I’ve been gobbling up the Inspector Ian Rutledge historical mystery series by Charles Todd and A PALE HORSE is a prime example of what makes this post-WWI series so irresistible. You get a travelogue of Great Britain, layers of plot complexity, and a flawed hero who lives on the edge of madness caused by bloody and senseless war.
It’s 1920 and Rutledge is an inspector with Scotland Yard with jurisdiction to investigate across Britain. His first case is an unidentified body wearing a theatrical cloak and a war-time gas mask, found in the ruins of an abbey in Yorkshire. Having spent 4 years as an officer in the trenches of France, Rutledge is somewhat of a ruin himself.
He hears the Scottish voice of his dead sergeant Hamish, a voice so real that he cannot turn around for fear of actually seeing the man. Hamish was executed by firing squad for refusing to lead his men in another suicidal charge through no-man’s land. As the officer in charge, it was up to Rutledge to deliver the final shot. Moments after doing so, a German mortar attack killed everyone in the trench except Rutledge who was shielded when Hamish’s dead body fell on him.
The mystery of the unidentified body in Yorkshire soon merges with that of a missing Berkshire scientist who lived in a small cluster of cottages built near the mysterious silhouette of a horse cut into a chalk hill by ancient people. As Rutledge probes the disappearance, each of the other residents of this strange little community reveal their secrets. Soon Rutledge isn’t just trying to identify the dead or find the missing but solve multiple murders.
I’m always fascinated by plot construction and the Rutledge books follow a 3-act template. Act 1 is all about setting the scene and the pace is measured. Things pick up in Act 2, but Rutledge frequently revisits locations or questions the same people again and again, uncommon technique for a mystery author. The pace is fastest in Act 3 as clues lead to a major climax.
Throughout it all, Rutledge and Hamish debate the cases and taunt each other. Thanks to some of the best writing out there, we see how Hamish is a product of Rutledge’s troubled conscience. Here’s an example from A PALE HORSE, as Rutledge contemplates a lost love:
She was another man’s wife, now. Not his, never his . . .
Hamish, at his shoulder, said only, “It was verra’ different with my Fiona. I should ha’ come home to her, and left you dead in France. Your Jean wouldna’ have missed you . . .”
The voice was sad, as if half convincing himself that this was true.
Together the two men, one of whom didn’t exist, went back to the flat.
Highly recommended. Find A PALE HORSE on AMAZON.
I love Goldberg’s Ian Ludlow series, starting with the ridiculously wonderful KILLER THRILLER, in which a nerdy writer repeatedly saves the world, but I was willing to go along for a more serious ride in BONE CANYON. A traditional police procedural, BONE CANYON delivers the same high speed action, unfussy writing style, and excellent plot development.
Related: Book Review: KIller Thriller
Eve Ronin is a detective for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, assigned to the Lost hills station near Calabasas, California. She used some inadvertent notoriety to climb the career ladder to her current assignment, a detail which has not endeared her to many colleagues. Meanwhile, her partner is counting down the days until he can retire and Eve is more or less estranged from her has-been showbiz parents.
Her life isn’t perfect, but Eve is making it work. She’s stubborn, athletic, committed to the job. I think she sounds a lot like Detective Emilia Cruz, albeit with a racing bicycle instead of a white Suburban.
The latest wildfires have cleared the hillsides, revealing the bones of a long-dead woman. Eve is able to make a positive identification and discovers that the dead woman was raped shortly before she disappeared.
Eve investigates the rape, assuming a connection to the woman’s death, when a second body is found. As the investigation continues, Eve’s chief suspect becomes another member of the Sheriff’s Department. With her notoriety now a liability, Eve faces danger herself.
Goldberg fans will love the reference to Hollywood and the Vine, the cheesy cop show Ian Ludlow ostensibly wrote. It’s a moment of fun that lightens a seriously good whodunit. All the threads wrap at the end, along with a teaser that primes us for the next Eve Ronin tale.
BONE CANYON is the second book in the Eve Ronin series, following LOST HILLS, but stands alone quite well.
I’ve been roaming Amazon, looking for historical fiction set in the blue collar world of the 1920’s and 30’s and won the prize when I discovered BACK SIDE OF A BLUE MOON, the first book in Caleb Pirtle’s Boomtown Saga trilogy. Part Music Man, part Grapes of Wrath, beautiful, haunting prose paints a tale you can see as well as if it was on the big screen.
And what a story it is!
The Depression and drought have combined to kill Ashland, Texas. The town on the banks of the Sabine River in east Texas is worn out and no one is as worn out as Eudora Durant. Once the town beauty, she’s now married to an abusive husband and stuck on a farm that can no longer sustain them. Her neighbors are selling off and leaving, their lives destroyed.
One night Eudora’s husband goes too far and she defends herself with the shotgun. When he isn’t seen around for some time, the sheriff starts asking questions, as do the townspeople. Eudora claims he took off but suspicion grows.
Good riddance to bad rubbish, as the saying goes. But where is his body? Without it, the sheriff can’t arrest Eudora, no matter what the gossips say.
Meanwhile, Doc Bannister comes to town, one step ahead of the law. He’s Hugh Jackman in the Music Man but instead of promising a boy’s band complete with uniforms and instruments, he’s going to use a homemade “doodlebug” machine to find oil and make Ashland richer than King Midas.
Doc is one of the best-written characters I’ve come across in quite some time. In his white suit and straw hat, he’s a breath of fresh air blowing life back into Ashland. He’s a rogue, yet a hard worker. Slippery yet drawn to the concept of stability. He knows just how to convince and manipulate while appearing honest and sincere.
In short order, he convinces everyone to part with their last two nickels to invest in his oil syndicate. Doc starts drilling on Eudora’s land, claiming to “smell” the oil below the surface, as the sheriff prowls around.
The suspense is multi-faceted. Is Doc a con artist or does he really know what he’s doing? Did Eudora really kill her husband? Will she be charged? What is going to happen to everyone who invested?
Perfectly true to time and place, the book veers more toward literary fiction than traditional mystery but it was too good to keep to myself!
It’s only available in Kindle format on AMAZON.
I was already a fan of this author duo’s espionage thrillers but COMMAND and CONTROL by David Bruns and J.R. Olson ratchets up the intensity to truly epic levels.
Buckle up, because this a fast-paced thrill ride through an ocean churning with conflict, tech wizardry, and global politics.
A string of unexplained attacks on US military forces have one thing in common: the latest Russian weaponry. Soon US forces are spread thin, not only in response to multiple threats, but also because of the new president’s vow to oust the illegal Maduro regime in Venezuela. As conflicts rage across the globe, a terror attack decimates the US Navy’s top brass gathered for a conference at Annapolis.
Don Reilly is head of the CIA’s Emerging Threats Group (a fictional unit) with access to the highest level of US policymakers (and enjoys a very enviable and fictional lack of bureaucratic red tape LOL).
He’s desperately trying to connect dots around the globe. Why would the Russian president, a thinly disguised Putin, want to go to war now? Why has North Korean suddenly decided to jettison its nuclear program? How was the Venezuelan military, on the brink of starvation and out of hard currency, able to procure the latest in Russian military technology? Who was behind the Annapolis terror attack?
Things aren’t adding up. Yet the world is hurtling toward war.
Besides Don, the cast of characters ranges from a shadowy operative who is enabling the transfer of Russian weaponry to global hotspots, to the Russian president who believes one of his inner circle is betraying him, to the US Navy admiral who must make life and death decisions as he sails his fleet into harm’s way near the Bering Strait.
Scenes are fraught with tension, and almost all are either turning or decision points. This is a long book, but it is all muscle, no fat.
Like Tom Clancy’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, there is lots of military activity and technology here, but kudos to the authors for knowing that not every reader appreciates a data dump or pages of tech jargon. Instead, swift explanations enhance the action. Bruns and Olson bill themselves as the Two Navy Guys and their expertise shows. The scenes at sea are absolutely authentic.
The book puts you on the bridge of the aircraft carrier as radar tracks incoming danger. You are in the submarine as the Russian communications cable is hacked. You are in the helicopter as the missile zeroes in.
You are turning pages as fast as you can. Expect chills up your spine.
COMMAND AND CONTROL is the first book in a trilogy. The second, COUNTERSTRIKE is also available.
Get COMMAND AND CONTROL on Amazon here.
First off, let me confess that I’m such a fan of the Richard Sharpe historical thriller series that we own ALL of the Sharpe television episodes starring Sean Bean (on video) AND the Sharpe board game which is like Risk but cooler.
So I was thrilled that Bernard Cornwell published SHARPE’S ASSASSIN in 2021, which puts a final coda on the amazing career of his fictional British soldier. The first book, SHARPE’S EAGLE, came out in 1981 and introduced Richard Sharpe, a rifleman in His Majesty’s Army during the Napoleonic Wars who is promoted into the officer ranks for gallantry in battle. 25 books later, Sharpe is fighting Napoleon’s last gasp with the same fantastic period details, historical lessons, and memorable characters that have entertained (and educated) millions.
In SHARPE’S ASSASSIN, Napoleon has been defeated at Waterloo, but the wily ex-Emperor remains at large. Remnants of the French army fight on against a coalition of British and Prussian forces. Now a lieutenant colonel, Sharpe’s battalion was mauled during the fighting at Waterloo. Indeed, the story begins as Sharpe and ever-faithful sergeant Patrick Harper are burying long-time friend Dan Hagman.
Summoned to the headquarters of the Duke of Wellington, Sharpe is given an unorthodox new assignment.
He must capture a citadel in a town that has yet to surrender, in order to rescue an important prisoner held by the French. It’s a fool’s errand but the prisoner has information about a cohort of fanatical Frenchmen called la Fraternité determined to carry out assassinations and restore Napoleon to power. Wellington himself is in the groups’ crosshairs.
As in every Sharpe book, the action is breathtaking with great imagery, perfect pacing, and a sense of big things at stake. Sharpe doesn’t come through these skirmishes unscathed; we can almost smell the blood and choke on the dust, feel our arm weighted by the heavy sword and shudder from the recoil of the rifle as the leather-wrapped ball sings through the air.
What I loved about SHARPE’S ASSASSIN is the way Sharpe’s entire career is referenced, as well as his uncertain birth, which allows us to relive his major exploits and the battles he so narrowly survived. This goes back to when he was flogged–before being promoted to an officer–and the way in which Sharpe gets his revenge is supremely delicious.
His romances are there, too. (Let’s face it, Sharpe was hardly celibate as he marched from Portugal to Belgium.)
But what makes this final Sharpe adventure so outstanding is that Sharpe has finally met his match in a French officer whose reputation for fearlessness and victory in battle matches his own. It was the perfect way for the series to come full circle, only deepening my belief that Bernard Cornwell has no equal as a storyteller.
THIEF OF SOULS by Brian Klingborg
I love a mystery with a unique plotline in which a crime or a twist (or both!) is only possible because of the setting. And I love an author who pulls me into that setting and makes me experience it in an almost tactile fashion. THIEF OF SOULS is Brian Klingborg’s first Inspector Lu Fei mystery and he does all that and more.
There aren’t many police procedurals set in China to begin with and Klingborg goes for the doubly unexpected by avoiding Beijing, the locale of Peter May’s China Thrillers (THE FIREMAKER, etc) and bringing us north to Raven Valley, a mostly rural township outside Harbin. Lu Fei is the deputy chief of the Public Security Bureau there, answering to an ambitious boss who knows the best way to get ahead is to avoid doing anything controversial. The place is dull, leaving the single Lu plenty of time to drink at the Red Lotus and moon over the comely proprietress Yanyan.
A young woman’s murder upends the cycle of boredom and drinking, especially when it is discovered that her vital organs have been removed and the body sewn up neatly. Both security and Communist Party officials from Beijing descend on Raven Valley and China’s complicated internal workings go on display for the uninitiated.
Lu is soon caught between his old boss in Harbin, who hates his guts, and the upwardly mobile Beijing officials who will take credit for his work if he solves the murder and stick a knife in his ribs if he doesn’t. Or just because he’s inconvenient.
The book really delivers a look inside a system where the political party dictates reality based on the various players’ struggle for power. Everyone else must comply, no matter how illogical. In this way, the book is similar to Martin Cruz Smith’s groundbreaking Arkady Renko series which showed the warped logic of the Soviet Communist Party in GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE, etc.
Even as the most convenient suspect is pressured to confess, Lu investigates the victim’s posh lifestyle in Harbin, which is a huge contrast to rural Raven Valley where her body was found. He eventually connects her to a senior Party official. But that’s hardly the end of the case.
The book is fantastically atmospheric, with a sprinkling of Chinese poetry, wise sayings, and Chinese language words which are always put in context. I read it in two days, thoroughly immersed in the story and characters. The ending felt a bit rushed, but maybe that was me reading it at warp speed.
Bottom line? I’m grabbing the second Inspector Lu Fei novel as soon as it comes out.
Get THIEF OF SOULS on Amazon
KILLER THRILLER by Lee Goldberg
Action thriller writer Ian Ludlow is at it again in this zany unputdownable page-turner, the sequel to the equally wonderful TRUE FICTION. Like TRUE FICTION, KILLER THRILLER combines an over-the-top plot with author Goldberg’s own screenwriting chops.
As a result, the pace is brisk, the dialogue is clever, and the whole premise is refreshingly original and fun.
Ian Ludlow, a pudgy writer who lives in a bland apartment, is nothing like his main character, ultra cool action hero Clint Straker. Since saving the US from evildoers (in TRUE FICTION) Ian has gained a few pounds, written another best-selling Clint Straker thriller, and snagged a movie deal.
The movie Straker is being filmed in Hong Kong, and Ian is invited for a promotional jaunt. He arrives in Hong Kong with new assistant Margo French, his unlikely ally from TRUE FICTION. In short order, the movie script and Ian’s research for a forthcoming Straker book come to the attention of elements of China’s intelligence service.
These baddies are on the verge of completing an operation to take over the US by stealth. Ian’s notes eerily resemble the real-life operation. They assume he’s a CIA spy sent to thwart their operation.
Naturally, they have to get rid of him.
Add a ruthless assassin, a Wall Street Journal reporter whose identity is hacked by the Chinese, a Chinese starlet desperate to defect, and a whirlwind tour of Hong Kong, and Ian is once again riding a whirlwind and trying to figure out what Clint Straker would do.
Goldberg freely borrows from pop culture. There’s a little bit of Dr. Evil in our Chinese plotters. The president doesn’t mince words on Twitter. The star of Straker is a shortish action star named . . . wait for it . . . Damon Matthews.
Best of all, the action is punctuated by snippets of the screenplay for Straker which are so over-the-top that they deserve a place in the Pantheon of campy greatness. Not only do these excerpts provide some real laugh-out-loud moments, but they cleverly convey necessary technical details key to the plot.
Suspend disbelief, prepare to be entertained, and enjoy the crazy ride with Ian and Margo!
Get KILLER THRILLER on Amazon
HEAD WOUNDS is the most recent entry in the action-filled Dr. Daniel Rinaldi thriller series by Dennis Palumbo. Dr. Rinaldi is a Pittsburgh-based psychologist and police consultant with a few rough edges and a remorseless, deranged enemy.
The combination is an absolute page-turner.
Dan Rinaldi lost his wife Barbara 12 years ago in an unsolved mugging gone bad. As he reads a recently obtained dossier on the crime, a bullet smashes his living room window.
Outside, a gun-toting neighbor is angry and drunk. When the police arrive, the wife admits to having told her husband in a fit of pique that she’s having an affair with Dan.
She’s found dead not long after.
Other seemingly random incidents touch Dan’s life. In a shocking twist, Barbara’s killer is responsible.
Brilliant but unstable, Sebastian Maddox was obsessed with Barbara in college. Just released from prison for an unrelated crime, he wants to punish Dan for “stealing” Barbara by torturing Dan’s nearest and dearest before finally killing Dan in Hannibal Lector-worthy fashion.
A terrifying villain with an easily understood motive who had more than a decade to grow progressively more delusional and macabre, Maddox taps into Dan’s phone, laptop, and car GPS. Remote access to Dan’s digital devices gives Maddox personal details about his victims, which he puts to cunning and horrific use.
The two men play a heart-pounding scavenger hunt across Pittsburgh. Maddox meters out clues as to who the next victim will be and Dan races against time to try and save them. Warned by Maddox that more innocents will die if the police are involved, Dan is aided only by a female FBI agent (and soon-to-be love interest) and a retired FBI profiler. On the run from Maddox’s surveillance and exhausted from the endless tension, the trio nonetheless manage to dig up pivotal background material on the killer.
The entire book is written from Dan’s point of view and we’re in this with him every step of the way. We like his grit and the fact that he’s not some academic lightweight you can knock over with a feather. A former boxer with a bad temper and mean right hook, Rinaldi is a true son of Pittsburgh. A medical professional but not too polished, not too far from his blue collar roots.
The last half of the book is a speeding train. The non-stop pace, brash characters, and roller coaster events have a cinematic quality. I was reminded of the Lethal Weapon movies as well as Speed, The Silence of the Lambs and Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive.
It’s no surprise, then, to find out that author Dennis Palumbo is not only a practicing psychotherapist, but also a former screenwriter. His credits include the feature film My Favorite Year, which starred Peter O’Toole and has been one of my Top 10 favorite movies since forever.
The next Dr. Daniel Rinaldi book, PANIC ATTACK, is out next month.
Your heartrate will have slowed by then.
Find HEAD WOUNDS on Amazon.
THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY by Charles Finch
THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY is one of the early novels in the Charles Lenox historical mystery series, which is my new obsession. Imagine Victorian London through the eyes of an upper-class private detective, with great descriptions, 3-D characters and details out of a Dickens novel. As an added delight, there are sly references to iconic British authors like P.G. Wodehouse.
In short, the Charles Lenox mystery series is absorbing, authentic, and quite sophisticated.
Lenox is a bachelor in love with his London neighbor, Lady Jane, a wealthy widow whom he’s known since childhood. Asking for her hand in marriage requires courage, although Lenox is accustomed to not only solving gruesome crimes but the rigors of London society and the opinions of those who believe that an Oxford-educated man should do something more impressive with his talents. Be in Parliament, perhaps, like his older brother and many friends.
Independently wealthy, Lenox persists in his role as amateur detective. In THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY, a woman needs his help to find her son, missing from college at Oxford. Pleased to revisit old haunts, Lenox finds a connection to a London club called the September Society.
Only a handful of men belong to the club, which is exclusive to the point of anonymity. All members have links to the Army and to an obscure battle that provides a lesson into British colonial history.
Note on style
The descriptions of both London and Oxford are brilliant. The architecture, traditions, and landscape of Oxford is particularly well done as we explore the alleys and greens. Weathered stone and damp grass are underfoot, while wavy windows and spires rise above. Student life ranges between tutors, taverns, and games.
The plot races along as Lenox chases clues. The climax is a very satisfying surprise.
At this point, I’ve read 7 out of 14 Charles Lenox mysteries, which are best read in order. Lenox’s evolving life—marriage, children, a stint in Parliament, his own detective agency—features prominently. The books are fairly long and immersive, reminding me in style and tone of Anne Perry’s early William Monk historical mysteries.
I’m off to find the next in the series!
Find THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY on Amazon
DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal
Jane Rosenthal joins the small but vital community of authors using fiction to reveal the complexity and heartbreak of the US-Mexico relationship. DEL RIO confronts the issues of human trafficking and migrant labor and delivers a compelling story rooted in empathy and authenticity.
Del Rio, California, has fallen on hard times, thanks to cartels on the other wide of the US-Mexico border. Hometown girl Callie McCall is now the local district attorney, a tough cookie aiming for higher political office.
A dismembered teen is found on the edge of a citrus grove. It’s on Callie’s watch and she shoulders the responsibility. The case sends Callie deep into Mexico, pursuing facts no one wants exposed, least of all her own landowning family and devious ex-husband.
She’ll get unexpected help from Nathan, a widower who has been tricked into working as a tour guide to provide cover for a cartel boss. Together, they survive a gruesome “warning” in the form of mangled bodies and begin to unravel a complex tangle of money and crime.
Note on style
The thriller moves between Callie’s first-person point of view and Nathan’s narrative, allowing the intricate plot to unfold without confusion. Callie’s family is a big part of the trouble and having her chapters tell it directly is a clever device.
I really liked the character development throughout the book. Both Callie and Nathan learn troubling but impactful lessons about themselves. Callie’s ambition and Nathan’s self-pity are cast off as they encounter drugs, murder, and human smuggling and we like them all the better for it. A supporting cast of secondary characters pop with authentic descriptions and plot-twisting tricks.
The scope of the story, breadth of character motives, and clever narrative style resonate long after the last page is turned. This is such a timely book.
Get DEL RIO on Amazon
ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny
An entry in the Gamache mystery series that doesn’t take place in Three Pines? What is the world coming to??
Armand Gamache is once again head of Homicide for the Sureté de Quebec. He is on vacation in Paris to visit his grown children and await the birth of his newest grandchild. His billionaire godfather Stephen is there, too, making for a happy family reunion. That is, until Stephen is critically injured by a hit-and-run driver.
Witness to the accident, Gamache and his wife know this was no random accident but attempted murder.
Aided by his son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, until recently Gamache’s second-in-command and now working for a Paris-based multinational engineering firm, Gamache is determined to find out who wanted to kill his godfather. Together, they will uncover a string of mysteries, including a dead body in Stephen’s lux pied-a-terre and questionable links to the French Resistance during World War II, plus funny business at the engineering firm.
The action ranges across Paris, giving us an armchair tour through rainy arrondisements. We are swept across the city, from the legendary Georges V hotel to the wounded Notre Dame cathedral to the Luxembourg Gardens and dozens of points in between. Secrets and the unexplained nip at our heels.
Note on Style
The style is often staccato, with short, sharp sentences to heighten emotional impact.
She grabbed him to her again, and they held on to each other.
Weeping for Stephen.
A little of that goes a long way for me and I wish it was used more sparingly, but this technique keeps the drama high.
The plot of ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE, the 16th Gamache mystery, is solid. The climax was wholly believable and connected all the dots, especially when it comes to character development.
I loved the way the ending became a happy turning point for the Gamache narrative. My guess is that subsequent books will enjoy the original atmosphere and framework which underpin the success of the series.
Get ALL THE DEVILS on Amazon
THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman
What happens when the residents of a bucolic senior living community in England get together to investigate a murder? For starters, one murder becomes . . . many.
I’d read so many positive reviews of this book that I was primed to love it. And I did.
A local developer wants to add on to the Coopers Chase Retirement Village, home to Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron. They are the nucleus of the Thursday Murder Club, which gets together to review cold case files. The files belong to Penny, a retired police officer who has suffered a stroke and is incapacitated. The club is kept afloat by Elizabeth, Penny’s best friend and a wily former intelligence officer with contacts everywhere.
When the property developer dies under mysterious circumstances, throwing his plans to destroy the adjacent cemetery into disarray, the club decides to solve his murder. Elizabeth is the prime mover and uses the skills of each of the members to brilliant effect. Along the way, they’ll solve several other crimes that drift across the book like errant red herrings.
The novelty of the book is not only the subject matter, but the format. Joyce’s first-person diary entries are interspersed with scenes written from other points of view. All the voices carefully pull each other along through the complex case as each goes on their own small “hero’s journey.”
The more we get to know them, the more we love shrewd and mysterious Elizabeth, Joyce the man-chaser, Ibrahim the methodical retired therapist and Ron, the still-famous union activist and his son, a prize fighter making the circuit of talent competitions for the formerly famous. Add to the mix the two police officers who end up helping the club, as well as each other.
These well-drawn characters are so relatable that by the end of the book you’re ready for a drive to Coopers Chase. Luckily, I hear there is going to be a sequel.
Find THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB on Amazon