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.

Clawback, by JA Jance*****

clawbackI’m a long time reader of novels by JA Jance, but until I read this new release, I would have told you that her Arizona series are second string efforts compared to the JP Beaumont titles set in Seattle. Not anymore! Thank you to Net Galley and Touchstone Publishers for the DRC, which I read in exchange for an honest review. The book will be available to the public March 8.

Ali Reynolds is our protagonist. Her parents have retired, investing their lifelong savings with a company that turns out to be involved in a Ponzi scheme. Ali’s father goes to see his investment agent, who has also been a close friend for decades, and finds him dying. In attempting to revive him and another person, Dad gets the victims’ blood all over himself, and so he is suspected of murder when he calls 911. In an effort to help clear her father, Ali, along with her parents and those with whom she works at High Noon, unravels one layer after another of deception and danger.

Those that read my reviews know that I am always sensitive to the subtext. In addition to telling a well woven, technically savvy tale of suspense, Jance is brilliant here in the way she crafts her female characters. She takes apart almost every conceivable stereotype without pausing the story’s pace or becoming preachy or conspicuous. As the mother of a half-Asian daughter, I particularly appreciated the development of Cami. But even for those that don’t care much about social issues as reflected in text, it’s a tightly wound tale that will leave any reader leaning forward in their easy chair, straining to get to that last page and the denouement.

Besides enjoying the mystery, I also learned some things. I had never heard of a “clawback”, a terrible law that has to do with penalties that are assessed victims of Ponzi schemes, and I had also never heard of a “Silver alert”. I read a lot of nonfiction, but Jance’s new book is a great reminder that we can learn things from fiction too, and it’s often more fun that way.

Highly recommended to everyone.