Book Review: The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore

The Poison Artist
Jonathan Moore
Mariner Books, December 2016
ISBN 978-0-5448-1182-9
Trade Paperback

There are obsessions and there are fantasies.  And usually they don’t coincide.  But they do in this fascinating novel, which encompasses the elements of a serial murder mystery, a thriller and possibly a psychological analysis of a sick mind.  It is the story of Dr. Caleb Maddox, a brilliant San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain in the most advanced laboratory in the country.

After his live-in girlfriend walks out on him following an argument, he goes out drinking.  In a bar, he meets a beautiful woman named Emmeline. He becomes obsessed with her, and has to find her again. Meanwhile, he gets caught up in a serial murder investigation, helping his best friend, the Medical Examiner.  One of the victims turns out to be someone who also was drinking in the same bar as Caleb that night.  The detective  in charge of the case is aware of Caleb’s early history, and suspicion arises implicating him.

The novel is a complicated tale and is rather confusing until the author finally gets around to providing details on earlier history.  Until then, the reader remains in the dark and has to take everything at face value.  And the conclusion is somewhat offbeat as Caleb, perhaps, slips away from reality.

Written well, it is an unusual story well worth reading, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2017.

Book Review: Keys to Nowhere by Dorothy H. Hayes

Keys to Nowhere
The Carol Rossi Mystery Series #3
Dorothy H. Hayes
CreateSpace, January 2017
ISBN 978-1541242876
Trade Paperback

From the author—

A Tucson vacation morphs into terror when two teenage girls and their aunt vanish. When the girls’ desperate parents beg their friend and Connecticut investigative journalist Carol Rossi for help, Rossi can’t refuse. She leaves her infant daughter, police detective husband, and treasured farm and animal sanctuary to lead the hunt through the desert. It’s 1985, and Rossi is chasing down a new kind of danger: the serial killer. When the Tucson police aren’t interested in her theories, Rossi acts alone before the killer can strike again.

I have a vague memory of the first time I heard of an abductor/killer posing as a police patrolman but what isn’t vague is how it sunk in that this is a trap all too easy for most people to fall into. Ever since, I’ve been prepared to do what the police themselves advise, to never stop at night or in a lonely area when a cop flashes the lights or taps the siren but go directly to a precinct if possible or at least a well-lit spot with people around. The first pages of Keys to Nowhere gave me the creeps as it became obvious how easy it is for a fake cop to overcome one’s natural concern and sense of self-preservation. By the end of the second chapter, I knew I was in for a heck of a story.

Carol Rossi is one smart cookie and has solved crimes before so it’s no surprise that her friend Vera begs her for help when she can’t reach her teenaged daughters and her sister who’ve been vacationing in Arizona. Helping Vera means Carol has to leave her infant daughter and her police detective husband behind in Connecticut so she’s understandably reluctant but a less than satisfactory call to the Tucson police convinces her she has to go.

Carol is an appealing protagonist, determined to find the three women despite a lack of interest from the police, but it’s the killer who really stands out in my mind because he’s so mesmerizing in his looks and smooth talk, very much like Ted Bundy. That’s the thing about really bad people—they frequently are impossible to spot until it’s too late and that’s one of the traits that’s so fascinating about them. The third character who really impressed me is 16-year-old Ginger, a girl in desperate trouble who isn’t the sort to just let things happen to her. I like this girl a lot and she’s the one who lends an atmosphere of hope to a tale of terror.

As for the story, there isn’t much that’s more intriguing than the battle between good and evil and that’s exactly what this is. It’s uncomfortable to be in the killer’s head but, at the same time, this is what makes his actions and behavior so compelling and, from page to page, I wanted, needed to know what would happen next with the tension building to almost unbearable levels.

Keys to Nowhere is one of those thrillers that blends plot and characterization on an equal basis and Ms. Hayes once again has crafted a tale that kept me enthralled from beginning to end. Anyone looking for an exciting, disturbing, highly satisfying read won’t go wrong with this one.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2017.

Book Reviews: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes and Surrounded by Witnesses by Jeff Foster

hidden-bodiesHidden Bodies
Caroline Kepnes
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8562-2
Hardcover

Joe, narrator and protagonist of this turbulent novel is arrogant, smart, clever and well educated. He is also misogynistic, athletic, immoral, talented and a serial killer. As an adept seducer of women, he travels the nation, expounding on his distorted philosophy, scamming various people and murdering those who get in his way, often for the flimsiest of reasons. He is an extremely engaging modern character.

The story begins in a New York bookstore and ends in a California lockup. In between, Joe rambles both physically and intellectually about the human condition, about relationships and about what he should do next. And he pursues a distorted nihilistic philosophy of life that leads him into a morass of morally questionable actions that take place in often unusual and well-described locations. Yet he is a charmer and as pursued by his chronicler, author, Caroline Kepner, he is successful in persuading a great many people to buy at least some of his arguments and actions.

Of course, it is the skill and talent of the author that helps persuade us to continue to pay attention to this most reprehensible of characters and to give his oft-times hare-brained philosophizing serious consideration. A well-conceived, finely written effort that somehow seems peculiarly relevant in today’s world.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 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.

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surrounded-by-witnessesSurrounded By Witnesses
Jeff Foster
North Star Press, January 2007
ISBN: 978-0-87839-258-0
Trade Paperback

The novel has an interesting premise: a Muslim terrorist scout team is heading for the middle of the middle west in order to set up some kind of attack. They travel as a family and with typical short-view planning, come down from Canada into the Upper Midwest during the height of winter. This of course means blizzards, disruption of timing and attendant growing rage from the family’s controllers.

The novel centers on the family’s interaction with an intensely rural Minnesota family of taciturn Scandinavians. Swede and Heidi and their children are the epitome of type. Manifold difficulties rise to hamper the progress of the terrorist unit toward their intended target. The novel is replete with high tech maneuvering which at times gets in the way of human interaction and the pace of the novel.

I was bothered by the remote language of the narration, disconcerting shifts of points of view and a few clichéd characters. That said, the story line is interesting, but at 330 pages, this trade paper novel could have benefited from some judicious editing. At times the language including the dialogue is stilted and awkward. Those caveats aside, this is an enjoyable novel, worth a few hours of leisure.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 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: The Daemoniac by Kat Ross

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Title: The Daemoniac
Series: A Dominion Mystery #1

Author: Kat Ross
Publication Date: October 12, 2016
Genres: Mystery, Historical, Young Adult

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the-daemoniacThe Daemoniac
A Dominion Mystery #1
Kat Ross
Acorn Publishing, October 2016
Ebook

From the author—

It’s August of 1888, just three weeks before Jack the Ripper will begin his grisly spree in the London slum of Whitechapel, and another serial murderer is stalking the gas-lit streets of New York. With taunting messages in backwards Latin left at the crime scenes and even more inexplicable clues like the fingerprints that appear to have been burned into one victim’s throat, his handiwork bears all the hallmarks of a demonic possession.

But consulting detective Harrison Fearing Pell is convinced her quarry is a man of flesh and blood. Encouraged by her uncle, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry hopes to make her reputation by solving the bizarre case before the man the press has dubbed Mr. Hyde strikes again.

From the squalor of the Five Points to the high-class gambling dens of the Tenderloin and the glittering mansions of Fifth Avenue, Harry and her best friend, John Weston, follow the trail of a remorseless killer, uncovering a few embarrassing secrets of New York’s richest High Society families along the way. Are the murders a case of black magic—or simple blackmail? And will the trail lead them closer to home than they ever imagined?

Harrison Fearing Pell has an older sister, Myrtle Fearing Pell, who’s quite famous….infamous, if you will….as a Pinkerton detective and Harry is bored so, when opportunity arises, she takes on a case of her own. With the help of her best friend, aspiring doctor John Weston, Harry sets out to find a missing man and life for these two will never be the same.

New York City itself is a character in the story with it’s dark streets, corruption, crime and all the squalid glories of its 1880’s existence, all of that enhanced by the hints that perhaps something truly evil is going on as they search for Robert Straker. Robert had fallen on hard times and his friends, Leland and Elizabeth Brady, are understandably alarmed when he vanishes following a frightening visit to a spiritualist, even more so when a vicious murder turns the investigation on its ear.

Harry and John are a most appealing pair and The Daemoniac is a lovely sendup of mystery and the coming Jack the Ripper atmosphere, leavened by the across-the-pond assistance of Harry’s “uncle”, Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as the inimitable reporter, Nellie Bly . Frequent nods to the Sherlock Holmes canon and a blend of charm and darkness turned this first volume of a hopefully long-running series into a few hours of pure pleasure and I’m looking forward to much more.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2016.

About the Author

Kat Ross worked as a journalist at the United Nations for ten years before happily falling back into what she likes best: making stuff up. She lives in Westchester with her kid and a few sleepy cats. Kat is also the author of the dystopian thriller Some Fine Day (Skyscape, 2014), about a world where the sea levels have risen sixty meters. She loves magic, monsters and doomsday scenarios. Preferably with mutants.

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Book Review: Convergence by Michelle Grey

convergenceConvergence
Long Shot Series, Book Three
Michelle Grey
CreateSpace, February 2016
ISBN 978-1530169436
Trade Paperback

Whether we call it a romantic suspense or a mystery/romance, the chase is on in Convergence. The plot and characters satisfy detective story lovers and also please readers of romance novels. It’s told from two points of view. Tori Whitlock, the beautiful, hard-nosed tornado chaser isn’t looking for commitment, and Jack Mathis, the hot FBI detective intends only to chase the serial killer threatening Tori’s life. Their worlds collide when the detective must take up residence in Tori’s home to protect her.

Tori has become a celebrity from her electrifying tornado chase videos, and she’s totally upfront about pursuing Jack for a roll in the sack. But she’s also running from demons and ready to lash out with her sharp tongue against the idea of being protected. Jack finds himself drawn to the intelligent, strong-willed lady but won’t let himself act unprofessionally. He’s also still healing from past heartbreak.

The detective fits right in with Tori’s tornado chase team, but he must investigate each member in case the killer of women meteorologists has infiltrated the group. The reader learns how chase teams work while following the increasing fearfulness and also the sexual tension. As soon as we think we don’t know much about the inner Jack or about Tori’s motivations, the author gives us more. Gradually, the characters become rounded until we care as much as they do.

Convergence gives us two main characters, two intertwined plots, and two climaxes (no pun intended). We turn pages to learn whether the serial killer will ever be identified and whether the protagonists will be able to share their feelings with each other. It’s a twisted path, but worth the turns.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, July 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Blood Ties by Nicholas Guild

Blood TiesBlood Ties
Nicholas Guild
Forge, May 2015
ISBN  978-0-7653-7845-3
Hardcover

A manhunt for a monster, a police procedural and a love story all wrapped up in a thriller sums up what this novel is all about.  Its characters are fascinating, beginning with a serial killer who probably has murdered hundreds of women by torturing them to death in his decades-long career.  More important is his rationale for doing so:  putting them out of their misery (just life on this old planet, a living hell in his view).  The murders were committed all over the country, but the most recent took place in the San Francisco area, where homicide detective Ellen Ridley and her partner, Sam Tyler, become the lead investigators on three related murders (and possibly five all together).

Ridley at first suspects Stephen Tregear, a highly intelligent, charming computer genius and code breaker for the Navy, as a suspect, but soon eliminates him, learning instead that it is his father who is the ogre.  The two form a relationship and with his help the story moves on until father and son confront each other.  It is a study really of psychological insights into each character and what motivations led them to act as they have.

Among the themes that contribute to these manifestations are growing up in an abusive home and why one family member turns out to be a brutal serial killer, while another becomes a highly educated, intelligent person with admirable values who risks his life to save those of others.  The story is well-presented, and moves along at a steady pace, and the reader becomes totally absorbed in a beguiling plot.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2016.

Book Reviews: Blood Symmetry by Kate Rhodes and The Girl in the River by Kate Rhodes

Blood SymmetryBlood Symmetry
Alice Quentin #5
Kate Rhodes
Witness Impulse, July 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-244407-3
Ebook
Also available in trade paperback

From the publisher—

Clare Riordan and her son, Mikey, are abducted from Clapham Common early one morning. Hours later, the boy is found wandering disorientated. Soon after, a container of Clare’s blood is left on a doorstep in the heart of London.

Psychologist Alice Quentin is brought in to help the traumatized child uncover his memories, with the hope that it might lead the authorities to his mother’s captors. But Alice swiftly realizes Clare is not the first victim… nor will she be the last.

The killers are desperate for revenge… and in the end, it will all come down to blood.

Police procedurals are high on my list of things I want to read and it’s even better if the police in question are British. While Blood Symmetry is, strictly speaking, not a police procedural, that’s just semantics. Alice is a psychologist who, beginning with the first book in the series , works closely with the police to solve crimes, especially those that don’t seem to be so cut-and-dried and she is now part of the Metropolitan’s forensic psychology unit.

Any crime involving harm to a child is certainly worse than the norm—even hardened criminals are disgusted by it—and it’s easy to see why Alice would be brought in to work with this eleven-year-old in the effort to find his still-missing mother and the individual(s) behind the kidnapping. Clearly, Clare was the target, not Mikey, so what is it about her that drew the attention of the abductors? She’s a blood specialist and others in her profession have been victimized but why?

As detectives begin to learn that it all revolves around tainted blood, Alice slowly progresses toward a breakthrough with Mikey and it’s this part of the story that especially appealed to me. I’ve always been interested in the workings of the human mind and children are a different kettle of fish, so to speak, because their minds don’t work the same as adults. In this case, Mikey’s near-muteness is an additional barrier to finding out what he knows.

On a more personal note, Alice and her significant other, DCI Don Burns, are working this case together and that lets the reader who’s new to the series get a good feel for the relationship between these two. It took me about two seconds to decide I really like Alice and Don as a couple as well as individually; they have their differences and neither thinks it’s a good idea to work together but this young boy and his mother trump their reluctance.

Kate Rhodes has reached into the past in writing this story, basing it on the scandal surrounding distribution of tainted blood in the 1970’s and 80’s, and it’s a much-needed reminder that things can go very wrong in medical developments. Besides constructing a truly engaging criminal investigation with nicely developed characters, she has made her story very relevant and I am thoroughly happy to have made the acquaintance of this fine series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2016.

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The Girl in the RiverThe Girl in the River
(published as River of Souls in the UK)
Alice Quentin #4
Kate Rhodes
Witness Impulse, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-244404-2
Ebook
Also available in trade paperback

From the publisher—

Jude Shelley, daughter of a prominent cabinet minister, had her whole life ahead of her until she was attacked and left to drown in the Thames. Miraculously, she survived. A year later, her family is now asking psychologist Alice Quentin to re-examine the case.

But then a body is found: an elderly priest, attacked in Battersea, washed up at Westminster Pier. An ancient glass bead is tied to his wrist.

Alice is certain that Jude and her family are hiding something, but unless she can persuade them to share what they know, more victims will come.

Because the Thames has always been a site of sacrifice and death.

And Alice is about to learn that some people still believe in it…

When psychologist Alice Quentin is asked to look into a year-old assault and attempted murder, a cold case, she’s reluctant to get involved with this politically-charged situation but her realization that the earlier police work was shoddy at best changes her feeling about it. Before all is resolved, Alice will have to confront a lot of issues, not least of which is the murky mind of a serial killer who sees things very differently from “normal” people.

Soon, the murder of a priest which may or may not be connected and Alice’s sense that the first victim, Jude, and her family are withholding information causes her to understand that this is much more than a simple attack…although the word simple is a misnomer considering the terrible facial disfigurement Jude suffered.

Since I read this book, fourth in the series, after the fifth book, Blood Symmetry, a few things are a little out of kilter but not beyond redemption. The chief difference is that Alice and Don are not yet in a relationship although clearly they have a past. Watching them work together (because Don was initially involved in the case) is interesting for the investigative aspect but perhaps more so for the development of their relationship. I was already a fan of these two and I still am for a lot of reasons, not least of which is their ability to separate work from their personal lives.

The investigation into the attacks on Jude and Father Kelvin leads down some dark and twisty paths and I was completely immersed in it. I know a lot of readers don’t care for crime fiction involving serial killers but I’m endlessly fascinated by the workings of the damaged mind and this one is particularly interesting. In the end, horror is tempered with sadness and I closed the book knowing I’m going to look for Ms. Rhodes’ earlier Alice Quentin books.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2016.

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About the Author

Kate RhodesKate Rhodes is the author of four previous Alice Quentin novels, Crossbones Yard, A Killing of Angels, The Winter Foundlings and The Girl in the River. She is also the author of two collections of poetry, Reversal and The Alice Trap. She writes full-time now, and lives in Cambridge with her husband, a writer and film-maker.


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