Book Review: Pesticide by Kim Hays

Pesticide by Kim Hays is a satisfying international whodunit with a strong female lead and a fascinating Swiss setting.

A publicist acquaintance knowing of my passion for international crime fiction, suggested I’d like the debut mystery in the Polizei Bern series, Pesticide by Kim Hays. She certainly wasn’t wrong. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year. I’m only sorry it took me so long to get it on my list. I couldn’t put it down from the first page and inhaled it in one sitting. I had the opportunity to read an ARC back in May but decided to purchase and read the copy used for this review. I very much enjoyed meeting the protagonist, Giuliana Linder, a homicide detective in Bern, Switzerland, and a host of other interesting support characters, including Linder’s colleague, Renzo Donatelli.

Pesticide

by Kim Hays

Published by Seventh Street Books

on April 19, 2022

ISBN 9781645060468

Genre(s): International Crime & Mystery, Police Procedural

358 pages

From the publisher

Bern, Switzerland—known for its narrow cobblestone streets, decorative fountains, and striking towers. Yet dark currents run through this charming medieval city and beyond, to the idyllic farmlands that surround it.

When a rave on a hot summer night erupts into violent riots, a young man is found the next morning bludgeoned to death with a policeman’s club. Seasoned detective Giuliana Linder is assigned to the case. That same day, an elderly organic farmer turns up dead and drenched with pesticide. Enter Giuliana’s younger—and distractingly attractive—colleague Renzo Donatelli to investigate the second murder. Giuliana’s disappointment that they’re on two different cases is tinged with relief—her home life is complicated enough without the risk of a fling.

But when an unexpected discovery ties the two victims into a single case, Giuliana and Renzo are thrown closer together than ever before. Dangerously close. Will Giuliana be able to handle the threats to her marriage and to her assumptions about the police? If she wants to prevent another murder, she’ll have to put her life on the line—and her principles.

Combining suspense and romance, this debut mystery in the Polizei Bern series offers a distinctive picture of the Swiss. An inventive tale, packed with surprises, it will keep readers guessing until the end.

We get two cases for the price of one here, and though they are ultimately linked (directly rather than coincidentally), I liked the way Hays introduces them. First, homicide detective Giuliana Linder draws a case investigating whether a civilian died due to a young Bern police officer using excessive force. Shortly after Giuliana and her partner begin investigating, the police learn someone murdered another man, a pioneer in Swiss organic farming, just thirty-six hours before the man died after the young cop struck him in the head with his riot baton.

Once Linder identifies her victim, connections to the murdered farmer quickly develop. As the story unfolds, the police try to determine what the connections mean, whether the young police officer killed the civilian or someone else did after the initial confrontation and whether they are hunting one or two murder suspects.

After the Bern police organize a task force to investigate the two murders headed by Linder and another senior detective, Renzo Donatelli, Linder’s younger and distractedly attractive colleague (who she has worked with before) gets brought in to help investigate the cases. Donatelli has a difficult marriage, and Linder’s marriage is also a bit tenuous. Also, Donatelli and Linder are strongly attracted to each other. This romantic twist adds complications and forms an intriguing subplot. The relationship adds an extra layer to both characters that helps us understand their respective lives and personalities more.

The Crime Writers’ Association shortlisted Pesticide for the 2020 Debut Dagger award, which didn’t surprise me to learn after reading the book. Hays offers readers a realistic and tightly plotted story that grips the attention from the start, and the near-perfect pacing keeps us engaged to the end. This novel is not just uncommonly good for a debut. It compares favorably with novels I’ve read authored by crime fiction writers with far more books under their belts. Pesticide is one of the two best crime fiction books I’ve read thus far this year.

In her acknowledgments at the end of the book, Hays explains she called upon high-ranking police officers in the Swiss cantonal police for insight while writing the book. While I have no firsthand knowledge about policing in Switzerland, I can say this explains why the police procedural aspects of Pesticide fit almost flawlessly the investigative tactics and techniques I know about used by other European police agencies. As a result, I have only one minor quibble with the novel’s realism.

In one scene, when circumstances force a police officer to employ deadly force, they intentionally shoot the suspect in the shoulder, careful to avoid hitting the arm and shoulder joint. As a former American police officer, I must say it doesn’t work that way except in the movies. Deadly force is always the measure of last resort, used when nothing else will do. And in a situation where a police officer decides they must use deadly force, they do not intentionally aim to wound anymore than they aim to kill. Instead, the intent is to stop the threat, and armed police officers constantly train to shoot center mass (the largest target) because that is the most reliable tactic for stopping the threat. So, the scene mentioned isn’t realistic, which most crime fiction fans find distracting because they put such high value on realism in any police procedural. It’s fine if a cop in a novel shoots someone, aiming at center mass, but ends up hitting them in the shoulder or some other non-fatal area, and the suspect survives. But realism demands that a writer avoid crafting a scene that features a tactic no trained police officer would employ.

Aside from the one tiny criticism, which didn’t detract at all from this book for me, Hays offered up a complex plot (or two), several surprises and some very likeable characters it’s easy to root for. I loved the book and believe any fan of international crime mysteries would enjoy this fast-paced read. I’m happy Pesticide is the debut in a promised series as I’m eager to meet Linder and Donatelli again in the next novel in the series.

I purchased the copy of the book used for this review, which are my own honest opinions.

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Book Review: Kalmann by Joachim B. Schmidt

In Kalmann  by Joachim B. Schmidt, an eccentric man with an intellectual disability propels this moving slow-burning Icelandic mystery.

KALMANN

by Joachim B. Schmidt

Translated by Jamie Lee Searle

Published by Bitter Lemon Press

on May 10, 2022

ISBN 978-1-913394-684

Genre(s): International Mystery & Crime

301 pages

From the Publisher

“Kalmann is the self-appointed Sheriff of Raufarhöfn. Day by day, he treks the wide plains which surround the almost deserted village, hunts Arctic foxes and lays bait in the sea — to catch the gigantic Greenland sharks he turns into the Icelandic fermented delicacy, hákarl. There is nothing anyone need worry about. Kalmann has everything under control.

Inside his head, however, the wheels sometimes spin backwards. One winter, after he discovers a pool of blood in the snow, the swiftly unfolding events threaten to overwhelm him. But he knows that his native wisdom and pure-hearted courage will see him through. There really is no need to worry. How can anything go wrong with Kalmann in charge? He knows everything a man needs to know about life – well almost.”

Raufarhöfn, a tiny, dwindling fishing village on the northeast Icelandic coast, is an emotional prison for the characters of this intriguing, slow-burning mystery. Its main character is a man with an intellectual disability. Kalmann (his first name) is a shark catcher and Arctic fox hunter. He is also the self-appointed Sheriff of Raufarhöfn, a village with no police department. Despite having no official appointment, Kalmann goes about wearing a cowboy hat, sheriff’s badge, and Mauser pistol, all of which he inherited from his American father. He’s kind, conscientious, and haunted by a crime, the disappearance of a man named Róbert McKenzie, the wealthiest resident of the village. While hunting an Arctic fox, Kalmann discovers an enormous pool of blood outside the village and then learns that McKenzie has gone missing.

Once the authorities from Reykjavik arrive, they determine the blood belongs to McKenzie, but they cannot find the body. From the outset, once we understand Kalmann’s intellectual disability and eccentricity, he becomes a somewhat unreliable narrator. For example, he tells Hafdis, the police officer investigating the matter, that a polar bear might have killed and eaten McKenzie. That makes it difficult to be truly sure what is going on with the crime or whether there actually is a crime. But Hafdis continues investigating, the authorities continue searching for a body, and Kalmann determines to solve the case. After all, he is the Sheriff of Raufarhöfn and feels responsible for keeping his community safe.

The murder mystery structures the book. But its core is Kalmann, a confused and confusing man in equal measure. He is a character who wins the reader’s empathy from the start. So it is definitely a character-driven story. But before it ends, there are many twists, some not unanticipated but shocking nevertheless.
Schmidt crafts an absorbing plot, springing surprises to the very end. Kalmann is the quirkiest Icelandic crime fiction novel I’ve read but is most definitely worth your time.

An eccentric man with an intellectual disability propels this moving slow-burning Icelandic mystery.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher used for this review, representing my honest opinions.

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Book Review: Not My First Rodeo: Lessons From the Heartland by Kristi Noem

Not My First Rodeo: Lessons From the Heartland  by Kristi Noem is an engaging memoir, and a lively treatise on a life lived with extraordinary grace under extraordinary circumstances.

Spoiler alert. This review is for a book with absolutely nothing to do with crime fiction. It’s a memoir, in fact, and evidence that I sometimes go beyond a steady diet of mysteries and thrillers. So, why am I posting it on this blog devoted to crime fiction book reviews? I hope this review will encourage others to read this book because I read and came away from it so inspired and impressed.

NOT MY FIRST RODEO: LESSONS FROM THE HEARTLAND

by Governor Kristi Noem

Published by Twelve Books (Hachette Book Group)

on June 28, 2022

ISBN 9781538707050

Genre(s): Memoirs, Biographies

289 pages

From the publisher

“South Dakota governor Kristi Noem tells her rough and tumble story of growing up on a ranch, and how a blessed life of true grit taught her how to lead.

“We don’t complain about things, Kristi. We fix them.” Taking her father’s words to heart, South Dakota’s first woman governor Kristi Noem shares heartfelt – and heartbreaking – lessons on making things right in the world, from her childhood on a farm in the vastness of rural America, to the marbled halls of Congress, to the national spotlight amid a global pandemic.

From humorous barnyard battles with feisty cattle and rodeo horses, to the tragic and untimely death of her larger-than-life father, to her decision to her decision to return and run the farm and ranch with her family, Noem invites readers into a life defined by work, faith, and helping others. Noem’s reflections are offered in the familiar, unvarnished voice of a woman who later defied Washington’s most powerful politicians and led the people of her small, hardscrabble state through natural disasters, the pain of a global pandemic, and the fear and turmoil that gripped the nation after.

While filled with plenty of candid observations and refreshingly frank assessments of the country’s leading figures, the memoir’s most powerful moments nevertheless come from honest glimpses into marriage, motherhood, and leadership in an unpredictable time.

Far from a book about politics, Not My First Rodeo is the story of a life lived so far – with characters as richly textured as the Black Hills, and reflections as gentle and powerful as America itself.”

“I do not believe there are ‘women’s issues’ any more than there are ‘men’s issues.’ There is, however, a woman’s perspective on every single issue…I’ve offered that perspective—whether people asked for it or not—from the barnyard to Congress.”

Not My First Rodeo: Lessons From the Heartland  by Kristi Noem is an engaging memoir, and a lively treatise on a life lived with extraordinary grace under extraordinary circumstances.

Former congressman and current governor of South Dakota shares her early life growing up in farm country in the eastern part of the state, her journey into politics, her time in congress, and her first term as the first woman to serve as governor of her state.

It’s not surprising to learn that Kristi Noem grew up a confident kid with an independent streak and a “We don’t complain about things, we fix them” attitude. After all, it takes grit and courage to survive and thrive in contemporary American politics.

We witnessed Governor Noem’s hands-off approach to pandemic restrictions elevate her to national prominence when the corrupt, biased corporate media criticized her at every turn. But the results her approach achieved vindicated her and proved them all wrong. Now we get to read how growing up on her family’s farm instilled the very traits that make her a proactive, wise, and effective leader.

As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude sprang from her family’s influence, faith, and a strong work ethic developed since childhood. Noem has faced adversity at times, leaving her wondering if she was up to the challenge. Nevertheless, she persisted, successfully taking over and operating her family farm and businesses after her father died before circumstances thrust her into politics.

With uncommon candor and refreshing humility, she recounts how the tragic loss of her father led to her fateful decision to run for her first political office. But we cannot dismiss Noem as just another ambitious politician despite her natural leadership abilities and political acumen. It’s clear being a wife, mother, and grandmother is as much a priority as any office she holds, and she strikes a healthy balance which is no small feat.

Noem has served her state with honor, grace, and determination. Even though a former congresswoman and current governor wrote this book, it’s not a book about politics. Instead, it’s a memoir about “a wife, mother, and grandmother who has learned a thing or two about politics in America.” You won’t find any of the self-serving, self-aggrandizing tripe you may have read in some of the other recent memoirs written by other political figures.

To say this book is inspiring would be an understatement. Noem’s story gives hope to other Americans who share her values and beliefs when we desperately need it. It isn’t what Noem tells you about herself that makes you come away from this book admiring her. It’s the straightforward way she explains what she believes. She appreciates and values the legacy of freedom our founders gifted us with and embraces the true history of our nation, not the false revisionist version pressed by those who seek to impose upon Americans a culture and an ideology completely foreign to our nature.

Not My First Rodeo: Lessons From the Heartland  by Kristi Noem is an engaging memoir, and a lively treatise on a life lived with extraordinary grace under extraordinary circumstances.

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Book Review: Paradise Cove by Davin Goodwin

Paradise Cove by Davin Goodwin―a nice twisty whodunit.

Paradise Cove (A Roscoe Conklin Mystery #2)

By Davin Goodwin

Published by Oceanview Publishing

on April 5, 2022

ISBN 978-1-60809-485-1

Genre(s): Mystery & Detective

353 pages

Paradise Cove was the first book I’d read by Davin Goodwin, the second in his Roscoe Conklin Mystery series. The publisher called it to my attention, and the blurb enticed me to dive in. Many times, when I’m asked, I accept most any book I’m offered as long as it falls roughly within the crime fiction spectrum. As a result, I read many books that aren’t exactly what I might choose to read for pleasure alone. Not to say I don’t enjoy many of them. But once in a great while, I accept a book like this one which turns out to be right in my wheelhouse. I enjoyed this book so much that I immediately headed to the bookstore and bought Diver’s Paradise, the first book in the series. So, as I write this review, I’ve now read two of Goodwin’s books and can’t wait for the next one in this entertaining series.

From the Publisher

“Every day is paradise on Bonaire—until something unexpected washes ashore.

On the laid-back island of Bonaire, every day is paradise until a seaweed-entangled human leg washes ashore. Combing the beach, retired cop Roscoe Conklin examines the scene and quickly determines that the leg belongs to the nephew of a close friend.

The island police launch an investigation, but with little evidence and no suspects, their progress comes to a frustrating halt. Then, thanks to a unique barter with the lead detective, Conklin finds himself in possession of the case file. He can now aggressively probe for his own answers.

Sifting through the scant clues, eager to bring the killer to justice, Conklin struggles to maintain forward momentum. He has all the pieces. He can feel it. But he’d better get them snapped together soon.

Otherwise, the body count will continue to rise.”

It didn’t really matter that I read the second book in the series first since Goodwin recaps most everything we want to know from the first book. So, both this book and the other work well as a standalone.

I really like the Roscoe Conklin character, a former police detective from a suburb of Chicago who is living out his retirement years on Bonaire, an island in the Leeward Antilles in the Dutch Caribbean. I’ve known for a long while that Bonaire boasts some of the best diving in the world, but it’s one island in the Caribbean I’ve never visited it. And Goodwin makes it come alive so effectively that it left me wanting to plan a visit to Bonaire soon.

While retired, Conklin does a little unofficial private investigative work. Since he has no license for it, despite his police experience, he’s more of an amateur sleuth. And he doesn’t go looking for cases, but friends and acquaintances persuade him to do investigations from time to time. That’s how he becomes involved in a murder investigation the story centers on after the severed leg of someone he knew washes up on the beach. Conklin is unabashedly lazy and drinks beer almost continuously, which provides just enough flaws to make him interesting and believable, but not so flawed that he’s unlikable.

Besides Conklin, Goodwin offers an array of other interesting, well-drawn characters. There’s Conklin’s love interest, Arabella De Groot, a Bonaire police officer, and Erika, a Bonaire woman who works for Conklin and helps run his 10-unit hotel. Both are delightful strong women characters who do their best to keep Conklin in line in their own unique ways.

Interestingly, given his background as a cop and professional investigator, Conklin misses a lot of clues and is far from perfect. He’s also not the Harry Bosch type and frequently comes out on the losing end of confrontations with the bad guys. But with Arabella’s help, he solves the case. Conklin’s failure to connect the dots at time aside, this is a nice twisty whodunit and the author effectively keeps us guessing through the liberal use of red herrings until he reveals the murderer’s identity.

I enjoyed this book a lot, especially Goodwin’s conversational writing style, and I’m already looking forward to the third book in the series.

Oceanview Publishing Sarasota, Florida published Paradise Cove by Davin Goodwin on April 5, 2022. I received an advanced copy from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review which represents my honest opinions.

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Book Review: Outside by Ragnar Jónasson

Outside by Ragnar Jónasson—is a brilliantly suspenseful standalone from one of the world's best contemporary crime writers, but the ending is frustratingly mediocre.

I rarely read reviews from others for books I plan to read to review myself as I like to form and offer my own original opinions untainted by those of other reviewers. But as one of the most successful crime writers on the planet, with over three million copies of his books sold worldwide, it’s hard to avoid running into reviews of the latest Ragnar Jónasson (Dark Iceland and Hulda series) offering even when you try.

Shockingly, the few reviews I couldn’t avoid all advised giving Outside a miss as it wasn’t up to the high expectations Jónasson’s fabulous writing has conditioned readers to have. I’ve been a Jónasson fan since picking up and reading his first book from the Dark Iceland series, and I didn’t want what I’d heard to be true. Of course, no one wants to read a disappointing book from one of their favorite authors. But that didn’t sway me from wanting to read the book. So, when the publisher offered me an advanced review copy, I accepted. Yet it’s fair to say that I approached this one with almost as much trepidation as eagerness because of the negative reviews.

Outside

by Ragnar Jónasson

Published by Minotaur Books

on June 28, 2022

ISBN 9781250833457

Genre(s): Mystery, International Crime Fiction

352 Pages

From the Publisher

Four friends. One night. Not everyone will come out alive . . .

When a deadly snowstorm strikes the Icelandic highlands, four friends seek shelter in a small, abandoned hunting lodge.

It is in the middle of nowhere and there’s no way of communicating with the outside world.

They are isolated, but they are not alone . . .

As the night darkens, and fears intensify, an old tragedy gradually surfaces – one that forever changed the course of their friendship.

Those dark memories could hold the key to the mystery the friends now find themselves in.

And whether they will survive until morning . . .

As he typically does, Jónasson begins with a prologue that sets the tone of the novel—four friends on a weekend hunting excursion make a shocking discovery inside a remote cabin they take refuge in from a sudden Icelandic blizzard. Then he takes us back to the beginning of the story. The hunting party, three men and a woman, have been longtime friends since their university days. All have dark secrets, which eventually put them on a collision course when fear and the elements push them to their limits.

As I expected from past Jónasson books, he introduces us to four interesting, well-drawn, realistic characters with major character flaws. The interesting thing about the characters is while you get all the details that make them seem like real people, I never felt any particular attachment to any of them. None were the type of characters I felt like rooting for since none are particularly pleasant people. Still, I was curious to see how things turned out for them.

As with his other books, the author incorporates the harsh Icelandic winter coupled with the desolate landscape almost as another character. Even before we know much about the story, Jónasson expertly instills a sense of foreboding in the reader from the start. You know something bad is about to happen. You just aren’t sure what. Like the other Jónasson novels I’ve read, the author quickly builds the suspense and continues pouring it on until it grows almost unbearable by the climax.

Halfway through the book, I couldn’t understand what the negative reviews I’d read were about at all. Outside has the usual crisp writing, imagery, and tight plotting Jónasson is known for. It was another shivery delight. I couldn’t put it down and sailed through the book in a single sitting. But then I came to the end, and I discovered the fly in the ointment. It was beyond disappointing. Well, maybe more like irritating. I turned the last page expecting the start of a final chapter but found I’d already read the last chapter. And it read like the final chapter an author might use as a hook for the next book in a series. Obviously, that didn’t work here since Outside is a standalone. It left me feeling I’d just spent the better part of a day reading an unfinished novel. It wasn’t that the ending wasn’t what I’d expected or wanted. The story just ends after the mysteries are revealed.

After ignoring the critics and reading Outside for myself, I agree you might want to give this one a miss. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend this book because if it was the first Ragnar Jónasson novel someone read, it might very well be their last. And that would be a shame because he is such a brilliant author who has written so many wonderfully entertaining books.

Minotaur Books will publish Outside on June 28, 2022. I received an advance reader’s copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, representing my honest opinions.

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Book Review: Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman

Last Call at the Nightingale, a riveting story—well-written, beautifully crafted, and brilliantly imagined.

I’d heard a lot of good things about Last Call at the Nightingale by Katharine Schellman, which made me eager to read it even though historical mysteries aren’t my usual forte. But now that I’ve read it, I’m happy I did. Schellman introduced us to an engaging lead in Vivian Kelly and I liked the surprising and intriguing support cast we meet and hope to see again from this novel advertised as the first in a series—Vivian’s sister Florence, her best friend Beatrice, her friend Danny, love interest Leo, and Honor Huxley, owner of the speakeasy called the Nightingale.

There’s a backstory and baggage in relation to the Kelly sister’s dead mother and absent father, but it informs rather than overwhelms the story unfolding here which gives the reader a nice balance of the crime-at-hand and the usual personal stuff impacting on the character’s lives—particularly that of Vivian Kelly.

Last Call of the Nightingale

by Katharine Schellman

Published by St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books

on June 7, 2022

ISBN 9781250831835

Genre(s) Historical mysteries

320 pages

From the publisher

First in a captivating Jazz age mystery series from author Katharine Schellman, Last Call at the Nightingale beckons readers into a darkly glamorous speakeasy where music, liquor, and secrets flow.

New York, 1924. Vivian Kelly’s days are filled with drudgery, from the tenement lodging she shares with her sister to the dress shop where she sews for hours every day.

But at night, she escapes to The Nightingale, an underground dance hall where illegal liquor flows and the band plays the Charleston with reckless excitement. With a bartender willing to slip her a free glass of champagne and friends who know the owner, Vivian can lose herself in the music. No one asks where she came from or how much money she has. No one bats an eye if she flirts with men or women as long as she can keep up on the dance floor. At The Nightingale, Vivian forgets the dangers of Prohibition-era New York and finds a place that feels like home.

But then she discovers a body behind the club, and those dangers come knocking.

Caught in a police raid at the Nightingale, Vivian discovers that the dead man wasn’t the nameless bootlegger he first appeared. With too many people assuming she knows more about the crime than she does, Vivian finds herself caught between the dangers of the New York’s underground and the world of the city’s wealthy and careless, where money can hide any sin and the lives of the poor are considered disposable…including Vivian’s own.

We get a murder close to the very start, which is how the best crime fiction novels begin, and that gets coincidentally linked to Vivian when she and Beatrice discover a dead man in the alley behind the Nightingale. Beatrice works at the jazz club as a waitress and it’s where Vivian goes almost every night to enjoy a brief respite from her hand-to-mouth existence and the grind of her day job as an underpaid seamstress.

The story takes place in New York City in 1924, during Prohibition, a time when speakeasies flourished and bootleg alcohol flowed freely. Honor Huxley, who makes it her business to know where all the bodies are buried, eventually presses Vivian into trying to identify the killer of the man found dead in the alley, and somewhat reluctantly at first, Vivian plays the role of an amateur sleuth in the endeavor. That, of course, places her in all manner of personal danger, and the fallout even spills over and splashes onto her sister Flo before it’s all said and done.

Reading Last Call at the Nightingale often made me think of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, although this book focuses more on the circumstances of the poor, downtrodden, and marginalized minorities of the twenties than the uber wealthy. Still, there were comparisons I easily drew, and Schellman effectively presents to us the social stratification that existed between the haves and have-nots during The Roaring Twenties, a period of rapid economic growth and social change.

Schellman’s fanciful imprinting of the elements of 2020s wokeness culture on The Roaring Twenties seems a bit farfetched, but at the same time, the slight departure into historical revisionism adds depth and interest to this fictional tale. I suppose many find it empowering and take comfort in imagining facets of purely modern culture and contemporary social constructs they embrace to have a long history in society, even when they do not.

Overall, I found Last Call at the Nightingale a riveting story—well-written, beautifully crafted, and brilliantly imagined. Schellman is a talented writer who keeps the pages turning and I’m eager to read more of her work.

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Book Review: The Recruit by Alan Drew

The Recruit by Alan Drew opens with a foreshadowing that gives us texture and backstory that helps readers understand the book’s theme and what is to come. Drew wrote the novel primarily from the point of view of Detective Benjamin Wade. Wade, a former LAPD detective, has moved to a smaller suburban department are tiring of the L.A. gang violence. But the author uses multiple points of view from other key characters at times to add additional layers to the story. Thematically, the novel’s focus is racism, particularly that directed towards Vietnamese and Hispanic immigrants and white supremacy.

The Recruit

by Alan Drew

Published by Penguin Random House

Tentatively on 14/06/2022

Source: NetGalley

Genres: Crime Fiction, Police Procedural

ISBN: 9780399592126

Pages: 432

book-review-the-recruit-by-alan-drew

From the Publisher

“An idyllic California town. A deadly secret. A race against killers hidden in plain sight. . . .

Rancho Santa Elena in 1987 seems like the ideal Southern California paradise—that is, until a series of strange crimes threatens to unravel the town’s social fabric: workers attacked with mysterious weapons; a wealthy real estate developer found dead in the pool of his beach house. The only clues are poison and red threads found at both crime scenes. As Detective Benjamin Wade and forensic expert Natasha Betencourt struggle to connect the incidents, they begin to wonder: Why Santa Elena? And why now?

Soon Ben zeroes in on a vicious gang of youths involved in the town’s burgeoning white power movement. As he and Natasha uncover the truth about Santa Elena’s unsavory underbelly, Ben discovers that the group is linked to a much wider terror network, one that’s using a new technology called the internet to spread its ideology, plan attacks, and lure young men into doing its bidding. Ben closes in on identifying the gang’s latest target, hoping that the young recruit will lead him to the mastermind of the growing network. But as he digs deeper in an ever-widening investigation, Ben is forced to confront uncomfortable truths about himself and his beloved community, where corruption is ignored and prejudice is wielded against fellow citizens without fear of reprisal.
 
Chilling and timely, The Recruit follows one man’s descent into the darkness lurking just beneath the respectable veneer of modern life.

Though the author doesn’t state the specific time of the story, he offers ample clues that help us understand it takes place in 1987 (and it’s mentioned in summary), about twelve years after the fall of Saigon and the formal end of the Vietnam War. It begins with Wade investigating a racial harassment crime where someone left a mutilated dog and printed racial slurs in an alley behind a store owned by a Vietnamese refugee, Bao Phan. As Drew develops that story line, he breaks into the B story of a murder investigation that eventually intersects with the main story.

Candidly, after reading the foreshadowing intro, I didn’t expect to like this book much. I read fiction for entertainment and a brief respite from the generally unhappy state of the world today, not for a fiction writer to expound their moralistic worldviews. The book seemed headed toward becoming a little too Steinbeckish for my liking, a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. And to be fair, there was a good bit of purposeful moralizing. And the author’s candid acknowledgment at the end removed any doubts about it.

“… I was trying to dramatize in The Recruit: that the aftermath of the Vietnam War sparked a new white supremacy movement, one that coalesced in the 1980s around the fledgling Internet and ultimately found legitimacy as a mainstream political movement in the presidency of Donald Trump.”

But thankfully, the quality of the writing, the compelling story, and the richly-drawn, realistic characters helped the novel overcome what I felt was its only serious flaw. Of course, serious literary works of fiction should have a theme, but in fairness to fiction readers, advocating of personal worldviews is probably best left to non-fiction books.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, which offers a tight and suspense-filled plot that keeps the pages turning. I’d characterize it as a suburban police procedural as the story revolves around detectives solving crimes after it’s already clear who the perpetrators are. I received an advance review copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, representing my honest opinions.

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Upgrade by Blake Crouch Book Review

Upgrade by Blake Crouch—A twisty and suspenseful science fiction thriller from the author of Wayward Pines.

Upgrade by Blake Crouch, an upcoming sci-fi/thriller, is a little off the beaten path for me as far as genres go. But I agreed to read and review it when the publisher offered me a pre-approved advance copy. First, I’d dearly love to earn permanent pre-approved status on NetGalley for this publisher’s titles. So, I didn’t want to turn down the first pre-approved title they offered me. And, having read and enjoyed Crouch’s The Wayward Pines trilogy, I already knew what an accomplished and entertaining storyteller he is. What I didn’t expect is this book is so much more than a sci-fi tale. It offers everything we expect from a crime thriller. It’s a twisty and engaging read, complete with a suitably flawed but very likeable lead and a myriad of suspenseful story lines to keep us on our toes. But as a reminder, the novel is set well forward in time in a dystopian-like future.

UPGRADE

by Blake Crouch

Published Date: July 12, 2022

by Penguin Random House

Genres: Suspense &Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy

ISBN 9780593157534

352 pages

“An ordinary man undergoes a startling transformation—and fears that all of humanity may be next—in the mind-blowing new thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of Dark Matter and Recursion.

At first, Logan Ramsay isn’t sure if anything’s different. He just feels a little . . . sharper. Better able to concentrate. Better at multitasking. Reading a bit faster, memorizing better, needing less sleep.

But before long, he can’t deny it: Something’s happening to his brain. To his body. He’s starting to see the world, and those around him—even those he loves most—in whole new ways.

The truth is, Logan’s genome has been hacked. And there’s a reason he’s been targeted for this upgrade. A reason that goes back decades to the darkest part of his past, and a horrific family legacy.

Worse still, what’s happening to him is just the first step in a much larger plan, one that will inflict the same changes on humanity at large—at a terrifying cost.

Because of his new abilities, Logan’s the one person in the world capable of stopping what’s been set in motion. But to have a chance at winning this war, he’ll have to become something other than himself. Maybe even something other than human.

And even as he’s fighting, he can’t help wondering: what if humanity’s only hope

for a future really does lie in engineering our own evolution?

Intimate in scale yet epic in scope, Upgrade is an intricately plotted, lightning-fast tale that charts one man’s thrilling transformation, even as it asks us to ponder the limits of our humanity—and our boundless potential.”

Upgrade follows the story of a brother and sister, Logan and Kara Ramsay, both unwittingly enhanced with genetically engineered upgrades, who square off against each other in a dangerous battle of conflicting schemes to save humanity from itself. In Logan especially, Crouch gives us a flawed by likeable character the reader engages with effortlessly.

After a stint in prison, Logan received a pardon and eventually went to work as a special agent for a federal law enforcement agency called the Gene Protection Agency (GPA). The GPA enforces federal laws that prohibit gene editing and goes after rogue scientists still attempting to do gene editing research in clandestine labs and those trafficking in high-end genetic elements.

Logan is the son of Miriam Ramsay, a brilliant geneticist who pioneered and patented a cutting-edge biological DNA modifier system since declared extremely illegal by the government. Miriam Ramsay became almost universally hated and ostracized when one of her gene editing experiments caused a worldwide famine and the largest accidental mass killing in human history. Logan, a college student at the time, had been working for his mother during the experiment, and that’s why the authorities sent him to prison.

During a raid on what was believed a dark lab, Logan sustains serious injuries from an IED left behind at the site. As he recovers, he notices biological changes that make him suspect the bomb contained some type of DNA modifier. While Logan tries to investigate the changes happening to him on his own, his agency discovers what has happened and confines him to a black site while studying him to determine whether he poses a threat. Couch then introduces Kara, Logan’s sister, when she breaks him out of the GPA prison. They discover that both of them have recently experienced the same genetic editing, transforming them into “super humans.”

Upgrade introduces the reader to a new futuristic world in the classic dystopian view. Couch hits all the high notes for the sci-fi genre, not a surprise to anyone who has read his previous works. The setting is at once familiar to those of us living in the 21st century with things like climate change, electric vehicles, and species ending environmental disasters, but fresh at the same with Couch’s unique takes on some standard ideas. The story’s specifics are fascinating, though at times Upgrade wanders into long asides on explanations of genetics and DNA that grow a little tiresome. Still, the action sequences are well-placed and exciting. The novel is perfect for sci-fans looking for a book with a unique take on saving humanity from itself. Those who don’t usually read sci-fi but enjoy a good thriller and can put aside the futuristic setting should also find Upgrade an entertaining read.

Penguin Random House publishes Upgrade by Blake Couch on July 12, 2022. I received an advanced copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, representing my honest opinions.

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Darker Angels by Larry Darter | #BookBlitz @CrimeFictionCritic @larrydarter

“Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.”

— General Corman, the film Apocalypse Now (1979)

DARKER ANGELS, (Howard Drew Series #3)

by Larry Darter

Publication Date: March 22, 2022

by Fedora Press

Genres: Police Procedurals, Crime Fiction

ISBN 979-8-9850565-9-4

226 Pages

Howard Drew, an unrelenting LAPD homicide detective assigned to the Open Unsolved Unit, investigates the murders of victims long dead. He prowls moral fault lines and assumes the perspectives of his victims and their killers. Drew waits, poised to listen when guilty people divulge information and tired people fold and betray their secrets. Drew also listens to the chorus of forgotten voices and speaks for them because the collective dead demand it.

In 2000, a friend discovered Anastasia Stepanchikov, a pretty 29-year-old prostitute from the Ukraine, beaten and shot to death inside her luxury Studio City apartment. Police speculated at the time that Russian organized crime may have been involved. Despite an exhaustive investigation by detectives of LAPD’s Homicide Special Section, they never identified the killer or brought them to justice. The leads dried up, and the case went cold.

Twenty-one years later, Detective Howard Drew and his partner in the Robbery-Homicide Division’s Open-Unsolved Unit reopen the investigation when they receive a DNA cold hit. Unsolved homicides tend to remain unsolved—twenty-one-year-old riddles deepen with the passage of time, the death and disappearance of witnesses, and the blurring of consciousness.

To find the killer, Drew and his partner must dust off the murder book and absorb every detail of the original investigation with an eye towards solving the cold case and assessing the original investigator’s failure to do so. The detectives who worked the case all those years ago seem to have done a decent job, but something doesn’t fit. Circumstances raise the stakes when Drew comes to realize he has taken on a politically charged case when the DNA match points to a powerful figure in Los Angeles. The original investigators may have missed a clue, or worse yet, turned a blind eye back in 2000 that could have led them to the killer and cleared the case twenty-one years earlier.

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About the Author

LARRY DARTER is an American writer of fiction, primarily of the mystery & detective and police procedural genres. He is best known for the nine novels written about the fictional Los Angeles private detective Malone. Darter has also written three novels based on the fictional character T. J. O’Sullivan, a female New Zealand ex-pat, working as a private investigator in Honolulu, Hawaii, three police procedural novels featuring the fictional character LAPD homicide detective Howard Drew, and two novels based on the fictional Honolulu private eye, Rick Bishop.

Website: https://www.larrydarter.com

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Book Review: The Sinister by David Putnam

The Sinister by David Putnam—hard-boiled crime fiction that’s written the way it always should be written, with hard edges and buckets of blood and bone.

The Sinister

by David Putnam

Publication Date: February 22, 2022

Published by Oceanview Publishing

Genres: Hard-boiled Crime Fiction, Thriller & Suspense

ISBN 9781608094264

320 pages

Bruno Johnson Series #9

I’m a reader who always wants to start a series with the first book, yet found myself reading The Sinister by David Putnam even though it’s the ninth novel in the Bruno Johnson crime series. Before picking up this book, I’d never heard of David Putnam or his bestselling series. I only read and reviewed it because the publisher kindly reached out to me by email. But now, after reading my first David Putnam crime novel, I have only one question. How is it that I’ve never heard of this guy before? This book hands down the best hard-boiled crime fiction novels I’ve read in recent memory and the kind of book that’s right in my wheelhouse. The Sinister opens with a bang, and the breathtaking pace continues until the very end.

Bruno Johnson, shaken to his core, but still a formidable force—unrelenting when it comes to saving a child

Ex-cop, ex-con Bruno Johnson and his wife Marie hide in plain sight from the law in an upscale L.A. hotel as Bruno heals from a run-in with a brutal outlaw motorcycle gang—and the loss of his son—a son he didn’t know he had until it was too late.

Marie, now pregnant with her first child, fears Bruno may never fully recover. She knows that soon they must return to Costa Rica to rejoin their large family of rescued children—kids who owe their lives to Bruno and Marie’s intervention.

But when Bruno’s friend, FBI Deputy Director, Dan Chulack, pleads with Bruno to help rescue his kidnapped granddaughter, escape plans are put on hold. After exhausting all legitimate investigative avenues, Chulack seeks Bruno’s brand of justice. With Marie’s reluctant consent and her own special expertise, they plunge into the evil world of those who prey on children.

Meanwhile, Bruno’s mother, a woman he has never known, appears asking for forgiveness—and Bruno’s assistance—while bringing her own set of complications. Bruno finds his professional and his personal lives colliding in a pursuit that is excruciating and brutal.

If Bruno Johnson had any luck, it would probably be all bad. He’s an ex-cop who spent decades on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hunting down the most violent criminal fugitives and a paroled ex-con. When the book opens, Johnson is in nine kinds of trouble.

Recently released from a Los Angeles hospital, he is still recovering from a gunshot chest wound and weak as a kitten. Johnson is also the subject of multiple arrest warrants on kidnapping and murder charges. He’s even made the Los Angeles FBI field office’s local Ten Most Wanted List. He and his pregnant wife, Marie, are holed up in a Glendale long-stay hotel, laying low and hoping to stay off the law enforcement radar until Bruno is well enough for them to travel back to their home in Costa Rica. Additionally, Bruno suffers from nightmares over a horrific experience from his recent past.

Bruno Johnson isn’t a real criminal even with the arrest warrants and his history as a paroled ex-con. Instead, he’s an archetypal knight errant in the mold of Chandler’s Marlowe and Parker’s Spenser. Yes, Bruno is a little on the thuggish side, but with a heart of gold and a strong moral compass. It’s just that he isn’t opposed to crossing the line where the law is concerned when it is necessary to mete out his special brand of street justice to those who have it coming.

As if Bruno Johnson doesn’t have enough troubles of his own, a friend, FBI Assistant Director Dan Chulack, reaches out to dump a load of his troubles on Johnson. Someone kidnapped Chulack’s granddaughter and her nanny and demanded a $2 million ransom. The FBI handled the case but in less than stellar fashion. While they captured one suspect when he showed up at the drop to collect the ransom, the FBI lost the ransom money and failed to get the little girl or the nanny back. Now it seems everyone has lost hope of getting the victims back alive. Well aware of Johnson’s reputation as a manhunter who always gets his man, Chulack asks Bruno to find the kidnappers and give them the kind of justice he is known for delivering.

Having a soft spot for kids, Johnson agrees to help his friend, though he isn’t in any physical condition to do it. Yet he gives the case his all with the help of his sidekick, Karl Drago, a former motorcycle gang member who is even rougher and more violent than Bruno. Along the way, another sidekick, a tough, hardcore female sheriff’s detective named Helen Hellinger, forces her way onto Bruno’s team. She plays an integral role in searching for the bad guys and saves Bruno’s bacon more than once.

There was much I liked about David Putnam’s writing style and storytelling. He nails it when it comes to writing hard-boiled crime fiction in a way rarely seen these days. His descriptive prose accurately portrays Los Angeles in almost a panoramic way, from the geography to the city’s hard edges to the gritty, noirish shadowy areas.

There are a few implausible situations in The Sinister, something crime fiction enthusiasts don’t suffer gladly. But Putnam more than makes up for these minor literary license detours by offering solid, raw authenticity where it matters most. The genuine “cop-speak” and natural language and descriptions of all things law enforcement-related make the reader realize right away that author has spent time on the mean streets himself. So it was no surprise to learn Putnam is a retired law enforcement officer with broad experience.

This book is long but packed with action. Once you start reading, it’s tough to put down. The plot is intriguing and well-balanced against a mix of likeable and thoroughly unlikeable characters. The combination translates into a riveting read. I’ll certainly be adding some of the earlier Bruno Johnson novels to my to-read list.

The Sinister by David Putnam is hard-boiled crime fiction written the way it always should be written, with hard edges and buckets of blood and bone. Oceanview Publishing will release The Sinister on February 22, 2022. I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review representing my honest opinions.

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