Category Archives: mystery

Review: Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

Just One Evil Act (Inspector Lynley, #18)

A good friend (and fellow Lynley and Havers fan) used to say that she looked forward to each new Elizabeth George novel because it offered her the chance to catch up with some old friends. I have to admit that I agreed with her at the time and it still holds true today. George writes a compelling mystery, but it’s the strength of her characters that keeps me coming back to her books time and again.

No where is that more the case than with the latest entry in the series Just One Evil Act.

Picking up where Believing the Lie left off, Evil Act gives center stage to Barbara Havers. Ath the conclusion of Lie, it was revealed that the former lover of Taymullah Azhar and mother to Hydiah had vanished without a trace with Hydiah. Becuase Azhar never married the mother nor was recognized as Hydiah’s father, he has little or no legal recourse is determining where his daughter has gone or in getting her back. Instead, he is forced to turn to private detectives and less than above board means to try and reunite with his daughter and possibly see her return home to him.

Six months later, the mother shows up in London, accusing Azhar of kidnapping their daughter. It seems that someone has taken Hydiah from the Italian marketplace where she and her new lover (and father to her child) shopped each week. Havers is desperate to find a way to help Azhar and get Hydiah back, eventually trying to pressure Scotland Yard to jump into the case by leaking details to a tabloid journalist and forcing the hand of her superior, Isabelle Audrey. Audrey reluctantly goes along but instead of sending Havers to Italy, she sends Lynley.

As events continue to escalate, Havers is forced to go further and further to try and cover her tracks in her attempts to help Azhar. Interestingly, the novel examines issues of trust in the novel and continually asks you to question who you believe and why you believe them. In the case of Barbara, if you’re a long time reader of the series, you can’t help but begin to feel (as Lynley does) that at some point she’s got to wake up and smell the coffee. Multiple clues point to Azhar’s involvement and potentially ulterior motives in the case, but Barbara is so blinded by her attraction to Azhar and her love for Hydiah that she refuses to believe them or won’t examine them until she gets a chance to talk to Azhar in person.

Meanwhile, it seems as though Barbara is more and more willing to throw her entire career out the window instead of coming clean to Lynley or trying to make things right.

The novel seems to adopt the world-view of one Gregory House in that “Everyone lies” because there are lots of lies going on here, all told with good (for the most part) intentions and intended to achieve what each character perceives as a positive outcome to things (or at least so they imagine).

It all makes for a fascinating, compelling novel, even if (as I’ve seen several other reviewers complain) a murder doesn’t happen until close to halfway through the novel. I feel like many of these complaints are missing the forest for the trees. While George can craft a solid mystery, at this point the Lynley and Havers novels are more than about being a simple “whodunnit?” and intended to be more about the impact certain evil acts can have on the community and the characters.

If you approach the novel from that perspective (as I did), you are likely to love just about every minute of this novel. I will admit the ending left me a bit flummoxed, feeling a bit like George trying too hard to push a reset button of sorts instead of really following through on some of the potential consequences of choices and actions made by characters in this book. But I reserve too much judgment on that until the next novel in the series gets a chance to address these things and possibly offers us some more insight into the fallout.

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Review: That Night by Chevy Stevens

That Night

At multiple points in the first half of Chevy Stevens’ That Night, I found myself wishing the story would get to the night in question already and maybe get this novel moving forward.

Instead, the story of the falsely accused and convicted Toni Murphy and her boyfriend kept churning on and on, giving the reader details that didn’t matter much in the question of who killed her sister and why or much in the way of character development for Toni. Early on, I got that Toni was a rebel, misunderstood by her parents and the system. I got that Toni faced bullies all her life and I suppose much of the character arc that Stevens is trying to lay out for Toni and the reader is her slowly realizing that she’s going to have to stand up for herself or else be downtrodden her entire life. Of course, it takes being falsely accused and convicted of her sister’s murder and going to prison for Toni to become self-reliant and a “bad ass.”

It’s a shame really because the hook of this novel and the first few chapters are interesting enough. Early on, Toni is an intriguing narrator for the events unfolding (chapters alternate between the events leading up to Toni’s conviction and events is sent to prison). But my patience for her quickly began to wear thin by the time we get to her third or fourth conflict with her parents who “just don’t understand her” and how she can’t wait to get out from under their roof so she can move in her boyfriend.

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Review: Don’t Try to Find Me by Holly Brown

Don't Try To Find Me: A Novel

“Don’t try to find me.”

With those words, fourteen year-old Marley sets off every parents’ worst nightmare — your child running away from home, vanishing without a trace. The only clues are how thoroughly Marley went to cover her tracks, including erasing her tablet and clearing out messages from her e-mail in-box, cell phone and her social media accounts.

Marley’s parents, Rachel and Paul throw themselves into trying to figure out why their daughter would board a Greyhound bus and attempt to vanish. Paul throws himself into the crisis, embracing the role of the father trying to hold his family together while Rachel realizes that the intense scrutiny may bring up some secrets she doesn’t necessarily want shared with her husband, much less the rest of the world.

And while these secrets are devastating to Rachel, Paul and Marley, author Holly Brown wisely keeps the secrets fairly restrained and doesn’t indulge the temptation to make them overly melodramatic or predictable. The reader is clued in early that things aren’t necessarily what they seem and that both narrators (Rachel and Marley take turns narrating chapters) aren’t necessarily reliable or telling us the whole story. The back and forth of the chapters as each secret and the consequences of certain decisions are played out for each of the characters helps keep the story moving forward and keeps raising questions that are (thankfully) all answered by time we get to the final pages of the novel.

It’s interesting to see that the marketing blurbs compare this book to Gone Girl and Reconstructing Amelia. While I understand the temptation to hype every book coming on the market told from the point of view from two (or more) unreliable narrators, I think that marketing Don’t Try to Find Me along those lines is a disservice to this book. The book is more along the lines of Reconstructing Amelia with much of the mystery and suspense coming from how little the parents in question know about their teenage children. Luckily Don’t Try to Find Me can have a happier ending since Marley has only vanished and is trying to disappear from the grid and start a new life, but the questions of just how well you can and should know your children and what you can and should know about their friends (both in real life and on-line) will linger with you long after the final page is turned.

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Review: The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

The Next Time You See Me

There were multiple instance while reading The Next Time You See Me that I had to pause and glance at the cover again to make sure I wasn’t reading the latest offering from Elizabeth George or Laura Lippman.

Like George and Lippman, Holly Goddard Jones isn’t only interested in solving the crime at the core of her debut novel but she’s also interested in the impact the crime has on the characters and community before and after the event occurs. In this case, the central mystery centers around the disappearance of Veronica “Ronnie” Eastman. Ronnie is considered a black sheep of her small Kentucky town and her family, but that doesn’t mean she’s quite the pariah that local gossip makes her out to be.

Jones weaves the story of how Ronnie impacted various members of the community throughout the novel. And while the reader may suspect that they know what’s happened to Ronnie long before the reality sets in for various characters, Jones takes time to explore the events preceding and proceeding from her disappearance.

Chapters center on her married sister, who is feeling unfulfilled in her role as mother, teacher and wife to a devoted high school band director who neglects her during band season. We also get a glimpse of the awkward teenage girl who is confused by the world and a popular teenage boy who treats her at times with tenderness and at others with disdain. There’s also the older, lonely guy who makes the mistake of going to a local dive bar with some of the younger guys from the office one Friday evening.

All of these various threads intersect with Ronnie and we get various views of her and her fate. The Next Time You See Me isn’t just interested in how Ronnie met her fate but also as to why she met it and how it impacts her friends, family and the members of the town. Some of them are direct, while others are not. The novel sets up a nice romance between the older gentlemen from the plant and his nurse (they met on the night at the bar in question), giving hope to both before it’s torn away in the novel’s final chapters. And I’ll give Jones a lot of credit for not allowing her characters to do cliched things in the interest of the plot.

All in all, this is a satisfying, emotionally rich novel. It was over far too soon and it leaves me wondering what Jones has up her sleeve for her next book.

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Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman (The Last Policeman, #1)

If the world were going to end in six months, how would you react?

Would you start crossing items off your bucket list? Or would you try and connect with a higher power? Or would you continue on in your chosen career, finally able to move up because a lot of other people had taken the first two options?

Detective Hank Palace is taking that third option, finally getting ahead in his police career because everyone else above him took another path. He’s a detective by default and while he’s good at his job, there’s not really a lot of pressure to solve many cases. For many, being caught and locked up for a crime is a death sentence since, again, the world is going to end in six months when the Earth collides with a giant asteroid.

The sense of impending doom has also led a lot of people to take an early exit on this life. When Hank is called in on an apparent suicide, he begins to suspect the set-up may look too much like a suicide and may actually be a cover-up for murder.

Ben H. Winter’s The Last Policeman is a fascinating combination of a gritty, noir mystery and an end-of-the-world sci-fi thriller. Winter drops us into the world of Hank Palace and allows us to live in it along with him — seeing a variety of responses to the end of the world coming and there being little, if anything, that can be done to stop it. (There’s no Bruce Willis here to jump on a shuttle and take out the asteroid before it collides).

It’s the world-building that sets the first two-thirds of this novel apart from other noir mystery novels. But it’s the last third that offers up clues as to something more going on and also that drag down the novel a bit. The central mystery works well enough and is nicely resolved, but there’s something in the novel’s final third that seems a bit off from what we’ve read until then. And while I understand that we can’t exactly root for a last-second miracle and that the world-view of this novel is a bleak one, I still felt something was missing from the last third of the novel that kept a good book from being a great one.

Interestingly, my local community has chosen this novel as it’s “community read” for 2014. Certainly some of the ideas and questions raised by the novel — just how would you deal with the end of the world coming? — are intriguing ones. One idea that Winters puts forward is how everyday things would shut down or quickly become a luxury or a memory. For example, McDonald’s are shut down but there are local squatters who take over the local franchise and keep things going even if you’re not technically eating the famous fries and a Big Mac. There’s also the question of quantities of certain items slowly beginning to dwindle down as the supply chain is interrupted or else suspended entirely.

All of these are interesting issues and ideas. And yet it never feels like Winters is bringing the central mystery to a halt to have Palace spend a paragraph or two thinking back to the good ol’ days.

And while I wasn’t a huge fan of how it ended, I was still intrigued enough by Palace and his world to want to pick up the next installment in this proposed trilogy and see what happens next.

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Review: Mystery Girl by David Gordon

Mystery Girl: A Novel

In an early chapter of David Gordon’s Mystery Girl, our first person narrator (and all-around film buff) Sam Kornburg makes reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

If you’re familiar with the film, this reference gives away a lot of what’s to come in the later sections of the novel. It unfortunately takes what could have been a great mystery and turns into it just an interesting one — and one that isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

Kornblum is a struggling novelist, perpetually working on a book that eve he acknowledges no one will want to read. When his wife requests a separation, Sam attempts to get his life back in order to win points in their counselling sessions and hopefully win her back. Responding to an advertisement, Sam becomes an assistant to a private detective. His first case is following a woman and keeping tabs on her for his boss.

Sam’s not exactly a professional at the job and he finds himself become more and more fascinated by the woman he’s following. This leads to a far more complex mystery.

As I said earlier, if you’ve seen Vertigo, it’s not difficult to figure out where some of the treads of this story are leading. And while I was initially drawn in by the uber-intellectual that Sam wants to be, I rapidly found his first person narration to be a distraction to the story rather than adding to it.

All of this added up to a rather disappointing mystery and novel. I realize that Gordon isn’t trying to “transcend” the genre of the mystery novel (Sam makes several references to reading pulp mysteries that don’t that) but I kept hoping that the novel would be something more. It’s got some good pieces, but it never adds up to being more than the sum of its parts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this novel from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

Bad Wolf

Nele Neuhaus’ American debut with Snow White Must Die put the Bodenstein & Kirchhoff on my mystery radar.

For her next American release, American readers are treated to the sixth novel in the series, Bad Wolf. I’m not sure why the publisher chose to skip the fifth novel in the series, but I’m hoping they’ll eventually translate and publish the entire series for American readers. There are certain events in the personal lives of Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein that are delved into here, but I kept feeling like I’d missed some developments in the fifth book.

Luckily, a solid mystery and intriguing characters help make up for that feeling and put Neuhaus (once again) firmly on my “to be read” list for mystery writers.

When a young woman’s body washes up in a river, Kirchoff and Bodenstein are tasked with finding out who she is and the identity of her killer. Meanwhile, a local talk show host is pursuing a story that could put her back on the map when she’s attacked. There is also a young mother who has concerns about her daughter’s change in behavior while dealing with her husband’s infidelity and the impending arrival of her second child. Set during a heat wave in Germany, these three elements (and a few more) help keep tempers short and emotions just below the surface.

These (at first) disparate plot threads seem to have little or no connection. But as the story unfolds, Neuhaus ably weaves them together, all while ratcheting up the suspense and stakes. Bad Wolf kept my guessing about how the threads would fit together and just who exactly is the lead suspect in the case. And just when I thought I had it all figured out, Neuhaus managed to surprise me.

As I raved with Snow White Must Die, Neuhaus reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth George. Bad Wolf reinforces this opinion and only makes me hope that the rest of the series will be translated and published soon. (And hopefully in the published order!)

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Review: Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner

Here’s a word of advice when it comes to Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner — don’t start reading it to get you settled into bed at night or to cure insomnia when you wake up in the middle of the night.

If you do this, be prepare to not get any more sleep and to not care that you’re missing it. Or that your eyes are becoming drowsy, but you just can’t put the book down.

Haynes’ first novel, written during November’s annual novel writing month, is a first-rate suspense thriller. When Catherine meets Lee as the bouncer of a local club, she’s instantly attracted to him. Sparks ignite between the two and soon their flame is burning brightly. But is Lee too good to be true?

Unfortunately for Catherine, the answer is yes. Lee is controlling, manipulative and doesn’t want to let her go.

Years later, now known as Cathy, she’s struggling to start her life over and fight her OCD urges. These urges are having an impact on her professional and personal life. Cathy also knows that Lee will soon be released from prison and could come looking for her, despite her best efforts to vanish and get away from him.

Into her life comes the new neighbor upstairs, a charming man who is willing to help Cathy with her insecurities and possibly learn to trust a man again. But as before, Cathy and we begin to wonder if he’s not too good to be true.

The story unfolds in both the present and the past as we slowly discover what happened to Catherine and what is happening to Cathy. Haynes’ style carries the novel and she knows exactly how to drop hints and clues to keep not only the reader guessing but also make you want to read just one more chapter. Haynes also does a solid job of delivering twists and turns that feel earned and not like they’re thrown in just to keep the novel’s momentum going. She also avoids several cliches and had me second-guessing some of my assumptions about where events would take Catherine/Cathy in the novel.

If you’re looking for a good way to lose sleep, this is just the way to do it.

I know that I’ll be eagerly looking forward to the next offering from Haynes

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Review: After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

After I'm Gone

I’ve been a big fan of Laura Lippman ever since Stephen King recommended her works in his Entertainment Weekly column a few years ago. And so when I had the opportunity to grab Lippman’s latest novel early thanks to Amazon’s Vine program, I jumped at the chance and immediately re-ordered my entire to be read list.

After being disappointed by her previous novel And When She Was Good, I had high hopes that After I’m Gone would see Lippman returning to form. The good news is that not only does After I’m Gone see Lippman return to form, but the novel is one of her best.

As with many of Lippman’s standalone novels, the story is less a whodunnit and more about the impact criminal acts can have on ordinary people. In this case, the ordinary people are the wife, daughters and mistress of Felix Brewer. The novel opens with Brewer slipping out of town in the middle of the night and then fills in (some of) the details leading up to his departure and then looks at the impact it has on his family. Among the central questions concerning many of those caught up in Felix’s web of lies and betrayal is was he planning to take his mistress with him when he fled and where did the money that he supposedly through various nefarious activities go?

Lippman adds in a murder mystery as well and as with all of her best novels, there are multiple suspects each with a solid motivation for committing the crime.

Lippman delves into the lives of the women who are in Felix’s sphere of influence, crafting chapters that examine each character and her decisions after Felix leaves. Each of these characters is compelling, interesting and Lippman dolls out clues and information in a way that keeps the pages turning. There were several times I kept saying, “Just one more chapter” and ended up reading two, three or four more to discover the next detail and the next beyond that.

If you’re not a fan of Lippman yet, this novel is a great jumping in point. And if you’re a long-time Lippman fan, After I’m Gone has an interesting Easter egg tie-in to her Tess Monahan series — one which could signal an interesting new direction for the series, whenever Lippman decides to return to it.

After I’m Gone is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Add it to your must read list for 2014.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this novel from Amazon’s Vine Program in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)

Several times while reading The Cuckoo’s Calling,I kept wondering if and when the novel might have come up on my radar had it not been for the coverage that the Robert Galbraith is a pen name for best-selling author J.K. Rowling.

I probably wouldn’t have sampled it as quickly, but I do think I’d have tried the novel eventually. I also think I would have enjoyed it just as much as I did here. A good mystery is a good mystery, no matter who’s telling the story.

And for my money, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a good mystery.

Down on his luck private investigator Cormoran Strike is having a good run of bad luck. He’s down to a single client, he can’t pay his bills and his girlfriend has kicked him out of their apartment, possibly for good this time. Enter into his life a new temporary secretary in Robyn, who Strike doesn’t have the money to pay, much less the business to justify employing her in a regular position. But Strike’s ship may have come in when the well-to-do client John Bristow enters the office and convinces Strike to take the case of the apparent suicide of his model sister, Lula Landry. Strike is won over by Bristow’s conviction and the sheer amount of money that Bristow can pay to look further into the case.

If you’re a fan of British mysteries like those written by Elizabeth George, you’re probably going to enjoy The Cuckoo’s Calling. The story brings in a variety of suspects, red herrings and interesting investigative avenues before the culprit is finally revealed. In addition, the novel also delves a bit into the characters of Strike and Robyn, who is attracted to the private eye lifestyle that Strike inhabits. The novel is clearly setting these two up as an intriguing team of detectives with Strike as the old-school detective and Robyn’s mastery of all things Google and the ability to put together pieces that Strike has overlooked or heading down avenues that Strike has not thought of yet.

It’s interesting to see Rowling try new things as a writer. This one is clearly not intended for readers who grew up on Harry Potter. And while a series of novels set in this universe probably won’t fly off shelves like the adventures of the boy wizard did, I can’t help but think a few more entries in this series couldn’t or wouldn’t be as satisfying and entertaining to read. I certainly know I’d be interested in reading more of the exploits of Strike and Robyn.

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