the endnotes provided for each chapter, along with the list of interviews, in-text source references, and bibliography are beyond reproach. Best of all, he has no axe to grind.

For those that want to know, this is it. I doubt you’ll find a better single book on this subject anywhere. It’s available for sale as of today.

Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

Happy release day! Fans of Kellerman’s are in luck; this one is for sale today.

Seattle Book Mama

heartbreakhotelThis is #32 in the Alex Delaware series, and Kellerman’s writing just seems to get better with every entry. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Alex Delaware is a semi-retired child psychologist who’s also an adrenaline junkie. His nest is already well padded, his wife still happy in her career, and so he spends most of his time assisting his best friend, an LA homicide detective named Milo Sturgis. The premise is the hardest thing to swallow, but Kellerman makes it easier by letting us know how affluent Delaware is, and recently there’s the added twist that because Sturgis is gay, nobody on the force really wants to be his partner. Thus it seems more natural—for the sake of a good yarn—for Delaware to slip into that position…

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Even the Wicked, by Ed McBain**

eventhewickedBest known by the pseudonym Ed McBain, Richard Marsten, the name under which this book was originally scribed in 1958, was born as Salvatore Lombino.  I was a huge fan of McBain’s, and every time I see some small thing he wrote that I haven’t had a chance to read yet, I snap it up. And so it was with this DRC, which I received compliments of Net Galley and Open Road Media. But once I reached the halfway mark, I felt sort of queasy and couldn’t continue. I suspect that much of what he wrote as Marsten might as well be left in whatever obscure attic corner it’s perched in, because society has moved forward since the 1950s, and this book is still there.

The re-publication date for this book is October 25, 2016.

The premise is this. Our protagonist, Zach, is returning to the beach house where he and his now-deceased wife stayed on their wedding night. He brings their little girl Penny along with him. Before he can commence to do any sleuthing, however, the real estate concern that rented the place to him tells him it’s been taken by someone else. Zach isn’t going down easily for two reasons: first, he wants to see if his suspicion regarding the possible murder of his wife is true, and second, he’s already paid in full for the entire stay. The story starts with the excellent, tense build up that would become Lombino-Marsten-McBain-Hunter’s hallmark. I rolled up my sleeves and snuggled in.

And then bit by bit it all went to hell.

First of all, why would a man on a deadly mission bring his little girl with him? Leave the tot somewhere safe or stay home. And then there’s the stereotypic, racist crap about the local Indian. (He’s ‘chiseled’, of course, but he’s also just plain creepy looking.) Next, Daddy Zach tells Penny that he’s pretty sure her mommy was murdered.

The fuck?

And as he sets up his date with destiny, he finally realizes he has to have a sitter for Penny after all—in the contested house, of course, where surely nothing bad will happen to her while he’s away—and so he asks a complete stranger for the name of a babysitter, and the person refers him to someone that’s also a complete stranger. He sets it all up, arranging to leave his little girl, all he has left in this world, with someone he’s never heard of till today and doesn’t even plan to interview, and hits the road to solve the crime.

I got halfway through this thing and finally threw up my hands. Had I read the rest, I might have thrown up, period.

I know that in bygone times, people in the US were much more relaxed about child care arrangements than we are today. Many Caucasian people were also really racist, and men and sometimes even women were sexist, too. But that doesn’t mean I care to see it in my escapist fiction.

If you haven’t read Ed McBain, find something he wrote after 1980 and you’ll be in for a treat. But this one is a thumbs-down.

Combustion, by Martin J Smith*****

combustionPaul Dwyer is dead, a floater that has only been found because his construction business diverted the water from the place where his body is dumped, and it dries up in the Southwestern desert heat, leaving his body exposed to the world.  I was lucky to be able to read this book early, thanks to an invitation from Net Galley and Diversion Publishing, in exchange for this honest review.  I am overjoyed to rate it five stars. I knew nothing at all about either Smith or Diversion, but it turned out to be a risk that worked out in my favor and the author’s.

Our detective is Ron Starke, a single man whose father has Alzheimer’s. The reader cannot help but warm to him as we see him appear in his father’s room, hamburgers in a paper bag, prepared to patiently have the same conversation with his dad that he had with him several times yesterday and most likely will have tomorrow too.

Shelby Dwyer, the victim’s widow, is a very wealthy woman now. She isn’t sorry that he’s gone, and neither is their teenage daughter Chloe. Dwyer was a violent, ugly man in private, regardless of the shine he demonstrated publicly. Naturally, Shelby is the chief suspect, a thing made more difficult by the fact that she was Starke’s girlfriend a decade ago, when they were in high school.  But it’s a small town, a tiny exurb of Los Angeles, and everyone really does know everyone, aside from Starke’s supervisor, Kerrigan, a recent transplant from the big city. To make matters even more awkward, Starke had been considered a shoo-in for the job Kerrigan now occupies, and Kerrigan knows it.

He has a feeling that his new boss is gunning for him.

The story is told from alternate points of view, and Smith creates whiplash tension by shifting between them at key points.  Character development is solid, and it makes me wonder about the possibility of a series emerging from this debut.

Shelby may be rich now, but she is in tremendous personal jeopardy. All of the lonely nights spent holed up in the study, cruising online for connections she can’t find at home, have led her to expose herself in a horrifying way. And as she is forced to confess to Chloe about the unwise things she has said to another visitor in a chat room, a person using the handle LoveSick, and despite the horror of the moment I had to smile, as the traditional tables are turned and 17 year old Chloe has to tell her mother that you should never, never provide a stranger with personal details.

Smith’s debut is hot as the desert sun, a page turner that will live in your head after the last page has turned. Those that know me are aware I finish an average of three titles weekly for review, and so months or even weeks later if I am contacted by the writer’s publicist, I sometimes have to flip back through my records to remind myself…wait, this what which book again? And this is especially true of mysteries, which no matter how unique, tend to share a certain sameness. But in this case, that didn’t happen. The settings are so resonant, the characters so well sculpted that I felt as if I were an unseen guest among them.

It’s for sale today, and I highly recommend that you read it.

Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult*****

smallgreatthings“Is it worth being able to say what you need to say, if it means you land in prison?”

Small Great Things is a courageous novel, one that will excite a fair amount of controversy, and it’s one that needed to be written; it’s the most important novel released this year. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for my honest review. This book will be available to the public October 11, and you should read it.

Picoult’s readers will recognize the familiar format presented here, the alternating points of view of the novel’s main characters. Foremost is Ruth Jefferson, a middle aged labor and delivery nurse at Mercy Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Ruth is African-American. She’s making the rounds, doing a fairly perfunctory newborn check when Turk, the father of little Davis Bauer orders her out of the room. He wants to see her supervisor; he wants a note on his son’s chart that no Black person may touch his child. Turk is a white supremacist; he has the Confederate flag tattooed on his arm. The chart is flagged to indicate that no Black medical personnel—which in this hospital and on this ward means Ruth, since she’s the only African-American there—may touch or care for Davis Bauer.

She is told it’s for her own protection too.

But an emergency unfolds, and just as in real life, the hospital is understaffed. There are a limited number of nurses that can take care of emergencies, and when the rotation is full, the only person to keep an eye on Davis following his circumcision is Ruth. The nurse that had been attending him swears she’ll be back in just a few minutes. After all, what could go wrong?

What could go wrong does go wrong, as bad as it gets: Davis dies, and Ruth is blamed. She is suspended not only from the hospital but from nursing, and ultimately, when the hospital hears from the Bauers’ attorney, the administration decides to toss Ruth under the bus. She is arrested and charged with murder.

I have to say here that those that have big ugly reactions to triggers may not be able to read this thing. The language is harsh. There are dead babies in multiple places; if you or someone close to you has lost a baby, decide whether you can go here. There are lots of vicious racist and sexist terms tossed about, not carelessly or as a shortcut to establishing that someone is a bad guy, but because there’s no authentic way to voice a white supremacist character without using them. And I am frankly uncomfortable hearing Turk’s voice, and even more so with the amount of care Picoult uses to develop this character. It makes the book much more powerful, and those that wonder just what in hell makes someone turn out this way can watch it unfold. Is her depiction realistic? I have no clue. However, I can say I believe she has done due diligence with research, and it can’t have been easy.

Until now we have heard alternating voices, those of Ruth and Turk.Once Ruth is in trouble, we add a third character, that of Kennedy McQuarrie, the clueless attorney who sits down with Ruth and explains to her that she doesn’t see race. And ultimately the struggle isn’t about getting Ruth out of jeopardy and back to her job; it’s about how to do that.

Because Ruth, who has been more than tolerant around well intentioned Caucasian people that say offensive things without any idea how terrible they sound, has had enough. She went through Cornell University, but first she had to endure the hallway whispers that she only got in because she was Black. She speaks Standard English, and is fed up to here with being told she is too White. And she was paying close attention when Trayvon’s murderer walked away free; she doesn’t want her son to be the next young man in a hoody sweatshirt shot by cops terrified not of weapons or behavior, but of skin color.

So Ruth wants to go to court and she wants to talk about race. But Kennedy tells her that this is a losing strategy; only by sticking closely to the procedural aspects of the case will Ruth be able to reclaim her life. And Ruth is having none of it.

The people that really need to read this book are those that really think “all lives matter” is an encompassing slogan. I fear many of them will be too afraid of this story to go there. Likely those of us that understand that this slogan is a veiled way to say that only White lives matter are the ones that will be drawn into this story.

The ending felt contrived to me, but the rest of this novel is so well done that I’m not going to split hairs here.

I was somewhat taken aback by the author’s note suggesting that Caucasian readers should take the message back to “other White people”, in our “own” communities. And I do understand that much of the USA is still segregated, but I have been the only Caucasian in my house for a lot of years, and I wasn’t sure quite what to do with her assumption, particularly given that the theme of this story could very well be that nobody has the right to assume things about a person based on that person’s race or ethnicity. But I can live with it, because the story itself is much more powerful than the notes at the end, and I understand that her ultimate message to White folks is that we must not try to be “white knights” that rush in and take over the struggle, but rather allies that follow and support.

I wish it could be required reading for everyone…especially for those that say they don’t see race.

A Long Time Dead–A Mike Hammer Casebook, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins*****

 alongtimedead  “The evening sky was gray and growling but I had left the trenchcoat behind and my suit coat was unbuttoned. This was the kind of sketchy gin mill where I wanted easy access to the .45 under my arm. The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.

“If you needed to know anything about the harbor facilities stretching from the Battery to Grant’s Tomb, or wanted a line on anybody in the National Maritime Union or the Teamsters, this was your port of call. If you wanted to get laid or make somebody dead, that could be arranged, too. You know the place. They have them in London and Mexico City and Rome and Hong Kong, with smaller variations in smaller locales. But none were meaner or dirtier than the bar run by Benny Joe Grissi.”

Spillane was the prototype for noir fiction, and even though he’d been hiding in plain sight, I never read Spillane because he wrote so many books that I assumed he was cranking out something formulaic, a pot boiler special. I am delighted to find I was mistaken; this set of short stories, an atypical medium for Spillane, was provided to me free courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. I’ve had a few DRCs that didn’t measure up to my expectations lately, and this particular galley was my bright spot, the reading I considered my dessert after I had dutifully choked down the stuff I was only reading because I’d said I would.

Collins was a close friend of Spillane’s, and at the author’s request, he rounded out some rough drafts that had been left behind when Spillane died. Collins suspects that they had been left dormant because the author’s church would not have approved of the brief—and by today’s standard, very tame—sexual content included. Whatever. We can read them now, and Collins has used Spillane’s style seamlessly. Only one of these stories is more his than Spillane’s, and he tells us which one it is. He did a great job with it.

The author is legendary for the call-and-response style dialogue associated with the genre as a whole now. His use of it and other figurative language is so sweet that I found myself—a retired language arts teacher whose highlighter is the modern day equivalent of the red pen—noting passages where it’s artfully used, and sometimes I got so caught up in watching the language that I had to go back and reread a few pages, because I had lost track of the plot. But it was worth it. Here are a couple of examples:

“’Sure you aren’t seeing ghosts?’

“’Once I’ve killed this guy—really killed him—then maybe I’ll see a ghost.’”

And on the same page, more of the same; Lincoln followed by Lincoln, salesman followed by salesman. Together with the alliteration and the brisk, no nonsense yet curiously intimate prose, I found myself mesmerized. Spillane doesn’t care about preserving evidence, and he usually won’t call cops, at least not until his own business has been concluded. Given today’s social climate and mistrust of urban cops, I suspect this newly issued work by the famous writer will find a wide audience.

Although it’s been decades, I can nearly swear that the Carol Burnett show did some spoofs of this type of narrative during the 1970s, when I was just a kid. If one uses too much of the repetition it becomes ridiculous, and of course Burnett and her colleagues could spot fodder for satire a mile away. But although I kept my antennae up, I never found a weak place in the text that took the lyrical repetition to the point of silliness. It’s carefully meted out so that it reels the reader in rather than appearing ridiculous and distracting. And if you look at my last sentence, I can promise you the alliteration there was unintentional. Good writing stays with us, as any teacher will tell you; this is one reason we have students read something before they write. And thus it is that a tiny nugget of Spillane’s technique has made its way into my review.

Most people don’t want to analyze detective stories; they just want to read them. If so, then you should be good to go here. I was additionally pleased by the lack of racial and ethnic slurs which some writers of the genre would include in the name of authenticity. Likewise, the gorgeous receptionist is actually Spillane’s partner in both senses of the word, and she listens to what people reveal when they believe no one important is listening.

This is the very best of the noir genre. If you enjoy great detective fiction and can stand some graphic violence, this book is for you.