Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sandrine's Case, by Thomas H. Cook (Mysterious Press; $24)

People often ask me to name my favorite mystery writers. Most mystery fans have heard of the top three or so that of those I name. But the name of Thomas H. Cook always results in a blank stare. Sometime I hope to meet someone who shares my opinion that Cook is one of the best.  Until then, I will continue to devour his books, talk them up to anyone who will listen, and wonder why he’s not at the top of the best seller list.

His latest, Sandrine’s Case, is simply amazing. When Sandrine Madison was found dead at home, it appeared at first to be a suicide. But as the cops looked deeper, they found too many inconsistencies. Before long, they charged her husband, Samuel, with her murder.

Sam and Sandrine were both professors at Coburn College, a school that Sam feels is filled with “eternally mediocre students.” Sandrine had been such a beautiful, free spirit when they first met, that the scholarly Sam always wondered why she’d married him. As time went on, they became more entrenched in life in Coburn. But their lives became more parallel than unified, and Sam, in particular, was filled with disappointment and cynicism at the way life had turned out.

The murder trial exposes Sam’s secrets, but through witnesses, he learns that Sandrine had secrets of her own. The evidence that comes out also reminds him of what he had loved in Sandrine back when they were young, and who they both had once been.

I am always torn as to whether I am most in awe of Cook’s talent at plotting or how thoroughly he develops his unforgettable characters. Or maybe it’s his beautiful writing, or his settings. I think, actually, that all of the above—the whole package.

Simply put, Thomas H. Cook is brilliant. 

Hotshot, By Julie Garwood (Dutton; $26.95)

I’ll bet if Julie Garwood tried to write a physics textbook, she’d somehow manage to turn it into a romance novel. Despite the presence of a steely-eyed FBI agent at the center of the action of Hotshot, her latest book is more romance than thriller. Her fans won’t complain—the romance is just fine.

Peyton Lockhart didn’t last long at her job at a prestigious food magazine. Her creepy boss told her what he wanted to do with her, and it didn’t involve testing recipes. Peyton quits, but immediately lands on her feet: in an incredibly fortuitous bit of timing, an uncle tells Peyton and her sisters that he will give them Bishop’s Cove, his down-at-the-heels Florida resort, provided they can turn a profit in a short time.

Peyton loves the challenge, but she’s not willing to let her former boss off the hook. He learns she’s planning to sue for harassment, and sics his gun-slinging henchmen on her case. Bullet holes in her car, a jealous cousin who wants in on the Bishop’s Cove deal, and a local developer who wants the resort for himself mean that Peyton needs protecting. And who better than devilishly handsome Special Agent Finn MacBain? Finn saved Peyton’s life when she fell in a swimming pool as a child, so it’s only fitting that he focuses on saving her life now that she’s all grown up (with a body that was “damn near perfect,” with “long, gorgeous legs,” and a walk that was “every bit as sexy as her body”).

If you’re looking for a good mystery that keeps you guessing until the end, keep looking. This isn’t it. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Angel Baby, by Richard Lange (Mulholland Books; Little, Brown); $26.00

Now that Luz has weaned herself off Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin and Valium, her “stoned princess” act is just that. To finally escape her violent drug lord husband Rolando, known on the street as El Príncipe, she has to have her wits about her. She’d tried to escape once before, and Rolando beat her nearly to death. But she has to escape. She left her daughter, Isabel, with an aunt three years earlier, thinking it would be temporary.  Luz knows if she doesn’t make it out of Mexico this time, she never will.

Rolando would have been angry enough had she merely escaped. But before she left, she also cleaned out his safe and shot two of her guards. He has spies all over Tijuana, any one of whom would love to earn the gratitude of El Príncipe.

To get across the border, she enlists the help of a drifter relying on alcohol to blot out the guilt he feels over the death of his daughter. Malone is unreliable at best, and is no match for Jerónimo Cruz, the murderous hit-man Rolando has hired—while keeping Cruz’  family locked up as collateral—to bring Luz back. Luz and Malone are also up against a corrupt Border Patrol cop who knows about the money Luz is carrying and wants it for himself.

Richard Lange does a terrific job of drawing complex characters, most of whom have a core of goodness despite the evil they do. This is a taut, exciting thriller.  But it made me more convinced than ever that I never want to step foot in Tijuana.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The 9th Girl, by Tami Hoag (Dutton; $26.95)

That high school girls can be self-centered and cruel is certainly not news. But one always hopes that their victims have someone who has their backs. Sadly, no one had Penny Gray’s back. So it took several days for her mother to even realize she was missing. And even then, she didn’t care.  

When the body popped out of the trunk of a car on New Year’s Eve, the limo driver who hit it thought he’d seen a zombie. Immediately nicknamed “Zombie Doe,” Minneapolis detectives Nikki Liska and Sam Kovac act on the assumption that the young woman was the ninth victim of a killer they’ve dubbed Doc Holiday, due to his penchant for killing young women on holidays. Problem is, the killer has been snatching girls in one city and dumping them in another. The victim could have been from anywhere.

But as it turns out, Zombie Doe was a local girl. As Liska and Kovac try to solve the details of her horrible death, they learn that her life was just as tragic. And meanwhile, Doc Holiday is carrying out his plan to claim another victim.

Tami Hoag’s The 9th Girl is a taut police procedural. Adding to the tension is Hoag’s spot-on depiction of nasty teen cliques and the fear that keeps even kind teens from standing up to them.  “I promise you,” Liska tells her teen-aged son, “you won’t die of high school.” Reading this, one can see why some teens might not believe her.

This is a terrific thriller.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf; $26.95)

The honeymooning tourists who had chartered the fishing boat expected to catch tuna. What they didn’t expect was to reel in a human arm. The arm was all that was left of Nick Stripling, who died leaving his wife a large insurance policy and lots more in offshore accounts.

The local sheriff doesn’t want the publicity from the case to tarnish the image of the Keys, so he asks suspended detective—now county restaurant inspector—Andrew Yancy to hand it over to the Miami-Dade County cops.  They pass, but the medical examiner tells Yancy that there’s something fishy about the arm--the amputation was not caused by a boat propeller or shark bite. When Yancy learns that the owner of the arm had been a Medicare swindler, he figures solving the case might just be his ticket back to the job.  

But wait: that’s only the main plot of Bad Monkey, Carl Hiaasen’s latest. I didn’t bother to count, but he has innumerable other plots working at the same time. There’s the sad case of Neville, whose family’s possession of a Caribbean beach goes back centuries, but is put off his land by a developer. There’s the mysterious shooting of a young man who worked on the fishing boat where the arm was found. And the many calamities that prevent Evan Shook from selling his spec house—the one that towers over Yancy’s own. Characters?  There’s the Dragon Queen, a smelly voodoo woman whose lovers die mysteriously when they try to break up with her; Bonnie Witt, nee Plover Chase, wanted for indecent liberties with a minor in Oklahoma, now hot for Yancy.  And Driggs, the nasty little monkey of the title, whose increasing addictions cause his hair to fall out and his behavior to worsen.

Yancy is the central character, and like other Hiiassen characters, he will stop at nothing to stand up for what he believes is right. If this puts him outside the law, so be it. In this case, he stands up for his right to enjoy seeing the moon at night, for building codes being enforced, for clean restaurants free of insects and rodent droppings, for old timers to be able to live on their land, and for bad guys to get caught.

The book starts off humorously, but in the end, it suffers from too many plots, too many characters—some with more than one identity—and too much chaos.  I actually found it tiring—there was simply too much going on. And I wasn’t alone: another a die-hard Hiaasen fan quit about ¾ of the way through and asked me just to sum up what had happened to each character. It is telling that I had difficulty remembering.

I love Hiaasen’s books, but I sure wish he’d limit himself to just a few plots per book. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Boyfriend, by Thomas Perry (Mysterious Press; $25.00)

The police don’t seem to be working too hard to solve Catherine Hamilton’s murder. After all, being an escort—even a classy one like Catherine—comes with risks. But Catherine’s parents aren’t willing to give up on learning the truth. They engage the services of private detective/former LAPD homicide detective Jack Till in the hope that he can uncover answers to some of the inconsistencies in the case.

The police report indicates that the cops didn’t find any cash or jewelry in Catherine’s apartment. Odd, since working girls usually don’t have time to make a bank deposit between customers. That convinces Till that Catherine’s killer had known where she had hidden her valuables. A casual customer wouldn’t be privy to that information, but someone familiar with her apartment might be.

Like maybe a boyfriend.

Till looks further and learns that Catherine was one of several attractive strawberry blonde escorts murdered across the country. He takes off on the trail of what he suspects may be a serial killer: one skillful enough to remove any evidence of his existence.

Thomas Perry’s The Boyfriend is a top-notch procedural. I actually cared about his characters—watching as each new young woman surrendered to the boyfriend’s charisma was like watching a victim in a horror movie slowly walk down the basement stairs to investigate a noise. But the inevitability of the outcome each time wasn’t clichéd—it worked, due to his excellent plotting.

This was a terrific way to pass a rainy Saturday.   

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Don't Go, by Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin's Press; $27.99)

While Dr. Mike Scanlon is deployed to Afghanistan, he gets some terrible news: his wife, Chloe, has died in a fall in their kitchen. Mike comes back to make arrangements for both the burial and for the care of their infant daughter, Emily. Fortunately, his sister-in-law and her husband love the baby, and Mike agrees to give them temporary custody while he’s deployed.

But something about his wife’s death isn’t quite right. First of all, he learns that Chloe was an alcoholic, stashing bottles of vodka all around the house and even drinking in the car. More shocking still: she was pregnant when she died.

So what does this father of the year opt to do? He signs on for another tour. By the time he gets back, he’s lost an arm, several friends, and his toddler child is scared of him. Each time he tries to connect with the kid, his sister-in-law tells him he’s doing it wrong—and he stops trying.  Not surprisingly, the sister-in-law and her husband fight for permanent custody of the kid, and it’s hard not to root for their side.

Mike does, however, try to figure out who got his wife pregnant—and misses a clue so obvious that it was laughable.

I won’t ruin the little suspense there is by telling you how it turns out. But rest assured, it’s the most unrealistic ending ever.

Scottoline, who has written close to 20 mysteries and writes a humor column for the Philadelphia Inquirer normally does better than this. There is nothing to recommend about this book. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown; $25)

I finally got around to reading Gillian Flynn’s third mystery and boy, was it worth the wait! I had loved Sharp Objects, her first book, but had lost track of her. A friend recommended Gone Girl, and it was terrific. Full of huge, unexpected twists and turns, red herrings, and “OMG” moments.

Nick and Amy Dunne have it all. Both are beautiful, living the New York City glam life. The two magazine writers supplement their incomes with a trust fund set up by Amy’s parents, the authors of the “Amazing Amy” series of children’s books.  

But in a head-spinning turn of events, it’s over. Both are laid off, the trust fund is gone, and they lose the Brooklyn brownstone. When Nick’s twin sister calls from the Dunne family home in North Carthage, Missouri, to say that Nick’s mother is dying, he decides that he and Amy must move back to his family homet. They rent a foreclosed McMansion in a ghost town of similar properties and try to make a new life.  Using the last of Amy’s money, Nick and his sister open a bar.

On the afternoon of Amy and Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick gets a call at the bar from a neighbor, saying that his cat is outside, and his front door is wide open. Nick returns home to find signs of a struggle and Amy gone.

Model-handsome Nick has been anything but a model husband. He doesn’t help himself by lying to the cops.  The reader knows it’s just a matter of time before the cops learn what we know and put him away.

Until. . .

Sorry. I can’t tell more without giving away the best moments of a terrific story.

With such an outstanding plot, it seems somewhat petty to say that I hated how the book ended. Flynn pulled back at the last minute, with an ending that came across as surprisingly cowardly. I’d love to know why she lost her nerve. 

As soon as I have time, I'm going back to read Dark Places

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Start of Everything, by Emily Winslow (Delacorte Press; $26.00)

When the body of a young woman washes up in a flooded marsh outside of Cambridge, England, Detective Inspector Chloe Frohmann and her partner, Morris Keene—just back from medical leave after being knifed in the gut and hand—must first figure out who she is, before they can try to solve the question of who killed her.

Meanwhile, a number of letters addressed only to Katja, in care of the university, arrive in the mailroom, where Mathilde Oliver has the job of sending misdirected mail to the proper recipient. Mattie, whose father is an astronomy professor at the university, has some pretty major issues. She reads the letters and learns that someone named Stephen is pining for this Katja. Problem is, there doesn’t seem to be anyone at the university with that name.

Could it be that Katja is the young woman in the swamp? Well, maybe. The parallel plot lines would certainly lead one to that conclusion. But that would be too easy. Instead, Emily Winslow, an American living in Cambridge, muddies the plot with people sharing the same name; a pivotal character who gets two other pivotal characters confused and calls them by the wrong names; confusing switches between the past and present: and finally, the lamest plot device of all time: an evil twin who doesn’t surface until near the end of the book.

It’s a shame Emily Winslow’s plot wasn’t up to her setting. Cambridge shouldn’t be wasted on such drivel.  This book was a sloppy mess.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Black Box, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown;$27.99)

Why would Anneke Jesperson, a Danish photojournalist, wade into the L.A riots following the Rodney King verdict? With the body count rising by the hour, Detective Harry Bosch, who made the report of Jesperson’s execution-style murder in an alley in South Central, didn’t have the luxury of finding out. He had no sooner bagged a shell casing at the scene, when he and his partner were called to the next murder. No coroner, no CSI—just another victim.

But 20 years later, Bosch is still curious. Now a member of LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Case unit, Bosch specifically asked to be assigned to the case. The murder book is sketchy, at best. A few calls came in over the years inquiring about the status of the case, but no one had even taken the time to go through the victim’s knapsack or other belongings. With the anniversary of the riots looming, the head of the unit wants to prove that the LAPD is still actively working all unsolved murders from those terrible days.

Bosch starts with the only evidence he’s got: the shell casing. He traces it to several other crimes, and tries to follow it back to who might have had it at the time of the riots. He also focuses on Jesperson’s belongings, to attempt to understand what brought her first to the US, and then to LA. 

In Connelly’s skillful hands, what could have been a routine police procedural becomes a multi-layered, engrossing read. On the Mt. Rushmore of current great American mystery writers, Connelly’s face would be front and center. 


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Phantom, by Jo Nesbø (Knopf; $25.95)

I am perplexed by the explosive popularity of Scandinavian murder mysteries. Don’t get me wrong: they are, for the most part, good reads. But my question is more along the lines of “Why Scandinavia?”  Why not Eastern Europe? South America?  Obviously, it’s not a language issue, since publishers of books from those countries could pay to have books translated to English or other languages just as they must for their Swedish and Norwegian authors. And I recognize, of course, that many countries are currently struggling with life and death issues that make writing mysteries frivolous and irrelevant. Trust me: I’m not superficial enough to be questioning why there aren’t mysteries coming out of, say, Somalia or Haiti.  But I am curious as we don’t see mysteries about the Mexican drug trade, corrupt Russian oligarchs, Eastern European spies, or similar topics written by authors in those countries.

In the mystery world, Norway boasts two superstars: Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø. Phantom, Nesbø’s latest Harry Hole mystery, shows just why he makes the list. Hole, the Oslo police officer last seen in The Leopard, thought he’d never come back to Oslo from Hong Kong. But that plan changed in an instant when Oleg, the 19-year-old son of Harry’s former lover, was arrested for the murder of Gusto Hanssen. Harry had helped to raise Oleg and, although he’s lost touch with the boy, knows without a doubt that he was not capable of murder. The police aren’t inclined to investigate what they believe is the open-and-shut case of one drug dealer killing another.

As Harry retraces Oleg’s steps, he learns of the terrible toll that a new drug, called “violin,” has taken on the seedy side of Oslo. Once they try it, users will stop at nothing to get more. Adding to Harry’s anguish over Oleg’s arrest is the older man’s guilt at having deserted Oleg and his mother.

Phantom is a multi-layered, well-plotted mystery filled with compelling characters and a setting bleak from both weather and hopelessness.

Mad River, by John Sandford (Putnam; $27.95)

The calls to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension came in fast and furiously. Agnes O’Leary—shot dead during a robbery. Emmet Williams, gunned down as he got in his car. An older couple, the Welshes, shot to death in the kitchen of their home. Murders never happen in Shinder, located in remote western Minnesota, so odds were, the four were somehow connected. Lucas Davenport, head of BCA, directed investigator Virgil Flowers to get himself to Shinder and figure out what was going on.

Jimmy Sharp, Tom McCall, and Becky Welsh had themselves a goal: steal the diamonds that former Shinder High School homecoming court member Marsha O’Leary wore to her 35th high school reunion. Becky saw the bling when she served Mrs. O’Leary some sheet cake. Becky, the “hottest girl to ever come from Shinder,” only wanted the stones; she and Tom were horrified when Jimmy pulled his gun and capped Marsha’s adult daughter, Agnes. When their getaway car wouldn’t start, they also shot Emmett Williams and stole his car. After that, it was easy: they went around town killing anyone they pleased: those they thought might have money, their parents—really, anyone, for any excuse.

Virgil Flowers works with the locals to try to get to the bottom of the Charles Starkweather/Caril Ann Fugate-esque crime spree. Each new victim made a bizarre sort of sense, but the initial shooting of Agnes O’Leary didn’t fit the pattern. Virgil focuses on that killing as a way of understanding the rest, while the sociopathic trio evades the cops and the bodies keep stacking up. The addition of a cop to the list puts the spree in a whole new category. It’s all Virgil can do to try to take the killers alive before the locals eliminate any chance of him learning what set them off in the first place.

John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers mysteries are just as good as his Lucas Davenport series always was. His books are immensely readable and they never disappoint. This one is terrific.