Tag Archives: mystery

Before She Was Helen – review

Solid four stars out of five. Warning: there is discussion of rape and a serial rapist, although not graphic.

Clemmie – or, as her neighbors know her, Helen – lives in a sleepy, sort-of retirement community called Sun City. Her next door neighbor Dom texts her every morning to let her know he’s ok. Except today: no text.

Clemmie has a key to Dom’s place – in case of emergency, and something her friends and neighbors do not know. She heads next door into Dom’s place, calling out for him. She doesn’t find him, but she does find a door in the garage that leads to the other attached villa, presumably owned by neighbors who are rarely seen.

Telling herself that she’s just checking for Dom, she enters the third (very empty, almost unlived-in) villa and sees a glass dragon sculpture that she thinks is so beautiful that she takes a picture and texts it to her nephew.

So begins Before She Was Helen, a character-driven mystery set in a limited community area.

Her text puts into a motion a grand mystery: the creator of the dragon is hunting for money stolen from him and tracks down Clemmie/Helen, Dom is missing, no one knows much of anything about the ghost neighbors, Clemmie’s friend Joyce is kicking out her boyfriend (who has been taking money from her checking account in bits and pieces), and all the other neighbors join in the fun when a body is found in Dom’s golf cart, in his garage.

There’s another story as well: Clemmie’s life before she became Helen, as the title suggests, in the 50s. It involves Clemmie being stalked and raped repeatedly by a man, her becoming pregnant tanks to her rapist, and giving up the child to an adoptive couple. When she moves from place to place, trying to escape him, he always finds where she is living and shows up. At one point, he rapes her roommate when he turns up but doesn’t find Clemmie. The rapist is later found dead. The case went cold in the past, and in the present, Clemmie’s nephew texts her that the case is being reopened, adding another worry to her pile.

The book moves fairly seamlessly between the present and the past, both eras containing complex mysteries to be solved: in the present, who among Clemmie’s neighbors are involved in drugs/dealing, and who killed the young man found in Dom’s garage? In the past, how did Clemmie finally escape, and who killed the stalker/rapist?

While none of the characters are very deeply presented beyond Clemmie, I still found it an enjoyable read and was wondering how all the pieces would be tied together, or indeed, if they could be. Answer: yes, they could be, and were.

As noted, this is a character-driven novel: there are no big action sequences or gory scenes beyond some blood in a knife fight that involves the artist and one of Clemmie’s neighbors. If you are looking or gunfights and foot (or golf cart) chases, you won’t find that here. But if you’re looking for a good read of how one woman reinvented herself and how she manages to get through the webs small town communities can weave, this is the book for you.

Thanks to NetGalley and Poisoned Pen Press for the advance reading copy.

A Matter of Will – book review

Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas&Mercer for the electronic advance copy. This book is slated for release this summer.

Before I go in, a side note: this is an uncorrected proof. I’m not sure if whoever edits these titles reads the feedback, but please, for the love of anything you hold holy, correct the instances of “shelf company” to “shell company”. I’ve never read anything else by this author, so have no comparisons to earlier works of his.

Will Matthews is a not-so-successful broker (or “wealth manager”) at a finance company – so unsuccessful that he gets dumped on by his boss on an almost daily basis and worries he will be fired at any moment. Enter Sam and Eve, who he meets at a hockey game. Before he knows what has hit him, Sam is sweeping Will off his feet, taking him to lavish dinners, tuxedo-required parties, and parking tens of millions of dollars with him for investing. He basically buys Will a ten million dollar apartment, and makes him sign off as a director of or participant in various shell companies.

Meanwhile, Gwen is a young attorney added to the team defending a Hollywood star, who has allegedly killed his wife. Will and Gwen meet up via a dating app, have a dinner, and another date. They wind up as a couple – it’s true love for both of them.

There’s no real way to go through the rest without spoilers, so I’ll leave it at: everything is not as it seems, and soon after that, Will and Gwen have to start thinking about their very survival, both professionally and personally.

The good: it’s easy enough to read. The author doesn’t wander off into incomprehensible jargon associated with his own profession (law) when some courtroom/lawyer scenes come up. Will is given a fairly good backstory. There’s some infodumping, given as dialogue instead of a wall of text.

The bad: I’m sorry to say I found it to be a weird mashup of The Firm and Wall Street and When Harry Met Sally. Will is so naive as to be implausible, and apparently it doesn’t sound any alarms to him that some random guy he meets wants to invest a fortune with him. .Even worse, the first 50% of the book is very dull throughout this. Not once does Will question anything, and the first half is just Will and Gwen going about their respective businesses.. It looks like the author couldn’t decide on what kind of book it should be, so included everything, and that swamped the entire book. Also: using the actual John Yoo in this? Not good.

The remainder of the book involves some murders, a bit of cat and mouse, and asks the reader to believe that the kingpin of a gigantic criminal organization would tell even the new nominal leader of it about plans, the evidence being held over their head, or allow that person to remain alive, knowing that person is not all in and is hesitant about roping in another young broker, among other things. We then get swept over once more to the legal bit playing out on Gwen’s side, which does nothing for the story. She, too, winds up appearing to be a tad too naive, and the ending is simply far too convenient, wrapping up all the details.

If this book were by an as yet unpublished author, and they submitted it as it is, that author would remain unpublished. It would be fine as a plane or beach read, but I would not recommend it.