Book Review: The Question Is Murder by Mark Willen @MarkWillen @partnersincr1me

The Question Is Murder

by Mark Willen

July 5-16, 2021 Tour

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Synopsis

 

Washington D.C. newspaper columnist Sam Turner, known to his readers as Mr. Ethics, faces his toughest moral dilemma yet: Can murder ever be justified?

That’s the question posed to him by a mysterious young woman who says she is being stalked and harassed by an ex-lover too powerful to be stopped any other way. Sam knows that journalists should never get personally involved in a story, but he finds he is being drawn deeper and deeper into this one whether he wants it or not.

So when Senator Wade Morgan turns up murdered, Sam fears the worst. Worried about his own involvement, the man who normally has all the answers is now the one making questionable decisions.

As his investigation into the Senator’s death begins to spin out of control, Sam finds he can’t let go—even as the case grows more complicated and the threats against his life become more immediate. With the fate of a young woman at stake and his own life in jeopardy, Sam can’t back down until the killer—whoever that may be—is brought to justice.

But this is D.C., and justice can be in short supply.

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Amateur Sleuth, Psychological Thriller Published by: Pen-L Publishing Publication Date: May 14th 2021 Number of Pages: 304 ISBN: 1683132246 (ISBN-13: 978-1683132240) Series: The Question Is Murder is not included in a series. Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My Review

Journalists, especially those who are the investigative type, are frequently faced with choices that must be made and, if they’re honorable, the ethics of developing the story take precedence. In Sam Turner’s case, he actually is an ethics columnist so the potential dilemma is truly front and center. When a death occurs and Sam believes he has information that may or may not require protection, he has to confront the probability that revealing or concealing what he knows each present ethical problems.

Author Mark Willen has crafted a mystery that’s more than the expected puzzle with an investigation and resolution. Yes, the death does become the focus of inquiry and, in Mr. Willen’s capable hands, it successfully follows the usual procedures and is an engaging story. Beyond that, though, we’re treated to temporarily living inside Sam’s mind as he struggles with what he should do and that is a fascinating journey. Certainly, the reader is prompted to think about how she or he would handle a similar situation and I recommend The Question Is Murder for anyone who looks for crime fiction with a point to make.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2021.

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Read an excerpt

Dear Mr. Ethics
Sam reads the email a second time, then a third, not sure whether to dismiss it as a prank or call the police. He prints it out and then reads it again, looking for some clue to the sender’s frame of mind. It’s probably a stunt. Sam gets more than his share of cranks and weirdos. There’s something about writing a newspaper column and calling yourself “Mr. Ethics” that attracts them. Some people just take offense at the notion of a guy sitting behind a computer trying to tell them there’s a right way to behave. He takes a deep breath and reads the email again, a blue felt-tipped pen in his hand. He studies the words, the grammar, even the sentence structure, looking for oddities or inconsistencies. Nothing jumps out. He doesn’t need this. Not now. But then maybe he does. Maybe it’s just what he needs. Something to take his mind off of Lisa, not unlike the migraine that makes you forget the sprained ankle, at least for a while. He looks up from the sheet of paper in his hand and glances at the poster that hangs in front of him. It’s filled with quotations on writing, and although it’s the kind of thing a college kid would hang in a dorm room, he’s always liked having it near. And he didn’t have much else to stick on the wall two years ago when he was awarded his own office, a privilege he didn’t especially want and still hasn’t adjusted to. He loves the column, both for its intellectual challenge and for the feeling that he may be helping people, albeit in small ways, to make the world a better place. He turns back to the email. He needs another opinion and knows it should come from his boss, but he doesn’t want to lose control. Brenda would be cautious and call in the executive editor or a lawyer, maybe both, and that would mean days of delay. He’s not going to use the email in his column, so whatever he does shouldn’t come back to hurt the newspaper. He wants to help if he can, and he doesn’t want anyone to get in his way. He’s too old for bureaucratic games. But he does want another opinion. He gets up, grabs the printout, and walks down the hall to the newsroom. It’s eerily quiet, nothing like the newsrooms he grew up in. Gone is the chaos of constant motion and loud conversations carried on from opposite ends of the room. Gone too are the ugly metal desks shoved together so close you can smell the whisky on your neighbor’s breath, hear him belch or argue with an official or a source on the phone. Some had hated it, but Sam thrived on the synergy it produced, the bonds it created, the shared excitement of doing something he believed—still believes—is important. Now, in its place he sees what the younger reporters view as high-tech paradise, with desks crowded with laptops and other electronic devices. The reporters and editors are stuck in a maze of mini-cubicles with three-foot high, sound-absorbing barriers to create a sense of privacy. They need to stand up to see another person. He’s acutely aware of how much journalism has changed in the thirty years he’s been practicing it. Not that it was ever pure and not that all its practitioners had less than selfish motives. But many did. Now it’s nothing more than a business, a fight for internet clicks or a spot appearance on TV, just when facts and truth matter the most because they’re in such short supply. It’s one of the reasons he was ready to give up reporting and editing to take on the ethics column, but that’s not to say he doesn’t miss the thrill of unraveling an important story. He walks the maze, heading to Molly’s corner. “Hey,” he says as he comes up behind her. Her right hand rises in a silencing gesture, and he realizes she’s on the phone. One of those ear things hidden by her hair. How was he supposed to know? While he waits, he glances up at the silent TV monitors on the wall and tries to guess why the weatherman is moving his arms around in a circle. After a minute or so, Molly ends the call and turns to him. “What?” she asks, not unfriendly but not friendly either. Busy is the vibe he gets. Sam was once Molly’s editor and mentor as she learned her way around Congress, which was Sam’s beat for twelve years. She still comes to him for advice, though not often, and he will seek her out when his ethics column needs the perspective of someone younger, or a woman. He hands her the printout without speaking and watches her read it, biting down on her lower lip, a habit he’s grown used to. He averts his eyes when she looks up and catches him staring at her. He glances around her cubicle while she finishes, then turns back to her, focusing now on her hands, which grip the printout on either side, as if she’s worried he’ll have second thoughts and try to take it back. He’s never noticed how graceful her hands look, with long supple fingers, as though she was born to play the piano. Or type. The thought makes him smile. Molly hands back the email and frowns. “So what’s the question?” she asks. “Do you think it’s for real?” She purses her lips and turns her head slightly. Her blue eyes, accented with eye shadow she doesn’t need, seem to settle on a photograph of her and Kyle, her fiancé. They are wearing hiking gear and standing atop a boulder, Molly’s bleached-blond hair blowing lightly in the wind. Their wedding is set for Memorial Day weekend, less than three months away. “Look, Sam,” she says finally, picking up her water bottle and taking a swallow, making him wait for what’s coming. “Every woman has some rat-bastard in her past she’d love to blow to kingdom come, but they never actually do it.” “Some do.” “Not many. And probably only on the spur of the moment. More passion than planning, and never with advance notice.” “This is different. He didn’t dump her. He’s stalking her and she’s scared. She doesn’t see any other way out.” Molly tilts her head slightly and he’s not sure what that means. She reaches for the moisturizer she keeps on her desk. He watches her squirt some in her palm and then rub it carefully on the backs of her hands. He feels himself getting annoyed. Since Lisa asked him to move out, he has less patience for everything and everyone. He reminds himself of that and takes a deep breath. “I can’t ignore it,” he says. “But what can you do? It’s vague and anonymous. You can’t use it in the column. Are you thinking of turning it over to the police?” “No. I have to answer her. Reach out in some way.” “Tell me why. You always told me not to get involved in the stories I cover.” “I can’t just let it go.” “What if you find out she’s serious? Or suicidal?” she asks. “Then you’ll have no choice but to go to the authorities.” The question annoys him. “Of course. But I don’t have enough to work with now.” “I don’t disagree, and if it’s not a hoax, I feel sorry for her. But all you can do is tell her to go to the police.” “She says she can’t,” he says. “I want to find out why. This is a cry for help.” Molly shrugs, making it clear she doesn’t agree. “If I came to you with this, you’d say reporters shouldn’t get involved. I’d get your lecture on how our job is to shine a light on problems while staying above the fray, not try to make everything okay.” He doesn’t know what to say. He can’t argue with the journalistic principle she’s quoting, but it doesn’t apply here because he’s not a reporter planning to write a story about the email. “I have to follow it up,” he tells her. “I just do.” “Why’d you ask my advice if you already had your mind made up?” He walks away without answering. On the one hand, he sees her point, but he’s disappointed she isn’t more concerned, more helpful. It surprises him that Molly isn’t able to put herself in other people’s shoes more often. Seeing the other side of an issue—any issue—is an important skill for a reporter. Call it empathy. But maybe he’s just annoyed because she doesn’t agree with him. Back in his office, he forwards the email to the IT department. He deletes the content, but they can analyze the IP address or whatever they look at to try to determine where it came from. He doesn’t have much hope, but it’s worth a try. Then he turns back to the email and rereads it. *** Dear Mr. Ethics: Is murder ever ethical? I hope so because I don’t have a choice. An ex-lover is destroying me. I broke up with him and now he’s ruining my life. He got into my laptop, stole all my data and used it to stalk, embarrass, and almost bankrupt me. Now he’s moved on to even worse stuff. He’s killing my hope for any kind of normal life, so killing him is a form of self-defense. Justifiable homicide, right? I can’t go to the police for reasons I can’t explain here. And I can’t give you any more details because I can’t risk you figuring out my name. So can I murder him? And no, I’m not kidding. Sincerely, Truly Desperate *** Sam jots down several notes. The tone strikes him as strangely calm and rational. She’s making a logical argument, not what you’d expect from someone stressed and frantic. Or crazy. Is it a hoax? Maybe a college kid bored with her ethics class and looking for term paper ideas. Or an author concocting a crazy plot for a thriller. Or maybe someone pissed off at Mr. Ethics and hoping to draw him into a discussion that will embarrass him if made public. But maybe not. It doesn’t matter. He has to answer her. Keep her talking, try to get more clues so he can stop her on the off chance she really is planning a murder. He turns to his keyboard and after several false starts comes up with his reply. *** Dear Truly Desperate, I’m going to assume this is a not a prank because I have no way of knowing, and I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. From the little you’ve told me, I can assure you that what you propose is not ethical. Justifiable homicide applies only when your life is in imminent danger, and you haven’t convinced me that this is the case. I don’t think you’ve convinced yourself or you wouldn’t be asking me. You need to go to the police. If you can’t do it yourself, is there someone who can do it for you? If necessary, I might be willing to do that, depending on the details. And with the newspaper behind me, the police will feel obliged to take it seriously. If you don’t want my help, I suggest you talk to a mental health professional or a social worker or someone experienced in cases involving domestic partner abuse (which this obviously is). If you’d like to talk about this more (and I will treat any conversations we have confidentially), you may call me at any time (cellphone number below). Above all, don’t do anything rash. Regards, Sam Turner (a.k.a. Mr. Ethics) *** He sits back and reads the note again. He considers his offer to go to the police on her behalf, mindful of Molly’s warning not to get involved. He wants to help her, but that’s going too far. He eliminates that sentence. He also cuts the promise of confidentiality. If she asks for it, he’ll agree, but there’s no need to offer it upfront. And it might tie his hands unnecessarily. He reads his response one last time and hits the send button. * * * *** Excerpt from The Question Is Murder by Mark Willen. Copyright 2021 by Mark Willen. Reproduced with permission from Mark Willen. All rights reserved.

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Author Bio

 

Mark Willen was born, raised, and educated in New England, where he developed a special appreciation for the values, humor, and strength of its people, as well as the sense of community that characterizes so many of its small towns. After college, he moved to the Washington, DC area, where he quickly learned how the other half lives. As a journalist, he has been a reporter, columnist, blogger, producer, and editor at The Voice of America, National Public Radio, Congressional Quarterly, Bloomberg News, and Kiplinger. Though based primarily in Washington, he has reported from datelines as varied as New York, Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg. Having retired from journalism in 2010, Mark now divides his time between writing fiction and volunteer work. As a former graduate-level teacher of journalism ethics, he also tries to help people figure out the right thing to do in difficult situations through his blog, TalkingEthics.com Mark has a Masters of Arts in writing from Johns Hopkins University (2010) and a Bachelor of Arts in government from Dartmouth College. The Question Is Murder is Mark’s debut mystery, but there is always an element of suspense in his novels. His earlier Jonas Hawke series, three books set in a small but troublesome town in Vermont, were also published by Pen-L. His short stories have appeared in The Rusty Nail, Corner Club Press, and The Boiler Review. Mark lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, Janet.

Catch Up With Our Author: MarkWillen.com Goodreads BookBub – @MarkWillen Instagram – @markwillen7 Twitter – @MarkWillen Facebook – @MarkWillenAuthor

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Tour Participants

Visit these other great hosts on this tour for more great reviews and giveaway entries!

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Giveaway

This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for Mark Willen. There will be 1 winner of one (1) Amazon.com Gift Card (U.S. ONLY). The giveaway runs July 5 through July 18, 2021. Void where prohibited.

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Book Review: The Breaker by Nick Petrie @_NickPetrie_ @PutnamBooks

The Breaker
A Peter Ash Novel #6
Nick Petrie
G. P. Putman’s Sons, January 2021
ISBN 978-0-525-53547-8
Hard Cover

Peter Ash is back living with his girlfriend June in the Milwaukee area.  After his previous adventure in Iceland, (The Wild One)  he’s  considered a wanted man and he and June his girlfriend are trying to stay under the radar. Together with his best friend Lewis, they are heading to an outdoor market when Peter notices a suspicious man walking through the market.  When Peter glimpses a gun under the man’s jacket, he’s sure this guy is up to no good, a definite threat to the people in attendance but events don’t unfold as expected when the man corners and confronts one person.

Peter attempts to intervene, but after a brief altercation both the attacker and his potential victim escape; one on an electric bike the other on foot, leaving Peter and Lewis to wonder what really went down.  Lewis finds a pair of sunglasses and not wanting to be questioned by the Police, who were summoned to the market, they both slip away.

This is the beginning of what turns into a rather complex and bizarre plot, involving a tech thief, a paid assassin, an inventor out for revenge, and a paranoid man who is a danger not just to the local community but to the entire country.

The next day June, believing she knows the man the attacker confronted, decides to see if she can uncover his identity.  As a journalist meantime working on a book, she’s also snagged a desk at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and heads to the office on her bicycle.  When she is sideswiped by a pickup truck, and the driver seems intent on giving her a ride, she senses the encounter wasn’t accidental and deftly makes her escape.

Meanwhile as Peter and Lewis attempt to find the owner of the sunglasses they are met with polite but steady resistance at every turn, a sure sign that something is afoot.

They aren’t wrong….

Peter Ash is a character not unlike Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.  They were both in the Army, both strong silent types, both willing and more than able to jump in and help someone in trouble or in need.  And they seem to rise to the occasion whenever they meet a dangerous and deadly adversary.

Since the author’s first outing, The Drifter, I’ve been waiting and watching for each new novel.  While the plots and action are at times a little over the top, that is part and parcel of the fun and excitement each of his novels generate. Peter is always on the side of the underdog, the oppressed, and even with problems of his own, he relishes the challenges he faces along the way.

Check him out…. you won’t be disappointed.

Respectfully submitted.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, April 2021.

Book Review: A Slaying Song Tonight by Fran Stewart

A Slaying Song Tonight
Fran Stewart
My Own Ship Press, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-9513680-1-2
Trade Paperback

Set in 1932, Susannah Lou Packard is on trial for the murder of a state representative, the son of a state senator who she murdered several years previously for which she is now serving a life sentence.  Nancy Lou Remington, a young reporter for a local newspaper,  having talked her editor into letting her interview Packard, visits her in the prison where she is being held to try and uncover the details of Packard’s vicious crimes.  The woman Nancy finds is not at all what she expected but after a few opening skirmishes, driven by Packard’s need to establish who is in charge, they begin talking.  The first thing Packard does is set some ground rules including that she will tell Nancy her whole story uninterrupted and Nancy can ask her questions only after she is done.  She also extracts Nancy’s promise not to talk to any of her family until the story is complete.  Reluctantly, Nancy agrees because she really wants the story and she feels that if she can get to Packard’s motives, a potential Pulitzer Prize may be in her future.

As the story unfolds, Nancy is drawn more and more into Packard’s life as Packard tells her that the two murders Packard admitted to committing are not her only crimes.  Nancy soon fills several notebooks with details of Packard’s crimes but is left to wonder at some discrepancies that creep into the stories.  But whenever Nancy tries to explore those, Packard insists that Nancy keep to the deal she made – no questions until she is finished.  Eventually Packard’s trial and her stories come to an end at which point Nancy visits Packard’s sister who helps clear up some of the discrepancies with information that astonishes Nancy.

In A Slaying Song Tonight, Stewart has painted a detailed portrait of a woman obsessed with killing and with making sure that the details of her chilling crimes are told.  For those who are not completely freaked out by serial killer stories I think you will find this book and the mind of a murderer fascinating.

Reviewed by Melinda Drew, January 2021.

Book Review: A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond @heatherhiestand @KensingtonBooks @partnersincr1me

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A Christmas Carol Murder

by Heather Redmond

on Tour November 1 – December 31, 2020

Synopsis:

The latest novel from Heather Redmond’s acclaimed mystery series finds young Charles Dickens suspecting a miser of pushing his partner out a window, but his fiancée Kate Hogarth takes a more charitable view of the old man’s innocence …

London, December 1835: Charles and Kate are out with friends and family for a chilly night of caroling and good cheer. But their blood truly runs cold when their singing is interrupted by a body plummeting from an upper window of a house. They soon learn the dead man at their feet, his neck strangely wrapped in chains, is Jacob Harley, the business partner of the resident of the house, an unpleasant codger who owns a counting house, one Emmanuel Screws.

Ever the journalist, Charles dedicates himself to discovering who’s behind the diabolical defenestration. But before he can investigate further, Harley’s corpse is stolen. Following that, Charles is visited in his quarters by what appears to be Harley’s ghost—or is it merely Charles’s overwrought imagination? He continues to suspect Emmanuel, the same penurious penny pincher who denied his father a loan years ago, but Kate insists the old man is too weak to heave a body out a window. Their mutual affection and admiration can accommodate a difference of opinion, but matters are complicated by the unexpected arrival of an infant orphan. Charles must find the child a home while solving a murder, to ensure that the next one in chains is the guilty party . . .

Book Details:

Genre: Historical Mystery Published by: Kensington Publishing Publication Date: September 29th 2020 Number of Pages: 320 ISBN: 1496717171 (ISBN13: 9781496717177) Series: A Dickens of a Crime #3 || A Stand Alone Mystery Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Goodreads

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A Christmas Carol Murder
A Dickens of a Crime #3
Heather Redmond
Kensington Books, September 2020
ISBN 978-1-4967-1717-7
Hardcover

When Charles and Kate are out with friends on a cold Victorian winter’s night and a body literally falls at their feet, we’re immediately off on the hunt for a killer and a bit of a jolly romp. Ms. Redmond didn’t exactly create the protagonist since Charles Dickens was a real person but it’s always fun when an author creates a story around such a character. In this case, it’s even more fun because of the way a mystery has been intertwined with the Dickens tale, A Christmas Carol, and I really appreciated the punnish names such as Emmanuel Screws and Jacob Harley; in fact, they put me on high alert looking for other takes on that classic story.

As a journalist, Dickens has a natural bent for looking for the truth but Kate is just as involved, having her own ideas about what might have really happened to Jacob, and the pair find themselves in the midst of more than just a murder investigation. Plenty of unexpected twists kept me interested and I’m now a devoted fan not only of the characters but also of the very clever plot. I’m definitely going to have to get the first two books in this charming series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2020.

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Read an excerpt:

Chapter One

Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, December 1, 1835 They hadn’t found the body yet. Old Sal was surely dead. Feathers had caught on candles, igniting the blaze. Maybe a yipping dog had some part in the fiery disaster. The marchioness’s advanced age had surely contributed to the fatal misadventure. The marquess, her son, had nearly killed himself in a futile attempt to rescue her. Charles Dickens’s cough forced him to set down his pen. Ink dribbled from it, obscuring his last few words. He found it hard to stay seated, so he pushed his hands through his unruly dark hair, as if pressing on his sooty scalp would keep him on the pub bench. Only three hours of sleep before being dragged from his bed to make the twenty-three-mile journey from his rooms at Furnival’s Inn in London that morning. Nervous energy alone kept his pen moving. He rubbed his eyes, gritty with grime and fumes from the fire, both the massive one that had destroyed the still-smoking ruins of Hatfield House’s west wing, and the much smaller one here in the taproom at Eight Bells Pub. Some light came in from out of doors, courtesy of a quarter-full moon, but the windows were small. He called for a candle and kept working. Putting the messy slip of paper aside, he dipped his pen in his inkwell. Starting again, he recalled the devastation of the scene, the remains of once noble apartments now reduced to rubble and ash. He filled one slip after another, describing the scene, the architecture, the theories. When he ran out of words, he let his memories of massive oaken Tudor beams, half-burned; heaps of bricks; lumps of metal; buckets of water; black-faced people; and unending, catch-in- your-throat soot—all that remained of forty-five rooms of storied, aristocratic things—fade away. The ringing of St. Ethelreda’s venerable church bells returned him to the moment. Had it gone eight p.m. already? Hooves and the wheels of a cart sounded in the narrow street outside. A couple of men passed by, discussing the fire. The door of the pub opened and closed,allowing the flash from a lantern to illuminate the dark room. Charles noted the attempts to make the room festive. Greenery had been tacked to the blackened beams and draped around the mantelpiece. He thought he saw mistletoe mischievously strung up in that recess to the left of the great fireplace. Next to it, a man slumped in a chair. He wore a tired, stained old surtout and plaid trousers with a mended tear in the knee. Next to him waited an empty stool, ready for an adoring wife or small child to sit there. Charles stacked his completed slips of paper on the weathered table and took a fresh one from his pile, the pathos of that empty seat tugging at him. He began to write something new, imagining that last year at this time, a sweet little girl sat on the stool, looking up at the old, beaten man. How different his demeanor would have been then! Charles drew a line between his musings and the lower blank part of the page. His pen flew again, as he made the note. Add a bit of melancholy to my Christmas festivities sketch. Unbidden, the serving maid delivered another glass of hot rum and water. The maid, maybe fourteen, with wide, apple- colored cheeks and a weak chin, gave him a sideways glance full of suspicion. He grinned at her and pointed to his face. “Soot from the fire. I’m sending a report back to London.” His hand brushed against his shoulder, puffing soot from his black tailcoat into his eyes. She pressed her lips together and marched away, her little body taut with indignation. Well, she didn’t understand he had to send his report by the next mail coach. Not much time for sentiment or bathing just yet. By the time he finished his notes, the drinks hadn’t done their job of settling his cough. He knew it would worsen if he lay down so he opened his writing desk to pull out a piece of notepaper. Dearest Fanny, he wrote to his sister. Where to begin? I wrote to my betrothed this morning so I thought I should send my news to someone else. Was ever a man so busy? I am editing my upcoming book. Did I tell you it will be called Sketches by Boz? I have to turn in the revisions for volumes one and two by the end of the year, in advance of the first volume releasing February eighth. I am also working on an operetta, thanks to that conversation with your friend John Hullah, in my head, at least. I hope to actually commence writing it as soon as my revisions are done. I remember all the happy Christmas memories of our earliest childhood, the games and songs and ghost stories when we lived in Portsmouth, and hope to re-create them in my own sweet home next year. How merry it will be to share Christmas with the Hogarths! To think that you, Leticia, and I will all be settled soon with our life’s companions. Soon we will know the sounds of happy children at our hearths and celebrate all the joys that the season should contain in our private chambers. He set down his pen without signing the letter. It might be that he would have more to add before returning to London. He had no idea how long it would be before they recovered the Marchioness of Salisbury’s body, if indeed, anything was left. Restacking his papers, he considered the question of her jewels. Had they burned? At least the priceless volumes in the library all had survived, despite the walls being damaged. His brain kept churning, so he pulled out his copy of Sketches by Boz. He would edit for a while before retiring to his room at the Salisbury Arms. No time for sleep when work had to be done. Pounding on the chamber door woke him. Daylight scarcely streamed around the tattered edges of the inn’s curtain. Charles coughed. He still tasted acrid soot at the back of his throat. Indeed, it coated his tongue. The pounding came again as he scratched his unshaven chin. Had the Morning Chronicle sent someone after him? He’d put his first dispatch from the fire on the mail coach. Pulling his frock coat over his stained shirt, he hopped across the floor while he tugged on his dirty trousers. Soot puffed into the air with each bounce. “Coming, coming,” he called. The hinges squeaked horribly when he opened the door. On the other side stood a white-capped maid. She wore a dark cloak over her dress. A bundle nestled between her joined arms. Had she been kicking the door? “Can I help you?” Charles asked, politely enough for the hour. To his right, his boots were gone. He had left them to be polished. The girl lifted her bundle. The lump of clothes moved. He frowned, then leaned over the lump. A plump face topped by a thatch of black hair stared back. A baby. Was she hoping for alms? “What’s your name, girl?” “Madge, sir. Madge Porter.” “Well, Madge Porter, I can spare you a few coins for the babe if you’ll wait for a moment. Having hard times?” She stared hard at him. He realized the cloaked figure was the tiny serving maid from the Eight Bells. “He’s my sister’s child.” “I see. Is she at work?” He laugh-choked. “She’s not in here with me, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Her mouth hung open for a moment. “No, sir, I don’t think that.” “What, then?” He glanced around for his overcoat, which had a few coins in a pocket. “What is the babe’s name?” “Timothy, sir.” She tightened her weak chin until her pale skin folded in on itself. “Timothy Dickens?” she warbled. “Dickens?” He took another glance at the babe. Cherry red, pursed lips, and a squashed button of a nose. He didn’t see any resemblance to his relatives. His voice sharpened. “Goodness, Madge, what a coincidence.” Her voice strengthened. “I don’t think so, sir.” He frowned. The serving maid did not seem to understand his sarcasm. “I’ve never been to Hatfield before. My family is from Portsmouth. I don’t know if your Timothy Dickens is a distant relative of mine or not. Who is his father?” “She died in the fire.” He tilted his head at the non sequitur. “Who?” “My sister. She died in the fire. She was in service to old Sarey.” Charles coughed, holding the doorjamb to keep himself upright. This was fresh news. “How tragic. I didn’t hear that a maid died.” “They haven’t found the bodies.” “That I know. I’m reporting on the fire, but then, I told you that. Thank you for the information. I’ll pay you for it if you wait a moment for me to find my purse.” She thrust the bundle toward him. “Timothy is yer son, sir. You need to take him.” Charles took a step back, waving his hands. “No he isn’t.” “He’s four months old. It would have been last year, around All Hallow’s Eve. Do you remember the bonfire? She’s prettier than me, my Lizzie. Her hair is lighter, not like yers or mine.” “Truly, I’ve never been in Hatfield before now,” he said gently. “I work mostly in London.” She huffed out a little sob. He sensed she was coming to a crescendo, rather like a dramatic piece of music that seemed pastoral at first, then exploded. “I know yer his daddy, sir. I can’t take him. My parents are dead.” He coughed again. Blasted soot. “I’m sorry. It’s a terrible tragedy. You’re young to be all alone with a baby.” Her entire being seemed to shudder, then, like the strike of a cobra, she shoved the wriggling bundle into his arms and dashed down the passage. His arms fluttered like jelly for a moment, as if his bones had fled with the horror of the orphaned child’s appearance, until the baby opened its tiny maw and Charles found his strength. Then he realized the blankets were damp. Little fatherless, motherless Timothy whoever-he-was had soiled himself. The baby wailed indignantly but his aunt did not return. Charles completed his reporting duties with one hand while cradling the infant, now dressed in Charles’s cleanest handkerchief and spare shirt, in the other arm. Infant swaddling dried in front of the fire. When Charles had had his body and soul together well enough to chase after little Madge Porter, the proprietor of the Eight Bells had told him she wasn’t due there until the evening. He’d begged the man for names of any Porter relatives, but the proprietor had been unhelpful. Charles had tripped over to St. Ethelreda’s, still smelling smoke through a nose dripping from the cold. The canon had been of no use and in fact smelled of Hollands, rather than incense. He went to a barbershop, holding the baby while he was shaved, but the attendant refused to offer information. When the babe began to cry again, he took him to a stable yard and inquired if they had a cow. A stoic stableman took pity on him and sent him to his quiet wife, a new mother herself. She agreed to nurse the child while Charles went to Hatfield House to see if the marchioness had been found yet. He attempted to gain access to the marquess, still directing the recovery efforts. While waiting, he offered the opinion that they should pull down the remaining walls, which looked likely to kill the intended rescuers more assuredly than anything else in the vast acreage of destruction. Everyone coughed, exhausted, working by rote rather than by intelligence. After a while, he gave up on the marquess. He interviewed those working in the ruins to get an update for the Chronicle, then went to the still-standing east wing of the house to see the housekeeper. She allowed him into her parlor for half a crown. The room’s walls were freshly painted, showing evidence of care taken even with the servant’s quarters. A large plain cross decorated the free space on the wall, in between storage cupboards. The housekeeper had a tall tower of graying hair, stiffened by some sort of grease into a peak over her forehead. Her black gown and white apron looked untouched by the fire. When she spoke, however, he sensed the fatigue and the sadness. “I have served this family for thirty-seven years,” she moaned. “Such a tragedy.” He took some time with her recital of the many treasures of the house, storing up a collection of things he could report on, then let her share some of her favorite history of the house. But he knew he needed to return to gather the baby from the stableman’s wife soon. “Do you have a Lizzie Porter employed here?” “Yes, sir.” The housekeeper gave a little sob and covered her mouth. “In the west wing, sir. I haven’t seen her since the fire.” His fingers tingled. “Do you think she died?” “I don’t know, sir. Not a flighty girl. I doubt she’d have run off if she lived.” “Not a flighty girl?” He frowned. “But she has a babe.” He was surprised to know she had kept her employment. The housekeeper shook her head. “She’s an eater, sir, but there never was a babe in her belly.” The story became steadily more curious. “Did she take any leave, about four months ago? In July or August?” The housekeeper picked up her teacup and stared at the leaves remaining at the bottom. “An ague went around the staff in the summer. Some kind of sweating sickness. She had it like all the rest. Went to recuperate with her sister.” “Madge?” She nodded absently. “Yes, that Madge. Just a slip of a girl. Hasn’t come to work here but stayed in the village.” “I’ve met her. How long was Lizzie with her?” “Oh, for weeks. She came back pale and thin, but so did a couple of other girls. It killed one of the cook’s helpers. Terrible.” The housekeeper fingered a thin chain around her neck. It didn’t sound like a group of girls made up the illness to help Lizzie hide her expectations, but the ague had been timed perfectly for her to hide wee Timothy’s birth. Who had been the babe’s wet nurse? “Do you know where Madge lives?” “Above the Eight Bells, sir. Servants’ quarters.” The housekeeper set down her cup and rose, indicating the interview had ended. Charles checked around the pub again when he returned to town, just a short walk from the grand, if sadly diminished, house. The quarters for servants were empty. Madge seemed to have gone into hiding. How she could abandon her nephew so carelessly, he did not know, but perhaps she was too devastated by her sister’s death to think clearly. A day later, Charles and the baby were both sunk into exhaustion by the long journey to London. Charles’s carriage, the final step of the trip, pulled up in front of a stone building. Across from Mary-le-Bow Church in Cheapside, it had shop space, three floors of apartments, and a half attic on top. He’d had to hire a carriage from the posting inn where the coach had left them on the outskirts of town. While he had no trouble walking many miles, carrying both a valise and an infant was more than he could manage. At least they’d kept each other warm. He made his awkward way out of the vehicle, coughing as the smoky city air hit his tortured lungs. In his arms, the babe slept peacefully, though he had cried with hunger for part of the long coach journey. Charles’s friends, William and Julie Aga, had taken rooms here, above a chophouse. The building exuded the scent of roasting meats. His stomach grumbled as he went up the stairs to his friends’ chambers. William was a reporter, like Charles, though more focused on crime than government. Charles doubled over, coughing, as he reached the top of the steps. He suspected if he’d had a hand free to apply his handkerchief, it would come away black again. The door to the Agas’ rooms opened before he had the chance to knock. “Charles!” William exploded. “Good God, man, what a sound to torture my ears.” Charles unbent himself and managed a nod at his friend. William had the air of a successful, fashionable man-about-town, even at his rooms on a Thursday evening. He wore a paisley waistcoat under an old black tailcoat, which fit him like it had been sewn directly on his broad-shouldered body. They both prided themselves on dressing well. His summer-golden hair had darkened due to the lack of sun. He had the look of a great horseman, though Charles knew that William, like he, spent most of his time hunched over a paper and quill. “I like that fabric,” Charles said. “Did Julie make you that waistcoat?” “Charles.” William waved his arms. “Whatever are you carrying in your arms?” Charles dropped his valise to the ground. It grazed his foot. He let out a yelp and hopped. “Blast it! My toe.” William leaned forward and snatched the bundle from Charles’s arm. The cloth over little Timothy’s face slid away, exposing the sleeping child. “No room in the inn?” “Very funny,” Charles snarled. He rubbed his foot against the back of his calf. “That smarted.” “Whose baby?” “A dead serving maid’s. I remember you said that a woman across the hall from you had a screaming infant. Do you think she might be persuaded to feed this one? He’s about four months old.” William rubbed his tongue over his gums as he glanced from Timothy to Charles, then back again. “He needs to eat. I don’t want to starve him. Also, I think he’s a little too warm.” Charles gave Timothy an anxious glance. “Let’s hope he isn’t coming down with something.” William stepped into the passage and gave a long-suffering sigh. Then, he crossed to the other side and used his elbow to bang on the door across from his. “Mrs. Herring?” Charles heard a loud cry in the room beyond, a muttered imprecation, and a child’s piping voice, then the door opened. A girl about the age of his youngest brother, Boz, opened the door. “Wot?” she said indistinctly, as she was missing several teeth. “I need your mother,” William said, smiling at the girl. The girl turned her head partway and shrieked for her mother. A couple of minutes later the lady of the house arrived, a fat babe burping on her shoulder. She appeared as well fed as the infant, with rounded wrists tapering into fat fingers peering out from her cotton dress sleeves. “Mr. Aga!” she said with a smile. Charles instantly trusted Mrs. Herring’s sweet smile. Her hand had gone to the top of her daughter’s head for a caress, the sort of woman who genuinely enjoyed her children. “Good lady,” Charles began. “I’ve been given the custody of this orphaned child due to a rather dramatic situation. Might you be able to take him in to nurse?” Mrs. Herring stepped toward William. She took one look at the sleeping Timothy and exclaimed, “Lor bless me!” She handed her larger infant over to her daughter, then reached out her hands to William. He promptly placed the bundle into the mother’s arms. Charles saw Timothy stir. He began to root around. “Hungry. Hasn’t been nourished since this morning.” “Poor mite,” Mrs. Herring cooed. “How could you have let this happen? They must be fed regularly.” “I don’t know how to care for a baby,” Charles admitted. “But I remembered my friends had you as a neighbor. Can you help him?” “We’ve no room for the tiny lad,” Mrs. Herring said sternly. She coaxed her daughter back inside. “I can pay for his board,” Charles responded. Mrs. Herring didn’t speak but her eyebrows lifted. “Just for tonight at first,” William suggested with an easy smile. “You can see the situation is desperate.” Charles reached into his pocket and pulled out a shilling. “I’m good for it. Truly. This would pay for days of his care if I hire a wet nurse. He has an aunt but she disappeared. I couldn’t find her before I had to return to London.” “We’ll talk to you again in the morning,” William said. “I won’t leave the building until we’ve spoken.” “Where am I to put him?” she asked, staring rather fixedly at the shilling. “The bed is full and we don’t have a cradle.” William nodded wisely, as if he’d thought of this already. “Mr. Dickens and I will consult with my wife and bring something suitable. If you can feed him while we wait?” Mrs. Herring reached out her free hand. Charles noted she had clean nails. She seemed a good choice for wet nurse. He placed the shilling in her palm and prayed they could make longer-term arrangements for a reasonable price. Timothy let out a thin wail. “He sounds weak,” Charles said, guilt coloring his words. “I’ll do what I can.” Mrs. Herring glanced at the babe in her arms, then shut the door. *** Excerpt from A Christmas Carol Murder by Heather Redmond. Copyright 2020 by Heather Redmond. Reproduced with permission from Heather Redmond. All rights reserved.

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Author Bio:

 

Heather Redmond is an author of commercial fiction and also writes as Heather Hiestand. First published in mystery, she took a long detour through romance before returning. Though her last British-born ancestor departed London in the 1920s, she is a committed anglophile, Dickens devotee, and lover of all things nineteenth century. She has lived in Illinois, California, and Texas, and now resides in a small town in Washington State with her husband and son. The author of many novels, novellas, and short stories, she has achieved best-seller status at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Her 2018 Heather Redmond debut, A Tale of Two Murders, was a multi-week Barnes & Noble Hardcover Mystery Bestseller. Her two current mystery series are “A Dickens of a Crime” and “the Journaling mysteries.” She writes for Kensington and Severn House. She is the 2020-21 President of the Columbia River Chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC).

Catch Up With Heather Redmond: HeatherRedmond.com, Goodreads, BookBub, Instagram, Twitter, & Facebook!

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Book Review: Fair Warning by Michael Connelly @Connellybooks @littlebrown

Fair Warning
Jack McEvoy #3
Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Company, May 2020
ISBN 978-0-316-53942-5
Hardcover

Jack McEvoy is a reporter working for Fair Warning, an Internet news site dedicated to alerting the public to scams and schemes perpetrated by con men.  On arriving at his apartment, two LAPD Detectives approached and asked to speak to him.  Once inside the Detectives tell him they are from the Robbery-Homicide Division, and are working a homicide and Jack’s name had come up. Tina Portrero, a woman Jack had dated a year ago, had been found dead in her apartment.

The Detectives asked the usual questions re his whereabouts at the time of the murder and while he isn’t thrilled with their attitudes he agrees to give a DNA sample knowing full well the results would come back negative. He’d been on an assignment at the time of the woman’s death.

Jack is a credited reporter, is determined to find out what happened to Tina He tracks down her mother, who has arrived to identify the body and from their conversation learns that Tina was adopted and had recently sent a DNA sample to a local company in the hope of finding other siblings.

When the Detectives find out he’s pursuing the case they warn him off.  Refusing to be intimidated he continues to investigate, calling on Rachel Walling, an ex-FBI agent and one time lover to enlist her help.   As they delve deeper they begin to believe that a serial killer is at work.

I’m a fan of Michael Connelly, but in the beginning of this novel and for the first third of the book I was sorely tempted to set it aside. I was struck by the fact that the author seemed to be telling the reader step by step how a reporter tracks down information, somewhat elementary and unnecessarily frustrating leaving me with a strong urge to say ‘get on with it’… which eventually he did.

The pacing picked up in the second half of the book and raced to an exciting conclusion… well almost….

This wasn’t one of my favourite Connelly books….but no doubt worth a look especially if you are a fan….

Respectfully submitted.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, June 2020.

Book Review: Hello, Summer by Mary Kay Andrews—and a Giveaway! @mkayandrews @StMartinsPress

Hello, Summer
Mary Kay Andrews
St. Martin’s Press, May 2020
ISBN 978-1-250-25692-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It’s a new season…

Conley Hawkins left her family’s small town newspaper, The Silver Bay Beacon, in the rearview mirror years ago. Now a star reporter for a big-city paper, Conley is exactly where she wants to be and is about to take a fancy new position in Washington, D.C. Or so she thinks.

For small town scandals…

When the new job goes up in smoke, Conley finds herself right back where she started, working for her sister, who is trying to keep The Silver Bay Beacon afloat―and she doesn’t exactly have warm feelings for Conley. Soon she is given the unenviable task of overseeing the local gossip column, “Hello, Summer.”

And big-time secrets.

Then Conley witnesses an accident that ends in the death of a local congressman―a beloved war hero with a shady past. The more she digs into the story, the more dangerous it gets. As an old heartbreaker causes trouble and a new flame ignites, it soon looks like their sleepy beach town is the most scandalous hotspot of the summer.

Big city journalist stuck writing a gossip column on a small town newspaper—what could possibly go wrong? Conley’s grateful her sister, Grayson, made room for her on the family paper after her ignominious exit from Atlanta but getting used to being back in her coastal Florida hometown is hard enough without having to ferret out the local tattling and innuendos. Before long, though, life takes a different turn and Conley starts sniffing around a real story, a suspicious death of a politician.

That’s not all, though, as it seems Silver Bay is a hotbed of scandals and secrets involving a plethora of folks, including her own family, not to mention a potential reconnection with a crush from earlier times. Throw in G’mama, the quintessential grande dame of Southern small towns, and her opinionated housekeeper, Winnie, and you’ve got the makings of a great beach read—a bit too long for my taste but, all in all, a winner.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2020.

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To enter the drawing for a
hardcover copy of Hello, Summer,
leave a comment below. The
winning name will be drawn on
Thursday evening, September 3rd.
Open to the US and Canada.

Book Review: Turn to Stone by James W. Ziskin—and a Giveaway! @Jameswziskin @SeventhStBooks

Turn to Stone
An Ellie Stone Mystery Book 7
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books, January 2020
ISBN 978-1-63388-552-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Florence, Italy, August 1963. In Italy to accept a posthumous award for her late father’s academic work, “girl reporter” Ellie Stone is invited to spend a weekend outside Florence with some of the scholars attending the symposium. A suspected rubella outbreak leaves the ten friends quarantined in the bucolic setting with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Deciding to make the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales, gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine, and enjoy the delicious fruit of transient love. But the summer bacchanalia takes a menacing turn when the man who organized the symposium is fished out of the Arno. “Morto.” As long-buried secrets rise to the surface, Ellie must figure out if one or more of her newfound friends is capable of murder.

Ellie Stone is a young reporter for a small, local paper, not a common employment in the early 1960’s for a woman but certainly not unheard of in a time when the younger generation was beginning to flex its muscle and reaching for more societal freedoms. She’s been doing this job for several years now, long enough to have established herself as an investigative photojournalist with some credibility although some no doubt see her as just a nosy female.

Right now, though, Ellie isn’t in search of a newsworthy story back home in upstate New York. Her late father, a well-regarded academic, is being given a posthumous award in Florence, Italy, at a conference and she’s there to receive it. Despite her expectations, Ellie finds herself enjoying some of her father’s colleagues but she certainly wasn’t expecting to be quarantined with them during a possible rubella outbreak (this story takes place about 5 or 6 years before a vaccine was developed for this disease that is especially dangerous for pregnant women). Still, what could go wrong with spending a few days in the Italian countryside?

Well, it seems that plenty can go wrong and, soon enough, this handful of academics and Ellie, along with the villa’s owner and his wife, are experiencing their own sort of locked room mystery because the man who arranged the symposium and the retreat was found dead in the river before anything gets started. Was it murder, suicide or just an accident? The police are on it but, of course, the intrepid reporter can’t not do her own investigating. Before long, Ellie turns up connections to Fascist Italy and the deaths of thousands of Jews but she needs to winnow through the past to find the present-day truth. While that’s going on, the group whiles away the hours with their own version of the Decameron, a 14th-century collection of tales told by Florentines to pass the time during a plague.

Mr. Ziskin’s background in Italian studies shines through in what I can only call a love letter to a beautiful country and language; Italy as a setting is itself an important character in the tale both in its history and its culture. Along with that, the author offers an intriguing puzzle set in two periods of history and the result is, once again, a charming, intelligent crime novel.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2020.

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Google Play
Amazon // Indiebound

“TURN TO STONE is a thoughtful mystery that questions
whether forgiveness is always possible” — Foreword Reviews

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About the Author

James Ziskin is the author of Turn to Stone (Jan 21, 2020; Seventh Street Books), the latest in the Anthony® and Macavity Award-winning Ellie Stone Mysteries. His books have also been finalists for the Edgar®, Barry, and Lefty awards.

A linguist by training, Ziskin studied Romance languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. After completing his graduate degree, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as Director of NYU’s Casa Italiana. He spent fifteen years in the Hollywood postproduction industry, running large international operations in the subtitling/localization and visual effects fields.

His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French, and currently lives in Boston.

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

“Original and compelling—and a brilliant twist on the beloved locked
room mystery. The incredibly talented James Ziskin has combined the
lure of 1963 Florence, a love of Italian literature, and an homage to the
classics. But Ziskin doesn’t stop there—TURN TO STONE is a touching and
important exploration of history, with a series of life-changing consequences
that will keep you riveted to the page. James Ziskin is a knockout storyteller.”
—Hank Phillippi Ryan, Nationally best-selling author of The Murder List

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Giveaway

To enter the drawing for a print copy of Turn to Stone,
leave a comment below. The winning name will be drawn
on Friday evening, January 24th. Open to residents of the US.