Death at the Sanatorium by Ragnar Jonasson Review

Research interviews for an academic dissertation turn into the investigation of a thirty-year-old double murder cold case.

Fresh off the standalone Reykjavik, co-written with Icelandic PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Ragnar Jonasson presents an absorbing classic whodunit spinoff from the upcoming television series, The Darkness.

Graduate student Helgi Reykdal and his partner Bergthora have returned to Iceland from the UK, where he will finish his dissertation for his post-grad degree in criminology. Helgi’s topic is a pair of thirty-year-old deaths that occurred in the northern Icelandic town of Akureyri in 1983 at a former tuberculosis sanatorium turned research facility. While doing the research for his paper, Helgi wants to interview the surviving staff members who worked at the sanatorium at the time of the suspicious deaths. As the story progresses, Helgi accepts a position with the Reykjavik police and his dissertation research efforts transition into a full-on re-investigation of the deaths that happened at the sanatorium thirty years before. While the police had closed the case in 1983 as a murder-suicide, some were not completely satisfied with the results. When someone murders one of the surviving sanatorium staff members in Reykjavik, thirty years later, Helgi’s new boss at the police assigns him to look again at the old case to determine whether the recent murder has a connection with the old case in Akureyri. 

This is a slow burner of a mystery, and it took me some time to get into the flow of the book. The early part of the book sets the backdrop for the present-day story with a look back in time at the deaths of two staff members that occurred at the former tuberculosis sanatorium in 1983. Ragnar takes his time in establishing the circumstances of the thirty-year-old case, which is central to understanding the present one set in 2012. The book covers two major timelines, 1983 and 2012 (present-day), and touches on a third, 1950. And while Helgi is the main character and principal narrator, Jonasson presents the viewpoints of many other characters as the story plays out. Having read many of Jonasson’s books, shifting timelines and multiple points of views are techniques he often incorporates in his writing. Sometimes multiple timelines and narrators can make a story complicated and hard to follow, but Jonasson uses these techniques skillfully. In this instance, the story moves along quite seamlessly without undue complexity.

Death at the Sanatorium reminded me of Jonasson’s early works, particularly the Dark Island series featuring Ari Thór. While Helgi Reykdal is a unique character with his own set of foibles, he did at times remind me of the Ari Thór character, my favorite Jonasson character creation, and I enjoyed this book more than some of Jonasson’s more recent novels for that reason.

Jonasson isn’t shy about admitting the time he spent translating Agatha Christie’s novels from English to Icelandic before he began writing his own books made Christie a significant influence on his writing style. As a result, like Christie, Jonasson’s works most usually take the form of classically crafted whodunit mystery novels. That is certainly true of Death at the Sanatorium. Like Christie’s novels, Jonasson’s books feature intricate plots, attention to detail, and clever twists, especially at the end. Again, we find that here.

Fans of classically crafted whodunit mysteries will enjoy this book. If you are a fan of Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, this book will definitely appeal. Jonasson has a direct writing style with no wasted efforts and skillfully weaves the somewhat remote and forbidding Icelandic setting into his books that add great suspense and keep the pages turning.

Minotaur Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, publishes Death at the Sanatorium September 10, 2024. Victoria Cribb translated the book from the original Icelandic into English. I receieved an advance reader’s copy of the book used for this review, representing my honest opinions, from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book rating: ★★★★

Ghosts of Waikiki by Jennifer K. Morita Review

GHOSTS OF WAIKIKI tells the story of unemployed newspaper reporter Maya Wong, who reluctantly returns home to Hawaii to ghostwrite the memoir of a dodgy real estate developer. Before she can settle into the assignment, a man dies under mysterious circumstances and Maya gets plunged into the middle of a murder investigation. Maya clashes with the lead homicide detective, who happens to be her ex-boyfriend, while finding herself in the sights of the killer as she digs for the truth before she becomes the next victim.

Ghosts of Waikiki by Jennifer K. Morita is an entertaining murder mystery chock full of contemporary issues in Hawaii, including the impact of tourism and out-of-state investment that is pricing the locals out of paradise.

Unemployed journalist Maya Wong reluctantly returns to her native Hawaii to ghostwrite the memoir of dodgy real estate developer Parker Hamilton. But when Charles, the Hamilton family patriarch, dies under suspicious circumstances, Maya can’t resist involving herself in the investigation. The deeper she gets involved, the more she clashes with the lead homicide detective, her ex-boyfriend Koa, and the greater risk Maya runs in becoming a killer’s next victim.

I rarely read murder mysteries featuring amateur detectives because they are often not very realistic. But this one is an exception given the lead character, Maya Wong, is a journalist and her investigative skills as a reporter and her connection to the family realistically applies to the case at hand. She also has an intimate connection with the lead police detective, which gives her access to information about the official investigation even though he continually warns her to stay out of it. But Maya’s curiosity, stubbornness, and the habits she picked up as a news reporter means she just can’t resist getting and staying involved. She quickly learns the only thing more dangerous than hunting a killer is being hunted by one, but Maya persists in trying to find out who killed Charles Hamilton.

I really enjoyed the set-up of this novel. When her California newspaper goes out of business, out of desperation, Maya takes a job ghostwriting the memoir of a controversial real estate developer. This produces angst for her on many levels. As a native Hawaiian who left home for the mainland to pursue a career as a journalist, she feels uncomfortable working with a man she knows does more harm than good for the locals. His huge developments not only force local mom and pop businesses to go under, but developers like Parker Hamilton make it difficult for the locals to buy homes. It’s like she is working for the arch-nemesis of her own people. In addition, Maya must deal with the stress of dealing with the friends and family she left behind when she departed for the mainland.

Maya’s ethical dilemma over writing the memoir gets eclipsed quickly when the patriarch of the Hamilton family, Charles Hamilton II, dies under suspicious circumstances and the cops soon suspect foul play. Unable to resist her past news hound instincts, Maya searches for clues to the killer’s identity, drawing the killer’s attention, and making herself a target. But even when things get dicey, Maya can’t let it go. It almost turns into a full-on cat-and-mouse game, with her never seeming to be fully aware of just how precarious her situation is.

Like most amateur detective murder mysteries, this one aims for the right vibe rather than perfection, but overall, it stays believable. The authentic local Hawaiian manner of speech adds authenticity and makes the characters more relatable to readers. Morita’s endearing writing style reminds me of another California crime fiction writer who has become a recent favorite of mine. I feel she is an exciting fresh voice in crime fiction we’ll be hearing more from. Ghosts of Waikiki is a strong debut which I very much enjoyed reading and recommend to fans of mystery and detective fiction. I hope to meet the character Maya Wong again soon.

Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC, will publish Ghosts of Waikiki on November 19, 2024. I received an advance review copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★

The Instruments of Darkness by John Connolly Review

THE INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS, the twenty-first novel in John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series, is a riveting piece of fiction that seamlessly blends mystery and the supernatural against a shadowy backdrop of horror in an inscrutable, earthy Maine setting.

A young mother, Colleen Clark, stands accused and faces trial for the worst crime a mother can commit, the murder of her child. She claims someone entered the house in the middle of the night and abducted her infant son, and he is still missing. But based on a singular piece of damning evidence, the prosecution, the police, most of her neighbors, and even her own husband Stephen believe she’s guilty and that she disposed of the child’s body. To make matters even worse for Colleen, the local prosecutor and the state attorney general want to use her case to further their political aspirations by convicting her and sending her to prison. But her attorney Moxie Castin believes she is innocent. He hires private investigator Charlie Parker to help him find evidence that exonerates Colleen Clark or at least destroys the state’s weak case. Parker, also convinced of Colleen’s innocence, investigates and soon has plenty of questions about who is responsible for the abduction and possible murder of Colleen’s two-year-old son, Henry, and looks for answers. That puts him on a collision course with the caretakers of an old, twisted house deep within the Maine woods, and the protectors of its evil secrets. As he’s drawn closer to the heart of the mystery and begins to unravel the truth, the greater the peril Parker faces.

Author John Connolly delivers another hauntingly powerful tale with The Instruments of Darkness. This book offers a stark reminder of the folly of regarding everything we cannot explain as phony.

It was only recently that I read my first Charlie Parker novel, Every Dead Thing, the first in the series. By the time I read this one, I had already binged-read the first five novels. I had by then a good feel for the character and had taken the measure of Connolly’s writing style, which I find brilliant. Connolly’s unique strength is weaving together many threads in his stories that add depth and intrigue, and that create apprehension in the reader akin to waiting for an inevitable impending train wreck, as the competing narratives surge toward a shocking climax. 

The background of the Michaud family and the heinous events that take place on their land over generations is an aspect of the narrative that helps create an atmosphere of palpable tension building tantalizingly throughout the story. Connolly blends the compelling supernatural element and adroitly explores the way people’s actions leave an imprint on the earth—whether concrete or ethereal.

Despite the hefty length of the book, five hundred plus words, Connolly has crafted a succinct and efficient plot with no wasted pages, taking the time and space needed to develop an absorbing mystery and the host of well-rounded characters. Who knew a mystery and detective novel could be so terrifying? Even horror fans are going to love this novel. And for Connolly’s thriller and suspense fans, this is classic Charlie Parker.

Emily Bestler Books/Altria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster LLC first published The Instruments of Darkness on May 07, 2024. I received an advance reader’s copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

Camino Ghosts by John Grisham Review

Celebrated local novelist Mercer Mann and the affable but sometimes dodgy bookseller Bruce Cable return in Camino Ghosts as master storyteller John Grisham takes us back to paradise with the third novel in his Camino Island series.

When you have a plot that includes the last surviving descendant of Africans formerly enslaved on plantations in the region who escaped and adapted to living in isolation for hundreds of years on a tiny barrier island off the coast of Florida plus a greedy Miami commercial real estate developer, it’s a recipe for an absorbing and heart-warming book you won’t regret reading.

I’m a longtime time fan of both John Grisham and his Camino Island series which represents a departure from the taut legal thrillers Grisham is best known for. I found the first two novels entertaining and immersive reads and the third book, Camino Ghosts, doesn’t disappoint. There is enough that takes place in a courtroom to remind us we’re reading a Grisham novel, but the true thrust of the plot lies elsewhere.

The story opens with Mercer returning to Camino Island for her wedding during the summer break from Old Miss where she is a professor. Mercer still hasn’t found a story for a second book to follow up her chart-topping debut novel when the ever-helpful Bruce introduces her to the true story of Dark Isle, and he suggests Mercer could fictionalize the story as her second novel. Dark Isle is one of two deserted barrier islands between Georgia and Florida. Sometime around 1750 it became a sanctuary for runaway slaves from Georgia. And Bruce says around 1760 a few of the surviving slaves from a slave ship returning from West Africa and bound for Savannah washed ashore after the ship broke up and sank during a storm. Bruce presses Mercer to read a self-published book written by Lovely Jackson, the last remaining descendant of the people living a life of isolation on Dark Isle.

Lovely Jackson claims ownership of Dark Isle as the last remaining descendant and heir. She claims in the book she was born there, lived there for the first fifteen years of her life, and all her people are buried there. Mercer reluctantly takes the book, but when she begins reading it on the plane on the way to her honeymoon in Scotland with her new husband Thomas, she can’t put it down. She wants to write a book about Dark Isle, but decides the story is better suited to non-fiction than a novel. After returning from the honeymoon, Bruce introduces Mercer to Lovely Jackson. They strike an agreement for Mercer to “borrow” Lovely’s story and to write a non-fiction book expanding the story of Dark Isle.

The stakes get raised when a Miami commercial real estate developer announces a plan to develop Dark Isle into a resort with a casino. Bruce brings Lovely together with a friend, a semi-retired famous environmental attorney, Steve Mahon. Steve opposes the proposed development of Dark Isle on environmental grounds and sees Lovely’s ownership claims as the best way to keep it from happening. After Bruce brings him and Lovely together, she agrees to allow Steve to represent her in a lawsuit against the state of Florida to gain legal title to the island.

I hesitate to categorize Camino Ghosts as a thriller like many of Grisham’s other books. Yes, there is tension and suspense at play, but I think it’s more of a general fiction literary work. It doesn’t make the book any less of an entertaining and worthy read. In addition to meeting again many of the main and supporting characters from the earlier books, Grisham introduces us to many fresh nuanced characters in this third installment. I’ve been a fan of Mercer and Bruce since the first book, but the character I loved most in this one was Lovely Jackson. I think she really steals the show, and her story overshadows that of the more familiar characters. After reading the excerpts from Lovely’s self-published book on the history of Dark Isle that Grisham sprinkles throughout the narrative, you can’t help but emphasize with her in her battle for justice against the greedy real estate developer. She is such a sympathetic and likeable character even when at times you aren’t completely certain about how much of her story is fact and how much is fiction.

Forget about taut, courtroom drama. Grisham’s signal triumph in this one is a tightly plotted, feel good read with a few nifty surprises in store for Grisham fans who expect nothing less.

Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC will publish Camino Ghosts May 28, 2024. I received an advance review copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

Every Dead Thing by John Connolly Review

Haunted by the unsolved brutal murders of his wife and young daughter, ex-NYPD detective Charlie Parker embarks on an odyssey that leads him to the heart of organized crime, an old black woman living in a Louisiana swamp who hears the voices of the dead, and to a serial killer unlike any other.

I started reading Every Dead Thing by John Connolly and had one thought. How had I, a crime fiction book reviewer, never read John Connolly before? It has everything I look for in a good detective novel. The prologue, overuse of metaphors, the gritty prose, and sharp dialogue. I was beyond impressed by Connolly’s tone and quality after the first dozen pages.

There is a reason I’d never read Connolly before. Of course, there is. I’d heard of Connolly, obviously. He’s been a bestselling author for quite a long time. I’d even heard of the Charlie Parker series. But I’d been reluctant to pick up a Connolly novel because I’d read several reviews of his books. Yes, the reviews had been reliably favorable, but most of them included references suggesting this series (maybe Connolly’s work in general) have a paranormal or supernatural undercurrent. Other reviews described the series as a fusion of supernatural thrillers and horror.

Nothing against those genres, they simply aren’t in my sphere of interest, especially horror. When I think of the horror genre, I think of Stephen King. King is a fine and successful writer, but after reading a few of his books, I found the horror genre just doesn’t appeal to me, no matter how well written. So, I had avoided Connolly for the same reason I don’t read King. But recently, while browsing the titles on NetGalley, I read the book description of Connolly’s newest Charlie Parker novel, The Instruments of Darkness (Charlie Parker #21). I found the description intriguing enough to request an advance review copy. Then, I decided I should read some past Charlie Parker novels to gain some background on the character. Naturally, I chose Every Dead Thing, the first book in the series. And after reading it, I can’t imagine how I have denied myself the pleasure of reading Connolly’s work until now.

The book opens with a lengthy prologue. One of the best I’ve ever read. I suppose the quality of the prologue should surprise no one. That’s because, according to Connolly’s introduction to the book, he spent six months writing and rewriting it, unwilling to continue with the rest of the book until satisfied he got it just right. I think he succeeded. The value of prologue is its relevancy to understanding the Charlie Parker character. He’s a man haunted by the murder of his wife and young daughter because he knows he failed them and feels heavy responsibility for their deaths. The evening the murders occurred, Parker had argued with his wife and then left and had gone to a bar to get drunk. He returned hours later to find them horrifically murdered and posed in a grisly, shocking way. This background informs much of who Parker is as a character and his motivations. Unlike many prologues I’ve read, this one grabs you and pulls you right into the story.

Parker is another former police detective turned private investigator, having left the NYPD after the death of his wife and daughter and a descent into his own private hell. Similarly to Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, Parker is an unofficial private investigator with no interest in obtaining state licensing. And like Scudder, Parker reminds me a lot of my favorite private detective character, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, especially his wise-cracking personality. But Parker is a unique character in his own right with his own flaws. As a protagonist, he is both broken and twisted to the extreme.

The story continues to unfold with Parker trying to apprehend a bail jumper, but he ends up seeing the man and his girlfriend shot and killed outside the girlfriend’s residence and then seeing the killer shot dead. From there, Parker takes on a missing person case as a favor to a former NYPD partner that turns out connected to the opening murders and chasing down a serial killer. Finally, Parker moves on from that case after its resolution into pursuit of the serial killer called “The Traveling Man” who killed his family, and that chase takes him from New York south to New Orleans.

As mentioned, I don’t read books with supernatural elements, fantasy, or science fiction. I simply have no desire to read about other worlds when there is already so much more going on in this one than I can handle sometimes. However, the supernatural elements Connolly features here aren’t the distraction from realism I might have expected. They aren’t fantastical in that his characters don’t even seem certain of what they are experiencing. I think what they are experiencing is not paranormality as much as simply the existence of evil, which, in my experience, is something undeniably real and an existing force in the world. In a similar way, I can’t agree much with the opinions I’ve read that Connolly’s books are speculative fiction regarding some fusion with the horror genre. What his prose describes is certainly dark, but again, it’s simply the evil perpetrated by evil people on others in the same ways those of us who read true crime books understand serial killers doing what serial killers do.

I feel the plot works here as a psychological thriller and detective story without the over-complication of supernatural or horror themes. It’s simply the existence of evil and the evil people we view here, and that’s about as real as it gets. The ultimate villains in the book aren’t demons. They are evil human beings bent on visiting evil on other human beings. There’s nothing supernatural about that. It’s all too common in the world we inhabit.

Connolly’s impressive writing, realistic characters, and a dark, convoluted plot are all on full display here. I enjoyed how the story played out and how the investigations took surprising turns. I came away very satisfied with my first Charlie Parker novel, and a little horrified as well, even though I don’t consider it a horror book. Fans of crime thrillers and detective mysteries able to stomach the intensely dark, explicit narratives will find this a worthy read.

Happily, I’ve just discovered a massive series already written and just waiting for me to dive into. I liked Parker and want to get to know him more. After finishing this novel, I immediately purchased Dark Hollow, the second in the Charlie Parker series. While I haven’t yet received the publisher’s approval on NetGalley for the advanced copy of The Instruments of Darkness, I’m certain I’ll read the book at some point even if it’s after working through the other nineteen existing books in the series first.

Simon and Schuster first published Every Dead Thing in October 1999. I purchased the copy used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block Review

In the dark days, in a sad and lonely place, ex-cop Matt Scudder is drinking his life away and doing “favors” for pay for his ginmill cronies. But when three such assignments flow together in dangerous and disturbing ways, he’ll need to change his priorities from boozing to surviving.

For me, discovering Lawrence Block and his Matt Scudder series reignited my interest in the simple, but by no means boring, hardboiled mystery genre. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is the sixth book in the series and the sixth I’ve read. A little trivia. This novel was first published on January 1, 1986, four years after the fifth book in the series, Eight Million Ways to Die. This one evidently resurrected Block’s interest in the Matthew Scudder character since he went on to write twelve more Matt Scudder books, the last in 2013.

Usually, I review recently released crime fiction books or those pending release. At first blush, it may seem a little strange I’m reviewing a novel first published in 1986. But I’m doing so for two reasons. I find Scudder and his world so vivid and alluring that I’ve quickly become addicted to the books. I’ve binge read the first six. And it seems only fair to bring them to the attention of other hardboiled mystery fans who haven’t heard of Lawrence Block and his Matthew Scudder character. Fans of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels will find the Scudder novels just as enjoyable for similar reasons. Also, it seems there is a renaissance of interest in hardboiled detective mysteries. As an example, a recent check of the book page for When the Sacred Ginmill Closes on Goodreads showed that 247 Goodreads members were currently reading the book and that another 1,803 members have marked it as “want to read.” There are many very good new release novels out there that can’t boast numbers like that.

The Matt Scudder series is classic hardboiled fiction. When you read a hardboiled novel, you have no doubt about what you’ve got in front of you. It’s a unique genre, and a well written hard-boiled novel sets the pace right from the jump. There is something fascinating about the dark, seedy, and deeply cynical style the genre has. Hardboiled stories show us a view of a society where corruption and immorality are the norm, and no one is truly innocent. While the protagonist is usually a detective or someone who takes on the role, we find we are dealing with a deeply flawed individual, and his or her own morality or lack thereof is as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. This protagonist is most often a cynical person who has seen it all and for whom the line between good and evil has long since blurred. Usually, the protagonist has adopted and follows his or her own personal code of right and wrong.

Matt Scudder ticks all the boxes we expect from the protagonist of a hardboiled novel. He’s a loner, has a cynical worldview, and has the predictable flaws. He’s an alcoholic, divorced, and lonely. Yet he prefers his solitary existence. But Scudder has unique characteristics that set him apart from characters like Spenser and Marlowe and Sam Spade. He does private detective work, but isn’t an actual private investigator. Scudder is an ex-NYPD detective who does “favors” for people he encounters, but favors he collects payment for. He simply has no interest in obtaining a private investigator’s license, filing expense reports, or paying taxes. Yet his police training enables him, between bouts of drinking, to solve the cases that come his way in a professional manner.

By the end of the fifth book in the series, Scudder’s habitually hard drinking is causing him physical problems, and he comes to terms with being an alcoholic. But Block, perhaps after returning to the series after a four-year break, wrote When the Sacred Ginmill Closes a little like a flashback to a time when Scudder was still drinking heavily and before he began experiencing serious blackout spells.

The book opens with Scudder having drinks at an unlicensed after-hours bar with acquaintances when two masked armed men rob the bar. The two Irish bar owners want Scudder to find out who robbed the bar and to give the owners the names so that they can take things from there. Scudder reluctantly agrees to do the “favor” but he knows taking a payment for identifying the robbers if he finds them will be the same as accepting blood money. He has no illusions about what type of retribution the Irishmen have in mind. As the story plays out, Scudder ends up doing “favors” for two other acquaintances and eventually the three cases come together in unexpected ways with some rather shocking results.

I enjoyed this book as I did the previous five and will read the rest of the books in the series. Scudder reminds me a little of my favorite gumshoe, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, but Scudder is a unique character in his own right. And this book and the others are classic hardboiled mysteries, and that’s right down my street.

Book rating: ★★★★

Remember Me by Charity Norman Review

A page-turning blend of suspense, tension, and tenderness that earned the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel in 2023.

I try to read all the novels on the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel shortlist every year but didn’t manage it in 2023. With the longlist for the 2024 award due out next month, in anticipation, I chose to read the 2023 winner, Remember Me by Charity Norman. The novel certainly qualifies as a crime novel. There is a crime of sorts on offer. But the book wasn’t quite what I had expected. Yet in many ways, it was so much more.

Charity Norman’s novel tells the story of a complicated father-daughter relationship and how our connection with our parents affects our lives well past childhood. The suspense and tension come from the unsolved disappearance of a young woman twenty-five years earlier that overshadows the story. There’s no edge of your seat suspense here, but Norman effectively keeps the tension and suspense lurking in the background throughout.

Worrying about her father, Felix Kirkland, was the last thing Emily needed. They were never close, and her parents divorced long ago. Emily lives in a London flat where she makes her living illustrating children’s books and is far from wealthy. Felix Kirkland, her father, a retired rural doctor, still lives in Tawanui, the tiny Hawke’s Bay farming community where Emily and her siblings grew up. Emily’s friends and clients are all in London. Her mother lives in Yorkshire. Nathan, her son, traveling in Asia, is due home within the year. Her life is in London. But then Felix’s neighbor, Raewyn Parata, a longtime family friend, rings Emily and reveals her father has Alzheimer’s and is failing fast. Emily’s sister Carmen and brother Eddie still live in New Zealand but are too busy with their own lives to help with their father. Mostly, out of guilt, Emily makes the trip back to New Zealand from London to see her father, knowing it’s unfair to rely on Raewyn to bear the brunt of her father’s escalating mental deterioration.

Planning on a stay of only two weeks, once Emily arrives and sees her father’s condition firsthand, she ends up staying far longer and becomes his caretaker. During this time she uncovers evidence that her father may have been involved in the 25-year-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of Raewyn’s daughter Leah, a young environmentalist, who went on a hike in the mountainous wilderness outside the town and never returned.

Remember Me is definitely a slow burner, but Charity Norman’s writing holds the reader’s interest throughout. She has an atmospheric style quite similar to that of Australian author Jane Harper and effectively puts you into the setting.

Norman captures the sheer essence of life for those with Alzheimer’s, and those caring for them. Norman illustrates it all by having Felix explain to his daughter how it feels to have memories slip away, to recall something one minute but not the next, and the feeling of not being fully present in your own mind and body. Having known people who had dementia and Alzheimer’s, the accuracy of it is heartrending.

Felix’s condition not only takes a toll on Emily physically. She also struggles with her role as caretaker since she’s never felt close to her father, who was always distant while she was growing up. She had always believed him to be more interested in his patients than his own family. But her father’s demeanor she remembers, changed by the disease, offers her insight into things she never understood, even explanations for his past emotional distance. But she doesn’t find it all that comforting when she realizes she needs her father to be more the man she remembers than he becomes as his condition worsens.

Emily’s most troubling worries come when she uncovers things that suggest Felix may have concealed awful secrets about Leah’s disappearance. These discovers come from some documents and photos she finds in her father’s room, some strange things he says when he is suffering the worse effects of the Alzheimer’s, and an article she finds hidden in a cupboard that Leah was wearing the day she disappeared in the mountains. This frightens her because the evidence points to her father, now a fragile, elderly man, may have been involved in the woman’s disappearance.

This is the most poignant, lovely book I’ve read in a very long while. Once I realized it wasn’t the typical crime read that I’d expected it to be, the powerful impact of the book surprised me. The ending, while bittersweet, couldn’t be more perfect and guarantees most readers will shed a few tears as an emotional response is unavoidable.

While Remember Me won a prestigious award as a top crime novel last year, it fits just as well in the general literary fiction and women’s fiction genre categories. But that doesn’t mean a guy can’t thoroughly enjoy reading it. I know I did, and I intend to read more of Charity Norman’s work in the future.

Allen & Unwin published Remember Me in 2022. I purchased the copy used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★

Murder Under the Midnight Sun by Stella Blómkvist Review

A fast-paced Icelandic noir whodunit for fans of eccentric and rebellious female protagonists. 

With the wild beauty of Iceland’s epic vistas as its backdrop, Murder Under the Midnight Sun by Stella Blómkvist follows sassy, take no prisoners, Reykjavík attorney Stella Blómkvist on a journey to uncover the secrets behind a smorgasbord of different investigations. 

The book opens with a lunch meeting between wealthy British businessman Gregory George MacKenzie and Stella Blómkvist in a toney Reykjavík hotel restaurant. He hires Stella to investigate the disappearance of his niece Julia, who went missing in Iceland at age twenty without a trace nine years before. An Icelandic police investigation had yielded no results. MacKenzie explains Julia’s mother, his sister, diagnosed with terminal cancer, desperately wants to know what happened to her daughter before she dies.

After warning him that many people had gone missing without a trace in remote places in sparsely populated Iceland and that she can’t promise any results, Stella accepts the case. But she barely gets started with it before she gets two additional cases. One is defending Máki, who runs a news blog aimed at exposing both new and old secrets of the ruling class who has run afoul of the establishment and is facing a libel suit and arrest. The other is defending a man arrested and accused of murdering his father-in-law and mistress. Along the way, Stella, who has a penchant for engaging in all manner of risky behavior, puts her own life in peril on multiple occasions. 

To clear up any confusion for those who may wonder why the author and the protagonist of the novel have the same name, a word of explanation is in order. Stella Blómkvist has been a bestselling series in Iceland since the first book appeared there in the 1990s. The author writes under a pseudonym and has remained anonymous for twenty-five years despite plenty of speculation about who she or he might be. The series has attracted recent international attention since a television series based on the books began airing and the books were first translated from Icelandic beginning with Murder at the Residence (2023). 

Stella Blómkvist didn’t arrive on my radar through the television series. I read an interview with Quentin Bates, who translates the books from Icelandic after the release of Murder Under the Midnight Sun, that piqued my interest. That explains why I read this book first before Murder at the Residence. As a longtime fan of Scandi Noir, especially books written by Icelandic authors, I’ve learned you can never go wrong reading a novel translated by the incomparable Quentin Bates. And I wasn’t wrong about this one. 

No matter the identity of the anonymous author, they know their stuff in plotting an absorbing hard boiled crime novel. The writing is crisp and to the point with no wasted effort. While the search for what happened to Julia MacKenzie packed plenty of punch on its own, happily Stella Blómkvist didn’t stop there. The other cases on offer add appreciated depth and breadth to the story. The reader gets wrapped up quickly in the somewhat chaotic but entertaining plot. I sailed through the book in one sitting, unwilling to put it down. 

Forty-one-year-old attorney and single mother, Stella Blómkvist, dotes on her four-year-old daughter, Sóley Árdís Blómkvist. Her relationship with her daughter helps us see Stella’s softer side. Besides being a brash yet cunning lawyer and investigator, we also learn much about the sexual side of Stella who is just as happy to seduce and have sex with an attractive woman as an attractive man and she makes her sexual overtures quite aggressively. She admits most of her past romantic relationships were short-lived.

If Stella were a male character, I think many readers might consider her somewhat predatory. While her sexual conquests in this novel are limited to women, she doesn’t come across as a lesbian but simply a woman for whom gender is no barrier when she encounters someone that she finds attractive and wants to have sex with. There are ample hints she has enjoyed past trysts with men as well. Another interesting aspect of Stella is that she seems to have suffered a traumatic childhood at the hands of her father, although we only get a few brief glimpses into what that entailed exactly. Perhaps this has a good deal to do with the adult woman she became. Finally, Stella is something of an anarchist with little use for government inefficiencies, especially with the police. In one scene, another character accuses her of being an anarchist and she doesn’t take exception to the characterization, much less deny it. 

Stella Blómkvist is a strong, independent female protagonist who is a bit of a brash, eccentric character, but her foibles don’t fall into any of the predictable mystery trope categories, and she is an appealing character. Perhaps because the story centers on the female perspective, the male characters, with the exceptions of the journalist, Máki, and Stella’s cousin Sissi, aren’t too well developed and most get portrayed as bumbling, lacking in intelligence, weak, or morally bankrupt. Male representation aside, this is a fun read and will deliver what fans of the classic Scandi noir genre look forward to in a fast-paced, twisty mystery thriller.

Corylus Books published the English version of Murder Under the Midnight Sun on May 3, 2024. This review represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★

Side Effects Are Minimal by Laura Essay Review

An ambitious Philadelphia attorney, haunted by her sister’s opioid-related death, represents a prominent family bent on revenge in a lawsuit over the opioid overdose death of their daughter. Her quest for justice gets complicated when powerful people who will stop at nothing to conceal the truth sabotage her at every turn.

Side Effects Are Minimal by Laura Essay is a crash course in the genesis of the opioid crisis where a multi-system failure–aggressive and deceptive marketing practices by pharmaceutical companies, inadequate government regulation, and over-prescribing of a class of highly addictive drugs by medical professionals–produced hundreds of thousands of annual deaths from opioid overdoses.

When Emma Satori, the teenage daughter of one of Philadelphia’s most prominent families, dies of a prescription opioid overdose, her grieving parents place the blame squarely at the feet of the drug maker, Novo Analgesic Systems, Inc., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the nation. They retain the prestigious Philadelphia law firm Blackman & Bradford to sue and exact revenge for their daughter’s death.

The senior partners of the firm assign the case to their ambitious, high-powered attorney and new partner Claire Hewitt. For Hewitt, Clifford and Margo Satori vs. Novo Analgesic Systems, Inc. is a case that could make or break her career. Something more than ambition and the desire to get justice for Emma motivates Hewitt. Her own sister, Molly, an elite gymnast, also died of an opioid overdose after her doctors prescribed them for management after she suffered a serious gymnastic accident. But the personal connection has a downside for Claire. For decades, even though only a teenager when her sister died, she has blamed herself for her sister’s death. She had seen evidence Molly was abusing the prescribed drug to deal with chronic pain, but had done nothing about it. The case becomes a constant reminder of her sister’s death and the guilt she bears.

The book unfolds from two primary perspectives. First, that of Claire Hewitt and her firm, primarily her assistant, attorney Alec Marshall, as they prepare for and prosecute the case. Also, from the perspective of the opposing attorney defending the pharmaceutical company and other key Novo Analgesic System’s staff doing their best to sabotage Claire’s efforts by erecting obstacles aimed at derailing the trial and protecting the company from a massive civil judgement.

Dr. Phil Wescott, head of the Novo Analgesic Systems research laboratory, is one villain of the story. Wescott pioneered the use of opioids for chronic pain after developing drugs he claimed were safe and nonaddictive and established himself as a prominent expert on opioid use. The egomaniacal Wescott has a god complex believing his pharmacological knowledge exceeds that of mere mortals and that he merits special recognition and respect not enjoyed by others. He regards the research laboratory as her personal fiefdom and all the research his personal property which he jealously guards. His ego motivates him to rush opioid pharmaceuticals to market without adequate testing and to mislead the FDA to gain approval to market the drugs. Sorry, not sorry. The unbidden image of Wescott that came to mind while reading the book was Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in real life shares the novel character’s same characteristics and personality. But the super villain of the story is Novo Analgesic System’s in-house counsel, Dana Massetti.

Massetti is an unethical and corrupt lawyer who stops at nothing to derail the lawsuit against her company, mostly to conceal her culpability in pushing opioids to generate profits while knowing Wescott vastly overstates his claims the drugs he develops are safe and effective with minimal danger of addiction. Massetti proves willing to do whatever it takes, even commit crimes, to prevent her company from being found civilly liable.

The author devotes more than the first two-thirds of the book to the trial preparation part of the case, particularly to Claire and Alec’s efforts to gather the evidence needed to win the lawsuit. For me, the story dragged a little by the time that part ended. To be fair, there were interesting scenes sprinkled in, but the pace definitely picks up in the last third of the book once the trial begins and Massetti resorts to even more sinister efforts to prevent Claire from winning the lawsuit against her company. Claire’s masterful examination of Dr. Wescott and Dana Massetti on the witness stand was my favorite part of the book.

Side Effects Are Minimal as a legal thriller isn’t as readable as Grisham, but it covers an important topic, is illuminating, and finishes strong.

She Writes Press is the publisher of Side Effects Are Minimal, which comes available on July 9, 2024. The book is available for preordering. I received the advance digital copy of the book from the publisher used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★

Burn This Night by Alex Kenna Book Review

Mired in the midst of an emotional minefield, Los Angeles private investigator Kate Myles struggles to gain control of her thoughts and emotions while trying to solve two murders, one recent and the other decades old, in a town full of dark secrets before she becomes the next victim.

The life of Kate Myles is a hot mess. “I’m a pathologically messy ex-cop-turned-private-eye with flaming ADHD.”

After an on-duty vehicle accident while she was a cop left her with a debilitating spinal injury and an addiction to prescription painkillers, her ex-husband John divorced her and gained custody of their daughter Amelia. Free of her opiate addiction, Kate is determined to control her drinking and to get her life in order so she can battle for the custody of her daughter. The last thing Kate needs is having her world upended again by the accidental discovery her dad was not her dad. She learns her mother had conceived her with help from a fertility clinic and an anonymous sperm donor. The family history she had grown up with was mostly fiction.

When her mother refuses to talk about it beyond sharing a few basic facts, reeling from the discovery, Kate turns to a genealogy website in desperation to learn something about her paternal genetic background. There she discovers two possible distant cousins and reaches out to them.

It turns out a possible male cousin is not a relative at all, but a sheriff’s department homicide investigator who had submitted a suspect’s DNA to the website hoping to solve a twenty-year-old murder case. Knowing the investigator, Kate agrees to meet with him and his partner. They convince her to help them with the case when they sweeten the deal by getting her a paying job to investigate a recent murder in the same town where the cold case murder they are investigating occurred. Kate moves temporarily to a rental cabin in Idlewood, a picturesque mountain resort town an hour and half from Los Angeles that she had visited many times as a child on family vacations.

In Idlewood, Kate meets her client, an attorney representing the family of a woman recently murdered, when an arsonist set fire to her home. Both the family and the attorney seem convinced the victim’s brother, Jacob Coburn, who the police have already arrested, is the killer. Kate’s job is to prove Jacob’s meth addiction and existing mental illness triggered a psychotic breakdown that caused him to kill his sister so that a court might sentence him to a psychiatric facility instead of prison.

While investigating the recent murder, Kate also works on the cold case homicide as she continues battling her personal demons, including the struggle to make sense of things surrounding her true heritage. She combs the area for possible relatives, partly as an integral part of unraveling the truth about the twenty-year-old-murder, but also hoping to find answers to her own questions and maybe even her biological father, although she isn’t certain how far down the rabbit hole it will all take her. Then, as the investigations progress, things take a sinister and dangerous turn.

Burn This Night is a fast-paced detective mystery that, besides crime, explores themes of disillusionment, family, heartbreak of betrayal, identity crisis, and isolation. The plot is intelligent, and the dialogue is sharp.

Kate Myles is a complex character. Here she continues the struggle to rebound from the fallout from her failed marriage, opioid addiction, and alcohol abuse, the issues she battled in Kenna’s debut novel, What Meets the Eye, where we first met Kate.

The complexity of the character derives from a dichotomy. We sometimes see Kate as the prototypical strong, independent female protagonist we’ve come to expect in contemporary fiction, someone we can admire and root for. At other times, she seems to occupy such a knife edge of emotional vulnerability that she seems in constant danger of falling completely apart. Here, it’s hard to feel anything more than sympathy for Kate, and she doesn’t seem very heroic. “My muscles felt jerky and my vision blurred. I was breathing fast, like I was trying to outrun someone. Feeling like I might throw up, I pulled over by the side of the road, leaned over, and rested my hands on my thighs. The sun beat down on my back as I breathed in the hot, syrupy air.”

Despite the pronounced contradictions of her nature, Kate is never off-putting. It’s what makes her seem like a real person and allows us to connect with her on an emotive level. Her thoughts and actions make sense in the given situations she faces.

Kenna tells the story in alternating timelines and with alternating first-person narrators. Besides Kate as the primary narrator, Kenna puts us into the heads of the recent murder victim, Abby Coburn (before her death), her sister Grace, and their brother Jacob. This gives the reader valuable insight needed into the story and helps acquaint us with these other main supporting characters. It also helps us understand the dynamics of the Coburn family, an integral part of the story. A detective mystery is only as good as its characters. This one has got some great ones.

Kenna set a high bar with her Kate Myles debut novel, What Meets the Eye. This often makes it hard to satisfy the high expectations of readers with a second novel. But that’s not a problem here. As much as I liked the first book, I enjoyed this one even more because of the continued transformation of Kate Myles over the course of this second story.

Burn This Night delivers a near pitch perfect plot, we’ve got characters to care about, and the unique Kate Myles’ identity crisis piece and a little romance combine to make the book unexpectedly uplifting. Mystery, Detective & Suspense readers are going to leave satisfied. I certainly did, and look forward to meeting Kate Myles again.

I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for consideration of a review. This review represents my honest opinions.

Book rating: ★★★★★