Book Review: The Man in the Crooked Hat by Harry Dolan

The Man in the Crooked Hat
Harry Dolan
Putnam, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-3991-8541-0
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Jack Pellum is a Detroit detective who left the force after his wife was murdered in a random attack.  But Jack never bought that theory, and the case was never solved.  Eighteen months later, Jack is working as a part-time private investigator while continuing the hunt for an elusive person of interest in his wife’s murder: a man in a fedora who Jack is convinced could break open the case.  When a local writer’s cryptic suicide note suggests the man in the fedora actually exists, Jack picks up the thread he’s certain will lead him to his wife’s killer. He never imagined it would also unravel twenty years of secrets and unsolved crimes or make him the target of a psychopath trying to erase his own past.

In the early pages of the book, Jack meets Paul Rook, 26 years old, whose mother was killed nine years earlier, and who shares a similar obsession, trying to find a man in a fedora who he thinks killed his mother.  When Jack asks him what he thinks the man’s motives are, the reply he receives is “’He kills people. He doesn’t have motives.’  He tells Paul that he has been doing his own sleuthing, and that he’s ‘found sightings of him.  Some of them go back years.  The earliest one I’ve found was twenty years ago.  It happened about thirty miles from here, in a town called Belleville. I think the man in the hat got his start there’ . . .   Paul had told him about more than a dozen murders – – each one with a witness who claimed to have seen a man in a hat. The sightings took place at different times, sometimes on the day of the murder, sometimes in the days before.  Never at the scene of the crime. ”  Jack then is told about another boy who was killed, about a month later, in a town six or seven miles from the scene of that murder.

Jack is relentless in his search, and at times I must admit it became a bit too much of a slog for this reader.  But the tension and the suspense mount, and almost before one realizes it one is caught up in the investigation almost as much as its protagonist.  In the very first pages of the book we meet Michael Underhill.  It is over 70 pages later before we meet him again.  But surprisingly, that doesn’t lessen the suspense.  Even when we learn “who,” the “how” and “why” are absorbing, and the resolution is very satisfying.  The novel is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2018.

Book Review: August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

August Snow
Stephen Mack Jones
Soho Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-718-6
Hardcover

August Snow is the third book I’ve read so far this year that’s going on my “Best Reads of 2017” list. Yes, I’ve read other good ones, but the “best” are special in some way.

What’s special about August Snow, is August Snow. Jones has created a truly excellent character, heroic, honest, blessed with his friends and he knows it. The problem may lie in figuring out who his friends are. His enemies are pretty obvious.

August has been gone from Detroit for a year, trying to drown painful memories in travel and booze. He’s got plenty of money, having won a $12 million dollar case against the city after he lost his job as a cop. August, you see, blew the whistle on corrupt politicians and the police force running the city and they had him wrongfully dismissed from the force. But now he’s come home to live in his parents’ old home in Mexicantown.

All too soon he’s asked to investigate what may be embezzled funds from Eleanor Paget’s wealth management bank. He turns her plea for help down, only to learn that the very next day she’s committed suicide. Or has she? August doesn’t believe it, which soon lands him right in the midst of murder and more corruption than you can shake a stick at.

You may think you’ve read this plot before⏤Lord knows there’s enough corruption in the real world to make the premise almost commonplace⏤but you won’t have had a hero like August Snow.

Twists and turns carry the reader on a wild ride. The good guys keep you hoping for justice. The bad guys will twist you in knots.

Author Stephen Mack Jones is a novelist to watch!

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, April 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: Titans by Victoria Scott

TitansTitans
Victoria Scott
Scholastic Press, February 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-80601-5
Hardcover

Guilt is a heavy burden, even more so when you’re a teenager with two sisters and are part of a family teetering on the edge of losing everything. That’s life for Astrid Sullivan. Both her dead grandfather and her dad turned family stability into chaos because of their gambling addictions. With her father laid off and jobs for blue collar workers almost nonexistent, her family is falling apart and about to lose their home..again. Older sister Dani is escaping by spending all her time with a boyfriend, while Mom deals with stress by sneaking out at night and taking care of the neighborhood gardens. Home life stress is exacerbated because everyone’s avoiding talking about it.

Astrid and her best friend, Magnolia, who aspires to become a small businesswoman by selling her artful hair decorations, started hanging out near the racetrack when they were thirteen and have spent the past five years watching the mechanical horses, called titans, race. Astrid is a math whiz and spends part of her racetrack time using that skill to calculate how jockies could better run a race.

When she and Magnolia help an older man who is dizzy and weak while at the races one afternoon, little do they know that it’s the start of an adventure of a lifetime. Rags, the man they helped, and his friend Barney, have a secret. They have an early model Titan, one with artificial intelligence, something the newer 3.0 models don’t have. When the announcement that one rider will receive an entry into this year’s race series with the $50,000 fee waived, the men ask Astrid if she’s interested. Is water wet? Heck yes, she’s interested, especially with a $2 million prize up for grabs.

How they get a horse that has been sitting unused for years, into shape, how Astrid and Magnolia get mentored in social skills, what pitfalls are involved as the races get more competitive and how her choice affects her family life, make this an incredible read. Teens (and adults) who love a great adventure yarn with lots of action will devour the book. I could not put it down.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, January 2016.

Book Review: Run Run Run by Lee Strauss

Run Run RunRun Run Run
Gingerbread Man Episode One
A Nursery Rhyme Suspense
Lee Strauss
Lee Strauss, December 2014
Ebook

From the author—

College girl meets boy online.
A killer targets girls like her.
She’s next on the list.
The boy wants to save her.
She thinks it’s him.

It’s worse than they both think.

Teagan and Sage have been best friends forever and now they’re college roommates. Their friendship has withstood their very different personalities but the freewheeling college atmosphere is adding more than a little stress to Teagan’s life. Shy and insecure, she is drawn to the world of chat rooms because they’re safe. After all, she may never actually meet the guy she’s talking to so Marlow seems to be the ideal “date”.

When a rape occurs on campus, Teagan begins to think something is not quite right about Marlow. Is she overthinking things? Perhaps, but then a second rape occurs and this time it’s worse. Imagine, then, the fear when Teagan realizes that she may be a target. Both Teagan and Marlowe are even more puzzled by the weirdness that’s happening in their online and face-to-face relationship, with a hint that something more than what we consider normal may be happening.

Multiple points of view can be irritating but they work very well in this case, adding to the confusion of just who each of the four narrators (Teagan, Marlow, Sage and the rapist) might be. From one chapter to the next, I was baffled by what the truth might ultimately turn out to be. I was also baffled by a couple of plot points. First, I don’t understand why Teagan would be so shocked, in today’s college world, that rape can happen. She behaves as though such a thing has never happened before and most especially not at Detroit University. Detroit? There aren’t many cities that have a higher crime rate so her reaction is just not rational. The other thing that had me shaking my head was Teagan’s mother asking her to meet at a coffee shop across campus after dark. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t question that but the mother has come to the campus because she’s afraid for Teagan to travel home alone for the holidays. Why would she expose her daughter to the dangers of crossing the campus alone at night?

After a massive cliffhanger, I’m just going to have to wait but, having read other books by Ms. Strauss, I have no doubt answers will come in the next two books. A lot has been packed into this novella and I’m sure a lot more is coming.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2015.

Book Reviews: Stagestruck by Peter Lovesey, Ringer by Brian Wiprud, Infernal Angels by Loren Estleman, No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie, and The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman

Stagestruck
Peter Lovesey
Soho Crime, June 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-947-6
Hardcover

What a pleasure to find a book which includes two of my favorite things:  a crackling good mystery, filled with humor, and a tribute to the theater. As the title might imply, the author obviously has much respect for the theater, with both a lower case “t” and upper case as well [see below].  His protagonist, on the other hand, not so much. In the newest book featuring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, head of Bath’s CID, the reader learns that Diamond has always suffered from a phobia, what the author terms a “deep unease’ and resulting in what can only be described as panic attacks where the theater is concerned.

Diamond is forced to confront his fear when he is called to the 200-year-old Theatre Royal, in Bath, which some refer to as “an itsy-bitsy provincial theatre” and others as “the prettiest theatre in the kingdom,” when on opening night, the celebrity pop star with the unlikely name of Clarion Calhoun who has been cast as the lead in a production of “I Am a Camera” is stricken, just after the curtain goes up.  She is apparently the victim of something which has caused third degree burns to her face and upper chest, precisely where her stage makeup had been applied some moments before, effectively destroying her career, not to mention her looks.  Things get even dicier when two days later a dead body is found in the theater.

The novel is thoroughly enjoyable, with the last twenty or so pages keeping the reader in great suspense as the culprit is unmasked.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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Ringer
Brian Wiprud
Minotaur, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-60189-8
Hardcover

Ringer is a sly tale revolving around an encounter between a 65-year-old billionaire and a Mexican man of less than savory background.  A caper novel with a plot arising out of a stew comprised of an ancient ring which may or may not be blessed and/or cursed, a spoiled and willful 19-year-old girl, a Greenwich Village palmist and her assorted relatives, and a smattering of several truisms purportedly from the mouth of Abraham Lincoln, among many other things, make up this consistently delightful concoction.

The protagonist is Morty Martinez, introduced to readers in the author’s Feelers, Brooklyn native and former house cleaner, who now considers himself as La Paz gentry now that he is living in Mexico again and he has a few million in the bank.  The aforementioned teenager is [ironically] named Purity Grant, who has a mutually hateful relationship with her stepfather, the billionaire.  Their toxic dynamic fuels thoughts of murder as the easiest way out of matters financial and emotional, by both parties, and somehow Morty becomes the designated hit man of each.  The mantra invoked from time to time, by each of the major players, is Earn Destiny, and they all go about trying to achieve that end in a manner which seems most logical to those involved, as opposed, perhaps, to anyone in the ‘normal’ world, such as, e.g., the reader.

Purity’s speech is regularly peppered with acronyms, as though her mind is permanently in text-speak.  [Being in the minority that is not thoroughly conversant with that particular mind-set, I have to admit to being unable to decipher them all.  Typing this, it only just dawned on me, e.g., that “ITWYT” means “if that’s what you think.” “NHNF” and “YGAGA m9” still elude me, as does in general the concept of people actually using these in everyday, that is to say verbal, speech.  Hopefully there is nothing profane in any of that.]  But that only contributes to the enjoyment of this zany tale, which had me smiling or laughing aloud throughout.  I have to admit I have not yet read Feelers, but will try to correct that without much further ado.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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Infernal Angels
Loren Estleman
Forge, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1955-5
Hardcover

In the twenty-first novel in the wonderful Amos Walker series, Loren Estleman once again captures the spirit of Detroit, as much a character in the novel as it is the mise en scene.  As the author describes it, it is a city which “continued its slug’s crawl toward bleak oblivion.”   Although the tale begins innocuously enough, when Walker is hired to recover 25 stolen cable-TV converter boxes, it is soon apparent that there is more going on than meets the eye, when two people with whom Walker has spoken turn up dead, within hours of those meetings.

Walker is undaunted, and pursues the case with even greater zeal.  He is no longer invincible, he admits:  “In the pursuit of my profession I’d been shot, beaten, coldcocked, drugged, and threatened with death. . . It would be a good joke on a lot of bad people if it was a heart episode that took me.”  The title derives from the line, soon after the second body is discovered, that of a man Walker had known for years:  “Once you’d made the decision to live on the dark side of the moon, all your friends were infernal angels at best.”

His descriptions of several characters are exquisite portraits.  Of a detective:  “He’d lost flesh from age and the weight of the world, pasting skin to bone like shrink-wrap.  His boys were grown and married, one of them was still speaking to him, and his wife, who earned more money than he did working shorter hours, was often away on business.  Home for him was just a place to change horses between shifts;” of a colleague:  “His face was the same vintage as mine, but he ironed his more often and packed it in ice overnight;” a building caretaker “an ambulatory dandelion gone to seed.”  The prose is equal parts elegance and street.

There are perfect fleeting references on such eclectic topics as jazz musicians, politics and politicians past and present, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, as well as little-known facts on historical figures as diverse as Black Bart and Marcus Garvey, and nostalgia for Tigers Stadium.

A fast-paced and consistently witty entry in this terrific series, it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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No Mark Upon Her
Deborah Crombie
William Morrow, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-199061-8
Hardcover

In the opening pages of Deborah Crombie’s 14th novel, DCI Rebecca [“Becca”] Meredith, an Olympic contender and a senior officer in West London’s Major Crimes unit, is found dead in the waters of the Thames near her home in the town of Henley, 35 miles from London.  The events that follow take place, amazingly, over a period of about a week.  I say ’amazingly’ because so much happens, in a terrifically plotted novel.  The case falls to Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, of Scotland Yard’s Murder Investigation Team, with some aspects of it falling to his bride, Gemma James, DI with the Notting Hill Police.

The book is filled with wonderfully drawn characters, including not only both the protagonists but also Kincaid’s partner, Sgt. Doug Cullen, about to become a first-time homeowner and nervous at the prospect; Gemma’s colleague, Melody Talbot; Becca’s ex-husband, Freddy; Kiernan Connolly and Tavie Larssen, members of the SAR [Search and Rescue], or K-9, team as well as its four-legged members, Finn, a Labrador retriever and Tosh, a German shepherd, every bit a part of the plot as are their human partners.

The common thread among several of the characters is a love of – in fact, a passion for – rowing or, to be more specific, sculling, a very specific skill employing the use of sleek racing shells, apparently a world of its own.  Just how much so is made very clear through the author’s use of quotes, preceding the start of most chapters, from various publications on the subject, as well as Ms. Crombie’s own prose in the early pages, describing the victim shortly before she is killed:  “she sat backwards on a sliver of carbon fiber narrower than her body, inches above the water, and that only her skill and determination kept her fragile craft from the river’s dark grasp.”

The James/Kincaid family dynamic of ‘his’ [Kit], ‘hers’ [Toby – – their respective 14-year-old sons], and ‘theirs’ [Charlotte, the mixed-race 3-year-old foster child they are planning to formally adopt], is a constantly active one that makes the protags’ personal lives every bit as engaging as their professional ones.

The author comments “Things were always so much more complicated than they appeared on the surface,” and employs mini-cliffhangers throughout, maximizing the suspense, as well as some shocking revelations, producing several OMG moments.  But I’ll leave those discoveries to the readers of this highly-recommended novel.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.

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The Most Dangerous Thing
Laura Lippman
William Morrow, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-170651-6
Hardcover

The new standalone novel from Laura Lippman was, to this reader, unlike anything this wonderful author had written to this point. [Among her more recent ones, I’d Know You Anywhere and What the Dead Know still stand out in my memory and resonate with me.]  The present work is not really a mystery [although there is a death early on in the book] nor procedural, but instead a series of in-depth character studies which will be difficult to match.

The author takes her time recreating and juxtaposing scenes from the past with those of the present, from the time when “everything was perfect until the moment it wasn’t,” in the lives of five youngsters in their early teens, three brothers and two young girls.  Ultimately each of these, along with their parents and siblings and extended families, will have their own chapters, describing events which took place in 1980, in their native Baltimore, with p.o.v. changes from one character to another and from those early years to the present time, when most of them have grown children of their own, all of it shaped by one pivotal ‘incident’ [insert your own euphemism] which changes all of their lives forever.  The reality of the events of that night is different for each of them, children and parents alike.  And ultimately it is about secrets kept, or not.

One of the three brothers, Gordon (“Go-Go”) Halloran, nine years old in 1980 and always the most reckless of the three, although presently two years sober, leaves the bar at which he has just fallen off the wagon and does not make it home alive, crashing into a wall at about 100 mph. There is a question about whether it was a tragic accident, or something somehow worse.

I found this book [in which, btw, Tess Monaghan makes a cameo appearance] a departure for this author, and very thought-provoking. I suspect it too will stay in my memory for a long while. Parenthetically, I loved Ms. Lippman’s description of one perpetually angry character who, when counting to ten, started at nine.  But there are many memorable moments, and personalities, here.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.