Book Reviews: Allure of Deceit by Susan Froetschel and Risking Elizabeth by Walter McCloskey

Allure of DeceitAllure of Deceit 
Susan Froetschel
Seventh Street Books, February 2015
ISBN: 978-1-61614-017-5
Trade Paperback

Murder, fraud and greed on a grand scale, clashes of culture and intriguing misunderstandings litter the well-trodden ground in this novel. The strong and vibrant writing helps draw the reader in to a world long hidden from western understanding. And even with the recent deluge of news focused on the wars in Iraq Afghanistan, and Pakistan, western knowledge is rooted as much in lack of understanding of Muslim and tribal mores. Dissecting the motives and the perpetrators of these crimes and the application of justices is extremely problematical.

All of that requires a carefully constructed, well-written narrative with characters that speak to us even through the veil of poorly understood history and culture. And here it is. Add the setting, that mysterious –to Western sensibilities—culture of the Middle East, and one has the makings of an enthralling novel. And here it is!

The writing is superb, the tension almost unrelenting and the incisive eye of this author is everywhere available. This is a fine novel and deserves every rave it will acquire.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2015.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Risking ElizabethRisking Elizabeth
Walter McCloskey
Berkley, August 1998
ISBN: 978-0-425-16413-6
Mass Market Paperback

This is the author’s debut novel. It takes the reader to enthralling places inside New Orleans society. One is dazzled by the convoluted slick politeness on the surface, even when one is aware of the chicanery and double-dealing that takes place at the same time on other levels. None of the activity chronicled by McCloskey is unknown to the wheelers and dealers in other cities around the world, but because New Orleans is the setting, there seems to be a special aura about this novel which enhances the plot and the characters.

Harry Preston is a successful widowed lawyer with an old-line prestigious firm. New Orleans is the city where he grew up and where legions of his relatives live and work. And play. So Preston brings his young son back to the bosom of his family. But Harry Preston discovers that he knows less about the convoluted undercurrents of the city and its power brokers than he imagined. How little he really knows he really begins to discover when he meets beautiful, willful, socially suspect, Elizabeth Bennett.

Set during Mardi Gras, Preston finds himself falling into a complicated swamp infested with some of the worst and some of the best of New Orleans residents. Big money, big oil, big power and murder are skillfully revealed. The pace is swift, the characters ambiguous and complex, and the atmosphere moody, damp and dark, even in the hot Southern sun. Well-written and very entertaining, rife with tension, Risking Elizabeth carries the reader carefully and completely to its inevitable conclusion.

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

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Book Reviews: Accidents Waiting to Happen by Simon Wood, Vanishing Girls by Katia Lief, All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming, Sacrifice Fly by Tim O’Mara, and If You Were Here by Alafair Burke

Accidents Waiting to HappenAccidents Waiting to Happen
Simon Wood
Thomas & Mercer, November 2012
ISBN:  978-1-612-18402-9
Trade Paperback

Josh Michaels, a young man with a wife and little girl he adored, while driving back to his home in Sacramento, California, is forced off the highway and into the river in what appears to be an accident born from what he thinks of as reckless stupidity on the part of the other driver.  But the actions of that driver, before he gets back into his car and speeds away, convince Josh that it is anything but. Josh survives the ‘accident,’ but starts to doubt his ability to continue to survive the ensuing events, all appearing to be accidents by increasingly obviously [to him] staged attempts to end his life. Josh is staggered as he comes to this unavoidable conclusion and cannot believe that he is the target of a killer, but has no choice but to accept this fact and attempt to figure out who wants him dead, and why, if he is to survive.  To make matters worse, if that’s possible, past indiscretions and errors in judgment are now coming back to haunt him.

At Chapter 4 the reader meets “the professional,” the man hired to kill another person, a woman, as well as Josh.  Who has hired him?  Is there a connection between the two intended victims [something not readily apparent]?  And what is the motive?  As ‘the professional’ himself muses, “a seemingly motiveless murder was just as hard to solve as a well-planned accident.”

Simon Wood has fashioned an exciting and well-written novel of suspense, with a nail-biting conclusion during which this reader held her breath in anticipation of what new horrors might be in store.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.

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Vanishing GirlsVanishing Girls
Katia Lief
Harper, July 2012
ISBN 978-0-0620-9504-6
Mass Market Paperback

Karin Schaeffer, ex-NYPD and now a private detective, working with her husband at MacLeary Investigations, in the newest book by Katia Lief, becomes embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer dubbed The Working Girl Killer.  As you might guess, the victims have all been killed in the same manner, with the same exact type of weapon, and were all prostitutes.  Seven young women had been found dead across Manhattan, then two in Brooklyn.

At 38, Karin is now seeking an undergraduate college degree in forensic psychology.  She has not had an easy time of it, having survived the murder of her first husband and her daughter six years ago, and just recently had a miscarriage.  She dotes on their little boy, Ben, though still grieving for her losses.  As the book opens, Ben receives a text from Billy Staples, a detective at their local precinct in Brooklyn and Mac’s closest friend, from a crime scene that Billy believes to be where the serial killer has left his latest victim.  Eerily, a little girl is found badly injured several blocks away after what is believed to be a hit-and-run accident.  The cops feel the two things could somehow be connected, as the location and timing seem to rule out coincidence.

Billy had been fighting his own demons.  He has been hunting this killer for over a year. At the same time, Mac and Karin believe he is having hallucinations, suffering from PTSD after a horrifying incident when the woman he loved had tried to kill him, instead leaving him blinded in one eye; he had been forced to shoot her dead.  The current investigation triggers all his symptoms again, and envelops Karin as well to a very personal degree.

It is an interesting plot, telling a very dark tale that stayed with this reader for quite a while after turning the last page.  I have to admit, however, that after having read – –  and loved! – – the author’s two previous books, You Are Next, and Next Time You See Me, I felt this one did not live up to the expectations I had for it.  And though it was an interesting read, in the end I was disappointed.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2012.

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All Mortal FleshAll Mortal Flesh
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur, February 2013
ISBN 978-1-250-01855-7
Trade Paperback

All Mortal Flesh, the fifth in the Clare Ferguson/Russ Van Alstyne series, finds Clare, the parish priest in the small Adirondack, upstate NY town of Millers Kill, and Russ, the local police chief and married man she loves, having just wrenchingly ended their relationship.  The following day, an even more devastating event occurs:  Russ is told that his wife, from whom he had recently separated when he told her of his love for Clare, has been brutally murdered.  Loving Clare, yet still loving his wife, matters are only compounded when both Clare and Russ are considered prime suspects, not only by the police but by the local gossip-loving town residents.

With her usual adroit skill, Ms. Spencer-Fleming has written another wonderful tale of these very human protagonists in this book, available for the very first time in a trade paperback edition.  The sense of place is vivid, and the wintry weather graphically evoked. There is a slam-bang ending with a final unexpected and stunning turn as this suspense-filled tale concludes.  An excellent and fast-paced read, and one that is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2013.

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Sacrifice FlySacrifice Fly
Tim O’Mara
Minotaur, October 2012
ISBN: 978-1-250-00898-5
Hardcover

Raymond Dunne is a very dedicated schoolteacher, working with eighth-graders in a middle school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and taking the welfare of his students very seriously.  In particular, one of the most promising, Frankie Rivas, has obtained a scholarship to a private high school on the basis of his baseball skills and the fact that Ray has called in a favor from their coach.  When Frankie fails to show up for school for a couple of weeks, Ray decides to try to find out why.  His visit to the home of the boy’s father results in his discovery of the man’s dead body.

Ray’s involvement at that point derives as much from his concern as his teacher as from the fact that Ray is a former cop.  His feelings when he walks into his old precinct are made palpable to the reader, his emotions roiling as he remembers back five years, when “you fall thirty feet, and your whole life changes.”  Among those changes are the physical ones; Ray has an umbrella with him every day, knowing it has to rain sometime; besides, it means he doesn’t have to carry a cane.

Frankie and his younger sister are nowhere to be found, and Ray follows up every lead he can find in order to locate the two children and ensure their safety.  Then the pace, and the suspense, move into higher gear, beyond the “controlled chaos” of Ray’s classroom, and the stakes go up as well.

When one has a terrific protagonist [with a valuable friend, a wannabe cop, nicknamed “Emo”], a well-developed plot, writing that makes the Brooklyn streets come to life and, as the title might imply, a lot of baseball references, what more could one ask?  [Well, this reader had to get past the fact that Ray is a Yankee fan, although he does don a Mets cap when the situation requires it.]  This is a wonderful debut novel from a writer whose next book I will anxiously await, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2013.

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If You Were HereIf You Were Here
Alafair Burke
Harper, June 2013
ISBN: 978-0-06-220835-4
Hardcover

In her ninth novel, and second standalone, Alafair Burke introduces McKenna Jordan, a writer for the fictitious NYC Magazine.  Before her marriage five years ago, she was McKenna Wright, who had spent four years as an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, a job she lost in the aftermath of a police officer’s shooting of a 19-year-old youth, there being a question as to whether or not the boy had been unarmed, the gun found nearby planted.  McKenna’s zealous investigation into that incident, accusing the officer of homicide and perjury, ultimately caused her disgrace and ended her prosecutorial career.  This was soon followed by another, only slightly less traumatic event, when one of her best friends, beautiful West Point grad [and daughter of a two-star general] Susan Hauptmann, disappeared without a trace.

Now, all these years later, a cell-phone photo comes into McKenna’s hands showing a mysterious Superwoman, a female crime victim who had plucked her attacker’s body from the subway tracks to safety, who McKenna believes is that same friend, who she had become convinced was long dead.  Susan, an athletic 32 years old who had been deployed in the Middle East prior to the time of her disappearance, could have easily been capable of the feat in the subway station.

There ensue a series of bizarre and seemingly unrelated incidents that this reader never saw coming, including but not limited to a mysterious private operative [hitman?  private detective?  something else altogether?], a dead cop, someone hacking into and forging e-mails, and no clue as to who is pulling the strings.  The author somehow manages to tie them all up in a relentlessly intriguing plot.

Another well-written book by this author [who gives a tip-of-the-hat, without needing to name his completely recognizable protagonist, to Lee Child, which I loved], and recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.

Book Reviews: The Killer Is Dying by James Sallis, The Calling by Alison Bruce, Old Haunts by E.J. Copperman, Northwest Angle by William Kent Krueger, and The Dark Rose by Erin Kelly

The Killer is Dying
James Sallis
Walker & Company, August 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8027-7945-8
Hardcover

The first thing one perceives on reading the first pages of James Sallis’ new novel is the literal accuracy of the title:  The man who calls himself Christian is a contract killer, a Vietnam vet now terminally ill, on his last job.  A few pages later, something goes awry as the man he has been watching, who he has been hired to kill, is suddenly shot – –  by someone else.  And Christian is not sure how he feels about that.

The second character to whom the reader is introduced is Jimmie, a precocious youngster who has unexpectedly had to develop some strong survival skills when he is abandoned by his parents.  Suddenly, and bizarrely, Jimmie begins having vivid dreams.  The startling thing about this, other than the oddity of his dreaming at all when he was previously unaware of having ever done so in the past, is that the dreams are apparently Christian’s.  And that’s just the beginning.  A dying killer, a philosophizing teenager, a cop whose wife is gravely ill;  disparate lives which only tangentially intersect, with the p.o.v. switching among them, which was briefly disorienting to this reader, but all to fascinating effect.

There are small master strokes with pitch-perfect thumbnail sketches, several scenes analogizing the actions of birds to those of humans. This is a book peopled by characters who are dead or dying and those they leave behind.  But it is not maudlin, rather, thought-provoking. It is also full of existential musings:  “The world speaks to us in so many languages . . . and we understand so few . . . He was thinking how kids back in school, kids these days too he was sure, always talked about being bored, and how he could never understand that.  The way wind moved in the trees, the sheen of sunlight on glass or steel, a fly’s wings – – everything was of interest.  You just had to pay attention, you just had to look.”

James Sallis, the author of over two dozen volumes, fiction and non-fiction alike, has again produced a novel which captured me completely.  When I read and reviewed one of his earlier books, Salt River, I wrote “Mr. Sallis’ spare prose is wonderful, and the novel a deeply affecting one.”  Those words are just as true for this book, and it is, obviously, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.

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The Calling
Alison Bruce
Soho Constable, August 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-964-3
Hardcover

As this third novel in the DC Gary Goodhew series opens, the reader is briefly introduced, one by one, to members of the somewhat dysfunctional Burrows family, which is planning a surprise celebration of the 80th birthday of the family matriarch.  Two of the family members fail to show up, however: Andy, as usual feeling himself the least favored child, ponders whether or not to join in the festivities.  When his niece, Kaye, doesn’t show up, however, it is for much more sinister reasons:  She appears to have disappeared.

The case is assigned to DC Goodhew, of the Cambridge CID.  With no clues as to Kaye’s whereabouts, the only positive note comes from two anonymous calls from a woman who directs the police to a man who she says they should investigate.  The suspense amps up as it appears there may be more than one victim.

A cut above many police procedurals, the book contains clever plotting and an interesting protagonist, a young and intuitive young man caught up in spite of himself in some office politics, and a suggestion of [possibly] romantic and [definitely] professional compatibility with D.C. Sue Gully. I will look forward to the next entry in this series.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.

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Old Haunts
E.J. Copperman
Berkley Prime Crime, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-425-24618-4
Mass Market Paperback

Alison Kerby returns in the third in what is billed as the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series by E.J. Copperman.  Alison, a single mother of a precocious ten-year-old daughter, after her divorce from the man she not-so-lovingly refers to as “The Swine” returned to the town where she grew up, Harbor Haven on the Jersey Shore, purchased a house over a century old, hoping to live out her dream of running a guest house.  Those plans changed somewhat after Alison discovered that the previous owner of the house, “Maxie,” is still there – sort of.  Actually, it’s Maxie’s ghost who is still there, as well as that of a young detective named Paul, who had been hired by Maxie shortly before death threats had been carried out against her, with both of them becoming murder victims.  Alison, her mother and daughter seem to be the only ones who can see them.  But on the positive side, word has gotten around, and the ‘haunted guesthouse’ is now being booked by a tour agent for senior citizens interested in what is  billed as a “unique experience,” promising two-a-day “ghostly happenings.”  Maxie, who died – and still remains – at 28, and Paul – English-born and Canadian-raised, and wanting to keep his hand in the p.i. business, so to speak – have no problem with that, especially as they are apparently incapable of leaving the house.

It is a typically hot – make that ‘very hot’ – July “down the shore” in Harbor Haven.  Alison has her usual contingent of guests, most of them the normal group of seniors, when Alison discovers “The Swine” on her doorstep.  Uninvited, and certainly unexpected, he states that he and the woman for whom he left Alison have broken up, and indicates that he wants them ‘to be a family again.’  To further complicate matters for Alison, the body of a man is discovered in a neighboring town, and police identify it as that of a man to whom Maxie was briefly [4 days, to be exact] married.  Alison undertakes to try to find out who killed him, and why.

As if this isn’t enough for her to deal with, Paul asks Alison to try to track down the woman to whom he was about to propose before his untimely death; the engagement ring was in his pocket at the time.  With her [as they are described] ‘non-alive assistants’ and her best friend, the very-pregnant Jeannie, Alison undertakes to do what has to be done to resolve all these issues, in well-plotted and very funny fashion.  [As just a small example, I cite the author’s description of a man who runs a collection agency, “wearing a sport coat so loud he had to shout to be heard over it.”]  But the humor and charm of the writing is difficult to capture – you simply have to get this book and experience it for yourself – it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.

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Northwest Angle
William Kent Krueger
Atria, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-439-15395-6
Hardcover

This is the eleventh book in the multi-award-winning Cork O’Connor series, and it is another winner.  It starts out, as do the others, in the North Woods of Minnesota, described by the author as “a land so beautiful it’s as near to heaven as you’re likely to find anywhere on this earth.”  And the reader is more than convinced of that as [s]he continues to read, for the author’s wonderful prose brings it vividly to life in all its majesty.

Family is all-important to Cork, and as the novel opens he and his family – his two daughters, Ann, twenty-one, and Jenny, a writer twenty-four years old; his son, nearly fifteen; and his sister-in-law and her husband – are about to embark in a houseboat on one of the larges lakes in North America, straddling the US/Canadian border, on what he envisions as a family gathering, the first in the nearly two years since his beloved wife had died.  Their destination was a remote area known as the Northwest Angle.  Within less than an hour, however, a devastating storm arises, threatening to kill anything and anyone in its path, with waves over eight feet high and winds over 100 mph, wreaking havoc and destruction unlike anything they’d even seen.

As suddenly as it began, the storm soon passes, but in its aftermath and where the vagaries of the area have deposited them, on one of a myriad of small islands, they discover an old trapper’s cabin, inside which they find the body of a young girl, brutally killed, and, nearby, an infant who appears to be no more than a few weeks old. Jenny is immediately taken with the child, who though hungry and dehydrated is none the worse for his abandonment.  The reaction of the others is somewhat more ambivalent as to his future, and the possibilities raised by his presence among them and its potential threat, for it appears that whoever was responsible for the girl’s death is still stalking the area.  Cork, with his background as a Chicago cop and a Sheriff for more than a decade before he became a p.i., is faced with getting them safely off the island, and finding out who is responsible for the girl’s death, as well as seeing that the baby’s future is dealt with.

The ensuing events are never less than harrowing.  The mystery is one not easily solved, but the O’Connor family, with the help of their old friend Henry Meloux, is not easily deterred.  Cork’s – and the author’s – love of the wilderness, and his philosophy towards life and family, is made manifest, e.g., “he was reminded that life was no more predictable than the flight of a dragonfly” and “love is the only river I know whose current flows both ways.”  The book is deeply satisfying, and as this author’s work usually does, left me with tears in my eyes.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.

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The Dark Rose
Erin Kelly
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-670-02328-8
Hardcover

Louisa Trevelyan is working as a garden designer re-creating a historically accurate Tudor garden in Warwickshire, at the fictional Kelstice Lodge.  After working for years recreating gardens that had fallen into neglect on private estates, this community program has really given her a chance to indulge her creative passion for garden design.  It is there that she meets Paul Seaforth, 19 years old, who bears “an uncanny likeness” to her lover of years ago, Adam Glasslake. Though that relationship only lasted a few months, Louisa had been obsessed with Adam from the day she met him, an obsession undiminished with the years, which now translates into an affair with the much-younger Paul.

Kelstice is a project of Veriditas, a charity working with “at risk youth.”  Paul’s presence is the “community service” to which he has been sentenced in lieu of jail time for his part in a crime committed by a mentor of sorts, against whom he has agreed to testify in court. For her part, Louisa also has a past which threatens her present.  By unspoken agreement, they never discuss their pasts with one another.

Billed as a ‘psychological mystery,’ I found the novel to be more suspense than mystery, as the details of Paul’s and Louisa’s pasts are revealed to the reader only in small doses.  The shifting p.o.v. and time frames were somewhat disorienting, but necessary, describing the earlier years of both protags bit by bit, building the anticipation, until quite near the end of the novel, when all the details are finally revealed, leading to a stunning climax.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.