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.

Get SENSE OF GRACE for your #Kindle


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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.

Order it on Amazon

Book Review: Family Secrets Come with the House in SQUATTER’S RIGHTS

Book Review: Family Secrets Come with the House in SQUATTER’S RIGHTS

In SQUATTER’S RIGHTS by Cheril Thomas, compelling family secrets come with the house.

The first book in the Eastern Shores Mysteries introduces us to attorney Grace Reagan, who just bought the huge money pit on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore where her mother grew up.

The old mansion, known as Delaney House, was last inhabited by Grace’s grandmother, Emma Delaney. Grace never knew why her late mother and grandmother were estranged. Buying the house feels like a first step toward righting a wrong from a past she doesn’t understand.

Related post: Book Review: SWEETLAND by Dareth Pray

But to Grace’s surprise, a hitherto unknown uncle and cousin feel entitled to the house, despite Emma’s will which forced the house to be sold at auction. Their goal is to push Grace out.

SQUATTER’S RIGHTS gives us a mystery embedded in the very bones of the house and in the family torn apart inside it. After setting the scene, the narrative is imbued with quickening sense of foreboding.

Grace remains at odds with the uncle and cousins as questions mount. What drove her mother away from Delaney House years ago and why do echoes of distrust and anger linger even now? What secrets did Emma take to the grave? Is Grace’s romantically-inclined contractor who he says he is?

Hints spool out in the form of letters written in the 1950’s by a newly married Emma to her parents back in Asheville, North Carolina. The suspense-building letters are inserted into the current-day action in exactly the right places, driving a two-pronged drama until past and present merge into shocking answers.

Expect spot-on atmosphere and a tantalizing family secret. There are 4 more books in the series, too.

Highly recommended.

Order it on Amazon here.

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Book review: THE MONOGRAM MURDERS by Sophie Hannah

Book review: THE MONOGRAM MURDERS by Sophie Hannah

I love reading a good mystery as much as I love writing them! Here’s what I read this week.

A new Hercule Poirot mystery

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

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

What do the initials PIJ stand for?

Poirot & Co

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

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

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

Related post: Book review: THE SEPTEMBER SOCIETY by Charles Finch

Style & substance

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

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

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


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Book Review: SWEETLAND by Dareth Pray

Book Review: SWEETLAND by Dareth Pray

Debut thriller SWEETLAND takes off like a rocket and never loses speed. Author Dareth Pray is one to watch!

Erin Stark is a new kind of female thriller heroine, giving fictional male colleagues like James Reece (THE TERMINAL LIST) and Jack Reacher (BETTER OFF DEAD) a run for their money. Reminiscent of Lisbeth Salander in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Erin has a cold-blooded capacity that makes her both uncommon and intriguing.

A jingoistic cult/militia group called Patriot Dawn kidnaps a busload of high school cheerleaders from a highway rest stop in Tennessee. Erin poses as a college student to be scooped up along with the cheerleaders. In the process, she saves a girl having an asthma attack. In short order we see that Erin has special skills as well as a cool head under pressure.

The group is taken to an abandoned US military base commandeered by Patriot Dawn. Fake marriages take place. Erin ends up with the group’s commanding officer, an ex-military officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Ruby Ridge/Jonestown nature of the Patriot Dawn compound and the forceful leader’s rules and authority are chillingly well drawn.

SWEETLAND really turns on Erin’s inner voice as she endures the horrific ordeal yet presses her own agenda. With no choice but to submit, she subtly manipulates her new “husband” to gain his trust and reveal his plans. She creates imaginative codes to records her findings.

Erin’s backstory, including her skill with languages and the spy handler who introduced her to the world of espionage, is carefully threaded through the current timeline. We realize that there is little in her life apart from constant undercover work.

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, a weak-willed US president and a general called out of retirement learn that Patriot Dawn is the tip of a very large iceberg that threatens to propel the US into civil war. How long before the government is forced to respond? What critical information can Erin collect—and how much can she endure—before war breaks out?

I have it on good authority that more Erin Stark books are in process. Highly recommended.

Click here to find SWEETLAND on Amazon

Book Review: THE GUILTY DIE TWICE by Don Hartshorn

Book Review: THE GUILTY DIE TWICE by Don Hartshorn

THE GUILTY DIE TWICE offers a memorable cast of characters, two pivotal crimes, lots of deliciously grubby political machinations, and both sides of the death penalty argument. The writing is both fluid and precise, without (thankfully) lots of legal jargon. The smooth pacing and flow make it exceptionally readable and hard to put down.

Travis Lynch is an attorney in Austin, Texas, who is barely able to make ends meet. His wife is pregnant, he works out of his living room, and he’s estranged from the rest of the Lynch family, scions of the Texas legal establishment. The reason for Travis’s difficult situation is tied to murderer Riley Sutton, whose execution takes place early in the proceedings.

Related: Book Review: THIEF OF SOULS by Brian Klingborg

Jake Lynch, Travis’s older brother, is the District Attorney (DA). Jake is a man on the rise. Powerful kingmakers are circling around. He’s the heir-apparent to the Lynch family’s legal legacy. Jake and Travis have not spoken in 10 years, when they prosecuted the Sutton case ten years ago as both friends and up-and-coming attorneys working in the DA’s office.

When a drug deal goes wrong, two high school boys are killed and another left paralyzed. A kingmaker’s son is one of the victims and the media is all over the story. Of course, no one wants the fact to come out that the victims were in a construction zone at 3:00 am to buy drugs.

Two arrests are made. The parents of the suspected shooter turn to Travis. He reluctantly takes the case, knowing he won’t be paid, but hoping to save the kid from a death sentence.

Meanwhile, Jake is pressured into charging the suspected shooter with a capital crime, triggering the death penalty. This pits Travis and Jake against each other in circumstances that hearken back to the Sutton case. Of course the backstory merges with the current timeline here and you finally find out what started the feud so long ago. What I liked so much is that neither brother is a white knight, but each is trying to follow their conscience in a very, very bad situation.

Related: Book Review: COMMAND AND CONTROL by David Bruns & J.R. Olson

Both stories wrap the reader in double suspense. What happened during the Sutton case to create this feud between the two brothers? What will happen to the current murder investigation given all the political strings being pulled? Can this family ever be mended?

It’s a legal thriller but even more, this is a story about a family pulled apart by competing moral values.

Highly recommended. Find THE GUILTY DIE TWICE on Amazon.

The author Don Hartshorn has an interesting website with short stories and writing tips. You can find it here:

THE GUILTY DIE TWICE was published by TCKPublishing, a small press with a unique tagline: “Wealth is in the mind, not the pocket.” How true! You can find TCK here:

Book Review: A NEAPOLITAN INTRIGUE by Kate McVaugh

Book Review: A NEAPOLITAN INTRIGUE by Kate McVaugh

Past and present collide in this clever thriller that moves between present-day Naples, Italy, and Berkeley, California in 1969. A NEAPOLITAN INTRIGUE deals with serious topics with a smooth prose and a dab of humor at the right moments. I read it in one day, and learned some history, too.


Letty White is a recently retired security consultant living in Naples. Her background includes stints as a linguist for the Central Intelligence Agency and Interpol. Just as she is wondering if la dolce vita in Naples is what she truly wants, local ex-Interpol friends who own a security company find a photo of Letty as a teenager in the pocket of a dead man.

In the photo, Letty and a girlfriend are with two National Guardsmen in a Jeep, souvenir of May 1969 when Berkeley was occupied by more than 2000 Army National Guard troops. The situation began when an impromptu People’s Park was created without authorization. Attempts to dismantle the park engulfed the area in large-scale protests. Law enforcement tried to quell the protests and fatal shootings occurred. Tensions skyrocketed and the National Guard was called out.

During the second half of May 1969, Berkeley was a city in turmoil, with nearly non-stop demonstrations. Protesters were teargassed, trapped and arrested. The local prison became notorious for abuse. Events culminated with a gigantic march, with many of those present carrying daisies and singing.

Letty was 16 years old at the time, on the fringes of the protest movement with her friends and attending a high school directly adjacent to the hot zone.

As present-day Letty attempts to find out the identity of the dead man in Naples, flashbacks to Berkeley offer clues. Both Naples and Berkeley are painted with compelling visual descriptions.


Letty is a real 3-D character, with dangerous curiosity. She takes thoughtless risks at first but grows more wary as things in Naples go awry. I loved the way that, fueled by gallons of espresso, she gets away from the bad guys, argues with the good guys, crashes a wedding and a bespoke tailor, spurns her Italian lover, and gets away from the bad guys yet again, until at the end, she turns the tables on everybody.

The book is a thriller but has elements of a light-hearted caper, too. It will keep you turning the pages! Find A NEAPOLITAN INTRIGUE on AMAZON

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