Book Review: The Hidden Key by David E. Grogan

The Hidden Key
A Steve Stilwell Thriller #3
David E. Grogan
Camel Press, April 2020
ISBN 978-1-60381-580-2
Trade Paperback

Having never read David E. Grogan’s previous books, when I finished this one, I read reviews of Sapphire Pavilion and The Siegel Dispositions.  Having done so I discovered I am definitely in a minority when it comes to Grogan’s books.  Praise for those previous stories abounds but I just could not get on board (no pun intended).  I found both the story and the writing not even close to believable including his use of verbs that just did not match the emotions being communicated.

The Hidden Key begins with two men breaking into the home of a former Navy Seabee looking for an artifact, a clay tablet stolen from Iraq, that he advertised for sale on the internet.  Unbelievable violence ensues when the Seabee denies any knowledge of the artifact.  This is just the beginning of the body count.

About a week later Steve Stilwell, a lawyer in Virginia and a retired Navy JAG officer, meets a prospective client for dinner in London, having been contacted by the man and asked to join him in London as soon as possible.  The prospective client wants to hire Stilwell to probate his estate in the US.  As they are discussing the matter, two armed men enter the restaurant and the client ends up dead.  Stilwell later discovers that the client has wills in the US, India, and Italy but his job involves only the one in the US.  However, in addition to his will, the client has  left specific instructions as to how cash he left in a safe deposit box was to be distributed and where he was to be buried, specifying that his wife in India might not agree to either but he wanted his wishes honored.

Of course, the man’s wife needed to be informed of these instructions so Stilwell’s law partner, Casey, a former Army helicopter pilot, is dispatched to India to meet with her.  Despite a warm welcome from the woman, Casey ends up being attacked after their meeting.  Meanwhile, Stilwell has gone to Italy to meet with his client’s mistress where, perhaps you guessed it, more violence and murders ensue.  Meanwhile, the artifact that started this whole venture has been found, then lost, then found again.  It turns out that the artifact is a map to the Garden of Eden.  And, oh yes, the FBI, New Scotland Yard, and the Italian Carabinieri (because of a heist of the Shroud of Turin) are also involved.

Because I found this book beyond fantastical, I cannot recommend it but if you liked Grogan’s previous books you will probably like this one too.

Reviewed by Melinda Drew, April 2020.

Book Review: Flowers over the Inferno by Ilaria Tuti

Flowers over the Inferno
A Teresa Battaglia Novel #1
Ilaria Tuti
Translated from the Italian by Ekin Oklap
Soho Crime, April 2019
ISBN 978-1-64129-068-5
Hardcover

Set in a quiet village in a small community in Northern Italy, the naked body of a man has been found with his eyes gouged out. Detective Superintendent Teresa Battaglia is sent to investigate. A woman in her mid sixties, Teresa has earned a reputation as a highly experienced detective and profiler. But Teresa is beginning to feel the pressures of ailing health. She has Diabetes, and of late she has been dealing with periods of mental fatigue, and wonders if this is a portent of worse things to come.

A new assistant has been assigned to Teresa and she’s not sure whether to trust him or not. The local police try to downplay the death of one of the locals, but she is sure there is something sinister lurking beneath the surface and she intends to pursue the case.

Several children in the village have been aware of sinister happenings as well as experiencing strong feelings of being watched. More victims have the authorities wondering if a serial killer is on the loose. And when an infant is kidnapped the urgency to find the child escalates.

I found Detective Battaglia interesting and very human. Her concern for the victims is uppermost in her thoughts as she digs into the strange history of the area. And while finding the infant alive is her priority, she is also questioning her own state of mind and whether she will succeed. I thought at times the plot wandered somewhat without focus and direction. But the climax and ending worked well as the secrets of the past were revealed.

Detective Battaglia may possibly return in another tale as this is possibly the first in a proposed series.

Meanwhile…check it out….

Respectfully submitted.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, May 2019.

Book Review: The Burial Hour by Jeffery Deaver

The Burial Hour
A Lincoln Rhyme Novel #13
Jeffery Deaver
Grand Central Publishing, April 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4555-3637-5
Hardcover

The latest Lincoln Rhyme mystery novel begins with an argument between the criminologist and his aide, Thom, about the forthcoming marriage of Rhyme and supercop Amelia Sachs. The controversy centers on where the honeymoon should take place, with unsentimental Lincoln lobbying for Greenland, where he can observe some new method or other, and Thom suggesting someplace more romantic.  Then fate intervenes in the form of an abduction and an odd form of murder, a hanging with a noose made of a cello gut string.

When the victim is rescued in the nick of time by Sachs, the perpetrator, a mental health escapee from an institution, apparently goes to Italy, where Sachs and Rhyme follow only to be treated shabbily by the Italian police and prosecutor.  Eventually, somehow all work together to solve the mystery, only after at least three more abductions take place.

Unlike previous entries in the series, forensic analysis is done by an Italian woman, albeit a capable technician, with Rhyme and Sachs only able to read the results. On the whole, this novel is less satisfying than previous books in the series. Perhaps the author strained as he based the plot on a controversial topic:  cascading immigration overwhelming the country.  Also, the conclusion is hardly in sync with previous novels featuring the criminologist.  However, it raises the question of whether the author is preparing readers for a seismic shift in future plotting.  Since there are glimmers of the old Lincoln Rhyme, this entry, as all previous ones, is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2017.

A Few Teeny Reviews

thrice-the-brinded-cat-hath-mewdThrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
A Flavia de Luce Mystery #8
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-345539960
Hardcover
Audible
Unabridged Downloaded Audio Book
Narrated by Jayne Entwistle

From the publisher—

In spite of being ejected from Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is excited to be sailing home to England. But instead of a joyous homecoming, she is greeted on the docks with unfortunate news: Her father has fallen ill, and a hospital visit will have to wait while he rests. But with Flavia’s blasted sisters and insufferable cousin underfoot, Buckshaw now seems both too empty—and not empty enough. Only too eager to run an errand for the vicar’s wife, Flavia hops on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, to deliver a message to a reclusive wood-carver. Finding the front door ajar, Flavia enters and stumbles upon the poor man’s body hanging upside down on the back of his bedroom door. The only living creature in the house is a feline that shows little interest in the disturbing scene. Curiosity may not kill this cat, but Flavia is energized at the prospect of a new investigation. It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one’s spirits. But what awaits Flavia will shake her to the very core.

My favorite pre-teen sleuth (although this is not a series targeting young readers) is back home in England at her beloved Buckshaw but her return from Canada is not a completely happy one what with her father lying very ill in the hospital. At loose ends, Flavia goes in search of something to occupy her mind and a dead body is just the ticket. As precocious as ever, Flavia sets out to prove that this was murder but she’s unprepared for a shattering event. Not precisely a cliffhanger, this event makes me want the next book yesterday.

As always, narrator Jayne Entwistle is Flavia de Luce to a “T” and kept me captivated from beginning to end.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

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michelangelos-ghostMichelangelo’s Ghost
A Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery #4
Gigi Pandian
Henery Press, October 2016
ISBN 978-1-63511-069-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A lost work of art linking India to the Italian Renaissance. A killer hiding behind a centuries-old ghost story. And a hidden treasure in Italy’s macabre sculpture garden known as the Park of Monsters… When Jaya’s old professor dies under eerie circumstances shortly after discovering manuscripts that point to a treasure in Italy’s Park of Monsters, Jaya and her brother pick up the trail. From San Francisco to the heart of Italy, Jaya is haunted by a ghost story inexorably linked to the masterpieces of a long-dead artist and the deeds of a modern-day murderer. Untrustworthy colleagues, disappearing boyfriends, and old enemies—who can Jaya trust when the ghost wails?

Jaya Jones is one of the most appealing protagonists I’ve come across in recent years and each book is better than the last. She’s an academic, an historian interested in unique artifacts, and she loves chasing after treasures even though she’s usually reluctant at first. In short, Jaya is a modern-day Indiana Jones, just not quite as much over the top, and I love her for that. Adventure is just around every corner and I happily go along with her on every treasure hunt.  Of course, there’s a mystery or two or three to be solved, including the question of how her former professor died, and having her brother and his girlfriend along this time adds to the entertainment. Oh, and the cherry on top is the secret romance between Jaya and Lane, the man with a thieving past. All in all, Michelangelo’s Ghost is a tale not to be missed.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

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the-stranger-gameThe Stranger Game
Cylin Busby
Balzer + Bray, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-235460-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When Nico Morris’s older sister mysteriously disappears, her parents, family, and friends are devastated. But Nico can never admit what she herself feels: relief at finally being free of Sarah’s daily cruelties.

Then the best and worst thing happens: four years later, after dozens of false leads, Sarah is found.

But this girl is much changed from the one Nico knew. She’s thin and drawn, when Sarah had been golden and athletic; timid and unsure, instead of brash and competitive; and strangest of all, sweet and kind, when she had once been mean and abusive. Sarah’s retrograde amnesia has caused her to forget almost everything about her life, from small things like the plots of her favorite books and her tennis game to the more critical—where she’s been the last four years and what happened at the park on the fateful day she vanished. Despite the happy ending, the dark details of that day continue to haunt Nico, and it becomes clear that more than one person knows the true story of what happened to Sarah. . . .

There isn’t anything more devastating than the disappearance of a child, the not knowing and the endless questions, but how much worse is it when a family member is not entirely sorry that child is gone? Nico is a normal young girl who misses Sarah and yet can’t help feeling relief that she doesn’t have to contend with her sister’s bullying and meanness anymore but, of course, that natural reaction is loaded with guilt. How Nico and her parents cope and her feelings of inadequacy because she can’t fill the gaping hole are an engaging study in how the ones left behind handle…or don’t…such a terrible scenario. When Sarah miraculously returns, Nico’s search for the truth ratchets up the tension and leads to almost unbearable suspense.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

Book Review: Cry Wolf by Michael Gregorio

Cry WolfCry Wolf      
A Sebastiano Cangio Thriller #1
Michael Gregorio
Severn House Publishers, Ltd., April 2015
ISBN: 978-1-78010-617-5
Ebook
Also available in hardcover and trade paperback

Wolf as symbol. Wolf as metaphor. Wolves in Umbria, a relatively unpopulated region of Italy, as motivating presence. In this wide-ranging novel of Mafia and murder, the author challenges readers to maintain attention and patience as he directs us through years in the life of a young man from Calabria in the south of Italy, to his abrupt decampment to England, to his return to Italy and a new life as a park ranger in Umbria. It’s a lot to take in but those who stick with it will be richly rewarded.

The man, Sebastiano Cangio, is obsessed with wolves. They are the subject of his Phd. thesis at a local university. But a murder on the beach, execution style, changes all that. He hides, unhappily, in London. But then an opportunity to return to Italy and become a Park Ranger in Umbria, with his beloved wolves, occurs.

Unfortunately, new commercial development after earthquakes in Umbria is bringing crime of the worst sort, a rising Mafia cell. There are many players in this churning story, some who fall in and out of the narrative so readers must pay attention. Most are interesting and even unusual. The plot is vastly complicated and enthralling at the same time. This author is a very good writer and while the plot seems to move ponderously for a time, once all the important characters are in place, things get hot exceedingly fast. Yet there are no missteps and the last third of the novel is as fast and intense as any fan of thrillers could ask.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, February 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: Phantoms in the Snow by Kathleen Benner Duble and Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

Phantoms in the SnowPhantoms in the Snow
Kathleen Benner Duble
Scholastic Press, February 2011
ISBN 978-0-545-19770-0
Hardcover

Being relatively well-educated, I have carried around the belief that I knew (basically) all about World War II.  We start learning about it in 6th grade and we continue to study it well into our senior year.   Why is it, then, that I had never heard of the Phantoms (Tenth Mountain Division)?  I feel cheated.

Ms. Duble’s Phantoms in the Snow tells the courageous and heart-wrenching story of a very young Texas farmer, contentedly plodding along until his world is shattered.  The untimely death of his parents land 15-year old Noah with an uncle he had never heard of.  As if the circumstances wouldn’t be challenging enough, Uncle Shelley happens to be a high-ranking soldier at Camp Hale, Colorado.  He is training an elite team of soldiers to send to the snowy mountains in Europe.  These men are the only hope of capturing Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in Italy.  In doing so, the Germans secured there will be flushed out, giving the Americans and Freedom Fighters a chance to turn the tide of the war.

This is much more than a war story.  It is about loyalty, compassion, understanding and support.  It is about working hard to save the lives of people you will never know.  This book demonstrates the strength in a team.  The story shows that no matter how crummy one life seems, there is always another worse off.  It is about believing in something bigger than yourself and doing what is right—even if it seems small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Phantoms gives the reader a glimpse of a unique group of soldiers.  Not only were these men instrumental in gaining ground during World War II, they came home to give something surprising back to their own country.  Phantoms, with their crazy passion, helped to make skiing a remarkably popular recreational activity.  They are responsible the for well-known ski resorts in Vail and Aspen.  A backcountry trail system between the two was created to honor the Tenth Mountain Division.

These men are unsung heroes.  This makes me sad.  Everyone should know about the men that trained in frigid, inhospitable conditions to quietly slip under the radar and do what no others soldiers have done.  Ms. Duble’s book is the perfect place to start.  While her characters are not necessarily based on specific Phantoms, the events are factual, the tale gripping.

Please, let’s finally give these men the recognition they deserve.  Give this book to students studying World War II, they will thank you, I promise.  Find your ski-fanatic buds and give them a copy of this book.  Who knows what these ski-bums would be into if not for the Phantoms?

To the men of the Tenth Mountain Division: thank you, I am forever grateful to you.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2013.

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Why We Took the CarWhy We Took The Car
Wolfgang Herrndorf
Translated by Tim Mohr
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-48180-9
Hardcover

Outwardly, I tout “girl power”.  I tell my nieces, and other young ladies, that girls can do anything that boys can do.  There is equality.  In truth though, I’ve always been a bit jealous of boys.  Growing up, it seemed that boys just had it easier, specifically in their friendships.  Guys appear to be so comfortable with one another, in a very real way.  Buddies may disagree, argue, and even throw down; but, at the end of the day, the rapport is still strong.  I don’t know how realistic my vision of “boys being boys” really is, but Why We Took the Car gives me hope that I was spot-on.

An unlikely friendship, a stolen jalopy and an impromptu road trip made for an exciting tale.  At a blush, Mike & Tschick could not be more different.  Tschick, poor, with no discernible adult supervision, whose young life has been filled with alcohol and petty crime, appears to enjoy being alone.  Mike, on the opposite end of the spectrum, outwardly has it all.  An outsider peering in would see a rich kid, with both parents tucked cozily beneath one very fancy roof.  Looks are often deceiving.

Mike was more than surprised when bad boy Tschick tries to befriend him, largely because Mike sports a really cool thrift-store jacket, styling a white dragon across the chest.  Feigning disinterest does not deter Tschick; he is relentless.  Without understanding exactly why, Mike stops ignoring him and a tentative foundation for solidarity begins to take shape.

Before he can fully comprehend and digest the potential repercussions; Mike amazes himself by agreeing to a “vacation” with his new pal.  Prepared with only a vague plan, a stolen car and a few bucks; the young criminals begin their adventure.

Their road trip is packed with colourful characters, mini adventures, and a gradual growth of genuine fondness between the boys.  While the encounters are exciting, intriguing and fun; they weren’t my absolute favourite part of the story.  Rather, the subtle message that sometimes, the people you choose to love are more important than the ones you are expected to love; resonated with me.  Almost as importantly, my ideal “boy friendship” was cemented as the implausible companions slowly reveal secrets truths of challenging lives.  Their new bond never breaks, it only grows stronger.

This distinctive book was an enjoyable read on a couple of levels.  The writing is powerful; when I first started this book, I found myself reading very quickly, because I felt like Mike was talking very fast.  It is always delightfully surprising when a book sets my reading pace.   A fabulous plot complete with unique characters and raw emotion make this a book that I will highly recommend, and in fact, I’m sure it will be one that I read again.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2013.

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.