Book Review: THE SECRET HOURS by Mick Herron

Book Review: THE SECRET HOURS by Mick Herron

The Secret Hours by Mick Herron is a must-read spy vs spy thriller.

Like John le Carré’s A LEGACY OF SPIES, which tells the backstory of his iconic spy thriller THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, this tale of espionage cross and double-cross reveals past lives of those who populate Mick Herron’s Slough House series about misfit British spies.

Also like the le Carré thriller, the action swings between London and Berlin, with spy organizations looking to the past to solve today’s threats to their very existence.

Related review: A LEGACY OF SPIES

THE SECRET HOURS starts with heart-pounding action as Max, a retired academic living in the country, narrowly escapes a midnight home invasion. We get few clues about Max before the story moves to London.

There, a seemingly mundane government investigation called Monochrome. The purpose is to look at possible wrongdoing by the security service referred to as Regent’s Park, its address in London.

The two minimally successful civil servants assigned to run the admin side of Monochrome have little leverage and zero political power. The wily head of Regent’s Park maneuvers to keep official files out of Monochrome’s way.

This means that Monochrome is a paper exercise set up by the last Prime Minister that will stutter on until it can be closed down with a minimum of press coverage.

Except that an eye-popping stray file finds its way to Monochrome’s minders. A real witness is called to testify.

Through her testimony, we’re whisked to Berlin and tossed into a murky operation conducted by a larger-than-life British intel officer. After the fall of the wall, the witness, then a 20-something, was sent to the embassy in Berlin to keep an eye on him. She finds out that he is running an unauthorized operation to catch an East German Stasi officer who killed his agent, helped by her brother, a black market fixer.

The descriptions of a newly restored Berlin are fabulous. East meets West in the black market, seedy nightclubs, and crumbling buildings.

Besides the lush vocabulary and wry undertone, I really appreciated the sense of anticipation Herron creates; the certainty that you know something but you’re not sure what it is. The construction is flawless, including subtle verb tense changes to move the reader from the present into the past.

No one is who they say they are but if you’re read any of the Slough House books, go ahead and make an educated guess.

It’s what all the best spies do.


New Audiobook! Listen to LISTMAKER

New Audiobook! Listen to LISTMAKER

The audiobook version of the Detective Emilia Cruz novella, THE LISTMAKER OF ACAPULCO was just released on Audible. This is a “Virtual Voice” audiobook from Amazon.

It sounds surprisingly lifelike but the voice is not a human narrator.

If you have listened to any of the Detective Emilia Cruz audiobooks narrated by Johanna Parker that are available on Audible through Tantor Media (CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, DIABLO NIGHTS, KING PESO) you may be able to tell the difference.

An Audie and Earphone Award winner, Johanna has also narrated the young adult Mediator series by Meg Cabot, Jana DeLeon’s Ghost-in-Law series, and Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire books.

LISTMAKER is a standalone novella that takes place after the events in NARCO NOIR, the most recent novel in the series.

A notebook full of lists of names appears to be a record of bribes paid to dirty cops, but only a cartel killer Emilia put in the hospital knows the truth. When Emilia finds out, the notebook becomes her key to take down a ruthless gang leader. If only she could do the same to the head of the police union, who once again is threatening to upend her personal life.

4.7/5 stars! Reviewer Bruce U. wrote “Her smarts, fortitude, and compassion all come through in this story — and the big reveal took me by surprise, too.”

If you give the new audiobook a listen, I’d love to hear if you think this technology should be made available for more audiobooks.

The Listmaker of Acapulco novella

Find the Kindle and Audible audiobook editions on Amazon

Book review: The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose

Book review: The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose

Molly Gray is the crime-solving Head Maid at London’s Regency Grand Hotel in THE MYSTERY GUEST the second book in the adorable and bestselling Molly the Maid series. Socially challenged, Molly has an eye for details that others miss.

The Regency Grand is thrilled to host famous mystery author J. D. Grimthorpe for a Big Announcement about his bestselling novels, many of which feature poisons. Reporters and mystery fans pack the hotel’s new Tea Room in anticipation. But before he can finish his speech and share the big reveal, Grimthorpe keels over dead.

Suddenly, Molly and her quiet maid-in-training are suspected of murder. The trainee was the last person to give Grimthorpe a cup of tea. Soon it’s revealed that the hot beverage was laced with car antifreeze.

Moreover, we soon learn that Molly met Grimthorpe years ago under difficult circumstances.

Molly narrates both her backstory and current events. The dual timelines are easy to follow, with backstory chapters starting with “Before.” Those intervals reveal how Molly’s mother was a drug addict—possibly accounting for Molly’s peculiarities–and left her child to be raised by her own mother.

Molly’s “Gran” was a maid working for the Grimthorpe family. When Molly is held back a grade because of her socially awkward ways, Gran takes her out of school and brings her to work at the mansion, where Molly meets Grimthorpe’s gorgon of a wife. The child is allowed to polish the silver and access the vast library next to her husband’s office.

All is fine for a few weeks, until Grimthorpe presses himself on Gran and Molly contrives to get her grandmother fired.

Once we know the backstory between Molly and the dead writer, the murder investigation takes on heightened tension. Suspicion is thrown on the hotel doorman, Grimthorpe’s fans, his personal assistant and other quirky characters. But it’s Molly, with her way of noticing what no one else does, who ultimately breaks the case wide open.

I absolutely loved Molly’s narration, from her way of referring to her boyfriend as “beloved Juan Manuel” to her clever rhyming cleaning mantras. Some might call this a cozy mystery but I’d say that the Molly the Maid books are in a class of their own.

Highly Recommended.


Writing advice from a balky mule and a train derailment

Writing advice from a balky mule and a train derailment

Readers often connect with me over the deep point of view style of the Detective Emilia Cruz series.

Writer and podcaster Patrick Greenwood specifically asked about this while taping an episode of his Writers on Espresso podcast, which you can find here:


The full answer to Patrick’s question has two parts.

Lessons from a balky mule

Remember that scene in Gone with the Wind when Rhett Butler abandons Scarlett O’Hara on the road to Tara? Sherman’s troops are burning Atlanta and he’s leaving her on a deserted road in the middle of the night with her frenemy Melanie about to give birth in a cart and the fires of Altanta licking at her skirts.

Scarlett’s mind jumps about, trying to remember what her father called balky mules so she can deliver the ultimate insult.

Reading that scene as a 5th grader, I was INSIDE Scarlett’s head, groping for the worst thing she can say that will sting Rhett Butler to the core. But all she can think of is to slap him and call him a cad.

I wanted to be able to write from inside the character’s head like that.

Channeling a train derailment

Like most writers, I use my own experiences, too.

This includes being in a train derailment in France during college.

One weekend my best friend and I took the overnight train from Paris to Italy. (Thank you, Eurorail pass.)

In the middle of the night, the train began to judder up and down. The sound was a terrifying boom boom boom boom. Luggage rained down from the overhead racks. We were tossed around the cramped compartment. People screamed and panicked.

The boom boom boom was deafening.

Screeching iron and sparks, the train car tilted over. We were flung helplessly against the side. Finally, canted at about a 40 degree angle, the car came to a screeching stop. We scrambled out of the windows into the utter darkness of the French countryside.

Later, we found out that a vehicle had fallen from an overpass onto the tracks right in front of the speeding train. As the engine chewed up metal and rubber, the first half of the train jumped the tracks. The boom boom boom was train wheels bouncing on the wooden ties. The first few cars fell over completely. Several people were killed.

In the inky darkness, we followed the tracks about two miles to the next station, a tiny country stop. A different train eventually came and collected us and we made it to Italy after all.

Years later, I can channel the adrenaline rush and heightened sense of awareness of that event. Those memories help me create the emotional perspective of Detective Emilia Cruz, from a fistfight in CLIFF DIVER, Book 1, to a panicked turn as a stand-in for a famous movie star in NARCO NOIR, Book 8.

And I do it to give each and every reader a deeper experience of what it’s like to be in Emilia’s shoes.

Cliff Diver book birthday

CLIFF Diver, the first book in the series, just turned 11. Although not my first published book, it’s the one that launched my career, paving the way for audiobook and film deals and a guest spot on NPR.

More importantly, CLIFF DIVER introduced me to an amazing community of readers who embrace Emilia in all she stands for: strength when times are tough, hope of better things, holding on when the tide wants to sweep you away, and finding love when you least expect it. They have been truly amazing, sticking with her (and me) through thick and thin over the past 11 years.

Thank you to each and every one of you!


Cover of Cliff Diver A Detective Emilia Cruz Novel

Cliff Diver is available everywhere. Click the cover to see it on Amazon.

The Forgotten Masters of World War II Thrillers

The Forgotten Masters of World War II Thrillers

In the aftermath of World War II and horror of the Holocaust, the now-forgotten masters of World War II thrillers including Herman Wouk, Ken Follett, and Leon Uris wrote sweeping sagas of lives torn apart by war for an audience that had lived through the violence and uncertainty of it.

I discovered these authors when I was in high school. Their fiction taught me more about the war than any teacher.

As AI churns out recycled fiction and attention spans shrink, it’s worth re-reading these Big Novels. Elegant sweeping sagas, they were written before authors discovered the 3-act formula popularized by television and movie pacing.

Through these classic wartime thrillers, re-learn the hard lessons of WWII at a time when the world seems determined to repeat the mistakes of the past. These masterful authors deliver an experience that lingers long after the last page is turned.

Note: Affiliate links go to author’s page on Amazon.


Now best known for his hefty cathedral series, this British author first gained international acclaim for his riveting WWII spy novels.

Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett

Key to Rebecca

A British intelligence officer in Cairo hunts for a wily German spy who is able to blend in with the locals as Rommel pushes inexorably across Northern Africa. The book has everything—urgency of battle, lives hanging in the balance, cat-and-mouse action, love among the ruins, a critical code to transmit instructions to Rommel and a breathlessly gripping climax. Possibly my favorite thriller of all time and the role model for my first thriller, The Hidden light of Mexico City.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Eye of the Needle

A German spy ends up on a tiny British island with a mission to signal German ships, but first he has to neutralize the dysfunctional family that lives there and maintains the lighthouse. The daughter becomes his unwitting foe as she slowly realizes who he is and what is at stake. There’s a scene in which she shoves a screwdriver into a light socket to cut his signaling capability that is so shocking (pun intended) that I’ve remembered it for decades.



Books by the prolific Leon Uris became iconic movies (Battle Cry starring gravel-voiced heartthrob Aldo Ray, Exodus starring Paul Newman and Sal Mineo.) His WWII novels exposed Nazi atrocities with unflinching courage.

Mila 18 by Leon Uris

Mila 18

An American woman and a Polish cavalry officer are star-crossed lovers in Warsaw as the German juggernaut rolls into Poland. A Jew, he is banished to the Warsaw ghetto where he’ll eventually lead the uprising, a last desperate stand. Seen through the eyes of a reporter who is determined to get the story out, the book is a tour de force. I’ll always remember the vivid scene in which a drunk explains what is going to happen to Poland, trapped between Germany and Russia, by sawing a ham steak in two. Exactly what happened IRL.

QB VII by Leon Uris


The title stands for Queens Bench VII, a courtroom in which a British character modeled on Nazi doctor Josef Mengele is on trial for crimes against humanity. After his political beliefs land him in a Nazi concentration camp, the doctor earned privileges by performing inhumane operations on Jewish prisoners. Years later, back in Britain with a new name, he’s exposed and ends up on trial. Mengele’s real experiments become his in the book, so this is not for the faint of heart. But so much is taken from what came out after the war that the book fairly vibrates with the truth. It became an award-winning mini-series, too.



Truly a writer of enduring classics, Wouk created unforgettable characters who are embedded in the collective memory of a certain generation.

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

The Caine Mutiny

The iconic saga of the USS Caine, a rusty minesweeper, is seen through the eyes of Willie Keith, a rich boy idling his life away playing piano in a dive bar. Willie joins the Navy, heads to the Pacific aboard the Caine. Captain Queeg of the Caine slowly becomes unhinged. Willie and other officers are tormented by his actions even while wracked by their own rivalries (and the Japanese). When the dam breaks and one of them relieves Queeg of command, he’s charged with mutiny. More comes out at the trial than expected. I saw Charleton Heston give an amazing performance as Queeg on stage at the Kennedy Center years ago, but Humphrey Bogart triumphed in the movie.

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

The Winds of War & War and Remembrance

An American family is caught up in the war, starting in 1939 when the father is the US naval attaché in Berlin. He is close to President Roosevelt and in the thick of diplomatic maneuverings as world slides towards war before commanding a battleship after Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, his grown children are each caught up in wartime drama, especially one son who is a civilian in Poland.

Both books became an award-winning mini-series. Over 140 million watched The Winds of War in 1983, a record audience at that time. Who can forget Jane Seymour getting an apple as the cattle car in which she is imprisoned snakes through a village? The first food she’s had in days, Jane eats the apple in a near trance of hunger, core and all.

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

I think of you

I think of you

This week, the Rome Arts Hall of Fame from my hometown sent out their annual call for nominations to previous inductees, including me (Hall of Fame Class of 2019.)

The letter came from Maria Rich, who scribbled a note in the margin of the letter: “I think of you every time I drive down East Dominick.”

Handwritten note from Maria Rich

She didn’t need to say more for us to share a moment across the miles. (Also it feels amazing when a reader really gets it.) East Dominick Street in Rome, NY, was the inspiration for Hamilton Street in the Galliano Club thrillers (affiliate link).

I was thrilled to think that the imaginary world of the historical fiction Galliano Club thriller books is alive on the real street.

street sign Rome NY

For those who have never traveled to Upstate New York, the area was a bastion of Italian immigration in the early part of the 20th century. Italian immigrants like my grandfather who was also a deputy sheriff of Oneida County, sweated in the mills and factories that built so much of America’s industrial infrastructure. For decades, 10% of all copper used in American manufacturing came from Rome, much of it processed in the Revere Copper and Brass Rolling Mill on Dominick St.

Related: From New York to Mexico and back again

Copper City sign

100 years later, Italian names still prevail. Don’t get me started about the fantastic Italian food to be found upstate

The InWoodOut blog has done an ACTUAL TOUR through upstate New York via the Galliano Club books! I’ve never read anything like it.

Enjoy the tour here:

2023 in Review: Highs, Lows and Turning Points

2023 in Review: Highs, Lows and Turning Points

How did your 2023 go? Mine went something like this.


I won the 2023 Silver Falchion award for Best Historical at the Killer Nashville International Writer’s Conference this year. The award banquet was Saturday evening, after 2.5 days of non-stop seminars, workshops, serious discussion and working lunches. So far I’d given a talk on Digital Deception and hosted the Author Speed Dating event. My name was fairly well known at that point.

When Master of Ceremonies Clay Stafford read my name as the winner in that category, the room erupted in cheers so loud that no one heard him read the title of the winning book, MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB.

Award for Murder at the Galliano Club Killer Nashville 2023

That so many author peers were so supportive made the win doubly meaningful. I’m so grateful to the Killer Nashville community. What a great group pf people.


Sadly, my 2023 low goes hand-in-glove with the high.

Writing the Galliano Club books during the Covid lockdown gave my mother something to think about. Every evening I’d call her and get her to tell me stories of growing up in Rome, NY, which became the model for the city of Lido in the books.

She’d constantly say how excited she was to read the books when they were finally published. But dementia has claimed her now and she is no longer able to read nor recall those conversations.

Turning Point

I want to know “What positive action can I take based on the information?” As an former intel officer, “actionable” is always what I’m looking for.

Always look for the details that can prompt forward motion.

Can we look over the past 12 months and recognize the moments that set us in a new direction? A decision that led to something fresh and unexpected?

Did it lead us in the right direction?

Sometimes these moments are lost in the clutter of everyday life. Or they happened so gradually that it seems like the new direction took shape naturally, without any conscious effort.

Most importantly, can we embrace the positive turning point and replicate it? Can we recognize the negative turning point and avoid another?

  • My first turning point in 2023 came when I discovered that the blogging platform is an amazing repository of marketing ideas. While this content is not specific to mystery authors, I can adapt this wealth of ideas from Australian writer Tim Denning, Alex Llull from The Steal Club newsletter, and Sharon Woodhouse, owner of the Conspire Creative agency, to name just a few.

Adopting a student mindset, I hope to expand my author business with fresh ideas from those experts and others in 2024.

An aside re I initially saw it as another stream of writing income. But after a few weeks, I realized that gaining traction there would take up too much time and energy away from fiction. No one is asking for my writing advice on Medium. They are, however, emailing to ask when the next Detective Emilia Cruz novel comes out.

  • In 2023, a second turning point was taking advantage of local sales opportunities. For the first time, I sold books at the Southern Festival of Books and at a fall craft market in my town. The latter event led to a partnership with 3 other small business owners to create the Literary Crime Club, a collection of exclusive quarterly soirées.

Crime Club logo

Each ticketed evening event will offer a unique literary activity plus snacks and adult beverages, as well as a thoughtful takeaway gift and a few surprises like raffles. Our first event of 2024 will be a Literary Scavenger Hunt!

So cast your mind back through 2023

  • Congratulate yourself on the highs and let go of the lows.
  • Find the turning points.
  • Learn from both the positive and negative.
  • Identify the actionable.
  • Grow the good.

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay | Literary Crime Club image copyright Lebanon Sisterhood. May not be used without permission.

Why Keepsake Journals Are on Everyone’s Wishlist

Why Keepsake Journals Are on Everyone’s Wishlist

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. – William Wordsworth

The Monocle Minute newsletter recently featured an interview with Luc Goidadin, creative director of Smythson, the “celebrated British retailer of stationery, diaries and leather goods.”

The topic at hand was a renewed embrace of pen and paper, specifically journals of all kinds. Instead of going out of business when everyone went digital, Smythson is seeing “an increase in the number of younger customers who are interested in tangible things that you can keep.”

Experience and Keepsake

People want to keep real records, to have a tactile experience with the written word. Goidadin said that “With notebooks – and the world of paper in particular – there is a sort of magic alchemy (my empasis) that happens when someone takes a handmade object and then starts putting notes in it. We have many customers, old and young, who send us photographs of the rows of notebooks and diaries that they have. They keep them as archives of their lives.”

According to Goidadin, diaries and journals have become keepsake gifts. “There’s something very special about giving a notebook or a diary to someone of any age. They’re gorgeous gifts that you know someone would use but many people buy them for themselves, especially at this time of year.”

I think this trend is going to grow, for the following reasons:

  Emotional Connection and Reflection

Keepsake journals help us connect with emotions and experiences, and keep them from vanishing amid the digital clutter. People are seeking deliberate and meaningful ways to process their thoughts. Meditation is gaining in popularity with apps like Calm and Headspace. In the same vein, keepsake journals provide a dedicated space for introspection.

  Personalized Storytelling

How we relate to events, food, books, and travel differ from person to person. We’re drawn to the idea of capturing that uniqueness by crafting our own narratives and personal stories. Paper journals can be customized with not only pen and ink but with photos, ticket stubs, and the odds and ends we collect along the way.

  Aesthetic Appeal

There’s something alluring about a beautiful journal with blank pages waiting to be filled in, especially if it has prompts to help us focus our thoughts. As we increasingly value the tangible and tactile experience of writing, a well made journal isn’t just a functional item but a beautiful display that says more about us than a coffee table book.

Bottom line, I think Mr. Goidadin must know what he’s talking about. At $285.00, Smythson’s 2024 leather-bound journal is already out of stock! (I prefer a Moleskine weekly planner, anyway. So there.)

Keepsake reading journal

At the much more reasonable price of $17.99, the Mystery Ahead book journal is also a keepsake. This unique oversized 250-page reading journal is designed to take you around the world, one mystery book at a time.

keepsake journal Mystery Ahead

Inside you’ll find

  • Introductions and fun facts about 7 world regions
  • 250 pages with large, easy-to-read print
  • 32 mini-reviews of the best mystery series from around the world
  • 80+ pages with easy prompts to write your own reviews
  • Annual reading log with space for 100 entries
  • Quotes and reflections on the reading life

Mystery Ahead reading journal interior view 1


Mystery Ahead reading journal interior view 3


Mystery Ahead reading journal interior view of blank review page

It’s the perfect keepsake reading companion. Get it for book club friends, grandparents, teachers, armchair travelers and anyone else who wants to keep a record—or an archive as Mr. Goidadin would say—of their reading life.

Find the reading journal on Amazon

Many fiction authors, self included, write longhand first. The act of putting pen to paper creates a connection between thoughts and letters to form words that the rushing demand of typing does not.

One of a dozen notebooks I filled writing THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

One of a dozen notebooks I filled writing THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

Once I hit “Publish” on this post, I’ll start channeling Pearl S. Buck by putting pen to paper to scratch out the next Detective Emilia Cruz mystery.

In a mood of faith and hope my work goes on. A ream of fresh paper lies on my desk waiting for the next book. I am a writer and I take up my pen to write.- Pearl S. Buck

Life Lessons from a Christmas Nutcracker

Life Lessons from a Christmas Nutcracker

When I was 11, I made a nutcracker for my mother for Christmas.

As a child, I was entranced by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. I’d never seen a real nutcracker but loved the music and a glimpse into a faraway place so different from my hometown of Rome, New York.

That homemade nutcracker is mine now, gracing the mantel every Christmas along with infinitely fancier and more expensive nutcrackers from travels in Austria and Germany. Yet he’s always the centerpiece of the display, not only for nostalgic reasons but because he represents a challenge met and a refusal to back away from a goal.

Tall nutcracker

As I had no money, a traditional nutcracker was far out of reach even if there had been a store in my hometown that sold them (not an Italian thing).

Figuring out how to make one wasn’t easy. I did, however, have some resources:

  • My grandfather’s workbench in the basement,
  • His collection of random cans of paint (remind me to tell you about the year he painted the picnic table a violent shade of orchid),
  • Access to household stuff, and
  • A vivid imagination.

I didn’t have the skill or equipment to make a traditional nutcracker but was willing to adapt to get close. Instead of a traditional figure with a belted waist, mine is made from straight pieces of lumber I convinced my grandfather to cut from a template I made.

A square block of wood is sandwiched between the two flanks, with space for the lever that forms the “jaws” to crack the nuts, affixed by a long nail running from shoulder to shoulder with the lever threaded through it. A marvel of engineering that actually works.

Profile of homemade nutcracker

He wears the color of paint from those random cans, including the eye-popping purple from the previous summer’s picnic table. The gold and silver paint came from my brother’s model car hobby.

I repurposed ordinary things to create the design. His nose is a One-a-Day vitamin (still intact after 50+ years), his buttons are pastina pasta painted silver–missing a few now–and his beard and hair are scraps of fabric.

IMHO he looks a little bit like Luigi Mario 🙂

Face of the homemade nutcracker

As I look back, there’s a big lesson. Adapt. Repurpose. Complete.

I’ll bet there are moments in the past that shaped the person you are now.

It doesn’t have to be an earth-shaking moment. Did you solve a problem? Take on a challenge? Achieve something unexpected?

The end of the year is a good time to reflect on those moments and let yourself be inspired anew by the positives.

Adapt. Repurpose. Complete.

New mantra for 2024?

Shepherd is a better Goodreads with a unique recommendation feature

Shepherd is a better Goodreads with a unique recommendation feature

It’s time to celebrate! is your new go-to book recommendation wonderland., is a new(ish) platform to find books. It’s considerably more interesting than Goodreads and has fewer trolls, too.

shepherd .com logo

What makes Shepherd so different is the vast number of recommendations that link similar books, plus a clean and easy to use interface.

Shepherd has a unique take on recommendations. Select authors are invited to recommend books similar to their own, both to give authors visibility but also to group “like with like” for the reader.

Most recently, Shepherd invited me to write about my 3 favorite reads of 2023. It was very hard to narrow down the list, but ultimately I chose books featuring strong female investigators. If you enjoy the Detective Emilia Cruz books, you’ll want to read these books, too.

Read my favorites page here and surf around Shepherd. I think you’ll find it refreshingly different and reader-friendly.

>> You can also read my list of Thrillers set in exotic locations on Shepherd.

Featured image of woman in desert by hudson-hintze-via-unsplash

Your top books of 2023, according to Mystery Ahead

Your top books of 2023, according to Mystery Ahead

Every year, I calculate which books in the Mystery Ahead newsletter were most popular with readers. The top books of 2023 were clicked on the most out of the 75 books featured in the newsletter this year.

One of my books claimed the top spot (not always the case!) followed by 2 sensational mysteries that are each part of a series but can be read as standalone novels.

Without further intro, here are the top 3 books Mystery Ahead readers loved this year. (All make great holiday gifts 🙂


Murder at the Galliano Club quote


MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB is the first full novel in the Galliano Club saga.

In 1926, thanks to Prohibition, it’s hard to find a beer in Lido, New York. But trouble is always on tap at the Galliano Club in this explosive start to the riveting Prohibition-era historical fiction crime series.

Winner, 2023 Silver Falchion Award for Best Historical

Social hub for the Italian immigrant community, the Galliano Club serves bootleg beer and Luca Lombardo’s signature sandwiches to workers from the city’s copper mills. The club means everything to Luca, who arrived in Lido with nothing left to lose.

He’ll do whatever it takes to keep the club afloat, even staying silent about a murder in the alley behind the building.

From her second-floor window, Ruth Cross witnessed the murder, but a scandalous past keeps her quiet.

Could gangster Benny Rotolo be involved? Run out of Chicago by Al Capone, he fled to Lido with a gun in his pocket and plans to establish his own bootlegging empire. He wants to turn the Galliano Club into his private speakeasy.

It’s hard to review my own books so here’s what Jim Nesbitt, author of the Ed Earl Burch series, had to say:

The book opens with what should be an un-adulterated moment of triumph for the working stiffs crowding the club and their cross-town Polish co-workers at the Lido Premium Copper and Brass Rolling Mill . . . In walks Jimmy Zambrano, mill foreman, shaking hands like a politician. He jumps up on the table to deliver a message from the bosses. The deal was done, the men would get their bonus money. But not all at once. It would be paid out across three days, in alphabetical order.

An uproar ensues . . . Cooler heads prevail and help Zambrano sell the payout schedule, including Luca Lombardo, [Vito] Spinelli’s right-hand man and club manager.

The party cranks back up and keeps rolling until closing time.

Less than an hour later, Lombardo steps outside the back of the club and finds Zambrano’s body partially stuffed under the frame of Vito Spinelli’s Packard. The dead foreman has been garroted with copper wire that bit deeply into his neck.

That shifts the story into overdrive. Murder, blackmail, rum-running, intrigue and double-crossing treachery introduce a cascade of characters, including crooked Irish cops, a Chicago fugitive from Al Capone’s gunsels, a larcenous blue-blood wannabe mill accountant, a fallen Broadway chorus girl with a horrible secret and a vivacious Irish bank employee who steals Lombardo’s heart.

Splicing this all together is Amato’s knowing eye for detail and intuitive feel for the temper of the times, the class divisions and the clannishness of immigrant communities struggling to make it in America.




most popular books of 2023

#2 RED WOLF by Liza Marklund

Earning more than Welcome to Stockholm, Sweden and the outstanding Annika Bengtzon series! I actually picked up this book because of the very cool cover and was immediately hooked, so much so that I found all the rest of the books in the series and absolutely devoured them.

Annika Bengtzon is an investigative reporter for Sweden’s #1 tabloid newspaper. She is a young mom with two kids, a faithless husband (who gets his comeuppance later in the series) and a big load of emotional baggage from having been trapped in a tunnel with a murderer on her last assignment.

Her new assignment is a retrospective on a 20-year-old terror attack on a Swedish air force base near the Arctic Circle. No one was ever found guilty. She heads up there to interview a local journalist who claims to have new information. When she gets there, he’s dead.

More murders follow, including that of a teen who might have seen the man who killed the journalist. Each murder is accompanied by a strange snippet of an essay, which eventually leads Annika to the Communist student clubs that flourished in Sweden in the 1960’s and 70’s. Some of her information comes from Q, the head of Sweden’s national crime squad, a shadowy figure who feeds her tidbits in exchange for what she’s found out.

What I loved about this series is Annika’s deep point of view and the ongoing sense of the character’s life from one book to the next. We are really inside her head, experiencing the highs and (mostly) lows of the investigation, newsroom politics, and her disintegrating marriage. Other points of view function as a supporting cast, including husband Thomas whom we love to hate, and perpetually harried editor Anders. Later in the series, author Marklund introduces a female cop who becomes both rival and friend, and her point of view becomes important as well.

I really got caught up in the series, in which crimes and characters from one book bleed into the next, almost as if Marklund wrote one enormous tome, then cut it into manageable books. You also get a great view of life in Sweden and its social conventions and norms, not to mention the biting cold when the action moves to the Arctic Circle.

For whatever reason, the series is misnumbered on Amazon and the book covers are not cohesive. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying this best-selling Swedish series, which was made into the Swedish-language television show Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter (Not to be confused with Annika, starring Nicola Walker as head of a UK Marine Homicide Unit). It is exceptional.

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#3 THE MONOGRAM MURDERS by Sophie Hannah

Mystery fans can’t get enough of Agatha Christie’s fussy Belgian detective (cue Kenneth Branagh, please!) and THE MONOGRAM MURDERS shows why. The new Hercule Poirot books by Sophie Hannah are spot-on, capturing the style and personality of the original books right down to Poirot’s tendency to speak of himself in the third person, identify the most obscure clues and solve multi-villain crimes.

Three people are found dead in a swank London hotel. They have all been poisoned. Two women and a man are each found in their respective hotel room, prone body positioned toward the door, and a monogrammed cufflink in the mouth.

What do the initials PIJ stand for?

Edward Catchpool, a young Scotland Yard detective, is assigned to the case. Poirot, who is taking a sabbatical of sorts by staying in the same boarding house, accompanies Catchpool to the scene of the crime. Catchpool, who deals with an inner struggle regarding the bodies of the dead, becomes Poirot’s foil and sounding board. Poirot delights in the role of teacher, making many clever (and correct IMHO) observations about human nature as they investigate.

The crime traces back to an old scandal in little village. As in so many Poirot tales, the final denouement reveals complex connections. Red herrings are ultimately complicit in the crime. The ending was impossible to guess! Only Poirot or an encyclopedia would know the tiny details that lead to certain supporting conclusions.

You almost need to graph out all the twists and turns to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

I loved the way the novel set up the crime, with clues that appear impossible to reconcile. What happened to the room service food? How did the killer escape? Why was one victim’s room key hidden behind a loose tile? Why did the waiter lie? The crime is tantalizing and the pages flew by.

Yet after so much brilliance, the last quarter of the novel moves at a glacial pace, with chunky dialogue in which the crime is picked apart and Poirot explains far too many extraneous bits of investigative genius.

But if you love Agatha Christie, Poirot’s return is “can’t miss” reading. So far there are 5 Poirot mysteries by Sophie Hannah, all incredible brainteasers like THE MONOGRAM MURDERS.


The Inspired Gift Guide for Mystery Book Lovers

The Inspired Gift Guide for Mystery Book Lovers

When it comes to online shopping, it can be hard to find that unique something special for someone special. But I’ve done the hard part, scrolling and sifting to find gifts for the mystery book lover in your life.

My exclusive gift guide offers a variety of gifts inspired by both the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series and the Galliano Club historical thrillers.

Jewelry to help her get through a tough day? Check.

Cookware designed by an iconic Italian chef? Check.

A coffee subscription to power midnight reads? Check.

Adult beverage kit and glassware for toasting success? Check and check.

Best of all, the gift guide features small businesses and those who support our veterans.

Check out all the gifts that will take the stress out of the holiday season. Curated with love for those who love a good mystery book.

Click here to see the complete Gift Guide for Mystery Book Lovers

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