Book Review: Celine by Peter Heller

Celine
Peter Heller
Alfred A. Knopf, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-451-49389-7
Hardcover

Celine is one of the most fascinating and hard to describe books I have read recently. In many ways, it is really two books in one. In the prologue, readers watch a happy family outing turn tragic and meet the little girl who will eventually be Celine’s client. If you are a reader who generally skips prologues, DON’T skip this one. It is important.

Moving on to the first chapter readers are introduced to Celine, one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve met. In her sixties, she works as a PI specializing in reuniting families but is also an artist using mostly found items that can be best described as macabre. For instance, in the opening scene she is creating a sculpture of  the skeleton of a mink looking down on it’s own skin drying on a rock with a crow’s skull nearby. Celine suffers from emphysema from her many years of smoking. There is a sadness about her that readers should realize right away explains much of what she does. She has suffered many losses in her life from her father’s absence from his family to the death of her sisters. But even as her story unfolds, we sense that Celine has lost even more.

Fast forward to the call from a much younger woman who has read about Celine’s work in a college alumni magazine. The woman, Gabriela, has also suffered losses in her life. The first painful loss was her small cat who disappeared when she was seven. But that loss is quickly overshadowed by a much bigger loss, that of her mother. As terrible as that was it was at least clear cut. Her mother drowned. Sadly that brought about the loss of her father at least emotionally. But it was  the actual death of her father many years later that  haunted her and brought her to Celine. Her father, a world renowned photographer, supposedly was killed, and possibly eaten, by a bear just outside of Yellowstone. No body was ever recovered. Gabriela has long questioned the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Too many things in the investigation just didn’t quite add up. Celine takes the case and proceeds to Wyoming to investigate.

From that point on, the book shifts from Celine’s investigation and flashbacks to her own story.  In the end, readers find out what became of Gabriela’s father, but sadly, the mystery of Celine’s deep sadness is not fully revealed. I am hoping that there will be another case for Celine. Readers (and Celine) want closure.

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

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Book Review: When Krishna Calls by Susan Oleksiw and Forensics by Val McDermid

when-krishna-callsWhen Krishna Calls
An Anita Ray Mystery #4
Susan Oleksiw
Five Star, August 2016
ISBN 978-1-4328-3225-4
Hardcover

Indian American photographer Anita Ray lives at her Auntie Meena’s tourist hotel in South India. She is preparing for a one woman show at a prestigious gallery and her aunt is pleased that she is not involved in solving other people’s problems, for a change. When a young woman abandons her daughter inside the Hotel Delite and then flees, Anita recognizes the child as the daughter of an employee, Nisha. Soon the police come searching for Nisha, whom they want as the suspect in the stabbing death of her husband, Panju. Panju was angry about the local farmers losing their land to people who want to exploit the land, and he made enemies. Anita discovers that Panju owed debts to the unscrupulous moneylender from the family’s village.

When Anita goes to take some more photographs for her show, she sets up her camera for a shot and discovers a piece of paper wrapped around the batteries and someone else’s memory card inside. She doesn’t recognize the photos on the card, but someone is sending her a plea for help. Anita is drawn into the search for Nisha and wants to exonerate the hotel’s employee, while navigating the world of moneylenders and debts of honor.

The author does a wonderful job of capturing the rhythm of the speech and weaves references to food, clothing and customs throughout the story. The juxtaposition of the traditional India and the influence of new technology (cell phones are essential to the plot) make for a delightful journey. Readers who enjoy the mysteries of Tarquin Hall and Michael Stanley may like the Anita Ray series.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, November 2016.

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forensicsForensics
What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime
Val McDermid
Grove Press, April 2016
ISBN 978-0-8021-2515-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  The dead talk – – to the right listener.  They can tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died, and, of course, who killed them.  Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help serve justice using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene, or the faintest of human traces.  Forensics goes behind the scenes with some of these top-level professionals and their groundbreaking research, drawing on Val McDermid’s own original interviews and firsthand experience on scene with top forensic scientists.

Along the way, McDermid discovers how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine one’s time of death; how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a grain of salt can be used to convict a killer, and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist were able to uncover the victims of a genocide.  It’s a journey from war zones to fire scenes and autopsy suits and brings McDermid into contact with both extraordinary bravery and wickedness, as she traces the history of forensics from its earlier beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.

Ms. McDermid starts the book with facts dating from eighteenth-century scientific discoveries, when the term “forensic, meaning a form of legal evidence – science, was born,” to the present time.  The first case, in the opening chapter, describes dates back to 2005, going on to the opening of the first crime investigation lab in 1910 in France, the founder of which wrote a landmark 7-volume textbook on which he called “criminalistics,” and coined the phrase “every contact leaves a trace.”  The second chapter, “Fire Scene Investigation,” goes back to September of 1666, then to a case in County Durham in 1844, one in Derbyshire in 1981, and on from there, covering each milestone reached.  The ensuing chapters discuss at length other aspects of forensics, i.e., entomology, pathology, toxicology, fingerprinting, blood spatter and DNA, anthropology, facial reconstruction, digital forensics, forensic psychology, as well as the all-important courtrooms where all the evidence is presented, to the ends that justice is, irrevocably, done.

Not a dry recitation by any means, the author has made it very real and intense by recounting the names of victims and the circumstances of many of the cases cited.  The book makes for fascinating reading, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2016.

Book Review: Proof Positive by Archer Mayor

Proof PositiveProof Positive
A Joe Gunther Novel #25
Archer Mayor
Minotaur Books, September 2014
ISBN:  978-1-250-07473-7
Hardcover

A typical Joe Gunther novel has him and his team slogging along attempting to put a picture together to solve whatever crime they’re investigating.  In this novel, the Vermont Bureau of Investigation team Joe heads is involved in looking deeply into the death of a semi-recluse, Ben Kendall, who served as a photographer in Vietnam.  Joe is asked to look into the death, which does not appear to be suspicious, by his girlfriend, Beverly Hillstrom, the state’s medical examiner, who is a cousin to the dead man, who was a hoarder very much like the storied Collyer brothers who gained fame many decades earlier in New York City.

Almost as soon as Joe starts looking into the situation, Ben’s ex-wife is murdered in Philadelphia, where Ben originally came from.  From that point, a full investigation proceeds, complicated by additional deaths and kidnappings and the fact that Beverly’s daughter is cataloguing and photographing Ben’s photos and junk and might be the next victim.  The problem is that no one knows what Ben may have brought back from Vietnam or what the instigator of all the crimes is looking for.

Like the previous novels in the series, the police procedural descriptions are straightforward and logical, and the characters play their accustomed roles, especially Joe’s colleague, Willy.  One quibble:  The conclusion strikes a manufactured false note affecting the usual high quality of a novel in this series.  ‘Tis a pity, because the Joe Gunther novels are as good a series as there is today.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2015.

Book Review: Catwalk by Sheila Webster Boneham

CatwalkCatwalk
An Animals in Focus Mystery #3
Sheila Webster Boneham
Midnight Ink, October 2014
ISBN 978-0-7387-3488-0
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Animal photographer Janet MacPhail is training for her cat Leo’s first feline agility trial when she gets a frantic call about a “kidnapping.” When Janet and her Australian Shepherd Jay set out to track down the missing party, they quickly find themselves drawn into the volatile politics of feral cat colonies and endangered wetlands.

Janet is crazy busy trying to keep up with her mom’s nursing-home romance, her own relationship with Tom, and upcoming agility trials with Jay and Leo. But the discovery of a body on the canine competition course stops the participants dead in their tracks—and sets Janet on the trail of a killer.

It’s unfortunate but some people are not animal lovers. I say “unfortunate” because I think those folks miss out on an awful lot, not least of which is the love between human and pet. It’s been shown that even the most cold-blooded critters know their people and appreciate them to a degree that goes beyond just the recognition of a food source. Cats and dogs, though, have a really special rapport with us so I regret that some people don’t have this kind of bond in their lives.

Then there are the ones who truly have no empathy with animals and don’t value their lives at all. Such is a man named Charles Rasmussen, the sort of man who would drown kittens given the chance and who has no regard for the creatures of the wetlands he wants to develop nor for the feral cats living in the area. As you might expect of such a man, he’s also abusive to his wife, Louise, and to anyone who doesn’t go along with his program. When another mean-spirited bully feels the need to break up an elderly couple’s relationship, Janet MacPhail wonders why “belligerent rich guys” seem to be bent on interfering in other people’s lives. Alarm bells start to clang when she finds out who that particular bully is.

Lots of people have motives to leave the dead body on the agility course, from a surly teen named Rudy to Alberta, a sort of crazy cat lady, to Hutchinson, a cop who was heard to make a threatening comment but no one is prepared when the real killer is revealed. Suffice it to say karma is a bitch for real.

 

{{{SPOILER FOLLOWS}}}

{{{SPOILER FOLLOWS}}}

There’s one scene which strained credulity more than a bit.  Janet decides she MUST go see the body even though she’s shaken to the core and then MUST make sure the victim really is dead because, after all, she recently had first-aid training. This made no sense as there was absolutely no need for her to do this when other people had already done so. Besides, she’s contaminating the crime scene so why on earth would she feel compelled to behave as if she’s the primary investigator or first responder? This is all even more baffling considering the fact that the person who found the body is a firefighter and member of a search and rescue team so he’s certainly qualified to recognize death when he sees it.

{{{END SPOILER}}}

{{{END SPOILER}}}

 

The above-mentioned scene is the only one I found the least bit jarring and I really did thoroughly enjoy this third adventure with Janet and her friends, both two-footed and four-footed.  One really funny occurrence involves dogs, a cat and a porta-potty but I’ll say no more about that 😉

And there’s this:

Hutchinson scratched Jay’s chin and said, “Gooboy, gooboy.” What is it about animals that turns big tough men into baby-talking mushballs?

Isn’t that just so true?

The characters in Catwalk are all so well-drawn that I feel as though I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with them and would thoroughly enjoy their company (except for a handful of unpleasant types). The animals in the story—especially Leo and Jay—are delightful and essential (and I could gladly snatch either or both of them) but readers who shy away from cutesy cat or dog mysteries shouldn’t be concerned. These pets are entirely normal and do no sleuthing or talking to humans or to each other 😉

Once again, Ms. Boneham has come up with an engaging story with a good mystery to be solved and appealing characters to spend time with. I can’t think of a better way to while away a few hours.

 

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2014.

Book Reviews: Dread on Arrival by Claudia Bishop, Exercise is Murder by Janis Patterson, and A Rendezvous To Die For by Betty McMahon

Dread on ArrivalDread on Arrival  
A Hemlock Falls Mystery (#17)
Claudia Bishop
Berkley Prime Crime, April 2012
ISBN 978-0-425-24707-5
Mass Market Paperback

Dread on Arrival, the latest entry in the Hemlock Falls mysteries, is a spoof on TV reality shows featuring antique pickers,  pawnshop owners, and the wildly popular Antique Roadshow. Except I doubt there has been murder done on the sets of these shows. That’s not the case here, and certainly Edmund Tree, star of “Your Ancestor’s Attic”, seems a rather likely victim. Neither he, his fiancee, nor the people who work for him are especially charming folk, all of which provides plenty of suspects when Mr. Tree is murdered whilst the cameras are rolling. And really, amateur sleuth Sarah Quilliam isn’t certain she’d care, except that her town, her sister, her friends, and her hotel are embroiled in the mystery. And any thing that hurts them, hurts her.

Claudia Bishop has created a fun town full of quirky characters, all of whom are people you’d like to know–and you might even find counterparts in your own home town. Everyone wants to get in on solving this newest case of Murder in Hemlock Falls, but only Sarah has the correct expertise. The author includes several yummy sounding recipes, drawn from the meals served in the fictional Inn at Hemlock Falls, NY, as well as a Cast of Characters to help identify the many folk in the book.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2012.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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Exercise is MurderExercise is Murder
Janis Patterson
Five Star, December 2012
ISBN 978-1-4328-2636-9
Hardcover

Ex-cop Rebecca Cloudwebb, now an antique dealer after an on-the-job shooting has invalided her out of the force, is drawn into a particularly nasty murder when social-climber Laura Tyler drinks a glass of poison on her first visit to a tony exercise club. Rebecca, on the scene to deliver some expensive earrings to a wealthy client, watches in horror as the woman dies. Suspects abound. The problem is that the rich ladies in the class consider themselves above the law, and there seems to be no motive–until it occurs to Flora Melkiot, Rebecca’s client, that perhaps Laura wasn’t the intended victim. Coercing Rebecca into working with her, the two set out to find the murderer, much to the cops’ chagrin.

Wow! What a bunch of dysfunctional women, with not a pleasant one between them. At times I had a difficult time remembering who was married to whom and who was sleeping with whom. Mostly, I didn’t care. I just hoped Rebecca and Flora were able to find the killer before more people died. There’s a lot to this book; politics, grudges, blackmail, affairs, sordid secrets. Working through the mystery revives Rebecca Cloudwebb’s determination to rise above her own depression and despair—a good thing since it seems certain she has more adventures in store.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2012.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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A Rendezvous To Die ForA Rendezvous to Die For
A Cassandra Cassidy Mystery
Betty McMahon
Lulu, 2011
ISBN 978-1-257-93132-3
Trade Paperback

Minnesota “nice” turns lethal in this story, pitting freelance photographer Cassandra Cassidy against a murderer who begins his career at a re-enactors fur trader rendezvous.

Ms. McMahon touches a lot of bases with this mystery. Wrapped around the actual murders is information on photography, cow cutting (if you don’t know what this is, you’re about to find out) and re-enactors totally dedicated to their chosen era’s realism. I think you’ll find plenty of research has gone into these details, adding verisimilitude to the whole. Although Cassandra Cassidy wobbles on the TSTL edge, her motivation in solving the whodunit when the cops can’t seems logical, especially since she is one of the main suspects. If the tiny bit of romance seems a trifle “thrown in for good measure,” it, along with the unanswered question of what happened to Cass’s parents, leads me to believe there may be a sequel in the works.  Which is fine with me. I like Cass.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, November 2012.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Book Reviews: A Christmas Home by Greg Kincaid, The Morphine Murders by LJ King, and Drop Dead on Recall by Sheila Webster Boneham

A Christmas Home
Greg Kincaid
Crown Publishers, November 2012
ISBN 978-0-307-95197-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Todd McCray, hero of A Dog Named Christmas , is now twenty-four years old and working at a local animal shelter, where he meets and quickly becomes best friends with Laura, a young volunteer. Laura, like Todd, has disabilities of her own, but her struggles are more physical than developmental. Their friendship is sealed when Todd—with the help of his trusted companion, the tenacious Labrador retriever named Christmas—trains a beautiful dog named Gracie to help Laura with the day-to-day life tasks that are difficult for her.

Life seems good for Todd, but all is not well in his hometown. Struggling families unable to make ends meet are abandoning more and more dogs, and the shelter is swelling to capacity.  The local government is struggling to meet its obligations too, and in early December, on the cusp of another holiday season, Todd’s boss delivers the bad news.  Due to funding problems, the shelter will close its doors before the end of the year.  But what will happen to all the animals?

As the Christmas holiday approaches, Todd has limited time to find homes for all the dogs. Not to mention that he needs to secure a new job and figure out what to do when his friendship with Laura takes an unexpected romantic turn. All this seems overwhelming unless you’ve got a loving family, dedicated friends, and a couple of very special dogs behind you. In which case, nothing is impossible.

I confess, I like sappy Christmas movies and that’s how I was first introduced to Todd and his family and friends, especially  the Labrador retriever that came to mean so much to him. The Hallmark movie was ” A Dog Named Christmas” and I have enjoyed it several times since it first came out in 2009. What I didn’t know until I received this ARC is that the movie was based on a novel of the same name. A Christmas Home is the third of a trilogy, following Christmas with Tucker.

The storyline of A Christmas Home follows that of the first book, concentrating on Crossing Trails’ animal shelter and, in this volume, its loss of public funding at a time when communities across the nation are struggling economically. At its heart, though, is the tale of two people with disabilities and how they learn to “fly”, to move on and to dare to do the impossible because they believe they can do so. It is also the tale of the families and friends who care so deeply for them and must find the courage let go, to have faith that they have instilled the strength and confidence needed for these two young people to live full lives despite their disabilities.

Such a storyline can hardly hope to be anything other than ultra-sweet but author Greg Kincaid handles it well and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a fine example of what “comfort fiction” really is. I took a good deal of pleasure in spending a little time with folks—and animals—I would be happy to call friends and to experience, if only for a little while, the humanity and caring of Todd’s community.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.

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The Morphine Murders
LJ King
First Edition Design, May 2012
ISBN 9781937520885
Trade paperback
Also available in Hardcover

From the publisher—

Raina Prentiss never imagined that she would investigate a homicide beyond the comfort of her couch, armed with a remote, but that’s exactly what happens when she inadvertently finds circumstantial evidence connecting her boss to not one, but two local murders. With the reluctant approval of her police lieutenant boyfriend, Danny, she launches Mission Bottle to obtain her boss’ DNA.

She recruits her co-worker, Tyler, to divert their boss’ attention while Raina sneaks around and swipes his water bottle. But a simple waft of Tyler’s scent, or the heat from his body, transports her back to the feeling of the feather-light pressure of his mouth on hers, teasing her, taunting her, during the passionate kiss she found herself entwined in a few weeks prior.

With no DNA found at the crime scenes to match to their sample, Raina together with Tyler, and Danny and his detectives, continue to investigate. Because of her easy access to her boss, Raina is convinced that she is the key to obtaining proof and solving the case. Determination blinds the risks incurred by hunting a killer, as Raina uses inside information from Danny to plan her next mission. Having jeopardized her relationship, her job, a friendship, and maybe her life, Raina goes full force into the investigation without a badge, superpowers, or a vampire boyfriend.

Sometimes, I come across a book that baffles me a bit and this is one of them. Every single review I can find is a 5-star, some complete with exclamation points, and I just don’t get it. There’s much to be liked about this book but there are also some noticeable flaws, at least to my way of thinking. Let’s get those flaws out of the way first.

Plot and narration inconsistencies are a problem and, in this book, they are much too frequent. As an example, “Through the blaring siren and the barking dog, they saw the call indicator…”. That first phrase should lead to them hearing rather than seeing something. In another scene, the lead detective carries on a conversation with his captain after storming out of his office. In a third, a member of the police knows a particular individual had possession of an item missing from a victim’s home but doesn’t think that individual would hurt anyone so she doesn’t stop Raina from going to talk to him. In another instance, the main character informs her detective boyfriend that there have been serial killers in New York, as though the police would be surprised by this. The list goes on.

Far more importantly, though, is the fact that I found the main character, Raina, to be remarkably unlikeable and she takes narcissism to a new high. Raina is absolutely sure she knows everything there is to know about criminal investigations because she watches all the shows on TV and she doesn’t care that her behavior is making things a lot more difficult for the police, including her boyfriend, when she withholds evidence from them. After all, she must use that evidence first! Even worse than her bullheaded meddling in the investigation is her complete disregard for loyalty and fidelity and her very obvious belief that her own happiness and satisfaction take precedence over that of her boyfriend and a co-worker for whom she has the hots, never mind the fact that the co-worker’s wife has been in a  coma for all of a week. Her behavior in a certain scene is inexplicable and totally reprehensible and, for me, was the last straw. Unfortunately, other characters fare a little better only because Raina leaves such a negative impression. Some of the police are nearly incompetent and a pair of university students are just silly.

On the positive side, and this is what makes the negative aspects so disappointing, is that the author has crafted a very good mystery. I did identify the killer too early but that didn’t matter because the suspense of what would happen next and how the killer would be stopped carried the story. There were a number of red herrings that were not at all obvious and I found myself frequently wondering if one lead or another would take the police in the right direction.

When all is said and done, this author clearly has the ability to create a nice puzzle and really just needs an effective content editor.  I hope that all the rave reviews will not prevent her from taking advantage of what could turn her future work into something quite admirable.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.

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Drop Dead on Recall
Sheila Webster Boneham
Midnight Ink, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-7387-3306-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When a top-ranked competitor keels over at a dog obedience trial, photographer Janet MacPhail is swept up in a maelstrom of suspicion, jealousy, cut-throat competition, death threats, pet-napping, and murder. She becomes a “person of interest” to the police, and apparently to major hunk Tom Saunders as well. As if murder and the threat of impending romance aren’t enough to drive her bonkers, Janet has to move her mother into a nursing home, and the old lady isn’t going quietly. Janet finds solace in her Australian Shepherd, Jay, her tabby cat, Leo, and her eccentric neighbor, Goldie Sunshine. Then two other “persons of interest” die, Jay’s life is threatened, Leo disappears, and Janet’s search for the truth threatens to leave her own life underdeveloped – for good.

I’ve never been to a dog show, although I’ve often thought I’d like to do so (or perhaps a cat show). In the meantime, I enjoy the various shows on TV and can easily imagine the drama and shenanigans that must go on behind the scenes. I don’t usually imagine murder but I also don’t think such a thing is impossible, especially when the desire to win runs high.

Drop Dead on Recall is a delight, a good mystery with characters I came to like very much. I can relate to Janet having to balance work with concern for her mother’s failing health and, in this particular case, her sleuthing actually makes some sense. While most mystery novels offer some information on topics tangentially involved with the crime, Ms.  Boneham provides all kinds of interesting tidbits on pet care, poisons, photography, dog training, etc.,  and she does so very well, giving just enough to let the reader understand what’s going on but not so much that it seems like lecturing.

I also completely fell in love with the pets in the story, especially Jay and Leo (Australian Shepherd and tabby cat, respectively). These two are actively part of the tale (but not in human-like ways) and they add immeasurably to Janet’s appeal. So, a good mystery with plenty of diversions, likeable human and animal characters, a little knowledge I didn’t have before—what more could I want?

Well, how about good writing? Sheila Webster Boneham has experience writing nonfiction but that background doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to write a novel. Happily, in her case, it did and the result is smooth prose that flows easily with a distinct lack of construction errors such as grammar and  plot cohesion.

All in all, this author is a welcome addition to those who write pet mysteries and I’m looking forward eagerly to her next book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.

Book Review: Scrafitto by Steve Scarborough

Scrafitto
Steve Scarborough
Dark Oak Mysteries, July 2011
ISBN 9781610090216
Trade Paperback

Welcome to sunny, idyllic Quepos, Costa Rica! The beach is full of tanned bodies, the Pacific Ocean beckons, the mountain scenery includes an active volcano. Just beware of scorpions, caiman, and…murder. In his debut mystery, Scarborough brings blood and violence to paradise. The burden to find the killer falls upon one man who just wants to leave his past behind, but when have you ever seen THAT happen?

Ex-homicide investigator Mitch Sharp is happy doing landscape and tourism photography. He has a few friends and a new love interest. But when someone starts attacking women, slashing bodies and spattering blood, Mitch is slowly drawn in to investigate. His obstacles: a lackadaisical police chief, a gung-ho hotel contractor worried about tourism, his own struggle with anger management, and, most important, no leads. Aided by a group of artist friends, Mitch starts gathering evidence. The attacks escalate to murder and his friends are, one one one, falling victim. Mitch must rely on his skills as a photographer and a former investigator to find the killer.

When an author knows the subject matter, in this particular story, photography/art, the book is that much more interesting. This has a little bit of everything. A foreign locale, scenery, a little romance, unique characters, plus, the all important murder mystery. The descriptions spark the imagination and the action brings you to the brink of tension. Scraffito is a fine first effort by a an author worth keeping your eye on.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, March 2012.
Author of Night Shadows and Beta.