Book Reviews: Board Stiff by Elaine Viets, Always Watching by Chevy Stevens, and Joyland by Stephen King

Board StiffBoard Stiff
Elaine Viets
Obsidian, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-451-23985-3
Hardcover

Elaine Viets’ newest entry in the Dead End Job Mysteries begins shortly after her protagonists, Helen Hawthorne and Phil Sagemont, have gotten married and started a private detective agency out of their condo office in Riggs Beach, Florida, a beach town just south of Fort Lauderdale.

Helen and Phil, now in their mid-40’s, with a reputation as the best private eyes in South Florida, are hired to work undercover for a paddleboard rental concession owner in Riggs Beach, where he needs help finding out who is behind the vandalism and sabotage at his business, theft of his equipment, and competitors who seem to really want to put him out of business.  The couple accepts the job, Helen feeling that “I’m getting paid to sleep late and sit on the beach,” and Phil that he can get paid while sitting drinking beer with some guys on the beach trying to gain their confidence and information, seemingly a win-win situation.

The crimes have been reported to the authorities, but they are convinced that no “official action” can be expected in a town like Riggs Beach (known as Rigged Beach since Prohibition days and rumored to be fairly uniformly corrupt).  Their client’s problems multiply exponentially when a female tourist, one of his clients, tragically dies; he is threatened with revocation of his license and the City lease on his valuable beach property, as well as a wrongful death lawsuit by the victim’s husband.  Helen and Phil are tasked with proving their client was blameless in her death.

Things become more complicated, on a more personal level when a situation regarding Helen’s sleazy ex-husband, thought dead, comes back to haunt them, almost literally, affecting their marriage and their partnership, and overshadowing the case they are trying to solve.

Ms. Viets always manages to come up with a good old-fashioned mystery, which, while containing a murder or two, is more lighthearted and contains less blood and gore than many others in the genre, and is a decidedly pleasant way to spend a summer, or even late summer, day. It is, as were the prior books by this author, recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2013.

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Always WatchingAlways Watching
Chevy Stevens
St. Martin’s Press, June 2013
ISBN:  978-0-312-59569-2
Hardcover

The story at the heart of this newest book by Chevy Stevens deals with a subject not touched upon to my knowledge in years: communes, popular in decades past among “hippies” [a seemingly archaic term], and the total subjugation of their followers.  Imagine my amazement when, as I was about to finish reading this engrossing tale, I discovered an article on the front page of a section of that day’s Sunday NY Times dealing with the enormous following of a group in San Francisco which holds “guided meditations . . . [long] wait lists for panel talks and conferences [that] now run into the hundreds,” even discussing a “meditation app” that can be downloaded.  I felt as though the lines could have been placed whole into the narrative of Ms. Stevens’ new book.

The protagonist is Dr. Nadine Lavoie (who readers met in the author’s earlier novels), attending psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit in Victoria, British Columbia, whose newest patient is Heather Simeon, involuntarily committed after a suicide attempt, her third try, this time by slashing her wrists.  She and her husband of six months were both members of what can only be described as a cult, located on the outskirts of Shawnigan Lake, on the tip of Vancouver Island, calling itself The River of Life Spiritual Center.  When Nadine hears these details, memories come flooding back to her:  Now 55, when she was a young girl in the late ‘60’s, she and her mother and brother had lived for 8 months in a commune run by the same man, then only 22 years old.  That period had left her with devastating memories, worse than which are the blank spaces among them, knowing only that she has suffered from panic attacks and severe claustrophobia ever since.

Nadine’s life is a very troubled one, coming as she did from a dysfunctional family; in addition, she has recently been widowed, and has a 25-year-old daughter who had left home at 18, become a drug addict, and is now living on the streets.  As she deals with this situation, she delves into Heather’s recent past, as well as her own early years, trying to fill in the blanks, for all of which she must confront the commune and its leader, almost dreading the answers for which she searches.

The novel, suspenseful and at times grueling, is not easily forgotten when the book is put down, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2013.

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JoylandJoyland
Stephen King
Hard Case Crime, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1-781-16264-4
Trade Paperback

Devlin Jones (“Dev” or “Jonesy”), now a writer in his sixties, reminisces about the summer of 1973 when he decided to take a year off from his college studies and take a job as a carny in a North Carolina amusement park, 700 miles from his home town of Durham, New Hampshire. This is basically the plot of the newest novel by Stephen King.  But whatever preconceptions the reader might have about a book by this most prolific and best-selling novelist, be prepared to set them aside; I know I had to!  And I mean that in the best way possible.

The tale opens in 1973, when the protagonist was a self-proclaimed 21-year-old virgin.  He had just had his heart broken by his first love, and his life suddenly becomes one wholly inhabited by carny workers, as well as a ‘boy and a woman and their dog.’  Most of the summer hires are “college students willing to work for peanuts.” There is a backstory involving a dead girl killed in the amusement park years before, and four similar murders in Georgia and the Carolinas, all of young girls.   Of course, there is also the ghost in the funhouse.  Towards the end, things turn suddenly darker on, of course, an unforgettable “dark and stormy night.”

The novel is utterly absorbing, fast-reading, and very moving.  As always, Hard Case Crime has done a wonderful job of bringing us a book that may seem a throw-back to a simpler time.  And I mean that in the best way possible as well.  The novel is simply terrific, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2013.

Book Review: Free Fall by Chris Grabenstein

Free FallFree Fall
A John Ceepak Mystery
Chris Grabenstein
Pegasus, May 2013
ISBN No. 978-1605984759
Hardcover

When Officer Danny Boyle, of the Sea Haven Police Department, receives a 911 call, he rushes to the destination to find that a good friend Christine Lemonopolous is in a knock down drag out fight with Shona Blumenfeld Oppenheimer. Shona is the mother of Samuel Oppenheimer who is in a wheel chair.  Christine is his nurse but when war broke out between the two women Samuel made a call to the police.  Danny and his partner Salvatore Santucci break up the fight. Christine had been staying at the Oppenheimer residence and Ms. Oppenheimer immediately evicts her.  Christine agrees to leave and Danny and his partner write up a report on the incident.  Christine informs Danny that she also nurses for Dr. Rosen and she feels sure he will allow her to stay at his residence.

Detective John Ceepak, Danny’s former partner, calls Danny in for assistance on occasion.  Danny gets a call and finds out that Christine has slept in her vehicle rather than ask Dr. Rosen to stay at his home.  Neighbors called the police and Detective Ceepak suggested that rather than allow Christine to be arrested for vagrancy Danny turn over his apartment to Christine until better accommodations could be found.  Ceepak suggested that Danny stay with him until Christine got settled.

Detective Ceepak’s mother is now residing in Sea Haven and living very comfortably.  Her aunt left her a nice inheritance.  When Detective Ceepak and Danny go to inspect the rides prior to the opening of the amusement park, they learn that the owner of the new ride “Free Fall” has hired Ceepak’s father to operate the ride.  There is a lot of bad blood between Ceepak and his father, Joseph Ceepak, who is only around to try to collect money from his ex-wife’s inheritance.

Ceepak and Danny have enough to worry about with the Christine problem and Joseph Ceepak in town trying to contact his ex-wife to take over her inheritance when Dr. Rosen drops dead.  It appears that the death could be suspicious.

Free Fall is a great addition to the John Ceepak Mystery series.  Danny Boyle has matured considerably since the beginning of this series.  Even though he is still the same fun loving Danny, he is picking up more of Ceepak’s habits every day.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, May 2013.