Book Reviews: The Blood Whisperer by Zoe Sharp and Drowning Barbie by Frederick Ramsay

The Blood WhispererThe Blood Whisperer
Zoe Sharp
Murderati Ink, August, 2013
ISBN:  978-1-909-34432-7
Trade Paperback

Kelly Jacks is the eponymous protagonist in what promises to be a new series by Zoe Sharp.  I wondered to myself, ‘blood whisperer’?  Is that anything like a ‘horse whisperer?’  Well, yes, it is, actually. Kelly is, as the author puts it, “someone who seemed to be able to coax evidence out of the most unpromising of scenes.”  Now 40 years old, the former CSI now works for McCarron Specialist Cleaning Services, the services in question being performed at crime scenes after they are released by the police.  She’s gone from being the first on the scene for nearly 10 years as a CSI, to being the last. The crime scene Kelly is working as the book opens is one where a woman’s body has been found in her bathtub, an apparent suicide.  But Kelly has her doubts.  And those doubts open up a world of threats, hurt and violence as others try to stop her from pursuing them.

After the wonderful Charlie Fox series, including ten novels, a short story collection and a novella, the author has managed to create another strong female lead with an intriguing background:  Kelly started her new job upon her release from five years of incarceration after having been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, still proclaiming her innocence.

Ms. Sharp has produced a complex plot which includes Russian gangsters and the top tiers of English horse-racing, with steadily increasing suspense and a sense of calamity to come as the book races to its conclusion, neither the protagonists nor the reader knowing how it will end, but bracing for the worst: they’ve already seen the brutality of which their foes are capable and suspect that something far wore is still to come.  There is an unexpected twist near the end, and another one I certainly never saw coming after that!

This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.  I particularly loved the author’s descriptions of, among other things, the English weather, e.g., “The rain had peered out into indifference leaving behind dirty grey clouds like a sulk.”  As with all Ms. Sharp’s earlier books, this one too is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2013.

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Drowning BarbieDrowning Barbie
An Ike Schwartz Mystery
Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2014
ISBN: 9781464202148
Hardcover

Ike Schwartz is an ex-CIA operative who has gone to ground and become a sheriff in a small community in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Picketsville is an unremarkable town except for its inhabitants, carefully and enjoyably described by the author. This being the tenth in the series, one might wonder how the town attracts so many really nasty people.

Sheriff Ike and his lady love, Ruth Harris, after, several episodes, have now decided, at long last, to marry. Town and Gown will thus be joined in what, for a lot of outsiders will be an uneasy alliance. Harris is the hustling president of the local college, determined to make it an outstanding liberal arts institution.

Ike became the sheriff with a short-term goal to rid the county of a completely corrupt administration and evil law enforcement agency. But he likes being sheriff and needs must intrude. Two dead bodies are discovered in a local park and the game is on. Are they related, in spite of the time lapse between their interment? Will the bailed-out ex deputy, now back in town locate and kill his primary target? Will the sheriff and his happy band of deputies stem a rising tide of drug infiltration?

The pace in this suspenseful mystery is relentless, particularly in the last half of the novel. The dialogue throughout is snappy, well-considered and appropriate. This is another well-written novel. It survives a few unfortunate political asides and roars to a fully enjoyable, appropriate finale. Strongly recommended, as are the previous nine adventures in this series.

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

Book Reviews: Confessions of a Catholic Cop by Thomas J. Fitzsimmons, Fade to Blue by Bill Moody, Fox Five by Zoe Sharp, On the Line by S. J. Rozan, and The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina

Confessions of a Catholic Cop
Thomas J. Fitzsimmons
Thomas J. Fitzsimmons Inc., October 2006
ISBN: 978-0-9789762-1-7
Trade Paperback

The authenticity of this first novel by Thomas Fitzsimmons fairly jumps off the page.  With good reason:  Following his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War, the author was an NYC cop for a decade in the notorious section of the South Bronx known as Fort Apache.  Not surprisingly, his protagonist, Michael Beckett, has a similar background, which also includes acting on tv, the fictional aspect having Beckett portray – what else? – a cop, on the show “Law & Order.”  Although there is the requisite disclaimer, there are immediately recognizable references to an incident infamous in New York City history, wherein an unarmed man named Amadou Diallo was gunned down by police in what was literally a hail of gunfire; a well-known local black leader known for inflammatory appearances at anything smacking of possible police prejudice or wrongdoing, here named “Dullard” instead of “Sharpton,” etc.

The action is disturbingly realistic, portraying the dope dealers, pimps, corruption, bad cops, and poverty rampant in such sections of almost any large city in the country, and the dedication of most members of the police force who try to make them safe and livable. When a hugely wealthy real estate mogul has plans for a large section of real estate, forcible evictions are only part of his modus operandi, and the fact that the mayor, the police commissioner and some of the cops are in his pocket makes matters that much easier for him.  But when a young girl and her infant daughter become victims of his ruthlessness, Beckett and his volatile partner, Vinnie D’Amato, are determined to obtain justice for them, with Beckett becoming obsessed to the point of putting both of their lives, and their careers, on the line.

As noted, this was the first of many books, fiction and otherwise, by this author, and that fact is reflected in the somewhat unpolished writing. But ultimately the gripping realism of the tale won out. The book was a fast, suspenseful read, and is recommended.

[It should perhaps be noted that the book was previously published by Forge Books as City of Fire in March, 2009.  The author has re-released the novel now under its original title.  It is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble only, in trade paperback as noted above and as an e-book, for $2.99]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2011.

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Fade to Blue
Bill Moody
Poisoned Pen Press, April 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59058-894-9
Hardcover

What a pleasure to immerse myself in my two favorite worlds:  jazz, and mystery writing!  Bill Moody has the perfect background for both, and extensive credentials in each.  In this latest work, Evan Horne, his jazz pianist protag, is hired by the agent for Ryan Stiles, a hot new movie star, one widely considered to be Hollywood royalty [“a new Robert Redford, exuding charm”], to teach Stiles how to look as though he is an accomplished jazz piano player in a new film.  [To further entice him, he is asked to score the film, and to stay at the actor’s Malibu beach house in the process – an enviable gig, to be sure.] This is not a new concept – examples given are “Bird” and Forest Whittaker, “Ray” and Jamie Foxx, Frank Sinatra with “Man with the Golden Arm” [a long time ago, that one, I realize].

Evan, who describes himself as a sometime detective [see prior entries in the series], is now living in Monte Rio, in northern California, but makes the not-hard-to-take transition to the Malibu scene.  Part of the equation, and the price, is putting up with paparazzi at every turn, with one particularly obnoxious photographer being excessively annoying and confrontational.  But when that photographer goes missing, the police, and Evan as well, suspect that Stiles may have played a role in his disappearance.  Ultimately there are two fatalities, which could easily have both been murders, or accidents. Evan is assisted by the two people closest to him, FBI Special Agent Andrea (“Andie”) Lawrence, and Lt. Dan Cooper (“Coop”) of the Santa Monica Police.  Stiles even agrees to hire Coop for the duration as head of security on the movie set.

In addition to the solid mystery, there are frequent musical and, in particular, jazz references, including one to Yoshi’s, a beloved S.F. mecca for jazz lovers/musicians alike [I’d forgotten that there were two establishments bearing that name, the second being in Oakland], and invaluable little-known and fascinating anecdotes referencing jazz legends such as [Thelonius] Monk and Bill Evans.  Things take a sudden and ominous turn when a case from Evan’s past comes back to haunt him, in unforeseeable ways.  The book is consistently enjoyable on many levels, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2011.

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Fox Five
Zoe Sharp
Murderati Ink, August 2011
Kindle e-book

The author, who has written, among other things, nine books in the acclaimed Charlie Fox series, has now published in e-book form what is termed an “e-thology,” a collection of five short stories, and an excellent addition it surely is.

The first, “A Bridge Too Far,” is, appropriately enough, the very first short story ever written featuring the ex-Special Forces soldier turned self-defense expert/bodyguard, Charlotte [“Charlie”] Fox, whose background further includes teaching self-defense classes for women before ultimately working in “close protection.”    The plot deals with members of a Dangerous Sports Club who engage in activities which justify its name.  The action takes place on a morning in May in Lancashire, in the UK, described, in the author’s typically wonderful prose, as an hour when “the last of the dawn mist clung to the dips and hollows [of the valley], and was quiet enough to hear the world turning.”  Lest this peaceful scene lull the reader, the tale concludes with a stunning ending.

The second story, “Postcards from Another Country,” was the second Charlie Fox short story, fittingly, and deals with Charlie’s employment by an old-money family, the titular country being “the world of the very wealthy.”  Close protection in that milieu is more of a challenge than usual, as Charlie finds when she is hired after a failed murder attempt on the male head of the family, whose members have come to believe that money is the answer to everything.

The next tale, “Served Cold,” was nominated for the CWA Short Story Dagger Award in 2009.  The only one in the collection where Charlie is not front and center, its protagonist is a waitress and stripper.  In “Off Duty,” the fourth Charlie Fox short story, the incidents there recounted were originally intended for inclusion in the US edition of Book #6, Second Shot, but ultimately not used as such, and is a sort of lead-in to Book #7, Third Strike.  “Truth and Lies,” the concluding piece, was written especially for this “e-thology.”  The reader is treated to author notes prefacing each short story, giving insights into its origins, as well as bonus material at the end, with biographical details on the author and her masterful creation, Charlie Fox, all of which just makes the reader look forward to the next novel in the series [working title Die Easy ] that much more.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2011.

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On the Line
S. J. Rozan
Minotaur, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-60924-5
Trade Paperback

What, exactly is “on the line” in this newest novel from S. J. Rozan is nothing more nor less than the life of Lydia Chin.  For the uninitiated, Lydia, a young ABC [American-Born Chinese, and described as ‘Chinatown’s only PI, with a non-Chinese partner her mom doesn’t like’], is the sometime partner of Bill Smith, a chain-smoking middle-aged white guy.  And no one writes protagonists of a different gender and ethnicity better than this master-craftsman [excuse me, make that ‘craftsperson’].

As the novel opens, early one morning late in the Fall in NYC Bill receives a call made from Lydia’s phone.  The caller, who doesn’t identify himself and whose voice is electronically altered, says that he has Lydia, and for Bill to get her back he will have to play a ‘game’ whose rules are laid out:  Bill will have to follow a series of clues that will be doled out to him in an unspecified manner, but he has only twelve hours to find her.  Of course, the game rules keep changing, and Bill has no idea who the kidnapper is.  He seeks help from Linus Wong, Lydia’s young cousin and a talented hacker, and Linus’ assistant, a teenage Goth girl named Trella.  The ‘game’ becomes much more complicated when Bill discovers the dead body of a young Chinese woman he thinks at first might be Lydia, but turns out to be that of a hooker.  Immediately after this discovery the cops turn up, and Bill soon finds himself hunted by the cops as well as by the girl’s pimp and his two very scary associates.  The game soon threatens the lives of several more young girls, with Lydia the prize for whoever wins.

The tension never lets up, with Bill desperately trying to obtain and then figure out the clues left for him in varying places all around the city, as well as identifying the man who hates him this much, because it is soon apparent that this is very, very personal.  The novel is exquisitely plotted, all leading up to a breathtaking denouement.   More than highly recommended, this one is a Must Read.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2011.

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The End of the Wasp Season
Denise Mina
Orion, May 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4091-0095-9
Hardcover
Available in the US from Reagan Arthur Books, September 2011

Each of the first three chapters of this newest novel by Denise Mina, author of the Garnethill trilogy among other wonderful books, introduces the reader to three women, each of them strong and independent, and each tested by events which follow.  The most dramatic, and tragic, is Sarah Erroll, 24 years old, who is sexually mutilated and brutally murdered in the first pages.  [The full extent of the savagery is not known till nearly half-way through the book, although it is strongly hinted at.]  In Glasgow, the Strathclyde police are called in, and the DS handling the brunt of the investigation is DS Alex Morrow, not quite five months pregnant with twins.  The third of these women is Kay Murray, a single mother of four who had worked for the dead woman and, coincidentally, had been a schoolmate of Alex many years ago.

But the central figure throughout the book is Lars Anderson, multimillionaire banker who believed that “you couldn’t trick an honest man.”  He appears to be a UK version of Bernard Madoff, having ruined many lives before taking his own in the early pages of the book.   There is plenty of family dysfunction and family tragedy to go around in this book, the Andersons only the worst of these.

Alex thinks, as the case begins, that “she hated sexual murders.  They all hated them, not just out of empathy with the victim but because sexual crimes were corrosive, they took them to hideous dark places in their own heads, made them suspicious and fearful, and not always of other people.”

The author kept this reader off balance, with having to figure out who some of the characters were and their relationship to other players, and to the plot itself.  The book has sudden shocking moments, only adding to that sense of being off-balance.  The author mentions Alex’ looking forward to a night going over her notes and trying to fit together the pieces of the puzzle that is her investigation, and “the promise of utter absorption” that it holds.  I could completely relate to that description, for that is precisely what this novel provides.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2011.