Gripping Dramas to Watch
Oline H. Cogdill

I’ve been binging a lot lately on British mystery series that are just now being made available to U.S. audiences.

These series are distributed by Acorn with DVD and Blu-ray sets available from select retailers and catalogs, and direct from Acorn at (888) 870-8047 or AcornOnline.com. Each offering has extra features, interviews, etc.

Here’s a few that I highly recommend. And, with the holidays coming up, these make great presents.

THE FALL: The Fall is without a doubt one of the best psychological thrillers around. The plots are intense and the characterizations delve deep into the myriad motives of the characters.

Set in Belfast, The Fall revolves around Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (yes, of X-Files fame), and serial killer Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan (yep, that Fifty Shades of Grey guy).

Gibson knows that Spector is a serial killer, but has not been able to bring him to justice. Plus, who would believe that a serial killer could be a grief counselor and family man as Spector is. Gibson has been accumulating evidence against Spector, but is thwarted by her superiors and his defense team, who accuse her of an inappropriate relationship with him.

MIDSOMER MURDERS, JOHN BARNABY’S FIRST CASES: Who doesn’t love the highly entertaining Midsomer Murders? This collection offers all you need to know about the cozy villages of Midsomer County, and includes Series 14, the first complete series starring Neil Dudgeon as DCI John Barnaby, and Series 15, the last season with Jason Hughes as DS Ben Jones.

Through the years, many guest stars have appeared in Midsomer Murders, including Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey), Edward Fox (Gandhi), James Callis (Battlestar Galactica), Sinéad Cusack (Marcella), Martine McCutcheon (Love Actually, EastEnders), Kate Ashfield (Shaun of the Dead), Kevin Doyle (Downton Abbey), and Harriet Walter (The Crown).

MARCELLA, Series 1: This new crime series follows Detective Sergeant Marcella Backland (Anna Friel), who leaves her job on the police force for her family, only to have her husband leave her. Returning to the murder squad of the London Metropolitan Police, she begins investigating one of her old cases—a serial murderer known as the Grove Park Killer seems to have resurfaced. Marcella finds it difficult to juggle her work and fragile state of mind because of her divorce.

GEORGE GENTLY: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION: This collection will be available December 12, just in time for the holidays. Based on the novels of Alan Hunter, George Gently captures the mid-1960s and the changing times. Tony nominee Martin Shaw stars as Inspector George Gently, an incorruptible cop transplanted from London to Northumberland. He’s assisted by Detective Inspector John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) and Detective Sergeant Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis), who help George navigate the ‘60s.

AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: Just forget about that new version out with Kenneth Branagh. While I prefer the 1974 version, this 2010 made-for-television movie is pretty good. That’s because David Suchet knows how Hercule Poirot should be played. The all-star cast include Toby Jones (Tru), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), David Morrrissey (The Walking Dead), Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty), and Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters).

Oline Cogdill
2017-12-10 10:52:17
Tom Straw, the Author Behind “Castle”
Oline H. Cogdill

Tom Straw may be the best-known unknown writer.

He’s had seven novels that went straight to the New York Times Best Seller list, with one landing in the No. 1 slot. The books were hugely popular and the character had an instant recognition for millions of people.

So you are probably thinking, Tom Straw, who?

Yep, Tom Straw.

Though you probably knew him as Richard Castle.

As in Richard Castle, the mystery writer character played by Nathan Fillion who ends up working with the NYPD to solve crimes—and get plot ideas—on the TV series Castle, which ran for eight season on ABC.

Under the name of Richard Castle, Straw wrote the first seven best-selling Nikki Heat novels: Heat Wave, Naked Heat, Heat Rises, Frozen Heat, Deadly Heat, Raging Heat, and Driving Heat.

The novels were a perfect tie-in to the series and further cemented the myth that Richard Castle was a real mystery writer.

The comedy-drama episodes often ended with Castle playing poker with real mystery writers such as Michael Connelly, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, and Stephen J. Cannell, all of whom played themselves.

Becoming a bestselling mystery writer when no one really knows your name was a bit different, said Straw during an email interview.

“[It’s] a trip when it’s not your name. But by no means was that anonymity a negative for me,” said Straw.

“When I agreed to do the first book, I knew the deal and jumped at it without a regret. You see, I had already published my first mystery under my own name. It got nicely received but sold like most first books by unknown authors do.

“As Richard Castle I enjoyed the bestseller part because the writing itself was still my own. I had the best of both worlds: blockbuster sales plus work I was deeply proud of.”

While Castle was on the air and Straw was writing the novels, he couldn’t reveal that he was the real author. That led to some “some bizarre aspects to that secret life.”

Once while dining with his wife in a Boston restaurant, he overheard a man at the table behind explain “the Richard Castle dynamic” to his companion. “You don’t get it,” the man said. “See, he doesn’t really write the books, he’s an actor playing the role of the famous mystery writer. His name isn’t really Richard Castle.”

For Straw, “It was like that moment in Annie Hall when Marshall McLuhan materializes to set a moviegoer straight about Fellini. Did I dare spin in my chair and put things right for these two strangers? Almost. But I was afraid of messing with karma, and let it go. The very next day I was in a bookstore and wanted to buy a copy of Heat Wave for a friend. They were sold out.”

Then the sales clerk offered to order a copy and volunteered, “It’s a secret who writes these, you know.”

“I let it go with a “Huh, really...?” I don’t know if there are real ghosts, but I was understanding how the term ghostwriter was so apt. I could wander the earth, witness all these comments, and yet, as Tom Straw, be invisible,” he added.

In writing the Nikki Heart novels, Straw had to follow certain guidelines, to a point. Castle creator Andrew W. Marlowe set out a foundation of characters and the world they lived in.

“When I was approached to do a book, the common ground Andrew and I had was that the audience should get more than a novelization of a show they had already seen but should be able to enjoy the Castle vibe,” Straw said.

But Marlowe and he “wanted the book to be able to be a standalone for anyone who had never seen an episode of Castle.”

That allowed Straw to use his own creativity.

“The upshot of that was big. It freed me to create my own plot, which I pitched to Andrew at that first meeting, and he accepted. At the same time, [I could] poach some of the rich jewels he had mined in the series. Never the same plots or events. The fun was in the wink. I’d sneak tiny references into a minor character or a place Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook went that Kate Beckett [the NYPD homicide detective played by actress Stana Katic] had also visited with Castle. It was about taking the Castle TV reality and bending it 20 degrees. You even get it in naming Castle’s doppelgänger Rook.”

For research, Straw watched every episode of the series. “The essence of my Nikki Heat books, simply put: To have my stories be the TV character Richard Castle’s idealized version of his ride-along experiences from the show.”

When writing the novels, he would “channel Richard Castle’s heroic view of himself into a mystery that lets him win a bit more, lets him get the girl he didn’t (yet) get on the show, and perform some make-goods for his transgressions. I was more than Richard Castle’s ghost. Dammit, I was his spin doctor! And loved every moment.”

Novelizations of movies and television series are nothing new. But too often these novelizations were more gimmick than substance. But each Nikki Heat novel had a solid plot.

“If you want to know anything about me as writer, it’s that I take it very seriously. Writing, for me, is a calling. I love storytelling, have a blast doing it, and am honored to make a living at it. But I begin with respect for the reader. I believe if someone is going to invest in my book—then invest time in my book—it’s my duty to entertain, surprise, and make the experience satisfying,” Straw said.

Richard Castle’s books began as a promotional tie-in and were to be just an online access and then straight to mass-market paperback.

But Straw had other ideas.

“I don’t write for gimmicks, I write for readers. A gratifying call came from Gretchen Young, my editor at Hyperion, after I turned in the fifth chapter and she told me the publisher had decided Heat Wave was worthy of a hardback release. As Rick Castle would say, ‘Best. Call. Ever.’

“They put great promotion behind it and Andrew Marlowe ingeniously figured out means to weave the books into the show. The readers responded. Heat Wave made it to No. 6 on the New York Times. New ‘Best. Call. Ever.’ ”

In “channeling” Richard Castle, Straw met the actor behind the character.

“Nathan [Fillion] and I were only together on a handful of occasions but he was terrific. Not just a fun, nice guy, but quite respectful. The sort of person you are glad to see succeed. Ugly, but what are you gonna do?” Straw added, with a laugh.

The first time Straw met Fillion the actor was wearing a kilt. “Something you don’t forget. It was backstage when I was a writer on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson—Scottish, you know. Nathan was that night’s guest and had dressed for the host’s benefit. And amusement. Andrew Marlowe, the Castle creator, was there and introduced me to Nathan as the author who would be Castle.”

And those viewers who had a bit of a crush on Fillion—and who didn’t?—Straw says we would not be disappointed. Straw shares an incident when he was cast to celebrate on-camera during Richard Castle’s Heat Wave book-launch party episode.

“When a director shoots a scene, the cast rehearses once without filming, then they are dismissed to relax while their stand-ins take their places so lighting and cameras can be set. That usually takes an hour. Nathan and I and other cast did our bit. They called for the stand-ins. Instead of leaving, Nathan waved off his stand-in so that he and I could hang out together and chat. I have been in TV for decades; this is quite unheard-of. More than a courtesy, it was respectful. Plus we had a blast. The pressure was on me, after all. I had to make it worth his while after his kind gesture.”

And when Fillion appeared at book signings, drawing very large crowds, he “always made it clear that he was not the author when asked. Very classy. And made it easier for me to feel good about being the ghost,” Straw said.

Straw’s background in TV helped him with the tone of the books. Straw has been a showrunner numerous times and also was a screenwriter on series such as Night Court, Dave’s World, Grace Under Fire, Cosby, and Whoopi.

“First off, I know story structure, character, relationships, and dialogue from having written so much of it all over a few decades. Next, TV writing is deadline writing. Big, scary deadlines. Facility with that came in handy, especially when the first book, Heat Wave, was due on such an insanely rigorous schedule,” he said.

How insane?

“The first 10 chapters had to be up on the Castle website in a 10-week countdown to the season-two ABC premiere, which meant I was still writing the second half of the book while the first chapters had already been posted. I joked with Andrew Marlowe that I sent off each completed chapter like I was throwing mailbags off a moving train,” he said.

Straw’s TV background came in handy, too, in working with Castle creator and showrunner Andrew Marlowe.

“Our collaboration was aided immensely by the fact that we spoke the same language, knew the same pressures, and saw the same creative opportunities. It was kismet. And it remains one of the top creative relationships I’ve ever had. He and I are still good friends, and I am enjoying my role as President-for-Life of the Andrew W. Marlowe Fan Club.”

While Castle was in its first run, Straw’s identity was kept secret. But through the years, there were hints about Straw.

“It began secretively, and guessing the identity of the true author became a pastime,” Straw said.

Early speculation was the books were written by James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, or Andrew Marlowe. “All of whom I took as honored, albeit erroneous, company. Nathan Fillion aided and abetted by denying he was the author, saying they were written by Richard Castle,” said Straw.

And like a good mystery, the clues were sprinkled around. “Things started happening,” said Straw, because of a clue Marlowe planted in the About the Author flap copy that stated Richard Castle’s “first novel, In a Hail of Bullets, published while he was still in college, received the Nom DePlume Society's prestigious Tom Straw Award for Mystery Literature.”

“The social media buzz fired up, most wondering who the hell Tom Straw was,” Straw said.

“Bloggers speculated. Parade magazine ran a column, declaring I was Richard Castle. One fan site even posted a screen grab of me shaking Nathan Fillion’s hand in the Castle show I appeared in, side-by-side with my author photo from The Trigger Episode. It became this sort of open secret. Like Santa. And really, not so secret. If you look, even Amazon’s About the Author paragraph for Richard Castle lists me and my credits.”

But once the new seasons of Castle ended, “There seemed no reason to keep my head down,” Straw said. “Plus, I wanted Castle fans to know where they could come to find a book with the same satisfying flavor—even though it had different characters and was set in a crime world outside the yellow tape.“

And now the time is right for Straw to concentrate on his own novels, under his own name. He is launching a series about Macie Wild, a New York criminal defense attorney working as a public defender, with Buzz Killer.

Straw describes his new character Marcie as “a young idealist who has what she calls ‘the Kennedy gene of public service.’ Macie is whip smart and capable, but her efforts are constantly hindered by a lack of investigative resources,” he said.

Marcie catches a client the tabloids have dubbed the Buzz Killer for his technique of gaining entry from apartment lobbies. She’s struggling to get evidence to clear him when she crosses paths with ex-NYPD detective Gunnar Cody. Gunnar, a brash guy who plays it loose with the rules, was recently dismissed from the NYPD’s elite surveillance unit and is now shooting a freelance documentary that overlaps her case. With Cody continually stomping on her trail, Marcie sets aside her misgivings about his ethics and methods and seeks his investigative help.

“Marcie and Gunnar form an uneasy partnership that not only is full of moral conflicts but also romantic sparks as they unearth a big conspiracy. The whole book is kind of a thrill ride that keeps them in constant danger from a badass contract killer while they bump up against an unscrupulous pharmaceutical CEO, a playboy prince, rogue FBI agents, a high-tech cat burglar, and a scheme to launder illegal Russian billions through Manhattan luxury real estate,” Straw said.

And Straw says that his experience with the Castle books helped him create these new characters.

“After seven years of writing those Richard Castle novels based in Nikki Heat’s Twentieth Precinct, I was ready for some new turf so I could tell gripping New York mysteries but from another perspective. I wanted to explore the quest for justice from the public defender side of the fight. One thing I also knew, was that I loved writing the romantic tension between Heat and Rook and wanted to keep that burning with some sort of equivalent relationship in my new series but with fresh characters, different backgrounds and new points of view,” he said.

“If Wild and Cody have shades of Heat and Rook, I may have to plead guilty, but these two are coming from different places. If they have one thing in common with my Heat duo, it’s that I can’t wait to write their next adventure. I’m thinking six more,” he said.

“Or my name’s not Richard Castle.”

Photos: Top, Tom Straw, photo by Jill Krementz; center, Nathan Fillion, ABC photo.

Oline Cogdill
2017-12-03 11:56:44
The Secrets on Chicory Lane
Eileen Brady

It’s the 1960s in the busy oil town of Limite, Texas, population 65,000. Six-year-old Shelby Truman and her family move into a house on Chicory Lane, across the street from Eddie Newcott, and it’s the start of a childhood friendship and subsequent romance that will define and ultimately haunt Shelby for the rest of her life.

Told in Shelby’s voice, the thriller The Secrets on Chicory Lane is a harrowing tale of childhood physical and sexual abuse, and descent into madness as author Raymond Benson describes how sweet, eight-year-old Eddie becomes a 50-year-old Satan worshiper and Jack the Ripper-style murderer. By contrast, Shelby is now a bestselling author of romance novels living in Chicago. Past memories intrude upon the present, however, when she receives a request from Eddie, now on death row, for one last visit. How can she turn him down?

Benson’s tale unfolds on Shelby’s trip from Chicago to the infamous Polunsky Unit in Texas, as she recalls the events that destroyed her family and changed her and Eddie’s lives. Like a stone thrown in a lake, ripples of anger and violence and their consequences extend far beyond Chicory Lane. Readers will need a strong stomach for some of the gory details and subject matter. If dark is your thing this well-written tale of a sad, wasted life will make you count your blessings.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:03:01
How I Lost You
Vanessa Orr

Suffering from postpartum depression, Susan Webster smothers her three-month-old son, but has no memory of how it happened. After being released from a psychiatric institution almost three years later, she tries to start life anew in a different town—until she receives a photo of her son, now a toddler.

Together with reporter Nick Whitely and her best friend, Cassie Reynolds, Susan begins to investigate the events that led to the loss of her child and her freedom. As the story begins to unravel, it has Susan questioning her own sanity, as well as the intentions of the people around her.

Alternating chapters switch between Susan’s story and the story of a group of entitled young men who commit horrible crimes while at college. It takes a while before the story lines come together, and it’s quite a surprise when they finally merge, linking a 21-year-old murder to Susan’s present-day search.

This is an impressive first novel from Jenny Blackhurst, who does a superior job of making Susan someone readers identify with, despite the heinousness of her crime. Every day, Susan lives with the guilt of her deed, yet she chooses to move forward dredging up horrible memories, on the slight chance that her son is alive and that the photo wasn’t just a hoax. It’s hard to tell who is telling the truth in this novel, since almost everyone has a hidden agenda, from Susan’s ex-husband to her lawyer to the people searching alongside her.

The nearer Susan gets to the truth, the higher the death toll rises as those involved in the boy’s disappearance begin to turn against each other, and you have to wonder whether Susan will survive to find out if her son is alive, or die manipulated by those she loved.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:05:47
A Deadly Éclair
Robin Agnew

Daryl Wood Gerber, aka Avery Ames, launches a new series with her French Bistro mystery A Deadly Éclair. There are cozies for every taste but the strongest threads seem to be food, needlework, books, and cats. Gerber hits two out of four. Her main character owns a bistro in Napa Valley, California, and there’s a cat skulking around (although not a huge part of the book).

Owner Mimi Rousseau has a charming bistro with gardens themed after Impressionist painters, a fabulous wine list (it’s Napa, after all!), and a humming kitchen operation. As the book opens, Mimi is awaiting the arrival of a celebrity bride-to-be and her wedding party. The bride is the niece of Mimi’s benefactor/investor, Bryan, who believes in Mimi and her business. When Bryan is discovered dead early the next morning, it puts a kibosh on the wedding plans and family secrets begin to bubble up to the top.

Early on, Mimi is the prime suspect in the murder, and the investigator, an old high school buddy, isn’t cutting her any slack. Mimi goes to work on her own investigation despite repeated warnings from the cop in charge to cut it out, but this is an amateur detective novel, so, of course she does not. The layered solution to the crime only comes out thanks to Mimi’s relentless questioning.

There is also a healthy dollop of romance for Mimi involving a hunky wine rep who appears to be getting a divorce from the most gorgeous woman on the planet. Mimi isn’t sure she measures up.

With a dozen books to her credit, Gerber is a seasoned pro and has a very smooth and appealing way of telling a story. The story is told against a gorgeous Napa backdrop, with mouthwatering meals being eaten by characters at every turn. (There’s also a generous selection of recipes in the back of the book.) I tend to like howdunit books that describe the process of cooking or any other skills or processes, and Gerber makes her culinary element look easy. All in all, an extremely pleasant read which serves as a great setup for a new series.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:09:32
The Body in the Casket
Erica Ruth Neubauer

The Body in the Casket is the 24th in the series featuring Faith Fairchild, a caterer in the small town of Aleford, Massachusetts. In this outing, Faith is asked to cater a birthday celebration in a tony enclave of Boston, where the grand homes are passed through generations and have names of their own. Max Dane, once a legendary Broadway producer/director, wishes to celebrate his 70th birthday by reassembling the cast and crew from his final production, Heaven or Hell, a complete flop that ruined multiple careers 20 years earlier.

The opportunity to get away for a weekend and do some upscale catering sounds like a nice getaway to Faith, who is kept constantly busy with her family, friends, and popular business. But Faith quickly learns Max has an ulterior motive for hiring her besides her heavenly cooking—it seems her reputation as a sleuth precedes her, and someone has delivered a coffin to Max’s estate with a playbill from Heaven or Hell inside. Max feels it is a clear message that someone plans to kill him, and he wants Faith there to investigate his former colleagues and foil their plot. Faith has misgivings—especially when a few of the guests start dying before the weekend even begins—but she agrees to the job nonetheless, putting herself in harm’s way once again.

It takes a while to get to the Christie-esque murder plot—Katherine Hall Page juggles several story lines involving Faith’s family and friends while drawing out the main mystery—but fans of the series will enjoy reacquainting themselves with the familiar characters in Faith’s charming town. Newcomers will want to start earlier in the series, but those who enjoy a traditional mystery with appealing characters and a New England feel will enjoy this.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:13:43
Black Teeth
Ben Boulden

Black Teeth is Australian crime writer Zane Lovitt’s impressive second novel after The Midnight Promise (2012). A remarkable mixture of noir and psychological thriller, it chronicles a socially isolated and fearful young man, Jason Ginaff. Jason earns his living performing online background checks using both legal and extralegal methods for companies hiring new employees. He finds those embarrassing photographs taken at drunken parties, awkward statements composed in an irrational moment, and anything else that may compromise the job candidate. His life is comfortable, but silent and empty until a computer program he wrote uncovers the telephone number of the man Jason believes is his father.

The discovery of his father, a former Melbourne police detective named Glen Tyan, leads Jason to the story of a decade-old murder. Cheryl Alamein was murdered in her home and her husband, Piers, was convicted of the crime. Piers spent ten hard years in jail before killing himself, and his son, Rudy, who has always believed in his father’s innocence, gets the same tattoo his father received in prison: a black jagged set of teeth on the skin between the thumb and forefinger. It is a symbol that identifies the wearer as the property of a prison gang. The only thing left for Rudy is to avenge his father, and Glen Tyan is the target.

Black Teeth is twisted, absorbing, at times ugly, dark, and always intriguing. An examination of identity—Jason Ginaff’s, specifically, but others also—with characters that are varying shades of nasty: a burned-out and psychopathic retired cop, a scammer with a frightening ability to see the angles and rationalize her own best interests, a hopeless and defeated Rudy Alamein, and Ginaff—impotent, lonely, and scared. It is a walk down the same twisted and dark streets Jim Thompson showed us 70 years ago with classics such as The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night, but with all the modern trappings we now use to bury our fear and conceal our humanity.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:17:03
Dangerous Illusions
Sarah Prindle

Bestselling author Irene Hannon begins a new series with the suspense novel Dangerous Illusions. Detective Colin Flynn is assigned to investigate the suspicious death of an elderly woman and meets her grief-stricken daughter (and caregiver) Trish Bailey. Police soon conclude that Trish accidentally mixed up her mother’s pills. Despite the circumstances, Colin develops a romantic interest in Trish. And the more he gets to know her, the more he suspects that her mother’s death was not an accident—and that Trish was being set up to look negligent. But who would benefit from blaming Trish? Why would anyone want to kill her mother? The case moves at a fast pace as Colin investigates a shady accountant, a suspicious disappearance, and the possible involvement of the Russian mafia. The further the case progresses, the riskier the situation becomes for Colin and his new love interest.

Dangerous Illusions, the first book in the Code of Honor series, is a fascinating read that will draw readers into a puzzling and suspenseful mystery. From Colin’s tough, dependable friend Mac to the resilient Trish Bailey to Colin’s longtime best friends Rick and Kristin, Hannon’s characters entertain readers.

Hannon successfully blends suspense, mystery, romance, and friendship into an engaging mystery that not only tells a good story, but also shows the risks and rewards for law enforcement officers. Readers should look forward to the next installment of this promising new series.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:24:24
A Season to Lie
Jean Gazis

Cedar Valley, Colorado police officer Gemma Monroe’s first day back from maternity leave doesn’t turn out to be the easy transition she hoped for. Responding in the middle of a raging blizzard to a call about a suspicious prowler at a local high school, Gemma discovers the dead body of a famous author, Del Fuente, who has been living in town incognito while guest lecturing at the posh private school. The scarce and ambiguous clues point to a possible serial killer. Meanwhile, a mysterious bully known simply as Grimm (after the fairy tales) is tormenting the school’s students, and Alistair Campbell, a wealthy developer from back East with possible criminal ties, is snooping around Gemma’s family.

Are these threads connected, and if so, how? Why does the academy’s entire English department seem to be lying to Gemma? And when can she fit in a pumping break? Red herrings abound in this follow-up police procedural to Inherit the Bones, featuring the engaging, down-to-earth heroine. In addition to Gemma, A Season to Lie features a variety of quirky, colorful characters, from Gemma’s macho partner, Finn, to Campbell’s poetry-quoting, ex-con henchman, to anxiety-ridden recluse Lila Conway, the only person who knew the murdered author’s true identity. A second murder complicates the plot and keeps the reader guessing to the very end.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:27:28
Signal Loss
Ben Boulden

Signal Loss is Garry Disher’s seventh Inspector Hal Challis and Sergeant Ellen Destry police procedural. The Mornington Peninsula, a rural suburb of Melbourne, Australia, is a booming destination for tourists and wealthy weekenders seeking quiet. Its old farms are struggling to survive and the inexpensive housing, as compared to Melbourne, has attracted new developments for both the middle-class and the working poor.

A wildfire sweeps across the lower Peninsula, killing two men in an out-of-town Mercedes transporting illegal firearms, and revealing a meth lab in an abandoned house. Inspector Challis, in his role as head of Peninsula East’s Crime Investigation Unit, catches the case of identifying the two men burned to death, while Senior Sergeant Coolidge, a hotshot from Melbourne’s Drug Squad in town as part of a task force studying the meth trade on the Peninsula, takes the lead on the meth house investigation. The two cases seem connected and Challis has to chase the game since Coolidge’s career aspirations have little to do with cooperation. Add to this, what Ellen Destry believes is a serial rapist working the area, a series of farm equipment thefts, a missing girl, and a police station mole, and there are enough balls in the air to keep the most jaded reader interested.

Signal Loss is a nicely rendered procedural with complex plotting, a high level of character development, and a vibrant setting. The Peninsula is vividly drawn, from its agricultural lands to its beaches, to its cities, and to the working-class housing estates blossoming across its landscape. It’s a beautiful place, playing host to a population with all its modern ills: drugs, greed, murder, envy. Most readers will want to visit more than once.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:39:38
Lady Jayne Disappears
Robin Agnew

Young Auralie Rosette Harcourt has grown up in debtor’s prison alongside her father, but as the novel opens in 1861 London, Aura Rose is whisked away to Lyndhurst Manor to wealthy relatives she’s never met in the wake of her father’s death.

Every bit as grand as Downton Abbey, the manor overwhelms Aura Rose when she arrives in a rainstorm, a sodden mess, where she surprises her aunt Eudora, who never knew of her existence. The author establishes a nice, slightly creepy gothic atmosphere, and there’s an enjoyable portion of the novel devoted to Aura Rose’s discovery of delicious food, a glamorous cousin, and the joys of beautiful dresses—as well as a bit of romance.

The title of Joanna Davidson Politano’s debut is the same as a popular serial novel within her novel, written by someone named Nathaniel Droll. Apparently everyone in the Lyndhurst household is an avid devotee, and the author—who has always been deeply shrouded in secrecy—was none other than Aura Rose’s father, Woolf. Complicating matters is the fact that the Lady Jayne of the serial is based on Aura Rose’s mother, whom Aura Rose is certain was murdered. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Aura Rose’s father was also murdered. Aura decides to secretly assume her father’s penance and finish his work as she attempts to uncover the mysteries of her mother’s disappearance and father’s death.

About a third of the way through, however, the author seems to lose her way, and her story languishes on the vine a bit, despite a gripping interlude inside debtor’s prison. Aura Rose herself is a fairly good character. She’s a bit religious (Revell is a Christian publisher) and there’s a good amount of prayer interspersed throughout the book, but it’s not a hindrance to the story. The ending is fairly satisfactory, but while a killer is ultimately unmasked, the ending is a little too happy for my taste.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:43:00
Murder in an English Village
Eileen Brady

Kudos to author Jessica Ellicott for Murder in an English Village, the first in her Beryl and Edwina Mystery series, for breathing new life into the well-worn English village mystery genre. Her 1920s amateur sleuths, internationally known American adventure seeker Beryl Helliwell and English village resident Edwina Davenport, are a delightfully mismatched pair of friends. Tea-sipping Edwina and booze-guzzling Beryl are old classmates, each at a difficult crossroads in their lives. Beryl is jaded following multiple marriages, and desperately lonely Edwina is flat broke.

When Edwina’s advertisement for a lodger brings them together, the fun begins. Beryl stirs up the village’s biggest gossip, Prudence Rathbone, by claiming she and Edwina are secret agents, working for His Majesty. It is a story meant to explain Beryl’s presence without revealing her friend’s financial straits; but once it’s out there, Beryl decides to run with it. Why not dig around and uncover some dirty deeds in the quiet English village of Walmsey Parva? The only mystery Edwina can remember is the disappearance of Agnes Rollins, one of the Women’s Land Army volunteers, stationed at nearby Wallingford Estate during World War I. To keep soldiers on the frontlines women were recruited into the Land Army, then sent to the countryside to work on farms and in fields, freeing up more men to join the military. However, the influx of sophisticated young women from London and other cities often wasn’t appreciated in the small rural towns of Great Britain. When Edwina is attacked in her garden, Beryl is convinced they’ve stumbled upon something rotten indeed.

Murder in an English Village is the first in a new series; Ellicott also writes the Sugar Grove and Granite State mystery series as Jessie Crockett, and the Change of Fortune mysteries as Jessica Estevao. Brew yourself a pot of tea, put a few shortbread cookies on a china plate, and enjoy this lively and well-written historical cozy.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:47:46
Little Secrets
Sharon Magee

The car factory in Colmstock, Australia, has failed and the town is dying. Rose Blakely was born and raised here, and all she wants is out. She dreams of becoming a journalist with a big newspaper, but all she gets are rejections. So every day she wends her way through the dusty streets to Eamon’s, the local cop hangout, and pulls beers while trying to ignore the overt stares from one of the city’s finest, who, in reality, aren’t all that fine.

Citizens are even more demoralized when the courthouse burns down, taking the life of a young boy. But fate isn’t through with Colmstock yet. Porcelain dolls begin appearing on the doorsteps of the homes of young girls, dolls that look eerily like each girl. The people of Colmstock are paralyzed with fear, wondering if the unsolved arson and the dolls are connected—both situations have targeted children—but who would want to harm them? Rose’s youngest sister is a recipient of one such doll, and Rose sees an opportunity to jump-start her nonexistent journalism career—even if it means stretching the truth and bringing pain and tragedy to her town.

Anna Snoekstra’s sophomore thriller is a tension-filled but flawed story with a protagonist who is sometimes sympathetic, but at other times unlikable. She loves her family and friends, and would do anything for them, but has no compunction about hurting them—even putting their lives in danger—if it will get her closer to her dream. And while there is a creepiness factor, if readers think they’re getting a Stephen King-type novel with weird dolls playing a major role, they’re in for a disappointment. It is often difficult to suspend disbelief and just let the story happen, and the ending is sadly anticlimactic. Having said that, the journey is captivating enough that it’s hard to put down. So go ahead, give it a try.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:51:32
Heaven’s Crooked Finger
Hank Wagner

Private investigator Earl Marcus learns the deadly truth about the old adage of going home again when he returns to his childhood stomping grounds in Coulee County, Georgia, to pay his respects to a dear friend, and to investigate what he assumes are the ravings of a madman, who insists that Earl’s father, a snake-handling preacher of the fire-and-brimstone variety, has risen from the dead. From the moment he sets foot on his native soil, he is treated with hatred, disdain, and suspicion by those still loyal to his father, the man who banished Earl from the closed community some three decades prior after a bitter falling out between the two. Earl is finally forced to deal head on with the strange and painful events in his past, even as he becomes involved in investigating the possible abuse and disappearances of several members of the congregation, now led by his estranged older brother, Luther.

A powerful blend of mystery and Southern Gothic, the first Earl Marcus mystery is reminiscent of the best of Joe R. Lansdale, grim and disturbing at times, but also heavy on humor, genuine human emotion, and good old-fashioned private-eye action. Earl is a perfect lead, self-deprecating and painfully self-aware, but also perceptive, resourceful, hard-headed, and quick-witted. It will certainly be interesting to see what Early has planned for an encore, given the emotional wringer he’s put his man through his first time out.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 18:54:21
Glass Town
Jean Gazis

When Josh Raines’ grandfather Boone dies, he leaves Josh a letter that tells a complicated tale of obsession and mystery. In the 1920s, Josh’s great-grandfather Isaiah Lockwood and his brother Seth both loved the same woman, the surpassingly lovely budding movie starlet Eleanor Raines. She inexplicably disappeared, along with Seth Lockwood, on January 13, 1924. Isaiah later married her twin sister, Lilly, and changed his name to Raines.

Josh is puzzled by the letter, but doesn’t give it much thought until his long-lost cousins, the frail, elderly Gideon Lockwood and his sinister son Seth, unexpectedly turn up at Boone’s funeral, promising to end the long-running family estrangement. And that’s when the plot takes a strange and unexpected turn.

The Lockwoods are local neighborhood crime bosses who have cruelly kept the Rothery district of London under their thumb for generations. Soon Josh is swept up in a web of deceit, betrayal, occult phenomena, obsession, and ancient magic, all linked to a lost Hitchcock masterpiece, Number 13, and what is revealed to be a magical hidden city within the city, Glass Town, where time stands almost still. Will Josh manage to deconstruct the magic, save Eleanor from Glass Town, and defeat the Lockwoods before Seth and his supernatural henchmen prevail?

Steven Savile has written for popular British television series including Dr. Who, Torchwood, and Sherlock, and his TV experience is evident in Glass Town’s vivid, cinematic imagery, engaging characters, gruesome murders, and strange magic. It’s an intense, fast-moving thriller of intrigue and power, with a fantastical twist, that explores the extremes individual human beings are capable of in order to possess their desires and avenge their loved ones.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 19:08:25
No Saints in Kansas
Lilian Wright

The 1959 murders of the Clutter family shook the little town of Holcomb, Kansas, to its core. The case at the heart of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is tackled by debut author Amy Brashear in No Saints in Kansas, as she explores the event in a new way—through the lens of a teenage resident of the town.

In her fictional reimagining of the infamous crime, Brashear introduces teenage narrator Carly Fleming, a recent transplant from New York City, who is desperate to become accepted by her fellow high schoolers, especially town sweetheart Nancy Clutter. Just as Carly begins making social progress, it all comes to a screeching halt after the bodies of four of the Clutters are found shot point-blank in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. Suspicion falls on Nancy’s boyfriend, Bobby Rupp, but Carly doesn’t believe it and sets out on her own investigation.

The plot of No Saints in Kansas is a tantalizing one, but one that also relies heavily on the notoriety of the Clutter killings, the scaffolding left by Capote, and even Harper Lee (Carly’s father eventually becomes a defense attorney for the killers and the object of contempt by the town), to help tell the story. Both Capote and Lee make fictional appearances, and while surely intended as a nod of respect, they stick out like a sore thumb amid the rest of the story line.

Through a series of unlikely reckless episodes, Carly uncovers clues to the murders, breaking away completely from some of the true facts of the investigation. The initially timid Carly’s grit and bold curiosity become increasingly unbelievable and forced. The fictionalization of some of the facts and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents (particularly Agent Dewey, who consistently leaves documents about for Carly to steal) and their unbelievable “What can ya do, those darn kids?” attitude ultimately seem too far-fetched.

Brashear does maintain a unique perspective on life in Holcomb just before, during, and just after the murders. And where she shines is in her depiction of Holcomb, the setting a mere six miles from the town of Garden City, Kansas, where Brashear grew up. The reader becomes immersed in her sense of place laid out with authenticity and care, and quickly gets a feel for the community. Writing a novel with comparisons to Capote or Lee, however, is to set the bar extremely high, and I wanted to applaud her for trying from her original perspective, but in the end I struggled to engage with her version of the story.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 19:11:24
Deadly Cure
Jean Gazis

It is an ordinary day for busy young Brooklyn physician Noah Whitestone until he is urgently summoned to treat Willard Anschutz, the five-year-old son of a wealthy and well-connected neighbor. The boy has suddenly taken ill while the family’s regular physician, the prominent Dr. Arnold Frias, is unavailable. The year is 1899, and Noah gives Willard a small dose of laudanum to ease his acute symptoms. An hour later, the boy suddenly and inexplicably dies. Under a cloud of suspicion, Noah, who is certain he has done nothing wrong, must find out what really happened and who is responsible—for murder is the only reasonable explanation.

At the end of the 19th century, scientific medicine was in its infancy. Unregulated “patent medicines” were widely used at all levels of society to treat everything from colds to tuberculosis. Noah soon learns from a muckraking reporter for a radical paper that several other children have died under circumstances similar to Willard’s, with symptoms that suggest an overdose of opiates. All of them have been given an experimental new miracle drug from Germany—said to be without side effects—that is about to be launched on the American market, with enormous profit potential. Noah is drawn into a dangerous world of radical politics, corrupt authorities, and violent criminals, where beatings and even bombings are seen as just a means to an end.

Deadly Cure mixes memorable characters and actual historical figures in a vividly detailed period setting, with nonstop action and intriguing suspense. Many of its themes, such as the influence of money on medicine, police brutality, divisive politics, and opiate abuse, are as relevant today as they were more than a hundred years ago.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 19:35:24
The Vanishing Season
Hank Wagner

The past exerts tremendous power over the two protagonists of Joanna Schaffausen’s impressive debut, as Officer Ellery Hathaway and FBI Agent Reed Markham find themselves embroiled in a new case with disturbing similarities to one that rocked both their worlds well over a decade before. A familiar premise, to be sure, but what makes this novel particularly fascinating, and engaging, are Hathaway and Markham's unique perspectives.

A victim of a kidnapper with murderous intent in her youth, Ellery Hathaway is now a cop, making her way in life under an alias. In recent years, people have gone missing around the time of her birthday, and someone who seems to know of her secret past has been contacting her with annual birthday greetings after the disappearance of each new victim. As her birthday approaches again, Hathaway can’t convince her superiors that their small town may be under siege by a serial killer without revealing her true identity. Unable to move the case further along on her own, she contacts the man who delivered her from an unspeakable fate as a child, Markham, whose career has taken a nosedive since rescuing her. Working against steep odds, and the universal skepticism of their colleagues, they do their best to unmask the killer, who seems to be pursuing a deeply personal vendetta against Ellery.

The winner of the Minotaur Books and Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition, The Vanishing Season really delivers, providing thrills aplenty. Schaffhausen creates a profound sense of intimacy between readers and her main characters, deeply involving them in the ongoing mayhem, and pulling them further and further into the action as her tale unfurls. Although the “big reveal” at novel’s end might not have been as big as the author intended, it still provides a satisfying conclusion to a riveting piece of storytelling.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 19:38:53
Velvet on a Tuesday Afternoon
Betty Webb

It's a rainy day in Hollywood in Clive Rosengren’s Velvet on a Tuesday Afternoon. In this third book in the Eddie Collins series, the part-time actor and full-time PI is visited by an old flame, actress-turned-stripper Velvet La Rose. Velvet’s brother Frankie, who had joined the Army after 9/11, has disappeared, leaving behind a warning note for Velvet to “watch her back.” Eddie’s investigation leads him into an area of La-La Land that the Chamber of Commerce pretends doesn’t exist—the encampments of homeless men and women living on the streets. While the investigation is interesting—what’s in those cartons being stored in a large warehouse, and what do they have to do with the missing brother?—the heart of this story is Eddie’s reaction to Velvet’s reappearance in his life. In short, the book’s more intriguing moments are wrapped around the love story, not the mystery. Eddie is a good guy who has a talent for getting himself into bad places, but unlike most of Tinseltown’s cynical PIs, this eminently likable protagonist maintains enough inner innocence to make an unlikely love story believable, even when the weather turns bad.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 20:04:12
Seeds of Revenge
Betty Webb

Wendy Tyson’s Seeds of Revenge is set in Winsome, Pennsylvania, a small farming community. It’s winter, and the locals’ enjoyment of the freshly fallen snow is cut short when a dead body is discovered in a rental house. Dr. Paul Fox, a psychologist, has been murdered, and the cause of death is determined to be poisoning via a rare phosgene gas. Stepping up to the suspect plate is Becca, the victim’s daughter, who has a master’s degree in chemistry. Becca describes herself as a love chemist (she sells love potions at $175 a pop), and is widely known to have loathed her father, frequently describing him as sadistic. She also claims her father murdered her mother. Becca’s brother Luke refutes her story, claiming that his sister is mentally ill. Brought into this murderous mess of claims and counterclaims is organic farmer Megan Sawyer, who at first believes Becca’s story, then later begins to doubt it. Megan’s aunt Sarah, a successful mystery author, also becomes enmeshed in the case when it turns out that the murder method mirrors the plot of one of her own books. As more is discovered about the dead man—he might have been as terrible as his daughter described him—more suspects begin to emerge. Although bearing all the hallmarks of a cozy (small town, interesting characters, no sex, little blood) Seeds of Revenge is a complicated and eminently readable mystery. The reveal is complicated, too, but author Tyson plays fair by setting up the motive early on, doing so in such a way that most readers will miss the obvious. If there is any problem with this mostly enjoyable book, it is in the characters’ names. Because of the author’s fondness for certain letters of the alphabet, too many of the names look and/or sound alike: Bibi, Bobby, Bonnie, and Becca; Megan and Merry, etc. This sort of thing requires the reader to often flip pages back and forth to see which of the soundalikes said and did what, which can be irritating.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 20:07:38
The Book of Love and Hate
Betty Webb

Lauren Sanders’ The Book of Love and Hate takes a muted look at the human condition while beginning and ending at the Zurich, Switzerland, airport, with its true backdrop being the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Backdrop” is the operative word here, because the protagonist Jennifer Baron—who lives in Tel Aviv—doesn’t care about the crisis. She is so self-absorbed that she pays little attention to the shattered lives around her. In fact, Jennifer is so self-absorbed that she verges upon the novelistic no-no of being unlikable. How self-absorbed is she? At one point, she says, “This war is nothing but a nuisance for me.” As the book ranges back and forth from the Israel of 2008 to Jennifer’s early New York childhood, we begin to understand why she’s buried all her emotions, especially empathy. For starters, her ghastly father is worse than she is. A financial criminal, he’s being chased back and forth across the globe by various government agents. To evade his pursuers, he continually fakes his death. It doesn’t matter to this awful man that each time he “dies,” he breaks Jennifer’s heart. As a result, she’s learned not to feel anything, no matter how dire the situation. But her father isn’t the only viper in the family nest. Her wealthy, art-collecting mother has tired of motherhood, and prefers that Jennifer doesn’t even visit. That’s not all. Jennifer’s brother Marc is seriously mentally ill (there is a quick reference to burning a squirrel alive), but Jennifer isn’t without fault here, either. While a child, she treated her brother sadistically, a behavior she learns to regret. As bombs continue to explode in Israel and Palestine, Jennifer eventually begins paying attention, but although the book is beautifully written, her recognition of the world’s pain may come too late for some readers.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 20:18:30
Bel, Book and Scandal
Lynne F. Maxwell

Bel, Book and Scandal is Maggie McConnon’s third entry in her delightful Belfast McGrath Mystery Series. McConnon, whom you probably know as Maggie Barbieri, veteran author of the Murder 101 and Maeve Conlon Novels, presents a compelling Christmas mystery of sorts. Belfast “Bel” McGrath, series protagonist, is a renowned chef who had an infamous public meltdown in the exclusive Manhattan restaurant where she worked. She has since repaired to Shamrock Manor, her family’s upstate New York manse and business. Bel and her cadre of brothers play a role in booking events for the venue and ensuring their success. Bel’s culinary skills are particularly useful in the venture. While Bel is relatively happy at home, she is still traumatized by the long-ago disappearance of her best friend when they were teenagers. Despite the fact that no body has been found, Bel, like the other townsfolk, assumes that Amy has been dead all of these years. Imagine Bel’s shock, then, when she stumbles upon a photo of Amy in an article about a defunct commune in the area. Thus begins Bel’s quest to find out what happened to Amy.

Bel, Book and Scandal is a haunting exploration of secrets past and present. McConnon/Barbieri does a superb job of conjuring up the era of communes and free love, even as she focuses upon the dark side of the times. Readers will appreciate Bel’s acumen and humor, as she pieces together the mystery of her friend’s disappearance. This is a series that just keeps getting better and better. I, for one, can’t wait to ring in the New Year with the new Bel McGrath!

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 20:21:53
The Midas Legacy
Hank Wagner

The captivating adventures of Andy McDermott’s Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase continue with the series' 12th installment, The Midas Legacy. As those familiar with the series might have assumed, life hasn’t slowed down a bit for Wilde, an American archaeologist, and Chase, a Brit ex-Special Air Service vet, even as they actively attempt to settle into a more sedate, family-oriented lifestyle with their young daughter, Macy. In this adventure, they uncover some documents attributed to an ancient Atlantean explorer, which triggers a search for the legendary Midas Cave, and also leads to revelations about Nina’s family, specifically her mysterious grandmother, whom she has not seen in decades. Reminiscent of the best of Clive Cussler and Matthew Reilly, The Midas Legacy is a worthy addition to McDermott’s canon; as usual, the intrigues are numerous, the action non-stop, and the adventure relentlessly gripping.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 20:26:18
Collared
Dick Lochte

When it comes to combining humor and homicide, few do it better than Rosenfelt. And then there are the dogs. This is very much a canine-centric series. Andy Carpenter, the novels’ lawyer-sleuth, now married with a young son, has two “best friends”—a lovable golden retriever named Tera and Sebastien, a basset hound. He and a pal named Willie Miller also operate a dog-rescue shelter. That’s where a mysterious woman abandons a border collie. An embedded chip informs Andy and Willie that the animal is the notorious “DNA dog.” Two years before, a baby and a border collie were taken by a kidnapper. A former boyfriend of the baby’s mother was arrested and sentenced for the crime when dog hairs, identified as the collie’s by DNA, were found in his apartment. Neither dog nor baby reappeared, until the former was left at Andy’s shelter. Naturally, he feels compelled to investigate, with Rosenfelt once again concocting a complex and tricky sinister plot leavened with wit that ends with its puzzle parts satisfyingly completed. Gardner’s rendition of Andy’s narration is smart-aleck yet self-effacing, unruffled yet impatient, reluctant yet determined. It’s an audio portrait of a man who has to be pushed into action, but once on the move is unstoppable. And he loves dogs.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 20:29:16
H.C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune and the Golden Age of Detective Fiction
Jon L. Breen

Bailey and Fortune, in their time (1920s through 1940s), were among the most popular and critically admired author-detective teams in fiction. According to Blackwell, Bailey was one of the Big Five of British Golden Age writers, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, and R. Austin Freeman. In the years since, the reputations of the two women have survived but the three men have slipped somewhat, none so much as Bailey, whose relative obscurity Blackwell finds unjust. To prove his point, he analyzes at length not only the Fortune stories but those about his predecessors and contemporaries, from Dupin through Queen and Poirot. Identifying ten types of detective characters, Blackwell believes he can squeeze Fortune into eight of them (Eccentric Thinking Machine, Scientist, Psychologist and the Intuitive, Defender of Justice, Philosopher, Erudite Scholar, Aristocrat, and, most surprisingly, Hard-Boiled), leaving only Ordinary and Mystical/Psychic. In the course of urging the reader to explore Fortune, Blackwell makes a tantalizing case for such characters as T.S. Stribling’s Henry Poggioli, Melville Davisson Post’s Uncle Abner, William Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens, M.P. Shiel’s Prince Zaleski, Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways, and Clyde B. Clason’s Theocritus Westborough. A chapter comparing Fortune to other popular detectives concludes with a terrific selling job on Blackwell’s choice of ten best Fortune stories. A chapter on the reasons usually given for the popular decline of Bailey and his character effectively debunks most of them. Appendices list “The Most Memorable Golden Age Detective Stories” (only Doyle and Chesterton have more titles chosen than Bailey) and contents of the Fortune short-story collections and novels.

Rare errors: there were 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories, not 55; Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers never appeared in silent films, having made her print debut in the sound era; and it’s not true that Philip Marlowe appeared only in novels.

Teri Duerr
2017-11-28 20:32:00