Book Reviews: Set the Night on Fire by Libby Fischer Hellmann and An Uplifting Murder by Elaine Viets

Set the Night On FireSet the Night on Fire
Libby Fischer Hellmann
Allium Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-9840676-6-4
Hardcover

In her first standalone novel, following her popular Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis series, Libby Fischer Hellmann masterfully combines contemporary suspense and historical elements in equal parts.

Dar Gantner has just been released on parole after serving 40 years in prison for his part in a bomb attack in a Chicago department store which resulted in three deaths.  He immediately attempts to locate and contact the other members of a group of which he was part, young idealists turned social activists, forming a commune in those turbulent Vietnam-era days when everything was thought possible.  But that past comes back to haunt the present, when old secrets become a threat to someone from those chaotic times.  And soon the “accidents” begin, targeting those same group members.  Lila Hilliard, a financial planner from New York in her late thirties and the daughter of Casey Hilliard, once Dar’s best friend, very nearly becomes another victim when Casey and his son are blown up inside their home [in which Lila, only by a stroke of luck and circumstance, was not present].  But soon other attempts are made on her life.  When she meets Dar, the two try to track down who is responsible.

Present times account for about the first third of the book, which then goes back over forty years to the days of Woodstock, My Lai, The Black Panthers, Jimi Hendrix, Chappaquiddick, and the Chicago Seven. The six members of the eventual commune have gravitated to Chicago from places like Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana, and all believe passionately in their cause:  to overthrow the “military-industrial complex [which] had imposed its will on a quiet little country with no provocation.”  Those days of turmoil are re-created in masterful fashion by the author, bringing them to vibrant life.

Ms. Hellmann, a Chicago native, captures its winters perfectly:  “A few snowflakes drifted down, dissolving on contact with the sidewalk, uncertain whether they wanted to be there at all.  Chicago winters were like that . . . furious blizzards followed by periods of apologetic calm.” She places an odd symbol, a “stylized Celtic knot,” randomly through the narrative, an important motif.

When the past has been filled in, and the reader is brought back to the present for the final portion of the book, the tension builds to ever greater heights, and the reader is carried along swiftly to the fully satisfying finale.  A terrific read, and one which is recommended.

[It should perhaps be noted that the book is also available in a trade paperback edition, ISBN 978-0-9840676-5-7, $14.99]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2011.

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An Uplifting MurderAn Uplifting Murder
Elaine Viets
Obsidian, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-45123170-3
Mass Market Paperback

The sixth and newest novel in the Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper series delivers exactly what her fans are looking for:  a breezy murder mystery, on the light side, with just the right amount of danger, humor and romance.  Josie is still single, raising her 10-year-old daughter with the help of her 68-year-old mother, with both of whom she shares a home, and dating Ted, a hunky local vet.  [A shih tzu named Stuart Little and a tabby named Harry complete the household.]

Josie, who works for Suttin Services, has been assigned by her boss, “Harry the Horrible,” to mystery-shop a lingerie store in a high-end shopping mall, an “undercover underwear adventure.”  Job done, and within minutes of leaving the shop with her friend, Alyce, they discover the dead body of a woman they had just encountered in the store and with whom they had gone to high school – someone known to have engendered the enmity of all with whom she came in contact.  This naturally leads to a wide array of suspects.  The police, however, arrest Laura, the store manager [another of several old high school acquaintances Josie encounters during the course of the book].  But Josie feels a particular obligation to this one.

Josie, knowing that Laura has a daughter who is having a difficult time with her pregnancy, and convinced that she is innocent, vows to do whatever she can to find the real murderer.  She’s told “Leave the investigating to the pros.”  But she continues, reasoning:  “People tell me things because I don’t look important or official.  The police have to read people their rights or follow department procedure.  They can’t knock on doors and ask questions like I can.  Nobody’s afraid of me.  They tell me things.”  In so doing, of course, she manages to put herself in some dangerous situations, but that’s par for the course.

The book is a delightful addition to the series, and is sure to win Ms. Viets new fans, and it is recommended.  [There is an excerpt from a new entry in the author’s Dead-End Job Mystery series, Pumped for Murder, at the conclusion of this one.]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2011.

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