Book Review: Dying to Live by Michael Stanley

Dying to Live
A Detective Kubu Mystery #6
Michael Stanley
Minotaur Books, October 2017
ISBN:  978-1-466-88156-3
Hardcover

The sixth in the series featuring detective Kubu (“hippopotamus” in Setswana, the language of Botswana), this novel has an unusual plot:  a secret plant indigenous to the desert, for which three men are murdered, is the basis for this mystery.  The pathologist Dr. Ian MacGregor, who does the autopsy on a bushman found dead in the desert, discovers an aged body containing youthful organs.  He calls Kubu when he suspects the man was murdered.  It turns out the victim was a highly respected witch doctor who treated a variety of “patients” with a secret potion promising a long life.

Thus begins a long, complicated investigation, in which Kubu is assisted by the first female CID detective, a case that expands when another witch doctor turns up murdered and a visiting anthropologist from the United States goes missing.  As if that’s not enough to keep him busy, Kubu is confronted by another case in which controlled substances, powdered rhino horn, is being smuggled out of the country.  Kubu suspects the two cases are inter-related.

Just as important to this novel, as well as the series, is Kubu’s home life, his relationship with his wife, Joy, and his daughter Tuni, and adopted daughter, Nono, who is HIV positive and suffers a breakdown causing considerable concern until a prescribed cocktail of medicines can be formulated to stabilize her condition.  These aspects give the writing team who authored the book the opportunity to show how human Kubu is, as well as the detective’s well-known appetite.  Other constant features of the series are the atmosphere and characteristics of the Batswana (the people of the nation).  We await the seventh novel in the series after recommending the sixth and current one.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2018.

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Book Review: Call to Arms by Rachel Amphlett

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Book Review: The Price of Vengeance by James R. Scarantino

The Price of Vengeance
A Denise Aragon Novel #3
James R. Scarantino
Midnight Ink, February 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5067-5
Trade Paperback

In this third book in the Denise Aragon series, the tough-as-nails Santa Fe police detective runs up against an unscrupulous United States Senator Sam Baca Valles. His family is being held hostage by Peter Cervantes, a contractor who blames the senator for the death of his two sons, by supporting political schemes.  Cervantes believes Valles is one of those people who make decisions other people pay for while he lives a comfortable life at a safe distance. Aragon had dinner with Cervantes and was overheard saying “take him out,” regarding the senator. She meant that Valles should be ousted in the next election, but that comment brought her to the attention of the FBI. The federal agents believe she is withholding information about Cervantes, and she is considered an accomplice to the kidnapping.

Aragon’s dislike of the senator goes back twenty years.  She knew Valles and his wife Patricia in college—Valles raped her friend who died shortly thereafter in a suspicious hiking accident. She has always blamed him for her death.

Valles, an opportunist who never misses a chance to make himself look good, has gathered a team around him to manipulate the kidnapping to fashion himself as a hero. He plans to rush to the house in an effort to save his family, only to be turned back. He considers having an FBI agent shoot him to add veracity to his effort, while leaving his wife and two sons to the kidnapper.

While Aragon is on another case, hunting for the killer of a Boy Scout, she discovers a meth lab, and she is seriously hurt while arresting the killers—she has no feeling in her legs. When she discovers that the FBI considers her a suspect in the Valles case, she starts her own investigation from her hospital bed.

The Santa Fe setting of this series is spectacular and is the perfect backdrop for the tough detective. Readers who enjoy a main character with nerves of steel and hidden depths, like J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas or Ann Cleeve’s Vera Stanhope, should meet up with Denise Aragon.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2018.

Book Review: Keep the Midnight Out by Alex Gray

Keep the Midnight Out
A DCI Lorimer Novel #12
Alex Gray
Witness Impulse, May 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-265928-6
Ebook

From the publisher—

When the body of a red-haired young man is washed up on the shore of the beautiful Isle of Mull, Detective Superintendent Lorimer’s tranquil holiday away from the gritty streets of Glasgow is rudely interrupted. The body has been bound with twine in a ghoulishly unnatural position and strongly reminds Lorimer of another murder: a twenty year old Glasgow case that he failed to solve as a newly fledged detective constable and which has haunted him ever since.

As local cop DI Stevie Crozier takes charge of the island murder investigation, Lorimer tries to avoid stepping on her toes. But as the similarities between the young man’s death and his cold case grow more obvious, Lorimer realises that there could be a serial killer on the loose after all these years.

As the action switches dramatically between the Mull murder and the Glasgow cold case twenty years earlier, Lorimer tries desperately to catch a cold-hearted killer. Has someone got away with murder for decades?

Detective Superintendent William Lorimer is enjoying a few days vacation with his wife, Maggie, on the peaceful Isle of Mull but that peace is disturbed when Lorimer finds the body of a young man apparently washed up at the bottom of his loaned property, although he questions whether it washed up or was deliberately placed there. This isn’t his jurisdiction, of course, so he has to step back but not entirely since he found the body.

The local Detective Inspector is a prickly sort, seemingly because she feels the need to prove herself, but Stevie Crozier is nobody’s fool. Her biggest problem, to my way of thinking, is her reluctance to trust that others may know better than she, if only when it comes to local people and customs. She’s hard to like but I grew attached during the story. Lorimer, naturally, was my favorite of all the coppers, largely because he is intelligent and kind, not to mention just being a very thoughtful man who wants justice for this young man but also for the one from twenty years gone who was so much like this victim.

The setting for this story is deceptive in its tranquility and the people who live here are a varied and motley collection of those who hold secrets and those who simply appreciate their lives on this small island. Initially, it seems that finding the murderer may not be all that difficult but, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving.

We also get a good look at Lorimer’s personal life and come to understand the dynamics between him and Maggie as well as how his association with other professionals developed over the years. I think this is my favorite of the DCI Lorimer books so far because it is so personal. The murders of both Rory and Gary are poignant in their shared circumstances and the chase to catch the killer(s) kept me pondering until almost the end. I’m already looking forward to the next Lorimer case.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

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Purchase Links:

HarperCollins // Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

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An Excerpt from Keep the Midnight Out

CHAPTER ONE

They called it ‘the splash’; though the boat that crept silently, oars dipping lightly in and out of the water creating myriad bubbles of phosphorescence, made little sound at all. It was vital to keep quiet; the time for frightening the fish would not come until the net was properly laid across the mouth of the burn. After that the oars would be raised high and brought down with force, driving the sea trout from their shadowy lairs straight into the trap. It was illegal, of course, had been for decades, but that did not stop more intrepid poachers sneaking in at dead of night and lying in wait for the fish.

Unfair, unsporting, the fishery bodies claimed, though most folk here, on the island of Mull, recognised the thrill of rowing under the stars and risking some wrath from the law enforcers.

Ewan Angus Munro glanced back over his shoulder to see his son playing out the last of the splash net; the ancient cork floats now in a perfect arc across this narrow neck of water.

Young Ewan looked towards his father and nodded; the first part of the deed was done and now all that remained was to ensure that the fish would be scared out from their hiding places by the sudden noise of oars thrashing on the surface so that they would rush towards the net.

The old man turned the boat with an expertise that came from many years of practice, then headed back towards the shallow channel. He raised the oars, resting them in the rowlocks, water dripping like molten rain from their blades. The small craft was allowed to drift a little before Ewan Angus turned to his son again, the eye contact and nod a definite signal to begin the second stage of their night’s work.

Young Ewan Angus stood, legs apart, perfectly balanced in the centre of the boat, one oar raised high above his shoulder as the older man watched him, eyes full of approval. The boy had been given more than just his father’s names: his flair for the splash, too, had been passed down from father to son.

Across the marshy strand full of bog cotton and sweet-smelling myrtle sat a small white cottage. A swift glance showed him that there was no light on anywhere; the holiday folk were doubtless sound asleep, oblivious to the small drama being played out yards from their front door.

The sound of the splash seemed magnified as it disrupted the stillness, echoing over the bay. The young man heaved the oar again and again, each whack making his body stiffen with fear and a sort of bravado. If they were caught they’d lose both the net and the boat, a heavy price to pay for a night of fun and a good catch of sea trout, fish that fetched a decent price at the back doors of the best hotel kitchens.

Several times the boat was rowed up and down, followed by a series of splashes until the old man raised his callused hand to call a halt. Now it was time to wait and see if the fish had indeed been scared witless enough to swim towards their doom.

Once more the old man rowed along the line of corks, his son lifting the net to see if anything lingered below.

‘A beauty,’ the boy whispered, raising the net to reveal a good-sized sea trout struggling in the brown mesh.

‘Ten pounder at least!’ he went on, freeing the huge fish where its gills had caught and hurling it into a wooden box below his feet.

‘Be-wheesht and get the net up,’ his father hissed, though the grin on his face showed how pleased he was with their first catch of the night. The old man bent towards the struggling fish, his fist around the priest, a wooden club that had been in the family for generations. One swift blow and the fish lay lifeless in the box, its silvery scales gleaming in the night.

One by one, others joined the fated sea trout as the two men made their laborious way along the edge of the net.

‘My, a grand haul, the night, Faither,’ Young Ewan Angus exclaimed, his voice still hushed for fear of any sound carrying over the water.

‘Aye, no’ bad,’ his father agreed, a contented smile on his face. One of the middling fish would be wrapped in layers of bracken and left in the porch of Calum Mhor, the police sergeant. A wee thank you for turning his continual blind eye to the nocturnal activities taking place down the road from Craignure. Mrs Calum had guests staying and she’d be fair pleased to serve them a fresh sea trout for their dinner. It was universally acknowledged here on the island that the pink fish was far superior in flavour to the coarser salmon, particularly those that had been farmed.

‘My, here’s a big one!’

The young man staggered as he tried to haul in the final part of the splash net. ‘I can hardly lift it!’ he exclaimed.

‘Must be caught on a rock,’ the old man grumbled, his mouth twisting in a moue of disgust. If they had to tear the net to release it then it would take hours of work to mend, but the operation depended on being in and out of these waters as quickly as they could manage. Hanging about was not an option in case the Men from the Revenue had decided on a little night-time excursion of their own.

Suddenly the young man bent down in the boat, hands gripping the gunwales as he peered into the depths below.

His brow furrowed at the rounded mass swaying beneath the surface, rags of bladderwrack shifting back and forwards with the motion of the waves. Then, as his eyes focused on the ascending shape, Ewan Angus Munro saw pale tendrils that had once been fingers of flesh and one thin arm floating upwards.

He screamed, and covered his mouth as the sickness rose in his throat, then stumbled backwards. The boy flung out his arms, desperate to grasp hold of something solid to break his fall but all he felt under his hands were the wet bodies of slithering fish.

‘What the . ⁠. ⁠. ⁠?’ Ewan Angus turned, an oath dying on his lips as the boat rocked violently, small waves dashing over the bow.

Wordlessly, his son pointed to the waters below. Then, as the old man peered over the side of the boat, he saw the body rising to the surface, its passage out to sea impeded by their net.

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Excerpt from Keep the Midnight Out by Alex Gray. Copyright © 2018 by Alex Gray. Reprinted by permission of Witness Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Alex Gray was born and educated in Glasgow. After studying English and Philosophy at the University of Strathclyde, she worked as a visiting officer for the Department of Health, a time she looks upon as postgraduate education since it proved a rich source of character studies. She then trained as a secondary school teacher of English.

Alex began writing professionally in 1993 and had immediate success with short stories, articles, and commissions for BBC radio programs. She has been awarded the Scottish Association of Writers’ Constable and Pitlochry trophies for her crime writing.

A regular on the Scottish bestseller lists, she is the author of thirteen DCI Lorimer novels. She is the co-founder of the international Scottish crime writing festival, Bloody Scotland, which had its inaugural year in 2012.

Catch Up With Alex Gray On:

Website // Twitter // Goodreads

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Follow the tour here.

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Book Review: The Pyramid of Mud by Andrea Camilleri

The Pyramid of Mud
An Inspector Montalbano Mystery #22
Andrea Camilleri
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Penguin, January 2018
ISBN: 978-0-143-12808-3
Trade Paperback

The discovery of the body of the chief accountant of a construction company in a sewer pipe on the development site is all the clue Inspector Montalbano needs to wonder what it’s all about, in this, the 22nd novel in this wonderfully understated series. Was the murder the result of his wife’s affair with her lover and being shot when catching them in the act?  Or a smokescreen created by a corrupt group of contractors?

This is but one of several questions to which the Inspector needs an answer before he can solve the murder.  And at the same time discover the goings-on in the area of construction and public works contracts.

As is usual in the series, the author exhibits many subtle touches, making the Inspector more human.  Beside his love of food, Montalbano shows signs of aging.  Is his hearing and sight going?  And he reminds himself, if that’s the case, it’s time to retire.  And his long distance love life with Livia.  In this novel she exhibits an illness or, perhaps, lethargy, until she gets a dog as a pet that keeps her hopping and bouncing back, giving rise to the old minor arguments with the Inspector on the telephone, which he enjoys, recognizing it as a symptom of recovery.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2018.

Book Review: A Reckoning in the Back Country by Terry Shames—and a Giveaway!

A Reckoning in the Back Country
A Samuel Craddock Mystery #7
Terry Shames
Seventh Street Books, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-63388-367-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When Lewis Wilkins, a physician with a vacation home in Jarrett Creek, is attacked by vicious dogs, and several pet dogs in the area around Jarrett Creek disappear, Police Chief Samuel Craddock suspects that a dog fighting ring is operating in his territory. He has to tread carefully in his investigation, since lawmen who meddle in dog fighting put their lives at risk. The investigation is hampered because Wilkins is not a local.

Craddock’s focus on the investigation is thrown off by the appearance of a new woman in his life, as well as his accidental acquisition of a puppy.

Digging deeper, Craddock discovers that the public face Wilkins presented was at odds with his private actions. A terrible mistake led to his disgrace as a physician, and far from being a stranger, he has ongoing acquaintances with a number of county residents who play fast and loose with the law.

OK, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Yes, dogs are a crucial part of this story and they’re involved in bad things. Yes, harm is done BUT it’s important to note that most of it is offpage and it’s not gratuitous in the least. The central theme, that of dogfighting, is an evil in our world, one that causes many people to look the other way because the horror of it is so difficult to comprehend. Even if you’re squeamish about animals being harmed, I strongly encourage you to read this book to learn more about how this works and why it so often seems to escape scrutiny that could help stop it. Besides, all the dog activity here is not bad; there’s a little fellow named Dusty you won’t want to miss.

Dogfighting is not what brings Samuel to the home of Lewis and Margaret Wilkins, though, and discovering why this man is missing keeps him busy around the Thanksgiving holiday. This is a lake family, meaning vacationers, so they’re not well known in Jarrett Creek and Samuel is the only member of the police department on hand. He’s doing the best he can but no one is prepared when a body is found, a body that has been savaged.

Technically speaking, the investigation of a violent death should be run by the Department of Public Safety but they rely on Chief Craddock to get things started. It doesn’t take long for him to see that this is going to be complicated and leads take him in several directions. Dr. Wilkins was apparently not a pleasant man and he had some serious problems including a malpractice suit and high stakes gambling. There’s also the question of how and why dogs would have attacked him.

On a more personal note, Samuel has reason to question his relationship with Ellen when he meets another woman and he also takes in a tiny puppy he found near the crime scene. He won’t keep the dog, of course, because he doesn’t want one but Dusty is there for now and Samuel’s resistance just might be futile. Certainly, he offers a bit of a distraction as Samuel and his deputy, Maria, follow those disparate leads to come to a final conclusion.

I was just as puzzled as Samuel almost to the very end and, even then, there were a few surprises. Once again, Terry Shames has captivated me with not only a terrific story but with Samuel himself, a man of great integrity and the wisdom and confidence of his years but one who isn’t afraid to challenge himself on a personal level. A Reckoning in the Back Country is going on my list of best books read in 2018.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

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To enter the drawing for a trade
paperback copy of A Reckoning in
the Back Country by Terry Shames,
leave a comment below.
The winning
name will be drawn
Monday evening,
May 14th. This
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Book Reviews: Durable Goods by Patricia Hale and Your Robot Dog Will Die by Arin Greenwood

Durable Goods
The Cole and Callahan Thriller Series #2
Patricia Hale
Intrigue Publishing, April 2018
ISBN 978-1940758695
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Detective John Stark approaches the PI team of Griff Cole and Britt Callahan with a postcard he’s sure is from his estranged daughter, Kira. She’s been listed as a runaway for three years by Portland, Maine police but John isn’t convinced that her continued absence is by choice. As Stark’s long-time friends, Cole and Callahan agree to look into the postcard marked only with the letters OK. The postmark leads them to Oracles of the Kingdom, a farm where women sell fresh produce in return for a fresh start with God. But nothing seems right about the town or the farm and Britt goes undercover to look for Kira. Once inside, she realizes that Oracles of the Kingdom is not the refuge it appears.

I look forward to crime fiction that combines police work with private investigation because, while they’re very different occupations, they also are very complementary when each respects the other’s profession. A PI has limitations by virtue of not having access to national and international resources (unless it’s a huge security firm) while a police detective is restricted by laws intended to protect the public from overreach. That’s simplifying things, of course, but there’s no question that collaboration can make for a rich story.

When John Stark approaches his friends for help finding his daughter, it’s a logical thing to do. After all, his emotions and objectivity are compromised, just as a doctor’s would be if he tries to treat his critically ill child. Add to that, John has burned a few bridges in his department over the past three years that Kira has been missing and, when he finally gets a potential lead, he can’t drum up much interest in the police in localities near where he thinks she might be. Now, he’s come to Britt and Griff and they can’t turn him down; this man is too important in their lives. The plan they come up with will put all of them, especially Britt, in terrible peril.

Although the case in this book is very different from that in the first book, The Church of the Holy Child, the drama and emotion in that story are no less intense here and the subject matters, including sex trafficking, drugs and physical violence, are important topics in today’s world more than ever before. This is no tale for the squeamish but is nevertheless recommended.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

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Your Robot Dog Will Die
Arin Greenwood
Soho Teen, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-61695-839-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Seventeen-year-old Nano Miller was born and raised on Dog Island: home to Mechanical Tail, the company behind lifelike replacements for “man’s best friend.” The island is also home to the last living dogs, all but extinct. When a global genetic experiment went awry and canines stopped wagging their tails, mass hysteria ensued and the species was systematically euthanized. Here, they are studied in a natural and feral state.

Nano’s life has become a cycle of annual heartbreak. Every spring, Mechanical Tail gives her the latest robot dog model to test, only to tear it from her arms a year later. This year is complicated by another heartbreak: the loss of her brother, Billy, who recently vanished without a trace. But nothing can prepare her for a discovery that upends everything she’s taken for granted: it’s a living puppy that miraculously wags its tail. There is no way she’s letting this dog go.

Take a good look at that doggie sitting next to you or at your feet and imagine, if you will, that you can only keep her for a year and then you’ll be given a replacement. Can you fathom the heartache? Would you even be willing to have a dog in your life?

Now, take it a step further—your dog is a machine, a robot, very cleverly built and every year’s model is better, more lifelike, than the last. Would you want your annual dog? Would you be as attached?

Nano is heartbroken when the “executioner” comes to end Derrick’s existence and brings her his replacement. Nano names this one Billy, for her brother who has been missing for a while. Nano and her friends, Jack and Wolf, grew up on Dog Island and have never left it. The few families on the island are kind of a marketing focus group that tests all the new mechanical dogs before they hit the shelves and they help look after the six remaining real dogs. When Nano discovers four living puppies, she hides one and what that act leads to will change life for every one, for better or worse to be determined.

On the surface, this seems like a fairly straightforward story but it actually has a lot of layers, so many that I don’t actually know what the author’s main intent was. Along with the idea of mechanical dogs, attention is given to the causes and repercussions of scientific experimentation, budding romance, severe drought, isolation, misguided societal control, the vegan lifestyle, euthanasia…the list goes on and one. Finally, I decided to not look for meanings and just enjoy this shaggy dog tale with a few twists.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.