Book Reviews: Britain’s Forgotten Serial Killer by John Lucas and Phoenix Burning by Isabella Moldonado @johnlucas_news @penswordbooks @authorbella1 @midnightinkbook

Britain’s Forgotten Serial Killer
The Terror of the Axeman
John Lucas
Pen & Sword Books, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-52674-884-3
Trade Paperback

In 1975 a young, deeply troubled alcoholic boy, came before the court in London, charged with three brutal murders. Two were elderly women, one a neighborhood priest. The youth charged with their murders, Patrick MacKay, was twenty-two at the time and had a criminal career stretching back eleven years.

Journalist John Lucas has written a sober, detailed biography of this Nazi-obsessed youth, speculating over eight other similar murders of which Mackay might reasonably be accused, making him one of the most prolific and dangerous serial killers ever experienced in England.

At the time of his trial, Mackay was dubbed The Axeman, The Monster of Belgravia and the Devil’s Disciple. He never held a regular job for more than a few days, he was committed numerous times to psychiatric and other mental institutions for evaluation and treatment, but he was always released after short treatment or simply left the institution. Early on, a number of omissions, errors and missteps by various law enforcement agencies allowed Mackay to escape arrest and thus eight brutal murders attributed to him remain unresolved.

The book is evenly written with comprehensive research clearly presented. One of the most interesting aspects of the case of Patrick David MacKay is the number of citizens with whom he interacted and even occasionally lived with who, despite his erratic behavior, never saw clues to his murderous behavior. The book contains an extensive index, bibliography and several photographs of some of the principal characters.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 2020.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Phoenix Burning      
A Veranda Cruz Mystery #2
Isabella Maldonado
Midnight Ink Books, March 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5102-3
Trade Paperbacks

This is a novel of crime, of brutality, of family secrets, of conflicts and of resolution. It is also a novel rich in a variety of good and evil characters, of violence expertly described and of characters conflicted, misunderstood and striving for their goals, personal and social.

In Phoenix, Homicide detective Veranda Cruz with her partner riding shotgun races to connect with an important drug dealer. As she dodges mid-day traffic on a busy street she worries about the unusual timing of the contact and immediately discovers her instincts are still working well when her vehicle is intercepted and the drug dealer is killed. She and partner Sam Stark pursue the killer into a crowded mall.

Thus begins a fast-paced, terror-filled novel that carries the talented Cruz through incident after incident, some fraught and dangerous, others poignant and emotional, all thoughtful and often original in design and result. Phoenix is the site of most of the action with a few side trips to somewhere in Mexico and the summer season is recognized if not belabored. The novel is a judicious blend of modern electronic uses and mis-uses, and good-old-fashioned policing, mostly the action is physical, dangerous and logical. The pace can be best described as fast and furious, interspersed with more normal family-based rhythms and interactions.

Cruz’s target is a powerful Mexican drug cartel of epic proportions and ruthless actions. Her partners in a monumental effort to take down the cartel represent every available local and federal law enforcement agency, requiring negotiation skills beyond belief, almost.

In sum, the novel careens to an unusual if satisfying ending leaving multiple traces of future possibilities. For fans of violent crime novels, this is a definite winner.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Isenberg and Cogheart by Peter Bunzl @frumpenberg @HachetteBooks @peterbunzl @JollyFishPress

The Third Rainbow Girl
The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia
Emma Copley Eisenberg
Hachette Books, January 2020
ISBN 978-0-316-44923-6
Hardcover

The summer of 1980 gave the people of Pocahontas, and its neighboring Greenbrier county, something brand new to gossip and gripe about. A bunch of (probably) dirty, drunk and drugged-out dudes and chicks were about to descend. The Rainbow Family Gathering was moving east for the first time and the meeting place this year was in the Monongahela Forest in West Virginia.

Individually, the people are quite warm and welcoming. However, many did not want this Rainbow Festival happening on their pristine land. Some did long for a spectacle, eager to see a ‘freak show’ of nude, free-loving, tree-huggers dancing and skinny-dipping, flitting through their forests like true faeries.

I was only nine years old. I remember grumblings almost masking anticipation.

Before the gathering properly began, two female travelers were killed merely miles from their destination. Based on the location alone, there was no doubting that the shooter was a local. Determining who it was and why, though, would prove to be more challenging than anyone imagined.

Conducting an investigation when essentially everyone knows each other isn’t easy. There really aren’t secrets in small towns. Yet, the inexplicable killing of two “Rainbow Girls” was not a mystery to be solved quickly, or with collective satisfaction.

I remember watching an America’s Most Wanted episode about “The Rainbow Murders.” Jake Beard was a suspect, whereabouts unknown. Only, my younger sister piped up quickly, “He’s in Florida! I just got a letter from (his daughter).” Before leaving the mountains, Beard would pull his snazzy red convertible into our driveway and happily haul my sister and his daughter around town.

We did not immediately assume his innocence, though. Public opinion was absolutely split down the middle between the people who couldn’t believe Beard would flick off a flea, to the ones that swear he always had a wild, hateful streak.

Finally, there was a trial and a conviction. But that conviction was overturned.

Would the killer ever be identified? Or, do we already know who got away with murder?

I was excited to learn of The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg; although I admit to some apprehension due to a protective feeling towards my home state. I was pleasantly surprised and tremendously pleased with how well this author was able to understand the mountaineers and convey their way of life in an honest, objective manner.

I found her research and study of this criminal case to be tenacious and thorough without being too tough. The way that she shares what she learned was informative, but not suggestive. When I finished this book, my opinion of who killed those young ladies so many years ago has changed. And, I’m feeling a tiny bit homesick.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2020.

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Cogheart
A Cogheart Adventure #1
Peter Bunzl
Jolly Fish Press, February 2019
ISBN 978-1-63163-287-7
Trade Paperback

Set in the skies above and the streets running through London, this scintillating story of clockworks, mechanimals, hybrids and humans is the book that will keep kids reading well past bed-times. It has to be hard for a young reader to step away from this fast-paced, perilous plot because as an adult, I found myself hurrying through a chore or four so that I could get back to the search for the oh-so-secret cogheart.

Professor John’s airship was attacked and it seems the sole survivor is Malkin, the mechanimal fox that serves as family pet and pseudo-protector. He must get a message to John’s daughter, Lily, but even a creature as clever as he cannot make that journey alone.

Slinking and thinking, Malkin has no idea he has been spotted. The teen-aged boy living above Townsend’s Horologist’s was having trouble sleeping and he spied the fox from his window. With a watchful eye, Robert realized the fox was a mechanimal and impulsively sought him out to see if he could be of assistance. He is his da’s apprentice, after all.

Robert and Malkin are indeed an unlikely duo, but it is apparent that they must work together to get to Lily, because they are definitely being pursued. Mr. Creepy-Mirror-Eyes Scary-Face (not his real name) and his equally alarming pal are popping up everywhere and it soon becomes obvious that the four share the same goal but for very different reasons. One pair wants to protect Lily and provide comfort, the other is after the Professor’s greatest invention.

When we finally meet Lily, and she pulls her little nose out of her beloved penny dreadful, we see a young lady that needs no protecting. But she’s no fool, so she is willing to let Robert and Malkin assist in her quest to obtain the elusive perpetual motion machine and to keep it safe from the heinous hybrids and whoever they are working for.

Cogheart could be categorized as an epic action-adventure and that would be accurate; but there are also some subtle, yet intriguing, conversations that provided unique points to ponder. I just love everything about this book and I cannot wait to give my copy to my favorite classroom library.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.

Book Reviews: Misjudged Murderesses by Stephen Jakobi and Dead Silence by Ron Handberg

Misjudged Murderesses
Female Injustice in Victorian Britain
Stephen Jakobi
Pen and Sword, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-52-674162-2
Trade Paperback

Between 1836 and 1900 the wheels of justice often wobbled slowly and erroneously through British society. There were major changes in policing and some changes in social attitudes. However, the balance of justice most often was weighted in favor of the male side of things. Several women were accused of heinous crimes—mostly murder—and, according to this author, mistakenly convicted and executed.

The author, a private solicitor, in 1992 founded Fair Trials International, leading a persistent effort to balance justice world-wide. This volume of true crimes and results is part of his ongoing efforts.

It is a trudging look at the gathering of evidence and its presentation in English courts. The presentation is dense, careful and evokes textbooks of past classes. Indeed, the type on the page is small and readers might be advised to have a magnifier at hand. This is not bed-time pleasure.

However, for anyone intrigued by the evolution of our justice systems, police work and the attitudes of court authorities will find much of this book more than merely interesting.

Another rather fascinating aspect of the book is the role of religion. The author documents a case of torture of a woman prisoner by a chaplain and testimony in court by religious leaders who were supposed to be hearing confession by the female prisoners.

During the time between 1843 and 1900, 53 women were hanged after murder convictions. Thirty of those were poisoners. Fifteen of the poisoners never confessed. Eleven of the 53 were clearly guilty and of the rest, there were various problems that call into question the whole process and outcomes.

It appears that a good deal of the bias toward these women, some of whom were successful in society, was generated by a press that could be accused of being out of control over these sensational cases.

One of the most prolific murderesses described in the book is Mary Ann Cotton. Although convicted and hanged at 40 years of age, only for murdering her stepson, she was married many times, lost many children, and is reliably suspected of have used arsenic in tea to kill at least twenty men and children.

The book documents some appalling miscarriages of justice, as well as describing some appalling acts of murder that were never adequately resolved. Well researched, documented and written, this is not, however, something one would select to take to the beach.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2020.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Dead Silence
Ron Handberg
HarperPaperbacks, February 1999
ISBN 0-06-101247-5
Mass Market Paperback

On a steamy July afternoon in 1983, three young boys run gleefully from their front yard to the nearby park and down the bluff to the edge of the Mississippi River. They do not return home ever again.

Fifteen years later, top television anchor, Alex Collier scans a memory item, the disappearance, on this date, of those three Hathaway sons. The story mildly intrigues him. Now readers, introduced to Collier’s co-anchor on the news team, are drawn inside the routine workings of a major station news operation. The author, with vast and varied experience in such operations, is careful to avoid relying on the technical details of such an operation to move the story forward.

Rather, Handberg relies on the interpersonal relationships, decisions and routines of the people who spend their time researching, writing, taping and presenting the daily television news to help move the story forward. It’s an interesting and sometimes tension-filled situation, but the story really focuses on the three missing boys. Collier decides to use his star-clout to get the station to in effect reopen the case.

Careful logical moves, rather than sudden insightful intuition guides Collier and his young co-anchor to the people, many long retired who were involved in the original case, including the still distraught, still seeking answers, parents of the boys.

The novel is rooted in reality and makes good use of the unusual and often exotic internal scenes in a big-time television operation, the evolving life of officials and ordinary citizens, some of whom have moved on, retired or left the Twin Cities. Mysterious threatening phone calls, possible deliberate hit and run and new murder all populate this novel as the clues mount, incidents occur and Collier persists against mounting resistance and tension.

The physical presence of the cities and rural Minnesota are inserted judicially with logical and useful influence on the trajectory of this story. The narrative rhythm is appropriate and although the novel is long, it is a well-paced read that will capture the imagination and attention of anyone interested in missing person cases.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, January 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

Provenance
Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo
Penguin Press, July 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59420-220-9
Hardcover

Stunningly comprehensive, this real-life tale of one of the most elaborate and wide-spread art cons in the history of the world is at the same time a real page turner. It is very easy to turn an examination like this into an in-depth passionless academic examination of the development and actions of a high-level immoral thief and his minions. These authors have not done that. Rather, they have produced a novel-like high-wire examination of the people and those who consciously or inadvertently aided and abetted the talented counterfeiter, and his masterful, flexible Svengali, the consummate con artist, John Drew.

Of course, their weaving, dodging path of destruction through the British art scene in the mid twentieth-century was supported in great measure by the lustful desires for acquisition of great art by relatively unschooled but wealthy “patrons.” Many of these supporters of artistic creators and their art seemed to care more about the public and private recognition they received for their art collections, and supposed taste, than they did for the actual art and artists.

After reading this reportage, one is forced to wonder who now, in the halls of their mansions, look upon their prized, often expensive, framed pictures and wonder if they are real, or are they too, victims of this great con. Because art experts, as reported by these authors in this meticulously researched book, aver that there are demonstrably hundreds of still unrecognized fakes, valued in the multiple thousands of dollars, hanging in homes and museums and offices all over the world. It gives one pause, and it should.

A stunning work everyone interested in the world of making and collecting art should read.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

The Crimes of Paris
Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler
Little Brown & Company, April 2009
ISBN 978-0-316-01790-9
Hardcover

The book begins with the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 from the Louvre. It ends only a few years later when an artist of some renown named Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on a small reproduction of La Gioconda which, in effect, as the authors say, transformed the painting from a “masterpiece of Renaissance art to an icon of modernism.”

That was in 1919. A mere eight years had passed, during which Paris had experienced a World War and been the host to nearly every giant of science, literature, the arts and politics. It was an amazing time when Trotsky and Marx, Hemingway and Picasso and Cezanne met and drank and socialized in Montmartre and Montparnasse and attended original short plays at the Grand Guiginol.

It was a period when the first professional private investigator appeared and the science of forensic investigation developed as a recognized arm of law enforcement. And it was a period during which some of the most vicious and creative gangs of criminals roamed the streets of the City of Lights.

The book is engagingly written and organized in a thoughtful way to encourage readers to delve more deeply into intriguing topics with voluminous notes, and an extensive bibliography. Yet, a reader who is only casually interested in the period and the players will find this book a fast and enjoyable read. But a casual reader will be drawn in, to the writing, the style, the language and the content. This is a fascinating work of great consequence.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2018.
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: In Plain Sight by Kathryn Casey

In Plain Sight
The Kaufman County Prosecutor Murders
Kathryn Casey
William Morrow, March 27, 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-23635-0-3
Mass Market Paperback

From the publisher:  On a cold January morning, the killer executed Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse in broad daylight.   Eight shots fired a block from the Kaufman County Courthouse.  Two months later, a massacre.  The day before Easter, the couple slept.  Bunnies, eggs, a flower centerpiece gracing the table.  Death rang their doorbell and filled the air with the rat-a-tat-tat of an assault weapon discharging round after round into their bodies.  Eric Williams and his wife, Kim, celebrated the murders with grilled steaks.  Their crimes covered front pages around the world, many saying the killer placed a target square on the back of law enforcement.  It seemed that Williams’ plan was to exact revenge on all who had wronged him, one at a time. Throughout the Spring of 2013, Williams sowed terror through a small Texas town, and a quest for vengeance turned to deadly obsession.  His intention?  To keep killing, until someone found a way to stop him.

The book’s Prologue references the murder of an assistant DA, Mark Hasse, in the small city of Kaufman, Texas.  The identity of the killer is unknown, although there is speculation that it was the work of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a powerful prison group, as well as a Mexican cartel.  Mike McLelland, Mark’s boss and Kaufman County’s DA, believes that the killer is local, and is “somebody bent on revenge.”  Meanwhile, one Eric Williams believes that “he has pulled off the perfect murder.”  The Prologue ends with these words: “The killing wasn’t over.”

The ensuing tale reads like a fine work of fiction, although it is immediately apparent that that is not the case:  This is a true crime story, proven on nearly every page by the quotes from conversations by the author with each of the parties involved, from the killer and his wife [and collaborator], Kim, as well as from the aforementioned Mike McLelland, about whom nothing more will be said for fear of giving anything away.  Suffice it to say that a man thought of as a small-town good citizen turns into a vengeful killer.  The publisher has called the book an “expertly researched account” of the killings, and truer words were never said.  Frequently, while reading this wonderful book, I felt as though I were reading an interesting novel, then almost immediately coming across a photo, or a fascinating quote from one of the main, or even subsidiary, characters, making it plain that this was a fascinating true account of the proceedings.  Eric Williams had had his life ruined, his livelihood taken away for $600 worth of computers, especially when one sat on his county desk, “did seem excessive.”  But “Eric never admitted the murders.”

A riveting book, and one which is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2018.

Book Reviews: Where Hope Begins by Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother and A Conspiracy of Ravens by Terrence McCauley

Where Hope Begins
Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother
Pocket Books, September 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3150-3
Hardcover

This is an interesting and at the same time, an appalling story. How is it that even relatively uneducated people, mostly women, can succumb to such abuse for years without speaking up? After all, this family, under the destructive thumb of their patriarch, Marcus Wesson, wasn’t living in some isolated desert camp. They lived in a home in an urban center, Fresno, California. Some of them worked, even if most never went to school and while they were obviously in thrall to an evil man, some of them, especially Marcus’ wife, Elizabeth, should have spoken out.

It is also hard to accept that this “family” was not known to local authorities.

Reporter Alysia Sofios is assigned to a case of mass murder of nine children in their home. She soon breaks protocol by becoming intimately involved with the surviving family, helping them create a more normal life. The book is the story of that deepening involvement and the reporter’s gradual entanglement with the Wessons. Finally, although her intentions are benign, echoes of Marcus Wesson’s control and manipulation of his offspring seem to be descending on Alysia and her decisions regarding the family going forward.

Ultimately, the emotional/straightforward style of the narrative becomes a little tedious. Still this is a story well-told and should be examined by members of every social service agency in the country where suspicions of out-of-the ordinary family situations arise.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2017.
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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A Conspiracy of Ravens
James Hicks Series #3
Terrence McCauley
Polis Books, September 2017
ISBN: 978-1943818716
Trade Paperback

A classic thriller from an experienced, award-winning thriller writer. This is by no means McCauley’s first rodeo. I do confess that while the link of the title to an earlier book, A Murder of Crows, is apparent, the meaning of the title in the context of this novel is obscure to me.

The story is another fraught episode in the continuing saga of James Hicks, now Dean of a super-secret intelligence operation, privately funded, operating as much as possible in secret from somewhere in the Northeast. The group is called The University. Most of the operatives and executives are labeled with college-centric titles. Hence, the former Dean of the agency is called the Trustee.

Mr. Hicks leads a rambunctious organization of marvelously talented shooters, mission planners, analysts, translators and the most advanced technicians in the world. This University operates a highly sophisticated satellite system designed to monitor and counter both friendly (CIA) and unfriendly (China, Russian GRU) computer and surveillance, banking and law enforcement systems.

Ducking drone-carried bombs, machine and shotgun-toting killers, Hicks zooms about the world, thwarting killers, meting out hard-fisted lethal justice, all with the help of a wonderfully varied cadre of close and talented associates.

The characters are distinct, consistent, lethal and fit into the thriller mode comfortably. For fans of this kind of crime novel, everything is presented in plain, straightforward, brutal and realistic language. The one truly intriguing and off-kilter character, Roger Cobb, plays an unusual, really close, friend of Dean James Hicks, a character worth a closer look.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.