Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar

Collar Robber

Collar Robber: A Crime Story Featuring Jay Davidovich and Cynthia Jakubek by Hillary Bell Locke (Poisoned Pen Press, 414.95, 296 pages)

We got the deal done at two in the afternoon my time, which meant that Shifcos was clocking some major overtime. We’d fenced a bit, mostly for pride’s sake I think. Just before noon she’d written, ‘I need you to come off $170K,’ so I knew we had it made. All we were arguing about was bragging rights.

Right up front on the first page author Hillary Bell Locke makes it perfectly clear that she’s using a non de plume; however, she’s a bona fide lawyer with a Harvard Law School degree as is her main female character, Cynthia Jakubek, who was featured in a prior book by Ms. Locke. Moreover, none of the characters are people with whom Ms. Locke is acquainted or related. She must delight in creating goofy names like Dany Nesselrode and Amber Gris. There are more of them throughout the tale, but I digress.

The key to understanding what’s happening in this very convoluted insurance investigation crime story is missing from the book. That element is a chart listing all of the named characters. In this book every one of them counts. No need to designate whether the individuals are good or bad. Each of them crosses the imaginary line, or at a minimum, sidles up close to it. The confusion arises because, sometimes the reader sees a name, such as Mr. Szulz, and at other times he’s Willy. There’s C. Talbot Rand, AKA Tally and Proxeine Violet (Proxy) Shifcos who answers to both her nickname and her surname.

Actually, a multi-part grid might be a better element than a chart. The characters are primarily Catholic, Jewish, rich or struggling. For example, Cynthia Jakubek is Catholic and struggling whereas Sean McGoeghan is Catholic and beyond rich. Lucky for Cynthia, Sean believes in her abilities and provides a hefty annual retainer to assist with her budding law practice.

All the fuss and negotiating centers around a painting, Eros Rising, which was coerced from its Jewish owner, Gustav Wehring, during World War II by, you guessed it, the Nazis. Fast forward to present day Pittsburgh, where Herr Wehring’s descendants have approached the Pittsburgh Museum of Twentieth-Century Art with a demand for the return of their family treasure. The painting is the main draw for visitors to the privately funded museum. It is insured for $50 million by Transoxana Insurance Company – Proxy and Jay Davidovich’s employer. Cynthia represents Willy Szulz who may be able to clarify the legitimacy of the museum’s ownership of the painting for a hefty price.

Fortunately for the reader, Ms. Locke believes in sticking to a timeline. Wording such as “The Last Thursday in March” designates each section of the book. She presents the action in the form of a narrative from the perspective of either Cynthia or Jay. Each of them is clearly in a separate bargaining camp when it comes to the painting. That’s not to say they are complete adversaries. There’s plenty of transoceanic travel by several of the key characters that manage to get themselves into precarious situations. Puns and double entendres are sprinkled liberally throughout the book. These giggles and some outlandish predicaments are reasons enough to read it.

You may be wondering where the title of this review originates. Readers of a certain age – make that an older age – will recognize it as the name of a very popular radio serial from 1949 through 1962. It was a favorite of this reviewer for three reasons: firstly, our family did not own a television until 1962; secondly, the stories were fascinating; thirdly, my beloved grandfather was a claims investigator for the Prudential Life Insurance Company of America. His stories were really good, maybe even better than Ms. Locke’s or those broadcast on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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It’s (not) hard being green

I Don't Want to Be a Frog

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog by Dev Petty; illlustrated by Mike Boldt (Doubleday, $16.99, 32 pages)

In the song “I Am… I Said,” Neil Diamond sang: “Did you ever read about a frog/Who dreamed of becoming a king/And then became one?” In the children’s book, I Don’t Want to Be a Frog”, a young frog dreams of becoming a cat. Or a rabbit. Or a pig. He simply wants to be something “cute and warm.” Anything but a wet slimy frog!

I Don't Want 2

I Don't Want 3

I Don't Want 4

This book is addressed to children between the ages of 3 and 7-years-old who might want to be something a bit different than what they are. The lesson the book provides is that there are trade-offs and dangers in becoming something else. For example, we find out that hungry wolves like to hunt rabbits. But not frogs. Frogs are not very tasty – at least to wolves, so there’s safety in being wet, green and slimy.

Frog was written by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. They do an excellent job of matching up the words with the drawings. This book should be enjoyed by many young readers, except for those who might become frightened by the big, hungry, predator wolf. It’s better read to the young ones in the daytime, and definitely not right before bedtime.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Two Of A Kind

Two British Authors With Different Approaches to Crime

The Stone Wife (nook book)

The Stone Wife: A Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond Investigation by Peter Lovesey (Soho Press, $26.95, 368 pages)

Witty British mystery stories can be addicting. The reader knows that a satisfying one is like an escape from the mundane, an opportunity to spend time with detectives who are able to cut through the confusion and trick the villains into revealing their responsibility for evil deeds. Peter Lovesey has added a 14th Peter Diamond tale to his long list of publishing credits. The Stone Wife is most certainly a member of this charming and addictive genre. The opening pages are reminiscent of the Lovejoy television series wherein the main character is an antiques dealer who susses out the real from the fake, often at auctions.

The Stone Wife begins at an auction where masked gunmen interrupt contentious bidding for a slab of carved stone. The current high bidder boldly intervenes as the masked men are poised to whisk away the stone slab. Alas, the bidder’s actions result in a nasty abdominal wound that is quickly followed by his demise. Of course, the local police are summoned and Peter Diamond, head of the Bath Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and his team begin their search for the masked men.

Lovesey fills the story with easy dialogue and a good balance of description and action. The reader is provided background regarding Chaucer’s life and writings. This information ties to the carving on the stone slab, which becomes a nagging reminder of the unsolved case in Inspector Diamond’s office. The CID team members, including Ingeborg Smith and Paul Gilbert, put themselves in harms’ way to assist in untangling a rather convoluted interplay among some really nasty criminals.

Infidelity and envy are motivating factors for the crime. The twisting and turning of the plot can be a bit off-putting. By comparison, Skeleton Hill, an earlier book in the series, is more like a well-crafted game of Clue.


Under a Silent Moon: A Novel by Elizabeth Haynes (Harper, $25.99, 359 pages)

Under a Silent Moon

Every little thing felt like flirting where Hamilton was concerned. Did he do it to everyone, or just to Lou? And how did you stamp your authority on the working relationship when there was this sort of history between you? Two months ago she had been a DI, and his ranking equal… Her swift rise to DCI was all due to her grim determination to get her head down and concentrate on work rather than let herself be distracted by men, or one man in particular – Andy Hamilton.

A deliberate timeline, memos from the detective chief superintendent, illustrations of reports throughout and elaborate charts at the back pages of Under a Silent Moon set this police procedural apart from others of its genre. Author Elizabeth Haynes prefaces the book with an explanation of her use of IBM computer software to simulate an actual murder investigation. She assures the reader that the characters are pure fiction.

The suspicious death of a very pretty young woman kicks off this tale. Detective Chief Inspector Louisa (Lou) Smith catches the case, her first major crime as a senior investigating officer. Smith is anxious to get it right, not mess up on the case. She needs to assert her leadership role with the members of her team, including Andy Hamilton, who is both brash and intimidating. By contrast, Smith favors a calm and warm approach to policing. Her style may not suit the promotion she has recently won.

The scene of the crime is the upscale neighborhood of Briarstone. The victim, Polly Leuchars, is not just beautiful; she is also known for her promiscuity with both men and women. Her brutal murder touches many residents, both current and past, of the country town. A second murder adds to the urgency and pressures that DCI Smith feels from the upper echelons of the police department.

Haynes provides a large cast of characters, many of whom seem to be deliberately confusing. These characters include Taryn and Flora, their fathers and several police officers – both male and female. Thankfully, there’s a roster at the front of the book to assist the reader when the names become overwhelming. Timing plays an important role in the solution of both of the crimes.


Despite the in-your-face presentation, readers of thrillers will most likely enjoy the specificity and details that make this more than just another procedural. Clearly, this is not your tame Miss Marple-style of British mystery. Under a Silent Moon is promoted as the first in a new series from Haynes. It will be interesting to see whether she is able to maintain the tight format and specificity of this compellingly tense novel.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Much Ado About Nothing

Ghost Network

The Ghost Network: A Novel by Catie Disabato (Melville House, $16.95, 282 pages)

“Molly Metropolis captured her imagination… (Taer) wanted to know everything about Molly’s secret life. Taer’s Molly Metropolis idolatry was already the embodiment of pop star fixation, but with the added hook of a mystery, it developed into a full-blown obsession. Over the next few weeks, she investigated Molly’s secret activities and the deeper mystery of her disappearance. As Taer sunk into her obsession, she too became progressively more secretive, until she also disappeared on a rainy weekend in Chicago.”

Applying a suspension of disbelief is required when reading fiction. But The Ghost Network requires a suspension of disbelief that hits 10 on a 10-point scale. This is the story of a pop-rock star, Molly Metropolis (think Lady Gaga), who disappears in the middle of a major tour. And it’s the story of a journalist who attempts to find out what happened to Metropolis who also disappears. And it’s the story of the writer, Catie Disabato, who attempts to solve the mystery of these strange disappearances relying on both real and fictional clues and facts. Oh, and the story has a lot to do with the Chicago subway system and some radicals who loved Charles Debord, “the leader of the avant-garde both logistically and ideologically.”

As if this were not enough, Disabato adds various scholastic style footnotes to the telling – some real, some fictional – to make things more confusing. There are enough characters and plot twists, none of which feel real, to require colored flow charts for the reader.

Sadly, the 275-page story ends on a note that’s no more credible than the rest of the story. While unique and occasionally clever and engaging, The Ghost Network delivers a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Murder She Wrote

Stone Cold Dead

Stone Cold Dead: An Ellie Stone Mystery by James W. Ziskin (Prometheus Books, $15.95, 317 pages)

James W. Ziskin’s Stone Cold Dead is the third in a series of Ellie Stone novels (Styx and Stone, No Stone Unturned), each with a take on the heroine’s name. The young heroine is the journalistic version of fictional novelist Jessica Fletcher, she of Murder, She Wrote fame.

Stone is endearingly petulant, to the extent that that is possible.

Like Fletcher, Stone seems to forget that she is a writer, not a detective, and so does everyone else in the novel, including all of the law enforcement officials. In real life, it is hard to imagine that people would answer this reporter’s questions at all, much less without a lawyer – or that she would be permitted such access in the first place, but such license is often the basis of an enjoyable novel.

The book revolves around Stone’s investigation of the murder of 15-year-old Darlene Hicks and takes place over 29 days, from December 1, 1960, to January 28, 1961.

The characters are mostly likeable and realistic, and the writing generally holds up, with a few exceptions. For example, on pages 126-128, Ellie hospitably feeds a no-good townie in her apartment who may or may not be plotting to kill her. An editor might have been helpful here. In Ellie’s world it is anything for a story, but still….

This book is better than most mystery/crime novels I’ve read and/or reviewed. The basis for this statement is that there is a much better attempt by the author to actually tell a story as opposed to plugging settings and characters into a formula. For that reason – and because the storytelling engages the reader – my rating of Stone Cold Dead is above average as compared to other books of this genre.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Ellie Stone is the kind of gal you’d want to share a malt with… or a fifth of Scotch.” Matt Coyle, author of Yesterday’s Echo and Night Tremors.

Dave Moyer is an educator who has published Superintendent and Teacher Perceptions of Performance Based Pay (Lambert Academic Publishing). He is also the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.


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Perfect World

The Fragile World: A Novel by Paula Treick DeBoard (Mira, $14.99, 415 pages)

the fragile world


The Kaufmans have always considered themselves to be a normal, happy family. Curtis is a physics teacher at a local high school. His wife, Kathleen, restores furniture for upscale boutiques. Daniel is away at college on a prestigious music scholarship, and twelve-year-old Olivia is a happy-go-lucky kid whose biggest concern is passing her next math test. And then comes the middle-of-the-night phone call that changes everything. Daniel has been killed in what the police are calling a “freak” accident, and the remaining Kaufmans are left to flounder in their grief.

The anguish of Daniel’s death is isolating, and it’s not long before this once-perfect family finds itself falling apart. As time passes and the wound refuses to heal, Curtis becomes obsessed with the idea of revenge, a growing mania that leads him to pack up his life and his anxious teenage daughter and set out on a collision course to right a wrong.

Like the film Ordinary People, The Fragile World is a story about imperfect people, beset by tragedy, doing their best to get by. It’s a story narrated by both Curtis and Olivia. Not many writers would base the events of a novel in Sacramento, California or Oberlin, Ohio but DeBoard uses both locations. It’s a risk, and it works. It enables her to realistically paint the Kaufmans as a humble family – a family whose breadwinner drives an over-used Ford Explorer with a bad transmission. There’s nothing glamorous to see here, people.

The story is about a father and daughter road trip, from Sacramento to Omaha. Olivia thinks that the purpose of the trip is to reunite her with her mother, Kathleen, who could not live with Curtis’s unending mourning of Daniel’s death. But Curtis plans to deposit Olivia with her mother while he travels to Oberlin to confront the person he believes was responsible for his son’s death.

Initially, the reader has the impression that he or she knows how this tale will play out. Don’t bet on it. DeBoard throws in some unexpected events – such as having Curtis show up at his hated father’s death bed in the Chicago area – before the denouement in tiny Oberlin. Curtis finds the man he’s looking for and he’s got a gun in his hand. Knowing this does not provide a spoiler because DeBoard tips the chessboard over. The book is worth reading to discover how DeBoard wraps things up.

The Fragile World is also worth reading because it perfectly examines the imperfections of family life. There’s a father who hates his own father so much that he’s never communicated with him during his adult life. There’s a daughter who blames herself for not being what her brother was. There’s a wife and mother who cannot accept or understand why her husband and daughter are unable to simply move on with their lives after a tragedy. These are ordinary people who are hurting, people who feel pain. They inhabit a fragile world, one with which many readers will identify.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Emotionally powerful… This bold and moving story is absolutely unforgettable.” New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf

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Good Night, Mouse!

Good Night, Mouse

Good Night, Mouse! by Jed Henry (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, $16.99, 32 pages)

Some children’s storybooks rely on clever illustrations to capture their audience and others rely on rhymes. Jed Henry’s adorable picture book, Good Night, Mouse!, gently brings his audience into a softly illustrated tale of Mouse, a fellow who can’t fall asleep. The characters, all of whom are friends of Mouse, take turns using their own method of falling asleep while encouraging Mouse to drift off to sleep.

Good Night, Mouse!

The book is not too big and not too small. It is right-sized for cuddling on a downturned comforter. The wording is a blend of beautiful and caring sounds. Rabbit says, “I know how to wear him out. Tripping, skipping, tired tumbling. Good night, Mouse!” Noting that Mouse has become all wound up in Rabbit’s jump rope, Frog suggests, “A bath will soothe his weary bones.”

And so it goes, as each of Mouse’s many friends take a turn at putting him to bed. The book has long been a favorite of this reviewer’s little granddaughter. The book lives at grandma and grandpa’s house. It makes an appearance as the last book to be read before lights out. Funny how it lulls the reader and listener so that by the end of the story everyone is ready to say, “Good night.”

GoodNight black and white

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This book is recommended for children between the ages of 4 and 8.

Cheer Up, Mouse! by Jed Henry is also available.

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