Tag Archives: murders

Time Travel Mysteries

The Secret Keeper: A Novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books, $26.99, 496 pages)

Every family has a secret or two.   It might be an escapade by great-aunt Sally that nobody wants to acknowledge for fear of losing social standing in the community.   On the other hand, it might be a secret so huge and shocking that it lays buried in the subconscious of the only witness to the event.

Author Kate Morton makes good use of poetic illusions and warped time as she slowly peels back the layers of a family history with Laurel Nicolson (a renowned actress), Vivien Jenkins (a lovely and wealthy socialite), and Dorothy Nicholson (the mother of Laurel, her sisters and her brother) at its center.   The tale switches back and forth between time periods, mostly World War II and 2011.   Although the reader is provided with ample notice of the time switches, there exists a vague sense of unease and confusion conveyed by Laurel and her sisters.

Perhaps the fact that this is a story with action locales in the English countryside and sea-shore, London, as well as a flashback to Australia adds to the sense of wondering and aimlessness felt by this reviewer.   The descriptions of the devastation wrought by the London bombings are no doubt accurate and they are terrifying.   Also, there were times when a look back at prior chapters was necessary to clarify character names and roles.   This mild discomfort was well worth enduring for the remarkable payoff Ms. Morton reveals at the conclusion of her saga.

Well recommended.

Far North: A Magnus Jonson Mystery by Michael Ridpath (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

Get ready for a strange adventure when you read Far North.   By strange I mean out of the ordinary in terms of setting and vocabulary.   The setting is Iceland and the time is post-2007 economic crash that basically ruined the economy of the country.   While the rampant cheating and leveraging engaged in by business and banking moguls all over the world caused great harm, it was devastating for this cold and wind-swept country of less than half a million residents.

Basically, the tale is an English style detective story displaced to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.   As such the reader is treated to a nice travelogue with multi-generational murders and Nordic style myths and sagas.   Time switches among several periods beginning with August 1934 and progresses in odd intervals toward the fall of 2009.   Main character/protagonist Magnus Jonson is a detective of Icelandic background whose home is Boston, Massachusetts.   Magnus is hiding from gangsters he has fingered in Boston as he attends the police academy in Iceland.

Conveniently, Magnus is the sort of detective that can’t help detecting, even when the case may not be his own assignment.   Along the way he coordinates with other detectives to make sense of revelations he has made.   Childhood traumas have a way of insidiously seeping into the actions of damaged adults.   That lesson is hammered home throughout the gripping tale.

Note to potential readers:  The complex naming system for people in Iceland may be confusing and the pronunciation of geographic names may be daunting.   Don’t let that get between you and an exhilarating chase to the end.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Gimme Shelter

Trail of Blood: A Novel of Suspense by Lisa Black (Harper Reprint Edition; $7.99; 432 pages)

Who knew that Cleveland, Ohio could be so interesting?   Lisa Black, a member of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, proves that there’s more to Cleveland than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   Her third Theresa MacLean book is not only set in this Midwestern city, it features some really gory murders that are based in fact.   Black’s main character is a forensic scientist who happens to belong to a family with a history of crime fighting all the way back to her grandfather.

When present day murders bear a striking similarity to Cleveland’s most horrific killing spree during the 1930s and 40s, the city police and coroner’s offices are summoned to cut short the present day nightmare.   Theresa and her cop cousin Frank are at the center of the action.   Yes, Theresa takes more than her share of risks; however, she also uses her instincts to get out of peril.   There are plenty of false leads and hints to keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the book.

There are several other mystery/thriller series written by expert authors that feature main characters with similar talents.   The most notable of these is the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.   Black unfolds Trail of Blood as a more personal story with less ostentatious criminology and more good-old-fashioned shoe leather detecting than does Cornwell.   In addition, the story is actually told in multiple time frames, current day and 75 years ago.

Black is excellent at keeping it real.   The mix of accurate historic details, a map up front in the beginning of the book and a detailed timeline of the original murders set this book apart from the rest of the pack.

Well recommended for fans of thriller novels that actually have more than just gore to offer.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Trail of Blood was released in a Mass Market  Paperback version on July 26, 2011.“Quite simply, one of the best storytellers around.”   Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli & Isles novels.   Lisa Black’s new novel, Defensive Wounds, will be released on September 27, 2011.

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Midnight Rambler

Trail of Blood by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 400 pages)

Who knew that Cleveland, Ohio could be so interesting?   Lisa Black, a member of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, proves that there’s more to Cleveland than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   Her third Theresa MacLean book is not only set in this Midwestern city, it features some really gory murders that are based in fact.   Black’s main character is a forensic scientist who happens to belong to a family with a history of crime fighting all the way back to her grandfather.

When present day murders bear a striking similarity to Cleveland’s most horrific killing spree during the 1930s and 40s, the city police and coroner’s offices are summoned to cut short the present day nightmare.   Theresa and her cop cousin Frank are at the center of the action.   Yes, Theresa takes more than her share of risks; however, she also uses her instincts to get out of peril.   There are plenty of false leads and hints to keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the book.

There are several other mystery/thriller series written by expert authors that feature main characters with similar talents.   The most notable of these is the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.   Black unfolds Trail of Blood as a more personal story with less ostentatious criminology and more good-old-fashioned shoe leather detecting than does Cornwell.   In addition, the story is actually told in two time frames, current day and 75 years ago.  

Black is excellent at keeping it real.   The mix of accurate historic details, a map up front in the beginning of the book and a detailed timeline of the original murders set this book apart from the rest of the pack.

Well recommended to fans of thriller novels that actually have more than gore to offer.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dead Man’s Curve

Cat Coming Home by Shirley Rousseau Murphy (William Morrow; $19.99; 354 pages)

This latest Joe Grey mystery oozes with picturesque Carmel charm.   Shirley Rousseau Murphy extolls the architectural beauty of her coastal hometown in the thinly veiled story location, Molina Point.   The plot revolves around Joe, Dulcie and Kit – three cats who speak to their pet parents and sometimes unsuspecting people.   The characters in the mystery that the cats solve are a grandma named Maudie, her six-year-old grandson Benny and, of course, the evil doers.   It’s not fair to describe the villains as their identities are the key to the mystery.   Keep in mind that appearances can be very deceiving!

The story opens with a ghastly double murder that devastates a perfectly lovely family.   Benny’s dad, his new wife, her two children, Benny and his grandma are driving up a mountain road on their way to an Easter weekend of relaxation at Lake Arrowhead when a vehicle pulls up alongside them and shoots the dad and stepmom.   Chaos follows as their car tumbles off the road and everyone is tossed about.   After being rescued, Maudie becomes so distraught that she decides to leave her home in Los Angeles, bringing Benny with her to Molina Point, her childhood home.

Joe Grey and his buddies become part of the story when a series of home invasion crimes occur in Molina Point not long after Maudie and Benny arrive in town.   Added to the intrigue is the presence of an older yellow tom cat that lurks nearby and seems to have something important in mind.   Kit is fascinated by this stranger and makes it her business to find out what he’s doing in town.   Kit’s need for a focus in her life seems to be a continuing thread in these books.

The home invasions are targeted at ladies who are home alone.   They are being viciously attacked by intruders, the interiors of their homes are trashed, but not much is stolen.   One of the home invasions happens on Maddie’s block.   To make matters worse, Molina Point’s dedicated chief of police, Max Harper, is being singled out in the local newspaper for failing to bring the crime wave to a halt.   As usual, the cats are quick-witted and fleet of foot as they race around town just a paw or two behind the villains.

Whether the setting for a mystery novel is a big city or a small town, human frailties are usually at the core of the story.   This tale (or tail) is no exception.   Author Murphy does a wonderful job of developing her characters and providing insight into human nature and feline nature as well.   She refrains from rehashing the premise of her Joe Grey series which allows for more action and intrigue.

Highly recommended.  

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   This book was purchased for the reviewer.

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Doctor Wu

Red Jade: A Detective Jack Yu Investigation by Henry Chang (Soho Crime; $25.00; 256 pages)

“Killing two bad guys, taking a cold-blooded murderer home.   Not bad for a few days in Seattle, huh?”

Reading Red Jade by Henry Chang is like being on a diet of tasteless fiber before enjoying a fine helping of spicy Mongolian Beef.   The vivid cinematic ending is literally preceded by a couple of hundred pages written in a dull and plodding style.   In fact, make that plodding, plodding, plodding.

The reader will need to take a suspension-of-reality pill before accepting the story that’s told here.   New York Police Detective Jack Wu is an Asian quasi super-hero who can solve multiple crimes while spending a weekend in Seattle, Washington.   It’s so hard to believe that Yu can solve a murder that took place in New York City’s Chinatown while in Seattle that the author himself asks of Jack, “How much destiny could he take?”   Wherever Detective Yu goes, the evil people he needs to find just happen to be in the neighborhood.

It may or may not be worth mentioning that the book starts with the bloody murder of a young man and a young woman in New York’s Chinatown.   This precedes Jack’s traveling to Seattle with his sometime girlfriend (she’s there attending a legal conference), where he not only solves the case in chief, but another big one while he’s at it.   Yes, the world is just a stage for Detective Yu.

One might be tempted to think that there’s going to be some interesting scenery covered in a tale set in Seattle.   Instead, except for a few walks on very mean streets, the majority of the tale involves Jack’s stay at the Marriott Courtyard near Sea-Tac, while his girlfriend beds at the far more impressive Westin downtown.   Jack has an entire extended weekend to work his magic, which sometimes involves beating up two foes at once using his very impressive kung-fu style skills.   Sometimes, though, Jack falls back on simply shooting the bad guys when he’s not getting the best of things.   Yippee Ki-yay!, as Bruce Willis might say.

Still, credit has to be given to Chang for fashioning a surprisingly energetic and involving ending.   It’s a shame it takes one such effort to get to it.   This reader felt worn down by the telling, as if the reading took away more energy from me than it could ever hope to repay.   Chang writes in small bits and bites (some chapters covering only a single page), which makes me think his skills might be better applied to very short crime stories.   Let’s just hope that he comes up with protagonists that are more reality-based than Detective Jack Yu.  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Said Publishers Weekly of Red Jade:  “What started as a promising series has devolved into something quite run-of-the-mill…”

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Reeling in the Years

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed.   In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun.   I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.

Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot.   There are two protagonists.   There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution.   Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls.   Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone.   Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop.   The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.

Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller.   It is interesting enough, but just enough.

Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman.   When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort.   Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life:  “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory.   It was like a story she knew about someone else.”

A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy.   That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom.   Something key is missing here as the author admits:  “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”

Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution.   The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her.   Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.

A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete.   The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.

In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success.   However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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