Book Review: THIEF OF SOULS by Brian Klingborg

Book Review: THIEF OF SOULS by Brian Klingborg

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

Book Review: KILLER THRILLER by Lee Goldberg

Book Review: KILLER THRILLER by Lee Goldberg

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!

Highly recommended.

Get KILLER THRILLER on Amazon

Book Review: HEAD WOUNDS by Dennis Palumbo

Book Review: HEAD WOUNDS by Dennis Palumbo

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.

The premise

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.

The villain

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 style

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.

Highly recommended.

Find HEAD WOUNDS on Amazon.

Book Review: THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY by Charles Finch

Book Review: THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY by Charles Finch

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.

The premise

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.

Bottom line

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

Book Review: DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal

Book Review: DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal

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.

The premise

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.

Bottom line

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

Book review: ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny

Book review: ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny

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??

Paris.

The premise

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.

For themselves.

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.

Bottom line

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.

Highly recommended.

Get ALL THE DEVILS on Amazon

Book Review: THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman

Book Review: THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB by Richard Osman

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.

The premise

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 style

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.

Bottom line

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

Book Review: True Fiction by Lee Goldberg

Book Review: True Fiction by Lee Goldberg

TRUE FICTION by Lee Goldberg

This outrageously campy thriller is pure escapism. Prepare to suspend disbelief, enjoy a zany premise, and get carried away.

The premise

Ian Ludlow, author of the he-man soldier of fortune Clint Straker thriller series, is a former TV writer from L.A. who is nothing like his heroic protagonist. But Ian is famous enough to be invited to a CIA-sponsored retreat with other action-adventure writers to dream up villainous scenarios so the Agency can prepare for the world’s emerging threats.

(Note: the CIA has lots of folks imaginative enough to write their own scenarios. See blog series above, thanks 🙂

Two years later, Ian is on a book tour in Seattle when the crazy scenario he developed for the CIA actually happens. Panicked, he reaches out to the other retreat writers, only to find out that they are all dead.

Suddenly, Ian’s recent rash of accidents don’t seem so random. When another attempt is made on his life, he goes on the run, dragging along a dog walker who works part-time for his publisher.

Ian doesn’t know the retreat wasn’t sponsored by the CIA but by a power-hungry corporation determined to use his scenario to take over US national security agencies. Ian is a loose end that needs to get tidied up.

The twist

Knowing that he’s being tracked, Ian needs help. Luckily the TV show he wrote starred the sort of help he needs. As the TV show comes into focus, it’s one of the funniest parts of the book.

Hollywood and the Vine. The tagline of the TV show is hysterical: Half man, half tree. All cop.

Sort of Starsky and Hutch meet The Ents.

Overall, the pace is slick, the writing is punchy, the situations are almost believable, and the campy fun never stops.

Bottom line

Although TRUE FICTION wraps neatly at the end, Ian’s saga continues. I can’t wait to grab the next book in this series.

Find TRUE FICTION on Amazon.

Book Review: SNOW by John Banville

Book Review: SNOW by John Banville

SNOW by John Banville got a hearty endorsement from several hard-core mystery reader friends and it lived up to expectations in every way except one.

It’s a freezing, snowy winter in 1957. Ireland is still a new country. Detective St. John (pronounced Sinjun as he takes pains to note) Strafford is sent to the country home of the Osborne family to investigate the murder of a visiting family friend, a Catholic priest.

It’s quickly apparent that this is a locked room mystery. Someone in this highly dysfunctional family must be the villain.

Related post: Book review of IN THE WOODS by Tana French

Ireland’s troubled religious history and enduring divisions are on full display. The family is Protestant, as is Strafford, but the priest was an avid horseman and hunter who was great pals with the dad, a retired military man. Of course, the all powerful archbishop in Dublin wants everything hushed up. Strafford is caught between the powerful Catholic Church, a long-suffering boss in the police department, and his own notions of justice.

Everyone in the family qualifies as a suspect. The lady of the house is an addict who seduces Strafford, the son and daughter dislike their parents and ancestral home, and the father might have murdered his first wife. No one seems terribly upset about the dead priest in the library.

The author’s sense of time and place is excellent. The writing is superb, with descriptions that lure us into this cold, murky winter investigation.

Related post: 2020’s Top reviews from the Mystery Ahead newsletter

Strafford makes keen observations about the family as they drift through the investigation like actors on a stage fulfilling typecast roles. The author cleverly makes Strafford an actor on the stage, too. He’s the second lead who creates ripples that are resolved in Act III but isn’t enough of a presence that we remember the actor’s name after the curtain falls. Strafford is still finding his way, still unsure of what he wants out of life, and that makes him an enigmatic officer of the law.

Endeavor tv series

SNOW has the same vibe as the tv series Endeavour, about the young Inspector Morse. If SNOW is ever made into a movie, actor Shaun Evans would make the perfect St. John Strafford. More about the tv series on imdb:  https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2701582/

Given the quality of writing, my one complaint about SNOW was that the motive was sadly unimaginative. Basically, we’ve seen this before. Or maybe I have just read too many mystery novels.

Find SNOW on Amazon: https://geni.us/sno101

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Best of 2020: Top 10 Book Reviews from the Mystery Ahead Newsletter

Best of 2020

Yes, 2020 had a silver lining. We all stayed home and read more.

Every other Sunday, I fed the collective appetite of fellow mystery lovers with the Mystery Ahead newsletter. Readers enjoy sneak peaks of what I’m writing now AND reviews of books I love and think you will, too.

Based on your feedback, here are the Top 10 Best of 2020 mystery recommendations from the Mystery Ahead newsletter. How many have you read?

P.S. Not a subscriber? Join a few thousand other mystery lovers. Subscribe here.

Every other Sunday, Mystery Ahead newsletter subscribers enjoy exclusive excerpts of coming books, thought-provoking conversation starters, and recommendations for what to read now.

Assassin's Vow free book

1. ASSASSIN’S VOW by David Bruns and J.T. Olson

Authors Bruns and Olson bill themselves as the Two Navy Guys and are rapidly building a following among fans of military and espionage thrillers.

In addition to their WMD Thrillers series (WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION, JIHADI APPRENTICE, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, THE PANDORA DECEPTION) they have a series of outstanding standalone novellas that function as prequels and “in-between” tales.

Warning: The pace is fast, the action is blazing hot, and the research is meticulous.

The international fight against terrorism is central to the books and novellas. The writing is on par with Tom Clancy and other top-notch writers of the genre.

The reader walks shoulder to shoulder with military and intelligence officers from multiple countries. When it comes to the terrorists, these authors have done their research and give us fully formed characters, not caricatures.

ASSASSIN’S VOW is a free prequel novella in their Standalone Suspenseful Short Reads series. Rachel Jaeger is an Israeli intelligence agent assigned to “wet” work, i.e. assassinations. She’s married to her unit commander, Levi. Other than Levi, she has little to call her own. Few possessions and no family beyond her Mossad colleagues.

When Levi is captured on a mission to kill a notorious international terrorist, Rachael nearly loses her mind. Only the vow to get her husband back or kill his killer will save her.

The gut-wrenching drama of Rachael’s life is brilliantly laid out. I was amazed at how so much action was contained in 117 pages. The end sets us up for THE PANDORA DECEPTION in which Rachael is loaned to the US for a mission with a US Navy officer who appears in earlier books.

If you love national security thrillers, ASSASSIN’S VOW is a great way to meet a new author duo, both of whom are US military veterans, as well as a fascinating set of characters and settings torn from the news.

Get ASSASSIN’s VOW on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/vow21

 

The Saint book review

2. THE SAINT series by Leslie Charteris

We have the proverbial 1000 cable channels at home. One of them is the FE TV network, showing mostly black and white television shows from the 1960’s and 70’s. That’s where I discovered the British show The Saint, starring Roger Moore after he was Ivanhoe but before he was 007.

The Saint is a study in mid-century modern style. Think sack suits, bar carts,  languid cigarette smoking, and a Volvo P1800 sports car. At the beginning of each episode, someone says his name, prompting a halo to appear momentarily above Templar’s head. This is a reference to the saint caricature used in credits, book covers, etc.

As Simon Templar, whose initials created his nickname, Moore is a modern day Robin Hood/pirate/soldier of fortune/reformed jewel thief.

It’s a given that he plays both sides of the law, is known (and feared) by police everywhere, and is one of the most famous and instantly recognizable people in the world.

The series is based on an enormous body of SAINT stories by Leslie Charteris, many of which were converted into screenplays for the series. The entire collection, written over the course of 30+ years beginning in the 1930’s, has been re-released for Kindle Unlimited. Each volume contains 3-7 stories. Each story is a standalone.

The tales are the epitome of retro phrasing and international flair. Templar’s dialogue is peppered with flippant lines oozing confidence and movie star glam. The descriptions reflect both the author’s and the character’s globe-trotting lifestyle.

A dashing blue-eyed modern buccaneer who speaks half a dozen languages, Templar is at home anywhere, be it mining for gold in Mexico or playing baccarat in Monaco. His wealth, it is implied, comes from sleight of hand but not outright theft. He outwits everybody. Templar is never left holding the bag, unless it’s full of uncut diamonds no one is looking for.

Charteris was likely influenced by the mischievous gentleman thief of E.W. Hornung’s famous Raffles stories. For a modern comparison, think of Ian Fleming’s more famous James Bond series, which came later. Templar’s villains are generally thieves and cheaters, however, rather than those intent on world domination.

Like Bond, there’s always a pretty girl for Templar to romance. More than most of his contemporaries, however, Charteris was an equal opportunity villain creator. Many of the villains are female, ranging from husband killers to scam artists to an extortionist targeting beggars in Rome.

BTW: my husband has decided he’s the Southern variety of Simon Templar . . . The Ain’t.

LOL

There are 49 SAINT volumes on Kindle Unlimited, with gorgeous retro covers, enough to keep you reading until New Year’s Eve!

Find THE SAINT collection on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/saint

 

Merciful series book review

3. A MERCIFUL DEATH by Kendra Elliott

A MERCIFUL DEATH kicks off the 6-book MERCIFUL series featuring FBI Special Agent Mercy Kilpatrick. Start with the first and read in order as fast as you can. You’ll find yourself in the Oregon woods, looking for trouble before it finds you.

Mercy Kilpatrick grew up in the small town of Eagle’s Nest in central Oregon. Her father led a community of preppers, whose preparations for disaster were a way of life. Stockpiling wood, canning food, and other preparations in anticipation of the  breakdown of civil society, disruptions in electricity, competition for food supplies, etc.

But when she was 18, Mercy was cast out.

Fifteen years later, she is an FBI agent in Portland and returns to Eagle’s Nest to investigate the murders of several preppers. The tautly-spun story mixes the investigation with her encounters with family members, some of whom want nothing to do with her and remain deeply suspicious of the government. To crank up the tension even further, Eagle’s Nest stirs memories of an assault on Mercy and her blind sister Rose, which led to Mercy’s estrangement from her family.

As the current timeline unfolds, Mercy meets the new police chief of Eagle’s Nest, Truman Daly. He’s got his own demons to contend with, notably the murder of his partner when he was a cop in San Diego. But Truman is strong and decent and a match for Mercy, a tough loner who can’t shake her prepper background, as evidenced by the secret cabin she keeps stocked with supplies.

A MERCIFUL DEATH leads right into the next book in a page-turning progression of crimes and relationships. There is significant character development throughout, mostly in terms of the love affair between Mercy and Truman, as well as Mercy’s efforts to reunite with her parents and siblings.

The prepper lifestyle remains a theme throughout the series, along with the phenomenon of rural militias with cult-like rules and “sovereign citizens” who believe that they are not subject to US laws. The vastness of rural Oregon is on display, both in terms of the landscape and the people who live off the grid in its wilderness.

The style is crisp, clean, and fast-moving, with most chapters from Mercy’s or Truman’s point of view. There’s plenty of page-turning action but no FBI legalese or internal politics. Some of the books include forensic details, but for the most part, the mystery in each book is solved by connecting the dots of human relationships and personal motives.

Characters are believable and relatable. Most secondary characters appear in all books. Plots are complex, but not needlessly so, and endings are very satisfying.

In short, I loved this series. Highly recommended.

Find A MERCIFUL DEATH on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/merc1

 

Macbeth series book review

4. DEATH OF A LIAR by M.C. Beaton

I can’t say that DEATH OF A LIAR is the best book in the long running Hamish Macbeth mystery series set in northern Scotland, because they are all equally cleverly written and highly entertaining.

Hamish is a tall red-headed police sergeant. A bachelor, but only because every love affair goes awry for one justifiable reason or another. He’s outfitted the police station in Lochdubh to suit his needs: pets, chickens, and sheep. He barely tolerates the various constables assigned to work for him and doesn’t hide his disdain for power-hungry superiors.

Hamish is imminently likeable.

DEATH OF A LIAR is #30 in the series but it doesn’t matter. Hamish’s world is easy to slip into and you can start the series at any point. The backstory of his failed romances and current constable is always presented swiftly and simply so you never feel you are missing out.

Hamish and constable Dick Fraser–who spends more time in the kitchen than on his job—are called to the home of a woman who says she was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant, but is sketchy on details, timing, and evidence. A medical exam not only refutes her claim but the local doctor reveals she is known for lying about serious issues to get attention.

At the same time, a quarrelsome newcomer to the village turns up dead and buried in her own garden. The liar is killed, too. The entire Scottish police force descends on little Lochdubh, along with Hamish’s ex-girlfriend, a hotshot tv journalist. Clues to lead to Anka, a beautiful Polish baker. Both Hamish and Dick fall under her spell . . . but there’s a murderer to catch first, with the help of a wise seer, yet another old girlfriend, and Hamish’s detective buddy who needs to drink less and think more.

DEATH OF A LIAR a great romp through the misty Highlands with Hamish and the gang. Come for LIAR, and stay for the other 34 novels in the series.

Find it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/beaton

BONUS: A Hamish Macbeth TV series? Yes, please. Robert Carlyle stars as Hamish with a dog named Wee Jock.

Find it on Amazon Prime here >>> https://www.amazon.com/Hamish-Macbeth/dp/B07VWS3T7M (US link)

 

Thunderstruck book review

5. THUNDERSTRUCK by Erik Larsen

Non-fiction author Erik Larsen (DEAD WAKE, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE, etc.) writes true crime with the sweep, suspense, and vocabulary of the best fiction authors. THUNDERSTRUCK may not be his best known book but it is the incredible saga of a true crime that will leave you as breathless as any bestselling thriller.

The book pits two men against each other in a brilliant match-up aboard the SS Montrose as the ship churns across the Atlantic toward Canada. The captain of the ship is the linchpin. This is where THUNDERSTRUCK begins, hooking the reader with a little-known, but absolutely crucial moment in history.

The first man in this unlikely battle is Guglielmo Marconi, a wealthy and eccentric Italian youth who is obsessed with science and turns his family’s attic into a private laboratory. The socially inadept Marconi will be credited with the invention of the wireless telegraph, aka, radio. He’ll monetize his invention and transform global communications via ambitious experiments, risky marketing, British mentors, and his family connections.

The immediate value of Marconi’s wireless is the ability to communicate with ships at sea. Soon every major vessel has a Marconi cabin and telegraph operators sending and receiving Marconigrams.

Next up is Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered American medical man who moves to London to peddle patent medicines. His wife Cora, with dreams of becoming an opera singer, spends every penny Crippen makes. In due time, she renames herself Belle Elmore, is a minor failure on the British vaudeville circuit known as varieties, and takes a lover who is more dashing than her husband.  Crippen takes solace in a relationship with his very young secretary, Ethel Le Neve.

The lives of Marconi and Crippen move in parallel, each in their own fascinating way. Marconi is willful, selfish, demanding. Crippen is meek, abused, long-suffering.

When Belle’s friends doubt Crippen’s claim that Belle died in California, Scotland Yard investigates. Crippen and Le Neve drop out of sight. A manhunt ensues with Marconigrams flying through the ether.

Meanwhile, a father and teenaged son board the SS Montrose for an 11-day crossing. The captain identifies them as Crippen and Le Neve in disguise. Scotland Yard’s lead investigator boards a faster ship.

What happens next is stranger than fiction. Thanks to Marconi, the entire world except for the passengers aboard the SS Montrose knows about the nail-biting chase through the Atlantic. Will Scotland Yard catch up to Belle’s murdering husband or will the disguised lovers reach Canada first and disappear into the wilds?

The book is absolutely riveting. Larsen spins out the story like a master storyteller, tantalizing and leading us from one key piece of the puzzle to the next. Highly recommended.

Get it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/thund

 

Treasure Hunt book review

6. TREASURE HUNT by Andrea Camilleri

Inspector Salvo Montalbano’s corner of Sicily is a mystery lover’s happy place. TREASURE HUNT takes you there.

As you can tell, I’m having an Italian moment here.

As the book opens, an elderly brother and sister, religious recluses for years, shoot into the street from the balcony of their apartment to punish the city of Vigàta for their sins. It’s up to the man in charge, Montalbano, to climb a ladder in full view of news cameras, and subdue the addled snipers.

Their apartment is an unwashed Italian hoarder’s paradise, full of filthy but costly religious antiques, and one ancient and well-loved inflatable sex doll.

Shortly thereafter, the police get a call that a woman’s body is in dumpster. But Montalbano and his team instead discover a second inflatable sex doll, cunningly disfigured to look exactly like the one found the day before.

Montalbano now begins to get cryptic messages, challenging him to a strange scavenger hunt. Helped by a Swedish friend, a local university student, and the cops Montalbano supervises, the hunt ends in a seriously shocking climax that hinges on clues I never suspected.

Strong plot aside, I love the Montalbano series for his wry inner voice. It’s got the cadence and dry humor I associate with my other favorite Italian author, Giovanni Guareschi, author of the fabulous Don Camillo series. (A small village in Italy after WWII: Don Camillo is the parish priest, locked in eternal combat with Peppone, the Communist mayor. Brilliant.)

For example, Montalbano lets us know his opinion of the idiot coroner in a few light words, but they characterize him perfectly. In another bit of ribaldry, his desk sergeant is the king of mispronunciation and malaprops. Montalbano has also perfected bureaucratese as a way of confusing his superiors into leaving him alone.

Then there’s the food . . . and his domineering housekeeper and her criminal relatives.

In short, TREASURE HUNT (number 16 in the long-running series) is a trip to Sicily with an old friend. He knows what he’s doing, most of the time, and makes us laugh the rest of the time. Highly recommended.

Find it on Amazon here.

 

Harriet Steele mystery series review

7. TROUBLE IN NUALA by Harriet Steel

Harriet Steel’s Inspector Shanti de Silva series set in 1930’s Ceylon is an absolute gem. De Silva is the head of a 3-person police force in the smallish city of Nuala. The British are still the colonial power (today Ceylon is the independent nation of Sri Lanka) and he straddles the divide between the local population and his British bosses.

He has flouted both cultures by marrying a British woman, Jane, who came to Ceylon as a governess to a British family. They live in a bungalow called Sunnybank where De Silvio has an extensive garden and Jane devours Agatha Christie novels.

TROUBLE IN NUALA starts with reports that a tea plantation owner has flogged a worker. A lawyer from the capital of Colombo makes a complaint on the worker’s behalf.

But when De Silva investigates, he finds that the worker has disappeared and the plantation owner is an unpleasant man who is up to his ears in debt. Add a dubious business associate, a frazzled wife, and a chatty mynah bird, and the situation is much more complicated than at first glance.

The heat and scents of Ceylon are captured so well, it’s easy to form a mental picture. The pacing is similar to The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or the Commisario Brunetti series, with introspective moments and dialogue-driven action. De Silva’s social standing with the British adds a subtle layer of tension, even as he mentors younger police officers.

There are 8 books in the series so far, all with “Nuala” in the titles: DARK CLOUDS OVER NUALA, ROUGH TIME IN NUALA, PASSAGE FROM NUALA, OFFSTAGE IN NUALA, etc. Plots are true to time and place. As the series progresses, Hitler’s rise to power and the possible implications for the British Empire create additional questions but each book stands alone.

Highly recommended.

Click here to get TROUBLE IN NUALA on Amazon

 

Dublin Trilogy book review

8. THE MAN WITH ONE OF THOSE FACES by Caimh McDonnell

Author Vee James gifted me this book and a tip of the hat to him. THE MAN WITH ONE OF THOSE FACES launches McDonnell’s Dublin Trilogy about the very funny, yet seriously intriguing misadventures of Paul Mulchrone, Brigit Conroy, and Garda detective Bernard “Bunny” McGarry.

Don’t worry if you have never been to Dublin, because by the end of all of the books, you will be intimate with the city and its people, plus the law enforcement powers and politics of the Garda, the national police agency.

The unique sport of hurling. Shopping on Grafton and Carroll. The restorative powers of Irish whiskey and Guinness beer.

Step up to the bar and drink deeply.

Paul had a rough start in life. He was orphaned at a young age, and his only stability was the hurling club presided over by Bunny McGarry, the larger-than-life cop with his own definition of justice. Now an adult, Paul is trapped by a will awarding him a subsistence stipend as long as he does charity work.

He regularly visits a nursing home to fulfill the requirements but one day a resident mistakes Paul for someone else and tries to kill him before dying of shock. When the dead man is found to be a gangster thought to be long dead, Paul and Brigit, a nurse, are targeted by the gangster’s old enemies. Bunny McGarry, who has a soft spot for Paul from hurling club days, makes things worse.

The mix of white knights and black sheep throws gray shadows on many of the characters in the Dublin Trilogy while relationships develop in smart and clever ways. But the real charm of this series lies with dialogue and descriptions, both of which evoke some real laugh-out-loud moments. There’s a line about anybody who could “cut two holes in a tea cozy thought he was John Dillinger” that still makes me laugh at odd moments.

THE DAY THAT NEVER COMES and LAST ORDERS are the next two books in the trilogy, and should be read in order. ANGELS IN THE MOONLIGHT is a prequel that is nonetheless listed on Amazon as #3 in the 4-volume set. The numbering is just one of the quirks of this well-written, funny, and breathlessly paced series.

Highly recommended.

Get THE MAN WITH ONE OF THOSE FACES on Amazon: http://mybook.to/faces

 

Gorky Park book review

9. GORKY PARK by Martin Cruz Smith

Gorky Park is the first Arkady Reno thriller set in Russia. Published in 1981, years before the first breach in the Berlin Wall, the novel was the first popular fiction set in Communist Moscow. Its portrayal of life in Moscow is authentic and unflinching.

I regard author Martin Cruz Smith as a role model. With the Detective Emilia Cruz series, I aim to take my readers inside Mexico the same way he does with Russia. We both use setting, food, politics, and uniquely cultural plot devices.

In GORKY PARK, three murder victims are found buried in snow near the ice rink in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Their faces and fingertips have been skillfully removed. Renko, the Moscow city police inspector for homicides, is called in. Despite KGB interference, Renko finds clues leading to a wealthy American fur dealer and dissidents from Siberia. A visiting New York cop is part friend, part foe.

The Russian locations, from fight scene on a frozen river to feeding ducks by a country dacha, are masterfully done. Life under Soviet rule is fully exposed: dogma no one believes in, vodka to shut out everyday miseries, informers, indoctrination meetings, permits to live in Moscow. It makes for a hefty book, not for the faint of heart, but an immersive one.

GORKY PARK was followed by RED SQUARE, POLAR STAR, HAVANA BAY, WOLVES EAT DOGS, etc. All are vibrant journeys into Soviet Russia with brilliant characters, descriptions that lure you into a shockingly unfamiliar world, and vignettes of the illogical logic of the Communist system.

Now 39 years later, the latest Renko book, THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA just hit bookstores. Ageless Arkady still holds the rank of inspector and still has trouble with the woman in his life as he navigates post-Soviet Russia under Putin. To be honest, this novel, does not even approach the high bar of the early Renko books listed above. It’s a lite beer when you expected a Guinness.

Read GORKY PARK on Amazon. Drink deeply.

 

Rebecca book and movie review

10. REBECCA x 3

These three thrillers all started at Manderley . . .

1. REBECCA by Daphne Du Maurier

Du Maurier published her tour de force novel REBECCA in 1938. The book was one of the first to give us the unreliable narrator and has been the basis for a host of radio, television, and movie adaptations.

The narrator, an orphaned young woman working as a lady’s companion, meets a handsome and wealthy widower in Monaco. Despite their disparity in social class, he sweeps her off her feet and they marry.

He brings her home to Manderley, his baronial family estate. There she pales in comparison with his seemingly perfect late wife Rebecca, a point the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is at pains to make. When Rebecca’s body is found on her shipwrecked boat, now months after her death, dark deeds could destroy them all.

REBECCA has serious staying power. It’s edgy, gripping, visual, and a Gothic thriller classic. The setting is England in the 1930’s, but the creepy relationships and murderous secrets are timeless.

Get it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/Rebecca

 

2. THE KEY TO REBECCA by Ken Follett

When I first read this World War II classic, I believed it was the best thriller ever written. The page-turning format inspired the pace of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

The novel REBECCA is used as a code book by a German spy who infiltrates British-held Cairo during the war, in an effort to aid General Rommel’s army in north Africa. When the spy kills a soldier, the murder comes to the attention of a British intelligence officer.

A cat and mouse game ensues between spy and intel officer through the streets and souks of the war-weary city. Women, thieves, and the Egyptian independence movement complicate the hunt. The characters are riveting, complete, and their vulnerabilities are twisted by the enemy. The way Follett builds to a climax is a masterclass in thriller writing.

No spoilers, but REBECCA gets the last word . . .

Get it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/FolRe

 

3. Rebecca, the new Netflix movie

Lily James stars as the unnamed narrator who falls in love with the wealthy and handsome owner of Manderley, played by Armie Hammer. She does a remarkable job of being the waif working as a lady’s companion to a cranky, demanding woman, but an even better job of being the new wife completely out of her depth trying to run a huge Downton Abbey-esque country house already ruled with an iron fist by Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott-Thomas).

It’s a loooong movie, but a faithful adaptation, although the ending is less edgy than in the book. Manderley and the surrounding coastline are gorgeous, with many a panoramic sea shot to underscore the isolation the new wife feels.

Lily James is superb, as is the conniving Scott-Thomas. Armie Hammer is a hunky lunk but cuts a dashing figure in a mustard colored linen suit in his first scene.

Highly recommended for a cold, rainy evening.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: THUNDERSTRUCK by Erik Larson

Book Review: THUNDERSTRUCK by Erik Larson

Non-fiction author Erik Larsen (DEAD WAKE, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE, etc.) writes true crime with the sweep, suspense, and vocabulary of the best fiction authors. THUNDERSTRUCK may not be his best known book but it is the incredible saga of a true crime that will leave you as breathless as any bestselling thriller.

The book pits two men against each other in a brilliant match-up aboard the SS Montrose as the ship churns across the Atlantic toward Canada. The captain of the ship is the linchpin. This is where THUNDERSTRUCK begins, hooking the reader with a little-known, but absolutely crucial moment in history.

The first man in this unlikely battle is Guglielmo Marconi, a wealthy and eccentric Italian youth who is obsessed with science and turns his family’s attic into a private laboratory. The socially inadept Marconi will be credited with the invention of the wireless telegraph, aka, radio. He’ll monetize his invention and transform global communications via ambitious experiments, risky marketing, British mentors, and his family connections.

Related: Book Review: The Maria Kahlio series 

The immediate value of Marconi’s wireless is the ability to communicate with ships at sea. Soon every major vessel has a Marconi cabin and telegraph operators sending and receiving Marconigrams.

Next up is Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered American medical man who moves to London to peddle patent medicines. His wife Cora dreams of becoming an opera singer and spends every penny Crippen makes. In due time, she renames herself Belle Elmore, is a minor failure on the British vaudeville circuit known as varieties, and takes a lover who is more dashing than her husband.  Crippen takes solace in a relationship with his very young secretary, Ethel Le Neve.

The lives of Marconi and Crippen move in parallel, each in their own fascinating way. Marconi is willful, selfish, demanding. Crippen is meek, abused, long-suffering.

When Crippen tells Belle’s friends that his wife was called home to California and perished there of pneumonia, they go to Scotland Yard. Crippen and Le Neve drop out of sight. Scotland Yard mounts a manhunt. Marconigrams fly through the ether.

Meanwhile, a father and teenaged son board the SS Montrose for an 11-day crossing. The captain identifies them as Crippen and Le Neve in disguise. Scotland Yard’s lead investigator boards a faster ship.

Related: How to be an Armchair Traveler

What happens next is stranger than fiction. Thanks to Marconi, the entire world except for the passengers aboard the SS Montrose knows about the nail-biting chase through the Atlantic. Will Scotland Yard catch up to Belle’s murdering husband or will the disguised lovers reach Canada first and disappear into the wilds?

The book is absolutely riveting. Larsen spins out the story like a master storyteller, tantalizing and leading us from one key piece of the puzzle to the next. Highly recommended.

Get it on Amazon >>> https://geni.us/thund

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Book Review: GRAY GHOST MURDERS by Keith McCafferty

Book Review: GRAY GHOST MURDERS by Keith McCafferty

I know nothing about fly fishing and have never been to Montana. Nevertheless, the Sean Stranahan mystery series by Keith McCafferty has me hooked.

(Sorry, could not resist.)

The series has elements of both the Longmire and Mike Bowditch series, but with a gentle charm you don’t see too often in a mystery series. Add top-notch writing and evocative descriptions of the Montana wilderness and it’s an absolute winner.

THE GRAY GHOST MURDERS is the second in the Sean Stranahan series but they are all standalones. I picked this up, frankly, because of the cover. But author McCafferty, an editor at Field and Stream magazine, is an accomplished writer whose characters are so appealing, you can’t help but be drawn into their world of rural Montana and the outdoors, not to mention the art and science of fly fishing.

Rugged landscape and fisherman

This evokes the setting for the book, with the fly fisherman with his net. Photo by Matt Noble via Unsplash

 

Sean is an artist, fishing guide, and sometime sheriff’s deputy in Hyalite County, Montana. He’s also a former detective who worked for a law firm in Boston before he moved to Montana. Not rich, he bunks in his art studio and gets an unexpected windfall when a wealthy group of anglers asks him to find two valuable vintage fishing flies that were stolen from their summer camp.

And thus we learn of the world of rare fishing flies, which are auctioned like rare books.

 

Fishing lure

Fishing lure. Even if you know nothing about fishing, this book series will captivate. Photo by Mael Balland via Unsplash

 

At the same time, Sheriff Martha Ettinger asks Sean to help investigate the suspicious deaths of two men whose bodies are found on Sphinx Mountain. The secondary characters, including Martha and a cast of deputies are all so well drawn we’re sifting through clues on the mountaintop with them, bear repellent at the ready.

Throw in a cat-loving barista, a manipulative politician, and an old school cowboy, and the pages turn themselves.

The whodunit aspect of investigating the two dead men hinges on a number of clues, as well as a few red herrings. It’s an unusual premise, but it works well for this unusual but highly satisfying read. As the series continues, the relationships between Sean, Martha, and the secondary characters are as important as the crimes. New characters introduced along the way spring to life from Montana’s small towns, rivers, and history.

Get THE GRAY GHOST MURDERS on Amazon >>> http://mybook.to/gray-ghost/

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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