Book review: To the Sea by Nikki Crutchley

To the Sea is another entertaining thriller and worthy page-turner from 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award shortlisted New Zealand author Nikki Crutchley.

I loved Nikki Crutchley’s first three books, Nothing Bad Happens Here, No One Can Hear You, and The Murder Club. I’ve had a copy of this one, To the Sea, for months and months after going to a good bit of trouble to buy a copy after the publisher released it in Australia and New Zealand. But since I’ve had a constant flow of read for review books this year and feel an obligation to give those the priority, I’ve only just got to Crutchley’s latest release. It’s such a brilliantly written book, it feels a bit confronting and challenging to review it since I wonder if I can even do justice to it. It’s a thriller, but one with almost a literary feel. I read this easily in a sitting and it’s certainly the kind of story that induces you to do so. Crutchley builds steadily to the action-packed climax, but she paces it so perfectly it never drags. This book and the events within feel so real that it’s as if we readers are glimpsing real life struggles, hidden secrets, pain, and anger.

To the Sea

by Nikki Crutchley

Published by: Harper Collins

on December 01, 2021

Source: Purchased

ISBN 978-1-4607-6043-7 (Paperback)

Genre(s) Thrillers and Suspense

312 pages

A compulsively readable suspense thriller from Ngaio Marsh Award shortlisted author, Nikki Crutchley, which will keep you guessing and reading up until late into the night.

Iluka has been the only home that 18-year-old Ana has ever known. The beautiful wild pine plantation overlooking the Pacific Ocean where her grandfather builds furniture, her aunt runs an artists’ retreat and her uncle tends the land, is paradise, a private idyll safe from the outside world.

But the place holds a violent secret and when a stranger arrives, Ana will need to make a choice: to protect everything – and everyone – she holds dear or tell the truth and destroy it all.

An atmospheric, suspenseful, dark and twisty thriller in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier, Paula Hawkins, Anna Downes and JP Pomare.

The book opens with a flashback to twenty-three years before the present day. A man named Hurley survives a near fatal boating accident at sea that claimed the life of his best friend. Hurley emerges from the experience believing the sea took his friend but spared him to give him a second chance at life, and he undergoes a marked personality change. Much to his wife’s chagrin, he sells his business and the family home and moves his wife, daughter, and son to a secluded seafront, pine covered property he names Iluka. Hurley also changes the names of his wife and children, giving them names associated with the sea. The family subsists on sales of the furniture Hurley builds from the pine trees on the property, the operation of an artist’s retreat bed-and-breakfast, and by tending the land. While Hurley and his thirteen-year-old daughter believe Iluka and the near hermit-like existence of the family idyllic, his wife never adjusts to it and eventually makes plans to leave with their young son. But thanks to Hurley, Iluka is a bit like the Hotel California. You can check in anytime you like, but can never leave. Not alive. When he discovers his wife had packed to leave, he murders her, but arranges it to look like a suicide and the local authorities accept that was what happened. The story continues to switch back and forth between the past and present, teasing out the family secrets that help us soon understand that there is nothing idyllic about Iluka at all. The sinister place inhabited by a troubled family with shocking secrets would be right at home in a Stephen King horror novel. More murders happen and as the macabre family secrets get revealed to the reader, the suspense builds and builds until the end. Ana, Hurley’s eighteen-year-old granddaughter is the main character. I enjoyed the complexity of her relationship with her grandfather and mother. Crutchley does a fabulous job of giving readers insight into the life of someone who loses her innocence once she discovers the family secrets about gruesome events that occurred before her birth, and how she struggles to make sense of it all against the backdrop of the home her family raised her to love and protect at any cost. This is another great read from Crutchley. Her writing seems effortless, or at least reading it makes it seem so. There are some deeper themes on offer, including the right versus wrong and good versus evil. Crutchley throws in a few surprises on cue for good measure, teases out the secrets along the way, and gives readers a splendid climax.

To the Sea is another entertaining thriller and worthy page-turner from 2021 Ngaio Marsh Award shortlisted New Zealand author Nikki Crutchley.

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Book review: Faceless by Vanda Symon

Faceless by Vanda Symon, a fast-paced edge-of-the-seat thriller where an unlikely hero must face one near impossible situation after another to save a young woman. Best started early in the day because you won’t want to put it down.

Faceless is a stand-alone thriller by New Zealand author Vanda Symon, best known for her excellent Sam Shephard series is quite a departure from her usual crime fiction writing. But in all honesty, as much as I adore the Sam Shephard character and the series, this is my favorite Vanda Symon book because it truly shows her versatile and strong story-telling abilities and illustrates her impressive attention to detail. Here, Symon’s writing is stunning, though this one is not for the squeamish, and her character development and story arc are perfectly paced. With short impactful chapters that shift back and forth between the points of view of all the major characters, she creates in the reader a powerful sense of dread and urgency that feels almost unbearable at times, in this story about the search for a missing eighteen-year-old street girl.

Faceless

by Vanda Symon

Published by: Orenda Books

on August 01, 2022

Source: Purchased

ISBN 9781914585043 (Paperback)

Genre(s) Thrillers & Suspense

276 pages

Worn down by a job he hates, and a stressful family life, middle-aged, middle-class Bradley picks up a teenage escort and commits an unspeakable crime. Now she’s tied up in his warehouse, and he doesn’t know what to do.

Max is homeless, eating from rubbish bins, sleeping rough and barely existing – known for cadging a cigarette from anyone passing, and occasionally even the footpath. Nobody really sees Max, but he has one friend, and she’s gone missing.

In order to find her, Max is going to have to call on some people from his past, and reopen wounds that have remained unhealed for a very long time, and the clock is ticking…

Hard-hitting, fast-paced and immensely thought-provoking, Faceless – the startling new standalone thriller from New Zealand’s ‘Queen of Crime’ – will leave you breathless.

The book opens with Billy, an eighteen-year-old girl living rough on the streets of Auckland, putting the finishing touches on her latest street art masterpiece. But she’s run out of spray paint before finishing. As has become her habit, she resigns herself to turning some tricks to get money for more paint and the other things she needs to survive. We’ll learn later the circumstances that put Billy on the streets alone, which makes her story all the more heartrending. After arriving at her usual corner, a middle-aged man named Bradley, we meet in the second chapter, picks her up. Billy doesn’t know it when she gets into the car with him, but she has just made the worst mistake of her life. For Bradley, life’s demands have become so physically and emotionally overwhelming that he is barely capable of functioning in day-to-day life. Desperate to relieve the stress he is feeling, he decided to pick up a prostitute. Billy directs him to an alley behind a closed business where she plies her trade. But once he’s picked up Billy, he doesn’t quite know how to proceed. Eventually, they agree on oral sex and Billy, in businesslike fashion, attempts to get things over with as fast as possible. But because of the stress and his nervousness, Bradley can’t quite rise to the occasion. When he sees Billy smirk at his performance anxiety, it’s one insult too many atop all those already heaped upon his fragile emotional state by his boss at work and his wife at home. He strikes out, punching Billy in the face and knocking her unconscious. Later she awakens bound to metal pipe with plastic ties inside a darkened, abandoned warehouse. And there her nightmare begins in earnest. Bradley, panicked by the assault, had abducted her and taken her captive while he tried to sort the mess that he had created for himself. Billy fears Bradley intends to kill her. Estranged from her parents and with no one else in her life that cares about her, she pins her thin hopes of rescue on another street dweller, a derelict named Max. Billy and Max have befriended each other and watch each other’s backs. He is the only person who will notice she is missing and thus the only one who might look for her. And when we meet Max, we realize just how thin Billy’s hopes are. We get a sense as we learn more about Max that something horrific occurred in his life that drove him from perhaps some respectable life to living rough on the street and living on whatever he scrounges from refuse bins. And he does indeed immediately suspect something is amiss when Billy doesn’t return to the alley one night that they both call home. And despite who he is, what he is, and how little he brings to the task, Max begins a crusade to find his friend Billy. Unfortunately, the remorse that Bradley felt when he first assaulted and confined Billy in an abandoned out of the way building he owns quickly fades. Seeing the fear in Billy’s eyes he provokes gives him a strange sense of power and control he hasn’t felt in ages. He goes on to discover that abusing the helpless young woman magnifies those feelings even more and relieves his pent-up stress. He intends to hold Billy indefinitely in his makeshift prison. But when Max’s efforts finally bear fruit and Bradley receives a visit at home from the police, he realizes he must get rid of Billy permanently before the cops find him out. As Max continues his fanatical search for Billy and Bradley grows more desperate to rid himself of the young woman who could send him to prison, the tension rises to unbearable proportions. Will our unlikely hero find Billy before it’s too late, or are we watching the proverbial slow motion car crash happening, where our greatest fears get realized? This is not a book for the squeamish, but it’s crack for thriller junkies. If you’ve never read Vanda Symon, Faceless isn’t a bad place to start. It’s a fast-paced edge-of-the-seat thriller where an unlikely hero must face one near impossible situation after another to save a young woman. Best started early in the day because you won’t want to put it down.

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Book review: There Are No Happy Loves by Sergio Olguin

There Are No Happy Loves by Sergio Olguín is a slow burn psychological thriller that repays the reader’s patience with an electrifying conclusion.

There Are No Happy Loves is the first book I’ve read by Argentinean author and journalist Sergio Olguín. It’s the latest example of the brilliant international thrillers I’ve received, courtesy of innovative publisher Bitter Lemon Press. It’s a slow burn, but using powerfully rendered characters and expressive prose, Olguín has crafted a richly textured, deeply suspenseful psychological thriller with a daring feminist lead that kept me turning the pages to the end.

There Are No Happy Loves

by Sergio Olguín

Series: Verónica Rosenthal #3

Translated by Miranda France

Published by Bitter Lemon Press

Source: Bitter Lemon Press

ISBN 978-1-913394-714

Genre(s) Psychological Thriller, International Crime

382 pages

The third in Olguin’s Buenos Aires thriller series starring the gutsy, raunchy investigative reporter Veronica Rosenthal.

Haunted by nightmares of her past, Veronica is soon involved in a new investigation. Dario, the sole survivor of a car accident that supposedly killed all his family, is convinced that his wife and child have in fact survived and that his wife has abducted their child. Then a truck searched in the port of Buenos Aires on suspicion that it is carrying drugs, is revealed to be transporting human body parts. These seemingly separate incidents prove to be tied in a shadowy web of complicity involving political and religious authorities. This is a dazzling thriller but also a story about the possibilities of love, in which jealousy, eroticism, humour and even elusive moments of happiness make an appearance.

Olguín introduces Darío Valrossa, an author of children’s books and sole survivor of a horrific car accident that supposedly killed and incinerated his entire family. But Darío is certain that his wife Cecilia and daughter Jazmín survived the crash. Because of their failing marriage, he believes Cecilia left the scene with Jazmín and went into hiding, keeping his daughter from him. When the police, bureaucrats, and lawyers refuse to listen to his story, Darío turns to Buenos Aires journalist Verónica Rosenthal for help, who he knows through a deceased cousin. Rosenthal is skeptical, but feels obligated to look into the matter because she feels she owes it to Darío’s deceased cousin Lucio, who she once had a relationship with. When Darío tells her he and his wife adopted Jazmín through an unusual arrangement, Verónica uses that as a starting point for her search to determine whether Cecilia and Jazmín are alive. Soon, she realizes the adoption process was not only unusual but probably illegal, which evolves into a larger mystery and, for Verónica, a bigger story. Unknown to Rosenthal, an investigation by her ex-boyfriend and a prosecuting attorney, Federico Córdova, into a truck that turned up full of human body parts links to the same shadowy web of powerful, corrupt political and religious authorities behind the illegal adoption ring that facilitated the adoption of Jazmín. Both Verónica and Federico must avoid running afoul of the formidable, shady police, judiciary, religious officials and some cold-blooded killers as they search for the truth independently until to their astonishment, they discover they are seeking the same answers that will expose the same crooked people. There Are No Happy Loves by Sergio Olguín is a slow burn psychological thriller that repays the reader’s patience with an electrifying conclusion.

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Book review: A Strange Habit of Mind by Andrew Klavan

A Strange Habit of Mind by Andrew Klavan has loads of grief for the characters, and a bounty of suspense and thrills for the reader.

I’ve been aware of Andrew Klavan for quite a while, but not in the context of Andrew Klavan the author. I only recently discovered that he is a writer of crime and suspense novels nominated for the Edgar Award five times and winning twice. I regard Klavan as a brilliant thinker and every time I listen to him speak, I literally come away feeling smarter from having had the experience. When offered the opportunity to read and review A Strange Habit of Mind, I jumped on it and candidly approached the book with high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.

A superb novel filled with fascinating, multi-dimensional characters and a spellbinding original storytelling.

A Strange Habit of Mind

by Andrew Klavan

Series: Cameron Winter #2

Published by Mysterious Press

Source: Mysterious Press via NetGalley

ISBN 978-1-61316-351-1

Genre(s) Thrillers & Suspense

288 pages

English professor and ex-spy Cameron Winter confronts a Big Tech billionaire to solve the suspicious suicide of a former student

The world of Big Tech is full of eccentric characters, but shamanic billionaire Gerald Byrne may be the strangest of the bunch. The founder of Byrner, a global social media platform, Byrne is known for speaking with vague profundity and for dabbling in esoteric spiritual practices; he wears his hair in a long black ponytail to reveal a large flower tattooed on his neck; he’s universally admired as a visionary, a philanthropist, and a devoted husband and father. And every person who gets in the way of his good work seems to die.

When a former student commits suicide, English professor and ex-spy Cameron Winter takes it upon himself to understand why. The young man was expelled from the university in an unfortunate episode that left Winter sympathetic to his plight; after a prolonged silence, he reached out to his teacher with two words just before taking the fatal plunge from the roof of his San Francisco apartment: “Help me.”

Winter has what he calls “a strange habit of mind”—the ability to imagine himself into a crime scene, to reconstruct it mentally and play through various possible causes and outcomes to understand exactly what took place. When he applies this exercise to Adam Kemp’s desperate final moments, he discovers a troubling inconsistency. And when he learns that Kemp was in a tumultuous relationship with Gerald Byrne’s niece, he begins to suspect that the suicide was the result of a carefully-engineered plot, put in motion by the powerful businessman. 

Featuring the tough-but-learned protagonist from 2021’s When Christmas Comes, A Strange Habit of Mind is a thrilling mystery set in the cutthroat world of tech money and tech influence, where unchecked fortunes produce unstoppable power for a lawless few.

Two time Edgar Award winner Andrew Klavan’s intense sequel to When Christmas Comes (2021) finds Cameron Winter, once a spy with a secret government agency called the Division, now a literature professor at a Midwestern university. Winter receives a two word text from a former student, Adam Kemp: “Help me.” He tries to call Kemp multiple times, but gets no answer. Later he learns his former student who Winter defended against a date rape charge committed suicide by stepping off the roof of his San Francisco apartment building only minutes after texting the plea for help. Troubled by why Kemp hadn’t waited for a reply before choosing suicide, Winter flies to San Francisco to find out more. After speaking with the police detective who investigated Kemp’s death, Winter accepts the official verdict that it was suicide, but some other details the detective provides prompts Winter to dig deeper. Subsequently, he suspects the brother-in-law of Kemp’s girlfriend, an eccentric billionaire tech oligarch, engineered Kemp’s death. Winter has “a strange habit of mind.” He sometimes slips into a meditative state without warning that allows him to see clearly motives and actions that had had puzzled him previously. He has used this quirk more than once to solve problems, avert catastrophes, and even solve crimes. Thinking about the circumstances of Kemp’s death rouses the mental oddity and Winter soon knows for certain that the billionaire, Gerry Byrne, had set in motion the circumstances that provoked Kemp’s suicide. The deeper Winter digs into Byrne, the more examples he finds of individuals the billionaire has destroyed and even murdered who had opposed Byrne’s efforts to mold the world in his personal image. Since Winter’s history as a spy for a secret government intelligence agency molded him into someone who believes evil must be stopped and injustices addressed, it sets up an inevitable showdown. Winter’s special “gift” and his modus operandi sets him apart from the Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan types of thriller and suspense yore, making him so distinctive and multi-dimensional that he is instantly an unforgettable character. Klavan makes this guilt-ridden former intelligence operative turned academic imminently plausible. My verdict, get it if you’re passionate about reading riveting and suspenseful thrillers you can’t put down. I read this one in one sitting.

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Book Review: Blue Like Me by Aaron Philip Clark

An extra dark slice of Los Angeles describes Blue Like Me by Aaron Philip Clark. It’s a gripping and intense crime thriller, and a completely unnuanced hard-boiled parable on policing and corrupt cops.

Blue Like Me by Aaron Philip Clark is the second in the series featuring private investigator Trevor Finnegan, but the first I’ve read. When the publicist for Thomas & Mercer offered me an advanced copy for review, I accepted because I never turn down cop or private investigator novels set in Los Angeles. And after reading this one, I definitely plan to read the first book in the series.

BLUE LIKE ME

by Aaron Philip Clark

Series: Trevor Finnegan #2

Published by Thomas & Mercer

on November 08, 2022

Genre(s) Crime Thriller, Hard-Boiled Crime

ISBN 9781542039697

255 pages

A brutal homicide sets an ex-cop and his former partner on the hunt for an enigmatic killer in a gripping thriller by the author of Under Color of Law.

When former detective Trevor “Finn” Finnegan became a PI, he adopted a new mandate: catch the LAPD’s worst in the act. While on surveillance in Venice Beach, Finn tails two potentially dirty cops: Detective Martin Riley and Finn’s ex-partner, Detective Sally Munoz. Things take a deadly turn when an unknown assailant executes Riley and wounds Munoz. In an instant, Finn goes from private eye to eyewitness.

Munoz needs Finn to help find Riley’s killer, but doing so could blow his cover. She’s an officer shaded by rumors. Maybe she’s still a good cop―but maybe she’s not. Finn’s reluctance ends when his dear “uncle,” an ex-LAPD detective, is murdered, and it might be connected to Riley’s death.

To prevent more bloodshed and avoid becoming the next targets on the killer’s list, Finn and Munoz will have to bury their complicated past, trust each other, and come face-to-face with painful secrets that could destroy them both.

Clark’s extra dark, Training Day (2001) dark, slice of Los Angeles where the cops may be dirty, but the streets are choked with dangerous criminals leaps back a generation to connect the backstory of private investigator Trevor Finnegan to the framing of an innocent man for the murder of a police officer.

The year is 2016, based on the subtle historical references, and the setting is Los Angeles. Disgraced (possibly wrongly) ex-LAPD detective Trevor Finnegan, now a private investigator for a Los Angeles attorney, draws an assignment to surveil two LAPD narcotics detectives. But the attorney won’t tell him why. One detective was Finnegan’s former partner when he was in LAPD, Sally Munoz. The assignment ends with Finnegan witnessing someone shooting the detectives at Venice Beach, wounding Munoz and killing her partner. Finnegan pursues the shooter on foot, but the suspect gets away on a motorcycle after shooting at him. Not wanting his ex-partner to learn he was surveilling her and her partner, Finnegan leaves the scene before the cops arrive to avoid getting questioned. But later, Munoz shows up at his door demanding to know whether Finnegan saw the shooter, playing their former partnership card. “You were once blue like me.” Finnegan tells her part of the story, careful to hide the real reason he was present at Venice Beach when the shooting happened. Munoz tells him she knows who was behind the killing of her partner and asks him to go with her to Malibu to confront the person. Finnegan is reluctant, especially after realizing his ex-partner is on the ragged edge of losing control. But Munoz persuades him. Once they arrive and Munoz confronts the woman, a drug dealer, about the shooting, Finnegan realizes his former partner is keeping something from him. That, along with her erratic behavior, makes him feel even more uneasy about trying to help her. But old loyalties die hard. He can’t bring himself to turn his back on her. While Finnegan struggles with the dilemma, another murder happens. This time someone murders an old family friend who is almost a second father to Finnegan, an FBI agent who was an LAPD cop at the same time as Trevor’s father. Suspecting the person who murdered his friend is the same person who killed Munoz’s partner, Trevor becomes more motivated to help her find the killer. But when the killer calls Finnegan and warns him off, threatening to kill him if he continues with the investigation, it becomes a question of whether he will survive long enough to find the killer. Running in the background of the main plot is an intriguing subplot involving the circumstances that forced Finnegan out of the LAPD under a cloud, and the person responsible for it. When I reached that point in the novel, I regretted a little not reading Under Color of Law (2021), the first book in the series before reading this one to learn more about Finnegan’s backstory. Still, Clark gives enough details about the past in this second book that I never felt lost.

I found much to like about this book. First, it’s hard-boiled all the way in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler. It ticks all the boxes with deeply flawed characters, a detective who is emotionally involved in the investigation, the harsh realities of life in a big city setting that isn’t only a backdrop, but where these realities bleed into the case and becoming a major part of the story, and a corrupt world that allowed the crimes to happen in the first place. Clark uses his crime investigation plot as a vehicle for examining issues of racism, classism, and violence in the city, the bigger issues of corruption that can’t be solved with the end of the story.

Clark has a very direct and explicit style of writing, which I found smooth as glass and enjoyed. The plot was both imaginative and ambitious. Trevor Finnegan is an interesting and appealing main character, easy to feel empathy for. But besides Finnegan, Clark offers us a host of other true-to-life, well-drawn, interesting characters, both good and bad.

An extra dark slice of Los Angeles describes Blue Like Me by Aaron Philip Clark. It’s a gripping and intense crime thriller, and a completely unnuanced hard-boiled parable on policing and corrupt cops.

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

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Book Review: Poe’s Rules by Robert W. Stephens

Poe’s Rules by Robert W. Stephens is a first-rate detective mystery imbued with dry wit and charming characters who draw you in and leave you wanting more.

Poe’s Rules by Robert W. Stephens is the fifteenth in the A Murder on Maui Mystery series featuring Maui private investigator Edgar Allan “Poe” Rutherford. As the series is a no-brainer must-read for me, I’ve never missed a book. Stephens is on my short list of favorite crime fiction authors that I wait impatiently to publish their next book. The plots are always interesting and I rarely can figure out whodunit until the end. I also love Stephens’ conversational writing style. Reading the series is like sitting across the table from Poe, and having a cold one while he regales you with his latest adventure. As much as I enjoyed reading the past fourteen books, this one is definitely one of my favorites.

Poe’s Rules (A Murder on Maui Mystery #15)

by Robert W. Stephens

Published by Eleven 22 Entertainment

on February 20, 2022

ISBN 979-8-41-227218-4

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective

296 pages

From the publisher

He works hard to separate the guilty from the innocent. When he can’t read his client’s poker face, will this PI put the right person behind bars?

Edgar Allan “Poe” Rutherford is nervously facing his newest challenge: fatherhood. With his expectant wife insisting he take on work and quit pacing the room, the expert private investigator is relieved to pick up a call from an attorney in need of his expertise. But with the lawyer’s client up for murder after his missing-for-years spouse shows up dead in a freezer, Poe dives into a cold case now running hot.

Discovering a long line of suspects eager to testify to the accused’s evil ways, Poe fears he may be representing a man capable of homicide. But when well-hidden secrets dangerously make their way to the surface, the seasoned detective races against time to expose the bloody truth.

Can Hawaii’s favorite sleuth stop the body count rising when revenge turns deadly?

Poe’s Rules is the fifteenth standalone novel in the colorful Murder on Maui mystery series. If you like witty protagonists, shocking surprises, and vivid tropical scenery, then you’ll love Robert W. Stephens’ entertaining hunt for the culprit.

Maui private investigator Edgar Allan “Poe” Rutherford works as a consultant to help the Maui police solve a series of murders in this fifteenth installment of the A Murder on Maui series.

Independently wealthy Poe Rutherford first began doing private investigations as an amateur sort of as a hobby. But now, as a professional investigator, he often works as a consultant to help the Maui police with some of their toughest cases. While he started out working with his wife, Alana Hu, a Maui police detective, more and more often, Poe works with Detective Glen Adcock, an arrogant though mostly incompetent detective who uses Poe to solve his cases and then takes all the credit. Poe’s Rules starts out with Poe working as an investigator for a new local attorney, Lea Pane. The Maui police arrested her client, Chance Hawkins after the owner of a local self-storage company discovered the remains of his wife inside a deep freeze inside one of the units and reported it to the police. Pane, convinced her client is innocent, hires Rutherford to help her prove it. Although skeptical at first, Poe eventually helps get Hawkins exonerated. And then, Detective Adcock persuades him to help find the woman’s actual killer. A few more bodies drop along the way before Poe solves the main case, and he has another run in with Mele Akamu, the woman in charge of Maui organized crime. There are several interesting subplots running throughout this story which add to the reader’s interest. Rutherford gets pulled into more drama with his feuding in-laws, and his wife Alana is in the last weeks of her pregnancy with their first child. It all adds up to a very enjoyable read that will please any mystery and detective fan. I recommend getting this one. It’s a first-rate detective mystery imbued with dry wit and charming characters who draw you in and leave you wanting more.

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Book Review: Robert B. Parker’s Fallout by Mike Lupica

The writing is as professional as Jesse Stone isn’t in Robert B. Parker’s Fallout by Mike Lupica. The result is competent, but slow developing, and imminently forgettable.

Robert B. Parker’s Fallout by Mike Lupica is the second Jesse Stone novel I’ve read since Robert B. Parker’s literary estate turned over the series to Mike Lupica. I really enjoyed the first novel (Robert B. Parker’s Stone’s Throw, 2021) and thought Lupica did a good job of staying true to Parker’s legacy and characters. So, I was looking forward to this book and thrilled when the publisher offered me an advanced copy for review. But then I read it.

Something that distracted me the entire time I was reading this book is this. My elderly mother is a longtime fan of the Jesse Stone series, both the books and the made for television movies based on Robert B. Parker’s original novels that starred Tom Selleck. And she has continued to read the series faithfully since Parker’s death. But my mother isn’t one of those people who appreciates gratuitous profanity in the books she reads. So, if she had picked this one up (which I’ll make certain she does not), she wouldn’t have made it through the fifth chapter when the first f-bombs fell and then continued to the end. But the book has more problems than only that.

Robert B. Parker’s Fallout

by Mike Lupica

Published by Putnam (Penguin Random House)

Pub Date: September 6, 2022

ISBN 978-0-593-54027-5 (hardcover)

Genre(s) Mystery & Detective

368 pages

From the publisher…

When two seemingly unconnected mysterious deaths occur on his watch, police chief Jesse Stone must pull out all the stops to unravel the truth and stop a killer from striking again.

The small town of Paradise is devastated when a star high-school baseball player is found dead at the bottom of a bluff just a day after winning the team’s biggest game. For Jesse, the loss is doubly difficult—the teen was the nephew of his colleague, Suitcase Simpson, and Jesse had been coaching the young shortstop. As he searches for answers about how the boy died and why, he is stonewalled at every turn, and it seems that someone is determined to keep him from digging further.
 
Jesse suddenly must divide his attention between two cases after the shocking murder of former Paradise police chief, Charlie Farrell. Before his death, Farrell had been looking into a series of scam calls that preyed upon the elderly. But how do these “ghost calls” connect to his murder? When threats—and gunshots—appear on Jesse’s own doorstep, the race to find answers is on. Both old and new enemies come into play, and in the end, Jesse and his team must discover the common factor between the two deaths in order to prevent a third.

A jogger finds a body on the rocks below a cliff. The Paradise police soon identify the victim as Jack Carlisle, a standout high school shortstop who had seemed destined for the big leagues. Complicating matters is that Jack Carlisle is the nephew of Luther “Suitcase” Simpson, one of Jesse Stone’s detectives. Was it murder or something else? While Jesse and the usual cast of characters try to determine how Carlisle died, more bodies pile up. Former Paradise chief of police Charlie Farrell, one of Stone’s close friends, gets murdered inside his home after he investigates some phone scammers. Jesse has no reason the think a link exists between the deaths, so the Paradise cops investigate them separately, with Stone taking the lead on the Farrell murder for personal reasons. Healy, a former captain with the Massachusetts State Police, lends a hand. Before the police make any actual progress in either case, a wheelchair bound man, an employee at More Chocolate, one of Paradise’s largest concerns and employers, gets found murdered on the same beach as Jack Carlisle. Jesse and the Paradise police cast about, hoping for clues to smack them in the face since it seems there isn’t a competent investigator in the bunch. They even bring in almost everyone Jesse Stone has ever met since he arrived in Paradise to help, from his current girlfriend, a local news reporter, to his ex-girlfriend, private investigator Sunny Randall, to Wilson “Crow” Cromartie, a thug who is now one of Stone’s best friends. But still Stone can’t gain any traction, much less solve any of the suspicious deaths until Molly, now his assistant chief, finally uses her women’s intuition and motherly instincts to figure things out.

While not complex, the plot is convoluted enough since Stone seems virtually clueless and faces multiple investigations he seems powerless to make headway on. Once a very competent murder investigator who arrived in Paradise after being a homicide detective in the LAPD, he now seems incapable of adding 2 + 2 and getting 4. But that should be expected since Jesse spends most of his time chasing women, obsessing over past girlfriends, and white knuckling it a day at a time through his battle with alcoholism. The old Jesse Stone tropes seem old and overused in this book. And the use of outside tips from Boston characters that show up just in the nick of time to help the investigations crawl forward and women’s intuition as the chief crime solving tool seems both gratuitous and unconvincing. After wading through the book, it’s no surprise the only thing close to an exciting sequence comes in the last pages.

Let’s end with a brief look at the use of swearing and profanity in contemporary literature. In recent decades, experts have noticed a decided uptick in the use of more and more swearing and profanity in creative writing. Some authors who use profanity in books believe they are representing the world as it is, and that using profanity makes their writing more authentic and powerful. In this novel, the first f-bombs fell in the fifth chapter and Lucia sprinkled them in copiously to the very end.

Swearing and profanity don’t offend me, except when used in inappropriate situations. I can and to my shame, often do swear like a sailor, probably because I used to be one, not because we now live in a cesspool of vulgarity. But I have a good reason f-bombs spewing from Jesse Stone’s mouth just don’t work. If you’ve read all of Robert B. Parker’s original Jesse Stone novels, as I have, then you would know Parker’s use of swearing and profanity in his writing was sparse indeed. That’s true of both the Jesse Stone and Spenser series. It was so infrequent that it shocked you when he used either. And it wasn’t because times were different back then. It was because Parker didn’t have to drop f-bombs and its variations around thirty-nine times in one book to achieve contemporary authenticity or make his writing powerful. Robert B. Parker wrote so well he didn’t need to use cheap, convenient crutches like swearing and profanity to give the impression that his books were up-to-date and realistic. Dropping f-bombs is not the history of the Jesse Stone character and having him do that makes him seem like a laughable caricature of the true character to grotesque effect. That, along with making him seem incompetent and having him wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap, another thing he would never do, only diminished the franchise character of this series.

My recommendation for this one is to skip reading it. As a nod to the book’s baseball theme, it’s a swing and miss.

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Book Review: Righteous Prey by John Sandford

Righteous Prey by John Sandford, the the thirty-second book in the Prey series, is more vintage Lucas Davenport goodness.

Righteous Prey by John Sandford, the pen name for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp, is the thirty-second book in the Prey novels series featuring Lucas Davenport. Besides the Prey novels, Sandford is the author of the Kidd novels, the Virgil Flowers novels, and six other books.

I’ve been a Sandford and Davenport fan since reading my first Prey novel (Rules of Prey, 1989) and I’ve read every book in the series since. This one is unique in that Sandford billed it as a Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers novel, which I found disappointing. Not that I don’t love the Virgil Flowers character. I do and I’ve read every book in that series too. But disappointing because I assume we won’t be getting a new Virgil Flowers novel this year. That’s probably because Sandford is working on his second Letty Davenport (Lucan Davenport’s adopted daughter) novel. But that’s okay, too. I loved the first one and am eager to read the next one.

Feel free to disagree. We all may be wrong sometimes. But in my considered opinion, John Sandford is probably the best crime fiction writer of our times. The great thing about Sandford is no matter how many bestseller books he has written or how famous he’s become; he has never lost his passion for writing, as some authors have been prone to do. He delivers consistent quality writing and tight, imaginative plotting every time. This book is no exception.

Righteous Prey (Lucas Davenport #32)

by John Sandford

Published by Putnam (Penguin Random House)

from October 04, 2022

ISBN 9780593422472 (hardcover)

Genre(s) Suspense & Thriller, Crime Mysteries

416 pages

From the publisher…

Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers are up against a powerful vigilante group with an eye on vengeance in this stunning new novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author.

“We’re going to murder people who need to be murdered.” 

So begins a press release from a mysterious group known only as “The Five,” shortly after a vicious predator is murdered in San Francisco. The Five is made up of vigilante killers who are very bored…and very rich. They target the worst of society—rapists, murderers, and thieves—and then use their unlimited resources to offset the damage done by those who they’ve killed, donating untraceable Bitcoin to charities and victims via the dark net. The Five soon become popular figures in the media …though their motives may not be entirely pure.

After The Five strike again in the Twin Cities, Virgil Flowers and Lucas Davenport are sent in to investigate. And they soon have their hands full–the killings are smart and carefully choreographed, and with no apparent direct connection to the victims, the killers are virtually untraceable. But if anyone can destroy this group, it will be the dynamic team of Davenport and Flowers.

“The world has only so much room for people like her, and occasionally, one of them has to go.” An analysis offered to U.S. Marshall Lucas Davenport by an unsympathetic neighbor of Hillary Sikes, after her housekeeper discovered her dead body inside her garage. After someone murdered Sikes in the Twin Cities, Davenport and his frequent sidekick, Minnesota BCA agent Virgil Flowers, get involved in the investigation, along with the FBI. The FBI gets involved because it turned out Sikes was the third victim killed by a group of vigilantes billing themselves as The Five, who according to the bizarre press releases they send after every murder, are on a mission to “help rid America of its assholes.” And the murders occurred in three different states. Most people who knew Sikes agreed she deserved the epithet, as did the other two victims. Davenport observes, “Nobody cares that assholes are being killed.” But he recognizes The Five “are psychos” that must be stopped. He isn’t wrong, since the killings continue.

While the murderers seem to well plan and meticulously carry out each murder with an eye for escaping identification, the person who killed Sikes made an uncharacteristic mistake, which through good police work, Davenport and Flowers uncover. That leads to the man’s identity. Eventually, thanks mostly to the efforts of Davenport and Flowers, the FBI accumulates enough evidence to arrest Sike’s killer and hopes they can pressure him into giving up his accomplices. But when he makes bail, someone murders him and he is only the first of The Five who becomes a murder victim in this complex plot. The good guys wonder if someone is cleaning up loose ends. The case takes Davenport and Flowers from coast to coast, along with points in between.

You can always rely on Sandford to serve up an imaginative plot, but with this novel I think he outdid himself. Two other things make Righteous Prey a notable addition to the series. First, it contains a lot of current events like the waning COVID pandemic, the growing prominence of Bitcoin, and current growing division and animosity between conservatives and liberals in the United States. The other is the side story about Virgil Flowers and his budding side gig as a crime fiction author. Both add interest to the story. This is vintage Davenport with a full slate of psychopathic evil doers and Lucas treating every murder investigation as a competition to be won.

Davenport and Flowers fans won’t want to miss this one, and anyone who enjoys an entertaining crime thriller will enjoy Righteous Prey. The ending may not be as satisfying as we often want, as far as every evildoer facing the cold realities of justice, but Sandford never promises us a happy ending every time. The only real criticism I can offer, is like all Prey novels, you reach the last page far sooner than you wanted. That’s especially true for readers like me who inhale more than read John Sandford’s enjoyable and compelling books.

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley used for this review, which represents my honest opinions.

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Book Review: No Plan B by Lee Child and Andrew Child

No Plan B, the new Jack Reacher crime thriller by authors Lee and Andrew Child, is an entertaining read not lacking in ambition and imagination. It’s another step in the right direction toward restoring the Jack Reacher franchise to its former glory.

Hands down, no review I’ve written received as many comments on my website as the review I wrote for Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child, the twenty-sixth Jack Reacher thriller. And those comments were uniformly negative, disagreeing with my positive review of the book. I get that. There remain vast numbers of cynical former Jack Reacher fans who became horribly disillusioned when the quality of Lee Child’s writing waned dramatically, starting with the publication of Night School, the twenty-first Reacher novel. I sympathize with these readers because I became as negative about the series as any other disappointed once rabid fan. After attempting to read The Sentinel, the first Jack Reacher novel after Lee announced his retirement and that he had turned the series over to his brother Andrew, and finding it impossible to continue past the fifth chapter, I vowed I’d never read another Reacher novel or anything with the name Child on the cover. If Lee Child had lost his passion for writing, why couldn’t he have left well enough alone and stopped sooner instead of turning out a handful of awful books just to collect a few more fat publisher’s advances off the superstar reputation he had established.

Fast forward to 2021 and Better Off Dead. When the publisher offered me an advanced copy for review, my curiosity got the best of me and I accepted. No, it wasn’t The Killing Floor, Worth Dying For, or any of my other all-time Reacher favorites, but the book gave me hope that Lee and Andrew were making a serious step toward restoring Reacher to pedestal he once occupied as one of the greatest crime thriller characters of all time. And, with all due respect to readers who disagreed, it deserved the positive review I gave it. So, when a publisher’s representative reached out and offered me an advanced copy of No Plan B, the twenty-seventh book in the series, I cautiously accepted.

No Plan B

by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Published by Random House Publishing GroupBallantine, Delacorte Press

from 25 October 2022

ISBN 9781984818546 (hardcover)

Genre(s) Thriller & Suspense

368 pages

OUT 25.10.2022

From the publisher…

In Gerrardsville, Colorado, a woman dies under the wheels of a moving bus. The death is ruled a suicide. But Jack Reacher saw what really happened: A man in a gray hoodie and jeans, moving stealthily, pushed the victim to her demise—before swiftly grabbing the dead woman’s purse and strolling away.

When another homicide is ruled an accident, Reacher knows this is no coincidence. With a killer on the loose, Reacher has no time to waste to track down those responsible.

But Reacher is unaware that these crimes are part of something much larger and more far-reaching: an arsonist out for revenge, a foster kid on the run, a cabal of powerful people involved in a secret conspiracy with many moving parts. There is no room for error, but they make a grave one. They don’t consider Reacher a threat. “There’s too much at stake to start running from shadows.” But Reacher isn’t a shadow. He is flesh and blood. And relentless when it comes to making things right.

For when the threat is Reacher, there is No Plan B.

As Jack Reacher continues drifting across the country, he stops at the small Colorado town of Gerrardsville to visit some Civil War related museums he’s heard of that interest him. There he witnesses a man shove a woman to her death beneath the wheels of a city bus. Reacher pursues the man on foot into an alley, intent on confronting him and holding him for the police. But fate and an accomplice intervene, which allows the killer to escape. Then when he returns to the scene to contact the police to tell them what he saw, the local detective assigned to investigate the woman’s death informs Reacher that the authorities are ruling the death a suicide based on the statement of another witness. That doesn’t sit well with Reacher, who knows what he saw and despises injustice. So, he begins his own investigation. That leads him to another recent death in the town of a man believed to have died a natural death from a heart attack. But as Reacher keeps digging, he learns of a longstanding connection that existed between the heart attack victim and the murdered woman and he grows even more suspicious, believing someone also murdered the man. Eventually Reacher establishes a private prison in Mississippi, has some connection to both deaths and soon he is on his way to Mississippi with the ex-wife of the dead man to determine what the connection is.

It’s easy to imagine the challenge of coming up with new ways to get Reacher, a retired military cop who drifts aimlessly across the country, into believable situations where he must use his past investigative skills and knowledge to right wrongs that the local cops either can’t or won’t address. Especially in a series this deep. But I think this may be one of the most imaginative plots in a long while. Another thing about the book that impressed me is it’s also one of the most ambitious Reacher novels in a long while in that the story features two subplots that move parallel to the main plot throughout the books until all three threads naturally intersect near the end. I can’t recall any previous Reacher book like it in that respect. And the subplots do much to add complications to the story to grab and hold the reader’s attention.

Minimal character development has always been a hallmark of the Reacher novels. That has changed little with No Plan B. The books in the series are not character-driven as much as action-driven, which has always been part of the appeal. So, Childs hasn’t ever spent much time on character development, except for Jack Reacher and a precious few recurring characters that have appeared over the life of the series. But here the authors have spent enough time with the characters involved with the subplots to make them three-dimensional. And that’s another thing I like about this book.

This review is based on an uncorrected advance review copy, not the final copy for publication. So, perhaps the editors will make a few changes before the book’s release. But one thing I noticed worth criticizing is the copy I read contains more than a few blatantly British colloquialisms and manners of speaking that feel a little jarring because they don’t fit with a story set in America with only American characters. Even given Reacher’s history growing up on Marine Corps bases all over the world as a military brat, it’s unlikely he would have adopted specifically British ways of speaking into his speech. There’s nothing wrong with two British authors writing a book set in America and filled only with American characters, but they should avoid the use of terms and colloquialisms almost only ever spoken and written in British English. As only one example, “fishmonger” is a mainly British term for a storekeeper who sells fish which in my entire life I’ve never heard uttered in the United States, though Americans may have used the term in the colonial days.

While I enjoyed Better Off Dead, I liked No Plan B a little more and see it as another step in the right direction toward restoring the Jack Reacher franchise to its former glory and perhaps winning back some of Reacher’s past fans. It’s well worth a read.

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Book Review: The Collector by Anne Mette Hancock

In The Collector by Anne Mette Hancock, the second chilling novel in her Danish psychological crime thriller series, Hancock vaults the high bar she set with her bestselling debut novel (The Corpse Flower, 2017) with astonishing ease.

I’ve now read the second novel in Anne Mette Hancock’s Kaldan and Schäfer Danish psychological crime thriller series. Hancock has given us something different in both outings and I enjoyed The Collector every bit as much as I did her brilliant debut, The Corpse Flower. This novel explores the nature of truth and what it means when we can no longer trust what we believe is real.

the-collector-by-anne-mette-hancock-cover
Out 08.11.2022
The Collector

by Anne Mette Hancock

Published by Crooked Lane Books (Distributed by Penguin Random House)

from November 08, 2022

ISBN 9781639101177 

Genre(s) Suspense & Thriller, Crime Mysteries

352 pages

From the publisher…

For fans of Katrine Engberg and Lars Kepler, the second chilling novel in Anne Mette Hancock’s #1 bestselling Danish crime series is a psychological whirlwind that explores the nature of truth and what it means when we can no longer trust what we know to be real.

When 10-year-old Lukas disappears from his Copenhagen school, police investigators discover that the boy had a peculiar obsession with pareidolia—a phenomenon that makes him see faces in random things. A photo on his phone posted just hours before his disappearance shows an old barn door that resembles a face. Journalist Heloise Kaldan thinks she recognizes the barn—but from where?
 
When Luke’s blood-flecked jacket is found in the moat at Copenhagen’s Citadel, DNA evidence points to Thomas Strand, an ex-soldier suffering from severe PTSD. But then Strand turns up dead in his apartment, shot in the head execution style.
 
What did the last person to see Lukas really witness that morning in the school yard? Was it really Lukas, or an optical illusion? Can you ever truly trust your eyes?

The disappearance of a ten-year-old boy from his primary school once again brings together a seasoned Danish Violent Crimes Unit detective and an investigative journalist turned sleuth to find the child before it’s too late. Along the way, things get complicated. 

In winter in the Denmark capital of Copenhagen, it’s Detective Erik Schäfer’s (The Corpse Flower, 2017) least favorite kind of crime, a missing child. Ten-year-old Lukas Bjerre disappeared from the rec center that provides his school’s aftercare program and no one has a clue about what happened to him. Detective Erik Schäfer and his partner Lisa Augustin rush to the school to investigate. They find a witness who recalls seeing the boy’s father dropping Lukas off at school that morning, but no one seems to have seen him since. Then, once Schäfer and his partner interview school staff members, they discover something chilling. It seems Lukas was absent from all his classes. Instead of only a few hours, he has been missing the entire day, but a staff member had failed to note his absence until the end of the school day. This discovery provokes an all-hands-on deck situation for the Copenhagen police and officers descend on the school to search every nook and cranny for the missing boy. Schäfer and his team, with no real leads, launch an almost around the clock investigation, knowing the likelihood of a grim outcome increases with each passing hour Lukas remains missing. The foreshadowing event that Hancock gives us in the first chapter adds to the sense of dread we feel when we learn about the missing boy and we fear the worst.

It isn’t until the fourth chapter that the author reintroduces us to the co-protagonist, investigative journalist turned amateur sleuth Heloise Kaldan. Those of us who read The Corpse Flower, first met her in Hancock’s celebrated and riveting debut novel, the first novel in this series. The role Hancock assigns Kaldan in this book intrigued me. Instead of Heloise becoming immediately involved in the missing child case, she remains mostly on the periphery of the investigation until late in the story. In this book, we largely read about Heloise’s chaotic personal life and learn about a dreaded personal event she is in the middle of that leaves her ambivalent about some hard decisions she must make. Past painful events in her life have left Kaldan cynical about expecting too much from life in general and especially from other people. As examples, she views the world as such an awful place that she can’t imagine someone wanting to bring children into it, and at least for herself, rejects the institutions of marriage and family. While Heloise’s hard outer shell remains intact, she seems far more softer and vulnerable on the inside than I recall her seeming in the first book. This novel also reveals more of her flaws–demanding far more honesty from her friends than she offers in return, rationalizing her own shortcomings, and violating the trust of a friend because getting the details for a story her boss assigned is more of a priority for her than loyalty to a close friend. Heloise Kaldan is a flawed character we almost want to despise, but can’t help liking because she evokes our empathy and, to a degree, sympathy. I love her role in this book because the exposure of the intimate details makes the progress of her character arc clear and obvious.

In my review of The Corpse Flower, I mildly criticized Hancock’s character, Erik Schäfer, feeling in spots in the dialogue, his use of certain colloquialisms sometimes made him seem more like an American police detective than what I’d expect a Scandinavian police detective to be like. That’s all gone in this second novel. I came away from this one feeling strongly that Erik Schäfer much reminded me of Jo Nesbø’s dogged and methodical Harry Hole character without all of Hole’s eccentricities. I loved that since it seems Nesbø is done with Harry Hole and for me Hole ranks right up there with Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch as a tough, believable detective character. So, I’m definitely on board for a similar character to root for. I liked Erik Schäfer in the first book, but loved him even more in this one.

When the publisher offered me an advanced copy of The Collector, I felt slight trepidation about accepting because Hancock’s debut novel was so brilliant. Often when an author hits it out of the park with a first book, the second book, even when it turns out good, just never quite measures up and leaves you feeling disappointed. But I shouldn’t have worried since with this one, Anne Mette Hancock vaults the high bar she set with The Corpse Flower with astonishing ease.

Hancock is a gifted storyteller who has mastered tight plotting and near perfect pacing. She grabs the reader’s attention with the first page and then keeps you engaged until the very end. Her writing style is, at times, almost lyrical. As wonderful as she is at giving us fully fleshed out, realistic and believable main characters, Hancock doesn’t skimp on sketching the supporting cast of characters for us either. Besides Heloise Kaldan and Erik Schäfer, she offers the reader a host of other interesting, realistic characters in The Collector the reader enjoys getting to know and either loves or hates. I found Heloise’s bestie Gerda Bendix, Bendix’s precocious eight-year-old daughter Lulu, and former police psychologist Michala Friis, who assists the police on the missing child case, particularly compelling.

Readers who enjoy suspenseful psychological thrillers and especially fans of Jo Nesbø, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, and Henning Mankell are sure to love reading The Collector. Anne Mette Hancock has certainly earned a spot in my pantheon of favorite Scandinavian crime fiction writers.

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

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