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 Reviews: The Burning Soul by John Connolly, Trackers by Deon Meyer, What It Was by George Pelecanos, A Mortal Terror by James R. Benn, and A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

The Burning Soul
John Connolly
Atria Books, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-6527-0
Hardcover

John Connolly’s Charlie Parker Thrillers usually combine an element of the supernatural with basic detective work.  In this, the tenth in the series, the eerie aspects are slight, while the hard work of solving a case winds its way through the pages with realism and power.  It is a twisted story that begins when an attorney asks Charlie to assist a client, and unfolds with a ferocity of dynamic proportions.

It appears that the client, Randall Haight, as a 14-year-old, and with a friend, murdered a young girl in an incident with sex-related overtones. Following long jail terms, both men were released with new identities to give them a chance at rehabilitation.  Randall is now an accountant leading a quiet life in a small town on the Maine coast. And then a 14-year-old girl goes missing and Randall starts receiving reminders in the mail of his past transgression from someone who apparently has discovered his true identity.  He asks the attorney and Charlie to protect his anonymity by finding the source.  And this leads Charlie into a labyrinth of complications.

It is a gripping story, one in which the author throws red herrings into the reader’s path before unveiling a completely unexpected conclusion. Tightly written and plotted, the novel is a most welcome addition to an outstanding series and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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Trackers
Deon Meyer
Atlantic Monthly Press, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1993-3
Hardcover

Bringing back two characters from previous novels, the South African author has written a complicated story with three separate plots which are related both in circumstances and the people involved.  One theme involves what appears to be a Muslim plot, which a government intelligence service suspects at first to be a tradeoff between the smuggling of diamonds in exchange for weapons.  A second, an offshoot of the smuggling operation by a man seeking to recover a large sum of money he claims was stolen from him by gangsters (who incidentally are involved in the smuggling operation).

Then there is free-lance bodyguard Lemmer, who makes his second appearance in a Deon Meyer novel  [the first being The Blood Safari], who becomes involved indirectly in the smuggling operation when he accompanies a truck bearing two black rhinos into South Africa from a neighboring country which the gangsters believe is the method for bringing in the diamonds.  And finally Mat Joubert, the enigmatic South African detective, now retired, on his first day working for a private detective agency, who manages to bring all the threads together.

This stand-alone thriller aims high, and largely achieves its ambitions.  Adding to the spice is not only the author’s ability to portray the social, economic and political background of South Africa in depth, but a chilling look at how it is also a place where terrorists can run rampant.  And, icing on the cake, a first-rate mystery to keep the reader enthralled.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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What it Was
George Pelecanos
Reagan Arthur Books/Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, January 2012
ISBN: 978-0-316-20954-0
Paperback, 246 pp., $9.99

The year was 1972.  Derek Strange was out of the Metropolitan Police Dept. for four years and struggling to build up his PI agency.  Nixon was in the White House, but not for long.  Watergate was just up ahead.  The riots that tore the nation’s Capitol apart were some years ago, but unrest and attitude still ran strong.

Against this background George Pelecanos has written about Strange’s early career as a 26-year-old and his relationship with Detective Frank Vaughn.  It all starts when Strange is retained by a good-looking babe to find a missing ring of little “value” but “great” sentimentality.  This takes him on a journey, which enables the author to describe the crime conditions – – including a one-man murder wave – – and population and living conditions of D.C., along with almost a catalogue of the music of the era.

Written with the usual vernacular and tight prose as displayed in the previous novels in the series, the graphic details of the characters are mesmerizing.  Highly recommended.

[It should perhaps be noted that the novel is available in three different forms: the paperback, as well as a limited hardcover edition and an eBook version.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2012.

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A Mortal Terror
James R. Benn
Soho Crime, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-994-0
Hardcover

The Billy Boyle World War II Mysteries follow the progress of that conflict in this, the sixth installment, albeit it with a different twist.  It brings Billy his first murder case, either as a Boston detective (in his previous civilian life) or as “uncle” Ike’s special investigator.  But the horrors of the war in Italy, and especially the Anzio beachhead invasion, provide the backdrop for the tale.

When two officers are found murdered with clues left behind, one a ten of hearts on the body of a lieutenant and a jack of hearts on that of a Captain, the signs of a possible serial killer bent on revenge against the brass emerge, causing concern back at Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters.  So Billy is recalled from a three-day pass during which he met with his girlfriend in Switzerland and sent to Naples to begin an investigation into the crimes.  Then he has to face the fact that his younger brother is arriving as a replacement in the very platoon in which he suspects the killer is a member.

The author, a librarian, writes with accuracy of the difficulties and what would today be called PTSD endured by the GIs, as well as the physical hardships and psychological manifestations of infantry warfare.  His plotting is taut, descriptions graphic.  All in all, the series just keeps on getting better and better.  And the Second Front hasn’t yet been opened.  The series has a long way to go, and that’s a good thing.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2012.

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A Bitter Truth
Charles Todd
William Morrow, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-201570-9
Hardcover

This Bess Crawford mystery, set during World War I, finds her on a short leave from the front, intending to spend the Christmas holidays with her parents.  When she arrives at her apartment in London, she finds a young woman huddled on her doorstep, cold, hungry and distraught.  In sympathy, Bess takes her up to her room and learns that she has run away from her husband and home because he has abused her, and her disfigured face is proof.

From this improbable beginning, Bess becomes involved in a family’s secrets and along the way in a few murders, since she accompanies the young woman back to her home and family.  The novel rambles on, as the plot unfolds and the police fumble in an effort to solve one murder after another.  Bess returns to France, only to be recalled by the police for additional inquiries.

There are some excellent aspects to the novel, including insights into the lives of upper crust Britons of the period.  But it appeared to this reader that to bring the plot to a conclusion, the mother-son author duo reached out to contrive a solution that has little if any foundation. Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable read and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2012.

Book Reviews: Twice a Spy by Keith Thomson, Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer, Did Not Finish by Simon Wood, The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly, and Mystery by Jonathan Kellerman

Twice a Spy
Keith Thomson
Doubleday, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-385-53079-8
Hardcover

This sequel has more action packed between the covers than a fast-paced hockey game.  Charlie Clark and his father, Drummond [who suffers from the ups and downs of Alzheimer’s], find themselves in Geneva on the lam.  They fled the U.S. facing criminal charges and while in Switzerland, Drummond is being treated with an experimental drug, which seems to be helping reduce the effects of his disease..

All of which has little to do with events that ensue.  To begin with, Charlie’s lover, Alice, is kidnapped to force the Clarks to reveal where an atomic device is located, in return for her release.  Then the action gets underway at an unbelievable pace, vaulting Charlie into a whirlwind of activity to frustrate the bad guy but save his girlfriend.

The tale takes us from Europe to the Caribbean and various points in the U.S. from Langley to the Gulf Coast, with the Clarks fighting not only terrorists, but the CIA, Secret Service, and everyone in between. The plot moves at an incredibly rapid rate, if somewhat implausibly. Nevertheless, it’s an easy and entertaining read, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Only Time Will Tell
Jeffrey Archer
St. Martin’s Press, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-53955-9
Hardcover

This aptly titled novel is the prelude to a series entitled The Clifton Chronicles, covering the lives of several characters over the span of a century.  In the hands of the author, Jeffrey Archer, it follows the life of the main character, Harry Clifton, from his birth shortly after World War I to just short of WWII with more curves than a talented big league pitcher.

The story is told in succeeding chapters from the point of view of various persons, each contributing some insight into the questions raised in the last summation.  It takes Harry from a fatherless tot to a school truant to a talented choir singer and his education right up to his acceptance at Oxford.  Meanwhile his life becomes complicated as he grows up by virtue of his background:  the mystery of his father’s death, his mother’s struggles to support him, his questionable parentage.

No comment is necessary regarding Mr. Archer’s ability to write a solid story, and to end it in cliffhanger fashion so readers will look forward to the sequel.  It remains to be seen how ingenious he can be in the next book in the series.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Did Not Finish
Simon Wood
Crème de la Crime, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-78029-007-2
Hardcover

The advice usually given to authors (and would-be authors) is to write what you know.  And that is just what ex-racecar driver Simon Wood has done.  He has written a mystery with motorsports as the theme; sort of a Dick Francis novel on wheels, if you will.

It all begins the night before a big race when a nine-time champion threatens to kill his rival, who is in the lead to capture the title.  When the rival actually is killed during the race under suspicious circumstances in a collision with the champion, Aidy Westlake undertakes to prove it was a case of murder.  Throughout all sorts of hardships and dangers, he doggedly continues his mission, until the plot inevitably takes a sharp turn.

Filled with loads of details on the racing scene and the people and equipment that make it possible, the novel moves spiritedly apace.  It is filled with suspense and startling revelations, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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The Fifth Witness
Michael Connelly
Little, Brown, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-06935-9
Hardcover

The saga of the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, continues, following his previous appearance as a special prosecutor.  Times are hard and money scarce.  To scratch out a living, Mickey is now advertising in TV for clients facing foreclosure of their homes.  There is in this era no shortage of potential clients, and a thousand dollars here, a monthly payout there, and bills can be paid.

When one of his clients is arrested for the murder of a bank’s home loan officer, Mickey is once again a defense lawyer, giving the author to do what he does best: a dramatic courtroom story.  The drama is there, but a little bit of a potboiler, with the reader pretty much knowing not only the outcome of the trial but what follows.

Mickey, however, remains an interesting continuing character and we can be certain the sequel will take him into new territory once again. The author is excellent in constructing a plot that moves forward in a logical and careful manner, albeit with few surprises.  Written with aplomb and, to a degree, the flippancy necessary for Mickey’s personality, perhaps the next novel in the series will unveil more depth to the character. Make no mistake, however:  this one’s a good read, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Mystery
Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-345-50569-9
Hardcover

Sometimes the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” refers to a good thing.  Certainly it applies to the Alex Delaware series.  For 25 novels, the basic plot has remained the same: a crime is committed and Dr. Delaware and Lt. Sturgis investigate, analyze, philosophize and eventually solve it.  This 26th story in the series is no different.

A beautiful young woman, obviously waiting for a “date,” first observed in a rundown hotel by Alex and his paramour Robin, is found later up in the Hollywood Hills shot in the face.  Sturgis invites Alex, by chance, to witness the scene, and the good doctor is able to identify the victim by the way she was dressed.  There is little in the way of clues or evidence, but that doesn’t stop them from researching and theorizing ad infinitum.

One would think that an author would tire of characters and plots after so many novels, but they remain fresh and interesting, readable and enjoyable.  So when’s the 27th?  It will undoubtedly be recommended as well.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

Book Review: Soft Target by Stephen Hunter

Soft Target
Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, December 2011
ISBN 9781439138700
Hardcover

This book represents your worst fears realized. In many ways and from many angles. It is the stereotypical sensationalism and attitudes of a variety of memorable characters. It’s a modern tale full of irony, humor, and grisly reality.

Ray Cruz, former Marine sniper, is shopping with his girlfriend at the premier shopping center: America, the mall, a building designed, to somewhat resemble the shape of the United States. The date is the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. The mid-afternoon trek is suddenly thrown into chaos as terrorists congregate from every ground floor hall, shooting and herding hostages. Thus begins a standoff between Islamist jihadists, the Minnesota State Police commander, and Ray Cruz. With the assistance of people inside and outside the mall, Ray fights his way toward the one man behind the siege and gets the surprise of his life.

You have to finish this book before you realize just what Hunter has accomplished. He’s brought together a host of characters, all who contribute, in their own ways, to the outcome. Included in the cast are: the glory hound commander, the ratings seeking news reporter, the gung-ho SWAT team leader, the protective mother, and a pair of supposed innocents who reveal themselves near the end. The overblown nature of each character is what makes this book so enjoyable. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you’ll recognize human nature at its best and worst.

Review written by Stephen L. Brayton, December 2011.
Author of Night Shadows and Beta.