Book Review: The Christie Curse by Victoria Abbott

The Christie Curse
A Book Collector Mystery #1
Victoria Abbott
Berkley Prime Crime, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-425-525528-5
Mass Market Paperback

The Christie Curse is the first book in Victoria Abbott’s Book Collector series. This book, first published in 2013, deserves a second look for folks who may have missed it when it first came out because it sets up and introduces the wonderful characters for the series which is still going strong four years later. The “author” is a mother-daughter team and unlike some collaborations, this team gets it right.

Jordan Bingham is back in her hometown of Harrison, New York without a job or a place  of her own to live. She’s broke, alone and really needs to reboot her life. Through a want ad, Jordan falls into what appears to be the perfect position-working for an interesting if odd boss and ends up living in quite an unusual household. Vera Van Alst, the last of her family, is seeking a research assistant to work for her researching works for her massive library. Desperate for a job and with no other prospects apparent, Jordan accepts the job, moves into the house and settles in as best as she can. The household is run with near military precision with rules that seem to pop up for everything from how to dress to when and how much Jordan should eat (Vera basically doesn’t eat whereas Jordan eats just about everything in sight especially since Signora Panetone’s meals are so delicious.)

It seems Vera is a bit of a mystery buff and has long sought rare books by Agatha Christie. The one she is after now is what Jordan is hired to research–a play supposedly written during Christie’s legendary disappearance. Of course if such a play exists, it’s a safe bet that Vera is not the only collector who is hot to own it. And so the mystery begins.

There are several excellent characters in the book besides Vera and Jordan.  Readers find out that Jordan was raised by her two uncles who sometimes might not quite be on the right side of the law. The cook Signora Panetone who mothers over Vera and now Jordan,  and the police officer who Jordan calls Officer Smartypants. Some of the minor characters such as the rival book collectors and book sellers are also well developed.

This book The Christie Curse is definitely worth reading to set up the series, which continues with The Wolfe Widow, The Sayers Swindle, The Marsh Madness and The Hammett Hex, with hopefully more to come.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, June 2017.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Will to Kill by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

The Will to Kill
A Mike Hammer Novel

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Titan Books, March 2017
ISBN: 978-1-7832-9142-7
Hardcover

Another uncompleted Mickey Spillane manuscript finished by Max Collins finds Mike Hammer walking along the Hudson River in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and discovering half a body, the upper torso, on an ice floe.  It turns out the half a corpse was the trusted butler of a wealthy inventor who was the captain of Pat Chambers, Mike’s homicide detective buddy, when he first joined the police force.  Pat suspects his friend’s death may have been a murder and “retains” Mike to investigate.

Mike travels to dead man’s Sullivan County estate where he meets the various members of the man’s dysfunctional family and employees.  The daughter also retains Mike, who suspects not only that the father was murdered, but that the butler was as well.  Each of the grown children, two older brothers, and their younger half siblings (the daughter and a brother) has a motive to murder the others.  Under the terms of their father’s will, the inheritances don’t kick in until age 40 and in the event of a death, that portion reverts to the corpus, fattening the eventual amount for the survivors.

The novel is slightly different from the accustomed Spillane genre: it is more akin to a traditional detective mystery, albeit with Mike Hammer wisecracks, a smattering of sex and firearms.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach.  But somehow it left this reader with a desire for something more.  In any event, it is a good read and can be recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2017.

Book Reviews: The Candidate by Lis Wiehl with Sebastian Stuart and The Cuban Connection by M.L. Malcolm

The Candidate
A Newsmakers Novel #2
Lis Wiehl with Sebastian Stuart
Thomas Nelson, October 2016
ISBN:978-0-7180-3768-0
Hardcover

This is a finely crafted, taut modern thriller. It takes readers inside the current explosion of news and comment electronic channel, of blogging, punditry, false panic, alternative facts and similar fact and fiction. The multiple levels of conspiracy are interesting and reflect the background of the author. In a general sense, the pace is relentless and largely compelling, if a little predictable at times.

Protagonist Erica Sparks, under almost constant pressure to improve her standing, in spite of the fact she’s at the top of the ratings list, seeks interviews with presidential candidates. The assignment takes her all over the country, where she encounters bombs, murder and suicide by gun, and a cabal of nasty characters aimed at the ultimate power grab. To explain more would reveal too much.

The author has devised a cast of intriguing characters, some beset with the kind of domestic problems many readers will recognize. The story is well-grounded in modern realities for the professional working mother. Still, therein lies the principal difficulty of the narrative. Every so often, Erica Sparks succumbs to the stupid bug. For a top reporter and anchor she misses several obvious clues that would have revealed the identity of her adversaries or at least warned her of impending danger.

Even with these lapses, the book, well-described, carefully plotted, should raise the alarms in any reader who is aware of today’s society’s conflicting pressures, and the inimical forces of evil arrayed against us, regardless of constant protestations to the contrary.

The novel is intense, relentless and compelling. In spite of our awareness of the very contemporary setting and potential realities, it is, in the end, a novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Cuban Connection
M.L. Malcolm
A Good Read Publishing, February 2015
ISBN: 978-0-9815726-3-5
Trade Paperback

An intriguing well-written examination of the realities that have existed in the mysterious island nation of Cuba since the revolution. The novel—and it is an exceptionally carefully researched novel—is set in the early years of the 1960s. The story is narrated by an intrepid reporter named Katherine O’Connor. She’s an experienced reporter working on general assignments for the Reuters news agency out of London.

Her first intimation of major change coming to her life is when she is recalled to the New York office of the agency. She’s still not a bylined reporter. That’s the next career step up and she’s getting desperate to make the grade. Unfortunately, her fortunes at Reuters seem to be on a downward track until she wangles a freelance assignment to Cuba.

Cuba is a dangerous place for honest reporters as the Castro regime tightens censorship and moves to total control of the country. With help from clandestine intelligence resources, O’Connor goes to Cuba and headlong into a series of adventures while falling for a man who may be a Soviet spy.

Anyone who wants a good spy story and to join some devilishly clever characters on a series of nicely conceived adventures strongly rooted in the realities of the time, will enjoy this novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes and Surrounded by Witnesses by Jeff Foster

hidden-bodiesHidden Bodies
Caroline Kepnes
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8562-2
Hardcover

Joe, narrator and protagonist of this turbulent novel is arrogant, smart, clever and well educated. He is also misogynistic, athletic, immoral, talented and a serial killer. As an adept seducer of women, he travels the nation, expounding on his distorted philosophy, scamming various people and murdering those who get in his way, often for the flimsiest of reasons. He is an extremely engaging modern character.

The story begins in a New York bookstore and ends in a California lockup. In between, Joe rambles both physically and intellectually about the human condition, about relationships and about what he should do next. And he pursues a distorted nihilistic philosophy of life that leads him into a morass of morally questionable actions that take place in often unusual and well-described locations. Yet he is a charmer and as pursued by his chronicler, author, Caroline Kepner, he is successful in persuading a great many people to buy at least some of his arguments and actions.

Of course, it is the skill and talent of the author that helps persuade us to continue to pay attention to this most reprehensible of characters and to give his oft-times hare-brained philosophizing serious consideration. A well-conceived, finely written effort that somehow seems peculiarly relevant in today’s world.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2016.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

surrounded-by-witnessesSurrounded By Witnesses
Jeff Foster
North Star Press, January 2007
ISBN: 978-0-87839-258-0
Trade Paperback

The novel has an interesting premise: a Muslim terrorist scout team is heading for the middle of the middle west in order to set up some kind of attack. They travel as a family and with typical short-view planning, come down from Canada into the Upper Midwest during the height of winter. This of course means blizzards, disruption of timing and attendant growing rage from the family’s controllers.

The novel centers on the family’s interaction with an intensely rural Minnesota family of taciturn Scandinavians. Swede and Heidi and their children are the epitome of type. Manifold difficulties rise to hamper the progress of the terrorist unit toward their intended target. The novel is replete with high tech maneuvering which at times gets in the way of human interaction and the pace of the novel.

I was bothered by the remote language of the narration, disconcerting shifts of points of view and a few clichéd characters. That said, the story line is interesting, but at 330 pages, this trade paper novel could have benefited from some judicious editing. At times the language including the dialogue is stilted and awkward. Those caveats aside, this is an enjoyable novel, worth a few hours of leisure.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 2016.
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: Blue Moon by Wendy Corsi Staub

Blue MoonBlue Moon
Mundy’s Landing Book 2
Wendy Corsi Staub
William Morrow, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-06234975-0
Mass Market Paperback

Mundy’s Landing is famous for the murders that occurred years ago.  Three girls were found dead in three different houses and the murderer was never found.  The houses came to be known as the Murder Houses.

Even though they had second thoughts about purchasing a “Murder House”  they went ahead and bought the house.   Annabelle Bingham and her husband Trib were thrilled with all the room the house provided for the couple and their son Oliver.  The couple felt they could put the bad memories of the house behind them.

That is hard to do in Mundy’s Landing particularly at the time of Mundy’s Landing Sestercentennial Vault to be opened in 2016.  People are gathering to see the town and stare at the Murder Houses which isn’t making Annabelle Bingham very comfortable but living where she does she is bound to have tourists coming around.

But girls are disappearing again in Mundy’s Landing.  No way could the killer of years ago return but it seems there is a pattern being followed and there will be murder before the festivities are over.

I am anxiously awaiting Book 3 Bone White.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, July 2016.

Book Reviews: The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens and License to Dill by Mary Ellen Hughes

The Guise of AnotherThe Guise of Another
Allen Eskens
Seventh Street Books, October 2015
ISBN: 978-1-63388-076-4
Trade Paperback

Following the success of his debut novel, The Life We Bury, author Allen Eskens has produced another winner. Intelligently constructed and almost perfectly written, this dark, dangerous and fast-paced noir thriller will be an example to study for budding writers in the genre.

The story begins with an auto accident in which a man abruptly dies on a highway in Minneapolis. Award-winning detective Alexander Rupert, facing a potentially troubling appointment with a grand jury, suddenly discovers a possible way out of his dilemma. If he can solve the mystery of the deceased James Putnam, who appeared to have fallen to earth fully formed a mere three years before, he might escape serious censure.

His case takes him to New York, and entanglement with a company engaged in government contracted black ops. He returns to Minneapolis, carrying the seeds of an insidious conspiracy. The plot is up-to-date, the action is relentless and the characters are consistent in their language and actions. While the outcomes, different for different characters, may become fairly obvious, the author is clever and fresh in his resolutions. This is an excellent novel and will be welcomed by readers of black arts, conspiracy theories, and multiple merciless murder.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2015.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

License to DillLicense to Dill
A Pickled & Preserved Mystery #2
Mary Ellen Hughes
Berkley Prime Crime, February 2015
ISBN 978-0-425-26246-7
Mass Market Paperback

Piper Lamb fled her job at a New York state tax office and opened a shop, “Piper’s Picklings,” in upstate Cloverdale. She sells pickles, spices, and canning equipment, has met Will Burchett—a tall, blond Christmas tree farmer—and life couldn’t be better.

The town is excited about the arrival of a semi-pro Italian soccer team, which will play a tournament against an all star team from Cloverdale. It turns out the coach of the Italian team was once an exchange student at the local high school, and all the high school girls had a crush on him. All the boys envied his position as a star on the soccer team.

All these years later, he’s still a flirt, and stirs up resentment among the women and their husbands. When the Italian’s body is found in a farmer’s dill field, everyone suspects a jealous man did the deed. Piper is shocked by the murder, and her shock grows when her ex-fiance, lawyer Scott Littleton, comes to town with a surprising announcement. For fans of foodie mysteries, like Laura Childs and Diane Mott Davidson. Of course, recipes are included.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, September 2015.

Book Reviews: As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman and Dance of the Bones by J. A. Jance

As Night FallsAs Night Falls
Jenny Milchman
Ballantine Books, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-553-39481-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Sandy Tremont has always tried to give her family everything. But, as the sky darkens over the Adirondacks and a heavy snowfall looms, an escaped murderer with the power to take it all away draws close.

In her isolated home in the shadowy woods, Sandy prepares dinner after a fight with her daughter, Ivy. Upstairs, the fifteen-year-old—smart, brave, and with every reason to be angry tonight—keeps her distance from her mother. Sandy’s husband, Ben, a wilderness guide, arrives late to find a home simmering with unease.

Nearby, two desperate men on the run make their way through the fading light, bloodstained and determined to leave no loose ends or witnesses. After almost twenty years as prison cellmates, they have become a deadly team: Harlan the muscle, Nick the mind and will. As they approach a secluded house and look through its windows to see a cozy domestic scene, Nick knows that here he will find what he’s looking for . . . before he disappears forever.

Opening the door to the Tremont home, Nick brings not only a legacy of terror but a secret that threatens to drag Sandy with him into the darkness.

As Night Falls is Jenny Milchman‘s third book set in the Adirondacks area and, with this book, she confirms that no one does a better job at making the weather a major character. The middle book doesn’t really have that focus but Cover of Snow and As Night Falls are simply brilliant in their evocation of bonecrushing cold, enhanced by depths of snow that I’ll never see here in Virginia. And the snow never seems to go away, making me feel as though I’m buried in a snowbank with no hope of escape. And, yet, I’m driven to keep reading because I know the author is going to make it worth my while.

In As Night Falls, Ms. Milchman introduces a new element that I find as compelling as the weather and that’s the house. I just cannot imagine a house that would unnerve me as much as this one does. The heavy silence from room to room, the knowledge that no one would hear if something went wrong with the building or one of the residents had an accident, such as falling down the stairs, or intruders forced their way in is mindboggling to me. I don’t get the allure at all and, if I were Sandy Tremont, I’d have to question my husband’s sanity in wanting to live in such a house, especially when it’s out in the boonies where you can’t even hope that a passerby might notice that something is wrong.

Ah, but this is the beauty of Ms. Milchman‘s work, the ability to make her readers so uncomfortable that they must go on to find out how—or if—her characters will find a way to survive. Where Sandy is concerned, the house and the weather make her circumstances even more frightening than they would have been anyway.

Sandy herself is an interesting woman even before we know the truth of her past. I did find her more than a bit ingenuous, thinking that she could escape it forever, but I understood her wanting to once I knew the facts. Still, although Sandy is the purported focus of the story, it’s Ivy that I really came to love. This girl is just like every other teenaged girl who loves her parents but is trying to find her own place in the world and is fighting to be seen as capable of making her own choices. Ivy resonated with me in many ways, not least of which is the connection she forms with one of the bad guys and her sense of betrayal when she learns her mother’s secret.

Then there are the bad guys. They’re both surprising in that Nick intends to be vindictive and vicious but seems to be a little reluctant while Harlan is sort of a very damaged child with remnants of his once-caring soul. He is a tragedy all by himself. When these two men invade the Tremont home, life will change forever for everyone involved and, between beginning and end, the suspense grabs the reader by the throat. Well done, Ms. Milchman!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dance of the BonesDance of the Bones
A J. P. Beaumont and Brandon Walker Novel
J. A. Jance
William Morrow, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-229766-2
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Years ago, Amos Warren, a prospector, was gunned down out in the desert and Sheriff Brandon Walker made the arrest in the case. Now, the retired Walker is called in when the alleged killer, John Lassiter, refuses to accept a plea deal that would release him from prison with time served. Lassiter wants Brandon and The Last Chance to find Amos’s “real” killer and clear his name.

Sixteen hundred miles to the north in Seattle, J.P. Beaumont is at loose ends after the Special Homicide Investigation Team, affectionately known as S.H.I.T., has been unexpectedly and completely disbanded. When Brandon discovers that there are links between Lassiter’s case and an unsolved case in Seattle, he comes to Beau for help.

Those two cases suddenly become hot when two young boys from the reservation, one of them with close ties to the Walker family, go missing. Can two seasoned cops, working together, decipher the missing pieces in time to keep them alive?

I’ve enjoyed J. A. Jance‘s books for a long time, especially the ones featuring J.P. Beaumont, but hadn’t tried her Brandon Walker series so I thought Dance of the Bones would be a great way to “meet” Walker while spending a little time with Beau.  As things turned out, I sort of bought into their collaboration but, on the whole, it didn’t work as well for me as it could have.

The core of the story is a good one, linking a murder from years past to an ongoing case and also linking two very different locales. The introduction of a group that investigates cold cases off the books is an extra added attraction but I think it also might be at the root of my general discontent because there are just too many people involved to keep track of. Throw in a missing persons case and there’s way too much going on, making things rather cumbersome.

I did like the time Beau is on the page but there’s not enough of him and he actually could have been left out without causing much harm to the tale. As for Brandon Walker, I like him and I like his involvement with The Last Chance so I do intend to go back to the beginning and read more about the Walker family. I should note also that I enjoy learning about Native American lore but a little goes a long way and there was just a bit too much of it in Dance of the Bones, to the point of being distracting.

When all is said and done, the mystery parts of the novel kept me interested but they were overshadowed by the weaknesses I’ve mentioned. I’ll say, however, that every author makes the occasional misstep and, for me, this one was it but I think many readers will be very pleased with this outing. As for me, I’ll look forward with great anticipation to Ms. Jance‘s next book, Clawback, which happens to be in the Ali Reynolds series and is due out in March 2016. While I wait for that one, though, I think I’ll check out No Honor Among Thieves, the novella that brings Ali and Joanna Brady together. Maybe this alliance will suit me better 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2015.