Book Review: Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley

Down the River Unto the Sea
Walter Mosley
Mulholland Books, February 2018
ISBN: 978-0-316-50964-0
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Joe King Oliver was one of the NYPD’s finest investigators until, dispatched to arrest a well-heeled car thief, he was framed for assault by his enemies within the force, a charge that landed him at Rikers.  A decade later, King is a private detective, running his agency with the help of his teenage daughter.  Broken by the brutality he suffered and committed in equal measure behind bars, King leads a solitary life, his work and his daughter the only lights.   When King receives a letter from a woman who admits she was paid to frame him years ago, he decides to take his own case: finding out who on the force wanted him disposed of – – and why.  As King embarks on his quest for the justice he was denied, he agrees to help a radical black journalist accused of killing two on-duty officers who had been abusing their badges to traffic in drugs and prostitutes in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.  The two cases intertwine across the years, exposing a pattern of corruption and brutality wielded against the black men, women and children whose lives the law destroyed. To solve them, King must outrun dirty cops, outsmart craven lawyers, and above all protect his daughter from the underworld in which he works.  All the while, two lives hang in the balance: King’s client’s and his own.

 

Our protagonist’s memories of his early/earlier years are mostly painful:  “the apartment building where I lived with my mother, brother, and sister after our father was sentenced and before I was old enough to run away.”  More recently, the memories are of his days incarcerated in Rikers:  “I’d been at Rikers for only thirtynine hours and already four convicts had attacked me. There was a white adhesive bandage holding together the open flesh on my right cheek.” He thinks:  “Just a few days and I’d switched allegiances from cop to criminal.  I thought that was the worst thing . . . but I was wrong . . . It’s a terrible fall when you find yourself grateful to be put in segregation.”  When he is, unexpectedly, released after about 3 months, he is allowed to shower and shave and “I saw my face for the first time in months in the polished steel mirror next to the small shower where I cleaned up.  Shaving revealed the vicious gaping scar down the right of my face.  They didn’t always offer stitches at Rikers.”

That experience colors everything that follows in this fascinating and, at times, horrifying novel from Walter Mosley, whose writing is always riveting.  At this point in his life, the brightest and most beloved thing in Joe’s life is his 17-year-old daughter, Aja-Denise, who is equally devoted to him.  Her mother, now Joe’s ex-wife, has remarried, but Joe is closer to Aja than ever; she helps him run his detective agency, where he is determined to find out who framed him.  His daughter’s latest endeavor is to attend “a special school in this Bronx church where good science students teach at-risk kids how scientists do experiments.”  Obviously, Joe couldn’t be more proud of her.

The author’s descriptions of his supporting players are always wonderful and fully descriptive, including Joe’s elderly grandmother and her boyfriend of the day, a man worth eight hundred seventy-nine billion dollars, described as a gun enthusiast and a pacifist too.  His investigation brings him to a meeting with a man who “weighed well north of four hundred pounds.  He could have willed his face to be sewn into a basketball after he died; it was that large and round,” and describes himself as “a man who didn’t even trust his own clients, a man who had experienced betrayal on almost every level.”  When his “visage was still too cop-like,” he undertakes some small superficial changes till “the transformation was now complete.  Rather than a Cro-Magnon cop I was a Neanderthal nerd.”  I will leave it to the reader to discover all the other joys of Mr. Mosley’s writing for him/herself.  The book is everything one has learned to expect from this author, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2018.

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Book Reviews: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd and The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd

A Casualty of War
A Bess Crawford Mystery #9
Charles Todd
William Morrow, September 2017
ISBN: 978-0-0626-7878-2
Hardcover

In the waning days of WWI, Bess Crawford was stationed at a forward medical base close to the fighting when a Captain was brought in with a head wound.  It turned out that the bullet merely scraped his scalp and he returned to his men the next day, but he claimed he was shot by a British lieutenant resembling his great grandfather, perhaps his cousin, Lieutenant James Travis. A few days later, he was returned to the facility, shot in the back.  Again he told Bess the same man shot him.  Bess got to know the Captain and believed his story.

The Armistice soon took place, and Bess was asked to accompany a convoy of wounded back to England and was granted a week’s leave.  Instead of visiting home in Somerset, accompanied by Sgt. Major Brandon, she traveled to a hospital in Wiltshire where the Captain was being treated.   She was appalled to find him strapped to his bed under horrible conditions (the medical staff thought him mad because of his outbursts regarding his claim to have been shot by a relative, attributing his condition to his head wound).  Strengthening the diagnosis was the fact that James was killed a year before.  Bess insisted he be unshackled and permitted to enjoy fresh air.

She then traveled to Sussex, James’ home, to determine the accuracy of James’ death, discovering even more complications, including the fact that after a brief meeting in Paris earlier in the war, James named the Captain his heir.   Meanwhile, the Captain escapes from the Wiltshire hospital when taken for a walk.  And the story goes on as the complications of the plot unfolds.  The Bess Crawford mysteries, of which this is the ninth, artfully weave the agonies of war with the crimes Bess attempts to solve. With the end of the war on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, where will the series now go?  It deserves to continue in peace, as well!

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2018.

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The Gate Keeper
An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery #20
Charles Todd
William Morrow, February 2018
ISBN: 978-0-0626-7871-3
Hardcover

Charles Todd, the mother-son writing team, offers two different series:  The Gate Keeper is from the Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series (the other is the Bess Crawford novels).  Both series take place in a similar time frame, during or after World War I, and are based in England (or France, of course, in the trenches).  Rutledge served as a Captain and saw bloody action and was responsible for the execution of his Corporal, Hamish McCleod, who refused orders to lead his men into another futile charge over the top.  Hamish still haunts Rutledge, and his memory serves as sort of assistant to the Inspector by offering observations and warnings when warranted.

As a result of shell shock, Rutledge was, for a time, treated for his mental condition, but now serves as a Scotland Yard detective.  Since his release from the hospital, he has been living in the family home with his sister, who is married at the start of this novel.  Returning from the wedding, he is unable to sleep and decides to go for a drive, ending up far away from his London apartment, where he finds himself witness to a murder.  He insists on taking over the investigation and when another murder occurs, it becomes more important to uncover the reason for each.  Rutledge learns of a third murder far away that might be related to the two he is working on, but it is assigned to another Scotland Yard detective.

The plot is fairly simple, but the solution is a lot more complicated and unexpected.  Rutledge plods on until he finds a common thread to all three murders, then has to turn his attention to the question of who has actually performed the murders.  And this he does with smoothness in this, the 20th novel in the series.  On to the 21st.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2018.

Book Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey—and a Giveaway!

The Widows of Malabar Hill
A Mystery of 1920s Bombay #1
Sujata Massey
Soho Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-61695-778-0
Hardcover

Summary: Perveen Mistry, while assisting her father with an estate case, uncovers family secrets and deceit among the household of wives and children left behind after the patriarch’s death. Her English friend from school assists with her investigation.

The Widows of Malabar Hill begins what will hopefully be a long series with Perveen Mistry as the protagonist. Perveen is an Oxford educated lawyer working with her father in his law practice in the 1920s in Bombay, India. While at that time women could not be admitted to the bar and therefore could not represent clients in court, Perveen was able to perform much of the paper work of the law practice from writing wills to helping clients understand their legal positions. As the book opens, that is where readers find Perveen. Her father is the executor of a recently deceased mill owner who leaves behind three widows and a number of children. The person acting as their guardian has presented a document signed by the three widows stating they wish to forgo their rightful inheritance and turn their dowry gifts over to the trust which the guardian controls. There are two concerns with the document.  First there is some question regarding the signatures and secondly, the document also changes the focus of the trust’s mission, something that cannot so easily be done.

Because the women follow the custom of purdah (complete separation of the sexes), Perveen’s father would not be able to meet with the women, but Perveen can. Perveen goes to the widows’ home to speak with each of the women separately to have them each sign an individual agreement  but also to make sure the women understand exactly what they have agreed to give up and what the stated new mission of the trust is to be. While she is visiting with the second widow, the  guardian returns, overhears what she is saying and orders her to leave. Later she realizes she has left her briefcase and returns to retrieve it only to find the guardian has been murdered. What follows is an excellent murder mystery in which Perveen enlists her English friend from Oxford now living in Bombay to assist her.

There are so many things to love about this book beyond the murder mystery.

Besides the obvious crime to be solved, there is another entire story told throughout the book involving Perveen’s earlier marriage to a handsome businessman from Calcutta. Shifting back and forth from 1916 and 1917 to the story’s present day 1920s, we learn the details of how the couple met, married and why the marriage fell apart. Through this we also have a mini look into the marriage customs of India at that time, some extreme as well as some even then archaic practices.

The historical details the author has included really puts the reader in the 1920s in Bombay. The jumble of the various religious and cultural entities that somehow manage to co-exist is interesting and quite impressive.  Many cultural traditions are included and explained through actions giving readers a sense of being there rather than lectured to.

Included at the end of the book are some historical notes from the author. I would recommend reading those before reading the book. The notes really set the stage for the book.

This was the first book  I read in 2018 and a book I was sorry to see it end. What a great way to start the year.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, January 2018.

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To enter the drawing for a hardcover
copy of The Widows of Malabar Hill
by Sujata Massey, leave a comment
below. The winning name will be
drawn Thursday evening, June 21st.
This drawing is open to
residents of the US and Canada.

Book Review: No Saints in Kansas by Amy Brashear

No Saints in Kansas
Amy Brashear
Soho Teen, November 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-683-7
Hardcover

In your debut novel, do you dream of going up against somebody like Truman Capote and his seminal novel, In Cold Blood? I don’t think so. I also don’t think you take your story to a Young Adult level and tell the story through the eyes of a deeply distressed teen aged girl who is a relative newcomer to a small Kansas town named Holcomb.Well, author Amy Brashear has done exactly that in her stunning debut novel. Through the persistent and sometimes blurry eyes of Carly Fleming, a horrible multiple murder of a farmer family near the town upends many of the town’s long-time relationships. The principal player in the novel is Carly, relative newcomer to Holcomb, transferring with her criminal defense attorney father from the big city of Manhattan, NY.

Carly’s transition to small town life is not without trouble and as she proceeds into the mid-levels of high school, things become less placid. She has few friends, her brother has problems with his athletics, and Carly’s persistent nosiness is becoming a hindrance.

And then, the multiple murders happen. Carly’s inquisitive nature irks the local sheriff, leads her into multiple fraught situations, attracts and repels her classmates and drives her family nuts.

Carly is a very real rural teen who jumps off the page almost immediately. The author, probably drawing on her own teen experiences, has almost perfectly created a charming, irritating, typical teen-aged girl on the verge of womanhood who will persist in her attempts to solve the crime and live through her father’s experience as the hated defense attorney for a killer.

The atmosphere is true and relevant, Carly’s language and that of her friends and high school adversaries is real and the shifting reactions of the community as the search for a killer and the resulting trial is also real. This is a fine young adult novel that will appeal to a wider adult audience. It is true, there are no saints in Kansas.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2018.
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 Review: Treble at the Jam Fest by Leslie Budewitz

Treble at the Jam Fest
A Food Lovers’ Village Mystery #4
Leslie Budewitz
Midnight Ink, June 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5240-2
Trade Paperback

Jazz guitarist Gerry Martin, one of the headliners at the Jewel Bay, Montana, jazz festival, falls to his death from the rocks above the Jewel River. Local police call it an accident, that Martin slipped while out hiking, but Erin Murphy has her suspicions. Erin is manager of Murphy’s Mercantile, a general store in this food lovers’ town. There seems to be bad blood between Martin and Dave Barber, local musician who upstaged Martin in the concert on opening night. Newcomer Gabrielle Drake and her pushy stage mother also seem to have a problem with the headliner.

When Erin examines the crime scene, she notices a discarded coffee cup overlooked by the police, as well as the footprints left by the victim. Would Gerry Martin wear dress boots when setting out for a hike along rugged terrain? No, but he might if he was planning to meet someone.

Subplots and supporting characters surround Erin and her store—she hires a new salesperson, finally gets to meet her boyfriend’s best friend from childhood, and her mother has news of her own. Erin is more level -headed and believable than many of the protagonists in cozy mystery series, and Jewel Bay is a setting than carries the story along. Who wouldn’t like to visit a town with such a variety of restaurants, shops, and festivals, set in the natural beauty of Montana? Recipes are included, rhubarb fans will be especially pleased. This is the fourth book in the series, but it stands well on its own.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2018.

Teeny Book Reviews: Shattered Roads by Alice Henderson and Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

Shattered Roads
The Skyfire Saga #1
Alice Henderson
Rebel Base Books, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-63573-049-4
Trade Paperback

Shattered Roads starts out gloomy—in a subgenre that’s already exceedingly gloomy—with a protagonist who’s living a life of nothingness. Her soul purpose in life is to remove bodies when people die, much like the people in 17th-century London who trundled carts from door to door to pick up the dead. The truth is no one in this terribly damaged world has any joy, having no names, spending all their time in front of computers, interacting with no one while, outside the city walls, chaos reigns supreme.

One day, H124 finds something that piques her curiosity and leads her to unimagined discoveries about what really happened to bring such devastation to this land and to people who just might be able to make a difference. Now, H124 has a new purpose in life and, after a somewhat slow start, I found myself almost unable to turn away. Shattered Lands will be out in December and I’m already anticipating spending more time with this brave young woman.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2018.

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Good Me Bad Me
Ali Land
Flatiron Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-08764-5
Hardcover

We often wonder whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in the development of a person’s psyche, especially a violent criminal, and Good Me Bad Me addresses that very question. Milly is placed in foster care after turning in her mother who was a vicious serial killer of children and you would think that Milly, only fifteen, has at least a chance of a normal life now. The trial is coming up and that gives Milly enough stress but her new family is not as welcoming as one could hope and her foster sister, the real daughter in this family, really resents her presence. That animosity leads to bullying in school but, in reality, it’s Milly’s own mind that could be her worst enemy in any future she might have.

This is a truly unnerving story and could be almost too much if the mother were present but the author chose to keep her on the periphery. We never see her commit her heinous crimes but we know what she’s done and the feeling of evil is full-blown. Watching Milly learn to cope—or not—with her life before and after was intriguing in many ways and I heartily recommend this to any reader who is curious about what happens to the children of truly wicked people.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2018.

Book Review: In the Grip of It by Sheena Kamal

In the Grip of It
A Nora Watts Novella #1.5
Sheena Kamal
Witness Impulse, May 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-287932-5
Ebook

From the publisher—

On a surveillance assignment for a child custody case, PI-in-training Nora Watts finds herself ensconced in a small farming community on a beautiful hippie island in the Pacific Northwest, a place with a reputation for being welcoming to outsiders. But when she arrives there, she discovers her welcome quickly wears thin. Perhaps too quickly.

Salt Spring Island, with a history as a refuge for African Americans fleeing the bonds of slavery, is not a place of refuge for her—and, she suspects, may not be for the people who live there, either.

As she investigates, nothing about this remote community seems to add up. It gets personal as Nora confronts her own complicated feelings toward her estranged daughter and becomes increasingly concerned about the child she’s been tasked to surveil. She discovers that small, idyllic communities can hide very big secrets.

Abuse of all types is at the core of this story and people at the commune are not the only ones affected. Nora herself has dealt with her own kinds of abuse in the past and this missing child case also dredges up the disappearance of her own teenaged daughter as well as elements of her first book. As with many cult-ish communes, the power resides in the leader, Vikram Sharma, and Nora feels that power immediately upon meeting him. In fact, there is a distinct feeling of malevolence.

The denouement here is based on a very interesting time in the 60’s when the use of psychedelic drugs in treatment of mental illness was popular and Trevor’s father is proved to be right in his concern that his son is in a dangerous situation. Trevor is perhaps too smart for his own good, being a very observant little boy, but he’s worried that his mother doesn’t see what’s wrong. Before Nora can get to a clear understanding of Salt Spring Island, especially the Spring Love farm, its reputation as a place of refuge will be turned awry.

This is a pleasant read to while away an hour or so but I think perhaps it’s not the best introduction to the series. On the whole, there’s no real tension here and at no time did I really fear for anyone’s safety despite a few threats. However, In the Grip of It has encouraged me to find the first book in the series so I can get to know Nora better.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2018.

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

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An Excerpt from In the Grip of It

Last week a man came into our PI office, looked around the shabby interior, frowned, and said, “I must have gotten the address wrong.”

“Depends,” I replied. “What are you looking for?”

“An investigator.”

“Nope, you’re in the right place,” I said, looking at his nice suit, shiny shoes, and expensive watch.

“Are you sure? Maybe I should come back later.”

He was clearly trying to make a graceful exit. Before the man could leave, I got up from behind my desk and opened the door to Leo Krushnik’s office. “Leo, there’s someone here to see you.”

“Well,” said the man, who was hesitating behind me, “I’m not really sure that this is the right fit for me.” He was trying to be diplomatic about the condition of our office and what it might say about his own level of desperation that he was here, but we weren’t about to let a potential client go without a fight. His level of desperation was no match for ours.

Leo Krushnik, the head of our little operation, walked around his desk and beamed at the man. “We’re the right fit for anybody,” he said, grasping the man’s hand and giving it a firm shake. “We prefer to keep our overhead low so that we can offer competitive rates to people who need our services, regardless of their personal incomes. Please, have a seat.”

The man sat, a little overwhelmed by Leo’s charm, which is considerable. That day Leo was dressed in linen pants and a simple cotton shirt, as a nod to the heat wave the city was experiencing. He could pull off this look as easily as he pulled off the lie about our rates. We keep our overhead low because this dump on Hastings Street, in the derelict Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, is all we can afford, but clients didn’t need to know that. And even I could admit that the “competitive rates” line sounded good—even true—coming from Leo.

“How can I help you?” Leo asked.

“My name is Ken Barnes, and I’m concerned about my son, Trevor. My ex-wife Cheyenne moved to Salt Spring last year with Trevor and I think she’s gotten into some kind of trouble there. She won’t bring him back to Vancouver and visitation has been difficult.”

Leo frowned. “Because they’re on an island?” Salt Spring wouldn’t be easy to ferry to and from on a regular basis.

“Yes, but that’s not the only reason. She keeps putting off my visits and it’s been difficult to arrange for Trevor to come into Vancouver. I think . . . I think she’s in some kind of cult, to be honest. They call it a commune, but you know those stories about Bountiful?”

“Yes,” said Leo. Everyone knew the stories about Bountiful, British Columbia, where fundamentalist polygamous communities live and proliferate seemingly freely.

“Well, I think it’s something like that. Cheyenne wants to be in some kind of crazy sex cult, sure. She’s not my wife anymore and I really don’t care what she does. But I’m fighting for custody of Trevor. I want him out of there.”

“And you need some ammo.” Leo looks up from his pad, where he’s been taking notes. “You’ve come to the right place, Ken. We’ve done surveillance work for many child-custody cases.” Another lie, but Ken didn’t notice. We’d only done a handful of those, but “many” is relative. “You understand that this won’t be cheap? We’ll have to get out to the island and spend some time gathering information.”

“That’s fine. There’s nothing I won’t pay to get my son out of there. Cheyenne, she . . . well, she struggled with depression and anxiety for years and she let a lot of toxic people into her life who fed on her struggles. It was like a sick downward spiral. When she started doing yoga and got certified as a teacher, I thought she’d changed. But I’m not sure anymore. I know this sounds terrible—I know it does—but I don’t trust her judgment about the people she lets into her life. Especially men.”

“She married you,” Leo said.

“I know, but this is the thing: it’s not about me and her anymore. We’re done. This is about Trevor—and me doing my part as a father, making sure he’s safe. That he has a good life. I just want results.”

“We can’t guarantee results.” This is the first time I’d spoken since the initial exchange. Ken Barnes’s startled gaze meets mine. He’d clearly forgotten I was there, which was not unusual. “Maybe it is a sex cult, maybe it isn’t. All we can do is take a look and document what we find.”

“I know that nothing is certain, but I know my son deserves a healthy, normal life. Whatever they’re doing on that island is not normal. It just isn’t. It’s one step away from homeschooling, and who’s to say they’re not making him do hard labor?”

What is normal, anyway? I didn’t ask Barnes for clarification. I just kept silent as Leo agreed to take his money in exchange for the work. Before he let Barnes go, he pulled him aside. “Nora’s right, Ken, about any sort of guarantee. But what I can say is that if there’s something to find, chances are we will get a sense of it.”

In the next few days, I started the file on Cheyenne Barnes and looked through the information Ken had provided us. “Cheyenne scrubbed her social-media profiles last year,” he explained to me, over the phone. “I thought she was punishing me by erasing the memories and keeping me away from what’s happening with my son, but now that I think about it, there’s something fishy about this whole thing.” So he kept saying.

Cheyenne is smiling in all the photos, and in every single one there is something wistful about her, a faraway look in her eyes. Something that suggests a romantic nature. She’s an instructor for hot yoga, which I thought was stretching for attractive people but later discovered is actually sweaty stretching. Who knew. She’d gone to Salt Spring Island two years ago to work at a yoga retreat and, according to Ken, never came back. She met a man there, a fellow yoga enthusiast, and rebuffed all of Ken’s attempts at reconciliation.

There is very little to be found on Cheyenne Barnes’s new man. He has no social-media profiles of his own, but I did find a picture of him on the Spring Love website. Some people are so attractive it’s almost surreal, and Vikram Sharma is one of them.

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Excerpt from In the Grip Of It by Sheena Kamal. Copyright © 2018 by Sheena Kamal. Reproduced with permission from Witness Impulse. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

SHEENA KAMAL holds an HBA in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and was awarded a TD Canada Trust scholarship for community leadership and activism around the issue of homelessness. Her debut novel, The Lost Ones, was inspired by this and by Kamal’s most recent work as a researcher into crime and investigative journalism for the film and television industry.

Catch Up With Our Author On: sheenakamal.com, Goodreads, & Facebook!

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