Book Reviews: State University of Murder by Lev Raphael and Cattle Kate by Jana Bommersbach @LevRaphael @PPPress

State University of Murder
A Nick Hoffman Mystery #9
Lev Raphael
Perseverance Press, April 2019
ISBN 978-1-56474-609-2
Trade Paperback

Satirical, amusing, sometimes funny, scalpel sharp and relentless, this Nick Hoffman murder story will engage most academics, offend a few and, in the bargain, offers up a classic who-dunnit. Raphael’s writing, as always, is incisive, often cutting and mostly to the point.

The author provides an extensive context of the lives of the two principal characters, Professor of Literature, Nicholas Hoffmann, a semi-professional investigator and his marriage and life partner, Stefan, also a professor at the State University of Michigan (SUM) and a highly thought-of successful crime novelist.

Their department has recently been renamed English and Creative Writing, in the apparently usual manner, by Trustees of the University with little or no faculty consultation. This gives the author opportunity to swing wider his cleaver of criticism, aimed at all members of the academic community, top to bottom. A new chair has also been named, a flamboyant, self-centered, egotistical man of letters from France. He endears himself immediately to all full-time and adjunct faculty by making a series of unilateral decisions without consultation, thus raising to untold levels the ire of the department. Hoffman deplores the new office spaces as well.

The author carefully introduces us to many department members and sets the stage for murder, pointing to faculty jealousies and resentments which abound on this campus. The story moves along at a reasonable pace, with many side trips to drinks, dinner, a dog and social activities. All of it is precisely and clearly written with many quips and even sarcastic references to the world at large.

The story is well-placed in the world of today and reflects accurately the author’s world view and that of a more compressed academic community. The mystery is solved, the murderer arrested and the academics return to their emotionally fraught tasks of educating eager young people.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Cattle Kate
Jana Bommersbach
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2014
ISBN 978-1-4642-0302-2
Hardcover

Award-winning journalist and author, Bommersbach brings to this moving thoughtful novel, years of careful research, good writing and yes, a jaundiced eye. Those attributes are particularly important for this project because the author is directly confronting long-standing scurrilous myth about the subject of the novel, a woman named Ella Watson, and about the mythology of the settlement of the west.

Every child alive in America today as well as previous generations grew up on stories of the men who settled the western plains of North America in the years following the Civil War. There were strong mountain men, trappers, taciturn cowboys, sodbusters and cattlemen. Mostly missing from the narrative are the stories of the strong women who proved up on land grants, herded cattle and made homes for the men in their lives.

This is the story of once such strong woman, secretly married, who owned land in Wyoming Territory and was murdered, along with her husband on a July day in 1889. The couple was murdered by several landowners who claimed, along with help from local newspapers, that she was a pimp and a prostitute and a cattle rustler. Her attackers simply wanted her land and water rights.

The author meticulously tells the story of Ella Watson from her early life in Canada and Kansas to her death. Bommersbach’s canvas is broad and richly colored with the times, the trials and the triumphs of so many women on the frontier. The characters are clever and vividly portrayed. The pace at times slows to a thoughtful meander, but never loses focus. Here is a novel of the true old west to be read, savored and read again.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 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: Deeper Than the Grave by Tina Whittle

Deeper Than the Grave
A Tai Randolph Mystery #4
Tina Whittle
Poisoned Pen Press, November 2014
ISBN 978-1-4642-0164-3
Trade Paperback

This is the fourth novel in this series by Tina Whittle, but my first introduction to her characters, Tai Randolph and Trey Seaver. The setting is Atlanta where Trey, an ex-cop who suffered a brain injury in an accident, is now an agent for a corporate security firm, and Tai, who inherited a gun shop from her late Uncle Dexter that caters to a group of Confederate re-enactors. Tai is working to get the gun shop back up and running and worried about the fast approaching first anniversary of Trey’s traumatic accident.

When a tornado sweeps through the old Kennesaw Mountain Cemetery disturbing the mausoleum of a Confederate hero and scattering his remains, Tai is called in to help find the missing bones. She uncovers a skeleton, but it doesn’t belong to the Confederate soldier. They are the remains of a young man recently murdered.

When Tai learns the victim was known to her Uncle Dexter, and that Dexter might be a suspect, she decides to investigate, vowing to find the real killer, and clear her Uncle’s name. Trey cautions Tai, worried she may put herself in danger.

Throughout the story we meet an interesting cast of friends and locals as well as the family of the Confederate hero. But as Tai diligently follows the clues, getting ever closer to the truth, the killer becomes desperate to stop her.

I was intrigued by the history of the Confederate Hero and drawn to Tai’s efforts to uncover the truth. Trey and Tai care deeply for each other and their relationship is one of mutual respect and love. There were enough twists and turns to keep this reader engaged until the killer was finally revealed.

I’ve made a note to seek out the writer’s earlier novels in this series. I certainly recommend checking out Deeper Than the Grave.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, April 2019.

Book Review: Dark Places by Reavis Z. Wortham

Dark Places
A Red River Mystery #5
Reavis Z. Wortham
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0422-7
Hardcover

Names come to mind when I read another Wortham Red River novel. Names and words like Rooster Cogburn and John Wayne and fundamental American attitudes. This author taps all those and more. His observation and understanding of how ordinary everyday American folk, the roots and bedrock of our nation, react in extraordinary circumstances; how they cope with subtle and alarming evil forces. Law enforcement? Sure, but developed from the very same basic beliefs and attitudes of the wider populace. This is a series of novels that will revive readers’ beliefs in the rock-solid foundations of the American way of life.

That said, Pepper and Top, the teen-agers being followed in this series, are restive. Close cousins for years, we find Pepper pulling away and longing for new horizons, such as running away to San Francisco to be a flower child. Without Top. It was a time of the rise of the hippy culture, free love and drugs.

Meanwhile, as storm clouds gather over Texas, murder, robbery and wholesale manipulation take place in the county. Ned Parker, Pepper’s granddad, leaves his constable’s post in Center Springs, Texas. He’s still troubled by a slow-healing stab wound in his belly, but when Pepper disappears, likely with a poorly thought of local boy, Ned decides to find her and bring her home. This chase forms the core of the novel which contains another thick plot line about the disappearance of two visiting businessmen looking to buy land in the area. Pepper’s uncle, currently the sheriff, is on this one.

The rain comes to the region and the law enforcement attempts to find the two missing men and deal with various other problems are hampered by frequent heavy rain. The author masterfully weaves the weather and other climate systems into the narrative and while this novel progresses more slowly than earlier novels, the level of satisfaction readers receive is substantial. In sum, a most satisfying and involving read, crowded with well-developed fascinating characters.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 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: Return to Dust by Andrew Lanh

Return To Dust
A Rick Van Lam Mystery #2
Andrew Lanh
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2015
ISBN 978-1-4642-0426-5
Hardcover

Billed as a Rick Van Lam Mystery, the novel has more atmosphere and character than one usually expects from a good crime novel. As a consequence, the characters and their backgrounds take up far more space and time than does the careful, sometimes plodding, efforts of the novel’s detective, Rick Van Lam, to answer a rather simple question. Was Marta Kowalski murdered or did she simply slip and fall of a bridge while under the influence?

Rick Van Lam is an Amerasian, a sad by-product of that disastrous war in Viet Nam. Van Lam makes a dangerous trek to America as a young boy. Now he’s a relatively calm and accomplished investigator for a large insurance company. He’s stationed in a bedroom community outside Hartford, Connecticut, where lives a sizeable group of Hmong and other refugees from SE Asia. His relationship to the community is fraught because Lam is not pure blood and many in the small community resent his very existence. That attitude interferes with his investigation. It also offers the author many opportunities to expound on the unique troubles of this group of Asian transfers as they continue to struggle to adapt to their new country.

The woman who died seemed to be an inoffensive sort, semi-retired, she cleaned houses and apartments for a wide assortment of people in the small bedroom community and despite resistance at almost every turn, Investigator Lam persists, wading through thickets of prejudice, suspicion and occasional assistance. Ultimately, of course, he solves the mystery of Marta’s death and in the process, delivers a long and occasionally tortuous dissertation on the outflow of the disaster that was that war in Vietnam.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 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: Forty Dead Men by Donis Casey

Forty Dead Men
An Alafair Tucker Mystery #10
Donis Casey
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2018
ISBN 978-1-4642-0937-6
Hardcover

This latest of the Alafair Tucker mysteries sees Alafair’s son, Gee Dub, home from WWI.  Unfortunately, although he reconnects with his large family and puts on a good face, Alafair knows something is wrong with her strong, quiet son. When he finds a young woman in a field behaving oddly and brings her home to his mother, the situation only grows worse. Alafair befriends the woman, but then a murder is committed and suspicion falls on Gee Dub. Even Alafair has her doubts when she finds an ammunition case that generally holds forty bullets, but now holds only one, which then goes missing.

Soldiers have always suffered from PTSD. In WWI it was called shell shock and Gee Dub has more reason to suffer from it than many. He often struggles with what is real and what is not, but even so, this story holds some surprising twists and turns.

This is a powerful story of family, love and kindness, and hardship, too. Not to be missed.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, July 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: A Dying Note by Ann Parker

A Dying Note
A Silver Rush Mystery #6
Ann Parker
Poisoned Pen Press, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-4642-0979-6
Hardcover

This book finds former Leadville, Colorado, saloon owner Inez Stannert moved to San Francisco where she, with her ward, Antonia Gizzi, intend to start over and make a new life. Inez tows the mark, guarding her reputation as a widowed lady. But that is not true. She is a divorcee, which is almost a crime in 1881.

Inez, who plays piano with concert quality, is working her way to a partnership in a music store, where she keeps the books, makes sales, and teaches piano. The store’s owner concentrates on building his reputation as a musician, playing for the upper echelon of SF. A good many musicians gather the in the store, and there is talk of forming a union.

And then a young violinist is murdered down on the San Francisco docks.

Meanwhile, an old business friend from Leadville, high class bordello owner Frisco Flo Sweet shows up. She’s with another acquaintance from Colorado, who is looking for his son who seems to have jilted a fiancee and disappeared. Harry Gallagher wants Inez to find him, threatening her with exposure if she doesn’t come through.

To this end, Inez is forced to work with Wolter Roeland de Bruijn, but it becomes an unholy mess when it’s discovered the murdered violinist and Robert Gallagher are one and the same. Revealing the murderer puts all the searchers at risk, especially Inez and Antonia.

As always, author Ann Parker has written a tightly plotted mystery filled with excellent characters, and spiced the story with lots of history. Authors often describe women’s clothing of the period, but this time readers will be delighted to learn what gentlemen of the era were wearing in old San Francisco. Recommended.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, July 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: An Aegean April by Jeffrey Siger

An Aegean April
A Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis Mystery #9
Jeffrey Siger
Poisoned Pen Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-4642-0945-1
Hardcover

Summary: A respected citizen with an idea as to how to end the refugee crisis in Greece is slaughtered outside his home. A man, himself a refugee involved in the humanitarian aid for refugees movement is found at the murder scene and is charged with the crime.

Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis returns in his ninth case when he is asked to investigate the murder of a well known and respected citizen on the island of Lesvos. Lesvos is the destination for many of the refugees passing though Turkey on their way to Northern Europe, and the small island is overwhelmed with the numbers.  The murder victim, Mihalis Volandes, thought he had a solution for the refugee problem, however he was having trouble getting anyone with authority to listen. The night he was killed – slaughtered really – outside his home, a young man, Ali Sera, a refugee himself, had received a message asking him to meet with the victim at Volandes home. When he arrived, he found the victim sliced nearly in half. When the police arrived, they found a bloody Sera standing near the body.

Chief Inspector Kaldis is asked to look into the crime since while Sera was at the scene, much of the evidence doesn’t support him as the murderer.

Siger has chosen to have readers know very early on who the murderer is and tells the story from a shifting point of view. On one hand we are with Kaldis and his team as they investigate, but we are also with the killer as he moves through the aftermath of the crime. A third voice, that of Dana McLaughlin, a worker with a non-government organization (NGO), is heard occasionally. Sera was one of her workers. This allows readers  from almost the beginning know exactly how despicable the murderer is and how savvy the Chief Inspector is. Through Dana, readers are given a composite shot of how many things can go seriously wrong when idealistic people with good intentions become involved in high profile situations. Siger paints a grim picture of humanity. It is a picture of profiteers making money on the backs of the very people they are supposedly helping.  Surely Dante has a special ring of hell reserved for such people.

On a brighter note, the book is set during Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. Readers are treated to the ongoing preparations for Easter. Highlighted are some things unique to the Greek Orthodox faith, others even more unique to those living in Greece and finally, things that many Christian readers of any denomination will recognize. I read the books for the crime fiction, but the parts I personally enjoy the most are the glimpses into Greek culture. Siger does not disappoint in this part in An Aegean April.

As with the other books in this series, Siger has taken a political issue in Greece, mixed in a heavy dose of Greek Culture and served up a delicious tale straight from the headlines that is almost as much travelogue as it is crime fiction. While An Aegean April is the ninth book in the series, each stands very much on its own merits. There is a large cast of characters who appear to varying degrees throughout the series, but sub plots are wrapped up in each book so readers can pick up any book in the series to read without feeling lost trying to straighten out the characters.

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