Book Reviews: The Killers Are Coming by Jack Bludis and Unreasonable Doubt by Vicki Delany

The Killers Are Coming
A Ken Sligo Mystery
Jack Bludis
Bold Venture Press, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-5410-9677-6
Trade Paperback

Killers is a throwback to the old-fashioned, hard-boiled PI noir genre told in the first person.  Ken Sligo returns home to Baltimore from overseas at the end of WW II and has no wish to go to work in the family business operating a butcher shop in a local market.  Instead, his estranged brother arranges an introduction to a local bail bondsman (and possibly a low-level gangster) and he becomes a private eye tracing bail skippers.

Then one day, he is asked to follow a woman dancer at a local theater, reporting on who she sees, talks to and any other activities.  This assignment leads Sligo far from the original purpose as the trail becomes more convoluted. Also complicating his life is his pending testimony in a murder trial of one of the men working for the bondsman.  Naturally, Sligo’s testimony is unwanted either by his erstwhile employer, or by the accused.

Having lived in Baltimore for a time, I found it nostalgic to read about the city, and especially the notorious East Baltimore Street which housed the seedier elements of the burg, including bars, burlesque houses and strip joints.  For those who enjoy this type of novel, it is an excellent example of light reading, with some aspects of a Mickey Spillane mystery, especially the violence and sex, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2017.

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Unreasonable Doubt
A Constable Molly Smith Novel #8
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0513-2
Hardcover

The author turns her attention in this entry in the Constable Molly Smith Mystery series to a wrongful conviction controversy in the form of a character named Walter Desmond, who was found guilty of murdering a young woman, and remanded to the penitentiary.  After 25 years, an appeal exonerates him based on new evidence and a sloppy police investigation.  Upon his release, he decides to return to the little town of Trafalgar, British Columbia, where he encounters considerable resentment.

Complicating his visit, a number of attacks on women occur: on the wife of Police Sergeant John Winters; on Molly’s mother, Lucky; and a visiting Dragon Boat team member.  Naturally, suspicion falls on Desmond.  Meanwhile, the original murder case is reopened, and Winters investigates the cold case with little hope of finding the killer.

The novel demonstrates how the mindset of a largely insulated population works. Most minds are made up; the police said Desmond was guilty and, despite the appeals court saying he is innocent, they still believe him to be guilty.  And it also shows the dramatic difference between old-time cops and modern professionals.  This is the tenth novel in the series, although Molly plays a small (but crucial) part in it. Winters occupies a central role.

The author has written an interesting take on the subject, especially with regard to the advisability of whether Desmond should, so to speak, return to the scene of the crime to find out why he was picked to be the murderer, or just remain in Vancouver and not face a hostile population.

An excellent series, well-written and always thought-provoking, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2017.

Book Review: The Inside Passage by Carl Brookins

The Inside PassageThe Inside Passage
Carl Brookins
Brookins Books, February 2016
ISBN 978-0-9853906-7-9
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Murder, mystery and adventure on the restless ocean waters off the rugged coast of British Columbia. Seattle PR executive Michael Tanner sails to Desolation Sound with his wife and their close friend. It’s a relaxing, shakedown cruise for three amateur sailors. On a foggy morning disaster strikes and Tanner stands accused of negligence. With no help from the authorities, Tanner sets out to find the people who murdered his wife and her friend.

Back in 2000, Carl Brookins launched the first entry in his Michael Tanner series which focused on a Seattle-based public relations executive who sailed as a hobby. Inner Passages was published by Top Publications and was followed by 4 more books. Now, the author has re-released a revised, updated edition under the title The Inside Passage and I’m very glad he did; in the ensuing 16 years, there is no doubt he has become a more accomplished writer and this new edition is all the better for it.

When a much larger boat runs down his sailboat, killing his wife and their friend, Michael Tanner becomes nearly obsessed with tracking it down, believing it to have been a deliberate attack. The authorities insist it was an accident and Michael’s friends and colleagues watch worriedly as he puts his life and career aside to search for the yacht and answers. Some people believe Michael was at fault and, while he knows in his heart the deaths of Beth and Alice were intentional, he can’t help the feelings of inadequacy and guilt. He isn’t alone, though—his partners, Jeremiah and Perry, stand beside him in his quest.

The beauty of this book lies in the author’s clear love and knowledge of sailing, evoking the lure of nautical experiences that simply can’t be fully understood by those, like me, who have limited exposure to life on the water. His descriptions of the fog…the loneliness and isolation as well as the creepiness that comes naturally with not being able to see your surroundings…put me right on that doomed boat. Another element of the story that I found unusual and really sensible is the passing of time. This is no mystery solved in two days or a week; months, even years, go by and that, to me, is really logical when it comes to an amateur investigation. This also allows for the introduction of a new love interest, Mary Whitney, without it seeming as though things were rushed.

Mr. Brookins drew me into Michael’s world and his need to find the answers that will bring justice for Beth and Alice and, perhaps, peace for himself. I like this new and improved Michael Tanner and hope to see much more of him in the future.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

Book Review: A Cold White Sun by Vicki Delany

A Cold White SunA Cold White Sun
A Constable Molly Smith Mystery #6
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, August 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0158-5
Hardcover

A fine, judicious blend of action, mystery, thoughtful introspection and exploration of human conditions and motivations marks this novel. The story is a part of the author’s continuing series about the development of a young constable in the police force of a small community, Trafalgar. The town is located in a prime tourist region of British Columbia. That’s a province of Canada. The mountains offer prime skiing, the streams fishing and the forests hunting of various animals. Tourism is big business but that brings troubles as well.

Moonlight Smith, born of a hippie activist American couple, a near-champion downhill skier, much to her mother’s initial consternation has settled for a career as a cop. She’s bright, good-looking and not entirely sure of her life direction. Delany has set this interesting character up with two bosses. She’s basically a patrol officer in the small department, but because the head of murder investigations, John Winters, recognizes her intelligence, Moonlight—Molly—Smith is frequently tasked to participate in his investigations.

This time the crime is murder. Out for her daily walk, high school English teacher Cathy Lindsay is slain. Subsequent investigation can find no plausible reason. Why was she a target? Was it a mistake?

As the investigation winds through Trafalgar, the author has an opportunity to briefly examine the relationships between her principal characters, their family members, and members of the constabulary. Some of the scenes are loving, some are rife with anger and tension. The pace is good and if the threads occasionally fray and lose a little direction, that’s inevitable. This novel has a lot of thoughtful observations and this reviewer felt enriched. I’d award 4.75 stars if that was possible.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2014.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Under Cold Stone by Vicki Delany

Under Cold StoneUnder Cold Stone
A Constable Molly Smith Novel
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, April 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0233-9
Hardcover

This is the eighth in the author’s strong series featuring an interesting young cop in a small Canadian city. Molly (born Moonlight) Smith, daughter of a persistent aging hippy named Lucky, has, to her mother’s lasting consternation, become a cop in the town of Trafalgar, British Columbia. It turns out, Molly’s instincts for her personal talents is right on the money. She’s a good cop in a town with a lot of tourist traffic which means she walks the line between strict enforcement of the law and successful public relations with visiting troublemakers and tourists.

Molly’s mother, Lucky, having lost her deep love, husband Adam, has discovered a new love in an unusual place. He’s the divorced bluff chief of police of Trafalgar. Lucky and Paul Keller have taken a few precious days to themselves and gone off to the magnificent mountain national park of Banff. In an obscure coffee shop in Banff, Lucky is roughly handled by a chauvinist boor. His companion turns out to be Keller’s estranged son, Matt.

Things go rapidly south when Matt calls his father to report that Matt’s roommate, the aforementioned bully, has been murdered. Matt promptly disappears, setting off an RCMP manhunt and the novel’s exploration of the unsettled relationship between Lucky and Paul, the appearance of Matt’s mother and her current companion. The author explores the troubles between several characters connected to Matt and when Molly arrives in Banff to support her mother, the circle widens.

This could have been trouble, but the author continually brings the characters and the action back to the central focus, who killed Matt’s roommate and where is Matt? Thus the action never flags, a number of social issues, including some environmental ones are connected to the story. The novel is very well written, moves forward with alacrity and cohesion and comes to a satisfyingly explosive conclusion although this reviewer confesses he doesn’t see the connection between the title and the story.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: Freaks by Kieran Larwood and Long Gone Man by Phyllis Smallman

FreaksFreaks
Kieran Larwood
Chicken House, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-47424-5
Hardcover

A delightfully charming read, brimming with genuinely unique characters, who stumble onto an epic mystery and later embark on a fabulously frightening, daring adventure to solve it; with the entire tale brilliantly set in London, in 1851.

The most unlikely of pals, our cast of characters have been tossed together due to circumstances far beyond their control. Despite the vast differences among them, and deplorable living conditions; they offer support and form a formidable team.

Sheba, the sweetest, kindest, most compassionate little wolf-girl to ever walk the earth, narrates for us. Luckily, we have only a glimpse of her time caged with a sickly two-headed lamb for company before she is purchased to join a much larger Freak Show. Her new family consists of a spirited, smart-mouthed, bitter Monkey-Boy; Mama Rat, the pipe-smoking sweet-natured woman that appears to communicate telepathically with her “babies”; six giant rats that prove ingenious and endearing; Moon Girl, the soft-spoken, but surprisingly deadly ninja; a gargantuan hulk of a man, Gigantus and undoubtedly the most ornery, mischievous horse that has ever existed.

If this hasn’t piqued your interest, the mystery certainly will. Our freaks aren’t the lowest rung on the ladder in London during these times. Mudlarks are beneath them. These people spend entire days trolling the filthy, slimy banks and bottom of the polluted Thames River searching for any scrap that could be sold for a penny or two. When the mudlark children begin disappearing, no one would care, if Sheba hadn’t met Till.

The tiny, filthy mudlark stole into the show, marveling as Sheba, captive in her cramped quarters, frightened away grown men. For one fleeting moment, there were simply two little girls chatting. Sheba’s heart had never been so full as when Till slipped a chipped marble into her small, furry hand.

What follows is a quick-paced, exciting escapade that reveals a plan so sinister and devious, this reader was floored. Packed with action, compassion, engaging and humorous dialogue and a mystery beyond belief, this is certainly one of the coolest books I’ve read.

Although this is written for Middle Graders, and I am no longer even a “Young” Adult, I was completely immersed, in part, I think, because (as a teen) I actually visited a traveling Freak Show. I am curious to see how today’s American 10 – 14 year olds view this obscure concept. The astute addition of the author’s notes detail that, while this is a work of fiction, the deplorable conditions of London during this time were very, very real. He generously includes pictures of London Street Children, along with brief biographies of historic figures mentioned. The combination of a truly ingenious, remarkable story; supported with stranger-than-fiction facts of a time so long ago it seems unfathomable, makes this a fabulously superb book that will be a treasure to any reader.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2014.

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Long Gone ManLong Gone Man
A Singer Brown Mystery
Phyllis Smallman
Touchwood Editions, September 2013
ISBN: 9781771510301
Trade Paperback

From the very first sentence, readers will sense they are in the hands of a master storyteller. With discerning eye and sensitivity to the feelings of a stressed woman, we land in a decrepit Dodge van laboring up a narrow, twisting, fog-enshrouded mountain road toward an unknown destination and what is meant to be a long-overdue confrontation. The driver is Singer Brown, a down-on-her-luck itinerant street busker with a history of travel and living on the street, of singing curbside for the change of passers-by. Like many of her ilk she’s had her ups and downs, including club gigs with bands as well as solo stands. As she struggles tensely up the mountain road we learn of a long-festering hatred that drives her on toward this mountain peak on an island off the British Columbia coast. Glenphiddie Island is home to a band leader singer Brown encountered many years ago far to the south in Taos, New Mexico.

When Brown finally reaches her destination, toward the top of the mountain, she encounters another highly stressed woman holding a gun, a woman whose husband, the band leader, lies dead of a gunshot to the head. Readers will already have had some intimation of layered mystery and several relationships in disarray. Members of the band Vortex, all of who live in proximity, are fading into career-ending oblivion, yet their controlling leader holds them in iron fingers.

There are other strands, bits of which are revealed chapter after chapter, including a stirring love story. Readers will have to pay attention as the suspense builds and more and more relationships and conditions are revealed. One never understands completely or sees the entire nasty web until the fog is finally swept away and the true character of all the players is revealed in a classic confrontation.

I thought the author could have done a bit more with the location, an area of spectacular vistas and seascapes, and surprising if minor actions involve some police figures. A few wisps of foggy threads are left to the imaginations of readers. The changeling, enigmatic central figure of Singer Brown is precisely characterized with murky strength and occasional clarity of purpose. She is a wonderfully sympathetic figure. I look forward to more from this excellent writer.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, February 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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 Reviews: The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill, The Dog Sox by Russell Hill and Negative Image by Vicki Delany

The Woodcutter
Reginald Hill
Harper, August2011
ISBN No. 978-0062060747
Hardcover

Wilford Hadda began life as the son of a Cumbrian woodcutter on the Ulphingstone estate.  Sir Leon Ulphingstone gave him the nickname of Wolf.  At one stage in his life, Wolf Hadda held the title Sir Wilford Hadda.

Reginald Hill takes the reader through the various stages of the life of Wolf Hadda and Wolf has led a very interesting life.  As a boy, he charmed Sir Leon’s daughter and left Cumbria to earn his fortune.  Wolf became a very wealthy man and returned to marry Imogene Ulphingstone.  The couple had a daughter that Wolf doted on but one morning a knock on the door brought a screeching halt to Wolf’s charmed life.

The police entered his home with a search warrant and arrested Wolf.  To say that Wolf was surprised by the visit would be putting it mildly.  He did not take well to being pushed around by the Officer in charge and so Wolf decided to make his exit from the police station.  Wolf wound up in a traffic accident that left him badly injured and in a coma.  As he started to come out of the coma in the hospital, the only bright spot in the day was Davy McLucky, the man in charge of guarding his hotel room.

Wolf recovers from his injuries to find he has lost all of his money, his wife has left him and she is planning to marry his lawyer.  Wolf is sentenced to a long term in prison and marked as a pedophile.  When Alva Ozigbo the prison psychiatrist begins treating Wolf, he is reluctant to talk about his crimes.  Wolf eventually opened up to her and she was convinced that he was rehabilitated and should be released from prison.

Once released Wolf went back to his childhood home and began to put his life back together.  Although the locals were against Wolf even being in the neighborhood the local minister felt he should at least visit Wolf.  After a few visits, the two men became friends.   Alva also began to visit Wolf.  The visitors were seeing a different man than the one that had been committed to prison for such horrible crimes.  Did he actually commit the crimes he was accused of or was he set up in a complicated scheme to take the fall for others?

This stand-alone is an exciting and interesting book that keeps the reader guessing.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2011.

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The Dog Sox
Russell Hill
Caravel Books, April 2011
ISBN No. 978-1929355747
Trade Paperback

Ray Adams has a different approach when he buys a gift for his girl friend Ava Belle. Ava loves dogs and baseball so Ray buys her a baseball team.  The team is named The Knight’s Landing Dog Sox.  The team’s manager is a 70-year old Jewish man who has a number of colorful phrases that he repeats from time to time.  He is quite an interesting character and is determined to turn the team into the best team possible.

The team consists of players from different occupations and includes one very special pitcher, Billy Collins.  Billy has a drunken and abusive father who disrupts Billy’s life and threatens his success.  Ray and the team’s manager are determined to figure out a way to rid Billy of this problem.

The team has a unique refreshment stand and quite an interesting fire works display.  There are laugh at loud incidents in The Dog Sox.

The Knight’s Landing Dog Sox is top priority for Ray and Ava and the interaction of the team members makes for good reading.  The book is short but a great read and one that you won’t soon forget.

Russell Hill is the author of The Lord God Bird and if you have not read it you’ve missed a great book.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, April, 2011.

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Negative Image
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, 2010
ISBN No. 978-1590587904
Trade Paperback

Rudolph Steiner is a famed photographer whose career is sliding downhill.  When Steiner visits Trafalgar in British Columbia along with his wife Josie and his assistant Diane Barton, life suddenly becomes unsettled for Constable Molly Smith.

Steiner’s body is discovered in the bathroom of his hotel room.  Investigation proves that Eliza Winters was a visitor to Steiner’s room just before the murder.  Eliza is the wife of John Winters, Molly’s boss and mentor.  Eliza is a model and formerly worked with Steiner.  Eliza becomes a suspect in the murder and her husband is banned from the investigation.

There have been a series of breaking and entering in Trafalgar and no suspects have been discovered.  Since Winters can’t be involved in the murder investigation, he decides to devote his time to solving the breaking and entering crimes.  Winters enlists Molly to do a door-to-door investigation of the neighborhoods where the crimes occurred.

Molly has been seeing Adam Tocek of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and is having some issues with Adam’s attempts to protect her reputation.  Molly is not only concerned about her relationship with Adam but Charlie Bassing has begun stalking Molly.  Molly helped send Charlie to jail when Charlie attacked Molly’s best friend.  Molly is keeping a record of the incidents that involve Charlie Bassing but hasn’t confided her fears either to Adam or her fellow workers.

To add to Molly’s problems, her dad falls and breaks his hip.  Molly has the added worry of her father’s health but she’s also quite concerned with the way her mother, who usually takes everything in stride, is handling her dad’s hospitalization.

Negative Image is the fourth book in the Constable Molly Smith series.  It is not necessary to read the previous books in order to enjoy Negative Image, get a real feel for life in Trafalgar, and meet the great characters that Delany has created.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2011.