Book Review: Compromised by James R. Scarantino—and a Giveaway!

Compromised
A Denise Aragon Mystery #2
James R. Scarantino
Midnight Ink, February 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5040-8
Trade Paperback

The body of a teenage girl is found in a dumpster—she’s beautiful, even in death, and is surrounded by six dozen red roses. Santa Fe police detectives Denise Aragon and Rick Lewis , along with FBI Special Agent Tomas Rivera, investigate. Their job is complicated by the fact that their witness, former model Lily Montclaire, is not being entirely truthful with them. Montclaire is currently working for ruthless attorney Marcy Thornton, who is involved with Judge Judy Diaz. The detectives are sure that Thornton and Diaz used the victim for sexual purposes, but can’t connect her to the murder without Montclaire’s help. Montclaire only wants to save her own skin.

When the detectives contact the waste disposal company that owns the dumpster, E. Benny Silva Enterprises, they discover that Benny Silva and his twin brother are involved in a multi-million dollar lawsuit that they want to come to a speedy decision. Marcy Thornton and Judge Diaz are not moving fast enough for them.

Scarantino’s detective, Denise Aragon, is the character that makes the story breathe in jagged, sharp gasps. The reader slowly discovers her disturbing and violent backstory, and it puts her obsession with bodybuilding and Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense system, into perspective. She is hard as nails, wears her hair shorn so that the scars on her scalp are visible, and her arms bulge with muscles she has worked obsessively to develop. Also proud of her heritage and her family’s ties to the Santa Fe area, she emerges proud and triumphant in the books final scene at the Santa Fe Fiesta. Compromised is the second book in the series, after The Drum Within.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, March 2017.

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To enter the drawing for a gently
used advance reading copy of
Compromised by James R. Scarantino,
just leave a comment below. The winning
name will be drawn on Tuesday night,
April 4th. This drawing is open
to residents of the US and Canada.

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Book Reviews: Innocence by Heda Margolius Kovaly and Trap by Robert K. Tanenbaum

innocenceInnocence Or, Murder on Steep Street
Heda Margolius Kovaly
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
Soho Crime, March 2016
ISBN 978-1-6169-5645-5
Trade Paperback

This murder mystery was written to disguise a political tract describing the author’s life in Communist Czechoslovakia during which her husband, an ardent party member and an assistant minister of trade, was falsely arrested, jailed and murdered.  Both had survived Nazi concentration camps.  The form the book takes was to somehow evade the censors and it surreptitiously tells his story as part of the plot, describing one of the characters.

Essentially, the plot revolves around the murder of a detective on a street on which a movie theater is located.  There are seven women who serve as ushers, each with a secret life, complicating the investigation into the death.  The stories of their lives unfold, together with the secrets they share with each other.

The promotional material recounts the author’s fame as a translator, and especially her love of Raymond Chandler.  It is doubtful that this work measures up to his standard of writing, and has to be judged on its own merits.  On that level, the reader has to cope with various obfuscations and, of course, the obscure Czech names and places which divert attention.  The conclusion is somewhat disappointing and really is somewhat ambiguous, whether by design or inadvertence.

The author really is known for her memoir, Under A Cruel Star, in which she describes her time in Auschwitz and the early years of Communism in her native land.  For its historical importance, the present novel deserves to be read.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016

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trapTrap
A Butch Karp – Marlene Ciampi Thriller #27
Robert K. Tanenbaum
Pocket Books, April 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-9318-4
Mass Market Paperback

The customary courtroom drama in the Butch Karp series takes up about half of this novel, but it isn’t as dramatic as most of the prior episodes.  Although the legal description is proficient, it is highly technical in nature and less dramatic than many of the previous legal battles, which are always a highlight of a Robert K. Tanenbaum story.  This tale is a mixture of a Karp family saga, hate crimes, deranged arsonist and bomber, religious beliefs combined with Nazi sympathizers and events during the Holocaust and World War II, and the conflict between the public school system, the teachers union as led by corrupt officers and charter schools.  How’s that for a mouthful?

What leads up to the courtroom scene are a series of events and even a murder or two.  The Teacher’s Federation president is attempting to head off a bill in Albany which would result in an audit that would expose him and his cohorts for stealing funds from the union’s coffers.  The author certainly knows better than this premise.  Certainly unions are subject to regular audits.  But for the plot to work, this fact has to be ignored.

So the battle between proponents of the charter school legislation, who want a mandatory audit of the Teacher’s Federation, and the corrupt union and public officials, ultimately sets the stage for the dramatic trial.  As side issues, we have a scraggly group of Nazi sympathizers who conveniently serves as a red herring in the lead-up to murder charges, and Karp’s twin sons’ wishy-washy approach to their religious beliefs and late (by several years) Bar Mitzvah.

All in all, however, this was an enjoyable read, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.

Book Reviews: Badlands by C.J. Box and Murder on the Quai by Cara Black

badlandsBadlands
C.J. Box
Minotaur Books, , August 2016
ISBN 978-1-3125-4690-8
Mass MarketPaperback

When the art of fracking created an oil boom in North Dakota, it also gave rise to all sorts of complications from housing shortages to drug crime.  What was before a sleepy little town, now arose a bustling area where the sheriff’s staff grew like topsy to keep pace.  The latest addition is Cassie Dewell, hired as chief investigator from her old job in Montana where she became obsessed with the so-called Lizard King, a trucker who preyed and killed prostitutes plying truck stops from coast to coast.

In fact, that’s how we are introduced to Cassie, as she travels to North Carolina to participate in an interrogation of a person suspected of being the perpetrator just before she assumes her new duties.  When she arrives in Bakken County, ND, the sheriff confides in Cassie his suspicion that all is not well in the department, and asks her to undertake an investigation by herself without telling her why.  Meanwhile, a shipment of a large quantity of drugs is delivered by car, which is forced off the road by a rival gang, and a  duffel bag is flung wide of the accident scene and recovered by a 12-year-old newspaper delivery boy.

As the plot unfolds, Cassie is in the middle of it all, making assumptions, detecting, analyzing, and finally guessing that the boy is the key to it all, except for the possible corruption that might exist in the law enforcement personnel (which of course is related to the drug gangs).  The author demonstrates his reputation for writing novels with excellent characterizations and providing detailed environmental descriptions.  When the outside temperature falls to 20 and 30 degrees below freezing, the reader almost feels compelled to turn up the heat.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2016.

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murder-on-the-quaiMurder on the Quai
An Aimée Leduc Investigation #16
Cara Black
Soho Crime, June 2016
ISBN 978-1-616-95624-0
Hardcover

After 15 Aimée Leduc mysteries, Cara Black turned her attention backward in time to the start of Aimee’s career, providing a back story to her beginnings as a detective, and introducing some of the basics which inhabit subsequent novels, namely how she met Rene Friant, her partner in Leduc Detective, and acquired Miles Davis, her bichon frise.  At the time, Aimée was a first-year medical student, hating every moment.

Then one day while Aimée was in her father’s office, as he was about to leave for Berlin to obtain the Stasi file on his renegade wife, who had  disappeared years before, a distant relation asks him to find a young woman who perhaps was the last person to see her father before he was murdered.  Instead, Aimée takes the case on herself as her father had refused to do so before he left.

From that point on, all the attributes of an Aimée Leduc mystery flow:  Aimée getting into all kinds of danger; all the flavor and smells of Paris streets and neighborhoods; the give-and-take between Aimée and her godfather and high police official Morbier; Aimée’s passion for discounted fashion clothes; among other common features of the series.  Since it was her first case, the progress is not as smooth as future investigations, as she stumbles and learns, but unquestionably the book is recommended as an introduction to her subsequent adventures.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016.

Book Review: Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy

Brooklyn on FireBrooklyn on Fire
A Mary Handley Mystery #2
Lawrence H. Levy
Broadway Books, January 2016
ISBN:978-0-553-41894-1
Trade Paperback

Mary Handley, a not-so-proper Victorian miss, has set up as a consulting detective. Her good friend, Mr. Lazlo, has provided her with not only a job until her consulting pays-off, but provided her with office space in a corner of his bookstore. Little does he know his store will be burned down as a result of this association, but that comes later in the story. The story opens with Mary’s first client.

Mary earned a bit of fame by cracking a highly reported earlier case. This previous success draws a woman named Emily Worsham to her office, stating her uncle has been murdered.The catch? It’s a very cold case. The uncle has been dead and buried for at least ten years⏤or has he? And is Emily Worsham actually a relative, or is she simply an actress hired to point a finger at one of the wealthy movers and shakers in the Brooklyn district? The plot thickens when Emily is murdered on stage, and it turns out she wasn’t Emily Worsham at all.

The story is fast-paced. Not only Mary herself is at risk, but her entire family and of course, poor Mr. Lazlo. Even Mary’s romantic interest, none other than George Vanderbilt, comes under the gun. Nothing is as it first appears and seeing Mary solve this convoluted puzzle is a joy.

An intricate plot will keep the reader guessing. The writing is good, the setting interesting (historical mysteries are my fave whether set in New York or the Pacific Northwest) and the characterization spot on. I can recommend this one.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, July 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: Casey’s Last Chance by Joseph B. Atkins

Casey's Last ChanceCasey’s Last Chance
Joseph B. Atkins
Mojo Triangle Books, February 2015
ISBN: 9781941644171
Trade Paperback

This is one powerful exploration of corruption, random violence and murder in the deep south. In the southern United States during the second half of the Twentieth Century, a wealth of divergent forces warred over various resources using every known technique to corrupt law enforcement and keep poor and minority residents in their places. Industrialists and manufacturers fought against union organizers, the KKK raised flaming crosses against African-Americans and immigrant Latinos, and Martin Luther King led a burgeoning civil rights movement into rampant but peaceful civil protest.

Some of this unrest looms on the horizon in July, 1960, when the novel opens. Casey Eubanks, hustler and poolshark is running from arrest out of Jonesboro, South Carolina for the accidental shooting of his cousin in a local bar. He takes bad advice from an acquaintance and fellow hustler and agrees to a murder contract. He’s supposed to erase a union organizer who is agitating for better pay and better living conditions in a mill in southern Mississippi. When the plan goes awry Eubanks instead murders a local corrupt cop and we’re off on a classic dark run.

The author nails the descriptive elements of the territory Casey travels through and he nails the increasingly dark psychology that drives Eubanks through sleeepless nights in dingy motels and brushes with the law on light-less nighttime deserted roadways. Readers will meet a host of characters all nicely detailed. The mood is somber throughout, even when Casey hooks up with a rogue FBI agent and a free—lance reporter trying to bring down a sprawling ex-Nazi cabal of the worst kind of criminal.

The dialogue is crisp and relevant, the mean streets are the meanest and the pace of the story is compelling. The author not only nails the physical elements of the south, his characterizations are among the most accurate for this kind of novel I have read in a while. Bravo for a gritty, dark and thoughtful novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2016.
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 Reviews: The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg and Murder in Megara by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

The Lonely Hearts ClubThe Lonely Hearts Club
Elizabeth Eulberg
Point, January 2010
ISBN 978-0-545-14031-7
Hardcover

Penny Lane Bloom—her parents met at a makeshift shrine in a Chicago park the night John Lennon was shot—should hate the Beatles, but she accepts her parents’ fandom. After all, her older sisters are named Lucy and Rita, and all the family’s vacations have been spent in Liverpool.

The summer before her junior year in high school, long time friend Nate is pressuring Penny for sex. She resists, but she knows she and Nate are perfect for each other. But when she stops by for a surprise visit, he’s on the couch—with another girl.

While staring at one of the many Beatles posters in her room, Penny’s brainchild is hatched. She’ll quit dating loser guys, getting lied to, and enjoy the benefits of being single. It’s the Lonely Hearts Club, and if Penny is the only member, it’s just fine with her.

Reluctantly, her best friend Tracy joins her, and so does popular cheerleader Diane, who had just broken up with the school’s most popular athlete. Diane decides to quit cheerleading and with the support of the girls in the club, tries out for basketball.

This is an upbeat debut novel about girls and friendship. There is brief mention of sexual activity, underage drinking, and eating disorders, but it’s mostly about solidarity among girls. It’s a funny and fun choice for young adult readers.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, January 2016.

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Murder in MegaraMurder In Megara
A John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #11
Mary Reed & Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0406-7
Hardcover

The eleventh novel is this fine historical series shows the usual careful and extensive research that are hallmarks of this writing team. The deposed Lord Chamberlain has left Emperor Justinian’s Court at Constantinople and taken his household to his family holdings near the seedy town of Megara which at that Byzantine time was part of Greece. It was located near Corinth and Athens. His appearance is not welcome as he upsets the routines and rhythms of the place and causes numerous rifts and tears in alliances both above and below board. Corruption is well-known and runs smoothly if not lawfully in Megara and John is causing waves. Within days murder is afoot and local authorities are quick to accuse the newcomer and members of his household of several crimes including murder and blasphemy. Sorting out the threats, staying out of jail and returning to favor of the Roman Court, not to mention staying alive, appears to be a pretty tall order.

The plot moves steadily forward, the pages of the novel are thickly peopled with interesting people and readers will enjoy the intimate views and thoughts of both high and low-born citizens. Since followers of the series understand that certain characters, regardless of the negative vicissitudes of life visited upon them, will survive, however there are several likeable and vulnerable characters about whom to speculate. Excellent enjoyable novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, February 2016.
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: The Case of the Yellow Diamond by Carl Brookins—and a Giveaway!

The Case of the Yellow DiamondThe Case of the Yellow Diamond
A Sean Sean Mystery #5
Carl Brookins
North Star Press of St. Cloud, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-87839-816-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A dead man on the floor of his office in Minneapolis won’t lead P.I. Sean Sean to journey to Yap Island to protect his new client. Bombs in lawyers’ cars only jostle him. This short investigator knows the value of research and asking questions in the right places. World War II, Asian diamonds and concrete in Des Moines combine to almost destroy a Minnesota family. In the end, Sean detects flaws in the plans and brings down a criminal enterprise.

Sean Sean has a way…with words, with the ladies and with investigations. He’s a man’s man even though he’s shorter than most and his height never slows him down. He’s the quintessential hardboiled private eye except this isn’t the 40’s and, at his core, he’s much too nice to be one of those guys. He’s the inimitable Sean Sean.

As he puts it, Sean’s latest case really began “many years earlier and a long way away”, having its roots in an obscure event on an even more obscure island in the Pacific, Yap Island. When Tod Bartelme hires Sean to find out who’s sabotaging his and his wife Josie’s next trip to search for her long-lost granduncle, shot down near Yap Island in 1944, he has no inkling that he’ll soon be looking into old allegations of smuggling and current-day suspicions of construction irregularities that point back to Josie’s own family. The big question, of course, is what all these tangents have to do with each other but, if anybody can ferret out the answers, it’s Sean, hopefully before he gets added to the growing pile of dead bodies.

Sean is an old-style P.I., one who eschews technological aids as much as he can and relies on his wit and natural nosiness as well as his snarky sort of charm. Catherine, Sean’s lovely, rich—and tall—girlfriend shows us the other side of this gent’s life and their relationship is as heartwarming as it comes, especially considering their differences. Loaded with humor and plenty of twists and turns, Sean Sean is my kind of hardboiled private eye, one I’ll look forward to seeing again and again.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2016.

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You have two chances to enter the
drawing for a signed paperback copy
of The Case of the Yellow Diamond
by Carl Brookins. Leave a comment
below and then again on Tuesday,
January 19th, after Carl’s guest post.
The winning name will be drawn on
the evening of Thursday, January 21st.
Open to residents of the US.