Tag Archives: crime novels

Triple Tess

Three Tess Monaghan Tales from Laura Lippman

Fans of Laura Lippman need no introduction to private investigator Tess Monaghan. Mystery fans that have yet to read these wonderful books, listen up! Tess is a one-woman force of nature – half Irish, half Jewish, and a Baltimore native through and through. (William Morrow has just re-released the Tess books in new trade paperback editions.)

In a Strange City: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 401 pages)

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The connection between Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore, the city where he died, is the jumping off point for this, the sixth book in the Tess Monaghan series. John P. Kennedy, an eccentric antiques dealer, asks Tess to find out the identity of a mystery man – a cloaked figure that delivers three roses and a half bottle of cognac at Poe’s grave on the anniversary of the poet’s birth. The cloaked man has apparently duped the antiques dealer by selling him a fake.

Naturally, Tess allows her curiosity to get the better of her and places herself in harm’s way by staking out the gravesite waiting for the action to begin. Rather than the customary figure making the gesture, there appears a second cloaked man. The second man shoots the first and escapes! This is too much for Tess and, as is her habit, she works the case even when her client disappears.

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Author Lippman takes some literary license with the name John P. Kennedy. Kennedy was, in real life, a wealthy man from Baltimore who assisted Poe with his writing career. Readers will become steeped in Baltimore’s culture, or lack thereof as she takes every opportunity to ensure an immersion experience.

By a Spider’s Thread: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 354 pages)

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Tess gets off to a bad start with prospective client, Mark Rubin, an orthodox Jew, whose wife has disappeared with their three young children. Rubin, a furrier who inherited the business from his father, fervently believes that he has had an ideal marriage and is clueless as to the reason behind his family’s disappearance.

This time around, in the eighth book of the series, Tess’ work takes her outside Baltimore via a network of kindred spirits, female detectives who have formed an online assistance network. Rather than a Baltimore-centric story, By a Spider’s Thread focuses on what it means to be part of a Jewish family. Author Lippman provides a serious look at what happens in a family when lies and trickery put everyone at risk of loosing everything, including their lives.

No Good Deeds: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 366 pages)

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Laura Lippman’s background as a newspaper journalist serves her well in crafting a tale wherein Tess is hired to teach the unseasoned reporters at the Beacon-Light, the Baltimore daily, on how to conduct an investigation for a story. A federal prosecutor’s unsolved homicide is the focus of her first assignment.

Happily, the story – the tenth in the Tess Monaghan series – opens with a narrative from Edgar “Crow” Ransome who has been Tess’ boyfriend for some time now; although, not without a previous break in their relationship. Crow is younger than Tess, a free spirit who volunteers his time and effort at the East Side Soup Kitchen when he’s not booking music groups for the bar where he works for pay.

This installment of the series expands Crow’s appearances and brings with him a new relationship. Crow befriends a young fellow named Lloyd who lives on the street and primarily survives by his wits. Never mind that one of the tires on Tess’ vehicle is punctured while Crow has it on the wrong side of town while assisting at the soup kitchen. One thing leads to another resulting in the Beacon-Light training assignment crossing over into the world that Lloyd inhabits.

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Ms. Lippman gives her readers an in-depth exposure to life on the streets in Baltimore, which is difficult at best and downright deadly when the wrong groups of denizens converge. Add in the discussion of racial bias prevalent throughout the city, and it’s obvious this series is more than homage to Ms. Lippman’s hometown. She is always a reporter, of the honest variety.

All three books are highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Damage Control

Gone Missing: A Thriller by Linda Castillo (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 297 pages)

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“What kind of monster does that to a fifteen-year-old girl?” I whisper.

Shocking, that’s the best way to describe the opening chapters of this, the fourth book in an Amish Country series written by Linda Castillo. The narrator is Kate Burkholder, the chief of police of a town called Painters Mill. She also happens to be a former member of an Amish community. Burkholder is troubled and damaged by past problems, yet she seeks to assist others. Her town is located in the Ohio farmlands and the time of year when the mystery takes place is spring. Rumspringa is in full swing; although, this version is significantly tamer than the TV shows about Breaking Amish.

State Agent John Tomasetti with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation teams up with Chief Kate Burkholder when an Amish girl who is out walking along a country road goes missing while doing an errand for her family. A pool of blood and a satchel for carrying vegetables are all that they find by the side of the road. Although the scene is outside her jurisdiction, Burkholder is called in as a consultant because of her Amish roots.

Author Castillo enriches her tale with in depth descriptions and background information related to the Amish folks who farm in Ohio. The stark contrast between these people living their simple bucolic lifestyle and the festering evil that exists in their midst makes for a gruesome and engaging thriller. Castillo is adept at building tension that may compel some readers to stay up late to finish the book as did this reviewer.

Highly recommended.

Every Broken Trust: A Mystery by Linda Rodriguez (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 304 pages)

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The chief of police in the next book is Skeet Bannion, a half-Cherokee woman, whose jurisdiction is the campus of Chouteau University which is located outside Kansas City, Missouri. There’s more to the job than just keeping a safe campus. Chief Bannion must participate in local politics and university affairs.

The story begins in a chatty bouncy manner as the chief expresses her dislike for hosting a welcoming party for the university’s new dean of the law school, as the growing guest list threatens to overwhelm her. It’s obvious that socializing with politicians and smarmy co-workers who have disillusioned her is bringing out the worst of her temper.

Once the stage is set and the character relationships are established, the story settles down. Of course the party includes drinking and at least one guest has one or two drinks too many. What follows is a post-party-murder after the drunk blurts out a scathing revelation that upsets the entire party. The body is found on university property which makes it Bannion’s task to catch the killer.

To complicate matters, Bannion is the guardian of a fifteen-year-old boy named Brian who is developing a friendship with the daughter of one of the smarmy politicos. Bannion is an evolving character and Rodriguez places her in situations that demand maturity and caring beyond the level Bannion has for her job.

Author Rodriguez is a Latina writer who brings a significant depth of understanding of the ways women and especially women of color are treated. The book is the second in her series featuring Skeet Bannion.

Well recommended.

Liars Anonymous: A Novel by Louise Ure (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 275 pages)

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He made sure there was no grime from the blast, then leaned back against the cab of my truck. “That’s the funny thing about the justice system. It makes no distinction between not guilty and innocent. I do.”

Shamus Award winner Louise Ure crafts an unusual mystery tale that is more suspense thriller than mystery. Her narrator, Jessica Damage, is a woman with a troubled past. Jessica works at a call center in Phoenix, Arizona for a service called “Hands On” that might as well be GM’s OnStar. An incoming call from a 2007 Cadillac Seville connects to her line. Jessica can’t help calling back after the call terminates abruptly even though the rules of her job make it technically illegal to eavesdrop when the call is reconnected.

Trouble finds Jessica daily as she searches for the answers to the questions sparked by the sounds she heard on the covert call. As Tucson is her hometown and two years earlier she was acquitted of a murder charge, her sleuthing actions take place all over the greater Tucson area.

Ms. Ure proves herself a true native by accurately telling the reader where Jessica is going and what she sees around town. This reviewer is quite familiar with Tucson and the descriptions were good enough to create a cinematic effect during the read. The characters’ deep feelings and crisp dialogue make Liars Annonymous a good read.

Well recommended.

“Louise Ure is an exciting new voice in the mystery field.” Laura Lippman

Review copies were received from the publisher.

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Coming Up Next…

Gone Missing

A review of Gone Missing: A Thriller by Linda Castillo and two mysteries.

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Pennies From Heaven

Valley of the ShadowManna From Hades

Manna From Hades: A Cornish Mystery by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 309 pages)

The Valley of the Shadow: A Cornish Mystery by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 305 pages)

What better way to slow down the action of a mystery than set it in the countryside in the time before cell phones? Indeed, author Carola Dunn makes good use of the weather and topography of Cornwall, England as she tests the wits and patience of her two main characters, Eleanor Trewyn and Detective Sargent Megan Pencarrow. These charming ladies are aunt and niece, respectively. Eleanor is a retired world traveler whose heart is open and willing to serve humanity. Megan is a suspicious and eager police officer who has moved to her aunt’s new home of Port Mabyn after a difficult time in London.

Together, these two are able to get themselves into rather peculiar situations while chasing the bad guys. In Manna, the charity thrift shop which Eleanor sponsors is the location of a murder. This crime comes after a very valuable donation is received by the organization. It makes for an enticing mystery situation which Eleanor is unable to resist. Megan and the local police force led by Detective Inspector Scumble are hard pressed to keep up with Eleanor as she scurries about the countryside following her hunches and seeks to untangle the web of confusing clues she discovers.

In Shadow, we catch up with the Port Maybn ladies just as Megan performs a heroic off-duty rescue of a naked young fellow floundering in the water below the treacherous cliffs abutting the seacoast. The first few chapters of this installment of the Cornish Mysteries are a bit scattered, not unlike the efforts needed to secure the nearly-dead swimmer. The action evens out and becomes manageable about midway through the tale.

Fans of this series are treated to greater insight into Detective Inspector Scumble’s values and beliefs. His attitude is well known as he is usually quick to let those around him have a clear idea of what bothers him. The cast of characters has some expansion in this scenario and old favorites are kept in the mix to assure the reader’s commitment to the Cornish Mysteries.

Younger readers may have difficulty suspending their reality when encountering the 1960s-70s era that is most assuredly more slowly-paced than today due to the absence of smart phones and GPS. When Eleanor is frantically searching for a public phone to contact Megan and DI Scumble, it’s obvious today’s crime fighters have better methods for catching the bad guys.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Everyday I Write the Book

“Things in life are both big and small in equal proportion.”   The New York Chronicle

“Suspension of disbelief” is a phrase that is often used by book reviewers, and when it is, it’s usually not good news.   When someone states that they could not suspend their disbelief, it means that the story they were reading (or the film they were watching) never felt real.   I don’t know about others, but when I begin to read a fictional work that does not feel real, I get a mental picture of the writer in question at a computer struggling to figure out the next word, sentence, paragraph, chapter…  The choppy feeling of a not-quite-true creation overwhelms the potentially positive experience of encountering a new world.

I suspect that it’s hardest for someone to suspend their disbelief when they’re reading a novel about the very world that they inhabit.   Let’s say, for example, that I was to write a novel about a major, fictional rock star.   I think that actual rock musicians would be the toughest critics as they likely would find the story to be too “over-the-top” (not every rock band tears up hotel rooms), or find that it failed to reflect the tedium of life on the road.   Most likely, a musician would want to find a story that he or she could relate to – one that would equally balance the drama and boring aspects of the professional music maker’s life.   And, he or she would want to read a story in which – as in life – what comes next is never predictable.

My experience of having worked in many aspects of the criminal justice system may explain why it is usually the hardest for me to locate the supposed realism in courtroom dramas and crime novels.   I usually find fault from two different perspectives.   Firstly, these novels often start off with plot lines that are far too tricky; too many authors seem to have been influenced by the shenanigans of John Grisham, who seems to need overly complicated and unrealistic stories to grab the reader’s interest.   The same is true for the too-clever endings inspired by another successful writer, Scott Turow.

The plot for these books often centers around something that’s not going to happen – like the killing of a major U.S. senator’s wife (at a time when the senator just happens to be having an affair).   But most of what goes on in the criminal justice system is not so dramatic.   If I were to attempt to write a book about the average case, it might involve a young man who has experienced numerous small scrapes with the law before some friends encourage him to ride along with them on a lark.   It’s during this ride that someone gets killed and our young man – being the only one with a criminal history – takes the fall.   Yes, I know, many publishers would think this is relatively dull stuff, but as John Lennon used to say, “…that’s reality.”

The second issue I have with these novels is that despite the dramatic plots, the characters often seem to be cut from cardboard.   They’re pretty lifeless compared to the often big personalities that inhabit the criminal justice system.   There are public prosecutors who wear $1,000 suits and drive cars meant for millionaires.   There are prosecutors and public defenders who don’t necessarily love their co-workers, and some prosecutors and public defenders have been known to have a drink together.   Some deputy district attorneys don’t always get along with law enforcement officers.   In other words, life in the halls of justice and the courtrooms is a bit messier than it’s portrayed in the latest crime novel.   It’s also certainly not as “clean” as a typical episode of Law and Order.

I think what’s forgotten is that these are real human beings, with great strengths and corresponding flaws; and they live and work in an imperfect world, a somewhat less than perfect criminal justice system.

What’s the moral of this article?   Simply that I’d love to see criminal justice system-based fiction that tones down the overly dramatic plots while raising the volume on the unique individuals who make their living within the law.   Is there a writer who gets the characters right?   Yes, I’m glad you asked…  Interestingly, former prosecutor Marcia Clark (Guilt By Degrees, Guilt By Association) seems to portray some very realistic figures in her novels, although she cloaks them in the guise of sarcasm and humor.   Still, it’s a start and want-to-be crime novelists would do well to read her work, and/or spend some actual time with the prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys, and policemen and policewomen who work very tough jobs that are so very rarely accurately portrayed.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Guilt By Degrees: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books).   One courtroom drama that was highly recommended by this site is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton (Minotaur Books, $19.99, 368 pages); also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

This article is one in a periodic series called Turn The Page.

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