Book Review: The Question Is Murder by Mark Willen @MarkWillen @partnersincr1me

The Question Is Murder

by Mark Willen

July 5-16, 2021 Tour




Washington D.C. newspaper columnist Sam Turner, known to his readers as Mr. Ethics, faces his toughest moral dilemma yet: Can murder ever be justified?

That’s the question posed to him by a mysterious young woman who says she is being stalked and harassed by an ex-lover too powerful to be stopped any other way. Sam knows that journalists should never get personally involved in a story, but he finds he is being drawn deeper and deeper into this one whether he wants it or not.

So when Senator Wade Morgan turns up murdered, Sam fears the worst. Worried about his own involvement, the man who normally has all the answers is now the one making questionable decisions.

As his investigation into the Senator’s death begins to spin out of control, Sam finds he can’t let go—even as the case grows more complicated and the threats against his life become more immediate. With the fate of a young woman at stake and his own life in jeopardy, Sam can’t back down until the killer—whoever that may be—is brought to justice.

But this is D.C., and justice can be in short supply.

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Amateur Sleuth, Psychological Thriller Published by: Pen-L Publishing Publication Date: May 14th 2021 Number of Pages: 304 ISBN: 1683132246 (ISBN-13: 978-1683132240) Series: The Question Is Murder is not included in a series. Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My Review

Journalists, especially those who are the investigative type, are frequently faced with choices that must be made and, if they’re honorable, the ethics of developing the story take precedence. In Sam Turner’s case, he actually is an ethics columnist so the potential dilemma is truly front and center. When a death occurs and Sam believes he has information that may or may not require protection, he has to confront the probability that revealing or concealing what he knows each present ethical problems.

Author Mark Willen has crafted a mystery that’s more than the expected puzzle with an investigation and resolution. Yes, the death does become the focus of inquiry and, in Mr. Willen’s capable hands, it successfully follows the usual procedures and is an engaging story. Beyond that, though, we’re treated to temporarily living inside Sam’s mind as he struggles with what he should do and that is a fascinating journey. Certainly, the reader is prompted to think about how she or he would handle a similar situation and I recommend The Question Is Murder for anyone who looks for crime fiction with a point to make.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2021.


Read an excerpt

Dear Mr. Ethics
Sam reads the email a second time, then a third, not sure whether to dismiss it as a prank or call the police. He prints it out and then reads it again, looking for some clue to the sender’s frame of mind. It’s probably a stunt. Sam gets more than his share of cranks and weirdos. There’s something about writing a newspaper column and calling yourself “Mr. Ethics” that attracts them. Some people just take offense at the notion of a guy sitting behind a computer trying to tell them there’s a right way to behave. He takes a deep breath and reads the email again, a blue felt-tipped pen in his hand. He studies the words, the grammar, even the sentence structure, looking for oddities or inconsistencies. Nothing jumps out. He doesn’t need this. Not now. But then maybe he does. Maybe it’s just what he needs. Something to take his mind off of Lisa, not unlike the migraine that makes you forget the sprained ankle, at least for a while. He looks up from the sheet of paper in his hand and glances at the poster that hangs in front of him. It’s filled with quotations on writing, and although it’s the kind of thing a college kid would hang in a dorm room, he’s always liked having it near. And he didn’t have much else to stick on the wall two years ago when he was awarded his own office, a privilege he didn’t especially want and still hasn’t adjusted to. He loves the column, both for its intellectual challenge and for the feeling that he may be helping people, albeit in small ways, to make the world a better place. He turns back to the email. He needs another opinion and knows it should come from his boss, but he doesn’t want to lose control. Brenda would be cautious and call in the executive editor or a lawyer, maybe both, and that would mean days of delay. He’s not going to use the email in his column, so whatever he does shouldn’t come back to hurt the newspaper. He wants to help if he can, and he doesn’t want anyone to get in his way. He’s too old for bureaucratic games. But he does want another opinion. He gets up, grabs the printout, and walks down the hall to the newsroom. It’s eerily quiet, nothing like the newsrooms he grew up in. Gone is the chaos of constant motion and loud conversations carried on from opposite ends of the room. Gone too are the ugly metal desks shoved together so close you can smell the whisky on your neighbor’s breath, hear him belch or argue with an official or a source on the phone. Some had hated it, but Sam thrived on the synergy it produced, the bonds it created, the shared excitement of doing something he believed—still believes—is important. Now, in its place he sees what the younger reporters view as high-tech paradise, with desks crowded with laptops and other electronic devices. The reporters and editors are stuck in a maze of mini-cubicles with three-foot high, sound-absorbing barriers to create a sense of privacy. They need to stand up to see another person. He’s acutely aware of how much journalism has changed in the thirty years he’s been practicing it. Not that it was ever pure and not that all its practitioners had less than selfish motives. But many did. Now it’s nothing more than a business, a fight for internet clicks or a spot appearance on TV, just when facts and truth matter the most because they’re in such short supply. It’s one of the reasons he was ready to give up reporting and editing to take on the ethics column, but that’s not to say he doesn’t miss the thrill of unraveling an important story. He walks the maze, heading to Molly’s corner. “Hey,” he says as he comes up behind her. Her right hand rises in a silencing gesture, and he realizes she’s on the phone. One of those ear things hidden by her hair. How was he supposed to know? While he waits, he glances up at the silent TV monitors on the wall and tries to guess why the weatherman is moving his arms around in a circle. After a minute or so, Molly ends the call and turns to him. “What?” she asks, not unfriendly but not friendly either. Busy is the vibe he gets. Sam was once Molly’s editor and mentor as she learned her way around Congress, which was Sam’s beat for twelve years. She still comes to him for advice, though not often, and he will seek her out when his ethics column needs the perspective of someone younger, or a woman. He hands her the printout without speaking and watches her read it, biting down on her lower lip, a habit he’s grown used to. He averts his eyes when she looks up and catches him staring at her. He glances around her cubicle while she finishes, then turns back to her, focusing now on her hands, which grip the printout on either side, as if she’s worried he’ll have second thoughts and try to take it back. He’s never noticed how graceful her hands look, with long supple fingers, as though she was born to play the piano. Or type. The thought makes him smile. Molly hands back the email and frowns. “So what’s the question?” she asks. “Do you think it’s for real?” She purses her lips and turns her head slightly. Her blue eyes, accented with eye shadow she doesn’t need, seem to settle on a photograph of her and Kyle, her fiancé. They are wearing hiking gear and standing atop a boulder, Molly’s bleached-blond hair blowing lightly in the wind. Their wedding is set for Memorial Day weekend, less than three months away. “Look, Sam,” she says finally, picking up her water bottle and taking a swallow, making him wait for what’s coming. “Every woman has some rat-bastard in her past she’d love to blow to kingdom come, but they never actually do it.” “Some do.” “Not many. And probably only on the spur of the moment. More passion than planning, and never with advance notice.” “This is different. He didn’t dump her. He’s stalking her and she’s scared. She doesn’t see any other way out.” Molly tilts her head slightly and he’s not sure what that means. She reaches for the moisturizer she keeps on her desk. He watches her squirt some in her palm and then rub it carefully on the backs of her hands. He feels himself getting annoyed. Since Lisa asked him to move out, he has less patience for everything and everyone. He reminds himself of that and takes a deep breath. “I can’t ignore it,” he says. “But what can you do? It’s vague and anonymous. You can’t use it in the column. Are you thinking of turning it over to the police?” “No. I have to answer her. Reach out in some way.” “Tell me why. You always told me not to get involved in the stories I cover.” “I can’t just let it go.” “What if you find out she’s serious? Or suicidal?” she asks. “Then you’ll have no choice but to go to the authorities.” The question annoys him. “Of course. But I don’t have enough to work with now.” “I don’t disagree, and if it’s not a hoax, I feel sorry for her. But all you can do is tell her to go to the police.” “She says she can’t,” he says. “I want to find out why. This is a cry for help.” Molly shrugs, making it clear she doesn’t agree. “If I came to you with this, you’d say reporters shouldn’t get involved. I’d get your lecture on how our job is to shine a light on problems while staying above the fray, not try to make everything okay.” He doesn’t know what to say. He can’t argue with the journalistic principle she’s quoting, but it doesn’t apply here because he’s not a reporter planning to write a story about the email. “I have to follow it up,” he tells her. “I just do.” “Why’d you ask my advice if you already had your mind made up?” He walks away without answering. On the one hand, he sees her point, but he’s disappointed she isn’t more concerned, more helpful. It surprises him that Molly isn’t able to put herself in other people’s shoes more often. Seeing the other side of an issue—any issue—is an important skill for a reporter. Call it empathy. But maybe he’s just annoyed because she doesn’t agree with him. Back in his office, he forwards the email to the IT department. He deletes the content, but they can analyze the IP address or whatever they look at to try to determine where it came from. He doesn’t have much hope, but it’s worth a try. Then he turns back to the email and rereads it. *** Dear Mr. Ethics: Is murder ever ethical? I hope so because I don’t have a choice. An ex-lover is destroying me. I broke up with him and now he’s ruining my life. He got into my laptop, stole all my data and used it to stalk, embarrass, and almost bankrupt me. Now he’s moved on to even worse stuff. He’s killing my hope for any kind of normal life, so killing him is a form of self-defense. Justifiable homicide, right? I can’t go to the police for reasons I can’t explain here. And I can’t give you any more details because I can’t risk you figuring out my name. So can I murder him? And no, I’m not kidding. Sincerely, Truly Desperate *** Sam jots down several notes. The tone strikes him as strangely calm and rational. She’s making a logical argument, not what you’d expect from someone stressed and frantic. Or crazy. Is it a hoax? Maybe a college kid bored with her ethics class and looking for term paper ideas. Or an author concocting a crazy plot for a thriller. Or maybe someone pissed off at Mr. Ethics and hoping to draw him into a discussion that will embarrass him if made public. But maybe not. It doesn’t matter. He has to answer her. Keep her talking, try to get more clues so he can stop her on the off chance she really is planning a murder. He turns to his keyboard and after several false starts comes up with his reply. *** Dear Truly Desperate, I’m going to assume this is a not a prank because I have no way of knowing, and I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. From the little you’ve told me, I can assure you that what you propose is not ethical. Justifiable homicide applies only when your life is in imminent danger, and you haven’t convinced me that this is the case. I don’t think you’ve convinced yourself or you wouldn’t be asking me. You need to go to the police. If you can’t do it yourself, is there someone who can do it for you? If necessary, I might be willing to do that, depending on the details. And with the newspaper behind me, the police will feel obliged to take it seriously. If you don’t want my help, I suggest you talk to a mental health professional or a social worker or someone experienced in cases involving domestic partner abuse (which this obviously is). If you’d like to talk about this more (and I will treat any conversations we have confidentially), you may call me at any time (cellphone number below). Above all, don’t do anything rash. Regards, Sam Turner (a.k.a. Mr. Ethics) *** He sits back and reads the note again. He considers his offer to go to the police on her behalf, mindful of Molly’s warning not to get involved. He wants to help her, but that’s going too far. He eliminates that sentence. He also cuts the promise of confidentiality. If she asks for it, he’ll agree, but there’s no need to offer it upfront. And it might tie his hands unnecessarily. He reads his response one last time and hits the send button. * * * *** Excerpt from The Question Is Murder by Mark Willen. Copyright 2021 by Mark Willen. Reproduced with permission from Mark Willen. All rights reserved.


Author Bio


Mark Willen was born, raised, and educated in New England, where he developed a special appreciation for the values, humor, and strength of its people, as well as the sense of community that characterizes so many of its small towns. After college, he moved to the Washington, DC area, where he quickly learned how the other half lives. As a journalist, he has been a reporter, columnist, blogger, producer, and editor at The Voice of America, National Public Radio, Congressional Quarterly, Bloomberg News, and Kiplinger. Though based primarily in Washington, he has reported from datelines as varied as New York, Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg. Having retired from journalism in 2010, Mark now divides his time between writing fiction and volunteer work. As a former graduate-level teacher of journalism ethics, he also tries to help people figure out the right thing to do in difficult situations through his blog, Mark has a Masters of Arts in writing from Johns Hopkins University (2010) and a Bachelor of Arts in government from Dartmouth College. The Question Is Murder is Mark’s debut mystery, but there is always an element of suspense in his novels. His earlier Jonas Hawke series, three books set in a small but troublesome town in Vermont, were also published by Pen-L. His short stories have appeared in The Rusty Nail, Corner Club Press, and The Boiler Review. Mark lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, Janet.

Catch Up With Our Author: Goodreads BookBub – @MarkWillen Instagram – @markwillen7 Twitter – @MarkWillen Facebook – @MarkWillenAuthor


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Book Reviews: Sleepwalker by Wendy Corsi Staub, Bleeding Through by Sandra Parshall, and The Fourth Conspirator by Barry S. Willdorf

Wendy Corsi Staub
Harper, 2012
ISBN No. 978-0062070302
Mass Market Paperback

Wendy Corsi Staub‘s novels are very addictive if the reader is looking for great characters, a lot of suspense and don’t mind a little cliffhanger at the end.  Sleepwalker is the second novel in a trilogy with Allison Taylor now Allison MacKenna as the central character.

Allison met her husband Mack MacKenna when she had an apartment across from Mack and his wife in New York.  Mack’s wife was killed in the 9-11 tragedy and Allison suffered a tragedy of her own at that time.  She discovered the body of Kristina Haines, another resident in the apartment building.  Kristina had been brutally murdered. Jerry Thompson, a maintenance man in the apartment building, was convicted of Kristina’s murder and sentenced to prison.

Allison and Mack eventually married and now have a wonderful family.  Now it is announced on the news that Jerry Thompson has committed suicide and suspicious things begin happening to Allison.  She feels that someone has invaded her space but who or how this can happen, she has no idea.  Mack is taking medication for his insomnia and Allison catches him walking in his sleep one night.  Allison fights back the thoughts that Mack may be the cause of some of the strange little things that are happening.

When Bob Lewis, Allison’s neighbor who is out of town, contacts Allison and asks that she go next door and check on his wife Phyllis, Allison agrees.  On arriving at the Lewis’ home Allison finds that Phyllis has been murdered and in the same manner as Kristina ten years before.

So the nightmare begins again for Allison and her family. Detective Rocky Manzillo, the detective who originally investigated Kristina’s death, is called in on the case even though his wife is very ill.  It seems that Jerry Thompson is speaking from the grave to those who found him guilty letting all involved know that there is still someone out there who won’t be satisfied until Allison and all involved are punished.

The last book in the trilogy is Shadowkiller.  I am waiting anxiously for the release of this third book.  I would suggest that readers start with the first book in the trilogy but I think the author gives enough background in Sleepwalker to make it an enjoyable read even though you have not read the first book.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, October 2012.


Bleeding ThroughBleeding Through
Sandra Parshall
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2012
ISBN No. 978-1464200274
Also available in trade paperback

Rachel and Deputy Chief Tom Bridger are living together and life has settled down into a satisfying routine,  Rachel’s sister, Michelle, fears she is being stalked.  Michelle hopes that her stay with Rachel and Tom will discourage the stalker.  This is the first time that Michelle has visited and Rachel is on edge about the visit and Michelle meeting Tom.   Rachel and Michelle also have past issues that they have never satisfactorily worked out.   Michelle’s visit gives the two sisters the perfect opportunity to solve past issues and to grow closer.

Rachel and Tom are supervising a group of teenagers cleaning up litter on a Mason County, Virginia highway when they discover the body of a young woman wrapped in plastic.  Sadly, the sister of the woman is one of the teenagers on the clean-up crew and the teenager sees the body before Rachel or Tom can pull her away.

When Tom begins his investigation, he learned that the deceased girl, Shelley Beecher, had been making inquiries in an attempt to free a person she felt had been wrongfully accused of the murder of Brian Hadley.  The Hadley family is furious at Shelley’s attempts to prove that Vance Langford, convicted of their son’s murder, is actually innocent.  Now Shelley’s family is pointing fingers at the Hadley family for the death of their daughter.  Tom is busy trying to find out who murdered Shelley and keep peace between the families until he can solve the crime.

This fifth addition to the Rachel Goddard series keeps the reader glued to the pages.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, February 2013.


The Fourth ConspiratorThe Fourth Conspirator
(Part 3 of the 1970’s Trilogy)
Barry S. Willdorf
Whiskey Creek Press, September 2012
ISBN No. 978-1611603323
Trade Paperback

This is an action packed book taking the reader in several different directions.  Nate Lewis is an attorney representing the property owner that shot and killed a crook ripping off his marijuana garden.  The shooter is a former Marine and does not intend to let anyone get away with raiding his property.  Nate has his hands full building a defense.

Nate’s wife, Christina Lima, has taken over public relations for her cousins Mendocino winery.  Christina has more than any woman should be asked to handle.  She is pregnant.  Christina’s father has Alzheimer’s.  Then Christina’s dying aunt asks Christina to mediate her cousin’s ongoing battles for control of the winery.

While attempting to prepare an accounting to present to the cousins Christina is injured.   Whether the injury is an accident or on purpose is not known.  Then it begins to look like Christina’s accident and Nate’s case might be connected.

Burning Questions and A Shot In The Arm  are the first two books in this trilogy.  I started with The Fourth Conspirator, but I intend to go back and read the first two books.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2013.