Book Reviews: Carl Brookins: The Case of the Purloined Painting and The Case of the Yellow Diamond

The Case of the Purloined PaintingThe Case of the Purloined Painting
A Sean Sean Mystery #1
Carl Brookins
North Star Press of St. Cloud, June 2013
ISBN 978-0-8783-9708-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  When an American Army unit arrived at the end of World War II, some soldiers appropriated items in what appeared to be an abandoned building.  A small painting by a mid-level Polish painter is used by an ex-GI to float a bank loan which results in the founding of a manufacturing firm in Minneapolis.  Now the painting and the ledger become the center of murderous attempts by the descendants of the veteran to conceal the painting’s journey.  World-wide efforts at repatriation of stolen art from World War II is a major ongoing effort and the story links to that effort as international operatives descend on the Twin Cities.  Enter private detective Sean Sean.  He is a short but effective operative who, unlike many PIs of the modern era, doesn’t sleep around, doesn’t shoot people unnecessarily, and has many friends among various local law enforcement agencies.

The title of this novel puts one in mind of the great Erle Stanley Gardner, most if not all of his Perry Masons novels bearing titles which begin “The Case of . . .” But this book borrows nothing from great writers of the past; it is entirely Mr. Brookins’ own.  And that is a good, no, a terrific, thing.  Not entirely surprising, since I’d read many of this author’s reviews, and his writing is simply great.

The publisher’s notes quoted above reference the protagonist’s short stature.  He is, in fact, just over five feet tall, to the six foot tall Catherine Mckerney, massage therapist with her own school, variously described as his lover, his apartment-mate, friend and sometime partner.  Sean has been an active private investigator for a couple of decades.  He describes himself as a “tracer of lost persons, collector of evidence of malfeasance, revealer of fraudsters and thieves. . . not only am I very good at my job,I’m also persistent.”  Three days after the discovery of a body in the Mississippi River, on which body was found a “faint series of numbers tattooed on one forearm,” indicating that the man had been in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, Sean finds himself with two different new clients, each of whom relates a tale that his instincts soon tell him are related.  The first of these is a woman who tells him she witnessed the scene on the bridge which culminated in the body of a man being thrown to his death.  The second is a man who hires him to find a woman he’s been dating who seems to have disappeared.  This latter client soon neither returns calls nor shows up at Sean’s office.

The tale is one that touches upon art work and other stolen property taken during or just after the war in Europe, whose descendants are still searching for them, a search that is ongoing.

Mr. Brookins makes the reader very palpably feel the brutal weather of February in Minneapolis.  I loved the author paying homage to both Raymond Chandler, a wonderful mystery writer of days of yore, and the very current [and also wonderful] author named Michael Connelly, and acknowledges a beloved mystery novel discussion group named after Dorothy L. Sayers, appropriately named DorothyL.  I also loved his note, after an evening at a blues bar:  “Blues music is a label not given to precise definitions.  It bears some similarities to crime or mystery fiction in that regard.”  A sentiment with which I must agree.

Highly recommended.

Next up for this reader is Mr. BrookinsThe Case of the Yellow Diamond – I can’t wait!!

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2016.

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The Case of the Yellow DiamondThe Case of the Yellow Diamond
A Sean Sean Mystery #2
Carl Brookins
North Star Press of St. Cloud, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-8783-9816-4
Trade Paperback

The title of this novel, as was the case with Mr. Brookins‘ last book, The Case of the Purloined Painting, puts one in mind of the great Erle Stanley Gardner, most if not all of his Perry Masons novels bearing titles which begin “The Case of . . .”   And this book, as was the last one, is also absolutely delightful, with the author’s trademark sly sense of humor much in evidence throughout.

This book deals, as did the last one, with events which took place in the waning days of WWII.  In this book, those events began in the Pacific Theater, and involve “thefts, smuggling, and the acquisition of wealth and influence through illegal means.”  The tale opens with the protagonist, Sean Sean, entering his office and finding a dead body lying on the floor.  He immediately calls his good friend, Minneapolis Police Detective Ricardo Simon. What follows is a flashback to Sean being hired a few weeks before by Josie and Tod Bartelme to assist in their efforts to locate the wreckage of a B-24 bomber that had taken Josie’s granduncle to his death near Yap Island, “a speck of coral in the Pacific Ocean.”  In the ensuing investigation, the dead man had been the principal suspect.

Members of both families and even Josie’s college buddies had offered their assistance, and financed their efforts as well.  Josie and Tod were planning to embark on a trip to the Pacific to continue their search for the wreckage, and hire Sean to assist in their efforts, notwithstanding that it had taken place nearly 70 years ago.

The protagonist, just over five feet tall, lives with the self-proclaimed love of his life, the six foot tall Catherine Mckerney, a successful massage therapist with her own school, with whom he shares her apartment in  Kenwood, Minnesota as well as his home and ranch in Roseville.  Sean has been an active private investigator for a couple of decades, the sign on his door reading “Sean Sean, Private Investigator, Ltd.”  He describes himself as a “tracer of lost persons, collector of evidence of malfeasance, revealer of fraudsters and thieves. . . not only am I very good at my job, I’m also persistent.”  Sean says of himself “Family dynamics were always convoluted and frequently hard to sort out, which was one reason I didn’t do divorces.  Give me a nice clean street robbery or random serial killer any time.”  In this instance, that is an understatement

The cast of characters is large, mostly consisting of family and friends of Sean’s clients [including one particularly oversexed and buxom female], some of whom try to dissuade him from continuing his investigation, even going so far as to bad-mouth him in the industry, putting them at the top of Sean’s list of suspects, which grows exponentially with incidents of murder, attempted murder, and vandalism taking place.

In his last book, the author paid homage to fellow mystery writer Michael Connelly; this time around the references are to Carl Hiaasen, Bill Crider, James Lee Burke, and Wilkie Collins. I love it!

As was the earlier book, this one as well is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2016.

Book Reviews: Cover Me in Darkness by Eileen Rendahl and Dating Death by Randy Rawls

cover-me-in-darknessCover Me in Darkness
Eileen Rendahl
Midnight Ink, December 2016
ISBN: 978-0-7387-5020-0
Trade Paperback

How do you live with yourself when you believe your little brother was murdered by your half-mad mother, apparently with your help? Amanda Sinclair has tried to put her youthful past behind her, has grown into an important job as a lead quality control testing scientist for a new and exciting company.

Out of that past she receives word that her mother has committed suicide. Far from settling her emotions and closing a door on that episode, she slowly begins to realize that the woman’s death may somehow be linked to the upcoming release from prison of the leader of a cult to which her mother once belonged. Beset by emotions, Amanda concentrates on final verifications of a new product in her lab and the results are raising questions about some of the reports already submitted.

Add a wise and sympathetic cop, suspicious but supportive colleagues and the keen observations of a talented author and here is a novel to be remembered.

While I’m not sure about the title, I strongly endorse this dark emotion-filled novel of suspense. It is very well written, insightful, thoughtful and the central character, Amanda Sinclair, comes alive on the page. The pace and the setting are well handled and easily evoke the locale. Although not for the more timid reader of murder mysteries, Cover Me In Darkness, is well worth the time and attention of serious readers.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, January 2017.
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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dating-deathDating Death
Beth Bowman Private Investigator #3
Randy Rawls
White Bird Publications, April 2016
ISBN 978-1-63363-151-9
Trade Paperback

Randy Rawls writes a sort of brawling, booted, western-style detective novel. Except this detective is located in southern Florida. Beth Bowman takes no back seat to anyone and in her third adventure actually accepts an insane assignment from the local chief of police. She’s to bodyguard a flamboyant local pol who is due to spill all about crime in their city. Beth is to try to keep the pol alive until he can testify. It doesn’t go well, naturally and now Beth has to try to locate the killer.

That investigation doesn’t go well, either and after a number of fairly exciting adventures, Beth falls in with a homeless shelter operation wherein the street folks domiciled there happen to be the best undercover operatives in the city. So Beth, unable to get necessary help from officialdom, goes to the amateur league. You already guessed it. After stumbling over some pretty obvious clues and missing some others, everybody ends up on the same page and justice prevails, but not before a few dead bodies show up.

Well written and perfectly organized, Dating Death is a good weekend confection.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2016.
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: Fields Where They Lay by Timothy Hallinan

fields-where-they-layFields Where They Lay
A Junior Bender Mystery #6
Timothy Hallinan
Soho Crime, October 2016
ISBN: 978-1-6169-5746-9
Hardcover

Junior Bender, burglar extraordinaire and sometime detective to the underworld, serves as the narrator of this unusual Christmas tale.  He is roped in to investigate, on behalf of a Russian mobster and owner of a dying shopping mall in Los Angeles, why there has been a spiking increase in shoplifting in recent months a few days before Christmas Day.  Junior, who hates the Xmas atmosphere, is immersed in the Holiday cheer of shopping, Santas, and piped-in popular songs, much to his chagrin.

While undertaking his task, he becomes involved in a few side ventures, including looking into the death of one of the shopkeepers, witnessing the death of another, and discovering the real problems at the mall, typical of similar establishments fading away all over the nation as shoppers turn to other outlets.  Another involves his burgeoning friendship with one of the two Santas on the premises, helping him to recover a favorite item apparently stolen from his home.  One side benefit, however:  he is able to get his own holiday shopping done despite his procrastination.

This novel probably is the most cerebral in the six-book Junior Bender series, with long passages on the business of shopping malls, their dying days, observations on the Holidays, people in general, and his own life and loves.  In fact, he faces a crisis with his own lover and her reticence to divulge anything of her past.  On the whole, Junior solves a unique problem in his typical fashion, with ingenuity.

This is an excellent series, and one that continues to be recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2016.

Book Review: Broke by Kaye George

broke-audioBroke
An Imogene Duckworthy Mystery #3
Kaye George
Read by Veronica Newton
Audible/Kaye George, August 2015
Downloaded Unabridged Audio Book

From the publisher—

Imogene Duckworthy, eager PI assistant, wants to be on her own. She finds a rental house where her four-year-old daughter, Nancy Drew Duckworthy, and Drew’s pet pig, Marshmallow, are allowed. The rumors are that the house is haunted. It’s no rumor there’s a dead man in the bathtub when she inspects the house, though. A long-lost relative is the logical suspect, but can Immy let her Uncle Dewey be railroaded for a crime he, possibly, didn’t commit?

A number of years ago, I read a series of four books by Joan Coggins, first released around 1945, then re-published by Rue Morgue Press. These were set just a bit before and after World War Two and featured Lady Lupin, a scatterbrained and very wealthy young woman who married a vicar and who investigated local crimes. They were hilarious and kindly and, all these years later, they still stick in my mind as favorites. Imogene Duckworthy reminded me almost instantly of Lady Lupin and I can’t think of a more favorable comparison.

Immy is goofy and not especially suited to being a private investigator but she’s determined to make her own way in the world and detecting is what she wants to do. Her case this time begins in the falling-apart rental house in Texas she’s moved into with her little girl and Marshmallow, a loveable potbellied pig. Throw in the local cop, Deputy Ralph Sandoval, and the scene is ripe for figuring out how a dead body ended up in her bathtub and why anyone is interested in the old furniture left in the house.

Adding to the fun of this story is the voice of the narrator, Veronica Newton. Ms. Newton has a lively tone and she makes the different characters quite distinctive with the child’s being the only voice I didn’t care for. I haven’t listened to this narrator before but I’ll be happy to again.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

Book Review: The Singer from Memphis by Gary Corby

the-singer-from-memphisThe Singer From Memphis
An Athenian Mystery #6
Gary Corby
Soho Crime, May 2016
ISBN:978-1-61695-668-4
Hardcover

Nicolaos is an Athenian private investigator/spy who reports to Pericles. Yes, that Pericles. When Nico is approached by the historian/author Herodotus–yes, that Herodotus–who wants to hire him as a guide in Egypt as he does book research, Pericles instructs him to take the job. All sorts of complications occur. Assassins wish Nico dead. Or are they after Nico’s wife, Diotima? Or any other of the many blend of historical and fictional characters in this book? Apparently everyone is after the crook and flail, symbols of the Egyptian ruling pharohs, and the search is on for the last of the line. Wars have been fought for less, and there’s a power struggle going on now between Egypt and Persia.

The action takes place in 456 B.C., and while some of the action really happened to these characters, the author has chosen to write the story in a comedic manner. I must say he’s succeeded. History and fiction blends beautifully. The characters are well and colorfully depicted, the setting used seem very real, the dialogue is snappy and often funny. Corby does let us know the cross-bow had not yet been invented, although it figures in this story. I guess it needed to start somewhere, at some time.

The novel is enjoyable and well-worth a reader’s time. The Singer From Memphis is, I believe, the sixth entry in this series, which shows no signs of slowing down.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, July 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Reviews: Badlands by C.J. Box and Murder on the Quai by Cara Black

badlandsBadlands
C.J. Box
Minotaur Books, , August 2016
ISBN 978-1-3125-4690-8
Mass MarketPaperback

When the art of fracking created an oil boom in North Dakota, it also gave rise to all sorts of complications from housing shortages to drug crime.  What was before a sleepy little town, now arose a bustling area where the sheriff’s staff grew like topsy to keep pace.  The latest addition is Cassie Dewell, hired as chief investigator from her old job in Montana where she became obsessed with the so-called Lizard King, a trucker who preyed and killed prostitutes plying truck stops from coast to coast.

In fact, that’s how we are introduced to Cassie, as she travels to North Carolina to participate in an interrogation of a person suspected of being the perpetrator just before she assumes her new duties.  When she arrives in Bakken County, ND, the sheriff confides in Cassie his suspicion that all is not well in the department, and asks her to undertake an investigation by herself without telling her why.  Meanwhile, a shipment of a large quantity of drugs is delivered by car, which is forced off the road by a rival gang, and a  duffel bag is flung wide of the accident scene and recovered by a 12-year-old newspaper delivery boy.

As the plot unfolds, Cassie is in the middle of it all, making assumptions, detecting, analyzing, and finally guessing that the boy is the key to it all, except for the possible corruption that might exist in the law enforcement personnel (which of course is related to the drug gangs).  The author demonstrates his reputation for writing novels with excellent characterizations and providing detailed environmental descriptions.  When the outside temperature falls to 20 and 30 degrees below freezing, the reader almost feels compelled to turn up the heat.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2016.

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murder-on-the-quaiMurder on the Quai
An Aimée Leduc Investigation #16
Cara Black
Soho Crime, June 2016
ISBN 978-1-616-95624-0
Hardcover

After 15 Aimée Leduc mysteries, Cara Black turned her attention backward in time to the start of Aimee’s career, providing a back story to her beginnings as a detective, and introducing some of the basics which inhabit subsequent novels, namely how she met Rene Friant, her partner in Leduc Detective, and acquired Miles Davis, her bichon frise.  At the time, Aimée was a first-year medical student, hating every moment.

Then one day while Aimée was in her father’s office, as he was about to leave for Berlin to obtain the Stasi file on his renegade wife, who had  disappeared years before, a distant relation asks him to find a young woman who perhaps was the last person to see her father before he was murdered.  Instead, Aimée takes the case on herself as her father had refused to do so before he left.

From that point on, all the attributes of an Aimée Leduc mystery flow:  Aimée getting into all kinds of danger; all the flavor and smells of Paris streets and neighborhoods; the give-and-take between Aimée and her godfather and high police official Morbier; Aimée’s passion for discounted fashion clothes; among other common features of the series.  Since it was her first case, the progress is not as smooth as future investigations, as she stumbles and learns, but unquestionably the book is recommended as an introduction to her subsequent adventures.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016.

Book Review: Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellmann

easy-innocenceEasy Innocence
A Georgia Davis Novel of Suspense #1
Libby Fischer Hellmann
Narrated by Beth Richmond
The Red Herrings Press, May 2016
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook
Also available in print and ebook editions

From the author—

When pretty, smart Sara Long is found bludgeoned to death, it’s easy to blame the man with the bat. But Georgia Davis – former cop and newly-minted PI – is hired to look into the incident at the behest of the accused’s sister, and what she finds hints at a much different, much darker answer. It seems the privileged, preppy schoolgirls on Chicago’s North Shore have learned just how much their innocence is worth to hot-under-the-collar businessmen. But while these girls can pay for Prada price tags, they don’t realize that their new business venture may end up costing them more than they can afford.

I’ve been a fan of Libby Fischer Hellmann for a long time but, although the print version of this book first came out in 2008, I had never read it or the following three books in the series. That wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it but I had focused on the author’s other works with the idea of getting to this “one of these days”. That day finally came when Ms. Hellmann offered a chance to listen to a re-do of the audiobook; I love audiobooks so I leaped at the opportunity.

From the standpoint of the story, the initial investigation into the teen’s murder eventually develops into three seemingly separate storylines but whether they are related is something Georgia will have to determine. In fact, she isn’t aware that one of these threads exists or, perhaps more accurately, she doesn’t understand all the parts; this is one of those instances when the reader knows more than the protagonist does but, deviously, Ms. Hellmann sees to it that we don’t know what we don’t know. Very nicely…and wickedly…done, Ms. Hellmann 😉

Georgia is a very likeable woman and an intelligent P.I. with a leg up from her police background. She doesn’t have a lot of people in her life but those who surround her are good people who care what happens to her. There’s nothing sleazy about Georgia and she approaches her tasks with a sense of honor and a desire to cause as little harm as possible.  That’s important because a lot of people could be very hurt by the results of her investigation, beginning with the ring of teenaged hookers and their oblivious families, not to mention their own airheaded ignorance of the dark side of their business venture. When Georgia learns of a possible fraudulent land development scheme, tying it to the prostitution ring ramps up the danger level to new highs including attempts on her own life.

In the first third or so of the book, I thought things dragged a little and the narrator’s performance added to that feeling because of her somewhat deliberate and slow pace. In fact, at one point, I turned up the speed on my iPod just to see what it would sound like and, although Ms. Richmond sounded quite a lot like she inhaled helium, I could still understand her clearly. That indicates to me that her pace really was a little too slow BUT….

….everything changed once certain things started happening and Ms. Richmond grabbed and held my attention. Certainly a lot of that is because Ms. Hellmann‘s story began to come to life but it’s also because Ms. Richmond really is quite a good narrator, especially with her varying voices. When all is said and done, I’m now wanting to continue with the series and with Beth Richmond‘s narration.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2016.