Short Story Review: The Piper by Charles Todd

the-piperThe Piper
An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story #19.5
Charles Todd
Witness Impulse, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-06-2678096
Ebook

 

From the publisher—

Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge returns shell shocked from the trenches of World War I, tormented by the spirit of Hamish MacLeod, the young soldier he executed on the battlefield. Now, Charles Todd features Hamish himself in this compelling, stand-alone short story.

Before the Great War, Hamish is farmer in the Scottish Highlands, living in a small house on the hillside and caring for a flock of sheep he inherited from his grandmother. When one spring evening he hears a faint cry ringing across the glen, Hamish sets out in the dark to find the source. Near the edge of the loch he spots a young boy laying wounded, a piper’s bag beside him. Hamish brings the piper to his home to stay the night and tends to his head wound, but by the time Hamish wakes the boy has fled. He tracks the footsteps in pursuit of the injured lad and finds him again collapsed in the grasses—now dead.

Who was the mysterious piper, and who was seeking his death? As Hamish scours the countryside for answers, he finds that few of his neighbors are as honest as he, and that until he uncovers a motive, everyone, including Hamish, is a suspect.

As a longtime fan of this series by Charles Todd, I’m hardpressed to find much fault with this short story but there is one thing I must mention—this is billed as “An Inspector Ian Rutledge Story” but that is very misleading as Ian Rutledge is not in this story at all. I have no idea why the publisher chose to do that except that it’s a way to identify it with the Ian Rutledge series.

This is a simple little story that gives a bit of background on Hamish MacLeod, the young World War I soldier who will later come to haunt Ian Rutledge. I enjoyed having this window into Hamish’s life as a Highlands farmer and his compulsion to discover who the murdered teen is and why anyone would want him dead. While the sleuthing is interesting, the real star of the show is the setting; no one evokes time and place better than Charles Todd and this story really pulled me into the wildness of the Highlands, particularly during the storm.

The second half of this novella is the first two chapters of the next full-length book, Racing the Devil. I didn’t read that because I learned long ago that I don’t like reading teaser chapters. Inevitably, when I finally get to read the book, I think I already did because I remember the teaser, but I have no doubt this will be another fine addition to the series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2017.

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About the Authors

charles-toddCharles Todd is the New York Times bestselling author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, the Bess Crawford mysteries, and two stand-alone novels. A mother-and-son writing team, they live on the East Coast.

Catch Up with the latest Charles Todd news on their Website, Twitter & Facebook.

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Book Review: The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry

The Jesus CowThe Jesus Cow
Michael Perry
HarperCollins, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-228991-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Life is suddenly full of drama for low-key Harley Jackson: A woman in a big red pickup has stolen his bachelor’s heart; a Hummer- driving developer hooked on self-improvement audiobooks is threatening to pave the last vestiges of his family farm; and inside his barn lies a calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ. Harley’s best friend, Billy, a giant of a man who shares his trailer house with a herd of cats and tries to pass off country music lyrics as philosophy, urges him to sidestep the woman, fight the developer, and get rich off the calf. But Harley takes the opposite tack, hoping to avoid what his devout, dearly departed mother would have called “a scene.”

Then the secret gets out—right through the barn door—and Harley’s “miracle” goes viral. Within hours, pilgrims, grifters, and the media have descended on his quiet patch of Swivel, Wisconsin, looking for a glimpse (and a per- centage) of the calf. Does Harley hide the famous, possibly holy, calf and risk a riot, or give the people what they want—and in the process raise enough money to keep his land and, just maybe, win the woman in the big red pickup?

Harley goes all in, cutting a deal with a major Hollywood agent that transforms his little farm into an international spiritual theme park—think Lourdes, only with cheese curds and souvenir snow globes. Soon, Harley has lots of money . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed.

There are things about The Jesus Cow that take me back to simpler times in my younger days, most of them very positive memories even if colored by the mists of time. I miss the old days when we children could be gone for hours at a time and no one worried about horrible things happening to us. I miss having multiple families operating almost as one, i.e., having picnics and the like and all of us, kids and adults alike, just enjoying the comfort of familiarity. Today, we would say that kind of atmosphere is found most often in small towns and, if I could just bring myself to give up the creature comforts of such things as nearby grocery stores and movie theaters and restaurants, I’d move to a small town in a heartbeat. (Not in the Midwest, mind you—I’d have to stay in the South.)

It’s Michael Perry’s evocation of that atmosphere that I enjoyed most about this book, along with his gentle humor. Nothing made me guffaw but I frequently smiled at what was going on and the reactions of Harley and everybody around him to the so-called miracle living in his barn. Mr. Perry is spot on with his pokes at townsfolk and spectators alike and Harley is one of the most appealing characters I’ve come across.

Imagine if your quiet, rather mundane, life was suddenly turned topsy-turvy by the hoopla created by media. Would you deny it all, turn the miracle-seekers away and close yourself off to the world? Or would you say “what the heck” and jump into the middle of it? The tale of what happens when Harley takes that leap will keep you entertained for hours and maybe make you think just a little bit about people’s motives for the things they do.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2015.

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About the Author

Michael Perry

Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485. He lives in rural Wisconsin with his family.

Find Michael at his website, sneezingcow.com, and connect with him on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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Book Reviews: A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H. Cook and The Color of Light by Wendy Hornsby

A Dancer in the DustA Dancer in the Dust
Thomas H. Cook
The Mysterious Press, September 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2272-8
Hardcover

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this novel is a mystery wrapped in a love story immersed in a tragedy.  It is the story of one woman’s attempt to help preserve a newly independent African country pitted against the force of do-good charities and the powers-that-be with their hands out to use the money and goods to preserve their control.

As a young man, Ray Campbell takes on the task of an aid worker hoping to improve conditions in the newly-independent country of Lubanda. He is assigned to a remote village where he meets Martine Aubert, a white woman in a black nation who owns a small farm and lives a simple life. While he falls in love with her, she apparently loves Lubanda more. And her beliefs are opposed to the plans of government officials for development, leading to a tragic end.

The author blends a tale of love and death that is totally consuming. By presenting the plot in the present, with flashbacks, the reader moves forward gaining knowledge slowly but logically. The book is written with grace and simplicity describing a complex narrative, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2014.

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The Color of LightThe Color of Light
A Maggie MacGowen Mystery #9
Wendy Hornsby
Perseverance Press, April 2014
ISBN: 978-1-56474-542-2
Trade Paperback

In Wendy Hornsby’s ninth Maggie MacGowen mystery, we find Maggie, two weeks before her planned trip to France to make a film, going back to her childhood home in Berkeley, California, to clear out the family house, as her mother has moved into a smaller place (her father, a physicist, having died a while back).  In the course of which her instincts, the fact that she “plays” at being an investigator on her popular TV series and, perhaps, the fact that her late husband was a homicide detective, lead to her uncovering things other than old family treasures.  She finds inescapable the memories of a murder that occurred over 30 years ago, when the beautiful Vietnamese mother of a school friend was brutally raped and killed, when she and her friends were then ten and eleven years old.  Her mother was a close friend of the murdered woman, as Maggie was with her son, Beto.

Maggie’s boyfriend at the time of the murder is now Detective Kevin Halloran, who is not crazy about the fact that she is asking questions of people she suspects are hiding secrets.  Maggie is very skittish about secrets:  It was not long ago that she discovered that her biological mother was a woman with whom her father had had an affair long ago in France.  The film she is about to make is about that woman’s family and their farm in Normandy.  Her daughter, Casey, has just finished her sophomore year in college, and Maggie is traveling with her current boyfriend, the French consul general  and a widower with a son about Casey’s age, to Los Angeles.  The ensuing investigation is fraught with danger; as Maggie’s uncle tells her, “Always an adventure with you, kid.  Always an adventure.”  The author has blended a great cast of characters and an intriguing mystery, and the book is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2014.

Book Reviews: Dick Francis’s Bloodline by Felix Francis, Phantom by Jo Nesbo, Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, and Crow’s Landing by Brad Smith

Dick Francis's BloodlineDick Francis’s Bloodline
Felix Francis
Putnam, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-399-16080-6
Hardcover

The second standalone written by Dick Francis’ son follows the same formula that served the father so well:  A mystery set in the English racing world, populated by the trainers, jockeys and track officials. In this case, the plot involves the Shillingford family, especially race-caller Mark and his twin sister, jockey Clare.  When Clare rode a horse that came in second when it should have won, he believed Clare lost on purpose and over dinner they had a heated argument.

Later that night, Clare fell 15 stories from a London hotel to her death, an apparent suicide.  Bereft, Mark starts asking questions, seeking a reason for her death.  What was the meaning of a short written message which the police believed to be a suicide note, but really is ambiguous?  What, if anything, does the discovery of several blackmail victims in the racing world have to do with her death?

The author shows the same talent as Dick Francis for creating suspense, pitting danger and personal jeopardy for his protagonist on the way of solving the mystery.  And the reader will be hard put to tell the difference in the writing between father and son.  It is virtually indistinguishable.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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PhantomPhantom
Jo Nesbo
Translated by Don Bartlett
Knopf, October 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-96047-4
Hardcover

In the three years since the conclusion of The Leopard, Harry Hole has been serving contentedly as a non-violent enforcer based in Hong Kong, collecting money owed to his employer.  Then one day, he ups and returns to Oslo when he learns that Oleg, the drug-using son of the love of his life, has been arrested for the murder of a fellow junkie. The police consider the case closed, so Harry acts independently to investigate.

And along the way he finds himself immersed in the midst of Norway’s large drug problem.  Hole uncovers a trail of violence and disappearances, police and political corruption, and Harry himself becomes a target of the mysterious drug lord Dubai.  The novel is a bleak story of damaged individuals hooked on drugs, and the sleaziness inherent in the activity.

The prior novels were forceful, clearly showing Harry’s tortured soul, and his unswerving ability to dig, dig, dig to the heart of a case, honestly and insightfully.  Phantom accomplishes these ends, but to some extent is confusing at the end; whether the author did this purposely or not yet remains to be seen.  As usual, the novel is translated faithfully and excellently, and the book is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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Agent 6Agent 6
Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing, January 2013
ISBN: 978-0-446-58308-4
Trade Paperback

The conclusion of the trilogy featuring Leo Demidov is sweeping, from his early days as a KGB agent to his exile in Afghanistan and beyond. Especially interesting is the Russian occupation of that beleaguered nation and the beginnings of the United States involvement there as Russia lost face in its defeat.

More important to the plot is the intrigue, obfuscation, double-dealing and plotting of the Soviet Union and United States during the Cold War.  The story begins with Leo meeting a Paul Robeson-like character in Moscow when he was an agent, and the consequences in the years following.

Tightly plotted, despite its length, the novel reminds us of the challenges of the years during which the two superpowers confronted each other. The characters are real, from an over-zealous FBI agent to the unfortunate victims of those countries’ invasions of Afghanistan.  An absorbing thriller to bring The Secret Speech and Child 44 to a satisfying finish.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.

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Crow's LandingCrow’s Landing
Brad Smith
Scribner, August 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4516-7853-6
Trade Paperback

Sometimes a protagonist has to go looking for trouble; other times trouble has a way of finding the protagonist.  In the case of Virgil Cain, trouble usually finds him – – in spades.  In a previous entry in the series, he was arrested for murder and had to break out of jail to exonerate himself.  In the current novel, he just goes fishing, and lands in a heap of difficulties.

When he anchored in the Hudson River, the last thing Virgil expected to reel in was a stainless steel cylinder containing 100 pounds of pure cocaine.  But that’s what happened when he lifted his anchor and the cylinder was attached.  As a result, he becomes involved with a crooked policeman who seizes the cylinder and Cain’s boat, the original owner of the contraband who threw it overboard seven years previous, and others, all seeking to make a score by taking possession of the dope.

It is a well-drawn tale, with little real mystery but plenty of plot and action.  A well-written story, tightly developed, Crow’s Landing is the second in the series, and definitely warrants a third. Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.