Book Review: The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder
Sarah J.Harris
Touchstone, June 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5011-9337-8
Hardcover

Synesthesia, the condition where a person sees colors with people’s words and other things, has made several recent appearances in crime fiction with varying degrees of success. Sarah Harris brings the condition to readers in The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder where Jasper Wishart is convinced he murdered his neighbor over some wild parakeets. Readers get the story in reverse as we are introduced to Jasper and his father after Bee is dead and the police are investigating, then move backwards in time to the night of the murder.  While Jasper’s synesthesia is the focus of Jasper’s odd behaviors, Jasper also suffers from prosopagnosia, the inability to visualize or remember faces. This condition also figures into the plot. It is clear that Jasper is also on the spectrum.  Jasper is thirteen though his behavior is that of a much younger child. It appears that he suffers from OCD and impulse control.  Jasper is an interesting character.

The murder mystery itself is pretty good. There are several twists along the way to keep the reader interested and to allow for a more suspects. And the writing is also beautiful.

My problem with this book, and it is a big one, is the synesthesia is overplayed to the point where I found the story almost impossible to follow for most of the first half to two-thirds of the book. The chapters are all subtitled with a color, many of the characters we only know by Jasper’s color name for them and the dialogue is packed full of the colors that Jasper is seeing. I do believe this would have worked better for me if at some point readers would have had the benefit of the perspective of another character on the happenings. Further into the book we do get a bit of the story told from the father as the crime is slowly unraveled, but it was a long time in coming. It would also have helped if perhaps the author would have chosen to give us other names for the characters or a listing somewhere so that we could glance back and she who “yellow french fries” or  “cherry pants” among others were and what their role in the neighborhood was.

I understand the author was striving to give readers realistic experience into what life with these conditions is like, but for me, it was just too much overpowering what was basically a very good whodunit.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St.Clair, June 2018.

Book Review: The Last Good Girl by Allison Leotta—and a Giveaway!

The Last Good GirlThe Last Good Girl
Anna Curtis #5
Allison Leotta
Touchstone, May 2016
ISBN 978-1-4767-6111-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

It was her word against his…until she disappeared.

Emily Shapiro has gone missing. A freshman at a Michigan university, Emily was last seen leaving a bar near Beta Psi, a prestigious and secretive fraternity. The main suspect is Dylan Highsmith, the son of one of the most powerful politicians in the state. At first, the only clue is pieced-together surveil­lance footage of Emily leaving the bar that night…and Dylan running down the street after her.

When prosecutor Anna Curtis discovers a video diary Emily kept during her first few months at college, it exposes the history Emily had with Dylan: she accused him of rape before disappearing. Anna is horrified to discover that Dylan’s frat is known on campus as the “rape factory.”

The case soon gets media attention and support from Title IX activists across the country, but Anna’s investigation hits a wall. Anna has to find something, anything she can use to discover Emily alive. But without a body or any physical evidence, she’s under threat from people who tell her to stop before she ruins the name of an innocent young man.

Inspired by real-life stories, The Last Good Girl shines a light on campus rape and the powerful emotional dynamics that affect the families of the men and women on both sides.

There are a handful of women who are former sex crimes prosecutors and have made use of their knowledge and expertise to create compelling protagonists and series featuring such crimes. Allison Leotta is one of the best and, with each book, I think she gets better. That, of course, is as it should be.

Anna Curtis is such an appealing character that she alone can draw me back; she’s intelligent, focused but not driven, compassionate towards the victims and passionate about giving them justice. Anna isn’t perfect and that makes her all the more human. When the investigation into Emily’s disappearance reveals that she had claimed that Dylan raped her, Anna is determined to do what’s right by the girl.

Campus rape has become more and more publicized in recent years and, in many cases, it’s a he said/she said situation. Ms. Leotta has crafted a storyline that brings this crime even more to the fore, largely by making her characters so vivid, so alive, that I literally felt the fear and anger that a friend of Emily would feel upon learning what had happened to her. What makes it even worse is the uncertainty that so frequently occurs when the young man involved may or may not actually be guilty and, yet, his future is in dire jeopardy. Add to that the privileged status of Dylan and so many of his counterparts in real life and you have to wonder if true justice is even possible.

In Ms. Leotta‘s hands, this tale becomes so intriguing, with twists and turns everywhere, that I was riveted, unable to put the book down until sleep deprivation forced me to. Anna is up against time and some powerful adversaries who could easily destroy her career but finding out what really happened to Emily is paramount.  That search for the girl—and the truth—kept me fully engaged until the very end and I’m already wanting Anna’s next book 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2016.

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To enter the drawing for a print
copy of The Last Good Girl
by
Allison Leotta, just leave
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Book Reviews: Sister Eve, Private Eye by Lynne Hinton, Speak of the Devil by Allison Leotta, and The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings by Raymond Benson

Sister Eve, Private EyeSister Eve, Private Eye
A Divine Private Detective Agency Mystery #1
Lynne Hinton
Thomas Nelson, December 2014
ISBN 978-1-4016-9145-5
Trade Paperback

Sister Eve has been a Benedictine nun for twenty years, but changes in Church policy are making her question her vocation.  When she learns that the Captain, her detective father, is about to lose a leg to diabetes, she takes a leave to nurse him, whether he likes it or not.  The irascible Captain–a retired police officer–was hunting for a missing movie producer when his illness spiraled out of control.  The discovery of the man’s body and Sister Eve‘s conviction that his client, the producer’s mistress, did not kill him, leads her to join in the investigation.

I like Sister Eve, the Captain, Meg Finch, his client–all of the characters feel real to me.  I love the Southwest setting.  The plot twists around nicely, and I didn’t spot the killer.  I spotted the clues after I finished the book.

I can see no easy answer to Sister Eve‘s spiritual dilemma.  Her talent for and love of detecting call her one way, her Community calls her another.  Her family needs her, but so does her Church. The situation isn’t resolved in this book, so I’m really glad that it’s the first in a series.   I hope there will be many more.

Reviewed by Marilyn Nulman, October 2015.

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Speak of the DevilSpeak of the Devil
Anna Curtis #3
Allison Leotta
Touchstone, August 2013
ISBN 978-1-4516-4485-2
Hardcover

Anna Curtis, a tough sex-crimes prosecutor in Washington D.C., is in the process of asking her lover to marry her when she’s notified of a horrific murder and mutilation case. Assigned the investigation, she soon finds even the victims who lived through the attack are unwilling to testify. Why? Because “the Devil,” leader of the wicked MS-13 street gang, will retaliate, and he is brutal beyond compare.

The story sweeps the reader along with Anna as she builds her case, finds her witnesses and, as the gang leaders come to trial, almost becomes another of the Devil’s victims. I thought Ms. Leotta did a particularly good job of showing the reader how certain gang members became murderers and rapists, among their other crimes, whether that was their nature or not.

Even as all of this is going on, Jack, who first turns down Anna’s proposal, turns the tables and asks her to marry him. She says yes, but troubles are on the horizon, partially because Jack is African-American with a young daughter from a previous marriage.

The rest of the tale gets messy (in a good way) and I’m not giving out any spoilers here. The twist at the end is quite emotional. The plot, pacing, and characterization in the story are excellent. There is one rather graphic sex scene that would’ve been better omitted, in my opinion. Otherwise, this is a most satisfying book.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, December 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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The Black Stiletto Endings and BeginningsThe Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings
The Black Stiletto #5
Raymond Benson
Oceanview Publishing, November 2014
ISBN: 978-1-60809-103-4
Hardcover

Prolific crime writer Raymond Benson has a genuine flare for the use of words. He demonstrates that talent many times in this overlong tale. He also is talented in his ability to translate narrative and dialogue into the flavor of words and phrases that might be used by a young troubled girl growing up in Texas in the latter half of the Twentieth Century

A lot of girls grew up in Texas during that era but none of them had the kind of family represented by the mystery woman known as the Black Stiletto. She was a woman who traveled fast and quietly, associated with gangsters and cops and carried a very sharp knife. She embodied the legend of Lilith, the first woman. A woman who could take a life when necessary.

This novel moves effectively back and forth between time periods, delineates characters precisely and often wittily, and drives the twisted complicated plot and its many intertwined relationships to final fruition with multi-generational windings. It’s a fascinating novel, well-done in nearly every aspect and will undoubtedly expand the legion of followers.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2015.
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: Red Cell by Mark Henshaw

Red CellRed Cell
Mark Henshaw
Touchstone, May 2012
ISBN 978-1-4516-6193-4
Hardcover

This debut thriller pits the intelligence services and the military of the United States, Taiwan, and China against each other. Red Cell is full of secret agents, traitors, and politicians willing to go to any lengths to get what they want. There’s the cast of characters I expected to find in this type of tale with some extra goodies thrown into the mix.

After a botched mission in South America, case officer Kyra Stryker sees in her immediate future a vacation to recover both physically and to wonder whether she still will have a job afterward. However, she is called in by the CIA director who wants her to pair up with an analyst in a special section of the organization known as Red Cell. Jonathan Burke usually works alone and thinks outside the box but now he has a new partner in Stryker. The assignment: figure out what’s behind China’s increased hostility against Taiwan. Negotiations to bring Taiwan fully under China’s umbrella of control have fallen apart and the Red Menace is rattling more than swords. Burke and Stryker think the Communists have a secret weapon that could decimate America’s resistance to the takeover. The answer may lie in a mole working within China’s machinations with the code name Pioneer. However, when Pioneer finds himself in danger of being caught, Stryker and Burke are called in for the rescue. Time is of the essence for not only Pioneer and the CIA operatives, but for the growing conflict between China and America.

Red Cell is red hot! Bouncing from political offices in Washington to the mean and dangerous streets of Beijing to international waters where Navy ships await the word go, this book covers all the bases. Enough mystery that kept me guessing and enough tension that had me turning pages with eagerness. Stryker and Burke make an excellent pair that work well together. With his brains and her knack for squeaking out of potentially deadly situations, they provide the nucleus to a well written story which thriller writers should respect.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, April 2013.
Author of Night Shadows, Beta and Alpha.

Book Reviews: Fatal Error by J. A. Jance, Death Toll by Jim Kelly, Rag and Bone by James R. Benn, and Rogue by Frederick Ramsay

Fatal Error
J.A. Jance
Touchstone, February 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4165-6381-5
Hardcover

The Ali Reynolds series usually has the protagonist solving some kind of mystery, and this one is no exception.  However, the reader has to put up with a slow beginning, describing Ali’s experiences during her training at the Police Academy.  When she completes the course, she is furloughed for budgetary reasons, so does not become a cop.  Instead, it gives her time to help solve a kidnapping and murders.  So who needs a badge?

It all starts when her friend Brenda Riley, who, like Ali, was a TV anchorwoman also let go by her station, asks for help in obtaining information about a man to whom she is “engaged,” although they have never met except in cyberspace.  Ali enlists the aid of her boyfriend’s business associate, who gets damning information on the person, setting off a chain of events that gets Brenda kidnapped [not a spoiler] and Ali involved in assisting a homicide detective in solving a murder.

From the slow start, the pace of the plot picks up to a very exciting finish.  There really is never any doubt on where the story is headed, but the writing is so good one just keeps gobbling it up.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2011.

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Death Toll
Jim Kelly
Minotaur Books, June 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-57352-2
Hardcover

A protagonist like DI Peter Shaw gives the author license to throw more curve balls at the reader than a major league pitcher.  Shaw, a super-cerebral, over-intuitive detective who develops more and more theories as a case develops and he encounters more facts, certainly proves the point in this novel, which has two plot lines, both based in the distant past.

As a result of severe river flooding, graves along the bank in a cemetery are being exposed.  When one is opened, a skeleton is found atop the casket which contains the remains of the landlady of a local pub.  This sets off an investigation leading Shaw to discover a number of family secrets, with dire consequences to all concerned.  The inquiries move back and forth, uncovering events from a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Shaw, and his partner, DS Valentine, continue to try to prove one Bob Mosse a murderer.  It was Shaw’s father who arrested Mosse years before, only to see the charges thrown out of court because the judge declared a crucial peace of evidence had been contaminated by mishandling.  Consequently Shaw pere took early retirement under a cloud, and his partner, Valentine, was demoted and sent into limbo.

The story moves forward on both plot lines, more or less simultaneously, with Shaw, Valentine and the rest of the team uncovering a clue here, a fact there, until finally it all comes logically together, even if the conclusion requires a bit of manipulation by the author.  Well done, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Rag and Bone
James R. Benn
Soho Press, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-996-4
Trade Paperback

Last year, the Russian Parliament acknowledged that country’s responsibility for the slaughter of more than 20,000 Polish officers at the Katyn Forest early on during World War II over the protests of the Communist Party.  Katyn plays a prominent role in this novel, the fifth in the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries.  When a Soviet officer is found murdered on a London street, hands tied behind his back and shot in the back of the head as were those murdered at Katyn, Billy is sent ahead to London from Italy by his Uncle Ike to solve the murder just days before the General and his staff were to arrive to set up Supreme Headquarters for the invasion of France.

While the Poles in London, especially Billy’s friend Kaz, have proof of the Russian complicity in the massacre, it was not in the interests of the British or American governments to upset the delicate balance in the wartime alliance, which depended on the pressure of the eastern front to offset the German defenses of the west.  Now a First Lieutenant, Billy has to tread a fine line between all elements to find the killer and seek justice, while saving his friend, who is Scotland Yard’s number one suspect.

As usual, the author uses and depicts history to set the stage for an intriguing murder mystery, with cameo performances by Uncle Dwight D. Eisenhower, FDR and Winston Churchill, among others, carrying forth the series from North Africa to Sicily and Italy to blitzed Britain, just before the Normandy invasion.  Written with a blend of fact and fiction, the novel is a first-class crime novel, transcending the vivid scenes of Luftwaffe bombings, war-time shortages and deprivations, and is recommended.  [The author’s next book in the series, A Mortal Terror, was released in mid-September.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2011.

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Rogue
Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen Press, July 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59058-902-1
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

A welcome addition to this enjoyable series, this sixth Sheriff Ike Schwartz novel starts out in a frightful manner.  Ruth Harris, Ike’s fiancée, is critically injured in a car collision in Washington, D.C. She’s in a hospital with multiple injuries and in a coma.  The local police dismiss the accident as an ordinary mishap, but Ike investigates the scene and determines that it was a deliberate act of violence, and undertakes to find the culprit.

Unfortunately, the local police are of no help, and Ike is facing a reelection contest in a week.  The mayor forbids him to use his office or staff in his efforts, so he takes vacation time.  Aided by his buddy, Charlie Garland, the mysterious CIA agent, and covertly by friends and staff members, he follows his instincts, first looking at State’s Rights group zealots (Ruth was chairing a Federal government committee reviewing textbook standards), and then dissident academics. Three murders take place in Picketsville, complicating the efforts.

The novel measures up to the standards of its predecessors: a well-written mystery with a well-drawn cast of characters.  Who can ask for anything more?  So it is a relatively simple task to recommend it, as with its forerunners.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

Book Review: The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

The Little Women Letters
Gabrielle Donnelly
Touchstone, June 2011
ISBN 978-1-4516-1718-4
Hardcover

In this cleverly written novel, the author weaves letters from a fictional Louisa May Alcott character, Jo March, between the pages of a contemporary story that involves her great-great granddaughters, Emma, Sophie and Lulu. The entire family is blissfully happy, being born from a union of their American mother Fee, and their British father David.

Now, I know this book has received rave reviews from quarters all around the globe, and I’m happy to agree with them to a point, but I have bones to pick with the story; because when nothing happens, it starts to rub like sandpaper on the skin. Yes, the dialogue is twerriby, twerriby British and witty, but this is not Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century America, it’s 2010, England, London to be exact.

My hopes were raised, when Sophie, the youngest, might be pounced upon by a theatrical producer. Didn’t happen.  And then, she might die from food poisoning!  Sophie’s virtue stays intact and she doesn’t die. Damn and double damn.  Unlike Lousia May Alcott, the author simply can’t imagine that her readers might enjoy a good snot-sob at the loss of one of the characters.

There is a momentary consideration that the father, David may be unfaithful, unseen by his wife, who is everyone elses emotional counselor, but can’t see when her husband may be wandering off to enjoy a little hanky-panky on the side. Of course, no lusty roll in the hay on the side for David and Fee doesn’t clout him on the ear. Oh, well. It was only wishful thinking on my part anyway.

Then there’s Lulu, the middle sister, who has an expensive, and heretofore, unused bio-chemistry degree. But, does she toil at a dull, but well-paying job? No, not cuckoo Lulu. She flits from one dead-end job to the next, all the while cooking up incredible gourmet meals for her family, friends and wealthy flat-mate, Charlie, whose family just happens to own a complete set of swanky hotels.

Now, gentle reader, I ask you, what kind of family, flat-mate, sisters, friends, all ignore the fact that the girl is a born chef, and yet, not one of them mentions that she should go to cooking school? That is, until Charlie’s brother shows up. A hunky guy who cooks. Imagine that? They meet, they cook, and being the thoroughly modern girl that she is, promptly falls in love with the guy (and promptly makes  plans to go to chef school).

Okay, granted, I’m a mystery writer, a speed freak, an action junky—call me what you will, but if I want to read Victorian novels, I’ll stick with Louisa May Alcott, whose writing still gives us pathos, yearning, separation, death and hope, humor, and more hope during a terrible time of our American history, the American Civil War.

Agree? Disagree? Do your worst… I gotta go plot a murder scene.

Reviewed by R.P. Dahlke, guest reviewer, September 2011.

Book Reviews: Outwitting Trolls by William G. Tapply, Gideon’s War by Howard Gordon, and The Whisperers by John Connolly

Outwitting Trolls
William G. Tapply
Minotaur Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-53127-0
Hardcover

Unfortunately, this is the final Brady Coyne novel.  It was completed shortly before William G. Tapply’s death last year.  He left behind a substantial body of work, including 25 books in the Brady Coyne series alone.  Mr. Tapply was a masterful storyteller.  Reading his books has always been an immense pleasure, and he will be greatly missed.

Brady Coyne, of course, is a Boston attorney, specializing in a few private cases and kept up to snuff completing the drudgery of a mountain of paperwork by his long-time secretary.  He is rescued from this tedium when he receives a phone call from a former close friend and neighbor, informing him that she is in her ex-husband’s hotel room where she has just found him stabbed to death.  Brady had just had a reunion with the victim the day before for a drink after a hiatus of a decade.

Naturally, Brady accepts the woman’s request to represent her, and she quickly becomes the number one suspect.  It’s up to Brady not only to support his client’s emotional state, but to protect her from the police and come up with the necessary clues to identify the realmurderer.  While  it’s not a complex plot, it is well-told.  This book, as all his others, is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2011.

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Gideon’s War
Howard Gordon
Touchstone, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-7581-1
Hard cover

Aficionados of action movies or television will certainly enjoy this novel, authored by someone already identified with endeavors like writing or producing such works as “24,” “The X Files,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.”  All of the characters in these efforts are firmly embedded in the plot, with enough action, killing and mayhem to satisfy even the most jaded of viewers or readers.

The tale involves two brothers and the twisted politics of Washington power plays.  Gideon Davis is a quiet UN negotiator specializing in obtaining compromises among factions, attempting to secure peace around the globe.  His brother, Tillman, apparently is involved in an insurgent Muslim faction in a fictional southeast Asian country aiming to unseat the sultan, who the U.S. President believes can bring democracy and peace to the nation.  The President, upon learning that Tillman has offered to surrender to Gideon on an offshore drilling rig, sends him flying off to accomplish the task.

Then all the action starts.  Page after page.  There is enough to keep the reader guessing, while the plot surges ahead at a lightning speed. The writing is smooth and the story well-told.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2011.

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The Whisperers
John Connolly
Pocket Books ,June 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4391-6524-9
Mass Market Paperback

There is always the element of the supernatural in a Charlie Parker novel.  And The Whisperers is no exception.  However, reality plays an important part in the theme, giving the author the opportunity to reflect on the horrors of war and its effects – especially combat stress – on the lives of those who fought them.

There are veiled references to the condition in the Iliad; during the Civil War it was known as “irritable heart;”  “shellshock” was the term used during World War I and its aftermath; for World War II it became known as “battle fatigue” and “war neurosis;” then “post-Vietnam syndrome”; and today “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The plot involves a group of Iraqi veterans (all from Maine, Parker’s bailiwick), who return home to set up a smuggling operation.  One by one they commit suicide, and Parker is retained by the father of one of them to learn the reason for his son’s death.  This leads Parker to travel an unexpected path.

As a result, we meet some old friends, Angel and Louis, who always manage to cover Parker’s back.  But more important, Parker has to work with an old nemesis, The Collector.  And the eerie Herod, a man with strange tastes, and his shadow, the Captain.  The characters and the plot interweave on various levels, with prose that mesmerizes the reader.  The book is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.