Book Review: COVERT ACTION by David Bruns and J.R. Olson

Book Review: COVERT ACTION by David Bruns and J.R. Olson

Clear your schedule! Coming at you fast and low is a top-notch espionage military thriller with an eye-opening lesson in how China projects power around the world today.

Don Riley is the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) at the CIA, in charge of all HUMINT operations. The DO is also the entity tasked with covert operations, which means that the role of the US government is not “apparent or acknowledged publicly.” Covert operations are only authorized by a Presidential Finding, which outlines scope and purpose. (true)

Don’s eye is on the former Soviet “stans” in Central Asia where China is completing a railroad as part of the huge infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road initiative.

The project is rocked by terror attacks, supposedly from a home-grown group. In Beijing, a military hero is tapped for a new assignment: Get the railroad finished on time or else.

Meanwhile, the new Russian president is shut out of economic exchanges with Central Asian leaders, one of Don’s officers is combing the region for a missing US contractor, and a charismatic doctor is becoming the face of a new Central Asia cultural unity movement.

Basically, he’s the Ghandi of the stans, boosted by a female journalist who sees a big story as well as a potential love interest.

Believing the doctor can be an effective counterweight to Chinese influence, a Presidential Finding establishes a covert operation to support him. The job falls to Don, who finds it almost too easy . . .

There are many moving parts and a full score of characters. But you never get confused because Bruns and Olson have a knack of telling a character’s backstory in a very short amount of literary real estate and making it unforgettable, too. The prose is crisp, fast-moving and despite the complexity, the storyline is easy to follow.

COVERT ACTION is Book 5 in the Command and Control series by Bruns and Olson but reads like a standalone.

Highly recommended.

P.S. I’m starting to think that Bruns and Olson are a bellwether of sorts. Their fiction is a harbinger of real developments in the military/espionage/global conflict space.

For example, they described smart drones on the battlefield before those infernal devices became news stories. Now they give us China’s influential construction projects in not-so-sexy parts of the world. Expect to see Belt and Road issues in the news starting . . . soon.

Book Review: THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen

Book Review: THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen

THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen

This excellent thriller, with a cast of characters to root for and deft plotting, is one in a recent string of bestsellers built on the trope of retired spies called back into action because of an operation in the distant past that went sideways and must finally be put to rest in the present time.

Like SLOUGH HOUSE by Mick Herron and A LEGACY OF SPIES by John Le Carré to name the most well known, THE SPY COAST offers multiple points of view and timelines, as well as a hefty helping of authentic spycraft.

As a retired CIA officer myself, however, I’m happy that these tales are all fiction.

Now retired to Purity, Maine, Maggie Bird was a CIA operations officer who lived a nonofficial cover job as a logistics officer for a shipping company, specializing in textiles. Her off-the-radar life as a chicken farmer is disrupted when a woman appears at her door to ask for help finding a long-ago colleague named Diana Ward.

Maggie adamantly refuses—obviously there is bad blood between her and Diana. Shortly thereafter, the messenger’s dead body is dumped on Maggie’s driveway and a sniper narrowly misses Maggie as she feeds her chickens.

Acting chief of police Jo Thibideau is baffled by both crimes, as well as by the lack of background information on Maggie and her small circle of friends who have dubbed themselves the Martini Club.

Those friends are all Agency retirees, of course, with analytic and research skills and a global network that Jo will never have and there’s a great tug-of-war between the retirees and the cop, similar to the Richard Osmen THURSDAY MURDER CLUB books. Yet the real diamonds in this book are Maggie’s chapters in which she recounts Operation Cyrano, a murky CIA effort to capture a Russian mole inside the highest reaches of the British government by using Maggie’s unwitting husband.

Sixteen years ago, he was a doctor who worked for an upscale medical concierge service. His most important patient was a notorious British gunrunner and money launderer with epilepsy. Maggie’s assignment was to use her husband to gather intel on the man because the Russian mole was a business associate.

Diana Ward was Maggie’s control officer during the operation.

Now someone has stolen the Operation Cyrano files and is going after those involved.

Unlike so many spy novels featuring Russian evildoers, the plot did not take 12 sheets of graph paper charts to understand. The smooth yet brisk writing style made it a true page-turner.

THE SPY COAST is supposedly the start of a new series featuring Maggie and her circle of retired spies. I can’t wait for the next!

Find THE SPY COAST on Amazon

Book Review: THE BONE RECORDS by Rich Zahradnik

Book Review: THE BONE RECORDS by Rich Zahradnik

THE BONE RECORDS by Rich Zahradnik is a wonderfully edgy “everyman” thriller but don’t expect a Clark Kent action story. THE BONE RECORDS gives us a down-on-his-luck drama with a compelling sense of place and villains who are still fighting the Cold War.

Raised by his father, Griff Orlov grew up surrounded by the Russian diaspora on the rim of New York City. As the book opens, his father is missing and no one can provide any clue as to what happened. Griff has no choice but to sell the house where he grew up.

In the house for the very last night, Griff is shocked to see his father make a surreptitious entrance. Rushed and agitated, the father advises Griff to seek out a former girlfriend before they are interrupted by a stranger.

Griff’s father flees. Griff gives chase over the rooftops, only to see the stranger murder his father and disappear into the night.

Talk about an inciting incident!

When no one else seems to care about his missing-now-murdered father, Griff sets out to find the truth for himself. There’s a whiff of The Fugitive here, although instead of being a doctor, Griff is a lowly government clerk with zero money, a boss who is cheating the system and an ex-girlfriend who doesn’t want anything to do with him.

But Griff has few options other than to keep digging, which lead him to “bone records.”

These are Cold War-era X-rays that have been etched with music banned in the Soviet Union. Under Stalin and Beria, comrades found with Western music could expect a one-way trip to the gulag. Finding albums on the black market was nearly impossible.

But it was possible to record songs on the film used to make X-rays, if anyone could get it, making images of broken bones and skull fractures the base material for new recordings. Single songs were etched onto these makeshift vinyl album blanks for underground Soviet music lovers who risked everything just to hear a Beatles tune.

His father’s disappearance is connected to those youthful listeners, many of whom made their way to the United States. There are more twists and turns in the book than you can count, with multiple shades of gray painted on every character. My heart stopped a few times, sure that Griff was going to become a different sort of bone record himself!

This is a standalone, but I’d love to see Griff make a comeback as he unravels more Cold War era mysteries.

Find THE BONE RECORDS on Amazon.

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.


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.


Book review: RECKONING by Baron Birtcher

Book review: RECKONING by Baron Birtcher

New favorite series alert! Sheriff Ty Dawson solves murder and corruption cases in must-read police procedural RECKONING by Baron Birtcher.

Dawson joins Walt Longmire and Cork O’Connor as lawmen whose investigations are driven by a personal code of honor and the strength it takes to live and prosper in rural places. RECKONING is the long-awaited next book in Baron Birtcher’s police procedural series that takes place in Oregon in the 1970’s.

With Baron Birtcher

With author Baron Birtcher at the Killer Nashville international writer’s conference.

A rancher as well as a lawman, the suspicious death of a city cop in an abandoned resort puts Dawson at odds with power players in Portland. Meanwhile, a federal agency attempts to block a fellow rancher’s access to water. Both high-velocity issues take Dawson down roads littered with deception and false friends.

As the two investigations converge, Dawson finds himself practicing shuttle diplomacy, yet cannot trust anyone at the table.

The story moves briskly, propelled by crackling dialogue and descriptions that engage every one of the reader’s senses. More than any other writer I’ve read, Birtcher delivers a powerful sense of smell; it’s uncanny how this draws the reader into the scene.

There’s more corruption in 1970’s Oregon than you expect, and RECKONING delivers multiple shades of gray when it comes to those looking to grab what they can get, including a couple of really grasping cops you can’t wait for Dawson to outsmart.

Like Longmire and O’Connor, Dawson cannot prevent bad things from happening, but he can coax justice out of hiding.

Evocative writing, a human-sized hero, and a well-told story full of intrigue.

Highly recommended.

Get RECKONING on Amazon

Book Review: GRIMM UP NORTH by David J. Gatward

Book Review: GRIMM UP NORTH by David J. Gatward

Now and then, you stumble across a series that is simply captivating and you have to inhale one book right after the other.

The DCI Harry Grimm series set in the Yorkshire dales, is that kind of addictive series. GRIMM UP NORTH is the first and a terrific introduction to the character as well as the place.

Harry Grimm’s face was rearranged by an IED in Afghanistan when he was an elite British paratrooper. Years later, he’s a senior detective in Bristol, his hometown, handling investigations his own way. Not only is he a bit heavy-handed, he’s bent on showing every criminal he comes across a photograph of his father who 20 years ago killed Harry’s mother and messed up his baby brother. The dad was never caught but Harry’s determined to bring him to justice any way he can.

Irritated by his latest escapade, Harry’s boss bundles him north temporarily to Wensleydale, land of All Creatures Great and Small and Last of the Summer Wine. Culture shock ensues.

Part of the magic of the series is seeing the undulating rural landscape through Harry’s eyes.

Yorkshire Photo by Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash

Photo by Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash


His first task is to deal with reports of a missing teen girl.  Of course a body turns up, half submerged in a lake popular for nighttime swimming. But the body is not the girl.

It’s up to Harry to find the connections and expose the liars, of which there are many, all while getting to know his new team and come to grips with the fact he could be stuck in the hinterlands for an extended period.

The descriptions of the landscape are so evocative, you’ll feel almost there. All the books primarily focus on the central crime, without too many distractions. While Harry’s family situation is a running subplot through this book and the ones to come, it’s not a looming presence. As a result, the books move fairly quickly, punctuated by strong dialogue, expertly drawn characters, and Harry’s growing attachment to the dales.

Highly recommended. Get GRIMM UP NORTH and all the Harry Grimm books on Amazon.

If you want more Yorkshire landscape, check out the latest film adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small starring Samuel West and Nicholas Ralph as vets Siegfried Farnan and James Herriot. The series has been on PBS, with the 4th season coming in January.

Book Review: THE TWYFORD CODE by Janice Hallett

Book Review: THE TWYFORD CODE by Janice Hallett

At first, I was skeptical of a book made entirely of audio transcripts. No, let me back up. At first, I assumed that the audio transcripts were a clever introduction and then the rest of the book would be standard fiction prose.

But in fact, The Twyford Code is entirely made up of fictional audio transcripts. And it is fabulous. Basically, it is a mystery within a mystery within a mystery. There may be more. I’ve lost count.

Most of the transcripts, supposedly given by law enforcement to a professor who is an expert in codes, are the transcribed recordings made by Steven “Little Smithy” Smith, upon his release from prison. Smith was a member of the Harrison family gang and spent 11 years behind bars for murder of one of the Harrison brothers.

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He learned to read in prison, which also gave him ample time to reflect on the strange disappearance of his favorite teacher. Miss Iles taught remedial reading to a small class when Smith was 14. After she disappeared, he never went back to school but embarked on life as a driver, enforcer and all-around criminal henchman for the Harrisons.

Smith is convinced that the teacher’s disappearance is connected to a book that Miss Iles confiscated from him, written by long-forgotten children’s author Edith Twyford. He begins to record his search for clues to the teacher’s disappearance using an old phone given to him by his estranged son. The recordings document Smith’s efforts to contact old school friends, strange clues in Twyford’s books, and a search for World War II treasure.

Not only is this an absorbing mystery for the reader to puzzle out with our ex-con, but there are clues planted throughout the book that point to a completely different mystery involving Smith’s sad past, the missing teacher, and the estranged son. And a third story twist. And then there is an actual code you can solve.

No spoilers, but this is an amazingly clever book on so many different levels. You may have to read it twice.


Book Review: RED KNIFE by William Kent Krueger

Book Review: RED KNIFE by William Kent Krueger

RED KNIFE by William Kent Krueger

This dramatic addition to the outstanding Cork O’Connor series has it all: a main character firmly grounded in both past and present, intriguing secondary characters, red herrings in abundance, and a central mystery that seems impossible to solve until it is.

This is the 9th book in the Cork O’Connor series but reads as a standalone. We get just enough backstory for context as we are swiftly immersed in setting and pivotal relationships.

No longer sheriff of rural Tamarack County, Minnesota, O’Connor is taking on private investigator jobs in his town of Aurora near the Ojibwe reservation. O’Connor is part Ojibwe and straddles the divide between those who live on the Native American reservation, where poverty runs rampant, and the rest of the county.

There’s a rapidly-growing militant Ojibwe gang called the Red Boyz on the reservation. O’Connor is surprised when leader Alex Kingbird asks for help.

When Kingbird and his wife are murdered shortly after speaking with O’Connor, the likely suspect is a rancher whose daughter died after using drugs provided by a member of the Red Boyz who is now on the run. The fugitive is another possible suspect. Kingbird knew the dealer’s location and considered handing him over to law enforcement.

O’Connor is roped into helping the sheriff and finds himself bouncing between the Ojibwe and his former colleagues in the sheriff’s department. His family is caught up in the drama, too, especially his daughter who is about to graduate from high school and is friends with Kingbird’s younger brother.

Lots of action, authentic portrayals of rural America, a rash of nasty surprises. Resolution across all the subplots that help to propel the mystery and a shocking climax full of clever devices and the kind of justice that brooks no further comment.

As intense and well-crafted as Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, but with more of a family angle.

Highly recommended.

Get RED KNIFE on Amazon.

Book Review: 10 DAYS by Jule Selbo

Book Review: 10 DAYS by Jule Selbo

This Portland, Maine mystery has it all—a wounded, complicated heroine, a multi-faceted investigation with save-the-world implications, and oodles of atmosphere. Best of all, this is just the first in what promises to be a great new mystery series.

Dee Rommel is a Portland cop on extended leave after losing her leg in a fall off a building while chasing a criminal. She now works for an old family friend who runs a private detective agency. Dee wants to keep her head down and be the bookkeeper as she ponders her future, but neither her personality nor the business are going to give Dee what she thinks she wants.

The boss is out of town donating a kidney when Philip Claren walks in. Claren is a mashup of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg who wants the agency to find his adult daughter before she marries a potential gold-digger. Taking after him in the brains department, the genius daughter recently left her laboratory and sent him a note about the pending nuptials with the family safe word in it.

Feeling unequal to the task, Dee reluctantly takes on the job and heads to Chebeaque Island via ferry. Not only is it the wedding destination, but Chebeague is also the safe word.

As the tale unfolds, Claren and his daughter are involved in research that connects artificial intelligence with bionic technology. Is the pending marriage an attempt to steal world-changing tech secrets? The reveal presages the open letter recently signed by Elon Musk and other leading tech notables expressing concern over the unregulated rise of AI and calling for a 6-month development moratorium.

Just wow.

Beyond the Claren family, the cast of characters includes Gordy, Dee’s irascible but generous boss; Abshir, a Somali student with a talent for surveillance; and Robbie Donato, a smart cop who sees through Dee’s often prickly exterior and would like to know her much better.

The prose is swift and punchy. The setting is so real you can almost smell the ocean breeze on the boat to Chebeaque. Dee narrates with an inner voice that is tough yet appealing, making this mystery a great mix of exciting plot and colorful personalities.

Highly recommended.


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Book Review: SENSE OF GRACE by Richard F. McGonegal

Book Review: SENSE OF GRACE by Richard F. McGonegal

This police procedural offers the best first sentence that I’ve read lately. The overall pace and plotting meet that high bar, making this a fast page-turner.

Sheriff Francis Hood of Huhman County, Missouri, is a savvy and compassionate lawman but also a recovering alcoholic wondering if he can manage the “recovering” bit. His alcohol abuse got so bad that his wife and daughter have moved out.

As the book begins, Hood finds ex-con Jacob Grace passed out drunk on a country road with an ear cut off.

Grace can’t identify his attacker.

Thirty years ago, Grace stabbed and killed his wife and two sons. A daughter survived but was disfigured. Now he’s out of prison and working as a farm hand not far from the scene of the crime.

Hood’s investigation of the ear-cutting assault leads to the daughter who lives in the house where the crime took place. She’s a reclusive artist and intriguing interlocutor as Jacob is attacked again.

This time, his nose is cut off.

The assaults are bizarre and random . . . Until they make perfect sense. At the same time, two minor criminals are on a spree, robbing church functions. They don’t seem to have any connection to the troubled Grace family . . . At first.

Alcoholism as a character’s Fatal Flaw is a well-trodden path for fictional crimefighters, but SENSE OF GRACE manages to approach it in a different way. Throughout the book Hood mulls his new identity as a recovering alcoholic, the need for spiritual support, and what to do about a deputy heading out of control.

You can’t help but root for Hood, a decent guy getting through one day at a time. I love the way he always introduces himself, “I’m your sheriff, Francis Hood.” It’s great insight into a character who’d do well on the silver screen.

Highly recommended.

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Book Review: THE DEAD CERTAIN DOUBT by Jim Nesbitt

Book Review: THE DEAD CERTAIN DOUBT by Jim Nesbitt

THE DEAD CERTAIN DOUBT is a noir gem, peppered with American muscle cars, a hard-drinking hero, and universal life lessons.

Ed Earl Burch is a Dallas private eye of a certain age. With an angel on one shoulder and the devil everywhere else, he’s too young to retire, yet too old to keep hanging on to so many bad memories. To paraphrase the Toby Keith song, he ain’t as good as he once was, but he’s as good once as he ever was.

Having triumphed over an opioid addiction, he’s making some amends. In THE DEAD CERTAIN DOUBT, guilt over an abandoned friendship puts him on the proverbial road to hell paved with good intentions.

Written in author Nesbitt’s powerfully lyrical and staccato prose, the hunt for a troubled young woman who is involved with a Mexican drug cartel woman puts Ed Earl Burch—and the reader—through the wringer. The pace is swift, the action is raw, and the characters are intense and visual. The compelling power of remorse drives the page-turning pace even as the glorious phrasing makes you want to stop and savor the work of a master wordsmith.

Just the description of the main character grips you:

Dallas private eye Ed Earl Burch is an emotional wreck, living on the edge of madness, hosing down the nightmares of his last case with bourbon and Percodan, dreading the next onslaught of demons that haunt his days and nights.

Nesbitt’s prose, characters, and gritty authenticity make him one of today’s most talented and stylish noir writers.

THE DEAD CERTAIN DOUBT is the fourth Ed Earl Burch book, each one a standalone gem.

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