Category Archives: Mysteries

Review: 13 Days to Die (Matt Miksa)

Sometimes, I don’t mind if a book doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up.

This is not one of those times.

13 Days to Die spreads itself across several genres – thriller (political, medical), mystery (hunting an ID to attach to a person), flat out political commentary, conspiracy theories, etc.

The basics: a man comes out of the forest in Tibet, looking like Patient Zero of a new bug that could easily become a pandemic, which will look pretty familiar to anyone living through 2020. An American intel officer impersonating a journalist, Olen Grave, is sent off to investigate this, and teams up with a Chinese medical doctor, Dr. Zhou, also investigating it.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that Patient Zero is not just some random dude, but is more than he seems to be. Grave (it isn’t necessary to telegraph what’s going on by naming someone Grave, author, unless you want to add pulpy fiction to the list of genres) and Zhou get caught up in a (shocker!) conspiracy involving their respective countries. They have to figure out what is going on before the planet gets nuked into oblivion.

There are some unnecessary afterwords about characters at the end, and it’s at this point where the train really goes off the rails.

The story is okay, but the book could have been better if it decided whether to go into full-on conspiracy theorist ground.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to Crooked Lane and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Last Exit – Jenny Lu #1 (Michael Kaufman)

The Last Exit features two main characters:on is Jen Lu, a cop in a near-future earth where climate change has ravaged the planet and the Russians appear to have taken over DC(?) but we still have a President and Vice resident. The other is Chandler, an AI implant in Lu’s head, who only “lives” for five years.

The world of this future has those in their late 40s and early 50s having a good chance of contracting mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in this work, changed slightly to become the acronym ROSE). The top scientists have decided it’s because there are too many old people, so the official policy becomes this: a child can receive the treatment for ROSE, but only if their parents decide to exit when they reach their mid 60s. The policy, of course, tends to result in a lot of elder abuse, with parents at time being abused by their children because the parents don’t want to exit. The mega-rich, naturally, live by a different set of rules – they neither have to exit, nor do their children lack for the treatment, should they need it. The adults who seem to live forever are called Timeless, a strata unreachable for the usual day to day population.

Lu hears rumors of something called Eden – she isn’t sure if it’s a place or a treatment, but keeps running into mention of it, usually at murder scenes. She mentions it to her boss, but he tells her to stow it and focus on her job. But with Eden popping up again and again, she can’t help but poke into it, despite the warnings from her boss, and despite the shadowy figures, including a rep from BigPharma, of course, who meet with her precinct to warn of a counterfeit treatment that causes people to age like progeria on steroids, leaving them dead within three days. Conspiracies galore!

The AI, Chandler, seems to be a route through which the author can get to the reader without it being infodumpy, and it does work to an extent. There were a couple of times when I wondered how it could have seen anything if Lu just scanned past something. These were minor issues, though.

Overall, it isn’t a bad mystery, and while the social justice stuff is here, it is not completely in your face, so if you’re of a more conservative bent, it likely won’t be too preachy for you.

Three and a half stars out of five, rounded up to four.

Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

Review: Cry Baby – Tom Thorne #17 (Mark Billingham)

I’m a sucker for origin stories, ever if I’ve never read any of the books in the series.

Such is the case with Cry Baby, listed as Tom Thorne #17, but which is essentially book zero.

The year is 1996, before everyone had the equivalent of a supercomputer in their pocket. Two boys go into the woods, but only one returns. Thorne is assigned to investigate the disappearance of the boy, but with no information at all to go on. He’s also navigating the ruins of his marriage, which comes with the additional baggage of his estranged wife’s boyfriend.

Another couple of deaths – people known and connected to the families of the two boys – ups the ante, and we discover that some people involved are not giving up a;; the information as to what they know.

It’s a taut story. The only misfire for me is a motive that is sadly not as well defined as the rest of the book.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Ruthless (David Putnam)

The Ruthless is, according to the author’s note at the back of the book, the fourth in the “early years” series featuring Bruno Johnson, and the current books are the series moving forward. I’ve not read any off the books in this series prior to this.

The book opens well – Bruno and a tweaker named Nigel, sitting in a stolen car, with Bruno holding several thousand in cash to give to a PI. The PI clocks Bruno through his used-for-a-sting name of Karl. Bruno (and Nigel) are arrested shortly after the encounter, and Bruno gets reamed out by his former boss, who thinks Bruno is a former cop – he isn’t, he’s just sitting in on a long, long sting.

We get a bit of backstory, including Bruno tracking down his son in law and breaking several of his fingers while trying to get said son in law to admit to abducting one of his twin sons. So we know that either Bruno doesn’t have the greatest temperament, or he’s allowing his emotions to get the better of him.

Wicks, his former boss, comes to talk to Bruno about joining in the hunt to figure out who killed a judge and his wife. They were shot down in their driveway, and Wicks is looking for more headlines, but needs Bruno to help him get there.

The bulk of the book is taken up by that search – following leads, asking tons of questions, and in general being a pain in the ass to criminals. The ending comes in hard and very fast, with¬† a nonstop action ride, one very surprising action by Bruno’s dad, and a conclusion that would be ambiguous were it not for the rather long author’s note at the end.

Thanks to Oceanview Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.

Three out of five stars.

Review: Under Violent Skies (Judi Daykin)

DS Sara Hirst has voluntarily left the Met and moved to Norfolk to join the Serious Crimes Unit – both to get away from her parents in London but also to hunt up her father, who vanished but whom her mother will not talk about.

Her very first day starts off with a bang, as the team is called out to a murder. The dead man has been dead for a bit, and as Hirst is looking over the body, one of the team who is not quite thrilled that she’s there gives her a push into the ditch where the dead man lies. Hirst then becomes part of the crime scene, and she has to submit to a DNA swab for exclusionary purposed. Plus, he nice new shoes are ruined.

As the team investigates, Hirst gets up front and personal with the racism and xenophobia that small town life can bring out in spades. She’s the only person of color on the team, and some of the people of Norfolk aren’t particularly pleased to be talking to her, and also direct their complaints about immigration at her, even though she’s Britain-born.

A series of thefts from surrounding farms gets folded into the murder investigation, as it turns out the dead man was an investigator for an insurance company, and was apparently working on something on his own when he was killed.

From time to time, we get the narrative from the POV of a woman brought in to feed the crop pickers from various Slavic countries. She’s worried about herself, of course, and worried about another young woman who is used by the men as their plaything.

Some surprising forensics results sends Hirst into what will be a difficult choice. As the team closes in on nabbing the killer, they also have to deal with the foreign crop picks, who are about to pack up and move on.

It all comes to a fiery head – literally.

To say more would ruin the story, which I highly recommend. The books covers a number of themes in its telling: what constitutes families, racism, xenophobia, migrant labor, and the plight of women trafficked from Eastern European countries.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Joffe Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Shadow Sands – Kate Marshall #2 (Robert Bryndza)

Shadow Sands is book two in the Kate Marshall series. It easily stands on its own, and reading the first entry is nt necessary to understand this one.

Marshall and her son are scuba diving in the Shadow Sands reservoir, and come across the body of Simon Kendall. He’s certainly dead, but is it because of the numerous slashes he’s taken, or something else?

After calling it in, Marshall and her son give the details of how they found Kendal to DCI Henry Ko, the son of a rather legendary retired officer. Since Marshall is no longer a police officer herself – after having an affair with her married boss and then catching her boss as a serial killer – she’s dismissed from the scene.

Simon’s mother, however, wants to hire Marshall to investigate the death of her son. Being a PI is a side gig to her lecturing at the university, and she takes on the case. With her assistant Tristan, she starts looking into the case.

Meanwhile, an Italian professor with an interest in urban legends disappears, As Tristan knew her, they add the missing woman to their case.

As they dig around, they find that the usual medical examiner did not perform the autopsy on Simon. Things get weirder when it seems that there might be something going on with the father and son Ko and their involvement in other incidents where bodies have been pulled from the reservoir.

Add in the involvement of a wealthy family who owns most of the land around the reservoir, and their possible involvement, and you get a mystery that’s worth the read.

Overall impression: a tight story, without any lagging portions, and enough backstory trickled in that readers coming in without having read the first book will not be lost. Marshall is a great character, with just enough flaws  to make her believable.

Five stars.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

Review: Deep into the Dark (P. J. Tracy)

Deep into the Dark primarily features Sam Easton, a wounded vet with PTSD, in a story about a serial killer. No, he isn’t a cop. Nor a newspaper reporter. He’s just a guy trying to cope with half a burned face and survivor’s guilt, as the only man left from his small unit. He works as a barback at Pearl Club. Melody Traeger? Not a cop – the bartender at Pearl Club.

Margaret Nolan and Al Crawford, however, are cops – LAPD homicide detectives. They’re the ones investigating a serial killer. They are called out to the scene of a murder involving a dancer at Pearl Club. And this is how everything starts coming together.

The dead woman was convinced someone was following her. Traeger has been seeing a black Jeep now and again – as has her stoner friend at the apartment where they both live. Easton has seen it. The cops aren’t so sure.

As it turns out, Easton’s marriage with Yuki is on the rocks. Traeger has been kind of seeing a guy with a volatile temper. When both turn up dead, Easton and Traeger have an issue: how to convince the cops that a guy who has PTSD-related blockouts, and an abused woman who used to be an addict are not cold blooded killers.

There’s a subplot involving the son of a famous filmmaker that really isn’t a subplot. It’s more of a parallel, and it’s important to keep tabs on it.

While Crawford is ready to lock up Easton and Traeger, and throw away the key, evidence found at yet another crime scene seem to show that one of Easton’s dead buddies may not be quite so dead after all.

To get into more detail would really be quite spoilery, but I’ll say this: the killer came as no surprise to me.

The book is well paced, and with the possible exception of Crawford, I found the characters to be well-rounded human beings, versus people stuffed into a story because the narrative demanded it. I like the investigation, and Nolan’s bit of confliction about Easton because her brother Max was killed in action.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Minotaur/St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

Review: The Girls in the Snow – Nikki Hunt #1 (Stacy Green)

The Girls in the Snow opens with a creepy “girl comes home to find parents slain” prologues. From there, we’re zipped into the future, where the same girl is now a woman, working for the FBI.

This opener in the Nikki Hunt series is quite good: Hunt is back in Stillwater, Minnesota. It’s business, this time, though. Two teenage girls have been found dead in the snow, after previously vanishing from a trail. Hunt has been working a serial killer case known as Frost (as he leaves his victims in the snow after killing them), but Hunt knows this is not his work. Still, she decides to stay on and work the case. This is my quibble with the book, which I’ll touch on further below.

She discovers while she’s in town that the man convicted of murdering her parents is getting a new hearing. There are protestors outside the courthouse, convinced that the investigation done at the time was faulty and Hunt’s memory of the events that night even moreso. That man’s brother also wants her to go talk to the man face to face and also review the case notes. She pushes him away, but tendrils of doubt start her questioning the events of that night. Oh, and her ex-boyfriend is still living in town, too, now married – and is the father of one of the girls found murdered.

The investigation into the current day murders starts very slowly, but pick up steam, and when another body is found – this time a dancer from one of local clubs. Hunt and her team pick up that case, too, and soon the two come crashing together, albeit in a way that might surprise readers.

Overall, a good read. There weren’t many laggy parts, and the characters were all pretty rounded out – no cardboard cutout secondary characters here. My only issue was that Hunt stayed on to head up the investigation once it was clear the girls were not victims of the Frost killer. There was a potential conflict of interest (her ex-boyfriend being the father of one of the dead girls) as well as the issue with the potential that the man she’d helped lock away when she was a teen herself would receive a new trial (not to mention the emotional aspect of it all).

Other than that – and I’m willing to overlook this for fictional purposes in a story that’s well done – it was an enjoyable read.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Bookouture and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: One of Our Own – Gregor Demarkian #30/final in the series (Jane Haddam)

I did not know that this was part of a series – much less one with 29 books prior to this. This is, though, the final Gregor Demarkian book, as the author died of cancer while writing it. The book was finished by her sons. While this can be read as a standalone, it did not work well in that regard for the reasons below. This may be due to the sons completing it, but the editor should shoulder part of this as well.

This is a slow, slow ride of a book. It opens with a nine part prologue, so all the major players can be introduced, instead of pushing them into the narrative, to be introduced more organically. I found this annoying. A 14 year old boy takes a bus to a prison to visit someone named “Russ” who I presumed was his father. There’s no indication as to why Russ is locked up. In fact, we don’t find out the actual reason until almost the 75% mark. I also found this annoying, as other characters would mention him and that he’s gone nutty into conspiracy theories, almost making it sound like he was locked up because he was mentally unbalanced. But what did he do, exactly?

There’s an old Armenian woman named Marta, who lives in a rent-controlled apartment, and who has arguments with the building’s super, Hernandez, because he wants her to move out of her three room apartment into a single room so a larger Hispanic/Latino family can move in. This doesn’t go over well with Marta, who is a racist, hating the Latinos, most of whom she’s convinced are there illegally.

There’s a bunch of nuns, doing their best to help the community, which is admirable, but there’s also a point where one of the nuns infodumps the history of American nuns via dialogue. They’ve seen seeing a black van from time to time, and worry it’s ICE, come to pick off the adults and children they have in the church/school.

There’s Tommy, the 14 year old, who seems to be smarter and more level headed than almost anyone else in this book.

There’s Meera, from Mumbai, who hates Americans and America, and wants to move back, continuing to add to the cash stockpile she has going right now.

There’s Clare, from Lithuania, who likewise hates America, but who also hates Indians like Meera.

There’s a Latino whose name I forget who doesn’t like black people.

Everyone seems to be a giant, raging racist here.

Marta, who famously does not go out at night, suddenly does, stomping her way to the Adler Properties office. The building in which she lives is owned by Cary Adler. He owns a number of buildings, it seems. He also has various loans that he has to pay on.

While Tommy and the priest are walking, a black van is racing down the street. It loses control, slamming sideways into a light pole. The back doors pop open, and what looks like a large trash bag falls out. It’s a body – more specifically, an older woman, still alive, but in bad shape. I knew who it was immediately.

Then we get a whole bunch of stuff about illegal immigrants and a racist cop. Gregor and his wife Bennis are fostering a 7 year old Latino boy, so there’s discussion of paperwork, etc.

It turns out that Adler is under investigation by the feds for coyote operations – that is, bringing people illegally over the border and getting them to Philly so they can work in his various buildings, if possible. Clare and Meera are both money people, and they move money around to make things seem a bit rosier than they really are at Adler Properties. But the feds are having a tough time, because although they can see that movement of money, they can’t quite pin it down.

ICE shows up at the church to arrest some 70 year old janitor who had a DUI and served his time. Gregor wanders around as a consultant for the police, who don’t say it, but don’t want him there. He doesn’t add much as a consultant.

It takes a long time to get to the point where things start folding in on Adler. I won’t spoil what’s happening with the coyote operation except to say it isn’t quite as bad or as usual for what we consider coyotes to be.

Eventually, the case is wrapped up, with multiple pieces coming together at the same time.

The writing is fine, some of the characters were nicely fleshed out, but this book couldn’t seem to decide just what it wanted to be. Discussion of the currently broken immigration system and abuses by ICE? Social commentary on people living in cramped quarters, barely eking out a living? White collar crime and embezzlement and/or money laundering? An investigation into an assault and then later, a murder? Race relations and how most everyone is racist to their core? Who knows?

It’s very, very slow. If you can’t get through multiple POVs and narrative that seems to add nothing whatsoever to the store, this is not for you. If you’re a reader of the series, you’ll likely find it satisfying enough a finale.

Two stars out of five. Sorry, folks, this was just not for me.

Thanks to Minotaur and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: A Stranger at the Door – Rachel Marin #2 (Jason Pinter)

My usual disclaimer: this is the second book in the Rachel Marin series, and I have not read the first. However, I was able to read this as a standalone, with little to nothing lost or confusing.

The book opens with the musings of a teacher at the local high school on his ordinary, content life. There’s something he knows, though, and he sends an email to the titular Rachel Marin, couching it in somewhat vague terms, and asking to meet her to discuss it. We can tell this will not end well for him, and it doesn’t. When he answers to door and opens it for someone he appears to know, he is viciously beaten to death.

Rachel herself, and her two children, have settled into smallish town life in Ashby, Illinois. She’s seeing a detective with the Ashby PD, John Serrano, and working as a consultant for the APD. This was one area where reading the first book probably would have helped, but I’m not going to ding the story for that reason.

Serrano gets a call about a house fire and heads out. Rachel isn’t far behind. As it turns out, the house belongs to the (now dead) teacher, who happens to be one of Rachel’s son’s teachers. They find his body in his bed, and several hot points where accelerant has been used. But whoever set the fire has not bothered to try to hide the fact – meaning they are not concerned at all that anyone knows, and very likely want people to know.

The story moves from there into the whodunnit. We get a short intro (no names) to the bad guy’s right hand man, who is instructed to get close to Eric. This is fortunate the next day as Eric is about to get beaten up by bully. But once he’s under the wing of right hand man Ben Ruddock, who now has a name and who looks like a football linebacker, suddenly those types of issues go away. Ruddock invites Eric to join a fraternity of sorts – the description of it sounds like recruitment to some Dickensian group of misfits, with another man, Brice Bennett in the role of Uriah Heep.

As the investigation continues, Eric becomes more and more distant from his mother and sister, and the detectives are not having much luck finding anything as to who killed the poor teacher. Serrano interrupts at 1 AM meeting of the boys Ruddock has recruited, saving one of the boy from having his shoulder ripped out as Ruddock pins him.

Now the bad guys know they’re in trouble, and things get murkier and more dangerous along the way, with Rachel herself being clocked in the head by someone with a gun as she’s following Ruddock and Eric as Ruddock makes his rounds, handing out manila envelopes to various people.

In the middle of all this, someone from Rachel’s past shows up, telling Rachel they should work together because they’re on the same side, but Rachel doesn’t see eye to eye with her on this.

Eventually, the hunt picks up speed, snowballing to a dramatic and action-filled resolution.

The writing was good, and while I’m generally not a fan of continued inner monologues from characters to tell us how they’re feeling, I gave it some leeway this time for Rachel and Eric, as they’re going through a tough time. The relationships between the characters was quite good, and while there is violence, it is crucial to the story and not overly gruesome except for the autopsy scene with the dead (and burned) teacher. I recommend you not skip that unless it’s far too much for you. LGBTQ representation: Serrano’s female partner Tally is married to another woman, and they have kids.

There were a couple of points that could probably have been trimmed just a hair, and the actual scheme Bennett was running seemed to be a tad overly complicated, but overall, it’s quite a good read.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.