Book Review: Fox is Framed by Lachlan Smith

Fox is FramedFox is Framed
A Leo Maxwell Mystery #3
Lachlan Smith
The Mysterious Press, April 2016
ISBN 978-0-8021-2504-0
Trade Paperback

In this, the third novel in the Leo Maxwell series, Leo’s older brother, Teddy, obtains a new trial for their father, Lawrence, who has served 21 years in San Quentin for the murder of his wife, Caroline.  The basis for the retrial was prosecutorial misconduct, the withholding of evidence from the defense.  In the second trial, it is never clearly explained by either the DA or the defense attorney if disclosure originally would have made any difference.  However, the new trial allows the author, a practicing attorney, to write a detailed and interesting description of the tactics and planning for a murder trial.

In the new trial, the DA introduces evidence of a “confession” made by Lawrence to a fellow inmate while incarcerated.  Soon, however, the snitch is found dead and the specter of Lawrence being charged for the murder looms over the trial.  While a brilliant attorney defends Lawrence in court, it remains for Leo to follow up on leads, both large and small.

To give the author his due, he graphically portrays the courtroom scenes realistically, showing how the judge rules with wisdom and fairness, as well as how an attorney goes about probing a witness.  He continues the high drama surrounding the Maxwell family found in the previous novels and lays the groundwork for the next addition to the series.  A very fast read, and one which is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2016.

Book Review: The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

The ForgersThe Forgers
Bradford Morrow
The Mysterious Press, November 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2321-3
Hardcover

From the publisher (a succinct plot summary without spoilers]:

The bibliophile community is stunned when a reclusive rare book collector, Adam Diehl, is found on the floor of his Montauk home: hands severed, surrounded by valuable inscribed books and manuscripts that have been vandalized beyond repair.  In the weeks following his death, Adam’s sister, Meghan, and her lover – – a sometime literary forger who specializes in the handwriting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – – struggle to come to terms with the murder.  The police fail to identify a suspect, and the case quickly turns cold.  Soon, Meghan’s lover begins to receive threatening handwritten letters, ostensibly penned by long-dead authors but really from someone who seems to have disturbing insights into Adam’s death.  And he quickly realizes that this mystery letter writer will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

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There are at least three forgers on the pages of this novel by Bradford Morrow, which provides a glimpse into the mind and the “art” of the forger’s work, providing intriguing nuances of the trade.  The lyrical prose and poetic writing distinguish this novel, and it is wonderfully entertaining, even as it exposes criminal behavior little suspected by lovers of antiquarian books.

The book opens with a murder, and there is a good deal of suspense leading to the stunning ending.  But it is the world of rare books and original manuscripts, of which I knew almost nothing, which is so fascinating.  There are insights provided throughout on a whole range of book-related things:  “Bookshops were, are, and always shall be chancy, quixotic enterprises at best – – easier to raise snow leopards in one’s living room than keep an independent bookstore afloat.”  An awareness difficult to avoid these days.  And “Book collecting is an act of faith.  It’s all about the preservation of culture, custodianship.”  The act of forgery is described as producing feelings of nothing less than lightheartedness and rapture.

A definite change of pace from the usual fare, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2015.

Book Reviews: A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H. Cook and The Color of Light by Wendy Hornsby

A Dancer in the DustA Dancer in the Dust
Thomas H. Cook
The Mysterious Press, September 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2272-8
Hardcover

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this novel is a mystery wrapped in a love story immersed in a tragedy.  It is the story of one woman’s attempt to help preserve a newly independent African country pitted against the force of do-good charities and the powers-that-be with their hands out to use the money and goods to preserve their control.

As a young man, Ray Campbell takes on the task of an aid worker hoping to improve conditions in the newly-independent country of Lubanda. He is assigned to a remote village where he meets Martine Aubert, a white woman in a black nation who owns a small farm and lives a simple life. While he falls in love with her, she apparently loves Lubanda more. And her beliefs are opposed to the plans of government officials for development, leading to a tragic end.

The author blends a tale of love and death that is totally consuming. By presenting the plot in the present, with flashbacks, the reader moves forward gaining knowledge slowly but logically. The book is written with grace and simplicity describing a complex narrative, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2014.

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The Color of LightThe Color of Light
A Maggie MacGowen Mystery #9
Wendy Hornsby
Perseverance Press, April 2014
ISBN: 978-1-56474-542-2
Trade Paperback

In Wendy Hornsby’s ninth Maggie MacGowen mystery, we find Maggie, two weeks before her planned trip to France to make a film, going back to her childhood home in Berkeley, California, to clear out the family house, as her mother has moved into a smaller place (her father, a physicist, having died a while back).  In the course of which her instincts, the fact that she “plays” at being an investigator on her popular TV series and, perhaps, the fact that her late husband was a homicide detective, lead to her uncovering things other than old family treasures.  She finds inescapable the memories of a murder that occurred over 30 years ago, when the beautiful Vietnamese mother of a school friend was brutally raped and killed, when she and her friends were then ten and eleven years old.  Her mother was a close friend of the murdered woman, as Maggie was with her son, Beto.

Maggie’s boyfriend at the time of the murder is now Detective Kevin Halloran, who is not crazy about the fact that she is asking questions of people she suspects are hiding secrets.  Maggie is very skittish about secrets:  It was not long ago that she discovered that her biological mother was a woman with whom her father had had an affair long ago in France.  The film she is about to make is about that woman’s family and their farm in Normandy.  Her daughter, Casey, has just finished her sophomore year in college, and Maggie is traveling with her current boyfriend, the French consul general  and a widower with a son about Casey’s age, to Los Angeles.  The ensuing investigation is fraught with danger; as Maggie’s uncle tells her, “Always an adventure with you, kid.  Always an adventure.”  The author has blended a great cast of characters and an intriguing mystery, and the book is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2014.

Book Review: The Marriage at the Rue Morgue by Jessie Bishop Powell and Lion Plays Rough by Lachlan Smith

The Marriage at the Rue MorgueThe Marriage at the Rue Morgue
A Rue and Lakeland Mystery
Jessie Bishop Powell
Five Star, July 2014
ISBN 978-1-4328-2867-7
Hardcover

If you like your humor blended with darkness here and there, then you may find The Marriage at the Rue Morgue as delightful a read as I did. I also learned a lot about orangutans and primates in the process.

The Marriage at Rue Morgue has a very comical thread throughout the story. Noel Rue, the bride, has made an art out of not planning her wedding to Lance Lakeland over the last year but now the big day is almost here. It’s not that she doesn’t want to get married; it’s just, well, complicated by her past experiences and the events that keep happening around her.

The novel is fast paced and well written. And there is definitely more humor than dark. It’s a fun read but it takes time here and there to make some interesting points about important things as well, like keeping wild animals safely in the primate sanctuary where Noel and Lance work together as primatologists.

The ending of the novel, which I won’t disclose, does lean more to the dark side. Some may think it goes awry here. But this is a murder mystery and although it may be a change of tone, I thought it was very well handled and gave the book more meaning and substance.

Throughout the book, we learn about their passion not just for each other but for their work and the animals in their care. It’s a fun read that also has some important things to say. I recommend it.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, October 2014.

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Lion Plays RoughLion Plays Rough
A Leo Maxwell Mystery
Lachlan Smith
The Mysterious Press, February 2014
ISBN 978-0-8021-2216-2
Hardcover

Leo Maxwell is a defense attorney with a conscience, and in this follow-up novel he exhibits all the ego and characteristics of the breed. He thinks he knows it all, and as a result nearly gets himself killed. It all begins when he is handed a possible case by a woman tipster and he is blind to the possibility that he is being duped.

But being a lawyer isn’t enough for Leo. He becomes an investigator and performs other roles, some of which are possibly unethical. All these machinations sometimes are too much for the reader to slog through, and the complicated plot slows progress through the pages. There is a courtroom scene which is well-presented and written by an author who is, after all, a practicing attorney, albeit not in criminal law. On the other hand, the same cannot be said for the remainder of the novel.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2014.

Book Reviews: Lost by S. J. Bolton, Murder Is a Piece of Cake by Elaine Viets, and The Boyfriend by Thomas Perry

LostLost
S. J. Bolton
Minotaur Books, June 2013
ISBN:  978-1-250-02856-3
Hardcover

The current obsession of Barney Roberts, a bright young boy with OCD, is something with which many in London are currently preoccupied:  Five boys his age had disappeared in the last five weeks in South London, where Barney himself lives, their bodies turning up soon afterwards with their throats cut.  And as the book opens, the bodies are being found more and more quickly, the killer seemingly escalating.  Barney’s den is covered with posters, maps and photographs about each boy, his kidnapping, and his death.

The police investigation is headed up by D.I. Dana Tulloch, of Lewisham’s Major Investigation Team.  Sure of only one thing, that the killings will continue, they have no clues.  And someone, perhaps the killer, is taunting them online.  On the periphery of the investigation is D.C. Lacey Flint, still recovering from the horrific event of her last case, in the aftermath of which she is still seeing a psychiatrist twice a week, fighting her own demons, unsure of whether or not still wants to remain a policewoman.

Barney is the youngest of a small group of kids (five boys and one girl) who are brave, and foolhardy, enough to do some investigating of their own.  He also happens to live next door to Lacey Flint.  One day he works up the nerve to ask her to help him find his mother, who apparently left several years ago, when he was four years old, and he is determined to track her down, going so far as to use all his meager wages working for a newsagent to run anonymous classified ads in very methodically and geographically plotted newspapers in London and beyond.

The novel is but the newest of several suspenseful books from this author, and characters, plotting and tension seen in her prior work are fully present here.  The reader is never more than guessing at the possible identity of the killer, as are the detectives whose work is detailed here, knowing that if they do not succeed another boy will die.  Obsession is a constant theme.  This is another winner from S. J. Bolton, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2013.

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Murder Is a Piece of CakeMurder is a Piece of Cake
Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper Series
Elaine Viets
Obsidian, November 2012
ISBN: 978-0-451-23851-1
Mass Market Paperback

The newest book in the Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper extraordinaire, has Josie tasked by her boss, “Harry the Horrible,” to mystery shop wedding flowers and wedding cakes for a St. Louis wedding website.  The timing couldn’t be better for Josie, who is in the throes of planning her own wedding.  The first of her mystery-shopper sites is Denise’s Dreams, where the sales associate who assists her is a young woman named Molly, who in the ensuing exchange divulges – – well, gushes – – that she is also about to get married.

Josie is a thirty-one-year-old single mom to Amelia, a ‘tween’ with the usual fast-changing sulky-to-“flawless!” mood changes.  Her life is about to undergo major changes, with her upcoming wedding to local veterinarian Dr. Ted, scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving, five weeks away as the story opens.  Their combined pets include Stuart Little, Josie’s shih tzu, her cat Harry, Ted’s cat Marmalade and his black Labrador, Festus.

One week later, shortly after Josie arrives at Ted’s veterinary clinic one morning, a surreal scene unfolds:  the self-same Molly, dressed in all her bridal finery, exits a Bentley and pushes her way into the clinic, claiming she’s there to pick up Ted en route to their wedding.  Clearly delusional, the scene ends with Molly picking up a scalpel and attacking Ted when he insists that he is indeed shortly to be married, but to Josie.  Ted’s mother, also present, disarms her, brandishing the pistol she always carried in her purse.  To cut to the chase, “mad Molly” is arrested and charged with assault.  She is soon released from jail by a sympathetic judge, but the melodrama continues when, continuing to stalk Ted, she is shot to death in her car in the clinic parking lot.  Things only get worse when Ted’s “Boca diva” mother is arrested, as her gun proves to be the murder weapon.

The book was a delightful change of pace for this reader, contrasted with other fare of thrillers and serial killers.  Besides an intriguing murder mystery with several possible culprits, it offers a few mouthwatering culinary tidbits, and culminates in several pages of shopping tips for wedding-related purchases, from flowers for various segments of the Big Day, bling, cakes, etc.  Following which is a peek at the next offering in Ms. Viets’ Dead-End Job Mystery series, Board Stiff, published by Obsidian in May 2013, which I have the good fortune to have in my towering TBR/R pile – – more to come on that soon!

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2013.

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The BoyfriendThe Boyfriend
Thomas Perry
The Mysterious Press, March 2013
ISBN 978-0-8021-2606-1
Hardcover

The protagonist and his adversary in this newest terrific, suspenseful read from Thomas Perry have many similarities:  Both Jack Till, retired LAPD homicide detective now working as a private investigator, and the man he nicknames The Boyfriend are both highly intelligent, patient, meticulous, proficient with various kinds of weaponry, and very lethal.  Mostly they are both loners.  Till, however, has a daughter with Down Syndrome of whom he is very protective.  His wife had left them and divorced him shortly after she was diagnosed, unable to cope.  Holly is now 28 years old, employed at a florist shop and living in a group home where she is well looked after.  Till had retired after 23 years as a cop, and now embarks upon a relentless search for a killer.

The man Till is seeking is completely cold-blooded.  He preys upon young, beautiful women, all of a very similar physical type, and all ‘working girls,’ albeit highly-paid escorts earning several thousand dollars a day, as opposed to streetwalkers.  And all very vulnerable to the young, good-looking charmer, to their peril.  He has apparently killed several of them in all different parts of the country.  He has come to Till’s attention when the parents of the latest victim seek his help, when the police have, literally, no clues as to his identity.  He agrees to take the case and undertakes the investigation, and soon uncovers the connection to the other murders.  After 23 years as a cop, he “had an instinctive sense that this man was something he hadn’t seen before.”

Thomas Perry is the author, among his 21 previous books, of the wonderful Jane Whitefield series, and his newest is as much a page-turner as were those novels.  He manages an ending that is wonderfully elegant.  This was a terrific read, and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2013.

Book Reviews: Not Dead Yet by Peter James, The Destroyed by Brett Battles, Potboiler by Jesse Kellerman, and Bear is Broken by Lachlan Smith

Not Dead YetNot Dead Yet
Peter James
Pan Macmillan
UK: Hardcover, June, 2012, ISBN 978-0-230-74726-5
UK: Paperback, Sept. 2012, ISBN 978-0-33051-557-3
US,  Minotaur, Nov. 27, 2012, ISBN 978-0-31264-284-6, Hardcover

This is a tale of obsession, in all its infinite variety and manifestations, some more lethal than others but mostly just a matter of degree, with neither gender being excluded from its clutches. There are enough seriously disturbed characters here to populate several novels, in a few different story lines.

The main plot deals with the discovery of an unidentifiable body whose headless, armless and legless torso is discovered on a chicken farm in East Sussex.  As if that isn’t enough, the area is faced with an at once wonderful and problematic event:  a major American superstar [think Lady Gaga, in fact the fictional counterpart is named Gaia] is about to arrive from Los Angeles, with her entourage and film crew, to Brighton, England, the city where she was born, to star in a film which will chronicle the love affair between King George the Fourth and his mistress Maria Fitzherbert. Needless to say, her hordes of obsessed fans converge on the city as well.

A second story line revolves around another obsessive, the target of this one none other than DS Roy Grace, in charge of the Major Crime Branch of Sussex CID.  But a resolution, if any, of that one awaits a successive novel, I suspect.  The personal lives of Grace and of Glenn Branson, to whom Grace is a mentor, get a lot of the focus in this, the eighth series entry, as Grace’s fiancée, Cleo, is in her last month of pregnancy, and Branson, who has become a “long-stay lodger” in Grace’s house since the latter moved in with Cleo, is facing child custody problems in the aftermath of his now-dead “marriage-from-hell.”

Cavil:  It bothered me when, as happened frequently, the p.o.v. jumped around, sometimes without identifying the person from whose point of view the chapter was being told.  I assume this was intentional, but it was somewhat disconcerting.  As well, I felt that perhaps the first two-thirds of the book was somewhat bloated and repetitive, causing this reader’s attention to wander, a first for any of this author’s books.  No wandering attention in the approximately last third of the book, I hasten to add, when the plot lines start to come together with more than one climactic scene, with a finish you’ll never see coming. All in all, it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2012.

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The DestroyedThe Destroyed
Brett Battles
Brett Battles, March 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4776-3551-3
Trade Paperback

In my last review of a Brett Battles novel (The Collected, published in October of 2012, and the seventh and penultimate [so far] entry in this series), I noted that Jonathan Quinn, the protagonist whose job it is to discreetly clean up crime scenes, remove bodies and get rid of nasty, incriminating stuff like blood, and his protégé, Nate, had become colleagues, rather than mentor and apprentice.  In this, the sixth Quinn book, the reader finds out how that came about.

The tale opens in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when a man keeps an appointment scheduled through an enigmatic e-mail from what is apparently a non-existent address.  A fateful meeting it is, as the man soon falls [jumps?  is pushed?]  to his death just as he is about to keep his appointment with one Mila Voss, the person who is central to the fascinating plot fashioned here.  [Note that this occurs on page 21 of the book, so no spoiler here.] When security cameras show a disguised but recognizable Mila rushing to the spot where the body landed, a furor is raised in “the secret world”: The woman was supposed to have been killed six years ago, and Quinn was the one tasked with disposing of the body, which he duly reported he had done. Conspiracies, corruption in high places, powerful men who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, all combine to serve up another terrific thriller.

In addition to Tanzania, the story takes the reader to Stockholm, Sweden; Lucerne, Switzerland; London; Rome; Las Vegas; San Francisco; Atlanta, Georgia; Virginia; and, early on, to Bangkok, where Quinn took refuge nearly nine months prior following the events in the prior series entry.  That self-banishment gave rise to Nate becoming “a full-fledged cleaner, running Quinn’s business on his own.”  As Quinn notes when Nate succeeds in tracking him down, “There was something older about Nate, his edges sharper and more defined.  There was a confidence, too.  While Nate undoubtedly had more to learn, he was now a professional who could stand on his own.”

Those who have not yet read the subsequent series entry, The Collected, should waste no time correcting that situation.  Both of these are wonderful, suspense-filled reads, and are highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.

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PotboilerPotboiler
Jesse Kellerman
Putnam, July 2012
ISBN 978-0-399-15903-9
Hardcover

The reader has an inkling of what’s in store from the cover of Jesse Kellerman’s new book, which appears to show a typewriter keyboard of sorts, the various keys or buttons displaying words such as “assassinate,” “coup d’etat,” and “war.”

The first page of the book is filled with what appear to be blurbs by no less eminent writers than Stephen King, Lee Child, Robert Crais and various highly respected reviewers, which on closer inspection are very funny and relate to books written by one William deVallee, “noted author of more than thirty internationally best-selling thrillers” whose protagonist is one Dick Stapp.  The protagonist of Potboiler is Art Pfefferkorn, who had known deVallee longer than anyone, including his wife [with whom, it should be said, Pfefferkorn had been in love].  The two men, best friends, had thirty years ago both been aspiring writers.  While Bill had achieved great fame, Pfefferkorn had only had one book published.

The book takes off in a completely different direction at about one-third of the way through, part satire, part fantasy.  Devious, unsettling and frightening things begin to happen.  There are several memorable lines regarding writing, e.g., “good novels enlarged on reality while bad novels leaned on it” and “If one could not express something in an original way, one ought not to express it at all,” and points out the “similarities between spying and writing:  Both called for stepping into an imagined world and residing there with conviction, nearly to the point of self-delusion.  Both were jobs that outsiders thought of as exotic but that were in practice quite tedious.”

A highly original and delightful read, Potboiler is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2012.

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Bear is BrokenBear is Broken
Lachlan Smith
The Mysterious Press / Grove/Atlantic, February 2013
ISBN 978-0-8021-2079-3
Hardcover

Leo Maxwell has just formally become a member of the California State Bar. He is a man who does not think “ethical criminal defense attorney” is an oxymoron, perhaps putting him in the minority, certainly among the San Francisco police and the District Attorney’s office.  His older brother, Teddy, is a member of that fraternity, a brilliant lawyer and one of the most sought-after criminal defense attorneys in northern California.  As the two men share a lunch while on a break from the trial just nearing its conclusion, with Teddy’s closing argument due that afternoon, a man enters the restaurant and shoots Teddy in the head at point-blank range, then quickly exits before anyone can make a move.

So begins this first novel from Lachlan Smith, apparently the first in a series, and an impressive debut it is.  Teddy lies in the hospital in a coma, and both Leo as well as Teddy’s ex-wife and former law partner, Jeanie, now working at the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office, are left to grapple with the prognosis and the knowledge that they may at some point in the not-too-distant future have to decide whether to remove him from life-support systems.  But the most urgent task for Leo is to find the gunman.  His first move is to examine all his brother’s case files, to see if a disgruntled client, or a victim or witness in one of his headline-making cases has sought revenge.  There are several viable suspects as his investigation continues.

Leo has been haunted most of his life by the death of their mother 16 years before (“the abscess at the center of his life”), apparently at the hands of her husband, the boys’ father.  It was Leo who at age ten had returned from school to find her badly beaten body, the weapon Leo’s baseball bat. Despite having protested his innocence, the father was convicted and is serving a life term at San Quentin.

Leo must prove himself, to others and to himself, having been raised by and stayed in the shadow of his well-known, and in many circles reviled, brother.  In his insecurity, as a youngster he had a Batman symbol tattooed on his upper left arm.

I loved the author’s description of a nurse in the hospital as having “the self-sufficient look of someone who spent most of her time with people who didn’t talk back.”  Deftly plotted, the only flaw this reader found was perhaps too many possible culprits, in what turns out to be three killings, by the end getting a slight case of whiplash as the novel names one, and then another and then another, and the possibility that one, or perhaps more than one, is guilty.  That said, the novel is a fast and engrossing read, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2013.