Book Reviews: Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley and Past Reason Hated by Peter Robinson

Charcoal Joe
An Easy Rawlins Mystery #14
Walter Mosley
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-3855-3920-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Easy Rawlins has started a new detective agency with two trusted partners and has a diamond ring in his pocket for his longtime girlfriend Bonnie Shay. Finally, Easy’s life seems to be heading towards something that looks like normalcy, but, inevitably, a case gets in the way. Easy’s friend Mouse calls in a favor—he wants Easy to meet with Rufus Tyler, an aging convict whom everyone calls Charcoal Joe. Joe’s friend’s son, Seymour, has been charged with the murder of two white men. Joe is convinced the young man is innocent and wants Easy to prove it no matter what the cost. But seeing as how Seymour was found standing over the dead bodies, and considering the racially charged nature of the crime, that will surely prove to be a tall order.

One of his two partners, Tinsford “Whisper” Natly, is described as “a Negro from St. Louis who could find anyone, anywhere, given the time and resources.  Easy describes himself as a “poor black man from the deep South . . . lucky not to be dead and buried, much less a living, breathing independent businessman.”  Their receptionist, Niska Redman:  “Butter-skinned, biracial, and quite beautiful . . .  twenty-four and filled with dreams of a world in which all humans were happy and well fed.”  Easy says of himself “I had two great kids, a perfect island woman that I would soon propose to, a profession I was good at, friends that I liked, and access to powers that most people in Los Angeles (white and black) didn’t even know existed.”

Easy’s friend Mouse is a welcome presence in these pages.  Forty-seven, he still has never worked “an honest job” and is accused by Etta as having been an outlaw since he was five, which he cannot deny.  When Mouse asks Easy to help him out with Charcoal Joe, he cannot refuse. Fearless Jones (who Easy calls “the black Prince Charming”) also plays a big role in the tale.

Another wonderful entry in this series, and another one which is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2017.

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Past Reason Hated
An Inspector Banks Novel #5
Peter Robinson
William Morrow, March 2016
ISBN: 978-0-0624-3117-29-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Chief Inspector Alan Banks knows that secrets can prove fatal, and secrets were the driving force behind Caroline Hartley’s life . . . and death.  She was brutally stabbed in her own home three days prior to Christmas. Leaving her past behind for a forbidden love affair, she mystified more than a few.  And now she is dead.  In this season of giving and forgiving, Banks is eager to absolve the innocent of their sins.  But that must wait until the dark circle of his investigation finally closes . . . and when a killer makes the next move.

Since she was the only member of the CID on duty that night, newly promoted Detective Constable Susan Gay, on only her second day on the job at the CID at Eastvale Regional Headquarters, finds the challenge quite exciting. A call had come in from a neighbor of the dead woman, who had gone rushing into the street screaming.  As the tale proceeds, there are references to the current public image of the force, tarnished by race riots, sex scandals and accusations of high-level corruption.  As the investigation unfolds, there are quite a number of suspects among the various friends, family and colleagues of the dead woman, which after a while made it a little difficult to differentiate among them.  Banks’ erudition in matters of classical music comes in very handy, as a piece of music, playing on an old-fashioned phonograph at the murder scene, becomes a disturbing clue that he feels is very significant as his investigation continues.  And then they realize that the dead woman was in a lesbian relationship.

Banks, now 39 years old, had only been promoted to Detective Superintendent only a few weeks ago, is still “learning the ropes,” and is always a fascinating protagonist who has come to trust his instincts, as has the reader.

Susan has also been tasked with looking into a series of vandalisms that have taken place in the area, and the author switches p.o.v. from Banks to that of Susan from time to time, making for some very interesting reading.  But that’s something we have come to expect from Mr. Robinson; this book is as beautifully written as his numerous prior novels.  This is the fifth of what is now 22 entries in the series.  Although I must admit that I found it a slow read in the early going as the case plods along, the pace soon picks up.  I must add that the many wonderfully descriptive sections of the wintry weather that prevails and its effects on driving and walking had me going to my closet for a warm sweater!

The book concludes with an excerpt from the next book in the series to follow this one, When the Music’s Over, and I have no doubt that that entry, as is this one, will be highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2017.

Book Review: That Night by Chevy Stevens

That NightThat Night
Chevy Stevens
St. Martin’s Press, June 2014
ISBN 978-1-250-03460-1
Hardcover

When two hard-case teens hook up in high school and defy their contemporaries to pursue their own designs, you know there is trouble ahead. Author Chevy Stevens demonstrates tremendous insight into a variety of modern situations, from an unbalanced family to a flawed legal system to life in prison and on parole.

The novel follows Toni Murphy, the main character who narrates her life as a rebellious teenager with a damaged family, her search for love and then, tragically her conviction on specious charges of murder. The novel combines a murder mystery with a predictable conclusion; excellent writing and an intimate look at the life of a teen growing up in a small Canadian town on the Island named Vancouver.

Calling on memory, I think the author has nailed the stresses and joys of this teen’s life, the family arguments, the shifting bullying and contretemps rife in high school life. Her descriptions of life in a women’s prison are remarkable, moving and often scary. The novel spans fifteen years in this young woman’s existence. She endures more than most women would expect in three lifetimes and she does a lot of it alone, without any significant support. Yet for the most part, she retains an essential piece of humanity. Through the pain and suffering and loss, she finds occasional hope, like small rafts in a heaving, lonely, sea.

The murder of which Toni is innocent and for which she is sent to prison, hangs over the story until the end. The last third of this long novel is a skilful exercise in the presentation of facts about the murder, leading to rising tension and intricate emotional maneuvering. The novel is too long, in my view, but it is a powerful contemporary examination of modern life that will remain in readers’ consciousness for a considerable time.

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

Book Reviews: The Burning Soul by John Connolly, Trackers by Deon Meyer, What It Was by George Pelecanos, A Mortal Terror by James R. Benn, and A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

The Burning Soul
John Connolly
Atria Books, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-6527-0
Hardcover

John Connolly’s Charlie Parker Thrillers usually combine an element of the supernatural with basic detective work.  In this, the tenth in the series, the eerie aspects are slight, while the hard work of solving a case winds its way through the pages with realism and power.  It is a twisted story that begins when an attorney asks Charlie to assist a client, and unfolds with a ferocity of dynamic proportions.

It appears that the client, Randall Haight, as a 14-year-old, and with a friend, murdered a young girl in an incident with sex-related overtones. Following long jail terms, both men were released with new identities to give them a chance at rehabilitation.  Randall is now an accountant leading a quiet life in a small town on the Maine coast. And then a 14-year-old girl goes missing and Randall starts receiving reminders in the mail of his past transgression from someone who apparently has discovered his true identity.  He asks the attorney and Charlie to protect his anonymity by finding the source.  And this leads Charlie into a labyrinth of complications.

It is a gripping story, one in which the author throws red herrings into the reader’s path before unveiling a completely unexpected conclusion. Tightly written and plotted, the novel is a most welcome addition to an outstanding series and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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Trackers
Deon Meyer
Atlantic Monthly Press, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1993-3
Hardcover

Bringing back two characters from previous novels, the South African author has written a complicated story with three separate plots which are related both in circumstances and the people involved.  One theme involves what appears to be a Muslim plot, which a government intelligence service suspects at first to be a tradeoff between the smuggling of diamonds in exchange for weapons.  A second, an offshoot of the smuggling operation by a man seeking to recover a large sum of money he claims was stolen from him by gangsters (who incidentally are involved in the smuggling operation).

Then there is free-lance bodyguard Lemmer, who makes his second appearance in a Deon Meyer novel  [the first being The Blood Safari], who becomes involved indirectly in the smuggling operation when he accompanies a truck bearing two black rhinos into South Africa from a neighboring country which the gangsters believe is the method for bringing in the diamonds.  And finally Mat Joubert, the enigmatic South African detective, now retired, on his first day working for a private detective agency, who manages to bring all the threads together.

This stand-alone thriller aims high, and largely achieves its ambitions.  Adding to the spice is not only the author’s ability to portray the social, economic and political background of South Africa in depth, but a chilling look at how it is also a place where terrorists can run rampant.  And, icing on the cake, a first-rate mystery to keep the reader enthralled.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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What it Was
George Pelecanos
Reagan Arthur Books/Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, January 2012
ISBN: 978-0-316-20954-0
Paperback, 246 pp., $9.99

The year was 1972.  Derek Strange was out of the Metropolitan Police Dept. for four years and struggling to build up his PI agency.  Nixon was in the White House, but not for long.  Watergate was just up ahead.  The riots that tore the nation’s Capitol apart were some years ago, but unrest and attitude still ran strong.

Against this background George Pelecanos has written about Strange’s early career as a 26-year-old and his relationship with Detective Frank Vaughn.  It all starts when Strange is retained by a good-looking babe to find a missing ring of little “value” but “great” sentimentality.  This takes him on a journey, which enables the author to describe the crime conditions – – including a one-man murder wave – – and population and living conditions of D.C., along with almost a catalogue of the music of the era.

Written with the usual vernacular and tight prose as displayed in the previous novels in the series, the graphic details of the characters are mesmerizing.  Highly recommended.

[It should perhaps be noted that the novel is available in three different forms: the paperback, as well as a limited hardcover edition and an eBook version.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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A Mortal Terror
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-994-0
Hardcover

The Billy Boyle World War II Mysteries follow the progress of that conflict in this, the sixth installment, albeit it with a different twist.  It brings Billy his first murder case, either as a Boston detective (in his previous civilian life) or as “uncle” Ike’s special investigator.  But the horrors of the war in Italy, and especially the Anzio beachhead invasion, provide the backdrop for the tale.

When two officers are found murdered with clues left behind, one a ten of hearts on the body of a lieutenant and a jack of hearts on that of a Captain, the signs of a possible serial killer bent on revenge against the brass emerge, causing concern back at Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters.  So Billy is recalled from a three-day pass during which he met with his girlfriend in Switzerland and sent to Naples to begin an investigation into the crimes.  Then he has to face the fact that his younger brother is arriving as a replacement in the very platoon in which he suspects the killer is a member.

The author, a librarian, writes with accuracy of the difficulties and what would today be called PTSD endured by the GIs, as well as the physical hardships and psychological manifestations of infantry warfare.  His plotting is taut, descriptions graphic.  All in all, the series just keeps on getting better and better.  And the Second Front hasn’t yet been opened.  The series has a long way to go, and that’s a good thing.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2012.

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A Bitter Truth
Charles Todd
William Morrow, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-201570-9
Hardcover

This Bess Crawford mystery, set during World War I, finds her on a short leave from the front, intending to spend the Christmas holidays with her parents.  When she arrives at her apartment in London, she finds a young woman huddled on her doorstep, cold, hungry and distraught.  In sympathy, Bess takes her up to her room and learns that she has run away from her husband and home because he has abused her, and her disfigured face is proof.

From this improbable beginning, Bess becomes involved in a family’s secrets and along the way in a few murders, since she accompanies the young woman back to her home and family.  The novel rambles on, as the plot unfolds and the police fumble in an effort to solve one murder after another.  Bess returns to France, only to be recalled by the police for additional inquiries.

There are some excellent aspects to the novel, including insights into the lives of upper crust Britons of the period.  But it appeared to this reader that to bring the plot to a conclusion, the mother-son author duo reached out to contrive a solution that has little if any foundation. Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable read and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2012.

Book Reviews: The Kingdom of Dog by Neil S. Plakcy, A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block and Among the Departed by Vicki Delany

The Kingdom of Dog
A Golden Retriever Mystery
Neil S. Plakcy
Kindle Edition, March 2011
Also available in other ebook formats

Let me introduce myself.  My name is Rochester and I am a Golden Retriever.  For those of you who read about me in the book In Dog We Trust, it is good to see you again.  For those new to Golden Retriever Mysteries, Welcome!

For a little background, I now share a townhouse with Steve Levitan. We enjoy each other’s company and share some wonderful times as well as a few scary adventures. Steve has a full time job as an adjunct in the English Department of Eastern College, his alma mater.  Having a full time job is something new for Steve and me.  Steve got into a little trouble prior to moving here and it has been a struggle to put the past behind him but things seem to be coming together now.

Steve is currently working under Mike MacCormac, the director of alumni relations and Eastern is getting ready to launch a $500 million capital campaign to fund new constructions, scholarships and faculty chairs.   Mike isn’t happy with Joe Dagorian, director of admissions.  Mike has a wealthy alumni targeted for a major gift but Joe is refusing to send an admittance letter to Moran’s son.

The night of the big fund-raiser finally arrives and Steve is busy at the party.  I am resting in Steve’s office when I decide to go wander around outside and that is when I find Joe’s body.  I immediately notify Steve, the police are called and the investigation begins.

Joe thought the money being spent for the party was a waste and could be used to better advantage in other areas.  There were several people at the party who had reason to be happy to be rid of Joe so there was no lack of suspects.

Joe was Steve’s mentor and his friend and Steve was determined to do everything he could to bring the killer to justice.  I was able to be quite a bit of help when I uncovered a few clues and pointed them out to Steve.  Joe’s murder was not the only mystery that was solved in this story.

I think you will like the characters in The Kingdom of Dog and find the story to be a real page-turner.  If you haven’t read In Dog We Trust, try it too.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, April 2011.

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A  Drop of the Hard Stuff
A Matthew Scudder Novel
Lawrence Block
Mulholland Books, May 2011
ISBN No. 978-0316127332
Hardcover (ARC)

Although Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve-step program has been a lifesaver for many people, Jack Ellery never got past the eighth step.  Matthew Scudder ran into Jack Ellery at an AA meeting.  Jack had attended the same grade school as Matt but the two really didn’t know a lot about each other.  Matt is an ex-police officer who is attempting to put his life back together.  This includes attending many AA meetings.  Jack, on many occasions. has been on the other side of the law but he is working at turning his life around.

Matt and Jack get together after the AA meeting and catch up on the past.  Jack filled Matt in on his sponsor, Gregory Stillman, who Jack referred to as a “Step Nazi”.    Jack said that Greg had been helping him work on the steps and the next one was the step where you list people you have harmed and become willing to make amends.

Matt was spending time on and off with his girl friend, Jan.  Matt attended an AA meeting with Jan where he ran into Jack again.  This time Jack didn’t look good.  His face was swollen and he had been beaten pretty badly.  The next news Matt had regarding Jack was from Greg Stillman.  Jack had been murdered.

Greg hired Matt to investigate the murder.  Both felt sure that the murder had something to do with the fact that Jack was working on making amends and revealing instances from his past.  The investigation proved dangerous and even threatened Matt’s hard-earned sobriety.

This addition to the Matthew Scudder series is a must read for Lawrence Block fans.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, April 2011.

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Among The Departed
A Constable Molly Smith Novel
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, May 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59058-924-3
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

Brothers and sisters tend to argue and Jamie and his sister Poppy aren’t exempt from disagreements.  When the two get into an argument at the campground outside of Trafalgar, British Columbia, where the family is camping, Jamie is ordered by his mother to go into timeout.  Jamie decides that he will show his parents that he won’t be treated in that manner.  He stuffs his blanket in his sleeping bag and sneaks out of the tent to have his own private adventure. The adventure becomes scary for Jamie and his parents are terrified when they discover Jamie is missing.

The police are called and Adam Tocek of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is summoned to report to the campground with his dog Norman to lead the search.  Constable Molly Smith has been spending a romantic evening with Adam but when the evening is interrupted, she decides to accompany Adam and Norman on the hunt.  Jamie is found tired, dirty and scared, but Norman also uncovers some human bones.

Although the ID is not positive, Sergeant John Winters decides to reopen the Brian Nowak investigation.  Brian Nowak disappeared years ago.  Winters finds out that Molly Smith who was then known as Moonlight Smith was the best friend of Nicky Nowak, Brian’s daughter.  Molly happened to have been visiting Nicky on the day Nowak disappeared.  Smith asks Molly’s assistance into the old case of Nowak’s disappearance.

The Nowak family is nothing like it was at the time Molly and Nicky were friends.  Mrs. Nowak is a recluse.  Kyle Nowak is the son and still lives at home but has a studio in the basement.  He is an artist but his art is very disturbing.  Kyla walks the streets of Trafalgar at night and has no friends.  Nicky Nowak, Molly’s old friend, moved to Vancouver after her father’s disappearance.  She has a career that brings her an excellent income but not a career that she wants to discuss with her friend Molly or her family.

Many family secrets are brought to light during the investigation and the outcome is surprising and horrifying.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, April 2011.

Book Review: In Dog We Trust by Neil Plakcy

In Dog We Trust
Neil Plakcy
ISBN: 2940000889596
Ebook available from
Amazon, Smashwords, B&N.

Steve Levitan is a convicted felon. Through a lapse in internal discipline, he did a little computer hacking and soon found himself in prison.  Released on parole, he returns to his home, Bucks county, Pennsylvania, where he obtains a position as a part time faculty, teaching English at a local college.

His marriage fell apart, which is another factor setting up everything that follows, murder, car chases, odd and interesting characters, such as a sort of hard guy named Santiago, Steve’s parole officer, and a couple of cops, one of whom is a long-time school buddy of Steve.

Then there is the dog.  Who names their dog Rochester?  The dog belonged to a dead woman, and dog and Steve bond almost immediately, although both seem to have serious issues with authority.

Without revealing too much, this is a very “now” detective novel, delving into computer and other crime.  How closely do you read your credit card statements? The novel  is well written, smooth and interesting. It’s always good when a crime novel teaches or reminds readers of information they should know.  This story does that, without preaching or lapsing into lecturing.  The classroom scenes and internal dialogues regarding student attitudes are authentic.  For anyone who enjoys a jaundiced look at small college academic life, this novel is a pleasure to read on another level.

Everything about this novel smacks of a professional, polished approach. The writing is smooth, the characters well developed, and they stay in character. The plot has been carefully laid out and proceeds at a good pace. It’s conclusion is satisfying. Then there’s the dog, Rochester.

Dog lovers will be pleased to know that the author refrains from anthropomorphizing the dog.  Undeniably talented, Rochester is helpful throughout the novel, but only in naturally occurring, that is, doggy ways. In Dog We Trust is a completely enjoyable way to spend a  reading afternoon.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2010.