A Small Town, by Thomas Perry*****

This is a super fun read. An entire small town is undone by a prison break that leaves so many townsfolk dead that those that remain mostly just move away. The chief of police is a woman that lost her family and her boyfriend, and she decides to take herself on a black op to find the guys that did the killing and remove them from the map. The town council quietly backs her by steering a Federal grant aimed toward law enforcement toward her project.

I got the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Christina Delaine does a sensational job as narrator. Cops that act outside the law are a sore spot right now, especially within the US, but Perry and Delaine drop me right into a make-believe time and place. It helps that the bad guys are Caucasian. I also like having the protagonist be a tall woman, bucking the trend toward tiny-firecracker female cops and detectives. The things she does on her mission seem more plausible for a tall woman, and Perry doesn’t knock himself out to make her seem adorable. In addition, there’s never a slow spot from start to finish, and never a moment when the mood is ruined by a detail done wrong. It’s about as perfect a thriller as you can get. Highly recommended, particularly in audio.

The Unwilling, by John Hart*****

This one was worth the wait! John Hart’s new historical mystery, The Unwilling, is simply magnificent. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the galleys; this book will be available to the public February 2, 2021. Those that love excellent fiction should get it and read it.

The French family is troubled. The father is a cop in their small hometown in North Carolina; the mother, Gabrielle, has some sort of emotional disability. Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? Who can say. All we know is that her nerves are shot, and she loses it quickly and easily. The couple have three sons; the first two are twins, but Robert, the golden one, is dead, killed in Vietnam. Jason went to ‘nam too, and rumors say that he killed 29 people there in his first year. He is rumored to be bad news and has already done a stretch in prison. That leaves the youngest, Gibson, known as Gibby. Both parents are possessive of him. As adolescence sets in, it begins to chafe, the way he is overprotected, and now that he’s a high school senior, he’d like a little more room.

And then Jason is released, and he comes home. He isn’t welcome at the family manse, so he stays elsewhere, but he wants to spend some time with Gibby before he blows town.

The title is a chewy one. Initially, I associate it with the daredevil stunt that some high school seniors—mostly boys—consider a rite of passage. It involves jumping into the quarry from a very high bluff; make the jump wrong, and you’ll be dead when you land. Gibby doesn’t jump. Jason does.

The basic framework of the story has to do with crimes Jason has done time for, and others that are committed while he’s in town. A girl he’s spent time with is viciously tortured and murdered, and many in the community make assumptions. But in reality—and we know this early on—he is being framed by a man known as “X” in prison. Truth be told, X is actually the weakest element of the story, and he’s mostly superfluous, but since this is supposed to be a thriller, the thread involving him adds suspense, particularly at the end. The climax is something else again.

But the most interesting aspect of the narrative has to do with the family, and by extension, one could say, all families. Over the course of time, a family’s story is told, and eventually labels develop. The small town setting in a pre-internet era makes this especially true, since most people’s interactions are limited to those that live in the same vicinity. And so, Robert French is the tragic hero, cut down in his prime while fighting for his country; Gibby is the baby of the family, a good kid, a good student; and then there’s Jason. Not long after the murder, Detective French speaks with the medical examiner about Tyra’s murder, and he asks the ME what would make someone do this; not just murder, but torture and mutilate. And the ME tells him that although it’s not the accepted clinical expression, “People like that are born wrong.”  And though French is reluctant to say such a thing about his own son, he wonders if he should accept this as true. His wife, mother of all three sons, tells him, “Gibby is all that matters.”

But as the story progresses, we see that there’s more to this story; a lot more. Jason has simply given up trying to defend himself. Refusing to do so is why he spent time in prison. When the world gives up on you, why try? To be sure, he’s no innocent, sad-eyed puppy. He’s seen things, and he’s done things. But people are complicated, and when we try to drop them into neatly labeled boxes, we shut ourselves off from learning details that don’t fit the picture we’ve painted.

For me, this story was less about solving a crime, and more about the characters. I was thrilled that the main story wasn’t about Robert. I’ve read too many novels lately that focus on the dead sibling, and it’s becoming trite. But Hart is a seasoned author, and he doesn’t drop into that well-worn channel. Instead, we see why various well-crafted, complex characters think and act as they do. Reading it, I find myself thinking about my sisters, and the small ways in which we developed labels as children and young adults; happily, none of us was labeled the bad seed, but if we’d been boys…? And I think also of my own children. For a brief, terrible time, I saw my eldest as that person, the one dragging his sister into trouble. Later, much later, I learned it was actually the opposite, but he figured it was better if one of them was still in good standing, and so he took blame that wasn’t entirely his. It’s not a great feeling, but at the same time, my own experience made this story more interesting, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many other readers that will read this book and think about their own families as well.

There are appealing side characters here, and the most compelling is Gibby’s best friend, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to make good.

So who is the unwilling one? Is it Gibby, for not jumping off the bluff? Is it Gabrielle, for not entertaining the possibility that her son, Jason, deserves more than she is willing to give him? Is it Detective French, for not being willing to completely give up on him? You can take this title in a lot of different directions.

Hart’s literary prowess shines here. It’s not always an easy read; during the more violent patches, I took it in small bites. I received both the print and audio galleys, and I moved back and forth between them, leaning more toward the audio, whose reader, Kevin Stillwell, does an outstanding job; but at times I forgot something, or wanted to check a detail or highlight a quote, and then I dove into my digital review copy. You can go either way without fear of disappointment.

Highly recommended.

The Searcher, by Tana French*****

I was bewildered at first why my fellow reviewers are so stingy with their ratings for this novel, which I fucking LOVE, but then I realized, it’s because of expectations. Those that are looking for a seat-of-your-pants thriller or heavy, heart-thudding suspense won’t find a lot of it here. However, if you love strong contemporary fiction and/or literary fiction, here it is.

I was turned down for the galley, and so I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons as soon as it became available. (Serious wait list; no surprise there.) I finished it this evening, and although I have other books on board, this is the one I keep thinking about. I’m particularly taken with the character named Trey, who is at least as important here as the protagonist.

That said, once again, this is not from the Dublin Street series, which I also love; it’s a stand alone novel, and an excellent one at that. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I will say this: thank you, Ms. French, for not hurting the beagles.

The narrator does a splendid job.

Highly recommended.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

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.