Book Reviews: False Flag in Autumn by Michael Bowen and Footprints in the Butter by Denise Dietz @BowenMysteries @DeniDietz

False Flag in Autumn
Josie Kendall Washington Crime Stories #2
Michael Bowen
Farragut Square Publications, October 2019
Ebook

When reading detective/thriller/political fiction, one likes to believe that the author did adequate serious research or has reasonable experience or understanding of the primary field. Here is a novel that demonstrates such deep dives into political research, and apparent extensive knowledge of the political scene in the United States, it is just a little scary.

Josey Kendall is political spinmeister working for a small agency in Washington, D.C. She’s young, experienced and possessed of sometimes amazing and practical understanding of the way politics work in the modern republic. Ms Kendall not only understands how connected to media campaigns must be, but often how to manipulate that same media to achieve desired results. Kendall’s problem, if she has one, is her basic honesty sometimes gets in the way of the objectives her company’s clients desire.

Louisiana has one Congressman who is beholden to no one more than himself and is willing to do almost anything to stay atop the money machine. The novel begins with a contract for Josie’s company to frighten the aforesaid Congressman Bilbo into line with certain corporate interests by establishing a viable opponent for his re-election. Josie accomplishes the goal with alacrity and moves on but the untimely death of a local hood at Bilbo’s hand and the apparently botched investigation of the shooting bothers her. Circumstances draw Josie and her husband Raf more and more into the dim world of alternative and dark politics where they gradually discover not just the event referred to in the title, but something far more dangerous. The swamp was never deeper nor slimier.

The writing is crisp, fast moving, and frequently acerbic with well-placed caustic observations. The narrative is a fine commentary on modern politics and it moves with ever growing tension. The characters are many and varied and carefully drawn. Never do they step outside their roles.

In sum this novel will appeal to fans of the author, to political junkies, and to readers of detective fiction everywhere.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2019.
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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Footprints in the Butter 
An Ingrid Beaumont Mystery #1
Denise Dietz
Delphi Books, 1998
ISBN: 0-9663397-2-x
Re-issued by Worldwide Library, October 2004
ISBN 978-0-373-26511-4
Mass Market Paperback

I think you have to come at this book with the right frame of mind and stay in it until you are finished.  Ingrid Beaumont and her ganglionic mutt are all over the murder of Wylie Jameston, who is anything but—wily.  Remember that phrase, ganglionic mutt.  The author uses it a couple of times and it appears on the jacket as well.

A wisecracking artist who constantly tells riddles and elephant jokes is murdered at a reunion of his high school class, of which the amateur sleuth, Ingrid, is also a member. With little discernible reason, Ingrid decides to charge in with Hitchcock, the mutt of reference above, and solve the murder, since it appears to her the cops are never going to manage that task.

There are lots of characters in this book and several scenes which by turns will make you laugh and shake your head or grind your teeth in frustration.  The solution is complicated and there are lots of characters to keep track of.  At times an unfocused sub-plot involving Ingrid’s ex, who may or may not be her ex, threatens to obscure the main theme which is that high school reunions can be hell.

I laughed some, ground my teeth a good deal, and wished the author had had an editor with a firmer hand at times. There’ll be more adventures with Ingrid and her ganglionic mutt.  In spite of its problems, this is the kind of mystery and engaging writing which will attract a large and loyal following.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2018.
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: Blood and Wisdom by Verlin Darrow

Blood and Wisdom
Verlin Darrow
The Wild Rose Press, July 2018
ISBN 978-1-5092-2086-1
Trade Paperback

Aria Piper runs a New Age Spiritual Center near Santa Cruz, California. Karl Gatlin is a private investigator but has training as a counselor. The two are connected because they were both interns at the same center, though Karl decided he was much more cut out for a career as a PI than counseling people through their personal troubles. However, when Aria begins receiving threats and a beheaded body turns up at Aria’s center, she turns to Karl to investigate. That is the basic set up for the book, however, if readers are expecting a straight forward PI book, they are in for a surprise or two as this is a book that never quite settles on what sort of a book it wants to be. It has a little bit of something for just about everyone, but I was left wondering if there was enough of any one thing to satisfy anyone.

The number one strength of the book is the character development. What an interesting cast of characters Darrow has given readers! First we have a main character who is a PI with psychotherapy training, a second main character who is running a spiritual center which might or might not be a cult, some sort of flaky “enlightened” folks, some seriously bad dudes and lastly my favorite, Larry the dog who has so many human traits it is sometimes hard to remember he is a dog.

The second strength is the off beat humor in the book. This is really not my favorite type of book (think Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey), but I do appreciate their craft and Darrow has the skills to carry this type of humor off.

I would like the author to firm up what genre he is writing though. Suspense, thriller, PI novel, or something completely different. Also, as fascinating as the odd set of characters were, sometimes their idiosyncrasies became a distraction from the plot.

Blood and Wisdom is the debut book for author Verlin Darrow. While I did have some issues with the book, there is definite potential for him as an author. It will be interesting to see what the next book brings.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, August 2018.

Book Review: Scents and Sensibility by Spencer Quinn

Scents and SensibilityScents and Sensibility
A Chet and Bernie Mystery #8
Spencer Quinn
Atria Books, July 2015
ISBN:978-1-4767-0342-8
Hardcover

If there’s anyone out there in Readerland who hasn’t tuned into the Bernie and Chet mysteries, I’ve got one thing to say to you: Why not?

Okay, so the adventures are written up by Chet, the dog—also known as Chet the Jet for his unique abilities—and he sometimes has memory problems, but don’t let that stop you. Chet can’t count beyond two, either, but it doesn’t keep him from being an Einstein of sorts. Anyway, Chet and Bernie Little are partners in the Little Detective Agency, and when these two are on a case, you can be sure the perp is going to wind up breaking rocks in the hot sun, often with tooth marks on his ankle. I didn’t say the path to justice runs easy for this pair. There’s always someone trying to take them out, and in Scents and Sensibility, they’re both in for a hard time.

Bernie and Chet have been away from their California desert home, solving tricky cases in Louisiana and Washington D.C. Now they’re back, only to find their neighbors, an old couple named Parsons, in deep trouble. Mrs. Parsons is in the hospital in a bad way when the cops arrest Mr. Parsons for stealing, and transplanting a giant saguaro cactus into his yard, the saguaro being a protected species. The person in charge isn’t about to give the old man a break, either. But is he the real criminal? As if that isn’t enough, Chet smells his best friend’s, Iggy Parsons, a little dog, scent in his house. And then he and Bernie discover their most valuable object, an antique watch, is missing. How this all intertwines when they find the officer murdered is a real puzzler. Good thing Chet and Bernie are up to the task.

I adore this series. Great characterization—yes, even of the dog. Especially of the dog. I love the way it shows the mutual bond between man and his partner canine. The underlying mystery is, as always, center stage. There’s always derring do and great peril. And in this story, the ending will leave you on pins and needles, panting for the next one. I, for one, can hardly wait.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, September 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Book Reviews: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny and A Bullet Apiece by John Joseph Ryan

A Night in the Lonesome OctoberA Night in the Lonesome October
Roger Zelazny
Chicago Review Press, October 2014
ISBN 978-1-55652-560-5
Trade Paperback

A quirky blend of horror, mystery, the story is narrated by Snuff, a dog. Jack the Ripper’s dog, although Jack is never quite identified. Nevertheless, he’s easily recognizable in a cast that somehow includes Sherlock Holmes, Dr Frankenstein, and Dracula, among others. Forgive me, but I’m not certain who “Jill” is, beyond an “opener.” Openers and closers being two supernatural factions who, during the month of October, gather creepy stuff to aid them in opening–or closing–the gates into the underworld.

Each of these characters has an animal companion. Jill has a cat, there’s a snake, a raven, a pack rat who’s a bit of a loose cannon. And they all speak. There are also monsters and “things” kept in mirrors and jars and old steamer trunks. Snuff is in charge of keeping them all safely corralled until the big night of October 31. Halloween.

Day-by-day, the tension mounts as the people go about collecting items needed for the opening–or closing–ceremony. Some people are friends, some dire enemies. Ditto their animal familiars. And once a night, Snuff is able to speak out loud to Jack, and so the story progresses.

As one might imagine, the finale is enough to make you shiver although, not to worry, the good guys win. Or do they? Since when is Jack the Ripper a good guy?

Since Roger Zelazny, in his last book, created this highly innovative story, which is complete with illustrations by Gahan Wilson. A perfect read for the month of October (or any month).

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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A Bullet ApieceA Bullet Apiece
Saint Louis Noir #1
John Joseph Ryan
Blank Slate Press, July 2015
ISBN: 978-1-943075-01-0
Trade Paperback

The novel is a comfort read. That is, if you are an inveterate reader of crime fiction, you can be comforted knowing that every joke, every bon mot, just about every cliché of the genre finds its way into the pages of this book. The dialogue ain’t far off, either.

Ed Darvis is a St. Louis PI with a main-floor office in a seedy part of town. The period is sometime after the end of the second world war. Across the road-I suspect it’s a paved street-is a charter school of some kind and while Mr. Darvis is currently idle, he spends time smoking cigarettes, observing the kiddies and ogling the teachers. And some of the parents.

One day, a leggy, seductive woman who drives a late-model Caddy coupe bursts from the school door in what our astute PI deduces is intense fear, “radiating off her like heat waves.” She roars off in a cloud of exhaust leaving one of the teachers, clearly agitated, standing at the schoolroom door. What we have is clearly a case of child abduction. Enter PI Ed Darvis, cigarette dangling, loaded .38 in his belt, ready and willing to find the child and bed either comely teacher or luscious mother, not necessarily in that order.

The dialogue is snappy and often cute, the action is rousing and predictable and the plot becomes surprisingly tangled. Whether the whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek put-on or a serious attempt at a novel is for readers to determine. This reviewer is persuaded the author invested a considerable effort to produce this story and it has its moments.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 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.

Book Reviews: A Killer Retreat by Tracy Weber and Vendetta by Catherine Doyle

A Killer RetreatA Killer Retreat
A Downward Dog Mystery #2
Tracy Weber
Midnight Ink, January 2015
ISBN 978-0-7387-4209-0
Trade Paperback

We forgive the faults of those we love, a theme throughout this humorous amateur sleuth mystery, becomes clear as the cast of characters evolve through a ton of conflicts. The murderer could be any one of a number of them.

Kate, a Seattle yoga instructor, is invited to teach classes at a Canadian vegan retreat for a week. Her students will be guests of the owners, a couple about to be married. Kate’s German Shepard with an autoimmune disease requiring a disgusting special diet, her wants-to-get-too-close boyfriend, and her secretive best friend and husband join her at the beautiful, secluded site. From the start, incredible clashes and mishaps plague the trip. The one-hundred-pound dog drags Kate through mud, rain, and animal doo, among other places, and into a fight with the owner of a yappy terrier. Kate forgives the dog all. He is her main squeeze and the one she rushes to be with when excuse time comes.

It’s Kate’s hot temper and smart tongue, though, that make her the primary suspect for the murder of the unruly terrier owner, a woman everyone dislikes. It’s the kind of behavior Kate displays over and over in the story. (And it might be a little beyond this reviewer’s ability to suspend disbelief about a boyfriend who would put up so long with the way she treats him. It’s  a lot even for a loved one.)

If you enjoy nonstop action, funny lines, tons of suspects, and a surprise twist during the revelation of the murderer, you’ll like this story. There are references to the first book in the series, but A Killer Retreat works as a stand-alone.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, October 2015.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

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VendettaVendetta
Catherine Doyle
Chicken House, March 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69982-2
Hardcover

Combining enthralling elements from Greek mythology to the mafia, including a mysterious abandoned mansion haunted by a WWII ghost story, while touching on friendship, loyalty, roofies and perspective along the way seems a daunting, laborious chore….that probably won’t end with something super-fun to read. And yet, Ms. Doyle tossed all of these captivating, compelling themes into a hat, waved a magic wand and viola! Vendetta!

I love this book so very much, that writing this review has been a bit of a challenge. So, instead of fighting my urge to chatter excitedly like a ten-year-old-boy that hit his first out-of-the-park home-run, I’m just going to have to gush.

Weaving a bit of the story around the name Persephone pleased me immensely. Enough of the Greek myth seeped through for subtle suggestions, yet Sophie’s story is completely her own. Perfectly paced unraveling of back-story made this a page-turner….so much so that I wished I had blocked out time to read it straight from cover to cover.

Sophie’s foundation has been rocked by the removal of her father from the family home. With walls crumbling all around her, watching her mom silently shrink into herself, rumors swirling and only one friend left, this chick should be jaded, pissed and out for vengeance. She is no ordinary almost-seventeen year old. She has a super-power: her determinedly stubborn faith in mankind. Sophie’s genuine and utmost conviction that, basically people are good, and absolutely everyone should behave well in society, is so strong, unyielding and uncontrollable that Sophie absolutely, always speaks her mind. Written any other way, this character could seem confrontational….a disingenuous bitch. Ms. Doyle reveals Sophie’s heart and soul with crystal clarity, making her the scrappy underdog that the reader just has to cheer for.

Sophie fights….furiously. Not for herself, but for her mom…who’s barely holding it together now, and for Millie, the one friend that stuck by Sophie when no one else would. For those two people, solely so that they weren’t faced with losing absolutely everything….Sophie would fight.

When five brothers move into the aforementioned abandoned dwelling, Sophie’s vehement dislike of Luca, the very person that seems to strike fear in all other living beings, along with her willingness to call him out and remind him that she “has no respect for his authority” is such a fun and honest twist. It is a groovy way to remind the reader of Sophie’s toughness and determinedness for that which is good and right, while providing a bit of comic relief and a sneaky glimpse that Luca may have a soul after all.

Vendetta is packed with fabulous dialogue; colorfully complete and embraceable characters and a simply beautiful story. I’ll happily recommend this to most readers, Middle Grade and beyond and I’ll most certainly grab anything and everything I can find that Ms. Doyle has written.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2015.

Book Reviews: The Karma of King Harald by Richard Audry and Ash by James Herbert

The Karma of King HaraldThe Karma of King Harald
A Canine Cozy
Richard Audry
Conger Road Press, 2012
ISBN 978-09850196-2-4
Trade Paperback

King Harald is a ginger dog of dubious breed. Free to roam (escape) about New Bergen at his leisure he has the nasty habit of dragging his owner Andy Skyberg into crime scene after crime scene. Someone in New Bergen wants the town’s latest addition to go right back where she came from and take her new age crystals with her. But they haven’t reckoned on Harald spoiling their fun.

I have to confess, I didn’t make a good start on this book. The first chapter had me recoiling in horror as a dog owner of 25 years. I just couldn’t imagine, no matter how hard I tried, that any dog would think or orchestrate his life in quite the same manner as King Harald. But I persevered simply because I believe that all books deserve to be read in their entirety before casting a critical eye. I’m happy that I did and even went as far as to reread that off putting first chapter to make sure I hadn’t been mistaken.

The end result is a book that I enjoyed simply because it was an innocent return to the crime and the mystery novels I read as a child. Don’t get me wrong, there are murders aplenty, arson attacks and malicious rumours, but there was little blood and gore, swearing or sex scenes that have become par for the course in modern day crime tomes. I’ll also admit that I had to look up the term ‘cozy’ since I’d never seen that on a book cover before but when I did, it helped explain the overall layout of the book and its plot.

This title was a nice break from the usual crime titles I normally read and it was full of small town charm, with a little murder thrown in of course. The plot was good, well thought out and easy enough to follow. A few red herrings here and there and an eccentric aunt and all is well so far. For those who like their crime with a little more grit and violence then this is not the book for you. It’s a polite, cleaned up story involving murder and menace with enough detail to keep the reader interested until the end. Think of it more like an Agatha Christie rather than a John Connolly or Ian Rankin, but still, a nice easy read to help pass a Sunday afternoon. I would however, clean up that opening chapter as some of the writing is a bit ‘flowery’ when describing a dog and their thought patterns otherwise it could end up putting readers off before they’ve given the book a chance. Keeping it simple would have worked much better as it did for later chapters written from Harald’s point of view. For fans of cozy mysteries I’d say this will keep them happy. Recommended.

Reviewed by Laura McLaughlin, January 2013.

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AshAsh USAsh
James Herbert
Macmillan Publishers Ltd., August 2012
ISBN: 978-0-230-71126-6
Trade Paperback
Also available in the US
Tor, December 2012
ISBN 978-0-7653-2896-0
Hardcover

David Ash, a world renowned parapsychologist based in London has seen his fair share of unexplained phenomena. He also has his fair share of demons that dog his life, his work and his dreams. Now, he must investigate a strange castle, nestled in a secret location in Scotland and owned by an even more secretive organization. What are the secrets being help captive there? Who are the people being held captive there? And will Ash make it out alive?

The first thing that attracted me to this book was the promise of a ghost story with a difference. Someone has been viciously attacked by an unknown and unseen entity. A secret organization with more power and influence that you can shake a stick at are having huge problems keeping their wealthy ‘patrons’ safe and only one man has a chance of alleviating the problem. Enter David Ash, parapsychologist extraordinaire. This character fits perfectly into a character mould that I see very frequently in a lot of books. A troubled man, often quite brilliant at something or other and very much a loner, but one who could be quite transformed by the love of a good woman. Sound familiar? While this is a set formula, I still liked the character. What I didn’t like though was how quickly the book descended into fantasy. I was genuinely chilled and intrigued by the first few chapters and after a particularly hairy flight, I felt the chilly flicker of fear down my neck at the line ‘they know you’re coming’. However, after this point the story became more and more farcical. While the supporting characters were interesting, there were certain elements that bordered on the ridiculous and which consequently were off putting. The overall premise of the book was initially appealing and had much potential to be a gripping read but I think some characters and their back story just became too much. Having one or two potentially explosive characters would have been fine, but the book suffered for having them crawl out of the woodwork at every chapter. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more unbelievable, out would pop another one to throw their contribution into the mix. There were some truly stomach turning and chill inducing sections in the book and maybe if the author had focused more on those then it would have been a better read.

Ultimately, this book has potential. Less controversy and more paranormal activity and Ash would have been a brilliant book. As it is, it ended up bordering on the ridiculous, which made it seem more ‘trashy’ than it should be. However, the writing is strong enough that I will give the author another go and try one of his other titles before I would consign him to the avoid pile.

Reviewed by Laura McLaughlin, January 2013.

Book Review: Blast from the Past by Lauren Carr

Blast from the PastBlast from the Past
A Mac Faraday Mystery
Lauren Carr
Acorn Book Services, January 2013
ISBN 9780985726775
Trade Paperback

From the author—

In this fourth mystery on Deep Creek Lake; Mac Faraday finds himself up to his eyeballs with mobsters and federal agents. After an attempted hit ends badly with two of his men dead, mobster Tommy Cruze arrives in Spencer, Maryland, to personally supervise the execution of the witness responsible for putting him behind bars—Archie Monday! Mac Faraday believes he has his work cut out for him in protecting his lady love from one of the most dangerous leaders in organized crime; but when bodies start dropping in his lakeshore resort town, things may be hotter than even he can handle.

Mac Faraday may be a multi-millionaire but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his background in law enforcement. The big city ex-cop in him can’t help but come out when things go wrong in his adopted town—and they’re going wrong in spades this time. Not only is a mobster in town to “take care” of Archie; bodies are dropping like flies and they may not all be because of Tommy Cruze. Fact is, there seems to be a plethora of unpleasant folks in town and it’s a good thing the local police chief, David, has no problem accepting help from his half-brother. It’s also a good thing that Mac’s money can buy extra protection for Archie but she may not need it so much considering how deft she is with her pink handgun.

The wonderful Gnarly has his own duties this time, not only taking down bad guys in his very effective canine fashion. He also takes on the task of making a little girl feel safe and loved, not such an easy thing to do when Sari has been more traumatized than most of us will ever experience.

Reading a mystery by Lauren Carr is always a treat and Blast from the Past is certainly no exception. Are there some flaws? Of course there are but these are easily overshadowed by a breakneck pace, one death after another, a superabundance of government agents, a little romance here and there and a good deal of Gnarly time. I can never get too much of his pooch and his human buddies.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2013.