Category Archives: Mysteries

Review: Heartbreak Bay – Stillhouse Lake #5 (Rachel Caine)

This is the fifth (and now final, with the author’s death) book in the Stillhouse Lake series. The first book in the series – also called Stillhouse Lake – had me scratching my head, wondering if I’d read it or any other in this series, as it sounded familiar. As is fairly usual in my case, the answer is no.

Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to have read the genesis of the series in order to understand this one. Even if Ms Caine had not given some quick backstory disguised as the main character’s musings while looking at the photos on the walls in her office, it would have worked just as well as a standalone thriller/mystery. I do think, however, if this books sounds interesting that reading the books in order would be beneficial, for all the little things readers might notice in each book along the way that the author may (judiciously) not mention in the later books, and to witness the growth of the characters as they move through the events of each book.

Warning, content-wise: if you’re easily put off by violence, or descriptions of violence in general, and specifically violence toward children, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re fine with violence and you like strong female characters, you might want to give it a go.

Heartbreak Bay is a multi-point of view, present tense book., and Gwen, the primary character, is now a private investigator. When Detective Kezia Claremont calls her to come to the scene of a submerged car, she can’t help but go. When the car is extracted, there are two kids, strapped in and drowned, but no sign of the mother, who was driving. This investigation by itself would be enough for a book (or more), and although I picked out the villain when they showed up in the book, this did not detract from an engaging case that tried everyone involved – as it generally is when it involves kids.

There’s a subplot involving an internet rando troll, trying to make Gwen pay for what the troll thinks she did – namely, helping her ex-husband in his serial killing ways. This subplot is ok as a device, but there’s enough stress and pressure in the primary case without it. I didn’t find this as engaging as the primary case, and that may just have to do with things external to the book (like living through the past five years, as I type this, and the sheer tsunami of nonsense online) than it does with he book itself. It does fit pretty well into the larger scope of the book, so I won’t ding it in rating it.

Overall, I found Heartbreak Bay lived up to both the thriller and mystery genres, with fairly tight plotting, good writing, and characters worth writing about.

A solid 4.5 stars out of 5, rounded to a 5 for its good qualities and no major issues.

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

Review: Point Roberts (Alexander Rigby)

Point Roberts, in the Pacific Northwest, has a history – a history of murder that happened every February decades ago. Since then, the town has gone on lockdown each February: no one in, no one out. A total of fifteen people were killed, but after the lockdowns started, the murders stopped. Even when it seemed further lockdowns were not necessary, the town continued the tradition, for some bizarre (quirky!) reason.

Liza has moved to the island with her foster family. She feels a bit of a misfit, of course, and now there’s this weirdo lockdown month where no one can go anywhere and outsiders can’t get in.

She teams up with four other misfits, and the group tries to determine who the Point Roberts serial killer was – or is.

!!!!Spoilers here!!!!

The atmosphere is gloomy, as one might expect in that region in the grip of winter. Note: you must be willing to push your suspension of disbelief a little harder in this story than some others, not just during the investigation phase, but during the denouement – the killer (who you can probably guess) killing for reasons attributed to a secret and to mental illness, the presentation of which was a bit of a curiosity.

I didn’t really care for this, although I understand it can happen in real life. But the reasoning behind the murders and the secret they conceal just struck me wrong.

It’s well enough written, although I think there was a but too much effort to try to make everyone quirky, and there were a couple of tropes that bugged me (one in particular: HIV these days is not an automatic death sentence, and someone who gets a positive test will get a second one to confirm). Also, what’s the deal with this girl running around the island with four adults? that’s just…odd. There are some clunky portions, and it could have used a bit of trimming. Authors, please don’t have your climax explained in excruciating detail. If you have to explain that much at the end, you haven’t done enough before that point to lay the groundwork of the story.

I’ll give it three stars out of five.

Thanks to Alden and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Watch Her – Hester Thursby #3 (Edwin Hill)

Watch Her is the third book in the Hester Thursby series, and I will say up front that this is an exceptional mystery. While it is not necessary to read the preceding books, it would likely add even more depth to a cast of characters so already fleshed out they could, in another, magical world, simply walk off the paper and into the real world without missing a beat or seeming out of place.

Hester is an information-digging, crime-solving dynamo. Paired with Detective Angela White in a nonofficial way, Hester blazes through the book, listening to what people tell her and what they do not. Her musings on what she has been told, and what she tells other people – including Morgan, with whom she lives – are some of the finest indirect action I’ve seen in a mystery. Nothing gets bogged down, the internal dialogue doesn’t veer into infodump territory, and those dialogues are organic, exactly how I would imagine would think them through.

Hester has been hired by a wealthy family to perform what is, to her, a simple task: sorting through information to complete a project and present her conclusions. The only speedbump winds up being a police report about a breakin at that wealthy family’s house that sounds off to both Hester and Angela, and which launches us into a decades-old mystery, with a current mystery as a chaser.

There is a rather large cast – this is just a note, not a particular warning, since paying attention will keep you squared away on who is who, how they’re related, and what animals they own.

It seems that everyone in this book has a secret: the circumstances surrounding a drowned child, a secret (or not so secret) affair, a cop who did something no cop should do, a woman who has not been out of her house in years.. I’m curious as to whether the author was playing a bit on the title – Watch Her to Watcher is not a big step to make when secrets start spilling out toward the end.

The ending wraps up nicely, the only loose end being the now strained relationship between our two leads due to the events of the book. I’ve no doubt they will patch things up in their next outing, something I am looking forward to, whenever it comes out.

The only ding I’d give it would be the “Chicken Day” painting, full of blood. It’s a reference to processing meat chickens, which I myself do each year. Certainly there is some blood, but it doesn’t look like your average slasher flick.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Kensington Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Postscript Murders (Elly Griffiths)

The Postscript Murders starts off in a promising way to me, generally not a regular reader of cozy mysteries. I’ve read Elly Griffiths before, and seem to recall it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, so I decided to have a shot at another.

Natalka, a carer for 90-year old Peggy, is cleaning out Peggy’s room after Peggy appears to have died of natural causes. But, Natalka is suspicious after finding dedications in books from authors to Peggy, who styled herself as a “murder consultant”. She presents her suspicions to the police, and away we go.

The problem, for me, is that I was far more interested in Peggy’s living story, not the story of the investigation of her death by Harbinder Kaur. Don’t get me wrong: the story is perfectly fine. When writers start getting killed, Kaur gets the idea that perhaps Peggy’s death was not by natural causes after all and that there’s something larger going on. There are twists and turns, an arrest, and a final twist/informational item that I was a bit meh on, but if you like cozies and you like intricately plotted novels that are meta and feature other mystery novels and writers, you’ll find this to be agreeable. It’s just a periodic reminder that while I am willing to read cozies, they are often not my favorite things.

I’ll give it a solid four out of five stars. If Ms. Griffiths would like to write about Peggy, I’ll snap that up in an instant.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: From the Woods (Charlotte Greene)

It all starts innocently enough: a group of friends decide to go hiking/camping in an area of a national forest that is only open to a small number of people each year. Then it all goes spectacularly wrong.

Before that happens, though, Fiona has to be prodded into joining her friend Jill and her married friends Sarah and Carol. Fiona and Jill have the usual sort of non-assertive/almost bully relationship that is fairly common in fiction.

But talk her into it they do, and the four head out to meet their guides and Roz, the leader of the guide company. Of course Fiona is drawn to her immediately, and Roz to her, even with the rather brash Jill acting like a twelve year old.

At first, it’s a pleasant ride on the horses, but they hear what sounds like someone chopping down a tree – which means someone else is on the trail who should not be there. When Roz and two guides scout up ahead on the trail, they come back a bit skittish. When asked what’s wrong, they don’t say and the group keeps going until they reach the first camping area.

Fiona and Roz are in that scoping out phase of one another, and it’s one part sweet and one part trope. There’s lots of staring, the “accidental” brush of hands, etc. Meet cute in the middle of a forest.

It turns out that Roz and the guides had found runes carved into trees, and when Fiona and one of the others go to the latrines, they find more. The group now has a decision to make: do they continue, or turn back? Continue it is, even with the awareness that someone is in the forest an carving weirdo runes into trees, setting bear traps, and digging pits. This is the part in movies where someone realizes there’s a killer on the loose, and instead of barricading themselves in their house with a shotgun, they’ve left a sliding door open and hear noises in the basement, so they go down into the basement, without turning on any lights, to see what it is while you scream, “Are you out of your mind?

That should give you an idea of what happens next. People vanish from the camp site. Someone falls into a bear put. Another gets a big chomp from a bear trap.

There’s a mystery to solve, and solve it they do, although I had a hard time believing the ending, it was still an okay book. Everyone finds that well of strength within themselves, pushing themselves into doing things that in their other, “real” world they could never see themselves doing, and I think that’s a very good thing that people as a rule should be doing in their part of the world, even if it seems to them o be inconsequential: those small steps add up.

If you’re looking for sexytimes scenes, there are none in this book – something I kind of enjoyed after reading two other books with what seemed like one per chapter. Nothing against the sexytimes, but if you’re not writing erotica, where those scenes are the point of the story, throwing in too many scenes of that type in genre fiction really is a detriment to the story.

I’m giving this a four out of five, as the book is written well enough, the bad guys sufficiently creepy, and someone finds their strength that they didn’t even realize they had.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: In Cold Blood (Jane Bettany)

In Cold Blood is a mystery with quite a bit of social commentary on the route between the discovery of a skeleton buried in someone’s back yard and the ultimate apprehension of the perpetrator(s). If you have issues with the pronouns people apply to themselves, you should move along.

For everyone else: DI Isabel Blood (nice name for a detective) and her team are called to the site where a skeleton has been unearthed by a brother and sister rehabbing a house in which she used to live. DI Blood has some anxious moments where she considers if the bones could belong to her long-missing dad, and the teeniest thought that her mother may be a murderer.

Fortunately, that turns out not to be the case, but it raises another question: whose body is in this shallow grave, and what, if anything, do all the neighbors remember about the woman who lived there?

Most have no idea about Celia, the woman who lived in the house, what she did, or who she was. The next door neighbor and her autistic son are about the best witnesses, but they also track down Celia’s niece, who was in Australia during the timeline reconstructed by DI Blood and the forensics team.

The investigation continues, with some lines of inquiries trailing off into nothing, which is not very exciting when it happens, but it’s realistic.

This is a debut novel, but doesn’t read like one. – the story is well told, and the twisting, winding road to the truth and the perp is an interesting one.

Solid four of five stars.

Thanks to HQ Digital and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

Review: Fallen Angel – DI Gaby Darin #3 (Jenny O’Brien)

Fallen Angel is the third book in the DS (now acting DI) Gaby Darin series. While it is not necessary to have read the first two books in this series, I think it would have helped immensely if I had. Although I did grok much of the backstory via the author dropping in some details here and there. Even with those details, it took awhile to get the feel of the room, as it were.

Acting DI Darin is assigned to the North Wales office, and since there isn’t a lot going on as the story opens, Darin Goes through several cold cases, selecting a few to review for possible followup. One of her staff, DS Owen Bates, ifs ahead of her, and presents to her the case from 25 years earlier: the death of Angelica Brook, and 18 year old who seemed to have simply vanished from her room one night only to be found dead later, dying of hypothermia, her body staged. Angelica also happens to have been the sister of Bates’ wife.

This is my first small quibble: involving family members in an investigation of this sort is a no-no, because they’re emotionally involved and that could be a bonanza for a defense attorney. Since this is a sideways adjacent kind of situation, I let it go. The team reopens the case and starts running down all the clues and the scant evidence from that case – but now, of course, there is a lot more information available, better testing, and so on. Still, nothing seems to be coming to fruition for the team.

While this is going on, there’s also the story of a local family, the Eustaces. A young woman and her husband take care of her mother who has dementia. One night, their house explodes in what looks to be a terrible accident. But things are definitely not what they seem.

I won’t go further than that, as even though the plot is very complicated. revealing more would take some of the fun of unraveling the clues and teasing out the murderer(s). I will say that the internal thought of Di Darin annoyed me from time to time, as she seemed, to me, to be spending an awful lot of time thinking about two men in her orbit: what they thought of her, and if she would sleep with them.

The ending wrapped up a tad too neatly, but it did come together nicely.

Other than these minor things and Darin making moonfaces at some guys, it was a good read, and while I didn’t get the exact relations between some people and families at the end, I did pick out the murderer(s).

Overall: 3.5 stars out of five, rounded down to 3 for the reasons above. Sitting inside while the snow flies and reading this wouldn’t be a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Thanks to HQ Digital and NetGalley for the reading copy.

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.