Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper Review

Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper, an unputdownable neo-noir masterpiece and an unflinching look at Los Angeles beneath the glamour and glitz. Read my full review.

Everybody Knows Synopsis

Welcome to Mae Pruett’s Los Angeles, where “Nobody talks. But everybody whispers.”As a “black-bag” publicist tasked not with letting the good news out but keeping the bad news in, Mae works for one of LA’s most powerful and sought-after crisis PR firms, at the center of a sprawling web of lawyers, PR flaks, and private security firms she calls “The Beast.” They protect the rich and powerful and depraved by any means necessary. 
After her boss is gunned down in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel in a random attack, Mae takes it upon herself to investigate and runs headfirst into The Beast’s lawless machinations and the twisted systems it exists to perpetuate. It takes her on a roving neon joyride through a Los Angeles full of influencers pumped full of pills and fillers; sprawling mansions footsteps away from sprawling homeless encampments; crooked cops and mysterious wrecking crews in the middle of the night.
Edgar Award-winner Jordan Harper’s EVERYBODY KNOWS is addicting and alarming, a “juggernaut of a novel” and “an absolute tour de force.” It is what the crime novel can achieve in the modern age: portray the human lives at the center of vast American landscapes, and make us thrill at their attempts to face impossible odds.

Mulholland Books (2023)

Categories: Mystery Thriller

Jordan Harper | Pub Date Jan 10, 2023 | ISBN 9780316457910 | 320 pages

Book Review

Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper is a tough book to review. It’s one of novels that comes along once in a while where I worry that I won’t find the words to do it justice. Long story short, I loved this book and Harper’s writing is brilliant. Needless to say, he impressed me. He crafts his words and sentences in such a way it suggests meticulous thought has gone into each one. 

The novel is written in third person from the alternating perspectives of the two lead characters—Mae Pruett and Chris Tamburro. And we spend a lot of time in their heads, getting to know them as much from their inner thoughts as their words in the dialogue. Mae is a “fixer” who works for Mitnick & Associates, a crisis management firm that practices the art of “Black-bag PR.” Mae’s job is to kill or contain news in the press and tabloids that could destroy the reputations and careers of her firm’s unsavory but connected clients. And she works with Dan Hennigan, the man who taught her the ropes and the mantra: “Don’t worry about the truth. It’s not that the truth isn’t important. It just doesn’t matter.” Chris is a physically imposing former Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, booted by the agency when exposed as a dirty cop. Now he works for attorney Stephen Acker, an arm of what Chris thinks of as “the Beast,” as hired muscle, “a fist on someone else’s arm.” 

Both Mae and Chris are flawed in their own unique ways—Mae’s is mostly unethical conduct in performing her job, while Chris has a history of acts that are illegal, unethical, and immoral. He’s been as much a criminal as the people he once arrested. Still, when the reader looks deep enough, sufficient good exists in both characters to provoke feelings of empathy and reasons to like them. After all, both are simply products of the corrupt environment they inhabit that the opaque LA power brokers created. Mae and Chris once dated, but haven’t seen each other for years after their breakup until the inciting incident thrusts them together again. They end up opposing the Beast in a contest they hope they can win, but probably can’t. 

At its heart, Everybody Knows is neo-noir. Harper features cynical, brooding, deeply flawed protagonists struggling to survive, and uses dark visuals to emphasize characters or certain details in scenes. The interplay of light and dark until the lines become blurred is one of the most prominent elements of the novel. The book explores the wider themes of ethics, power, and moral dilemmas. Hallmarks of Harper’s work include dense plotting, concise punchy prose that is relentlessly pessimistic. After only a few pages, Harper’s distinctive writing style put me in mind of James Ellroy’s writing, hardly surprising after I found a 2017 interview with crimefictionlover.com where Harper revealed: “James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy are my style gods.” This novel fits easily into the class of Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and Polanski’s classic neo-noir film Chinatown

Everybody Knows has a cinematographic mood, and before I had even confirmed it by researching his biography, I already recognized Harper had screenwriter chops. At times, you easily imagine you’re reading a film script and this is definitely a novel that deserves an adaptation. It’s a book filled with big ideas, big stakes, and big odds that tells a big story. Harper has written a smart mystery thriller and a haunting tale of moral dilemmas that is deliriously entertaining. Maybe best of all is the setting. Beautiful and sunny LA, a place seething with corruption beneath the glamour and glitz, where cold and ruthless rich and powerful carry out their schemes. I highly recommend this one. Obviously, it’s perfect for fans of James Ellroy.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Broken Glass by Alexander Hartung Review

Broken Glass by Alexander Hartung, a cleverly plotted crime thriller with a cynical, tough detective lead.

Broken Glass Synopsis

A Nik Pohl Thriller #1

One murdered, one missing. Both are almost identical.

Detective Nik Pohl has seen every shade of darkness in his career. Not used to playing by the rules, he finds himself frozen out by his superiors. What’s worse, now he’s being blackmailed by a shadowy businessman into investigating a seemingly crimeless disappearance.

A young woman, Viola, left her home months ago, leaving a letter to her parents saying she wouldn’t be coming back. With a little digging Nik discovers the case of an almost identical-looking woman, who went missing in similar circumstances. There’s one important difference: that woman is dead. Viola may still be alive… but perhaps not for much longer.

When Nik is viciously attacked, it becomes clear that whoever is behind Viola’s disappearance has some high-level connections, and they will stop at nothing to shut him down. But he’s in too deep and the clock is ticking. He has to find Viola, and her captors, before it’s too late.

Thomas & Mercer (2019)

Categories Thriller & Suspense, Mystery & Detective, Police Procedural

Alexander Hartung | Pub Date Nov 01, 2019 | ISBN 9781542093484 | 255 Pages | Translated by Fiona Beaton

Book Review

Munich Detective Inspector Nik Pohl, an unbecoming mixture of outward indifference and inward cynicism, is only looking to be left alone to drink his beer. What he gets is a partnership with a secretive computer expert named Jon who blackmails Pohl into re-opening an investigation into a missing woman, a case Nik’s colleagues closed after determining the woman had disappeared voluntarily. Jon insists Pohl investigate further until he feels satisfied no foul play was involved.

Reluctantly, Pohl gets the case files on the woman from a highly placed police colleague and works the case off the books. After the same colleague abducts Pohl and tries to kill him, after committing another murder in Nik’s presence, Pohl realizes Jon’s suspicions are well founded. After escaping his risky predicament by killing his colleague, Pohl digs deeper in the young woman’s disappearance, aided by Jon, who hacks the police computer system. The detective soon discovers another young woman who disappeared under almost identical circumstances, but she turned up dead. But what is the connection? After an illegal, late night exhumation of the woman’s corpse, whose death authorities had ruled accidental, Jon and Nik arrange a second autopsy by an eccentric pathologist who discovers the cause of death was murder by blunt force trauma.

As Pohl continues chasing up leads, he attracts the attention of some powerful and dangerous people who are intent on shutting down his informal investigation, preferably by killing him. The deeper Pohl digs, the more convinced he becomes he is up against a conspiracy that includes corruption at the highest levels. The question becomes, can he find out the truth and solve the cases before his powerful enemies eliminate him first?

Nik Pohl is an intriguing character, almost a latter day German version of the iconic Chandler character, Philip Marlowe. Once a highly regarded, decorated policeman, after the trauma of a past unsolved case that still haunts him, Pohl turned into a shadow of his former self and had only gone through the motions at work until he met Jon. Despite the blackmail, Jon forces Nik to recapture his enthusiasm for investigations and he doggedly perseveres, even when his own life hangs in the balance.

Hartung spins a clever, slow burning suspense yarn with plenty of twists to keep us guessing as he raises the tension throughout. Besides Pohl, there is a host of other colorful and intriguing characters. One of those is Nik’s sister Mira, who appears several times throughout the book, and provides the last twist in the story that I never saw coming. Broken Glass is suitable for fans of crime thrillers and mysteries, especially those who enjoy international crime tales.

Book rating: ★★★★

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The File by Gary Born Review

The File by Gary Born, a captivating, fast-moving novel with a carousel of intriguing characters, that will satisfy the most discriminating action thriller junkies. Read my full review.

The File Synopsis

Sara West is a beautiful 28 year old graduate student on a scientific expedition in Africa; who stumbles upon a cache of WWII Nazi files in the wreck of a German bomber hidden in the jungle. The files reveal the location of a multi-billion dollar war-chest, secretly deposited by the Nazis in numbered Swiss bank accounts at the end of WWII. The story that follows is a nail-biting thriller, with a captivating heroine who is pursued across Africa, the Middle East and Europe by relentless Russian and American hitmen.

Histria Books – Addison & Highsmith Publishers (2023)

Categories Action Thrillers

Gary Born | Pub Date Mar 28, 2023 | ISBN 9781592112050 | 360 Pages

Book Review

While the genre, action thrillers, is something I selectively read, I rarely review novels like The File by Gary Born here, a website devoted to crime fiction. But recently, a generous publicist offered me the book as part of a two-book deal, so I accepted it along with the offered traditional crime novel. Imagine my surprise when this novel blew me away. I think The File is the best action thriller I’ve read since Robert Ludlum’s original Bourne series, and that’s no exaggeration. The quality of this book compelled me to include a review here, even though it doesn’t strictly fit with the theme of the site. This novel has it all ― spies, exotic locales, fights, shootouts, car chases, foot chases, explosions, fast flying helicopters ― you name it. 

Sara West, a twenty-eight-year-old graduate student, is on an expedition in Uganda with her renowned Harvard botanist father, her fiancé, and a team of scientists. One of the expedition’s local guides reports finding “a machine” in the jungle atop a ridge near the camp. Curious, Sara accompanies the guide to investigate and discovers a crashed unmarked WWII aircraft. After entering the plane, West finds six corpses dressed in German military uniforms and a steel cabinet filled with ancient documents. The documents, emblazoned with Nazi symbols, pertain to the Third Reich, and many bear the signature of Adolf Hitler. West collects some of the more interesting looking documents and returns to the camp where she tells her father what she discovered. In his routine evening status report email to the universities sponsoring the expedition, her father appends a note telling of his daughter’s discovery. And then, unbeknownst to the scientists in the wilds of the Ugandan jungle, all hell is about to break out. 

Both Russian and American intelligence agencies intercept the email containing the disclosure of the discovery of the aircraft and documents, and two powerful men immediately understand what Sara West discovered. One man, former KGB and FSS member Ivan Petronov, wants the documents because he knows they are the key to accessing tens, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollar that Hitler and his Nazi minions stashed in Swiss bank accounts before the fall of the Third Reich. Greed motivates his interest in seizing the documents. CIA Deputy Director Franklin Kerrington III wants to lay his hands on the documents for another reason. He fears the documents may reveal his family’s collusion with the Nazis during World War II, which would destroy his family name and fortune. Both Petronov and Kerrington dispatch mercenaries to Africa to locate the scientists and to seize the priceless documents.

The Russians arrive first and massacre everyone in the camp except Sara West who had returned to the crash site. Watching through binoculars the horrific murders of her father, fiancé, and the other members of the expedition, Sara flees into the jungle with the documents and with the Russian mercenaries in hot pursuit. Because West had accompanied her father on many expeditions to Africa, she is at home in the jungle, which represents her only advantage and hope for survival. She makes her way to the nearest town across the border in the Congo before the Russians catch up. But moments before they capture her, Kerrington’s American mercenaries arrive in the town. Unfortunately for West, with the same mission ― to kill West and seize the documents. The Russians and Americans engage in a firefight and the Americans prevail. But when one of the Americans, former CIA officer turned soldier of fortune Jeb Fisher, grabs Sara and learns about the content of the file, he goes rogue and becomes her ally. After killing members of his own team, Fisher and West flee Africa for Europe. They plan to expose the existence of the Nazi treasure and a list of Nazi collaborators from the file, many of whom are still key Western political and intelligence figures. But Sara West feels conflicted. Is Jeb Fisher a man she can trust, or is he only after the Nazi treasure like the rest? 

The file features a carousel of intriguing, fully rendered characters. The sheer number of people we must keep track of seems daunting, but the author helpfully titles each chapter with the name of the character most prominent in the chapters as the plot plays out. That makes it far easier to avoid getting lost in what is a very intricate and creative plot. Born’s prose is satisfyingly descriptive, and his writing is of literary caliber. He grips the reader’s attention with the first chapter and sustains the tension and suspense throughout. If you enjoyed Ludlum’s Bourne series, this is a book for you. Born veers slightly into the fantastique, particularly toward the novel’s end, but all in all, he offers a very plausible story line that makes for an action-packed, absorbing, and entertaining read. Without giving too much away, the demise of one character in the book felt slightly disappointing because I feel the character could have become a franchise making character in a series. But even as a standalone, this novel begs for a film adaptation. Due out in March 2023, I recommend preordering this one so you don’t forget to grab a copy.

Book rating: ★★★★★

About Gary Born

Author Gary Born
Gary Born is a renowned international lawyer and author. He has represented countries and businesses in nearly 1,000 international disputes around the world, including cases involving Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Mr. Born has also published widely on international law, including the leading commentaries on international arbitration and litigation. He has taught at universities in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, including Harvard Law School, National University of Singapore, and St. Gallen University. He lives in London, with two Maine Coons, and travels widely. The File is his first novel.

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Retribution by Robert McCaw Review

Retribution by Robert McCaw, a taut, gritty, and pacey read touching on the themes of community, covetous, greed, and revenge.

Retribution Synopsis

Koa Kane Hawaiian Mystery #5

As people around him come under attack, Chief Detective Koa Kane wonders if he might be the real target.

In the back alley of a bar on Hawaii Island, a young man is found stabbed to death. When Hilo Chief Detective Koa Kane begins investigating the crime, the murder weapon is recovered only a few feet away from the body. Crime scene technicians find fingerprints on the knife — they are a perfect match for Koa’ s younger brother, Ikaika.

As the brothers scramble to prove Ikaika’ s innocence, another crime sends shockwaves through the Hilo police force. A sniper tries to take out Makanui, Koa’ s closest colleague. As Koa tries to figure out whether these crimes are linked, the sinister force continues their killing spree, threatening Koa and his loved ones at every turn.

Could Koa be the real target? If so, who is behind this trail of retribution? With his own secret criminal past, Koa confronts an all-out offensive against those closest to him and his police force to which he has devoted his life. As the bodies pile up, Koa finds himself the ultimate target of a ruthless adversary and must risk it all to survive.

Oceanview Publishing (2023)

Categories Thrillers & Suspense, Mystery & Detective

Robert McCaw | Pub Date Jun 06, 2023 | ISBN 9781608095568 | 336 Pages

Book Review

In Robert McCaw’s propulsive novel Retribution, a Hilo (Hawaii) detective struggles to discover the truth when someone frames his brother for murder and how it might connect with a series of attacks aimed at those closest to him. 

Set in the environs of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii, McCaw’s prose features beautiful, detailed descriptions of people and picturesque places that give the book an atmospheric feel. The taut, suspenseful, and intricate plot makes the book difficult to put down. I read it from beginning to end in a single sitting. 

We meet Chief Detective Koa Kane of the Hawaii County police, whose past intersects with his present in unexpected ways. When Koa investigates a murder that occurred in the alley behind a seedy dive bar, it shocks him to learn that a damning piece of evidence found at the scene points to his brother Ikaika as the killer. Although the chief of police then removes Koa from the case, convinced of his brother’s innocence, he continues investigating unofficially. Then, a sniper shoots Koa’s colleague and friend, Detective Makanui Kauhane, as she leaves her house for work. Suddenly, it seems someone is attacking Koa’s family and closest friends and colleagues. The series of violent attacks seem more of a criminal conspiracy than coincidental. With the help of his team, the county prosecutor, and a local criminal defense attorney, Koa develops and uses small clues that guide him through the quagmire of his tragic past while leading him to answers about who is behind the complex conspiracy. 

Thematically, Retribution explores community, covetous, greed, and revenge. McCaw offers a clever foreshadowing in the opening chapters, and a suspect pool large enough to keep the reader guessing about the mystery parts of the book. Along with a scintillating story line, McCaw’s prose portrays respect for the cultural traditions of Indigenous Hawaiians, although this does at times feel a tad too didactic in its messaging. And that leads me to my only small gripe about the book, some of the dialogue. 

McCaw’s incorporates his mastery of Hawaiian slang and dialect in dialogue to the extent it runs right into the overkill zone. Authors often incorporate dialect, slang, or purposely misspelled words to reflect a character’s accent. This falls under the general heading of characterization, and authors sometimes use the form of a character’s speech to signal aspects of who that character is. But as with so many techniques in fiction, moderation is vital in using dialect and slang, even when meant to elevate or explain a culture. Although I suspect this was done not only to add realism, but to show respect for Indigenous Hawaiians, it seems excessive here. Hawaiian is a Polynesian language of the Austronesian language family that takes its name from Hawaii, the largest island in the tropical North Pacific archipelago where it developed. Hawaiian language is one of the two official languages of the state of Hawaii. But according to the recent census, out of the 1.46 million (2020), only about 18,000 Hawaiians speak the language. Having spent much time in Hawaii, I can say with confidence most visitors to the archipelago come away with mastery of exactly two Hawaiian words, Aloha and Mahalo. So, the extensive use of the Hawaii language itself, along with a good amount of Hawaiian Pidgin, along with the translations of it all, became a distraction and didn’t make the story feel more realistic. As it’s said, it’s hard to go wrong with moderation. When in doubt, always avoid overkill. 

Otherwise, Retribution is a taut, gritty, and pacey read that I very much enjoyed. I recommend the book for readers of crime, mystery, and thrillers, as the book touches all these categories. 

Many thanks to the publicist and Oceanview Publishing for providing me an advance review copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

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The Fear of Winter by S. C. Sterling Review

The Fear of Winter by S. C. Sterling, a thriller as unsettling as it is satisfying, set against the backdrop of cold, wintry Colorado.

The Fear of Winter Synopsis

On a frigid December night, Megan Floyd vanishes from the mountain town of Fraser, Colorado. The extensive search provides no answers and as attention of her disappearance fades, the case goes cold. Her father, Tom Floyd, is forced to confront his worst fear that his daughter will never be found, and soon his life and marriage begin to disintegrate around him.

A year after the disappearance and with no new leads, Tom hires private investigator Marshall York, a former detective, and his assistant Hannah Jacobs. They soon start to uncover the secrets of Megan’s dangerous second life, all while fighting their own demons. Tom is guilt-ridden over a missing child case from his past, and Hannah is haunted by the unsolved murder of her older sister.

The case begins to consume all three of their lives, and as they dig deeper, they start to unravel the dark truth of what happened to Megan.

No Bueno Publishing (2023)

Categories Thrillers & Suspense, Action & Adventure

S. C. Sterling | Pub Date Jan 18, 2023 | ISBN 9780997017526 | 234 Pages

Book Review

Tom Floyd, a former deputy sheriff, has been searching without success for his missing daughter, Megan, who disappeared along with her vehicle when she was nineteen. Now weeks before what would be his daughter’s twenty-first birthday, at his wit’s end, Tom hires a private detective named Marshall York to take up the search for Megan. Even though Tom fans the embers of hope that Megan will be found alive, his wife Lisa feels sure their daughter is long since dead. And the couple’s marriage is coming apart at the seams. We too get the feeling Megan is long dead and that Tom and the private detective are searching for a body. 

We meet Hannah Jacobs, also a private investigator working for York. To my surprise, Hannah turns out the protagonist of this story, which works because she is an intriguing character. Deeply affected by the murder of her older sister, Casey, years before, Hannah also struggles with the breakup of her family that resulted from the tragedy and is estranged from her mother. Hannah self-harms to cope with her emotional issues, but proves to be a competent detective. The bulk of the story centers on the efforts of Tom, Marshall, and Hannah to find Megan, or at least find out what happened to her.

We predominantly spend time in Hannah’s head as we move deeper into the novel, but the story unfolds from the perspectives of several of the characters. Switching perspectives has its benefits, though I initially found the head jumping a bit of a challenge, as I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to identify with. But around the fifth chapter, things level out and in becomes clear that it is Hannah who is our lead character, which I liked since I found her the most likeable and engaging. Hannah aside, none of the characters feel particularly likeable, maybe because some suffered from a lack of depth that made it hard for me to engage with them. Having assumed from the book summary that Marshall was the protagonist, just as I became invested in him as a character, it’s Hannah who does most of the investigation’s heavy lifting. So, I questioned why Marshall is in the story as he becomes somewhat superfluous early on. It seems Tom might have just hired Hannah directly and we wouldn’t haven’t even missed Marshall if he hadn’t been in the story. 

Given the premise of the book is a search for a missing person with private investigators involved, I expected The Fear of Winter to be a mystery tale. But since the whodunit part gets revealed early on, the book takes on much more of the tone of a dark thriller. And by giving us plenty of suspense and twists and turns, Sterling does a good job of holding our interest by keeping us guessing about how the story will turn out once we know the identity of the antagonist and Megan’s fate no longer seems in doubt. 

Despite a few problems I had with clarity, depth of characterization, and details Sterling gives us that don’t actually help move the plot forward, I appreciate he offers here a consistently good crime fiction story with an original plot. While things get overly dramatic and the dialogue feels a little clumsy towards the end, I enjoyed the book overall. While satisfying, the ending felt a little abrupt. This is a fast read because of the pacing, and I finished the book fairly quickly. I suspect a lot of crime thriller and suspense readers will find this an entertaining read. 

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

Book rating: ★★★★

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Fatal Hunt by Michelle Godard-Richer Review

Fatal Hunt by Michelle Godard-Richer, at its core, is an action-packed, suspenseful thriller but with a touch of the supernatural and romance in the mix. Read my full review.

Fatal Hunt Synopsis

After being widowed and surviving the wrath of a serial killer, Jessica believes her misfortunes are over. She’s reunited with her first love, Jon, and together, with her son Bryce, and a baby on the way, they’re living their happily ever after on their ranch in Montana. That is until secrets, lies, and a formidable foe from Jon’s past emerge to shake the foundation of their relationship, forcing them to flee for their lives.

A decade earlier, Jon worked undercover for the FBI. He infiltrated Hugh Jones’ Kansas City Mob, and almost destroyed his empire. Unaware of the breech in his own defenses, Hugh, obsessed with revenge, unleashes every weapon in his arsenal, targeting those Jon loves the most.

Wild Rose Press (2022)

Categories Thrillers & Suspense, Ghost Thrillers, Romantic Thrillers

Michelle Godard-Richer | Pub Date Oct 12, 2022 | ISBN 9781509244867 | 296 Pgs

Book Review

There was a lot I liked about Fatal Hunt by Michelle Godard-Richer, although the book is a slight departure from my usual dark, brooding crime fiction reading. First, this book delves into the paranormal, a realm I’m less than enamored with. I usually avoid books featuring otherworldly characters. Also, Fatal Hunt features romance prominently, another genre I’m largely disinterested in reading. Subgenre fusion in the realm of crime fiction is gaining popularity among authors these days, since it’s used by many to help their work stand out. I understand that, but perhaps my preference for logic and realistic explains my reticence to delve into the whimsical. My interests lie more in the traditional hard-boiled detective, police procedural, and darker crime thriller domains. But despite the recurring appearance of a ghostly apparition that really didn’t work for me, we spend the bulk of our time in the land of the living, for at its core Fatal Hunt is an action-packed thriller. That does work for me and is why I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. 

When the book opens, we meet Jessica Kent, her eight-year-old son Bryce and her husband Jon, a Montana rancher and former FBI special agent. Jessica and Jon are carrying a lot of baggage. This is the second marriage for both. Jessica’s first husband, Adam, was a police officer killed in the line of duty. And although she is married again and carrying her second child, she is still in love with the memory of her deceased first husband and hasn’t truly moved past his death. Jon has issues of his own. His first wife, Cynthia, disappeared without a trace and is now considered dead. Also, Jon resigned from the FBI because of the emotional trauma he suffered while working a deep undercover assignment. As much as Jon wishes to bury his past, there is a rich and powerful criminal from Jon’s undercover days who won’t let sleeping dogs lie. He is intent on exacting revenge. This puts Jon and his entire family squarely in the villain’s crosshairs and explains Cynthia’s disappearance. As the story plays out, Jessica and Jon attempt to cope with the menace, but things only go from bad to worse since Jon’s former colleagues at the FBI seem powerless to protect him and his family from the determined, vengeful antagonist. 

I confess to skimming the romance parts of the story, which doesn’t have much to do with the unfolding plot, other than to add additional layers of characterization. But I absolutely enjoyed the action-packed thriller on offer here. Godard-Richer does a great job of setting a fast pace from the beginning that doesn’t let up until the very end. Her story-telling ability is powerful, and she offers us some very clever twists along the way. Clearly a talented and emotive writer, she gives us a supporting cast of well-rounded and engaging characters. 

Besides the Kent family, we meet relatives of theirs, Jon’s mother, Sally and Jessica’s aunt, Debbie, one of my favorite characters in the book. Godard-Richer also introduces us to several of Jon’s former FBI colleagues who play integral roles in the story. Trent, one of the most notable FBI special agents, becomes a mainstay for the Kents when they most need it. The lead character Jessica drew me in, though she’s not altogether likeable or easy to get to know. Sometimes she appears a strong, independent woman and other times seems a mercurial person indulging in self-pity who doesn’t attract great empathy. But as the story progresses, she becomes less inconstant. Bryce Kent is also an interesting character. Often, children appearing in novels are only used as props unless the story centers on them. But here, Bryce is fully drawn, contributing character complete with a backstory. I didn’t enjoy the ghostly character as much as others might. First because of my disinterest in all-things-supernatural. But also, because it allows things to occur in the story that aren’t necessarily realistic or feasible. But despite my petty grievances, the plot is riveting and the core events are plausible. Neither the supernatural aspect nor the romance overwhelms the story unfolding here in any way that feels distracting. The author strikes a nice balance between the crimes at-hand and the usual personal stuff impacting on the characters’ lives. 

If you enjoy a healthy serving of the paranormal and romance with your crime thrillers, you will love this book. Regardless, Fatal Hunt will appeal to anyone who loves a well written, action-packed and suspenseful thriller. The ending suggests we haven’t seen the last of the Kents and I’d happily read more from Michelle Godard-Richer. 

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

Book rating: ★★★★

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The Pine Barrens Stratagem by Ken Harris Review

The Pine Barrens Stratagem by Ken Harris, an irreverent, laugh out loud funny soft-boiled detective tale with a solid, entertaining plot. Read my full review.

The Pine Barrens Stratagem Synopsis

From the Case Files of Steve Rockfish

Private Investigator Steve Rockfish needs cash, like yesterday. The bad news is that yesterday, a global pandemic raged, and Maryland was headed toward a lockdown that would ultimately lead to cheating spouses no longer “working late,” and hence a lack of new clients.

Rockfish’s luck changes when a Hollywood producer reaches out, but the job is two states away and involves digging up information on a child trafficking ring from the 1940s. What he uncovers will be used to support the launch of a true crime docuseries. He grabs a mask, hand sanitizer and heads for South Jersey.

On-site, Rockfish meets Jawnie McGee, the great granddaughter of a local policeman gone missing while investigating the original crimes. As the duo uncover more clues, they learn the same criminal alliance has reformed to use the pandemic as a conduit to defraud the Federal Government of that sweet, sweet, stimulus money.

It’s not long before the investigation turns up some key intel on a myriad of illicit activity over the last eighty years and Rockfish rockets toward a showdown with the mafia, local archdiocese and dirty cops. COVID-19 isn’t the only threat to his health.

Black Rose Writing (2022)

Categories Mystery & Detective

Ken Harris | Pub Date Jan 27, 2022 | ISBN 9781684338719 | 249 pages

Book Review

The Pine Barrens Stratagem is a risible “soft-boiled” detective novel that takes place in a time in which the Trump presidency is waning, coronavirus hysteria is rampant, government shutdowns are in vogue, the economy is grinding to a halt, and Paycheck Protection Program (coronavirus relief) loan fraud is as profitable as the porn industry. Our bumbling hero, Steve Rockfish, modeled roughly on Jim Rockford (James Garner’s character in The Rockford Files, 1974-1980), is a down and out private investigator facing repossession of his beloved Dodge Challenger (named Lana) because of a dearth of cases to pursue and is desperate for a payday. He’s on a losing streak after a promising assignment with a generous finder’s fee in the mix falls through when Angel Davenport, a Los Angeles producer, hires him to help do research on a project Davenport hopes to turn into a hit docuseries. Rockfish’s ship has come in. The client wants Rockfish to dig into local records and interview people to get all the information he can about an illegal adoption scam that took place in the 1940s in a small Southern New Jersey area called Elk Township. With an advance in his pocket, Rockfish braves the threat of the Rona and heads for South Jersey. His investigation eventually points him to a young woman named Jawnie McGee. McGee, who owns a fledgling computer repair business. She is doing a little investigation of her own into what exactly happened to her great grandfather, an Elk Township cop and presumed murder victim from back in the 1940s. A known connection exists between McGee’s great grandfather and the adoption scam Rockfish is researching, so the pair team up on the combined investigations. But after making progress, Steve and Jawnie realize they may be in over their heads. A criminal syndicate composed of a triune of bent cops, a mafia crime family, and church officials don’t want the bodies their predecessors buried dug up or two sleuths sticking their noses into a lucrative coronavirus relief fraud scheme the consortium is reaping big profits from. And Rockfish and McGee soon have targets on their backs. 

The Pine Barrens Stratagem combines two of my passions, entertaining crime fiction and comedy. Harris displays razor-sharp wit as he pokes good natured fun at every private detective trope in existence. But not only is his book belly-laughing funny, Harris also serves up an interesting and entertaining crime fiction plot, and a host of fun characters to go with the comedy. It’s a pacy read that keeps the pages turning and the tension mounts once our intrepid sleuths tangle with the local criminals and corrupt officials. Harris’ gift for slapstick, combined with the fantastic chemistry between Rockfish and McGee, makes The Pine Barrens Stratagem well worth a read. I loved it. It’s perfect for those who enjoyed the organic humor of private eye television series like Tom Selleck’s Magnum P.I. and The Rockford Files. I’ll gladly read the future adventures of Steve Rockfish. Maybe he will finally catch a break.

Book rating: ★★★★★

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A Death in Tokyo by Keigo Higashino Review

A Death in Tokyo by Keigo Higashino balances tight plotting, and a character driven story that produces a gripping, entertaining mystery with a classical feel. Read my full review.

A Death in Tokyo Synopsis

Kyoichiro Kaga #3

In the latest from international bestselling author Keigo Higashino, Tokyo Police Detective Kaga is faced with a very public murder that doesn’t quite add up, a prime suspect unable to defend himself, and pressure from the highest levels for a quick solution.

In the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo an unusual statue of a Japanese mythic beast – a kirin – stands guard over the district from the classic Nihonbashi bridge. In the evening, a man who appears to be very drunk staggers onto the bridge and collapses right under the statue of the winged beast. The patrolman who sees this scene unfold, goes to rouse the man, only to discover that the man was not passed out, he was dead; that he was not drunk, he was stabbed in the chest. However, where he died was not where the crime was committed – the key to solving the crime is to find out where he was attacked and why he made such a super human effort to carry himself to the Nihonbashi Bridge. That same night, a young man named Yashima is injured in a car accident while attempting to flee from the police. Found on him is the wallet of the murdered man.

Tokyo Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga is assigned to the team investigating the murder – and must bring his skills to bear to uncover what actually happened that night on the Nihonbashi bridge. What, if any, connection is there between the murdered man and Yashima, the young man caught with his wallet? Kaga’s investigation takes him down dark roads and into the unknown past to uncover what really happened and why.

St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur Books (2022)

Categories Mystery & Detective

Keigo Higashino | Translator Giles Murray | Pub Date Dec 13, 2022 | ISBN 9781250767509 | 352 pages

Book Review

While this is the third book in the Kyoichiro Kaga series, readers need not have read the first two books to follow this plot. This novel works very well as a standalone, as the author provides the background necessary for readers to understand the roles and personalities of the main characters. The book also contains a helpful cast of characters list at the beginning that helps readers who may lack familiarity with Japanese names keep track of who is who in the story. 

When the book opens, a Tokyo police officer discovers a male stabbing victim slumped against the parapet of a bridge, a knife still protruding from his chest. An ambulance transports the victim, Takeaki Aoyagi, to a hospital where he dies a short time later. The police swing into action to investigate the murder. They quickly locate a suspect, but the man, Fuyuki Yashima, attempts to flee a police officer and a passing truck runs him down as he runs across a busy street. He arrives at a hospital with a serious head injury and is in a coma. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police assemble a team to investigate, seeking to find evidence to prove Yashima is the killer. Detectives Shuhei Matsumiya and Kyoichiro Kaga, coincidentally cousins, get assigned to work together as partners. During the investigation, they work to recreate the movements of the victim and suspect, interview the victim’s wife and family and the suspect’s girlfriend, Kaori Nakahara, to work out the motive for the attack and to learn how it played out. Kaga, the more experienced of the two, grows to doubt the guilt of Fuyuki Yashima, even though the police found the victim’s wallet and briefcase in his possession after the vehicle accident. While their superiors pressure the team for a fast resolution so they can close the case, Kaga and Matsumiya continue following Kaga’s theories and new lines of investigation since Kaga is adamant about discovering the truth about who stabbed Aoyagi. The detectives face a series of mysteries they must solve and bring together by the end of the story. 

While we don’t learn the specific time period, the existence of mobile phones and text messaging shows the story takes place in the present day. Higashino provides a lot of rich detail of homes, neighborhoods, businesses, and food across the course of the novel that helps paint a picture and allows us to imagine the setting with ease. This is a character-driven exploration of justice, family, and grief. While his supervisors seem willing to accept things as they appear on the surface, and his colleagues cannot connect the clues, Kaga takes matters into his own hands and uses his observation skills, intelligence, and determination to crack the mystery. He takes his profession seriously and is committed to seeing justice done for all concerned. This is easily one of the most enjoyable mystery stories I’ve read in a long while. It reminded me of some of the classic mysteries I’ve read in the past by authors like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Higashino’s writing is not only descriptive and vivid, but surprisingly poignant and moving. Kaga and Matsumiya are likeable, relatable, and realistic. I felt great sympathy for Kaori Nakahara, Fuyuki Yashima’s girlfriend. While I’m not sure that Higashino gives readers all the clues necessary to solve the whodunit before revealing the murder motive was something quite different from what we imagined, that’s okay, as it’s an entertaining story nonetheless. The author expertly pulls all the threads together to provide a satisfying conclusion. I’m a massive fan of mysteries and this book was a standout for me. I’m happy to discover a new (to me) author who clearly knows how to write a mystery well. 

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

Book rating: ★★★★★

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Bone Saw Serenade by Cody J. Thompson Review

Bone Saw Serenade by Cody J. Thompson, a taut, compelling tale with all the elements of an engaging psychological thriller; fast-paced, high-stakes, and highly engrossing. Read my full review.

Bone Saw Serenade Synopsis

Everyone loves running into and reconnecting with an old friend. Someone you have lost touch with for any number of reasons over the years. It can stir up a cocktail of euphoric emotions through feelings of nostalgia, amusement, hope and love. That is exactly how Emma Goodwin felt when she ran into her high school best friend Charlie Claymore after they found one another randomly after a decade of not seeing or speaking in a small coffee shop in Seattle.

Soon after their reunion, Emma’s husband Eddie goes missing without a trace of evidence linking anyone to the disappearance. Anguished, she spirals into her old ways with Charlie. When Detective Angus Pratt is assigned to the case, Charlie is determined to stay by Emma’s side, casting a dark veil over her he calls protection.

As they close in on the truth, a sinister plan is revealed that is darker and more terrifying than the vast, uninhabited woods that lay on the outskirts of town. Angus will stop at nothing to find the truth, and Emma may learn the hardest truth of them all. That the flames you hold the closest always burn the worst.

Black Rose Writing (2022)

Categories: Thriller & Suspense

Cody J. Thompson | Pub Date Oct 26, 2022 | ISBN 9781685130541 | 371 pages

Book Review

Bone Saw Serenade is a psychological thriller set in Seattle. It centers on the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a husband and father, the subsequent police investigation, and how the circumstances impact on the man’s wife. 

Charlie Claymore, recently relocated from San Diego, is waiting in line inside a Seattle coffee shop when he unexpectedly runs into Emma VanSant and her young daughter. Charlie and Emma had been inseparable friends throughout their middle and high school years back in San Diego. But having gone their separate ways after graduation, they had lost touch. While Emma wasn’t aware of it at the time, the chance meeting would turn out fortunate for her since her husband Eddie would soon mysteriously disappear. She and Charlie would rekindle their close friendship and he would become her rock in the emotional chaos when her life spirals out of control. Charlie seems like a loyal friend indeed as he gives Emma his total support during the difficult time and even defends her vigorously when the police suspect her involvement in her husband’s disappearance. But soon, we realize Charlie’s motives aren’t altogether altruistic. It seems his feelings for Emma during their school days went deeper than mere friendship and now that he’s found her again; he seems intent on using the current circumstances and Emma’s vulnerable emotional state to his advantage. Unable to get Emma off his mind, he manipulates her, hoping to rekindle the romantic spark he feels sure they both felt back in high school. At first, Charlie comes across as a decent guy, doing his best to be a solid friend for someone who once meant a great deal to him. But as he continues to press his own selfish agenda, we feel a growing unease about it. At times, we feel sympathy for him, and even feel embarrassed for him because of his sometimes near adolescent behavior towards Emma. But as we get deeper into the book, the sense of unease grows prominently. Is Charlie Claymore who we think is? Or is he something else entirely? Thompson uses all that effectively to create and sustain tension throughout the story. 

Thompson crafts a compelling psychological thriller even though the book is populated with some rather unlikable characters. We don’t necessarily need to like them and while there is some depth to the characters, I never felt a genuine connection with any of them. Instead, I felt more like an external observer of the story than a participant. The history of the friendship between Charlie and Emma, especially from Charlie’s perspective, surfaces over the course of the novel. They bonded during their school years, but soon we suspect their lives weren’t nearly as interconnected back then and certainly not now, as Charlie believes. This rings true from flashbacks dispersed throughout the book from Charlie and Emma’s childhood friendship, which shows the character of it and just how long they’ve known each other. Thompson builds tension and sets a fast pace throughout the book. But while the flashbacks reveal backstory that we find useful in understanding the dynamics at play, the movement back and forth between past and present breaks the pacing and lulls the flow of the book at times. 

Admittedly, I wish the characters possessed more agency to solve the mystery of Eddie’s disappearance. The two lead police detectives seem a bit slow to catch on throughout the book, happy to pursue lines of investigation that ultimately prove wrong rather than harnessing some agency and driving the investigation forward themselves. For this reason, Thompson gives us the major twist and revelation of the villain’s identity quite early in the book, just past the halfway mark. From that point to the end, the antagonist divulges their true intentions, explaining their actions and motivations a little too clearly until it feels spoon-fed. I think there was room to leave a bit of it out to give readers a chance to join the dots themselves. Also, at times, I found the dialogue to be a little unrealistic and over-the-top, which contributed to making the police detectives not very relatable. The strength of the story lies more in its twists and mysteries than in the characterization. 

Thompson is great at building tension and sets a blistering pace through most of the book, but it’s most notable in the final chapters as the truth comes out about the disappearance of Eddie VanZant and who is behind it. Despite the book’s flaws, Thompson offers us all the classic elements of an engaging psychological thriller. This is a rather gripping novel with a premise that’s intriguing and compelling regardless of a few holes. The book reminds me a little of Caroline Kepnes’ You Love Me, which also featured an obsessive psychopath antagonist and a very literal cat-and-mouse game. Bone Saw Serenade is action-packed, exciting, and fast-paced. It’s recommended for readers of psychological thrillers who are certain to enjoy the journey. 

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

Book rating: ★★★★

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City of Angles by Jonathan Leaf Review

City of Angles by Jonathan Leaf, a pleasing, plausible modern noir yarn set against the backdrop of a brutally candid exposé of the L.A. film industry and its narcissistic and duplicitous celebrity culture. Read my full review.

City of Angles Synopsis

A smart and sexy modern noir set in the steamy underbelly of 21st century Hollywood.

Billy Rosenberg is a workmanlike screenwriter who finds his fate intertwined with would-be starlet Vincenza Morgan in this fiendish and sharp tale of a city where Image always trumps Reality.

Filled with plot twists, wicked humor, and vivid commentary on celebrity culture, author Jonathan Leaf has skillfully crafted a compelling romp which manages to weave murder, drugs, sex cults, modern relationships, and naked ambition together into a tale that lays bare the real Los Angeles—a city where even the angels have an angle.

Bombardier Books (March 7, 2023)

Categories: Crime Thrillers, Mystery & Detective

Jonathan Leaf | Pub Date Mar 07, 2023 | ISBN 9781637587881 | 256 pages

Book Review

Finding a corpse in the trunk of her car with no idea where it came from isn’t ideal. Vincenza Morgan understands that and that she needs to phone the police. Yet she has no time. She has an audition to attend and after twelve years in Hollywood, Vincenza knows even the existence of a cadaver in her trunk isn’t an excuse to miss an audition.

“She [Vincenza] had called off another tryout three months earlier when she was in the grip of a high fever, and afterwards, her agent had scolded her in a way meant to leave no doubt that he was open to dumping her as a client. There was no subtext. She was not to miss an audition again, not if she were receiving chemo and confronted by the amputation of a limb.”

She would worry about the stiff later, reminding herself that in L.A.:

“You went on with things, playing your role, pretending that everything was fine when a catastrophe was happening.”

And so begins City of Angles. But finding a body in the trunk isn’t even the strangest thing that happens in this entertaining, often humorous, unusual crime novel by Jonathan Leaf.

After the audition, which Vincenza thinks went well, she still doesn’t go to the police. She wants to, but how would she explain it? Then, when she finally re-opens the trunk, she makes another startling and upsetting discovery. She promptly recognizes the stiff is her sometime lover, Tom Selva, a prominent actor. And the revolver someone used to shoot him to death is laying on his chest. After regaining her composure, Vincenza calls David Clarkson, the “fixer” for the Church of Life, a cult Vincenza belongs to. But when she reaches Clarkson, something he says unnerves her, and she hangs up abruptly. Unsure what else to do, Vincenza attempts to return to her usual life. Going to work at her part-time job at a marijuana dispensary, going home to her apartment, and waiting for the hoped for callback from the recent audition, while hauling the corpse of her dead lover around in the trunk of her car. Her instincts tell her to avoid Clarkson and the church. But then she notices, to her dismay, acolytes of the church following her and she fears trying to abduct her. Is it the church attempting to frame her for murder? Who can she call for help?

At its center, we have a murder, and a mystery to be solved. But, City of Angles is far from the usual crime fiction story. There is comedic relief aplenty, the type of humor that reminds me of that found in Joseph Wambaugh’s novels. The plot produces a plausible yarn, someone framing a young woman for murder for reasons that are unclear. All we know for sure at the beginning is Vincenza is innocent, and the threat the authorities may charge her with a murder she didn’t commit provides palpable tension. Leaf does a good work with characterization, but also unusually. We observe the characters and spend time inside their heads, but are never certain we truly get to know them. Partly, that’s because they seem more caricatures than real people. And for this novel, I think that’s okay because I believe that’s the point. Leaf’s characters represent film industry insiders, actors, and the leaders of a cult. These aren’t “real” people, but people playing roles within a social structure “where image always trumps reality.” So, while the characters may not be relatable, and few are particularly likeable, they are realistic within the context of the setting. They represent many within the film industry’s narcissistic and duplicitous celebrity culture.

No doubt some of the fun that Leaf pokes at the Hollywood types is tongue-in-cheek. Yet you get the sense that much of the commentary which pulls back the glitter to reveal the ugliness that lies beneath, hits close to the truth for an industry that presents itself to the public as a dream factory that produces optimism, romanticism, and happy endings. Yet statically, only two percent of working actors make enough money to earn a living. So, the truth is closer to the lyrics Erykah Badu sings in a song about the dark side of Tinseltown. The lyrics speak of how Hollywood can be a place of false promises and shattered dreams, about how people come to Hollywood with dreams of becoming famous, but often end up broken and alone. In this novel, I think Leaf presents that truth and helps us understand why it is so.

While the murder mystery might be unremarkable, it’s the insider look into Hollywood culture, the meat of the story, that’s most intriguing and where this novel truly shines.

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

Book rating: ★★★★

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