Book Reviews: Britain’s Forgotten Serial Killer by John Lucas and Phoenix Burning by Isabella Moldonado @johnlucas_news @penswordbooks @authorbella1 @midnightinkbook

Britain’s Forgotten Serial Killer
The Terror of the Axeman
John Lucas
Pen & Sword Books, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-52674-884-3
Trade Paperback

In 1975 a young, deeply troubled alcoholic boy, came before the court in London, charged with three brutal murders. Two were elderly women, one a neighborhood priest. The youth charged with their murders, Patrick MacKay, was twenty-two at the time and had a criminal career stretching back eleven years.

Journalist John Lucas has written a sober, detailed biography of this Nazi-obsessed youth, speculating over eight other similar murders of which Mackay might reasonably be accused, making him one of the most prolific and dangerous serial killers ever experienced in England.

At the time of his trial, Mackay was dubbed The Axeman, The Monster of Belgravia and the Devil’s Disciple. He never held a regular job for more than a few days, he was committed numerous times to psychiatric and other mental institutions for evaluation and treatment, but he was always released after short treatment or simply left the institution. Early on, a number of omissions, errors and missteps by various law enforcement agencies allowed Mackay to escape arrest and thus eight brutal murders attributed to him remain unresolved.

The book is evenly written with comprehensive research clearly presented. One of the most interesting aspects of the case of Patrick David MacKay is the number of citizens with whom he interacted and even occasionally lived with who, despite his erratic behavior, never saw clues to his murderous behavior. The book contains an extensive index, bibliography and several photographs of some of the principal characters.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 2020.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Phoenix Burning      
A Veranda Cruz Mystery #2
Isabella Maldonado
Midnight Ink Books, March 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5102-3
Trade Paperbacks

This is a novel of crime, of brutality, of family secrets, of conflicts and of resolution. It is also a novel rich in a variety of good and evil characters, of violence expertly described and of characters conflicted, misunderstood and striving for their goals, personal and social.

In Phoenix, Homicide detective Veranda Cruz with her partner riding shotgun races to connect with an important drug dealer. As she dodges mid-day traffic on a busy street she worries about the unusual timing of the contact and immediately discovers her instincts are still working well when her vehicle is intercepted and the drug dealer is killed. She and partner Sam Stark pursue the killer into a crowded mall.

Thus begins a fast-paced, terror-filled novel that carries the talented Cruz through incident after incident, some fraught and dangerous, others poignant and emotional, all thoughtful and often original in design and result. Phoenix is the site of most of the action with a few side trips to somewhere in Mexico and the summer season is recognized if not belabored. The novel is a judicious blend of modern electronic uses and mis-uses, and good-old-fashioned policing, mostly the action is physical, dangerous and logical. The pace can be best described as fast and furious, interspersed with more normal family-based rhythms and interactions.

Cruz’s target is a powerful Mexican drug cartel of epic proportions and ruthless actions. Her partners in a monumental effort to take down the cartel represent every available local and federal law enforcement agency, requiring negotiation skills beyond belief, almost.

In sum, the novel careens to an unusual if satisfying ending leaving multiple traces of future possibilities. For fans of violent crime novels, this is a definite winner.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Valley of Shadows by Steven Cooper—and a Giveaway! @TheStevenCooper @SeventhStBooks

Valley of Shadows
A Gus Parker and Alex Mills Novel #3
Steven Cooper
Seventh Street Books, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-64506-000-0
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A cop. A psychic. And a dead socialite. Who killed Viveca Canning and where is the Dali masterpiece that hung on the walls of her estate? So many people had a motive. Phoenix Detective Alex Mills is on the case with the help of his sometimes-psychic buddy Gus Parker. You won’t find another duo like them. And once you hop on the wild ride, you won’t want to get off. Who will survive a doomed flight over the Pacific? Who tried to blow up an art gallery? Who saw Viveca Canning as a threat and shot her twice in the head? Those questions hound Gus and Alex as the case unravels. It’s an art caper wrapped in a murder mystery. The Valley of the Sun becomes a Valley of Shadows, where everyone has something to hide and the truth lies beneath Phoenix in a labyrinth of tunnels and dungeons.

There’s a lot at stake for Gus and Alex. With the case swirling all around them, the future of Gus and his rock n’ roll girlfriend hangs in the balance. For Alex, it’s a test of family loyalties as a health scare for his wife brings him to the breaking point.

A really good crime novel is dependent on two major components, vivid characters and intriguing plot, and there’s no doubt that Steven Cooper‘s Valley of Shadows has both, in spades. I have to say, though, that Mr. Cooper also has given his readers a setting that has to be considered the third and, perhaps most unforgettable, element.

At first glance, Alex Mills is a typical police detective but his friendship with Gus takes things to another level. After all, most of law enforcement looks at psychics with jaundiced eyes, but these two men have moved well beyond any distrust and, in fact, value each other’s contributions to crime solving. In this story, we’re also treated to in-depth looks at their personal lives, adding much to our understanding of them.

As for this particular case, the various threads lead Alex and Gus in a myriad of directions, largely because they uncover so many potential motives for Viveca Canning’s murder. From a simple art heist to greedy children to a cult and everything in-between, all must be considered and proven invalid before they land on the truth. Along the way, the tension continues to rise and I had to keep turning those pages as fast as I could while also wanting to savor the author’s wonderful wordcraft.

I’ve spent just a few days in Arizona but I was struck by how much Mr. Cooper immersed me in the surroundings, the desert sun and sand, the beautiful scenery. Somehow, I feel that this is where Alex and Gus belong and I definitely want to visit with them again.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2019.

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Giveaway

To enter the drawing for a print copy
of Valley of Shadows by Steven Cooper,
leave a comment below. The winning
name will be drawn on Wednesday evening,
December 11th. Open to residents
of the US and Canada.

Book Review: Dig Your Grave by Steven Cooper

Dig Your Grave
A Gus Parker and Alex Mills Novel #2
Steven Cooper
Seventh Street Books, October 2018
ISBN 978-1-63388-480-9
Trade Paperback

This is the second mystery involving Phoenix police detective Alex Mills and his psychic friend, Gus Parker. The 25th anniversary of the disappearance of a university student while on spring break in Mexico is approaching. A young woman went to a party and never returned. But now men are dying, found in cemeteries in graves they have dug for themselves. Cryptic notes, which they wrote, are with their bodies. Moreover, these dead men aren’t just anybody. They’re all extremely wealthy men, prominent in the community. It’s Gus, with his paranormal abilities, who makes a connection between the men and the girl’s disappearance, but it’s Alex who breaks the case.

Meanwhile, Gus is happy with his girlfriend, famous musician Billie Welch. But someone keeps poking around her fabulous house, breaking through the security. Threats are made. But are they aimed at Billie or at Gus?

Material is often humorously posed in Cooper’s novels, but it’s all serious stuff. The story proceeds at a good pace, the characters for the most part are compelling, although some of the rich men’s wives seemed a little stereotyped to me. And the end comes to a satisfactory conclusion, as all books should do.  But even so, there’s something about this one that keeps me from totally believing the premise and freely suspending my disbelief. Bad people a little too wonky and over-the-top? Maybe not a lot of sympathy for college kids on benders? Someone waiting twenty-five years to make a move? I’m not sure. If any other reader out there can put her finger on it, let me know. That said, I truly did enjoy the book and can recommend it.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, April 2019.
https://carolcriggercom.sitelio.me/
Author of Five Days, Five Dead, Hereafter and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Desert Remains by Steven Cooper—and a Giveaway!

Desert Remains
A Gus Parker and Alex Mills Novel #1
Steven Cooper
Seventh Street Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-63388-353-6
Trade Paperback

There’s a serial killer on the loose around Phoenix. All the victims are young women. All are tortured before death. All, inexplicably, have paintings on the rocks around where the bodies are dumped (usually in caves) depicting the manner of death. The murder sites provide no clues, otherwise. The killer is evidently up to snuff regarding crime scene detection. Detective Alex Mills is under the gun to solve these crimes quickly, but he’s also under pressure by another detective, former FBI agent Timothy Chase, who’d just love to have Mills’ job.

This is when Mills asks “intuitive medium,” that’s a psychic to most of us, Gus Parker to lend a hand. Parker’s messages from beyond the pale have helped Mills solve crimes before, but this time, even the psychic is hard-pressed to read the messages left behind.

I don’t usually read serial killer books. I guess I prefer my murders to be one-on-one for a reason other than pure evil. And I don’t usually like books written in present tense. Those things said, now forget about them. The book is tense and exciting, a real page turner. The characterization is excellent for all the main characters and most of the more minor ones. Gus, with his dog Ivy, hit a real chord with me. Situations that could’ve made this character run-of-the-mill are absent, a wonderful surprise. The dialogue is clean and carries the story forward. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Desert Remains to any mystery reader, and most especially if you like a little woo-woo in your stories. And I do.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, September 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

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To enter the drawing for a print copy
of Desert Remains by Steven Cooper,
leave
a comment below. One winning
name will
be drawn Tuesday evening,
October 17th. This drawing is o
pen
to residents of the US and Canada.

Book Reviews: Start Shooting by Charlie Newton, Driven by James Sallis, Dead and Buried by Stephen Booth, and Die a Stranger by Steve Hamilton

Start ShootingStart Shooting
Charlie Newton
Doubleday, January 2012
ISBN: 978-0-385-53469-7
Hardcover

The one-page prologue of sorts, headed “Chicago,” opens with the words, “The girl was thirteen and Irish, and fashioned out of sunlight so bright she made you believe in angels,” and ends with these: “Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible.  But I hadn’t.  I wasn’t marginally prepared for how bad six days could get.  And neither was anyone else.”  And then the author details those six days, the p.o.v. alternating between that of Arleen Brennan and Bobby Vargas, the cop. The writer’s style is such that there was a smile on my face at page 1 [following the single page containing that prologue], which describes the Four Corners neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, and its multi-cultural inhabitants.

The tale begins in the winter of 1982, filling in a lot of the history of Chicago over the last 50+ years, even for those who think they remember all the stories of corruption and race riots.  Chicago is hopeful of hosting the 2016 Olympics and the “salvation” it would surely mean for the city, with the ensuing influx of revenue for a cash-strapped town.  All very entertaining, with just an undercurrent of danger – – until the shooting starts, that is.  At that point, things take a different turn, becoming dark and edgy, with a fair amount of violence.  The craziness gets a bit hard to follow at times, but that didn’t slow the turning of pages at all.

At its heart this is a novel about two pairs of siblings, Arleen and Coleen Brennan, beautiful blond twin sisters, the latter not surviving past the age of 13, when she was raped to death, Arleen escaping the city and not seen again for 29 years, when she appears in the book’s opening pages. Bobby and Reuben Vargas are brothers, Bobby 42 as the story starts, Reuben, a cop and “a street legend in Chicago,” the older brother who was Bobby’s hero for half his life, their parents born in Mexico but the boys having grown up in Four Corners. Ambition is just one thing Arleen and Bobby have in common, for a future, and fame, as an actress and a guitar-playing musician, respectively.  But Arleen is waiting tables, and Bobby is a cop who plays “in the band, weekends around town;” one other thing they have in common is a deep love for their siblings.

Start Shooting is one of the most original novels I’ve read in a while, and though I can’t say I held my breath as it headed towards its denouement, I was white-knuckled from gripping the book so tightly in my hands.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2012.

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DrivenDriven
James Sallis
Poisoned Pen Press, April 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0010-6
Hardcover

He is called, simply, Driver, because that’s what he is, that’s what he does and, he feels, that’s what he will always do.  Once one of the best stunt drivers in film, his life has taken different turns, most of them illegal.  But he gave up that life over six years ago, became a successful businessman named Paul West, a man with a ‘normal’ life and a fiancée he dearly loved.  Until one day when his old life catches up to him, and he has to kill the two men who have suddenly appeared and attacked him, but not before his fiancée has been killed. So back he must go, to his old life in Phoenix.  But soon two other men find and attempt to kill him, and he has no choice but to kill again.

As his friend Manny succinctly puts it, “you have to decide what you want, else you just keep spinning around, circling the drain.  You want to get away from the guys?  Or you want to put them down?  Well, there it is, then.  We ponder and weigh and debate.  While in silence, somewhere back in the darkness behind words, our decisions are made.” Now 32 years old, he goes where life, and his attempts to track down whoever is behind the continuing attempts on his life, take him, theorizing that “you moved faster with the current than against.”

The author’s descriptions, in his typical [and typically wonderful] spare prose, conjure up immediate mental images:  Of a tattooist, he says, “His Rasta hair looked like something pulled down from attic storage, first thing you’d want to do is thwack out the dusts.”  Of a young crowd in a mall food court “wagging their iPods and cellphones behind them, fatally connected.”  The book is filled with the author’s – – and his protagonist’s – – philosophizing:  “We all struggle to leave markers behind, signs that we were here, that we passed through . . . urban equivalents of cave paintings.”

The sequel to the excellent Drive, published in 2005, I devoured the book in a single day.  This was a short but memorable visit into the world created by Mr. Sallis, and it is highly recommended.  [The book is also available in a trade paperback edition, ISBN #978-1-4642-0011-3.]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2012.

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Dead and BuriedDead and Buried
Stephen Booth
Sphere, June 2012
ISBN: 978-1-84744-481-3
Hardcover

[This book is at present only available in/through the UK/Canada; it will be published in the US in April, 2013 by Little, Brown]

As this book opens, firefighters in the Peak District of England are fighting what seems to be a losing battle, trying to contain the flames engulfing this part of Derbyshire, with smoke covering acres and acres of the moors from the catastrophic wildfires that have been springing up, the worst seen in the area in decades, many undoubtedly the result of arson.  But to D.S. Ben Cooper, his more immediate problem are the buried items found by the crew working one of the sites, and which appear to be clothing and other items – including a wallet and credit cards – which had belonged to a young couple who had seemingly disappeared over two years ago, in the middle of a snowstorm.  They had last been seen in a local pub, with no trace found since, and the case, while no longer active, is as cold as it could be.

The Major Crime Unit is called in, and DS Diane Fry, Ben’s old nemesis, is put in charge.  [Diane had been his immediate supervisor before his promotion to detective sergeant.]  Diane, for her part, couldn’t be happier that she had, as she thought, put Derbyshire behind her, her career taking her on an upward path – – she has been with the East Midlands Special Operations Unit for six months, and is less than thrilled to be back again.  In a bit of one-upsmanship, she soon discovers a dead body in the old abandoned pub – – Ben’s office had received a call about a break-in there, but had yet to investigate.

With Ben’s upcoming marriage to Liz Petty, a civilian crime scene examiner, coming up in a few months, the distraction of the wedding plans in which his fiancée is immersed causes him not a little irritation.  Ben and the rest of his CID team at Derbyshire Constabulary E Division have their hands full, with the two investigations proceeding simultaneously, although Diane makes clear that the old case is her jurisdiction.  Behind everything, the raging fires continue, a constant backdrop underlying everything which follows.  The author’s meticulous descriptions of the landscape make for a visceral sense of place.

Mr. Booth has once again created a suspenseful scenario, with many a twist and turn.  This elegantly written novel is the 12th entry in the Cooper and Fry series, and at the end this reader reluctantly closed the book, fervently hoping it won’t be the last.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2012.

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Die a StrangerDie a Stranger
Steve Hamilton
Minotaur Books, July 2012
ISBN: 978-0-312-64021-7
Hardcover

The newest novel in the wonderful Alex McKnight series by Steve Hamilton starts out, as do most of them, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The residents of the area, referred to as the “land of the Yoopers,” consist heavily of Native Americans, most of them living in the reservations in that part of the country.  As the book opens, Vinnie Red Sky LeBlanc, an Ojibwa Indian who is probably Alex’ best friend, is mourning the death of his mother, a legend on the “rez.”  Alex, a former cop from Detroit, has been living for years in the town of Paradise, where his father had built several cabins for rental to hunters and winter recreationers, lives in one of those cabins, just down the road from Vinnie, who had moved off the rez years before.  Much is made of the clannish nature of the folks on the rez, and how difficult it is for ‘outsiders’ to be trusted.  Vinnie has never been allowed to forget that he is now an outsider, just as he has never forgotten that his father had left thirty years before, the same father apparently still in prison for a vehicular manslaughter/drunk driving incident many years ago, the reason Vinnie himself never drinks.

At the same time, at a little airport three hundred miles away, an event occurs that will effect their lives and those of several others when a small plane holding large quantities of high-grade marijuana lands, precipitating a hijacking which ends with several dead bodies left on the field, only one man making it out alive.  Both Alex and Vinnie become deeply involved in the aftermath:  Vinnie disappears, and Alex is determined to find him and to discover how he what part, if any, he played in this.

The Upper Peninsula is again brought vividly to life by this author who, along with fellow Yooper William Kent Krueger, seems to completely “own” this part of the United States, just below the Canadian border, in their fictional endeavors.  Mr. Hamilton’s description, in part:  “It may be July, and it may feel like summer just got here, but the end is already on its way.  The cold, the snow, the ice, the natural basic state of this place, it is right around the corner. . . It was another goddamned beautiful useless day in Paradise.”  The book veers south to perhaps a lesser-known part of the State apparently called Michigan’s Gold Coast, with towns such as Petoskey and Charlevoix where one soon feels “like you’re in the middle of Times Square,” also beautifully evoked.

This is another terrific entry in the series, beautifully written, as usual, with a somewhat intricate, suspenseful plot and wonderfully drawn characters, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2012.