Memphis Luck, by Gerald Duff**

In 2015, I read and reviewed Gerald Duff’s Memphis Ribs, the opening book in the Ragsdale and Walker series. It was irreverent but hilarious, and although it straddled the line between edgy but funny and straight-up offensive, it didn’t cross over, and I was still laughing out loud when it ended. I figured I was a Gerald Duff fan for life. All of us love the great literary talents, but a writer that can produce a good, hearty belly laugh is worth his weight in gold. With that in mind, I decided I’d keep an eye out for whatever else he might publish.

When Brash Books offered this second book in the series for review, I leapt on it. I’m sorry to say that I don’t love it the way I did the first.  Many of the same components are there—colorful bad guys, snappy banter between the two detectives—but the overall quality is lacking in places, offensive in others.

The mix includes a group of rip-off artists that are stalking an evangelical preacher, and a special needs teenager that the blurb tells us is autistic and also homicidal. I’m glad the blurb clarified these things, because although the character obviously has issues, none of them would suggest autism to me or as far as I can see, to anyone that has worked with autistic teens. So there’s that.

What I do like is the snappy banter between the two cops, which is one of the aspects of the first story that made it work for me. And the bizarro characters—the preacher that uses a cowboy theme to the extreme in his sermons, the odd teenager that appears to idolize him—at the outset seem pretty damn funny too.

But the corrupt Southern preacher schtick has been done quite a lot, and it’s in danger of becoming a trope. I might have locked into the whole cowboy thing, which is unique, but then there are the race jokes. And it’s the way Duff approaches race that tips this book over a deal-breaking boundary. Yes, I get it that the nasty racial remarks are all made by bad guys, but do we need so many of them? It’s as if Duff has studied every racist he’s ever known and catalogued every ugly racial insult for his future use. Less is more, but there are passages where they’re on every page, almost as if the author is looking for a good excuse to dust them off and make ample use of them. At times it’s cringeworthy; then at other times, it’s just sickening. I’m not having a good time anymore at this point, and were it not for my fondness for Brash Books and the previous book in the series, I would have quit reading it midway through. There’s lots of dialogue and it’s a quick read, but then it would be even quicker not to read it at all, and I wouldn’t have this sour feeling in my gut. Sad to say, I think Duff and I are done.

I cannot recommend this book to you.

Falling Onto Cotton, by Matthew E. Wheeler*****

“This is the most famous thing to happen in Milwaukee since Laverne and Shirley got cancelled.”

Chance McQueen is a musician and restauranteur, an honest man doing his level best to tiptoe around the morass of organized crime that exists around him without getting his toes wet. It isn’t easy. His ancient Uncle Vinny is the local don, and he’s dying. Chance has told him many times that he would prefer to avoid this part of the family business, but he’s been dreaming. Uncle Vinny has stage four lung cancer, and he summons his nephew to share some hard truths:  “It’s simple. Either you take over the family before I’m dead, or Frank will have you killed before my body’s cold…Charles, when did you ever get what you want?”

This oddly charming debut came to me free and early, and my thanks for the review copy go to Net Galley and M.D.R. Publishing. This book is for sale now.

Wheeler’s debut reads as if scribed by a seasoned novelist, and he introduces a lively collection of memorable characters. He serves as mentor and father figure to Winnie, a dapper young man that has it bad for a sweet young thing named Alex; Geoff, his best buddy, who is Black and gay, and endlessly loyal; a homeless veteran living behind the restaurant, who is never a caricature; and Chance’s nemesis, Frank Bartallatas: “Frank Bartallatas was pure evil in a massive frame. More than one little fish had disappeared after swimming too close to Mr. Bartallatas.”

The story is set in 1990, and each of the agreeably brief chapters is headed with the title of a rock song from the 1970s and 80s, which is a portent of what the chapter brings. I like this guy’s playlist, and I stopped reading more than once to add his songs to my own collection.

Here are the things I like most, apart from the playlist: I like the strong, resonant characters, which are well enough developed that they are easy to keep straight; the setting, which hasn’t been overused by other writers, and is a credible choice; the selective use of violence, which cannot be left out of a story like this, but never feels excessive, sickening, or prurient; and the pacing, which never flags. In addition, I like the mobster aspect of this story, an angle that we aren’t seeing much in new fiction.

I have no serious complaints, but if I could change anything here, there are two things I’d tweak: First, Geoff practically can’t have a conversation with Chance without making awkward race jokes, and Caucasians that spend time with African-American people will tell you that never happens, no matter how close you are; and second, the alcoholic protagonist is becoming trite, so I’d either let Chance kick his habit without a protracted, detail-laden struggle, or I’d just let the guy drink. Chance’s dead fiancée is enough hubris all by herself. But clearly these are minor concerns, or this wouldn’t be a five star review.

This rock solid debut signifies great things to come from this author, and a little birdie tells me that there may be future novels featuring Chance McQueen. My advice to you is to get in on the ground floor of this series-to-be, because it’s going to be unmissable. Highly recommended.

Credible Threat, by J.A. Jance****

Jance is a prolific novelist, with three long-running series to her name. Credible Threat is the fifteenth in the Ali Reynolds series. Thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

The star rating is a tricky thing sometimes. In this case, I wonder whether, had I never read anything by this author, I might tack on that fifth star. It’s the curse of the brilliant, being measured against oneself, but ultimately, I couldn’t help comparing this mystery to The A List, which came before it.

What I like—a good deal, in fact—is the trajectory Jance has taken with this series, making all of the important characters women. In addition to protagonist Reynolds, we have the villain, Rachel Higgins; a third long-running character is the AI named Frigg, who identifies as female. Two key assistants are female, and Sister Anselm, a nun friend of Reynolds, also plays a key role. There are men here, of course. There’s the victim, Father Andrew, who doesn’t last long, and the intended victim, Father Gillespie, who has the meatiest male role in this installment. Ali’s spouse is the co-owner of High Noon, the security firm through which Ali is drawn into one mystery after another, but he is conveniently called out of the country early in the game.

The story begins with a call from Archbishop Gillespie, a friend of B, Ali’s husband. He’s been getting a whole string of threatening notes placed in offertory collections all over the Phoenix area. The police have brushed him off already, and he’d like the matter handled discreetly. He is concerned about his would-be killer’s soul.

Our killer, meanwhile—whom we know right up front, so I’m not giving anything away here—is grieving, embittered, and unhinged. She has recently discovered clues in her late son’s memorabilia collection that suggest his addiction and suicide were the outcome of his molestation at the hands of the swimming coach at the Catholic high school he attended. The coach has died of AIDS, and Higgins still wants somebody to pay for her son’s death; an eye for an eye. Since it’s clear to everyone that the Roman Catholic Church stonewalled and swept abuses under the rug for generations, it makes sense, she decides, to go right to the top. But clearly, even if she were up for international travel, it would be absurd to attempt killing the Pope. Who’s in charge locally, then? Archbishop Gillespie. And so Rachel commences to plan Gillespie’s murder, sending the missives in advance so everyone will know why he had to go. She finds a fall guy to frame for her crime and is off and running.

My first impression is that this story is substantially similar to the last Reynolds mystery, in which a mother planned to commit murders to avenge her son. I’m surprised a pro like Jance would slip like this. But that’s my sole complaint.

I love the way Jance battles stereotypes, and in this case, it’s the Catholic clergy—the good ones—that benefit. Though the layers of abusers, sexual and otherwise, are deep and wide, I bristle at the cracks that are made by comics and the general public almost reflexively about all priests. I have known some wonderful men that abused nothing and nobody, who gave up marriage and family in order to spend their entire lives in the service of others, via the Church. Not all nuns are frustrated savages looking to beat children with rulers; not all priests are pedophiles. The way Jance takes that apart makes me want to stand up and cheer.  

The clever loophole that Ali finds and that Gillespie widens with regard to Frigg’s extralegal snooping is terrific.

Whether we call it four stars or five, this is a solid mystery and a good deal of fun.  I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

Girls Like Us, by Cristina Alger***-****

I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin last summer. Since I received it after the publication date, I moved it to the back burner in order to prioritize galleys whose publication dates could still be met. January came, and I still hadn’t opened the book. Deeply ashamed, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it in the evenings while preparing dinner. The audio version is three stars, but I suspect that if I had stuck to the digital review copy, it might have been closer to four, so I am rounding my rating upward.

FBI agent Nell Flynn, our protagonist, returns home after ten years away in order to bury her father and deal with his estate. She and her dad were estranged, and her mother died when she was a child; she has no siblings; she is also dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the fallout from an earlier case. I assumed incorrectly that this earlier case must mean that Nell Flynn either had, or was about to have her own series, yet no mention is made of this; as far as I can tell the PTSD has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with any other aspect of the story. Her boss urges her to seek treatment; she doesn’t want to because she’s hard-boiled, and yada yada. Moving on.

The body of a young woman is found, and then there’s another; since she happens to be visiting Suffolk County, her father’s partner asks Nell to lend a hand. She is recruited as a consultant, but she gets the sense that the local veterans don’t want her to dig deeply. Her father’s partner is a relative newbie, not part of the old boys’ network, and so she and he work together to try to solve the killings, but she is obstructed at every turn. Is there a cover-up taking place, and if so, is it because her father was culpable? First one thing and then another makes her wonder whether he might have killed them, and while she is at it, she also wonders if he had a hand in her own mother’s death many years ago, when she was quite small.

The thing that makes this story unique is the fact that the cop is investigating her own dead father. I also like the way the author deals with the mystery woman that her father’s will includes. I thought I saw how that thread was going to play out, and I was not even close to being right. I like Alger’s subtlety here.  I also like the medical examiner, who is female too.

The main challenge for me was as a listener. The reader that performed the audio version has a painfully wooden delivery and pronounces a couple of fairly common words differently from anyone else that I’ve heard, and each time she said them I was distracted away from the story line. The way Nell’s father’s old friend, Dorsey, is voiced sounds like a bad John Wayne imitation. So, should you read this book? If you enjoy crime fiction that’s character based, particularly with a female cop or detective, you could do worse. I wouldn’t pay full jacket price for it, though, and I don’t recommend the audio version.

The Janes, by Louisa Luna****+

 4 stars plus. Louisa Luna debuted in 2018 with the first book in this series, Two Girls Down. When I learned that Alice Vega was returning, I jumped on the galley without a moment’s hesitation. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 21, 2020.

Alice Vega is back home in Southern California, and she is hired as a consultant on a case for the local cops. Two dead girls have turned up, both recent immigrants with IUDs in their too-young bodies. All signs point to their having been victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation, yet there is no evidence of rape. What happened here, and where did the IUDs, which aren’t available in stores, come from? She is offered an astonishing amount of money for her services, and she decides to use some of it to hire her old partner, Max Caplan, who’s back on the Eastern seaboard entertaining job offers. When Vega crooks her little finger, Cap comes running.

Luna has a voice and style not like anyone else’s. One of the things that I love is the way she swaps the stereotypic gender roles of these two main characters. Cap is nurturing, and he loves kids. Vega isn’t a nurturer, and when huge stressors come down on her, she becomes angry and violent, but as a reader I love this because her rage is always spot on. Cap has sex when he’s in love, but Vega has sex to fulfill a biological need, and then wonders why the guy is still hanging around. Clean yourself up and get out of here, dude, I have things to do today. Run along. And while Vega’s vigilante justice would be a terrible thing in real life, in fiction it feels deeply satisfying.

In other words, Alice Vega makes my feminist heart sing.

Luna is better than most authors of the genre in that no matter how off the chain her protagonist is, I never disengage because of an unlikely plot element. We have corrupt cops; we have bureaucrats; we have secrets that would become public if Vega and Cap were prosecuted for crimes committed in the line of duty. My single twinge of regret comes when Cap sustains a head injury that renders him unconscious; wakes up dazed and confused, with some memory loss; and then shakes it off without tests or treatment of any kind. Vega reminds him to get an MRI when everything is over, but it doesn’t feel like enough. I wonder at times whether she meant to do more with it and then edited it back out.

Given that both stories, this one and the last, feature two female victims, I wonder if this will be her signature element throughout the series.

This story differs from the first in that it is darker, less funny, and ramps up to the high octane, pulse-pounding excitement of a true thriller at around 80%. The plot and characters are credible, but they lack the bounce and the zip that made the first book so memorable. Nevertheless, I love Alice Vega and eagerly await the next in the series.

Heartily recommended to those that love the genre and respect women.

The Chalk Man, by C.J. Tudor**

It’s a rare book that I find abrasive right out of the gate, especially since there are no controversial social messages here, just a mystery that I didn’t like and didn’t finish. Thanks go to Crown Publishing and Net Galley for the review copy, which I received free and early in 2017. I should have written a review long ago, of course, but I found it hard to reconcile my antipathy for this story—a debut, no less—with the nearly unanimous adulation expressed by other reviewers. I am still a bit bewildered, but there it is.

This is a book that tries too hard. There are too many cutesy nicknames, and the structure of the plot feels gimmicky and formulaic, as well as mighty unlikely. Of course, most mysteries have aspects that are unlikely because most real-life murders and other mysterious doings have logical, obvious, dull explanations. We agree to pretend the murder mystery is plausible in exchange for being entertained. The problem is that I wasn’t, and so I couldn’t.

Two other factors that contributed to my grumpiness were the overwhelmingly male list of characters, and the cultural collision between British fiction and my brain. I’ve read and enjoyed some British fiction; if not, I wouldn’t have requested this galley. But here the culture and jargon are thick on the ground, and the inner narrative feels endless.

I no longer have to be concerned that I will crush this author’s hopes and dreams; Tudor’s debut is a huge success both in terms of sales and the corresponding enthusiasm of its readership. This author has gone on to publish more books, and I have had the good sense not to request those this time. Ultimately this came down to taste more than anything else, but I have to call ‘em as I see them, and I found nothing to love, apart from a compelling jacket and an attention-getting title.

The Trespasser, by Tana French*****

My first Tana French novel, but definitely not my last. In addition to being excellent, the audio version is voiced beautifully by Hilda Fay, who is also new to me; her interpretation is outstanding, and the thick Irish accent makes it still more engaging. 

I listen to audio books when I use my stationary bike. My rule for myself is that if I stop cycling before the time I have set for myself, I also have to turn off the audio book early; on the other hand, if I complete my assigned time, I allow myself to continue listening while I prepare dinner. With this book I didn’t stop early even once, because I couldn’t stand to quit listening. 

Our protagonist, Detective Antoinette Conway, is a character from The Dublin Murder Squad, and I have read none of these. If I had had the entire series in front of me, I’d have begun with the first, but as it was I had only this one, and I had no problem keeping up with it. Perhaps if I had the insights into character that come with a longer series, it would have been even richer; in this one Conway is experiencing burnout of the first order as well as fed up with the sexual harassment that women cops deal with. An old friend has offered her a job as a bodyguard to celebrities; the fact that she is dark-skinned and female would actually count in her favor there. And she is seriously considering it, especially after she and her partner Steve are saddled with what appears to be just one more cut-and-dried case of murder-by-boyfriend. But of course, all is not as it seems.

There’s one aspect of the solution that has been used many times by other writers, but here it is fresher because of the writer’s voice and skill. However, there are a couple of curves that are also included–no spoilers–that are a complete surprise and yet also entirely credible. 

Goodreads friends recommended this writer and her DMS series to me years ago, and I told myself I’d get around to it. I cannot believe I waited this long. Tana French is on my list of authors now, and although I have heard that this book is her best, I want to go back and read her earlier work too, because I have a hunch that French’s second best, third best and so forth are likely to shine brighter than the best produced by a number of other crime writers. 

Highly recommended, especially with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner. 

The Wedding Guest, by Jonathan Kellerman****

The wedding guest is dead, slumped on the toilet, strangled. Is she someone invited by the bride’s family, or the groom’s? Neither one. Total stranger…or so they say. The thirty-fourth book in the Alex Delaware series comes out tomorrow, February 5, 2019. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. 

Kellerman is a child psychiatrist, and his knowledge and experience dealing with children and their families provides him with a rare ability to invent quirky but believable characters. Here we find a wedding reception unfolding in a seedy building that used to be a strip club, and this provides the world’s tackiest wedding theme. All the women—including the bride—are supposed to dress to look “hot.” The groom’s family, a more conservative, scholarly bunch, are less than delighted, but they bear it stoically, till someone finds a dead guest in the loo. The bride—already turned bridezilla–is just undone. How could someone ruin her big day like this? How thoughtless. They should have killed that woman somewhere else. Or maybe on a different day. 

This series never fails to delight me. Once again, Detective Milo Sturgis gets the call; once again, his best pal Alex is tapped to analyze a young guest, and from there he becomes further involved in the case. 

There have been other books in the series that pushed this improbable situation too far, with Alex the doctor donning a Kevlar vest to go chase and apprehend bad guys with Milo. This time I find Alex’s involvement much more believable. On the one hand, he still does things that doctors advising cops never do, but limiting Alex’s participation to interviews held either in his office or at the police station wouldn’t make for good fiction. All we want is to believe. Kellerman helps us along by creating a strong friendship bond that makes Milo and Alex want to work together, and that’s coupled with Milo’s unpopularity among his colleagues due to the fact that he’s gay. Nobody else wants to get in the car and go places with Milo, and Alex does; and after all, the police do employ him, so it’s not like some random civilian is partnered with Milo. I thought this was finessed nicely this time around. 

Kellerman always writes strong dialogue that includes some very funny bits here and there, and the pages turn rapidly. It’s a lot of fun to read, and if I hadn’t been able to get the galley for this one, I’d have hunted it down later at the library rather than miss out. 

Highly recommended for fans of the genre. 

Best Mystery of 2018

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TheCraftsman

The Craftsman, by Sharon Bolton****-*****

TheCraftsman“One night…what’s the worst that can happen?”

4.5 rounded up. I am late to the party where this author is concerned; a literature chat session directed me toward this galley, and now I am sure to read Bolton’s work again. My thanks go St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, October 16, 2018.

Is it a thriller, or is it a horror story? Bolton successfully rides the center here, and there’s a good case to be made in either direction. Our protagonist, Florence Lovelady, is a high ranking cop in the UK. Her career was made when she identified a serial killer and was instrumental in his arrest; now he is dead, and she returns to the small town where he nearly made her one of his victims 30 years ago. The plan is to attend the service with her 15-year-old son in tow, and then spend the night or two in a hotel, where her spouse will join them.

Things don’t go according to plan.

The plot is cunningly constructed, beginning with one of the creepiest fictional funerals in literature. The foreshadowing will give even the most cynical reader a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. As for me, I know my limitations, and as soon as I saw how things are in this one, I decided it could not be the last thing I read before falling asleep at night. Ever.

The interesting thing here—and what keeps this story from actually becoming too horrible to be any fun—is that we know, at the outset, how this case, which takes place in 1969, comes out. We are told in a smooth first person narrative what the broad contours of the case are. We know what the crime was; what happened to Florence while she investigated it; who did it; and that he was caught and convicted. There now.

So as we look back to the teenager that was kidnapped, then buried alive, I confess my eyes skipped over some of the explicit horror, but really the description isn’t a lengthy one, and after all, we know that the guy was apprehended. We see the numerous humiliations to which Detective Lovelady is subjected, in the day when female cops are scarce on the ground and expected to run along and make the tea for their colleagues and to comfort the crying women; I love the scene in which she is told she’s being (punitively) put on a desk to type up reports, and it turns out that she doesn’t know how to type. Ha. But then again, we also know that her career is a successful one, that she has weathered these miseries and now outranks most of the men that treated her badly.
But there are surprises in store too, as new developments surface while she’s there in town. One thing after another unravels till we are on the edge of our seats—and this time we don’t know how it will all shake out.

At about the eighty percent mark, a plot element that I won’t identify comes into play that makes me stop cold for a moment and roll my eyes. Oh please. Not this thing. Every steadfast reader of the genre has a mental list of overused devices they hope never to read again, and after doing so well at avoiding them all, Bolton lets a big, beefy one loose, and just as things are on a roll, too. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but it took the wind out of my sails for a moment. However, after a brief visit to the literary corn-and-cheese factory, she comes out on top again, and the ending is deeply satisfying.

The story features witches—yes, real ones! As well as shadowy, mostly unnamed stonemasons, and Dwane, who is by far the best-written sexton in a thriller or mystery anywhere.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy a creepy murder story with supernatural elements.