The Bathwater Conspiracy, by Janet Kellough*****

TheBathwaterConFeminists rejoice! Janet Kellough, known for the Thaddeus Lewis mystery series, has cut loose with a genre-bending science fiction mystery novel that’s cleverly conceived, brilliantly written, and funny as hell. I was invited to read it free of charge, courtesy of Edge Publishing and the author.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. Women have inherited the Earth, emerging victorious from the Testosterone War, but that was a long time ago. About the only time anyone even thinks about them is in an academic setting, and it wouldn’t even come up now, except that a student from the Men’s Studies field of history has been murdered. Even stranger, the Darmes—the future equivalent of the FBI, perhaps—are hushing it up.

This presents a problem for city police detective Carson MacHenry, who gets the call initially. First she’s told to solve the case; then she’s told not to. And while most of us, in a similar situation, would yield fairly quickly, Carson is disturbed by the skullduggery involved in this whole thing. Who the hell wants a cop to NOT solve a crime, especially a murder? Add to this Carson’s workaholic tendencies since her split with Georgie; home is too damn lonely, and a meaty case like this one is far more alluring than returning to her cat and her empty home.

Given the setting, which is more disorienting than it seems on the surface, it’s helpful that Kellough soft-pedals the invented language and coding that many science fiction and fantasy writers favor, keeping it minimal so that we are not scrambling to catch up with a complex plot.

Carson is assigned a rookie partner, an annoying, punctilious young cop named Susan Nguyen. In order to pursue the investigation she’s been warned away from, Carson sends her hapless partner off on one snipe hunt after another, and from about the halfway mark I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s no way that’s all there is to Nguyen. And of course I am not going to tell you how this aspect plays out, but it’s hilarious.

There are deeper issues lurking beneath the surface here, issues of philosophy and ethics related to genetics, research, and science. In addition, even the most die-hard feminist readers will catch themselves assuming, at some point, that one or more characters are male, even though we have been told everyone is female. Back in the day we called this consciousness raising; you can call it anything you want to now, but it is bound to make you think harder.

At bottom, though, the voice is what makes this a terrific read rather than merely a good one. The wry humor and side bits are so engaging that I was sorry to see the story end.  I laughed out loud more than once.

Those that love strong fiction and lean to the left should get this book. Fans of police procedurals, science fiction, LGTB fiction and above all, smart stories written with great, droll humor have to read it too. It’s for sale now at about the price you’d ordinarily pay for a used book. Go get it.

The Last Good Place, by Robin Burcell****

thelastgoodplaceWhat a treat! They say all stories have already been told once, but I’m telling you, this one hasn’t. Oh, trust me! And my thanks go to Net Galley and Brash Books for a wonderful DRC. This one will be up for sale November 3.

Some may recall the TV series “The Streets of San Francisco”; the show was based on a set of police procedurals by Carolyn Weston. Characters Casey Kellog and Al Krug became TV characters Steve Keller and Mike Stone. In bringing the series back to us in the twenty-first century, new co-author Robin Burcell was asked to update it, since some of the over-the-top methods used originally could get a cop fired these days, and the old methods would not resonate with the public. Burcell has a lengthy background in law enforcement, and now I know that she is also a capable novelist. The pages flew by, and I enjoyed her improvement of the old series.

As the story commences, there have been a series of murders at famous landmarks in San Francisco, and it has been inferred by the media that tourists are at risk. While sometimes life may be cheap, the tourist industry is key to the local economy, and there’s heavy political pressure set to find someone and solve this crime, preferably accurately, but if not…just get someone, haul them in, and charge them.

So when Marcie’s neighbor and good friend Trudy turns up dead, there is speculation. Has she been a victim of this killer, or is it a copycat killing?

We find out right at the get go that Marcie knows a thing or two. For example, she knows that Trudy and her husband are getting a divorce; they are no longer in love. And Marcie also knows that her buddy has been spending some private time with Marcie’s husband. And so while Trudy and her soon-to-be-ex are going to sell their house as part of dividing the spoils of a marriage gone bad, Marcie won’t sell her house. Because it is her house, along with the eucalyptus grove out in the backyard. Her grandfather left her the house, and he left her the trees. He used to tell her that this humble, quiet spot out back was “the last good place”, and Marcie won’t part with it. Not ever. Not even to increase the property’s value—for herself and also for friend Trudy—by making their homes bay view property. Her grandfather preferred the trees to the water view, and so does Marcie.

It’s time to go jogging with Trudy, but Marcie hangs back and hides for a bit. We aren’t quite sure why, apart from the fact that she is suspicious that things are not what they seem to be. Trudy’s been a little strange toward her lately. And what do you know…Trudy dies on the morning jog before Marcie catches up to her.

This is a really accessible story, and I thought I ought to be able to solve the mystery. Goodness knows I read enough of them! And yet, I really didn’t get it. The author doesn’t pull the rug from beneath the reader by introducing a lot of new information at the end, or any of the other unfair devices writers occasionally use in order to make their story’s ending a certain surprise; I had a reasonable shot at it, but I didn’t get it. And I loved the ending!

The characters—the experienced, fatherly, crafty interrogator Al Krug, and his ambitious partner, Casey Kellog, are well developed and personable, but their personal lives don’t distract from the problems at hand. There are a couple of red herrings, but the plot is essentially linear and easy to follow.

All told, this one is a humdinger, and you should read it!