The Glasgow Smile by Chris Stuart Review

Chris Stuart’s The Glasgow Smile is a captivating read with profound and relatable human elements.

The Glasgow Smile by New Zealand author Chris Stuart, is the sequel to her debut crime thriller, For Reasons of Their Own, which garnered her the prestigious Ngaio Marsh Best First Novel Award in 2021. It thrilled me to receive an advance copy of The Glasgow Smile and I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with some familiar characters and meeting some new ones.

The Glasgow Smile Publisher’s Synopsis

In a grimy graffiti-covered recess in one of Melbourne tangled inner city laneways, a woman is found murdered. ‘Why would anyone want to kill her? She was so ordinary,’ was the oft-repeated phrase DI Robbie Gray heard when the name of the deceased was revealed.

So why, then, she asked herself, was the body found propped up in such an extraordinary position, almost as if she was intimate with the portrait on the wall. Was this death intended to be symbolic, or was the placement merely a device to deceive?

Set against a background of civil unrest and rising white extremism, a government tainted by corruption and a family desperate to hide secrets, DI Robbie Gray, along with her Indigenous officer Mac must also grapple with their own demons of guilt and failure.  When an arrest is made, they realise that not all killers hold a weapon, masks don’t always disguise, and the legacy of long-held secrets can have tragic consequences.

Original Sin Press (2023)

Genre(s) Mystery & Thrillers

Chris Stuart | Pub Date May 28, 2023 | ISBN 9780473667528 | 464 pages

Book Review

We take up where we left off from the first book in the series with our heroine Melbourne Detective Inspector Robbie Gray, still working in the cold case unit. But not for long.

A passerby finds the body of a murdered young woman kneeling in a dingy alleyway as if praying with her forehead pressed against a street art portrait of a maniacal grinning figure. DS Hardiman, Gray’s boss, assigns her to lead the homicide investigation because she is the only qualified homicide investigator available. With civil arrest on the boil in Melbourne, Hardiman, pleading a staff-storage, only gives DI Gray a team of trainee detectives to staff the investigation. But she gets one experienced officer to help with the case, Aboriginal Detective Constable Phillip (Mac) MacMahon, a former colleague and close friend.

After identifying the victim, Annie Dallimore, DI Gray starts the investigation rolling with the usual police procedural moves; reviewing the autopsy, background checks on the victim to identify family members and close acquaintances, and then conducting interviews. The investigation gets off to a slow start, but picks up steam when Gray and Mac interview the victim’s family members and acquaintances. She compiles a list of persons of interest but feels frustrated when she can’t establish a credible motive for any of them and the police can’t locate the unusual murder weapon. Making things even more difficult is the victim’s dysfunctional family members all tell conflicting stories about the victim, and some seem bent on lying during the interviews.

Stuart shows an excellent understanding of police homicide investigation protocols and the story smacks of authenticity. As one who has visited the city, I can also attest she provides accurate and familiar descriptions of Melbourne and its surrounds. Cold weather and frequent drought-ending downpours dog DI Gray’s steps from beginning to the end of the investigation, which contribute to the satisfying elements of sinister foreboding surrounding the tale.

Besides having to solve a murder, DI Gray must also battle personal demons, not all of her own making. She is not only dealing with the aftermath of the breakup with her ex-lover Tess, but must also once again try to save her drug addict daughter, Emma, who seems bent of self-destruction. These underlying humanity aspects of the story help the reader delve ever deeper into Robbie Gray’s character.

While Robbie Gray is one of the more intriguing protagonists I’ve encountered, I also like her colleague, Mac. He, too, is a multi-faceted character fighting demons of his own, the stress of which causes him deep emotional pain. One highlight of the book for me was Mac’s story, and the challenges he faces as an Australian Aboriginal, something I’m keenly interested in. This element added great depth and heart to the novel, and Gray’s moral reactions to Mac’s circumstances helped us learn more about her. Stuart gives us a good taste of the realities in that respect, but not at such length that it allowed the tension of the story to wane. The only slight let down for me, was Mac had such a visceral reaction to the street portrait where the murderer killed Dallimore, I had expected the Aboriginal element to be more involved in the plot’s outcome and the unraveling of the mystery than it turned out to be.

Besides the two lead characters, and Tess and Emma, Stuart also gives us a sufficient cast of other complex characters to keep the reader engaged throughout. There are plenty of twists and turns and ample suspects to consider for the amateur sleuths who enjoy trying to solve the case ahead of the fictional detectives.

Chris Stuart is a talented storyteller who display excellent abilities in structuring a compelling thriller. The bread crumbs she left along the way were, in most cases, small enough not to give the game away, but large enough for the reader to recall once she unveiled the twists, which is just the way I enjoy it. The Glasgow Smile admirably lives up to the series debut and I’m looking forward to Stuart’s next novel.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Note: Available for pre-ordering in New Zealand only, but available soon in other markets in paperback and eBook versions.

Out of the Ashes by Kara Thomas Review

Out of the Ashes by Kara Thomas is an appealing mix of psychological drama and a slightly slow-burning mystery. Read the full review.

Out of the Ashes Synopsis

A woman’s investigation into her family’s murders uncovers lies, secrets, and dangerous truths in a heart-wrenching novel of suspense.

When she was thirteen years old, Samantha Newsom’s family was murdered and their Catskills farmhouse set ablaze in an unsolved crime that left nothing behind but ashes.

Twenty-two years later, Sam is pulled back to her hometown of Carney, New York, under the shadows of the grim tragedy she’s never forgotten or forgiven. Authorities mishandled the evidence, false rumors were seeded about her family, suspects yielded nothing, and the case went cold. Not anymore. Investigator Travis Meacham has been assigned to the case, and he has news for Sam: a prison inmate has come forward with a shocking admission. Sam’s baby sister, presumed dead in the fire, made it out of the house that night.

It’s not the only reveal that upends everything Sam thinks she knows about the crime and her family. But Carney protects its secrets. And this time, Sam might not be able to escape the town alive.

Thomas & Mercer (2023)

Genre(s) Mystery & Thrillers

Kara Thomas | Pub Date May 01, 2023 | ISBN 9781662509537 | 287 Pages

Book Review

When her mother’s foster brother dies, Samantha Newsom returns to her hometown and gets pulled back into a tragedy that happened over twenty years before. When Samantha was thirteen, someone murdered her parents before setting fire to the family home, which burned down with her parent’s bodies and baby sister inside. The police never identified the killer. Raised by aunt, Samantha later moved away, went to college and became a nurse and tried to get on with her life as best she could. But when a state investigator contacts her and tells her he is reopening the investigation into the murders, she learns new information about the crimes and begins investigating on her own, determined to learn what happened to her family.

Samantha’s strong emotional drive to find out what happened to her family is understandable and makes her an engaging character lead that it’s easy to feel empathy for. But her passion to learn the truth causes Samantha to behave a little too recklessly with her own safety, a writing technique that builds tension and high suspense by design. In Out of the Ashes, Thomas cultivates the psychological intrigue using a first-person character viewpoint narrative but offers readers more than only one vibrant and compelling character in this story told in highly accessible prose.

This novel is not without its weaknesses. Only about the halfway point did the pacing produce a strong desire to keep turning the pages, but the pacing picked up nicely down the stretch. Overall, I found the book an engaging mix of psychological drama and mystery, which I enjoy reading, with twists that readers will enjoy and not likely see coming.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Malibu Burning by Lee Goldberg Review

Malibu Burning by Lee Goldberg is a scorching, atmospheric, and suspense-filled novel that grabs the reader from the first page and doesn’t let up until the end. Read the full review.

Malibu Burning Synopsis

For a professional criminal and a relentless arson investigator, fear and revenge spread like wildfire in an incendiary thriller by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg.

Hell comes to Southern California every October. It rides in on searing Santa Ana winds that blast at near hurricane force, igniting voracious wildfires. Master thief Danny Cole longs for the flames. A tsunami of fire is exactly what he needs to pull off a daring crime and avenge a fallen friend.

As the most devastating firestorms in Los Angeles’ history scorch the hills of Malibu, relentless arson investigator Walter Sharpe and his wild card of a new partner, Andrew Walker, a former US marshal, suspect that someone set the massive blazes intentionally, a terrifying means to an unknown end.

While the flames rage out of control, Danny pursues his brilliant scheme, unaware that Sharpe and Walker are closing in. But when they all collide in a canyon of fire, everything changes, pitting them against an unexpected enemy within an inescapable inferno.

Thomas & Mercer (2023)

Genre(s) Suspense Thriller, Crime & Detective

Lee Goldberg | Pub Date June 20, 2023 | ISBN 9781662500671 | 304 Pages

Book Review

For me, everything about Malibu Burning by Lee Goldberg, although a work of fiction, oozed authenticity. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine but so easy to appreciate the massive number of hours of research that obviously went into this book featuring enormous, wind-driven, California brush fires described in such epic and vivid detail the reader almost feels the heat and smells the smoke. This book isn’t just a very well-executed crime thriller. It’s a fantastic novel, period. The nuanced character development is first rate–even that of the bad guys–from backstories to their motivations to the dialogue. It all smacks of realism.

When Stetson-wearing U. S. Marshal Andrew Walker’s wife gets pregnant with their first child, she persuades him to give up his dangerous job as a man-hunter to take a safer law enforcement job. After getting hired by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, they assign him to arson investigations where Walker teams up with veteran arson detective Walter Sharpe. Sharpe, he soon learns, knows everything there is to know about fires–how they start, how they burn, and how they behave. When three seemingly unrelated brush fires start, Sharpe doesn’t buy the theory they started from accidents stemming from power line failures and decides to investigate. He and his new green partner, Walker, find evidence that suggests arson and that someone with a lot of knowledge about fires, started them in an ingenious and unusual way. Sharpe is the expert on fires and arson investigation, but Walker is the expert on the criminal mind and suspects the arsonist started the fires either to conceal or facilitate the commission of some other crime. As the pair continues to investigate, Walker realizes an old nemesis, a brilliant con man named Danny Cole, is involved. And all they have to do is figure out what it is Cole is using the wildfires to cover up, how to prove it, and where to find Cole so they can arrest him.

Intense suspense, shocks, and chilling authenticity make this one a very special book. It has everything you expect from a flawlessly executed, action-packed crime thriller. The characters are likeable and realistic–including the antagonist, Danny Cole. Sure, he’s a criminal, but you grudgingly find you admire him just a little. The entertaining story feels sufficiently gritty, although Goldberg softens it a little with both heart-warming moments and humor. The stakes are impossibly high and continue rising in the narrative about Southern California cops, firefighters, and thieves, and it all takes place in the middle of an epic conflagration that puts them in imminent danger. Malibu Burning is perfect for fans of authors like John Sandford.

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Rio Flash ’62 by Andrew Deutsch Review

Rio Flash ’62 by Andrew Deutsch, a vivid and engaging neo-noir mystery set in paparazzied 1960s Rio de Janeiro. Read the full review.

Rio Flash ’62 Synopsis

Brazil. Rio De Janeiro. 1962. A time of dramatic political, social, and cultural clashes. Here, at the nexus of high society and low, style and street, pop music and passionate crime, a young tabloid photographer will do anything to get ahead – even protect a killer.

Beto Santera, raised on the struggling side of Rio, has just wrangled his first press photographer’s card. He has big dreams, small chances, and a chip on his shoulder. Beto is desperate to get ahead as a photographer but is scrambling to make ends meet.

His luck changes when he photos Sergio Fontes von Imperial, an outcast of a powerful Rio family, leaving the crime scene of a murdered popular Brazilian star. Beto makes a dark deal with Sergio, loses the negatives, and he gets access to the exclusive world of fashion, art, music, and nightlife. All the excitement Rio has to offer.

Then more killings occur. Beto is forced to make a choice, keep his career, or help catch the criminal.

World Castle Publishing, LLC (2023)

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective, Historical Crime Fiction, Neo-Noir

Andrew Deutsch | Pub Date Jan 17, 2023 | ISBN 9781958336854 | 310 Pages

Book Review

Rio Flash ’62 by Andrew Deutsch is a satisfying historical crime fiction read that entertains while it explores ethical dilemmas and the perils of secret keeping to further one’s career aspirations. I always enjoy reading books set in exotic locales, and here in the 1960s Rio de Janeiro, a city well known for the beauty of its beaches and of its peaks, ridges, and hills—all partly covered by tropical forests, fits the bill. The period covered by the book chronicles the city’s growth toward economic and social prominence and status as a tourist magnet, a center of leisure for Brazilian and foreign tourists.

While a basic neo-noir whodunit mystery at its core, Deutsch offers us an unusual lead character in Beto Santera, a young street photographer raised on the poor side Rio, who has big dreams of establishing himself in the business of taking and selling photos to the tabloids, but little chance of doing so. What makes Beto such an interesting choice as the protagonist is he is no amateur detective, as we might expect from a whodunit mystery. Beto has no interest at all in crime solving, but only in advancing his career using any means necessary. So, he becomes an anti-hero main character when he chooses his career over helping the police catch a killer.

Mostly by accident and luck, Beto snaps photos of a prominent member of Rio high society, Sergio Henrique Fontes Von Imperial, outside a murder scene. Beto doesn’t immediately know about the murder when he snaps the pictures, but soon learns he has captured on film evidence putting Sergio outside the apartment of a rising young actress named Vamella who someone had murdered just before he took the photos.

Realizing his photos put Fontes squarely in the frame as a murder suspect, instead of turning over the pictures to the police, Beto rationalizes using the negatives to blackmail Fontes. He agrees to not give the photos to police in return for Fontes arranging access for him to important social venues and to celebrities where he can take photos to sell to the tabloids to advance his career. Even after learning Vamella might be only one of several recent murders Fontes might be complicit in, Beto still does not come clean with the police, not even when Tadeo, the police inspector investigating the murders, learns about Beto and the possibility he photographed the suspect in Vamella’s murder outside her apartment shortly after she died.

While Deutsch casts Tadeo in the role of a deuteragonist, I found him a far more compelling character than Beto. Tadeo, too, faced ethically dilemmas, but he made the right choices when they mattered, and persistently worked to solve the murders in the interests of justice. Overall, the characters Deutsch offers us are all lively and realistic, with individual personalities sparking off each other just as happens in real life. His detailed descriptions of the setting, everything from smells to sounds with an infusion of culture woven into the narrative, give the reader a vivid sense of place with a cinematographic feel. Just as the black and white book cover images give us the neo-noir feel of the story, the narrative gives the reader almost the sense of watching a black and white noir film.

Rio Flash ’62 offers readers a welcome chance to explore, take an adventure, and immerse themselves in a different culture. While not the nail-biting variety, Deutsch provides an undercurrent of suspense throughout that kept me turning the pages until the very end.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

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The Child Riddler by Angela Greenman Review

The Child Riddler by Angela Greenman, an entertaining spy thriller with lots of realistic action-though it’s hard to relate to the super flawed protagonist. Read the full review.

The Child Riddler Synopsis

Despite the angry scars she carries from her childhood training, Zoe Lorel has reached a good place in her life. She has her dream job as an elite operative in an international spy agency and she’s found her one true love. Her world is mostly perfect—until she is sent to abduct a nine-year-old girl.

The girl is the only one who knows the riddle that holds the code to unleash the most lethal weapon on earth—the first ever “invisibility” nanoweapon, a cloaking spider bot. But Zoe’s agency isn’t the only one after the child. And when enemies reveal the invisibility weapon’s existence to underground arms dealers, every government and terrorist organization in the world want to find that little girl.

Zoe races to save not only the child she has grown to care about, but also herself. The agency prescribed pills—the ones that transform her into the icy killer she must become to survive—are beginning to threaten her engagement to the one person who brings her happiness. Can she protect the young girl and still protect the one thing she cares more about than anything else?

Bella Books (2022)

Genre(s) Spy Thriller, LGBTQ+ Action & Adventure

Angela Greenman | Pub Date Jul 19, 2022 | ISBN ‎ 9781642473650 | 320 pages

Book Review

The Child Riddler by Angela Greenman introduces Zoe Lorel, an operative for a secret, shadowy government intelligence agency that primarily assassinates the country’s enemies. Greenman offers some very flawed and not very likeable characters in this spy thriller, but none more flawed than the protagonist, Zoe Lorel. Authors imbue characters with flaws to make them feel more realistic, since actual people are far from perfect. A perfect character would seem both unbelievable, and boring. Yet here, Greenman has given the protagonist so many flaws that I found her hard to relate to and the flaws somewhat distracting.

The book opens with a bang with a powerful, action-packed scene that matches up well with some of the best spy thrillers I’ve read previously. While I don’t review them here much since they aren’t the focus of this review site, I’ve enjoyed reading many spy thrillers since discovering Tom Clancy many years ago. I’m a big fan of Robert Ludlum’s original Jason Bourne series books and the Matt Damon movies based on them. You could say Zoe Lorel is a female archetype of Bourne since she is also an elite assassin working for a secret government intelligence agency. The character also shares a similarity with the Jeremy Renner character in The Bourne Legacy film. Like Aaron Cross in the film, Zoe Lorel has a dependency on addictive drugs that give her peak performance and effectiveness as an assassin. And side effects of these drugs eventually cause her some serious problems.

When we first meet Zoe, she is in the middle of a mission to assassinate a target to keep a sophisticated, high-tech new weapon from falling into the wrong hands. During the mission, Zoe encounters a young girl by happenstance who plays a key role later in the story. After the promising start, the pace falls off dramatically as Greenman introduces us to the main side story of the novel, Zoe’s romantic relationship with her girlfriend, Isabel, who works in a support role for the same government agency.

The side story mostly failed to hold my interest because, after the opening scenes, I was expecting a spy thriller, not a romance. Except it helped disclose flaws about Zoe that for me made her such an unsympathetic character. As an example, Isabel wants Zoe to leave the front lines so they can marry, live together, and raise a family. Zoe seems to feel a strong sexual attraction to the curvy Isabel, but shows little concern about the things Isabel wants or finds important. And despite the relationship, Zoe takes full advantage of the “open” relationship agreement with Isabel to indulge her hedonistic appetites, such as a sexual liaison with a professional BDSM mistress. These characteristics make Zoe a character hard to like because she seems such a selfish, self-absorbed person who is primarily concerned with satisfying her own needs and desires.

There is another slow-paced sequence of scenes where Zoe and Isabel attend an important agency meeting. While there, the head of the agency (incidentally her uncle), gives Zoe a new assignment to abduct the young girl she encountered at the beginning of the book long enough to extract a critical code needed to make a captured high-tech weapon fully operational.

Greenman is a capable writer and many of the action-packed scenes a reader expects from a spy thriller are well done and highly entertaining. But the side story and Zoe’s mostly ambivalent attitude toward a functional relationship and raising a family make the pacing feel uneven. In fairness, Zoe makes a transformative character arc journey over the course of the story and comes out a somewhat better person on the other side. But I can’t say I every truly liked the character.

I enjoyed the dramatic spy action sequences in the book very much, but found the romantic side story a distraction. Still, fans of spy thrillers who enjoy a thriller infused with a healthy dose of romance should enjoy this well-written book, though it probably skews more to fans of the LGBTQ+ literature niche, the audience the author and publisher clearly aimed for.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

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27 Days by Patrick H. Moore Review

27 Days by Patrick H. Moore, a fast-paced political thriller where a private investigator faces off against a powerful alt-right domestic terrorist organization. Read my full review.

27 Days Synopsis

Nick Crane Thriller #1

27 Days is a taut and topical political thriller narrated in laconic noir fashion by veteran LA PI Nick Crane. In the spring of 2019, Nick is on the run in the Pacific Northwest, pursued by a cabal of wealthy right-wing power brokers and domestic terrorists (the Principals) led by Marguerite Ferguson and Desmond Cole. Nick has clashed with Marguerite and her crew in the past, and she wants him abducted so that she can personally “close his eyes forever.”

Things get worse. Nick’s close friend and business partner Bobby Moore is kidnapped by Marguerite and the Principals. Nick is then informed that he has twenty-seven days to surrender to Marguerite. If he does not turn himself in, Bobby will be sent to Scorpion prison in Egypt to be tortured and murdered. If Nick surrenders, however, Bobby will be released.

Help appears in the form of a young, idealistic female FBI agent named Carrie North who wants to arrest Marguerite for conspiring to commit domestic terrorist operations against the United States. Nick and Carrie join forces and the race against time to rescue Bobby Moore begins.
And what a race it is! Marguerite and company are the toughest foes Nick has ever faced and he must dig down deeper than ever before to have any chance of surviving.

Down & Out Books (2023)

Patrick H. Moore | Pub Date Feb 6, 2023 | ISBN 9781643962986 | 360 pages

Book Review

Patrick H. Moore’s 27 Days, his Nick Crane series debut, is a political thriller that plies a well-worn trope familiar to cable news consumers. The alt-right, democracy’s existential threat. Well, one of the many, at least. It might surprise you that the trope is well worn since we hear and read about the alt-right almost non-stop in inflated terms daily in the national media. But the venerable Southern Poverty Law Center claim that the term “alt-right,” an abbreviation of alternative right, was coined by Richard B. Spencer in 2008 as part of a “shallow re-branding” of white nationalism is wrong.

I happened to catch an episode of The Rockford Files (1974-1980) recently, an episode (1977) that included a Neo-Nazi, swastika-wearing white supremacy group that a character in the episode referred to as… you guessed it… an alt-right group. So, a writer for the entertaining, and very popular in its day private investigator television series probably deserves the credit for coining the term “alt-right.” Or maybe it existed long before 1977 and the writer, like Spencer and dull politicians, probably only borrowed it. But alt-right is back in the news today, mostly because one party in our, for all intents and purposes, binary political system finds it a useful pejorative cudgel to use on their political opponents.

Returning to Moore’s book after our non-revisionist history lesson, there is nothing wrong with the author choosing a mythical and exaggeratedly large and powerful alt-right group as his antagonist since what we once referred to without laughter as “journalists” do the same thing every day. I’m more of a fan of political fiction that casts Neo-con, rogue government officials running off the books, illegal assassination programs and political cover-ups in the antagonist role. It’s more realistic. But Moore’s choice of antagonists works well enough here.

When the story opens, Nick Crane, a Los Angeles private investigator, is on the run from the sinister alt-right group, MASA, particularly its leader, a psychopathic woman named Marguerite, who had recently almost succeeded in assassinating him. But some bad guys find his hideout and close in, precipitating a shoot out and forcing Crane to go on the run with the aid of an ally he isn’t sure he can trust. But when the group abducts his P.I. agency partner, Bobby Moore, and demands Crane surrender to them or else, he realizes keeping his head down and staying out of harm’s way isn’t a viable option. He must give battle to MASA, rescue Bobby Moore, and try to take down the leaders of the group. So, he assembles some allies to do just that.

27 Days takes off like a bullet train and by the time I reached the halfway point, I didn’t think Moore could sustain the blistering pace. But he proved me wrong. Things in Nick Crane’s world move at breakneck speed and in highly dramatic fashion. As mentioned, Nick Crane is a L. A. private investigator by trade, but you can forget about the Philip Marlowe and Jake J.J. Gittes archetypes. The technology savvy Crane seems an amalgamation of a modern-day Lew Wickersham (Mannix, S1), Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, and James Reece. He has all the skills. I admit I found the character a little fantastical at the beginning, but he grew on me as the story unfolded.

Strengths of this novel lie in the pacing and plotting, and how easily Moore keeps us guessing what Crane’s next move will be and what will happen next. There are twists and turns and surprises enough to keep the reader engaged throughout. I also enjoyed the neo-noir, first person style of the narrative, complete with short punchy sentences.

It’s no secret that I’m more a fan of crime thrillers than political thrillers. As a cynical apolitical person who sees clearly our two political parties as only the opposite sides of the same binary self-serving, corrupt wooden nickel and someone who has traveled the world enough to understand all governments on the planet are run by corrupt and self-serving politicians, political-based fiction doesn’t enthrall me. But I enjoyed this book, mostly because of the non-stop action and there was some crime involved. And good is good. I’ll certainly be interested in reading the next installment in the series. And I think many thriller enthusiasts would enjoy reading this book, though it probably skews more to the fans of political thrillers.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Her Father’s Daughter by T. M. Dunn Review

Her Father’s Daughter by T. M. Dunn, an emotionally-engaging and creatively crafted domestic thriller, sometimes shocking and thoroughly riveting. Read my full review.

Her Father’s Daughter Synopsis

Twenty-five-year-old Linda Donovan has spent her life working for her father, Anthony, at Donovan and Daughter Exterminators in New York City. On the anniversary of her mother’s death, her father makes his annual visit to his late wife’s grave while Linda heads to a Park Avenue apartment building to work solo.

When she arrives, she finds the body of an elderly resident, partially eaten by rats. The gruesome death not only speaks poorly of the Donovans’ exterminating services–it also points to foul play. When the cops show up, they demand to speak to Linda’s father. But despite her efforts to contact him, Anthony has gone off the radar.

As he evades a possible murder charge, Linda’s father records in five notebooks–and five damning acts–the story of how he met and fell in love with her mother, a previously untold history of familial abuse, tormented souls, and true love gone terribly wrong.

Crooked Lane Books (2023)

Genre(s) Thriller & Suspense

T. M. Dunn | Pub Date Jul 18, 2023| ISBN 9781639103270 | 272 Pages

Book Review

I requested Her Father’s Daughter for review because the book summary appealed to me and expected it was a crime thriller. It’s not. It’s more a domestic thriller, but that was fine. Dunn, a capable storyteller, cleverly plots the book in almost a circular way. We start near the end before moving back in time. The book unfolds from two first person viewpoints, that of Linda Donovan, the protagonist, and that of her father, Anthony, and the viewpoints switch back and forth. The opening prologue tells us a little of Anthony’s history before we meet Linda in the first chapter.

Twenty-five-year-old Linda Donovan has spent her life working with her father, Anthony, in their pest control business in New York City. But Linda, recently offered a scholarship, is planning to leave home for college soon. While she’s eager to go, she can’t help but worry about how her father will keep the business going without her. Linda’s mother had committed suicide shortly after her birth, and Anthony is the only parent she has ever known. Anthony, who seems from the outset to have a preoccupation with death, has always taken Linda with him to visit her mother’s grave site each year on the anniversary of her mother’s death. But when their main and most profitable client calls with a pest control emergency, instead of accompanying her father on the annual cemetery visit, Linda heads to an upscale Park Avenue apartment building to handle the emergency solo. There she discovers the body of an elderly resident, partially eaten by a rat. And when the police arrive, they suspect foul play. In the course of the police investigation, Anthony becomes a murder suspect and goes on the lam. And because of the investigation, some disturbing secrets about Linda’s father come to light. Linda soon learns the “family business” her father inherited from his father and grandfather and hopes to pass on to her has nothing to do with their exterminator business. The reader learns about Anthony’s past long before his daughter does. So, the primary tension develops from how Linda will react when she learns the truth about her father and his history and what will happen when she does.

I’m not sure how much I enjoyed, as such, reading this book. But I concede it’s good, nonetheless. And yes, I believe it’s possible to recognize and acknowledge that a book is good without liking it. It is exceedingly clever plotting and confronting in terms of social commentary. And there was much I loved about it. As an example, the lead character Linda drew me in, though she’s not altogether likeable. But she is easy to get to know and feel empathy for. Also, there were plenty of humorous moments in the book, which I appreciated. And despite how much or little I enjoyed reading the book, it is riveting in the sense the story kept me engaged and wanting to know more. Finally, the way Dunn wraps up the story makes sense.

I think this is a book you want to talk about after finishing it, so I expect it would be a great novel for a book club as it lends itself to discussion. But Her Father’s Daughter isn’t your usual crime or psychological thriller. As long as you don’t approach it with that expectation, as I admittedly did, you may find this a very entertaining read. While it isn’t horror, those who enjoy Stephen King’s brand of suspense would probably enjoy this novel.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★

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Satan’s Choir by Tom Harley Campbell Review

Satan’s Choir by Tom Harley Campbell, a compellingly crafted and compulsive mystery read about an all too familiar, heart-rending topic. Read my full review.

Satan’s Choir Synopsis

John Burke Mystery #1

When the battered remains of a priest are discovered at the bottom of a lake, Dayton homicide detective John Burke is mystified. Who would murder a priest? Why were the initial inquiries abandoned so long ago when the man went missing? Burke’s search for a suspect leads him down a dark rabbit hole of intrigue and into his own mysterious past, as he investigates the case.

Cayuga Street Press (2021)

Genre(s) Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Tom Harley Campbell | Pub Date May 27, 2021 | ISBN 9781681114101 | 264 Pages

Book Review

When a teenager sneaks off with and accidentally allows his father’s treasured, collectible 1957 Chevy Bel Air coupe to roll into a local lake, what at first seems comical turns deadly serious. When the salvage company hired to recover the car sends divers eighty-feet down into the lake to attach straps to the car, the divers discover a second car submerged in the lake resting beside the Chevy. Only the second car, a 1963 Chevy Impala, contains human remains in the front seat. The Metropark police supervising the salvage operation calls in Captain John Burke, head of the Dayton Police Department Homicide/Assault squad to investigate. With the help of the crime scene unit, Burke eventually determines the remains inside the Impala belong to Raymond T. Nelson, a Catholic priest who disappeared without a trace in 1963, during the same week the JFK assassination occurred. After the county coroner determines Nelson likely died from a blow to the head inconsistent with the circumstances of the car entering the lake, Burke finds himself with a fifty-year-old murder to investigate. As he digs into Father Nelson’s background and the circumstances of his disappearance, Burke makes a startling and horrifying discovery that he believes explains why Nelson, with a fractured skull and his car, ended up at the bottom of the lake.

I read the second book in Campbell’s John Burke Mystery series, Blue Book, before reading this one. And I thoroughly enjoyed Campbell’s superb storytelling in that one. Also, reading the series books out of order posed no problem since both books work well as standalone novels. Still, I appreciated learning more of Burke’s backstory, which includes here his last months as a supervisor and detective for the Dayton Police Department before retiring. This book is just as attention-grabbing as Blue Book and offers the reader another compelling mystery tale. It was also enjoyable to revisit many of the characters I met in the first book by Campbell I read and reviewed.

In Satan’s Choir, Campbell takes an unflinching look at a topic that is sadly all too real that explains why someone might murder a Catholic priest. It’s a solid mystery tale, jam-packed with thought-provoking moral ambiguity, that will appeal to fans of both the detective mysteries and police procedural genres. Campbell has an endearing writing style that keeps the reader turning the pages. I’m already eagerly looking forward to the next John Burke adventure.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Her Deadly Game by Robert Dugoni Review

Her Deadly Game by Robert Dugoni, a propulsive, mind-bending legal thriller that is razor sharp.

Her Deadly Game Synopsis

A defense attorney is prepared to play. But is she a pawn in a master’s deadly match? A twisting novel of suspense by New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni.

Keera Duggan was building a solid reputation as a Seattle prosecutor, until her romantic relationship with a senior colleague ended badly. For the competitive former chess prodigy, returning to her family’s failing criminal defense law firm to work for her father is the best shot she has. With the right moves, she hopes to restore the family’s reputation, her relationship with her father, and her career.

Keera’s chance to play in the big leagues comes when she’s retained by Vince LaRussa, an investment adviser accused of murdering his wealthy wife. There’s little hard evidence against him, but considering the couple’s impending and potentially nasty divorce, LaRussa faces life in prison. The prosecutor is equally challenging: Miller Ambrose, Keera’s former lover, who’s eager to destroy her in court on her first homicide defense.

As Keera and her team follow the evidence, they uncover a complicated and deadly game that’s more than Keera bargained for. When shocking information turns the case upside down, Keera must decide between her duty to her client, her family’s legacy, and her own future.

Thomas & Mercer (2003)

Robert Dugoni | Pub Date 28 Mar 2023 | ISBN 9781662500190 | 396 pages

Book Review

As a rule, I don’t read legal thrillers as much as I once did and had never read Robert Dugoni until I picked up Her Deadly Game. I saw the book was available for review, was intrigued by the book summary, and requested it. And I’m so pleased I did. I think the epigraph Dugoni uses at the beginning and mentions again in the narrative fits the novel perfectly.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ─ Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Keera Duggan, the main character, is a young Seattle trial lawyer, a former prosecutor now working as a defense attorney in her father Patrick “Patsy” Duggan’s law firm. Keera is struggling to get out of her father’s shadow and to make a name for herself as a lawyer. Patsy, nicknamed the Irish Brawler, earned the moniker because he had “knocked out” so many prosecutors in the courtroom using not only his razor-sharp legal mind, but every other inventive tactic he could think of. Finally, when someone murders the disabled wife of a prominent and rich Seattle wealth manager, Vincent LaRussa, and the authorities zero in on him as the prime suspect, Keera gets her chance. LaRussa hires her to defend him when the Seattle police arrest him for murdering his wife. Keera Duggan, also a keen legal mind, proves she is her father’s daughter, quite a legal brawler in her own right. She provides LaRussa the vigorous defense he’s paying her for. Keera undergoes several transitions during the buildup to the trial and then the trial itself. First, she isn’t sure whether her client is innocent, as he claims, and doesn’t care. Then, she feels certain LaRussa is innocent of his wife’s murder. But as the trial unfolds, Keera has reason to feel there is something sinister about Vincent LaRussa that may or may not involve his wife’s murder.

There was so much I liked about this book, but it was Dugoni’s direct, concise writing style that truly made the story sing for me. Dugoni didn’t offer any fluff. It seems each word and each sentence play an integral part in his narrative. Another thing I enjoyed was that Dugoni offers an important clue early in the book. But reminiscent of a stage magician, he cleverly pulls the reader’s attention away from the revelation by presenting the reader with many other bright, shiny objects that cause the important clue to be all but forgotten. Then Dugoni springs the trap much deeper in the story, creating a most unexpected twist.

Robert Dugoni’s writing style proves the truth that less is often more in descriptive writing. He wasted no time with extensive descriptions, yet provided enough detail to allow my mind to fill in any blanks. That allowed me to visualize each particular character and setting with ease. I found this especially effective with his characterization and had visual images in my head of each of the principal characters.

Something I enjoyed when I used to read more legal thrillers was that the better written ones, though fiction, offered much insight into the law, lawyers, and the courts and made me think. That is another strength of this book. It’s an unflinching look at the American criminal justice system, particularly the adversarial legal system used in our common law country where two advocates, a prosecutor and defense attorney, represent their parties’ case or position before an impartial judge or jury. For all its positives, it’s also easy to see the flaws of the system in that Americans often get the amount of “justice” they can pay for. In the case presented here, we have a wealthy defendant claiming innocence paying six-hundred-dollars per billable hour for a highly competent and resourceful defense attorney. That immediately made me think about how much justice an average person, perhaps relying on an overworked, underpaid public defender, might get in a similar situation.

Fans of legal thrillers and crime thrillers will enjoy this tense, pacy page-turner. It begins with a bang and doesn’t let up until the gripping and dramatic conclusion.

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Gallows Dome by Nolan Knight Review

Gallows Dome by Nolan Knight, a gritty and gloomy, yet poignant noir-ish romp through the seedy underbelly of Southern Cal, with more than enough booze, drugs, distressed damsels, lot lizards, religious cult figures, and murder to make it definitely worth the ride. Read my full review.

Gallows Dome Synopsis

Lena Madadhi is desperate, a middle-aged arts teacher in Los Angeles whose teen daughter has been abducted. When seeking help from a private investigator, Joe Delancey, she finds he is out on a case at a Central Valley truck stop, deep undercover among truckers, prostitutes and nomads—entrenched in a doomsday sect called Gallows Dome. The further Lena digs to find Joe, the deeper she submerges into The Dome’s hellscape, spiraling closer toward her daughter’s whereabouts than she could ever imagine. An unflinching look at the dark side of family and faith, Nolan Knight’s Gallows Dome tackles a current American landscape whose thoughts and prayers help flap its flags at half-mast—teetering on the brink of total collapse.

Down & Out Books (2003)

Nolan Knight | Pub Date Jun 12, 2023 | ISBN 9781643963174 | 289 pages

Book Review

Gallows Dome by Nolan Knight features the characters Lena Madadhi, Perry Quell, Joe Delancey, Repo Helm, X-man, and other random people with shady pasts. Knight brings them all to life on the page with a unique voice and mashes them into an uproarious, hyper-violent, sleazy narrative about drugs, booze, abducted young women, truck stop prostitutes, and a drug dealer turned leader of a scammy apocalyptic religious cult. 

Lena Madadhi is desperate, middle-aged Los Angeles arts teacher. When Tess, her teenage daughter, goes missing and Lena realizes the cops are doing nothing to find her, she resolves to search for her daughter on her own. She will stop at nothing to get Tess back. Lena first contacts Perry Quell, a down and out, part-time bartender who also had a daughter, Rochelle, go missing. After catching a program on television about Perry’s search for Rochelle, Lena seeks him out because she wants to hire Joe Delancey, the same L. A. private investigator Perry hired to search for Rochelle until his hopes and money ran out. While Delancey never found Rochelle, Lena learned from the television show that he had never given up looking for Rochelle, even when Perry couldn’t afford to continue paying him. Perry confirms this when they meet. And that gives Lena hope Delancey is the right man for the job. 

Unfortunately, Delancey is a hard man to find. After Lena and Perry visit his daughter Becca, they get a rough idea of Joe’s whereabouts and undertake an odyssey in an old RV reminiscent of the iconic vehicle from Breaking Bad, to search for him. While Tess is the holy grail of Lena’s quest, she and Perry must first find Joe Delancey, whom they believe is somewhere near Fresno, still searching for Rochelle Quell. 

Unbeknownst to Lena and Perry, Delancey is working a lead on Rochelle undercover. Posing as a pill pusher named Miggy Rojas, he has embedded himself with a drug dealer named Repo Helm and Helm’s psychopathic sidekick, X-Man. And as the pair inches painfully closer to finding Delancey, it seems they are unknowingly inching closer to Tess’s whereabouts. But just when they find Joe Delancey, things go south in a hurry after X-man tumbles to Delancey’s true identity. Not to mention, Repo Helm has gruesome plans is store for Tess Madadhi in connection with the scam apocalyptic religious cult he has founded. It becomes a question of whether Lena, Perry, and Delancey can find Tess before it’s too late. 

There are many superb elements here, but Knight’s voice is what makes Gallows Dome wildly entertaining and memorable. He offers fast, snappy prose with a level of punchy, slangy dialogue that dances between the brilliant and the ridiculous. Knight’s voice in this novel has a bleak and darkly cynical quality of the kind suited perfectly to hard-boiled crime fiction and noir thrillers, and is reminiscent of the style of James Ellroy and more recently, Jordan Harper (Everybody Knows, 2003). I feel Knight brings us here uncomfortably close to the frazzled and fractured epicenter of contemporary America―a country teetering on the brink of total collapse. Gallows Dome is a convergence of the defiled and demented, the lurid and the hard-lucks, seasoned with a generous portion of random violence. The gripping and entertaining tale Knight splashes on the page here is definitely worth the ride. It contextualizes contemporary America in full Cinemascope and nails the organized social whole of the times that is far more than merely the sum of its parts, especially in L.A. and Southern California. 

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher for review purposes.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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This title not yet available for preorders. Due out June 12, 2023.