Tag Archives: murder story

A Death in the Sunshine State

Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime by Cutter Wood (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $26.99, 225 pages)

love and death

This book arrived at the right time.  I had just finished reading a true crime book and found it to be sadly disappointing.  The writer put down all the facts about a triple murderer and his trial but seemingly without context.  When one sentence follows another in this manner – without drama, suspense or the seeming presence of actual people, it’s far less than engaging.

Cutter Wood’s book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is like the antidote to the typical true crime story.  Wood, an MFA graduate in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, touched base with all of the principals about a murder that he felt somewhat connected with.  You see, after graduating from Brown he felt directionless – like Benjamin in The Graduate, so he spent months at a secluded hotel in Florida.  The woman who ran the hotel with her husband later disappeared and Wood was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Wood knew some of the principals involved and was also given access to law enforcement officials and the man suspected of killing the missing woman.  But once the crime was solved, Wood felt that little was resolved.  The facts did not seem to add up to a whole, complete story.  Therefore, he elected to pursue a unique option.

Instead of writing a dry nonfiction account of the crime, Wood decided to write a fictional version of a relationship between a former criminal and a successful married businesswoman whose lives intersected.  It’s a story of an unlikely attraction, a loving relationship, and a tragic ending.  Wood never attempts to explain the crime or the murderer’s mind, but paints the events – both real and imaginary – as something that was fated to occur.

As Wood is free to explore events and scenarios that may or may not have played out, he develops a story that feels fully real.  This is not Law and Order – a stereotypical version of crime and justice, nor is it a fly-over account of a crime developed for a one hour cable TV network show.  It is a story of two imperfect people who were drawn to each other for all of the wrong reasons.

By leaving out some of the seemingly critical crime details and facts that would be highlighted in the standard true crime book sold in an airport gift shop, Wood proves again that less is more.  His “story of a crime” focuses on the small yet significant aspects of the lives of two people.  In doing so, he brings the individuals to life and causes us to mourn – in a quiet, dignified way, the loss of one of them.

It’s a sad, tough story but Cutter Wood takes the reader to the heart of the matter.  His is a respectful approach to human imperfection and frailty.

I look forward to reading Wood’s future works.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Love and Death in the Sunshine State will be released on April 17, 2018.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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All In the Family

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A Game for All the Family: A Novel by Sophie Hannah (William Morrow, $26.99, 447 pages)

By now, if all were well and this were a normal weekday morning, Ellen would be in her forest-green school uniform and on the bus, almost at Beaconwood. Alex, in torn jeans and a sweatshirt, would be asleep on a train from Berlin to Hamburg, en route to his next German concert.

What genre designation is appropriate for this book? Firstly, there never is a “normal” or even an ordinary day portrayed within its covers. We jump right into the rambling narrative of Justine, a woman who has recently left her demanding career in London to move to the country with her husband, Alexander, and teen daughter Ellen.

Alexander is a well-respected opera singer who travels frequently to venues around Europe; therefore, his home base can be almost anywhere. Ellen has been enrolled in Beaconwood, a private school that bears no resemblance to the one she attended in London. Justine hopes to fulfill her fantasy of Doing Nothing, as she like to announce to anyone who will listen.

Some of the chapters are set in an alternate typeface that designates them as the work of a writer who is composing a novel about a family with some bizarre issues. Perhaps it is a work of fiction, or even a thinly disguised expose of an actual family in serious need of an intervention.

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The plot skips around and has a jerky home-movie made in the 1950s quality. There are myriad odd occurrences and very strange characters that pop in and out of the tale. Justine is the subject of menacing anonymous phone calls that include death threats. One might wonder what has happened to set previously stable author Sophie Hannah on this wild, unpleasant and twisted ride.

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Woman with a Secret: A Novel by Sophie Hannah (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 416 pages)

Ms. Hannah’s prior work, Woman with a Secret, also suffers from a choppy beginning and a bit of confusing plot shifts. Here too are the trademark typeface shifts that she has employed in past novels. Woman with a Secret needs a list of characters to assist the reader in deciphering the multiple perspectives depicted throughout the tale. The husband and wife team of police detectives featured in the plot do not share a last name and their co-workers are numerous to say the least.

This time around the main character, Nicki Clements, is a woman who yearns for excitement in her “normal” life in the suburbs of London. She’s a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter whose past haunts her. Damon Blundy, a caustic columnist for the Daily Herald, is found murdered with his mouth taped shut with tape. Nicki receives countless sinister emails from a person she cannot identify. Somehow she is linked to the murder. Her first-person narrative and the third-person narrative from the other characters’ perspective give the reader the feeling of being spun around with a blindfold in place. Once the blindfold is removed, it’s anybody’s guess what lurks in Nicki’s past and why she’s linked to Damon Blundy’s death.

If by now you are wondering what’s actually happening in Woman, I’m not going to tell you as it would take more space in this review than I’m willing to give.

Woman is recommended, for ardent Sophie Hannah readers; everyone else, no.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

A Game for All the Family was released on May 24, 2016.

Woman with a Secret was released in trade paperback form on April 12, 2016.

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Helter Skelter

“Mental wounds not healing/Who and what’s to blame/I’m goin’ off the rails of the crazy train.” Ozzy Osbourne (“Crazy Train”)

Absence of Mercy (nook book)

The Absence of Mercy: A Novel by John Burley (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 352 pages)

A high school boy is murdered, and a high school girl barely escapes the same fate. A bedroom community is rocked, and the Medical Examiner’s family becomes embroiled in the controversy. This is the essence of John Burley’s debut novel, The Absence of Mercy. Burley himself is an emergency medicine physician, and those in that profession can attest to the accuracy or lack thereof in his details. For the typical reader who wants to enjoy a good suspense thriller, one could do far worse than Absence. In fact, having reviewed many books of this genre, I am hard pressed to recall any contemporary suspense thriller that I have enjoyed more.

Absence of Mercy back cover

In addition to an intuitive sense of pacing that is well refined for a first-time author, the reader does not have to suspend reality or ignore sensationalism to appreciate the book. I suppose the cross border escape attempt pushes the envelope a bit, but I’ll give Burley a pass on this, as the rest of the story is rock solid (or “spot on” as the English say). The events chronicled in this book could have happened today, anywhere. A mother’s love, professional integrity, trust, despair and forgiveness permeate the story effortlessly. Nothing here seems forced.

And, then, there is insanity. Yes, mental illness is real, and many good people effectively manage various afflictions throughout an entire lifetime. But there is also crazy and evil in this world. As humans we seem compelled to attempt to explain, make sense of, or feel the need to control everything around us. Unfortunately, this is not possible, as we tend to learn all too directly. As to true crazy and pure evil, there is no remedy, no cure.

In Absence, there is also no mercy.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Fool’s Gold

The Golden Calf: A Detective Inspector Irene Huss Investigation by Helene Tursten (Soho Crime, $26.95, 340 pages; AudioGO, 10 CDs, $29.95)

The Golden Calf (audio 500)

“…engaging and cleverly crafted.”

Police procedurals are often an exercise in scene shifts, dogged legwork and a dramatic reveal at the conclusion. The Golden Calf is all that and more. This reviewer listened to the audio version. The book is filled with a preponderance of dialogue which made the listening experience more like a radio drama circa the 1940s than a book.

The Scandinavian tale written by Helene Tursten (of Sweden) was translated into English by Laura A. Wideburg. Ms. Wideburg does an admirable job of ironing out the language difference and provides a smooth tale. The narrator, Suzanne Toren, is a master of voices, accents and gender. The listener soon forgets that only one person is speaking while the large cast of characters performs their duties.

The only hiccups in the audio version are the naming conventions and their Swedish pronunciation. The main character, Detective Inspector (DI) Irene Huss and her partner Tommy Persson, become Idean Hoose and Tow Me Pearsoon. A reader of the hard copy can fashion his or her own sounds for the names. Sometimes a person’s last name is used in the dialogue and at other times it’s the full name. Aside from these somewhat minor impediments, the tale is engaging and cleverly crafted.

DI Huss leads her team to the solution of several crimes that include execution-style murder and embezzlement. Ms. Huss suffers the blunt, minimal acceptance of her male counterparts. Her main ally is Tommy Persson who refrains from digging at her.

The several identical murders tie together an array of people who had been in business together back in the dot com boom and bust in the late 1990s. Fast forward to 2003 and these players and their expensive spending habits may be revealing more than business acumen. Author Tursten immerses the reader in the gluttony of her characters with detailed descriptions of high quality and high price tag items including clothing, furniture, cars and culinary excesses.

Perhaps crooks are just crooks regardless of where they live. Regardless, this Swedish spin on the police procedural makes for very entertaining listening.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

The unabridged audio book, which comes in a nifty two-ring binder case, was provided by Soho Crime for review.

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