Book Reviews: A Simple Shaker Murder by Deborah Woodworth and A Wasteland of Strangers by Bill Pronzini

A Simple Shaker MurderA Simple Shaker Murder         
Deborah Woodworth
Avon Eos, April 2000
ISBN: 0-380-80425-5
Mass Market Paperback

Take one tortured father, one deeply troubled child, and add them to a small closed community called the North Homage Shaker community, sometime in the mid-thirties, somewhere in northern Kentucky. Now add an odd group of utopians calling themselves the New Owenites. It is a recipe for sudden death.

Saint Paul author Deborah Woodworth has, for the fourth time, presented mystery readers with an excellent mystery novel about the people who inhabit the fictional but very real Shaker community of North Homage. Periodically over the years in the United States, there have arisen a variety of religious and idealized societies, many of which were established and soon faded to become footnotes in history. Others persevered or made their mark on American culture and mores in various ways. Such are the Mennonites, the Shakers, Hutterites, the Ammana colony, and the Owenites, who espoused particular educational beliefs.

Woodworth has used her academic background in religious sociology to excellent effect in her series which features Sister Rose Callahan, a Shaker woman who combines the skills of a born administrator and a questioning mind with her strong religious belief to lead the community of North Homage, and to solve crimes.

Callahan is an excellent character, as are most of the other inhabitants of the community. Woodworth‘s skills as a writer continue to develop and she weaves this simple yet complex plot into a story that will challenge the reader to figure out the murder and the ending.

The New Owenites have come to North Homage to study Shaker beliefs and the daily applications of their doctrine. In part they are there to learn, but also, apparently desire to shape themselves and perhaps their Shaker hosts into something else altogether. Conflict inevitably rises between the two societies and when a New Owenite is found hanging from a tree in the orchard, emotions swirl out of control. While the police are quick to rule the hanging a suicide, Sister Rose is not so sure and when she discovers a disturbed child nearby, a child who may have witnessed the death, Sister Rose is moved to action, not only in her attempt to discover the truth of the man’s death, but to save the child as well. The solutions will delight you. A tasty traditional mystery.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.


A Wasteland of StrangersA Wasteland of Strangers 
Bill Pronzini
Walker & Company, June 1999
ISBN: 0-8027-7560-8
Mass Market Paperback

This is another of Bill Pronzini’s intensive, commanding, explorations of then current social ideas and concerns which move a national colloquy in many forums. But this is not a social treatise full of statistics. This is a moving, intense, crime novel, that will captivate and enthrall the reader. Take one large, dangerous looking, individual, John Faith, by name. He’s a traveler, a seeker, a man on the move. Insert this stranger into a small resort community during the off season. This community happens to be in northern California, but such are the author’s skills, it could be anywhere. It could be your hometown.

John Faith is the immediate object of suspicion, because he’s a stranger and he doesn’t look like he belongs. His presence gradually reveals and widens long-standing cracks in the comfortable, biased attitudes and ideas of almost everyone in town. Why has this man come to town? What are his motives? His answers are enigmatic, and even at the end we are left with questions. John Faith’s encounters with the police chief, the bigoted lake-side resort owner, some local Native Americans, and a bartender or two, are like pebbles dropped in a placid pool. The ripples expand and expand until they reach the edge of the pool and die. Except in this case, the ripples grow larger, intersect and become irresistible waves that begin to tear at the base fabric of the town.

This psychological thriller is tightly plotted, and intricately presented. It’s pace is irresistible. A Wasteland of Strangers is a thoughtful, satisfying crime novel. Artist Doug Henry has presented a handsome, evocative cover illustration. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: The Killer Is Dying by James Sallis, The Calling by Alison Bruce, Old Haunts by E.J. Copperman, Northwest Angle by William Kent Krueger, and The Dark Rose by Erin Kelly

The Killer is Dying
James Sallis
Walker & Company, August 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8027-7945-8

The first thing one perceives on reading the first pages of James Sallis’ new novel is the literal accuracy of the title:  The man who calls himself Christian is a contract killer, a Vietnam vet now terminally ill, on his last job.  A few pages later, something goes awry as the man he has been watching, who he has been hired to kill, is suddenly shot – –  by someone else.  And Christian is not sure how he feels about that.

The second character to whom the reader is introduced is Jimmie, a precocious youngster who has unexpectedly had to develop some strong survival skills when he is abandoned by his parents.  Suddenly, and bizarrely, Jimmie begins having vivid dreams.  The startling thing about this, other than the oddity of his dreaming at all when he was previously unaware of having ever done so in the past, is that the dreams are apparently Christian’s.  And that’s just the beginning.  A dying killer, a philosophizing teenager, a cop whose wife is gravely ill;  disparate lives which only tangentially intersect, with the p.o.v. switching among them, which was briefly disorienting to this reader, but all to fascinating effect.

There are small master strokes with pitch-perfect thumbnail sketches, several scenes analogizing the actions of birds to those of humans. This is a book peopled by characters who are dead or dying and those they leave behind.  But it is not maudlin, rather, thought-provoking. It is also full of existential musings:  “The world speaks to us in so many languages . . . and we understand so few . . . He was thinking how kids back in school, kids these days too he was sure, always talked about being bored, and how he could never understand that.  The way wind moved in the trees, the sheen of sunlight on glass or steel, a fly’s wings – – everything was of interest.  You just had to pay attention, you just had to look.”

James Sallis, the author of over two dozen volumes, fiction and non-fiction alike, has again produced a novel which captured me completely.  When I read and reviewed one of his earlier books, Salt River, I wrote “Mr. Sallis’ spare prose is wonderful, and the novel a deeply affecting one.”  Those words are just as true for this book, and it is, obviously, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.


The Calling
Alison Bruce
Soho Constable, August 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-964-3

As this third novel in the DC Gary Goodhew series opens, the reader is briefly introduced, one by one, to members of the somewhat dysfunctional Burrows family, which is planning a surprise celebration of the 80th birthday of the family matriarch.  Two of the family members fail to show up, however: Andy, as usual feeling himself the least favored child, ponders whether or not to join in the festivities.  When his niece, Kaye, doesn’t show up, however, it is for much more sinister reasons:  She appears to have disappeared.

The case is assigned to DC Goodhew, of the Cambridge CID.  With no clues as to Kaye’s whereabouts, the only positive note comes from two anonymous calls from a woman who directs the police to a man who she says they should investigate.  The suspense amps up as it appears there may be more than one victim.

A cut above many police procedurals, the book contains clever plotting and an interesting protagonist, a young and intuitive young man caught up in spite of himself in some office politics, and a suggestion of [possibly] romantic and [definitely] professional compatibility with D.C. Sue Gully. I will look forward to the next entry in this series.


Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.


Old Haunts
E.J. Copperman
Berkley Prime Crime, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-425-24618-4
Mass Market Paperback

Alison Kerby returns in the third in what is billed as the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series by E.J. Copperman.  Alison, a single mother of a precocious ten-year-old daughter, after her divorce from the man she not-so-lovingly refers to as “The Swine” returned to the town where she grew up, Harbor Haven on the Jersey Shore, purchased a house over a century old, hoping to live out her dream of running a guest house.  Those plans changed somewhat after Alison discovered that the previous owner of the house, “Maxie,” is still there – sort of.  Actually, it’s Maxie’s ghost who is still there, as well as that of a young detective named Paul, who had been hired by Maxie shortly before death threats had been carried out against her, with both of them becoming murder victims.  Alison, her mother and daughter seem to be the only ones who can see them.  But on the positive side, word has gotten around, and the ‘haunted guesthouse’ is now being booked by a tour agent for senior citizens interested in what is  billed as a “unique experience,” promising two-a-day “ghostly happenings.”  Maxie, who died – and still remains – at 28, and Paul – English-born and Canadian-raised, and wanting to keep his hand in the p.i. business, so to speak – have no problem with that, especially as they are apparently incapable of leaving the house.

It is a typically hot – make that ‘very hot’ – July “down the shore” in Harbor Haven.  Alison has her usual contingent of guests, most of them the normal group of seniors, when Alison discovers “The Swine” on her doorstep.  Uninvited, and certainly unexpected, he states that he and the woman for whom he left Alison have broken up, and indicates that he wants them ‘to be a family again.’  To further complicate matters for Alison, the body of a man is discovered in a neighboring town, and police identify it as that of a man to whom Maxie was briefly [4 days, to be exact] married.  Alison undertakes to try to find out who killed him, and why.

As if this isn’t enough for her to deal with, Paul asks Alison to try to track down the woman to whom he was about to propose before his untimely death; the engagement ring was in his pocket at the time.  With her [as they are described] ‘non-alive assistants’ and her best friend, the very-pregnant Jeannie, Alison undertakes to do what has to be done to resolve all these issues, in well-plotted and very funny fashion.  [As just a small example, I cite the author’s description of a man who runs a collection agency, “wearing a sport coat so loud he had to shout to be heard over it.”]  But the humor and charm of the writing is difficult to capture – you simply have to get this book and experience it for yourself – it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.


Northwest Angle
William Kent Krueger
Atria, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-439-15395-6

This is the eleventh book in the multi-award-winning Cork O’Connor series, and it is another winner.  It starts out, as do the others, in the North Woods of Minnesota, described by the author as “a land so beautiful it’s as near to heaven as you’re likely to find anywhere on this earth.”  And the reader is more than convinced of that as [s]he continues to read, for the author’s wonderful prose brings it vividly to life in all its majesty.

Family is all-important to Cork, and as the novel opens he and his family – his two daughters, Ann, twenty-one, and Jenny, a writer twenty-four years old; his son, nearly fifteen; and his sister-in-law and her husband – are about to embark in a houseboat on one of the larges lakes in North America, straddling the US/Canadian border, on what he envisions as a family gathering, the first in the nearly two years since his beloved wife had died.  Their destination was a remote area known as the Northwest Angle.  Within less than an hour, however, a devastating storm arises, threatening to kill anything and anyone in its path, with waves over eight feet high and winds over 100 mph, wreaking havoc and destruction unlike anything they’d even seen.

As suddenly as it began, the storm soon passes, but in its aftermath and where the vagaries of the area have deposited them, on one of a myriad of small islands, they discover an old trapper’s cabin, inside which they find the body of a young girl, brutally killed, and, nearby, an infant who appears to be no more than a few weeks old. Jenny is immediately taken with the child, who though hungry and dehydrated is none the worse for his abandonment.  The reaction of the others is somewhat more ambivalent as to his future, and the possibilities raised by his presence among them and its potential threat, for it appears that whoever was responsible for the girl’s death is still stalking the area.  Cork, with his background as a Chicago cop and a Sheriff for more than a decade before he became a p.i., is faced with getting them safely off the island, and finding out who is responsible for the girl’s death, as well as seeing that the baby’s future is dealt with.

The ensuing events are never less than harrowing.  The mystery is one not easily solved, but the O’Connor family, with the help of their old friend Henry Meloux, is not easily deterred.  Cork’s – and the author’s – love of the wilderness, and his philosophy towards life and family, is made manifest, e.g., “he was reminded that life was no more predictable than the flight of a dragonfly” and “love is the only river I know whose current flows both ways.”  The book is deeply satisfying, and as this author’s work usually does, left me with tears in my eyes.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.


The Dark Rose
Erin Kelly
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-670-02328-8

Louisa Trevelyan is working as a garden designer re-creating a historically accurate Tudor garden in Warwickshire, at the fictional Kelstice Lodge.  After working for years recreating gardens that had fallen into neglect on private estates, this community program has really given her a chance to indulge her creative passion for garden design.  It is there that she meets Paul Seaforth, 19 years old, who bears “an uncanny likeness” to her lover of years ago, Adam Glasslake. Though that relationship only lasted a few months, Louisa had been obsessed with Adam from the day she met him, an obsession undiminished with the years, which now translates into an affair with the much-younger Paul.

Kelstice is a project of Veriditas, a charity working with “at risk youth.”  Paul’s presence is the “community service” to which he has been sentenced in lieu of jail time for his part in a crime committed by a mentor of sorts, against whom he has agreed to testify in court. For her part, Louisa also has a past which threatens her present.  By unspoken agreement, they never discuss their pasts with one another.

Billed as a ‘psychological mystery,’ I found the novel to be more suspense than mystery, as the details of Paul’s and Louisa’s pasts are revealed to the reader only in small doses.  The shifting p.o.v. and time frames were somewhat disorienting, but necessary, describing the earlier years of both protags bit by bit, building the anticipation, until quite near the end of the novel, when all the details are finally revealed, leading to a stunning climax.


Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.