Book Review: The Ballad of Black Bart by Loren D. Estleman

The Ballad of Black Bart
Loren D. Estleman
Forge, November 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8353-2

From the publisher:  Between July 1875 and November 1883, a single outlaw robbed the stagecoaches of Wells Fargo in California’s Mother Lode country a record twenty-eight times.  Armed with an unloaded shotgun, walking to and from the scenes of the robberies for hundreds of miles, and leaving poems behind, the infamous Black Bart was fiercely hunted by James B. Hume, Wells Fargo’s legendary chief of detectives.  Between robberies, Black Bart was known as Charles E. Bolton, a distinguished, middle-aged man who enjoyed San Francisco’s entertainments in the company of socialites drawn to his quiet, temperate good nature and upper-class tastes.

One of the most entertaining of the many entertaining aspects of this novel is that, true to Black Bart’s talents and propensities [he signs himself “Po8,” after all], the author begins each chapter [26 in all], as well as the Afterword, with a four-line verse, wonderful creations all, as is the book itself.  I will quote only the first and last two of these.  Beginning the book, on the first page of Chapter One:  “This is the story of bandit Black Bart; who used the gold country to practice his art.  His brush was a shotgun, his canvas the road, as he painted his way ‘cross the Old Mother Lode.”  And he ends the book with another:  “So here I’ve stood while wind and rain have set the trees asobbin’; and risked my life for that damn stage that wasn’t worth the robbin.”  And before the Afterword:  “My tale it is finished, and my race it is run; but there’s one more confession I owe everyone.  I speak not of inventions, though admit to this crime; I own to the evils I’ve committed in rhyme.”  Everything in between is equally wonderful.

As the book begins, Charles Bolton is described thusly:  “Everything about this man was reserved … A man who drank rarely, smoked not at all, and spent his words as if they assayed out at sixteen dollars to the ounce, was regarded as some kind of sage.”   The man loved gambling, on horse races or prizefights.  That first chapter ends with a rhyme as well:  “Come listen to my story, I’ll not detain you long. A singing and a humming this simple silly song.  ‘Tis of the old ex-convicts, the men who served their time for robbing mountain stages of the old Wells, Fargo line.”

Charles E. Bolton was a mining magnate who knew him only in that capacity.  But one who clung to a shotgun, “a comforting weight in his hands,” when he sets out to rob the stagecoaches of that firm, referred to as “the Company,” of whom we are told “the frugality of Henry Wells and William Fargo was nearly as infamous as their business practices.” His object was only the ironbound strongbox held at the driver’s feet, never harming any passengers in the process.

Sheriff Benjamin Thorn, who’d held that position for 15 years, and Chief of Detectives James Hume are charged with hunting down the robber, and they prove to be worthy opponents of Black Bart.

Another excellent book from this author, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2017.


Book Review: Death and the Gravedigger’s Angel by Loretta Ross

Death and The Gravedigger’s Angel
An Auction Block Mystery #3
Loretta Ross
Midnight Ink, February 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5041-5
Trade Paperback

This is a wonderful, amusing and emotionally fraught novel. Like most of us, the characters are quirky, odd, some with skewed views of their world. When murder visits their community, their reactions are often unpredictable.

Start with the lead protagonist, a private detective in the community of East Bledsoe Ferry, Missouri. His name is Death Bogart. Yes, he of the title line for this series. His brother, a paramedic, is Randy. Death’s girl friend is Wren Morgan who is employed by a local auction house.

Immediately, readers will understand that the names of the characters play almost as important roles in the narrative as do the humans to which the individuals are attached. The dialogue ranges from testy to heartfelt and at times, sarcastic, but always appropriate. Readers will quickly become familiar with the connections between the characters.

Wren Morgan is an auctioneer. Part of her job entails cataloging and organizing estates contracted for sale by her employer. She’s anxious to start work at the late nineteenth century and long abandoned Hadleigh estate. Her work is delayed because the body of a man clad in a stolen Civil War uniform has been discovered on the property. Death Bogart gets involved when he’s asked to investigate the circumstances of the murder. Then things get complicated.

There are other elements that further complicate Wren’s and Death’s life. One is the leader of an out-of-ordinary religious cult who often argues with biblical references. The pastor doesn’t actually quote the bible, he quotes the book, chapter and verse. In one hilarious scene, Wren’s brother looks up the barked references and relays them verbally to his sister.

Ultimately the crimes are solved but not before a terrifying experience menaces Wren and Death solves the case of the mysterious dancing can. A most enjoyable reading experience.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2017.
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: A Cold Day in Hell by Lissa Marie Redmond

A Cold Day in Hell
A Cold Case Investigation #1
Lissa Marie Redmond
Midnight Ink, February 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5410-9
Trade Paperback

A Cold Day in Hell (A Cold Case Investigation) is the first book in a planned series by Lissa Marie Redmond, a retired Buffalo, New York, homicide detective. Lauren Riley is a well-known homicide cold case detective on the Buffalo, New York, police force. She also holds a private investigator’s license. Her absolute least favorite defense attorney asks her to help him in her capacity as a PI to defend his 18-year-old godson against murder charges. She loathes the attorney but agrees to help the youthful defendant after meeting him. She juggles her responsibilities as a cold case investigator with running down leads to help build an alternative theory of the murder.

The arresting officer turns out to be a former flame who still feels free to use his fists on Lauren. When that doesn’t deter her from helping the recent high school graduate, he begins to follow her outside working hours. His anger increases when he learns that Lauren is seeing her second husband again. That she did not file assault charges against this man when he hit her made me question the characterization of Lauren. It seems inconsistent with the idea of a take-charge, no-nonsense police detective.

This story has solid pacing and a detailed plot that comes together nicely in a surprise ending. The courtroom scenes are tense with good dialog. I have a hard time, however, believing that any police force would allow one of its staff to also act as a private investigator. This seems to me to be a significant conflict of interest. This potential conflict was addressed in the book two or three times by Lauren’s superiors who said they saw no issue with her choice of moonlighting careers, although Lauren herself wonders if she has damaged working relationships by taking on a role that is by definition in opposition to the police force. No question but what the answer is yes.

A lot of readers will enjoy this book with its mix of police procedure and deep involvement with the lead character’s personal life. There are enough irregularities with the portrayal of the protagonist, though, to make me doubt that I will look for the next title in the series.

Reviewed by Aubrey Hamilton, January 2018.

A Passel of Teeny Reviews, Part 4

Once again, big surprise, I find myself with
an overload of books read but not yet reviewed
so I think it’s time for a roundup or two…

Unsub #1
Meg Gardiner
Dutton, June 2017
ISBN 978-1-101-98552-6

If you’re ever in the mood for a nail-biting, gut-wrenching tale of police work, this is it. Detective Caitlin Hendrix comes very close to her own kind of obsession that plays like a counterpoint to the unsub’s sick and deadly obsession and, at times, it’s a little difficult to tell them apart. I don’t mean that literally—on the page, of course you know who is who—but the emotional turmoil that each feels has a sort of certain similarity and you can’t help wondering just how much the killer is affecting her, perhaps even twisting her mind, not to mention the agitation stemming from her own baggage. This unsub is pretty well terrifying and Ms. Gardiner had me flying through the pages.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.


Poor Things
Daniel Barnett
CreateSpace, June 2016
ISBN 978-1533613080
Trade Paperback

Are you ready for some creepy vibes of the horror variety? From the opening scene of a deer dying on the road, I had a sense of what the title might refer to in a vague sort of way but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would like these characters, especially Joel and a new friend, Ash, a tomboy with an inner strength and a no-nonsense attitude. A high school superjock, Joel is typically obnoxious and a bit of a bully towards his kid brother but his life changes in an instant. He’s naturally full of anger and resentment but a kernel of compassion is there. All he can really hope for is to find acceptance for his new circumstances and, just maybe, a little happiness.

Too bad there’s something evil beginning to stir, maybe the end of the world…

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.


Renting Silence
A Roaring Twenties Mystery #3
Mary Miley
Severn House, December 2016
ISBN 978-0-7278-8653-8

Jessie Beckett isn’t really a private investigator but she seems to have a knack for it so, when Mary Pickford asks her to look into a starlet’s death, she agrees, having no idea where her search for the truth will take her. Vaudeville’s colorful past, blackmail, an impending death sentence…all come into play but will these varying pieces lead Jessie to Lila Walker’s real murderer before Ruby Glynn hangs?

The mystery here is topnotch but it’s Ms. Miley‘s evocation of Hollywood in its early days that’s really the star of the show, pun intended. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Myrna Loy, Zeppo Marx,  even Rin Tin Tin fill the pages with so much history and fun it’s easy to become mesmerized. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode in Jessie’s life and will be staring the next book, Murder in Disguise, as soon as I can.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.


Resurrection Mall
A Penns River Crime Novel #3
Dana King
Down & Out Books,
ISBN 978-1-943402-65-6
Trade Paperback

A town that’s down on its luck, economically speaking, is ripe for drug trade and mob activity along with a rise in petty crime and that’s what’s happened to Penns River, leading to corruption on multiple fronts and a police department that’s sorely tested. The “Resurrection Mall” of the book’s title actually is a shopping mall, one that’s being refurbished by a minister trying to help the community or so he says.

Doc Dougherty, the quintessential cop we all want on our side in a crunch, still goes home for Sunday dinner because that’s the kind of guy he is, rooted in family and the truly important things in life. Police work in Penns River is generally not exactly unusual but this time it most certainly is, beginning with the mass murders of five top level members of the drug trade.

Resurrection Mall is a little more dismal than I usually like but Mr. King‘s elegant writing, his plot development and his characters (who are refreshingly normal) all kept me going because I became invested in this Rust Belt community and in Doc. There are two earlier books and I think I’m going to have to check them out.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.


Crimson Earth
Modi Series #2
Anna Soliveres
Anna Soliveres, December 2015
ISBN 978-0-9960149-3-9
Trade Paperback

Aeva is a most unusual girl, even in her world that’s so different from our own, and is currently passing as the missing Queen Violet. Aeva is also right in the midst of the fight against a man who is obsessed with power, no matter what he has to do to obtain it and Aeva’s people look to her intelligence and strength to protect and lead them in this time of crisis. To do that, this remarkable young woman has become the strong, self-reliant heroine she was destined to be.

Crimson Earth is the sequel to Violet Storm which I read and enjoyed more than three years ago ( I didn’t feel quite the same connection to this second installment but I blame myself for not re-reading the first book before getting into this one and I really do recommend reading them in order to get the full effect of a really well-conceived dystopian tale.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

Book Review: Water Signs by Janet Dawson

Water Signs
A Jeri Howard Mystery #12
Janet Dawson
Perseverance Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-56474-586-6
Trade Paperback

Methodology is at the forefront of this story. There’s really never any doubt as to who the criminals are. The problem PI Jeri Howard has to work through is proving what happened to her friend Cal Brady who was discovered drowned in the Estuary. Why would anyone want to murder a lowly security guard? Well, unless he’s seen something he shouldn’t have and begun investigating it. Because when thugs turn to murder, there must be more at stake than keeping the homeless off a building site.

I think this story might find its audience with native Oaklanders. The book is filled with local political agenda items. I admit to skipping much of the driving directions and what building is on what corner and which business faces onto the Estuary and such. I’ve never been there, probably never will be there, and beyond a general setting, really didn’t care about reaching the closest Starbucks in the least time. IMO, all this doesn’t add to the plot, unless perhaps you live in Oakland.

That said, I sympathize with the problems of gentrification and can certainly see, with the big money involved, how it could lead to criminal activity. In fact, there’s probably not too much fiction in the plot. It’s all happened at one time or another.

But I wanted to read about Jeri solving her friend’s murder. The investigation sometimes got lost in the details. Besides, Jeri will go broke handing out all those business cards.

Even so, Jeri is sharply drawn. The reader definitely knows what makes her tick. I liked her friends. I liked the way she worked her way to the truth, and I  liked the way she took the murderers down, even though it happened a little fast at the end. Go Jeri!

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

Book Reviews: American Static by Tom Pitts and A Case of Vineyard Poison by Philip R. Craig

American Static
Tom Pitts
Down & Out Books, June 2017
ISBN: 978-1-943402-84-7
Trade Paperback

This novel is a long, detailed, twisting trail of a plot. Along the way two small-town cops, and readers, encounter many characters, nearly all of whom are consummate criminals in that vibrant, unusual city, Bagdad by the Bay, San Francisco. It follows the unwanted adventure of a rural California student, carrying weed from Humboldt County for friends to deliver to recipients in the city. Robbed and beaten at bus stop, Steven is collected and succored by one of the most relentlessly evil personalities one is ever likely to meet in a single story.

The student, Steven, left penniless and beaten in a small northern California town, is carrying a load of marijuana to people in San Francisco when he is set upon, viciously beaten and robbed. An interested bystander offers Steven a ride to` San Francisco with a stop or two along the way. There is a brief suggestion of connection between the young men who robbed and beat Steven, and Quinn, driving a stolen vehicle, who dispatches a prominent winery owner.

Two policemen from Calisto set out to find Quinn who has disappeared into San Francisco and begins a horrifying series of vendettas against the employees of a major crime figure in the city. His primary motive is to find the daughter of the crime figure, a strung-out teenager living on dope and the streets.

Somehow, Steven, now terrified of Quinn, connects with the girl, Teresa, and they flee together. The chase is on. Quinn after the teens, a corrupt cop chasing Quinn, followed by two Calisto cops and everybody under threat from the crime boss and his killer crew.

Complicated, slick maneuvering and sudden brutal murder is the hallmark of this well-designed novel. I lost count of the number of murders, shootings, knifings, beatings and car chase events. Suffice it to write, the novel is excellently conceived, full of abrupt violent action. I give it a strong recommendation of type.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2017.
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.


A Case of Vineyard Poison
A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery #6
Philip R. Craig
Avon, July 1996
ISBN: 978-0-380-72679-0
Mass Market Paperback

This novel is part of an extensive series of mysteries set on Martha’s Vineyard.

Vineyard wedding bells are about to chime for J.W. Jackson and Zee Madieras. Zee’s bank account is suddenly one hundred thousand unexplained dollars richer. The bank calls it a glitch, and two days later the money has disappeared. Coincidentally, the college student lying dead in J.W.’s driveway, done in by a dose of locally grown poisonous herbs, recently withdrew a hundred grand from her own account.

Ex-cop J. W. Jackson is intrigued. Intrigue deepens when he is suddenly attacked by a local paramedic. The path he follows introduces readers to a number of interesting characters on the island and a scheme to parlay computer expertise into a massive swindle.

This novel is not as violent nor as action filled as are earlier books in this series. There are several lengthy passages about the island and about fishing. However, the cerebral gymnastics around the solution to the murder are presented in an interesting way and the vividly descriptive passages touring Martha’s Vineyard and fishing, cooking and eating are interesting and judiciously blended with the murder mystery. Craig is a good writer and the dialogue is expertly used to further the plot and provide a pleasant experience for any reader.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2017.
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

August Snow
Stephen Mack Jones
Soho Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-718-6

August Snow is the third book I’ve read so far this year that’s going on my “Best Reads of 2017” list. Yes, I’ve read other good ones, but the “best” are special in some way.

What’s special about August Snow, is August Snow. Jones has created a truly excellent character, heroic, honest, blessed with his friends and he knows it. The problem may lie in figuring out who his friends are. His enemies are pretty obvious.

August has been gone from Detroit for a year, trying to drown painful memories in travel and booze. He’s got plenty of money, having won a $12 million dollar case against the city after he lost his job as a cop. August, you see, blew the whistle on corrupt politicians and the police force running the city and they had him wrongfully dismissed from the force. But now he’s come home to live in his parents’ old home in Mexicantown.

All too soon he’s asked to investigate what may be embezzled funds from Eleanor Paget’s wealth management bank. He turns her plea for help down, only to learn that the very next day she’s committed suicide. Or has she? August doesn’t believe it, which soon lands him right in the midst of murder and more corruption than you can shake a stick at.

You may think you’ve read this plot before⏤Lord knows there’s enough corruption in the real world to make the premise almost commonplace⏤but you won’t have had a hero like August Snow.

Twists and turns carry the reader on a wild ride. The good guys keep you hoping for justice. The bad guys will twist you in knots.

Author Stephen Mack Jones is a novelist to watch!

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