Robin Agnew

Newly translated into English, this 2010 Icelandic novel is a real find. The first in a series set in the northernmost regions of Iceland, we meet main character Ari Thor in Snowblind as he graduates from the police academy and takes his first job in tiny Siglufjörur, far from his medical student girlfriend in Reykjavik. He’s puzzled when she is angry that he’s taken the post without consulting her, which tells you right away he is slightly clueless about women.

He is not clueless about crime, however, and he heads north, to Siglufjörur, a remote village accessible only by a mountain pass. Ari moves into the house provided for him by the police department. It is old, creepy, and claustrophobic, and Ari can only sleep when he parks his bed under a skylight in one of the bedrooms. When a local writer, famous for having written a treasured classic, is found dead in an apparent accident, and soon after a young woman clad only in her jeans is found dead in the snow, Ari Thor’s mind is captured and he gets to work exploring connections.

This is almost a classic Scandinavian noir setup, but Ragnar Jónasson is full of surprises as he positions his new detective in a place only slightly removed from the Arctic Circle, in a town blasted with constant snowstorms, and frequently cut off from the rest of the country when avalanches block the mountain pass. The author then proceeds to create a traditional locked-room mystery scenario. I loved it.

The town is populated with memorable characters, almost like a British village cozy: the retired executive, the shy, pining loner; the capable-but-quiet carpenter; the gambler; the piano teacher—each new, yet somehow also comfortable and familiar. Ari’s boss is sure the writer’s death is an accident, but we mystery readers know that can’t be true.

The suffocating snowstorms and Ari’s rising feeling of being trapped in his new town lend an air of urgency to his investigation. The turns of the plot are clever and unexpected, and Ari is a wonderful character to spend time with as he puzzles his way through his new job and a thicket of emotions related to his far away girlfriend. The resolution is well earned and thought out, making this a very satisfying read. If you have ever had a secret desire to travel to Iceland, however, this may give you cold feet. Brrr.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-13 17:26:21
What You Don’t Know
Vanessa Orr

Jacky Seever is a serial killer who leaves dozens of bodies in his wake. Almost worse off than those he kills, however, are the living whose lives remain troubled by his crimes—the police who investigate the murders, the reporter who tells the story, the victim who got away, and his wife, who may or may not have turned a blind eye to his actions.

Seever has been locked up for years, but when a new wave of murders tied to him hit Denver, the people he damaged come together, albeit grudgingly, to deal with the horror again. All of the characters in this story have heavy baggage, not just from Seever’s actions, but from the choices they have made in their own lives that have kept them from moving forward.

This is a dark, disturbing mystery, but it’s also addicting—the characters are so well drawn that you almost feel sorry for them even while condemning their behavior. The ugliness of Seever’s actions seems to permeate the book, his reach overshadowing even the newest murders as he sits calmly in his cell, continuing to destroy lives without lifting a finger.

JoAnn Chaney has divided the story into separate, interweaving sections that focus on three of the main characters—Hoskins, a detective; Sammie, a reporter; and Seever’s wife, Gloria. The style elevates what could have been just another serial killer tale into a rich, character-driven story and enables the reader to get a more in-depth look at their lives both inside and outside of the murder case. Thankfully, though, Ralph Loren, Hoskins’ partner and one of the creepiest cops ever to grace a page, does not have his own section. I did not want to know what was going on in that man’s mind.

The finale is dramatic and disturbing, and leaves the reader affected long after the last page is turned.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-13 17:52:58

chaney whatyoudontknowDramatic and disturbing, it will leave readers affected long after the last page is turned.

The Exiled
Craig Sisterson

Finnish punk singer and author Kati Hiekkapelto is a newer voice on the Nordic Noir scene, but has quickly elbowed her way into must-read status for fans of elegantly written, socially conscious mystery writing.

In this third installment in her Anna Fekete series, which has won and been shortlisted for awards in multiple countries and languages, her Finnish detective is dragged into a case while on vacation. Fekete has returned to her childhood home of Kanizsa, a Serbian village near the Hungarian border. Her relaxing summer break is torn asunder when her bag is snatched, only for the thief to turn up dead on the banks of the river soon after. But what happened to the little gypsy girl who had been with the thief? And why are the local police so keen to say it was an accidental drowning when facts don’t fit? As Fekete is drawn into her own private investigation, she finds the locals and her family putting up roadblocks at every turn. As the case begins to collide alarmingly with her own past, and the death of her policeman father many years before, Fekete realizes people close to her are keeping big secrets.

The Exiled is a beautifully written mystery full of intriguing characters and a superb sense of place. Furthermore, Hiekkapelto is unafraid to dig into contemporary prejudices in relation to gypsies and refugees, and the way hosts of people are dismissed by those in authority and everyday citizens. Topical, elegant, and chilling, The Exiled is further evidence that Hiekkapelto is a star on the rise.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-13 18:22:22

Finnish punk singer and author Kati Hiekkapelto delivers an elegantly written, socially conscious mystery.

Hope’s Peak
Vanessa Orr

North Carolina detective Jane Harper has her hands full. The body of a young woman has turned up in a local cornfield, and the sensational murder is putting pressure on a police force already dealing with a police corruption scandal. She’s also juggling a budding relationship with a fellow detective while trying to move on from a bad marriage she left in San Francisco. Add a serial killer to the mix, and it’s no wonder that Harper accepts the help of Ida Lane, a psychic who has ties to the town and its sordid history.

Hope’s Peak is the first in a series featuring Detective Harper and psychic Lane, and it’s not a bad start, though it is a little more predictable than I would have hoped. The reader is quickly clued in as to who actually committed the murders, so it is more a matter of waiting for the two women to catch the culprit than of trying to figure out who committed the deed. There is a shadowy backstory involving corruption at the highest levels of the police force that parallels the investigation and adds some intrigue to the mix.

Jane is a formidable detective, though her willingness to break rules—like having an intimate relationship with her partner and sneaking Ida into the morgue—raises some questions about her own moral standards, even as she investigates her fellow officers. The fact that she’s willing to use Ida’s talents as a seer to solve crimes also sets her apart from the typical detective, which may be an advantage in books to come. The bond between the two women, quickly cemented, is also an area that lends itself to more exploration, as does a surprising twist at the end of the story. It will be interesting to see where Jane and Ida go from here.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-13 18:28:54

North Carolina detective Jane Harper has her hands full. The body of a young woman has turned up in a local cornfield, and the sensational murder is putting pressure on a police force already dealing with a police corruption scandal.

The Fifth Petal
Rachel Prindle

In The Fifth Petal, author Brunonia Barry’s follow-up to the supernatural suspense The Lace Reader (2006), she returns to Salem, Massachusetts, where the police chief, John Rafferty, is tackling the mysterious death of a teenage boy killed on Halloween night. People suspect Rose Whelan, a former historian thought to have also killed three women in a 1989 case called The Goddess Murders. The women involved, including Rose, are descendants of people executed during the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. Many townspeople believe Rose is a witch and a killer, but just what are the truths between the deaths, and between the town’s long-ago past and the present?

The Fifth Petal is told through the perspectives of Chief Rafferty and Callie Cahill, a survivor of The Goddess Murders and the daughter of one of the victims. The two find themselves working together to uncover the town’s secrets and a killer in this thoughtful take on how injustice centuries ago can still affect people today. Many characters in the novel are descendants of those who participated in the Salem witch trials, leading some to feel anger, resentment, or guilt about an event they had no direct part in or control over. Barry also draws strong parallels between the mass hysteria of 1692 and the murder investigations Rafferty and Callie are involved with. Rafferty is under heat from townspeople who want him to crack the case quickly. As during the witch trials, people in the novel are so angry and scared they are willing to use violence before knowing the facts, a matter that further complicates Rafferty’s investigation.

The Fifth Petal is absorbing from the very first page. It is an intense, emotional, and deeply suspenseful story about relationships, prejudices, and the best and worst of human nature in the face of fear. Many of the characters in The Fifth Petal will be familiar to fans of The Lace Reader, and though it helps to have read the first book, The Fifth Petal stands just fine on its own.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-13 18:34:16

Brunonia Barry’s follow-up to the supernatural suspense The Lace Reader (2006), returns to Salem, Massachusetts, where Police Chief John Rafferty is tackling the mysterious death of a teenage boy killed on Halloween night. 

The Edit
Ben Boulden

The Edit is an at times rambling, but always interesting, psychological thriller set in an unnamed Central American country during the mid-1990s. Its narrator, a nameless, aging war criminal—convicted in absentia for his role in the deportation of Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War—is in an uncharacteristically nostalgic mood. He develops a compulsion to document his experiences as an officer in Heinrich Himmler’s Schutzstaffel, or SS, during the war where he served in Vienna as Adolf Eichmann’s assistant and later at Auschwitz.

A paranoid man, always fearful of discovery by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal or the Israelis, he is suspicious when Irish journalist Kate O’Brien contacts him for a short-notice boat charter to research a story about sport fishing. He is certain she is using the charter as an excuse to get close to him and obtain evidence of his Nazi past, and when he finds her snooping around his manuscript his suspicions are proven correct. He considers killing Kate, but ultimately decides to keep her locked in a vault-like room in the basement of his home.

The narrator casts himself as an urbane, gentle, kind man while describing, in shadowy snippets at first and then in darker detail, his wartime atrocities. His is a backwards world where good is bad and bad is good. He views Kate as an inconsiderate guest when she takes little joy in his efforts to provide her a comfortable life. The war criminal becomes the victim, in his twisted view, and the victim the criminal. The Edit is a sometimes ugly, but fascinating examination of good and evil.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-13 18:38:28

A sometimes ugly, but fascinating examination of good and evil in a story about the psyche of a former war criminal.

Catching Up With Jane Cleland
Oline H. Cogdill

clelandjane glowofdeathxx
I often hear the refrain “How will I catch up?” from readers who have just discovered an author in mid-series. After all, not every reader is with an author from book one, and sometimes it seems daunting to catch up.

Plus, sometimes readers are leery about starting a series midway for fear that new book will give away plots in the previous novels.

Jane K. Cleland, who writes a lovely series about antiques dealer Josie Prescott, offers her readers a solution.

Because Josie deals in antiques, Cleland’s plots revolve around all things old. Cleland’s 11th novel, Glow of Death, has several guides to previous novels that readers will appreciate.

In Glow of Death, Josie is asked to assess a Tiffany lamp owned by a wealthy couple. The knowledgeable Josie knows that most such lamps are actually excellent duplicates. While a good copy can fetch up to $50,000, the real thing can bring in more than $1 million.

Naturally, Josie is more than thrilled to discover the lamp is real, and that she will earn an extra commission by selling it for the couple. My review of Glow of Death is here.

So when Josie has a conversation about the time her shop bought vintage clothing, Cleland supplies a handy asterisk referring the reader to her previous novel, Deadly Threads.

A reference to sneaking GPS devices into items will lead readers to Dolled Up for Murder.

And a bit about an heirloom ring will have readers wanting to find out more in Deadly Appraisal.

These little references are smoothly added in and do not give away any previous plots.

Oline Cogdill
2017-02-18 22:40:00
Winter Issue #148
Teri Duerr
2017-02-14 14:02:38
A Pinch of Poison
Sharon Magee

Lady Phoebe Renshaw is back, along with her long-suffering lady’s maid, Eva Huntford, in Alyssa Maxwell’s second offering in the Downton Abbey-esque series Lady and the Lady’s Maid (the first was 2016’s Murder Most Malicious). Post-WWI England is still feeling the effects of the Great War and Lady Phoebe and Eva are busy collecting clothing, grooming, and household items for the returning vets.

At a thank you luncheon at Phoebe’s alma mater, the venerable Haverleigh School for Young Ladies, the headstrong Lady Zara has baked a miniature cake especially for the headmistress Henrietta Finch. When Miss Finch collapses and dies immediately after eating the cake, and testing shows it contained cyanide, Lady Phoebe and Eva are on the case, determined to sniff out the dastardly killer.

And there are suspects aplenty. Besides Lady Zara, there is the addled handyman, Elliott Ivers, with his lightning rod temper; Miss Verity Sedgewick, the assistant headmistress, who seems to dress above her means and wear expensive perfume; Olivia Delacy, the school nurse who is hesitant to actually nurse anyone; and the Reverend Amstead, head of the school’s governing body who is acting rather strangely. All of them seem suspect, and all have secrets they’d kill over rather than reveal.

In this delightful early 20th-century romp, Maxwell spoon feeds readers not only a good mystery, but just enough interesting facts and customs from the time period to keep the reader entertained. A nice cozy read.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-14 14:20:52

maxwell pinchofpoisonIn this delightful early 20th-century romp, Alyssa Maxwell gives readers a great mystery replete with interesting facts and customs from the time period.

The Freedom Broker
Vanessa Orr

Thea Paris is a kidnap and ransom specialist—a career that she chose in response to the fact that her brother, Nikos, was kidnapped from her family’s home at the age of 12 as she watched. When her father, oil magnate Christos Paris, is kidnapped on his 60th birthday, she and her elite team go to work to bring him home.

As would be expected in a story involving a crime of such international magnitude, there is a lot of action, a lot of suspense, and a really high body count. It was especially interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at what is involved in kidnapping and hostage negotiations, and the reasons why some captives return and some do not.

The characters are well drawn, and K.J. Howe does a good job of humanizing the somewhat larger-than-life hostage rescuers and the wealthy Paris family. In addition to the stress of her high-intensity job, Thea also deals with keeping her diabetes under control. And Thea’s father, a womanizing billionaire with many enemies, has a soft spot for his children—even though he is estranged from his son. One even begins to understand the violent and angry Nikos as his heart-wrenching backstory as a hostage is revealed through his psychiatrist’s notes, which someone slips into Thea’s bag.

While there is a lot of action, the real heart of the story lies in Thea’s relationships to the men in her life as she works, with the help of childhood friend and fellow soldier Rifat Asker, to save her father from the kidnappers and her beloved brother from himself. This look at the softer side of the tough hostage specialist elevates The Freedom Broker above a typical bullet-laden thriller, and I’m interested to see what happens next in the Thea Paris series.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:15:13
The Death of Kings
Ben Boulden

The Death of Kings is Rennie Airth’s fifth novel featuring former Scotland Yard detective and current gentleman farmer John Madden. The beautiful actress Portia Blake is murdered after a dinner party at the Kent estate of Sir Jack Jessup in the summer of 1938. Within hours, violent ex-convict Owen Norris is arrested and confesses to the crime. At his trial, Norris recants his confession, but he is convicted and hanged.

Eleven years later, Owen Norris’ guilt comes into question when a jade necklace surfaces, accompanied by a note claiming it to be the necklace Portia Blake wore on the day of her murder. The senior officer of the original investigation, Angus Sinclair, now retired, asks Madden to speak with the Metropolitan Police on his behalf to reopen the case. Sinclair ardently opposes the death penalty, and his concern is that an innocent man went to the gallows. The police are receptive to Madden looking at the murder on his own, but unwilling to officially disturb a long-closed case without additional evidence, especially a murder investigation involving the powerful and wealthy attending that long-ago dinner party.

The Death of Kings is a traditional British whodunit with an exquisite puzzle and satisfying solution flawed only by a sluggish pace, a symptom of narrative repetition as John Madden discusses, with witness after witness, and detective after detective events revealed earlier in the story. The conversations add nuance to Madden’s understanding of the crime, but dampen the story’s momentum. Once the initial ground work is laid—crime examined, Norris’ innocence determined, suspects identified—and Madden begins the chase after the culprit, the narrative sparks to its surprising, but inevitable conclusion.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:19:53
Kill the Father
Hank Wagner

When a mother is brutally murdered and her son kidnapped, the chief of Rome’s major crimes unit brings together an unlikely duo to augment the investigation, asking one of his people, the iconoclastic Deputy Captain Colomba Caselli (ostensibly on extended medical leave after a covert operation she is in on goes horribly wrong) to team with eccentric consultant Dante Torre (himself the victim of a kidnapping as a child). Although both loners by nature, and clearly a horrible mismatch on paper, the emotionally damaged pair work effectively together, uncovering clues to a conspiracy that may involve the same man who captured and imprisoned Dante for several years, known only as “The Father.” Their investigation leads them down a bizarre rabbit hole in this big, sprawling, enjoyable book.

The duo’s unfolding (non-romantic) relationship, based on a growing mutual respect for each other's unique talents, adds a special dynamic to the story, making for rewarding reading; the fact that it develops during the investigation of an intricate, compelling mystery is a welcome bonus. Both Caselli and Dante are standout characters in their own right, so it’s truly impressive that Sandrone Dazieri has also created such an effective platform for the two disparate personalities to work from. Readers will be pleased to know that a series is being contemplated.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:24:35
The Dangerous Ladies Affair
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

Two for one! That’s what you get with this novel. Two different detective stories rolled into one by the only living couple who are both recipients of the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Their fictitious San Francisco detective agency, circa 1896, is concerned with two cases here. In the first, Sabina Carpenter is hired to discover who is sending threatening letters to a wealthy woman who is a leader in the Women’s Suffrage Movement in California. Meanwhile, her partner, John Quincannon, is asked on the behalf of an unfaithful banker to discover the identity of a blackmailer and to retrieve embarrassing letters and the extorted money.

The first case becomes even more critical when someone takes a shot that narrowly misses the suffragette outside her mansion, forcing Sabina to try to solve the case as quickly as possible, particularly since the potential victim does not want to remain in hiding. It’s a well-conceived whodunit with a number of potential suspects, clues to discover and follow up on, and a surprise conclusion.

The second case is more that of dogged detection as Quincannon learns fairly quickly that the blackmailer is an accomplished actress and chameleon. Stymied in several attempts to capture her and retrieve the money she extorted, Quincannon finally follows her to an isolated island backwater in northern California for an exciting denouement.

Although the detective pairing of Sabina and John initially began as a straight business arrangement, over time it begins to develop into something more, which adds a little spice to the adventures.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:28:52
Shining City
Matthew Fowler

Tom Rosenstiel’s Shining City is a genre-bending look inside a Supreme Court nomination that blends both politics and mystery. The novel follows Peter Rena, a political fixer, and his partner, Randi Brooks, as they score the honor of helping to vet the next member to sit at the highest level of the judicial branch. Looking to shake up politics as usual, the president has nominated the freethinking Judge Roland Mason, and asked Rena to make sure his nominee has nothing that might hold up his appointment to the court.

What was already going to be a difficult process for Rena is complicated by Mason’s pushback to probing questions about his past. And then a string of purportedly random murders surface that, in fact, may involve Mason, and Shining City accelerates. The power struggles in Washington are on full display, and the depths to which people will sink to get what they want are evident as Rena goes about his business.

Rosenstiel is a veteran political journalist, and his insider take on the process is at its best when the reader is thrown into the minutiae of the nomination proceedings. Learning about what it takes to get a judge nominated and what blunders can potentially destroy an appointee keeps the story focused and gives it stakes outside of the run-of-the-mill murder mystery. Even when the gears become visible to the audience and they can see where it is headed, Shining City remains readable thanks to Rosenstiel’s well-defined characters, clear knowledge of the subject matter, and the richly detailed political milieu.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:33:55
The Bird Tribunal
Craig Sisterson

Norwegian writing star Agnes Ravatn’s first novel to be translated into English is an elegant chiller, absorbing and atmospheric. The Bird Tribunal may be short in length, but it packs a powerful punch.

Allis Hagtorn starts a menial job tending to a remote house on an isolated fjord. Her old job was far more glamorous. She was the face of television programs about history—now she just wants to escape her own. But nothing is as it seems. Her employer isn’t the elderly man she expects, but middle-aged Sigurd Bagge, a gruff man of set expectations and few words. His wife is away; it is unclear when she’ll return. Allis helps keep the house and garden in order. They’re two strangers in voluntary exile. As Allis settles into the uneasy rhythms of her new life, the weeks pass, and the questions mount. How long will she stay? How long does Sigurd want her to stay? Does he appreciate her presence? Where did his wife go?

Ravatn creates a creeping sense of unease, crocheting suspense as Allis goes about her new day-to-day life, a life of manual labor and plenty of alone time for questions to swirl in her skull. Ravatn elegantly brings the peace and menace of the setting to vivid life, the isolated house on the fjord a character-like shadow in this tale of obsessions. Domestic suspense with a twist—creepy and wonderful.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:38:43
Garden of Lamentations
Eileen Brady

A beautiful young girl is found dead under a tree in Cornwall Gardens, a fashionable private garden in London’s trendy Notting Hill neighborhood. Why would anyone want to harm 24-year-old nanny Reagan Keating? So begins this well-crafted mystery by author Deborah Crombie, featuring her husband and wife detectives Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. As Gemma tries to find out who killed the nanny, Duncan becomes enmeshed in possible corruption and murder located deep within his own police department after a brutal attack on his former boss, Detective Superintendent Denis Childs.

The author skillfully interweaves the two investigations with details of the couple’s personal lives: taking children to ballet class, dealing with a parent’s health issues, and a friends suicide. Taken together, it makes Crombie’s characters all the more real and complex, even after 17 entries in the series.

This was an entertaining read and kudos to author Crombie, who keeps her long-running series so interesting. The complexity and danger of Duncan’s internal police investigation is leavened by Gemma’s case and her interviews with the endearingly eccentric characters whose homes border the communal garden where the nanny’s body was found. I particularly liked the old busybody Mrs. Armitage, owner of one of only two keys to the garden gate, and hunky landscape designer Clive Glenn, who lets slip that some of the residents might be playing “musical houses,” a hint of naughty goings-on among the seemingly proper owners.

Although I was not familiar with the previous books, enough background was given so I had no trouble following the continuation of the plotlines. And here’s a surprise—this oh-so-British mystery was written by a native Texan.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:43:40

Husband and wife detectives Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid return to tackle a murder in Cornwall Gardens in their 17th outing.

Home Sweet Home
Betty Webb

April Smith’s historical mystery novel, based on a real crime, begins in 1985 when protagonist Jo Kusek, a landscape designer, arrives at a small-town South Dakota hospital where her brother Lance and his young son are in critical condition following a vicious home invasion that also killed Lance’s wife. Jo, who fled South Dakota for Oregon years earlier, is certain she knows the killer’s identity, and at times we suspect we do, too, as Smith leads us on a long, meandering journey from the novel’s present back to the 1950s.

There we see Jo’s parents, attorney Cal and social activist Betsy, meet in New York City during Senator Joe McCarthy’s rise to power. Betsy, partially because of her aversion to McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and her strong union leanings, was briefly a member of the Communist Party. After Cal helps Betsy and a friend out of legal difficulties, Betsy and Cal marry, have two children—Jo and Lance—and give up the New York rat race. Astoundingly, although neither of them has ever owned a cow, they move to South Dakota in the hopes of a more peaceful life raising cattle. Once there they make friends, but the liberal couple also makes enemies among the town’s solid Christian, born-in-America, “no Negroes” community. Their enemies emerge full-tilt when, after several more-or-less peaceful years of cattle raising, Cal runs for the US Senate and Betsy’s “pro-red” past is revealed. Almost overnight, the Kuseks become pariahs in the town they have grown to love. Years later, when Jo sits vigil at her dying brother’s bedside, she mentally replays those painful years, and vows to bring her family’s attacker to justice.

The mixture of red-baiting and cattle raising is an unusual one, and it is vibrantly effective during a scene where Cal Kusek helps brand his first calf. Attending the branding are a mixture of wealthy ranchers, rodeo riders, and teenage punks—as well as an elderly elephant trucked in by right-wing radio host Thaddeus Haynes. In a way, the portrayal of Haynes typifies some of the problems author Smith runs into in Home Sweet Home. Not content to let Haynes’ stunt with the elephant speak for itself, Smith gives us three solid pages of his whackadoodle radio rant. But after the first page of his rabid spouting, even the most inattentive reader will get the message that Haynes is totally, 100 percent, dyed-in-the-wool evil, not just crazy. Too many characters in the book are like Haynes: cartoonishly bad or unbelievably good. Such broad strokes forestall more delicately nuanced characterizations that could have helped Home Sweet Home achieve its lofty aim to shine a light on the ever-present dangers of racial, religious, and political prejudice.

Yet there is still a lot to learn here. By switching back and forth from the McCarthy era to the ’80s, the reader can see how times have changed. Speech and behavior that was acceptable in the ’50s are considered unacceptable by the ’80s. This gives rise to a weighty question that Home Sweet Home does not overtly ask but hints at: Are the rough lessons America learned from our past relevant in today’s sociopolitical atmosphere?

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:49:45
Jay Roberts

In Sam Wilson’s debut novel, Zodiac, the reader is dropped into an alternate world (and an interesting concept for a thriller) where the astrological sign one is born under determines one’s role in life. Police detective Jerome Burton and astrological profiler Lindi Childs are teamed up to hunt down a serial killer who seems to be using astrology as a means of picking out victims. However, they are stymied by uncooperative fellow cops who don’t seem to want to solve the case correctly. When a second victim is discovered, it inadvertently exposes a secret that threatens Burton’s professional and personal lives.

There is a concurrent story line where one of society’s elites tries to make amends for past misdeeds by teaming up with one of this world’s more undesirable classes of people. The distrust and dislike on each side is detailed quite nicely, letting the reader get a truer sense of the dividing line between astrological “classes.” While the main story is told over a finite period of time, this secondary tale is told over the course of weeks, months, and years. When the stories inevitably dovetail, it makes for an even more fascinating read.

Author Wilson supplies a handy guide to tell readers what character traits each sign is assigned. While the “division by astrology” setup makes for an interesting twist at the start of the book, it is just a stand-in for racism and other societal problems. Perhaps that is how the author intended things to play out on a subtextual level, but it grows tiring. At that point, it becomes easier to read the story as a straight-up thriller. That being said, Zodiac is still an enjoyable tale with dramatic payoffs. Readers will definitely enjoy the hesitant-but-growing working relationship between Burton and Childs and want to read more stories with them.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 16:53:36

An alternate world, a police detective, an astrological profiler and a serial killer who seems to be using astrology to pick out victims.

Little Deaths
Jean Gazis

On the morning of July 14, 1965, Ruth Malone, an attractive, strawberry-blonde cocktail waitress and single mother, wakes to find her two children, four-year-old Cindy and five-year-old Frankie, have vanished from their shared bedroom in their Queens, New York apartment, not far from the World’s Fairgrounds. In a panic, she calls her estranged husband, who reports the children missing. The police descend, then the press, and Ruth is soon swept up in forces beyond her control. When the children are found murdered, Ruth’s multiple boyfriends, tight clothing, impeccable makeup, and trash bag full of empty liquor bottles make her guilty in the court of public opinion, and in the mind of the lead detective—whatever the facts of the case.

The sensational news story is a lucky break for rookie reporter Pete Wonicke, a Midwestern boy hoping to make it as a big-city journalist. Pete begins by writing the femme fatale stories his jaded editor wants, but becomes more and more caught up in his lovelorn attraction to Ruth and his increasingly desperate hopes to save her. Throughout, the mystery of what really happened to the “little angels” deepens. Did Ruth murder her own children rather than let her ex get custody? Was it one of her boyfriends—the flashy mobster, or the seedy cop? Pete’s investigations, and a sensational trial with several surprise witnesses, raise as many questions as answers.

Said to be inspired by real events, Little Deaths offers vivid, psychologically convincing portraits of memorable, multifaceted characters. Ruth’s combination of toughness and fragility, and above all, the pride that won’t allow her to play the conventional role of grieving mother, no matter the consequences, make a deep impression. Even minor details and characters are fully realized. This impressive debut novel is as much literary fiction as it is a compelling mystery.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 17:04:23
The White City
Betty Webb

Nordic authors are known for their grimness, but Karolina Ramqvist doubles down in a literary tour de force that casts aside the standard one-off murderer or serial killer by featuring a new mother and her infant about to be evicted from their home in the midst of a cruel Swedish winter. Karin, the mother in question, is no innocent victim, however. For years she lived the high life as the girlfriend of a drug kingpin, owning a luxurious home, collecting fine art, and driving fancy cars. But now, her boyfriend John—on the verge of prosecution—has fled the country, leaving her and baby Dream to fend for themselves. Things are so bad that Karin is reduced to having sex with the pizza delivery man for free food. The surprising villain in this gripping story is the law itself. The Swedish Economic Crime Authority, which has powers similar to the RICO statutes in the United States, has claimed all of Karin’s belongings—from furniture to furs—as the proceeds of criminal activity, giving her only nine days to get out of the house. Karin has no backup, no one to turn to. Her family no longer talks to her, and her fair-weather friends have also deserted her. Thus she is left in her freezing mansion (the electricity is about to be turned off) to contemplate the foolishness of her life choices.

Author Ramqvist, a noted feminist writer, pulls no punches in describing Karin’s dangerous emotional passivism. Love is all well and good, she appears to be saying, as long as the love object is worth it. Ah, love.

At this point, facing imminent eviction, the troubled young mother isn’t certain she even loves her baby daughter, or wanted her in the first place: “For [John] the idea of a child was a window opening, for her it was one closing.” At the beginning of the book, Karin’s passivity and ambivalence toward motherhood makes the reader fear for Dream’s welfare, but the strength of The White City is in its depiction of Karin’s psychological growth. Ramqvist knows how the heart works. And although her book is short at 161 pages, it displays an abundance of lyrical writing, especially in the descriptions of the dangerous winter. As Karin looks through a frost-edged window, she muses, “Outside on the lake, plates of ice moved towards each other, in anticipation of freezing into a solid mass.” There are thrills to be had, too. Once Karin decides to do something about her situation rather than be subject to it, the book explodes into action, giving us an ending that—however unusual—offers up hope.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 17:09:05
False Friend
Oline H. Cogdill

The past’s hold on the present is an evergreen theme in mystery fiction—and the past of Birmingham, Alabama Detective Cooper Deveraux returns in False Friend when he and his partner, Tommy Garretty, investigate arson at a Birmingham school Cooper once attended. The product of a disturbing childhood with a violent father, Cooper became a petty criminal as a teenager before finally going straight: “He was struck by the irony. Today he was being sent to investigate the fire. Back when he was a student, he’d have been the first one the police would have blamed for it.”

More fires are set. Cooper and Tommy’s investigation takes a turn when bones are found at one scene that have nothing to do with the string of arsons.

Much of False Friend, including a compelling subplot, deals with a focus on families, specifically the trials of parenthood. Cooper knows how to be a detective, but he is just learning how to be good father. His previous girlfriend Alexandra reenters his life with his seven-year-old daughter, Nicole, whom he previously never knew he had. Nicole’s disturbing behavior has Cooper wondering how much of his criminal leanings were passed down to his daughter. Cooper is further distracted when questions about his father’s identity again rise. Was Dad a violent cop or a mobster? Meanwhile, across town, reporter Diane McKinzie, who is covering the fires, deals with the increasingly erratic behavior of her intelligent 15-year-old son, Daniel.

While Cooper is a thoughtful investigator, it is never clear if he is completely honest. His murky motives and occasional criminal leanings make this complex character even more intriguing. Andrew Grant’s second novel about Cooper excels with its myriad twists and turns, not all of which are resolved. False Friend definitely requires a sequel.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 17:12:41
Six Four
Jay Roberts

Already an international bestseller, Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four features Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective now unhappily stuck in a job as a press director for the Prefecture D Police Headquarters.

Set in 2003 Japan, Mikami finds himself dealing with a malcontented press corps, questions about his own underlings, bosses who care more about interdepartmental politics than law enforcement, his own missing daughter, and a withdrawn and forlorn wife. When the anniversary of an unsolved kidnapping and murder approach, Mikami is drawn to the case due to its similarity to his own child’s disappearance. Despite warnings to stay away from it from his superiors, Mikami looks into it and uncovers startling revelations about botched police work that leaves him even more determined to learn what really happened.

Unfortunately, the first two-thirds of the book reads less like a detective novel and more like a treatise on police department politics in Japan’s honor-driven society. The insider look at Japanese culture within the country’s law enforcement apparatus, and how it deals with the press, might make for interesting reading in a nonfiction book, but it does little to enhance things here. While the author goes to great lengths to create an intriguing protagonist, having him then be continually hamstrung does nothing to build confidence in Mikami’s eventual dawning realizations. The sedate storytelling wastes the narrative’s big twist, and a last act that momentarily amps up the story’s energy level resolves in a vague and relatively incomplete way that will likely leave readers unsatisfied and feeling as if they’ve just done the literary equivalent of running in place—or perhaps working in a Japanese bureaucratic institution.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 17:26:52
Among the Ruins
Robin Agnew

The third installment in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s series featuring Canadian detectives Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak finds Khattak in Iran, rediscovering what he loves about his own culture. And as we read, Khattak, who is on a spiritual journey through Persia, is drawn into the present-day Iran when he receives anonymous letters and is asked to look into the death of a well-known dissident and filmmaker. It seems inevitable that Khattak will be compelled to leave Iran’s countryside and journey to Tehran, the symbol of modern Iran.

While Khan is certainly expert at creating the atmosphere of fear and secrecy under which many Iranians seem to exist, she also lulls with her portrait of the country, reminding readers that Iran was once Persia, with all its associations with beauty and rich cultural heritage. Overlaying Persia, however, is the brutal Iranian regime, one which seems to hang over the country like a cloud.

Rachel, back home in Canada, is also eventually drawn into Khattak’s investigation and to Tehran. Their inquiry moves forward through various methods of subterfuge and secrecy in a story that reaches far and wide, leading the detectives to the crown jewels of Iran, jewels so valuable they back Iranian currency as a reserve to this day. The jewels are also a brilliant juxtaposition on Khan’s part of the romance of Persia and the present-day realities of Iran.

This book has many wonderful elements to it, but I found accessing the characters and the storyline difficult at times. I felt I wasn’t always connecting emotionally with them, and that the story wasn’t always told in a clear way and was sometimes overwhelmed with detail and history. However, I came out of the book with a better knowledge of Iran and a real fondness for Khattak, who has the potential to be a great mystery character.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 17:30:53
Where the Lost Girls Go
Eileen Brady

Take a famous, eccentric writer and his crazy 17-year-old daughter, mix in a herd of alpacas, then throw in a mysterious group of squatters in the nearby woods and you have the ingredients for R.J. Noonan’s latest mystery, Where the Lost Girls Go.

Called out to a one-car accident burning out of control, rookie police officer Laura Mori traces the VIN (vehicle identification number) to Kent Jameson, Portland, Oregon’s most famous and generous resident. The driver, burned beyond recognition, is assumed to be Lucy Jameson, the author’s troublesome daughter. But initial assumptions are proven to be incorrect here, and subsequently throughout this entire novel.

Meanwhile distraught parents are contacting the local police with a list of missing girls, runaways who end up in Portland only to disappear. Could the victim in the car be one of the lost girls? Could some of the girls be among the squatters in the vast Stafford Woods bordering the Jameson property?

Mori, a young Japanese-American woman, fresh out of the Oregon Police Academy, is an engaging character. Her traditional Japanese family expected her to be a lawyer or doctor like her siblings, but solving problems is what she does best. Despite her mother’s opposition, and discrimination from fellow officers, Mori diligently does her job. The dynamics of the small-town police department are interestingly portrayed in the novel, and the issue of underage runaways in Portland is an eye-opener—though the cult-like group hidden in the woods stretches the imagination. That said, Officer Laura Mori is a keeper, and readers should expect to see more of her, as Where the Lost Girls Go is the first in a new planned series.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 17:34:33
Saratoga Payback
Joseph Scarpato, Jr.

You can take a PI’s license away, but you can’t stop him from being a first-class detective—even if being a top-notch detective and solving cases before the embarrassed police can is what cost him his license in the first place. Now a senior citizen, Charlie Bradshaw almost literally stumbles over a dead body late one night just a few feet from his Saratoga Springs, New York, doorstep. Worse yet, it’s someone he knows and has had problems with in the past. Even more bizarre, the victim’s tongue has been cut out.

Not long after, Charlie discovers another acquaintance, a small-time hood named Dave Parlucci, who may have known more about the murder, also dead with his nose cut off. Thus begins a wild and wacky tale that involves kidnapped horses, a seemingly crazed killer with a murky motive, and a list of potential future victims, Charlie Bradshaw among them.

This is a fast-paced murder mystery featuring a sharp-eyed and wily protagonist who must walk a thin line between being prosecuted for investigating a case without a PI license and finding a murderer before he himself becomes a victim. Adding to the interest is the tenuous relationship between Charlie and the lead police detective, Lieutenant Frank Hutchins. Fortunately, among the bodies, there’s also plenty of humor to temper the suspense, particularly between Charlie and his best friend, Victor, who plays a key role in the final denouement.

Although I had not previously been familiar with his work, Stephen Dobyns has published 23 novels, including this, his 11th mystery in the Charlie Bradshaw series.

Teri Duerr
2017-02-16 17:42:32

Charlie Bradshaw proves you can take a PI’s license away, but you can’t stop him from being a first-class detective.