Book Review: The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer

The Middleman
Olen Steinhauer
Minotaur Books, August 2018
ISBN 978-0-2500-3617-9
Hardcover

A thriller wrapped in a mystery which cannot make up its mind where it is going, or even coming from.  At the heart of the plot, Special Agent Rachel Proulx of the FBI is studying and preparing a report on terrorist groups.  Consequently, she spearheads the FBI’s efforts to monitor a group whose leader does not favor active terrorism, but cerebral efforts to change society.

The FBI plants an undercover agent in the group and he is forced to act as a sniper on July 4, 2017, shooting a Congresswoman spearheading an investigation into a couple of financial institutions,  Three other members of Congress are killed, although the Congresswoman is only shot in the neck and survives.  One of the other three is also a leader in the investigation of the financial companies.  So much for peaceful demonstrations, and the group is now classified as a terrorist organization.

What remains is for Rachel and the undercover agent to team up and try to find out what really took place along the way and discover the answers to unexplained questions and events, making these attempts while outcasts from their own FBI.  While the novel is constructed to move along and keep the reader interested, it is buried in obscurity and sometimes difficult to follow.  For the most part, the story meanders back and forth, past to present, adding little to forward movement.  It really is a tale of conspiracies compounded by double-crosses, but not a bad read, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2018.

Book Reviews: Board Stiff by Elaine Viets, Always Watching by Chevy Stevens, and Joyland by Stephen King

Board StiffBoard Stiff
Elaine Viets
Obsidian, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-451-23985-3
Hardcover

Elaine Viets’ newest entry in the Dead End Job Mysteries begins shortly after her protagonists, Helen Hawthorne and Phil Sagemont, have gotten married and started a private detective agency out of their condo office in Riggs Beach, Florida, a beach town just south of Fort Lauderdale.

Helen and Phil, now in their mid-40’s, with a reputation as the best private eyes in South Florida, are hired to work undercover for a paddleboard rental concession owner in Riggs Beach, where he needs help finding out who is behind the vandalism and sabotage at his business, theft of his equipment, and competitors who seem to really want to put him out of business.  The couple accepts the job, Helen feeling that “I’m getting paid to sleep late and sit on the beach,” and Phil that he can get paid while sitting drinking beer with some guys on the beach trying to gain their confidence and information, seemingly a win-win situation.

The crimes have been reported to the authorities, but they are convinced that no “official action” can be expected in a town like Riggs Beach (known as Rigged Beach since Prohibition days and rumored to be fairly uniformly corrupt).  Their client’s problems multiply exponentially when a female tourist, one of his clients, tragically dies; he is threatened with revocation of his license and the City lease on his valuable beach property, as well as a wrongful death lawsuit by the victim’s husband.  Helen and Phil are tasked with proving their client was blameless in her death.

Things become more complicated, on a more personal level when a situation regarding Helen’s sleazy ex-husband, thought dead, comes back to haunt them, almost literally, affecting their marriage and their partnership, and overshadowing the case they are trying to solve.

Ms. Viets always manages to come up with a good old-fashioned mystery, which, while containing a murder or two, is more lighthearted and contains less blood and gore than many others in the genre, and is a decidedly pleasant way to spend a summer, or even late summer, day. It is, as were the prior books by this author, recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2013.

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Always WatchingAlways Watching
Chevy Stevens
St. Martin’s Press, June 2013
ISBN:  978-0-312-59569-2
Hardcover

The story at the heart of this newest book by Chevy Stevens deals with a subject not touched upon to my knowledge in years: communes, popular in decades past among “hippies” [a seemingly archaic term], and the total subjugation of their followers.  Imagine my amazement when, as I was about to finish reading this engrossing tale, I discovered an article on the front page of a section of that day’s Sunday NY Times dealing with the enormous following of a group in San Francisco which holds “guided meditations . . . [long] wait lists for panel talks and conferences [that] now run into the hundreds,” even discussing a “meditation app” that can be downloaded.  I felt as though the lines could have been placed whole into the narrative of Ms. Stevens’ new book.

The protagonist is Dr. Nadine Lavoie (who readers met in the author’s earlier novels), attending psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit in Victoria, British Columbia, whose newest patient is Heather Simeon, involuntarily committed after a suicide attempt, her third try, this time by slashing her wrists.  She and her husband of six months were both members of what can only be described as a cult, located on the outskirts of Shawnigan Lake, on the tip of Vancouver Island, calling itself The River of Life Spiritual Center.  When Nadine hears these details, memories come flooding back to her:  Now 55, when she was a young girl in the late ‘60’s, she and her mother and brother had lived for 8 months in a commune run by the same man, then only 22 years old.  That period had left her with devastating memories, worse than which are the blank spaces among them, knowing only that she has suffered from panic attacks and severe claustrophobia ever since.

Nadine’s life is a very troubled one, coming as she did from a dysfunctional family; in addition, she has recently been widowed, and has a 25-year-old daughter who had left home at 18, become a drug addict, and is now living on the streets.  As she deals with this situation, she delves into Heather’s recent past, as well as her own early years, trying to fill in the blanks, for all of which she must confront the commune and its leader, almost dreading the answers for which she searches.

The novel, suspenseful and at times grueling, is not easily forgotten when the book is put down, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2013.

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JoylandJoyland
Stephen King
Hard Case Crime, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1-781-16264-4
Trade Paperback

Devlin Jones (“Dev” or “Jonesy”), now a writer in his sixties, reminisces about the summer of 1973 when he decided to take a year off from his college studies and take a job as a carny in a North Carolina amusement park, 700 miles from his home town of Durham, New Hampshire. This is basically the plot of the newest novel by Stephen King.  But whatever preconceptions the reader might have about a book by this most prolific and best-selling novelist, be prepared to set them aside; I know I had to!  And I mean that in the best way possible.

The tale opens in 1973, when the protagonist was a self-proclaimed 21-year-old virgin.  He had just had his heart broken by his first love, and his life suddenly becomes one wholly inhabited by carny workers, as well as a ‘boy and a woman and their dog.’  Most of the summer hires are “college students willing to work for peanuts.” There is a backstory involving a dead girl killed in the amusement park years before, and four similar murders in Georgia and the Carolinas, all of young girls.   Of course, there is also the ghost in the funhouse.  Towards the end, things turn suddenly darker on, of course, an unforgettable “dark and stormy night.”

The novel is utterly absorbing, fast-reading, and very moving.  As always, Hard Case Crime has done a wonderful job of bringing us a book that may seem a throw-back to a simpler time.  And I mean that in the best way possible as well.  The novel is simply terrific, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2013.