Release day! Today’s the day for the print version of the anthology, The Best Laid Plans, edited by Canadian mystery writer Judy Penz Sheluk. She’s collected 21 stories from popular short story writers, and if you like your crime and chills in small bites, you’ll enjoy this! Here’s a quick rundown of these entertaining tales.
About my story, “Who They Are Now”: When an aging sportscaster is murdered in his bed under cover of a vicious Florida hurricane, is someone after his priceless collection of baseball memorabilia? The Delray Beach police are on the case, aided by his neighbor, a feisty but no-longer-young Hollywood star.
Written by RG Belsky – This is former newsman Dick Belsky’s second crime story featuring Pulitzer-Prize winning print journalist Clare Carlson, now significantly reduced in career status by working as the news director for Channel 10 television.
Clare has a wittily cynical, self-deprecating take on her job and the events and people around her, and the novel begins with her musing on why some deaths—those of blonde white females—matter more than others, at least in the news business. Most of the time.
Clare runs a lively morning news meeting, in which the
reporters and staff hammer out which stories to feature that day, absent any
even bigger story breaking. On this particular day, Clare’s assignment editor
Maggie challenges the team to look a little deeper and discover what was
important about the life and death of a person they wouldn’t ordinarily spend
time on, a fifty-four-year-old homeless woman stabbed to death in an ATM
vestibule. Because Clare rises to the challenge, they discover, over time, just
how significant the story of Dora Gayle turns out to be.
The first glimmer there may be more to the homeless woman’s story
than they anticipated comes when Grace Mancuso, a woman Gayle’s polar
opposite—young, beautiful, wealthy, a stockbroker—is brutally murdered. Beside
her body is a list of five names, five people who appear to have nothing in
common, who in fact believe they have never even met. The last name on the list
is Dora Gayle.
Through Clare’s investigative journalism, Belsky expertly
rolls out the stories of all these people, living and dead, and their possible
intersections. Except for Gayle, of course, are they suspects in either murder?
Potential victims? In the process, Belsky lays down enough red herrings to feed
Belsky, who lives and worked in Manhattan for years, knows
his setting well, not just its geography, but its culture down to the
neighborhood level. You may look up from his pages and be surprised to find
yourself somewhere other than Washington Square or the East Village, so
thoroughly is this story imbued with the spirit of New York.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that, in the end, the death of Dora Gayle, a death that ordinarily would have been passed over without journalistic notice, started the novel’s engine, bearing out Clare’s advice to her news team that “there’s a story to every murder.”
By Denise Mina – In her new deftly plotted crime thriller,
Denise Mina uses a compelling story-within-a-story to draw you in. First-person
narrator Anna McDonald lives in Glasgow with husband Hamish and two young
daughters. Early one morning, she’s listening to a true-crime podcast about the
sinking of the Dana, a private yacht
moored in France’s Île de Ré. The boat suffered an explosion below decks and
sank, drowning a father and his two grown children.
Anna is a dispassionate listener to this story until it mentions
the yacht-owner’s name, Leon Parker. She knows him. Years before, when she worked
as a maid at an exclusive Scottish holiday resort, Parker was a guest, and she
remembers him fondly. “Oh, God, Leon’s laugh. So dark and wild you could drown
a bag of kittens in it.”
Anna can’t reminisce forever, though, she has to awaken the
children and her husband and start their day. In a frenzy of morning
preparations, Anna finally answers the knock at the door. Her best friend
Estelle is there with a roller bag, and Hamish is at the top of the stairs, his
own roller bag beside him.
Hamish is leaving her for Estelle. He’s keeping the house
and the girls. Anna will get money. Throughout this roller-coaster of a story, Mina
effectively conveys Anna’s erratic state of mind, and while her character
doesn’t always make the best decisions, you can believe in her. She’s prickly and charming.
And she has secrets. She wasn’t always Anna McDonald. She
was Sophie Bukaran until she was raped by four footballers. The case attracted
unwanted notoriety, the fans never forgave her, and team owner Gretchen Tiegler
tried to get her killed.
Soon Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen arrives. He’s an instantly
recognizable member of a popular band who is as well known for being anorexic
as for his music. Without thought of logistics or consequences, Anna and Fin
launch into a road trip to flee the reminders of their abandonment. As they
listen to the podcast episodes in the car, Fin also becomes intrigued with the Dana’s sinking and its reputation of
Eventually, the two begin their own series of podcasts, asking new questions about the crime. Thanks to Fin’s celebrity and the almost immediate outing of Anna as Sophie, their forays into pseudo-journalism attract an improbably large audience. Sophie is afraid the attention will spark renewed risk from Tiegler and her minions—not only to her. Her daughters are vulnerable too. Fin tells her she’s being paranoid, until he has a fright of his own. “Now that Fin was scared too, my paranoia never came up again.” Love Sophie’s sly humor!
You’re in for quite an adventure, at times a deadly one,
with Mina’s intriguing tale.
For a quirkier side of Glasgow crime, I’d also recommend the
entertaining adventure of book store clerk, inadvertent murderer, and fugitive
crime-fighter Jen Carter in Russell D. McLean’s Ed’s Dead.
By Brad Parks – In an author’s note, Parks reveals the book
was motivated by a real-life episode. Between 2004 and 2007, the U.S. mega-bank
Wachovia failed to use appropriate money-laundering controls and cleansed at
least $378 billion dollars from the Mexican drug cartel Sinaloa, reaping
billions of dollars in fees. While the bank ultimately received a fine, modest
compared to its gains, “no Wachovia executive faced criminal charges, nor
served a single day in prison.” Wachovia was subsequently bought by Wells
the practice has continued.
But can Parks’s sense of outrage translate into fiction
without becoming polemical? Absolutely. His unlikely protagonist is Tommy Jump,
a former child star, small in stature but aging out of his career in musical
theater and still too young for character roles. He’s at loose ends, ending a
gig as Sancho Panza in The Man of
LaMancha, when he’s approached by an old high school buddy, now an FBI
agent. He offers Tommy a deal.
The FBI wants the actor to pose as a felon and infiltrate
the minimum-security Federal Correctional Institution in Martinsburg, West
Virginia, where convicted banker Mitchell Dupree is confined. As a bank
executive, Dupree helped a Mexican drug cartel launder more than a billion
dollars, and has hidden away a trove of evidence, which the FBI hopes can bring
the cartel to its knees. But the documents are Dupree’s insurance policy. If
anything happens to him or his family, they will be released to the
authorities. So he’s not sharing.
They want Tommy to find out where they’re hidden. It will be
the acting job of his career. No one at the prison, not even the warden, will
know he’s not a real prisoner, because secrets have an inconvenient habit of
leaking. He’ll have six months to befriend Dupree and discover where the
documents are. In return, he’ll be at least $150,000 richer. Tommy’s out of
work, his pregnant girlfriend is an artist with no regular income. They don’t
want to think of themselves as people tempted by money, but they are.
As Tommy, now Pete, enters prison, author Parks does a
terrific job describing his mental state and coping mechanisms, and the
strategies he uses to befriend Dupree. You get a strong sense not just of the
physical environment, but of the power structure and the people within it.
That’s the set-up. I won’t say more about plot, because you should discover for yourself the agonizing twists Parks has in store. As every major character launches some competing smokescreen, this is a book you won’t be able to put down.
By Ruth Ware – It was a big house, with big grounds, supervised by a noisy tiding of magpies. Harriet Westaway, barely eking a living as a psychic advisor on the Brighton Pier, receives a letter from faraway Penzance inviting her to the funeral and will-reading of her grandmother, the wealthy Hester Westaway. Trouble is, her grandparents are all dead.
Curiosity wins out and she shows up for the event. What starts as something she could explain as a misunderstanding draws her in deeper and deeper, and the search for her real family takes off. Liked it. The Death of Mrs. Westaway
****The Bolivian Sailor
By Donald Dewey – Sometimes a book arrives unexpectedly in the mailbox, or “over the transom,” as publishers used to say, as this one did. To my delight, there were many things to like about this book. Poor P.I. Paul Finley finds himself enmeshed in a deadly plot when a Bolivian seaman is murdered in a seedy motel. He keeps his sense of humor, though, if not his part-time gig teaching a college course in Practical Problems in Law Enforcement. Alas, quite a few of those problems are playing out in front of him. Fun! The Bolivian Sailor
***Low Down Dirty Vote
Edited by Mysti Berry – A timely collection of eleven crime and mystery stories on the theme of fighting voter suppression. Women, blacks, the elderly—in these stories, various groups are discouraged from voting because of presumptions about how they’ll cast their ballots. Most unexpected and amusing use of the vote appeared in Catronia McPherson’s tale about the comeuppance of a man in a crowded commuter train. Good job, all! Low Down Dirty Vote
***A Deadly Indifference
By Marshall Jevons – Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman travels to Cambridge, England, to help a friend wanting to buy the former home of economist Alfred Marshall and establish a foundation there. Marshall may be dear to some economic theorists, including Spearman, but the university faculty is dominated by leftists opposing Marshall’s legacy. Soon, intellectual sparring is replaced by violence and murder. Spearman engagingly calls on economics theory (sometimes a lot of it) to explain these events. Secondary characters, not required to trot out their supply-and-demand curves, are nicely drawn too. A Deadly Indifference
By Joe Clifford – Clifford has an innovative premise for
this crime thriller about a woman who turned out to be the last kidnap victim
of a serial killer plaguing a dreary upstate New York town called Reine. Alex
Salerno was 17 when she was kidnapped, then rescued, and the murderer brought
to justice. The town celebrated her and the end of its reign of terror for only
a short while until another girl, Kira Shanks, disappeared and was believed murdered.
That was a dozen years ago, and now Alex has made a rare
trip back to Reine because a reporter wants to hear her story. This is the
first time anyone has shown a flicker of interest in her in a very long while, and
Alex wants to believe her story’s worth telling. Maybe the reporter will even
pay for it. She soon learns he’s no reporter, just a journalism student needing
dirt for a class project that might—or might not—become a story for the college
The student takes hardly a moment before bringing up the
name Sean Riley, the detective who rescued Alex from that basement bunker,
starving, dehydrated, terrified. Riley was the one bright spot in that time,
the one person who could evoke her tender feelings. And did. Too bad an affair
between a married detective and a 17-year-old victim could only end badly. Though
it was a long time ago, it still hurts.
The police identified the person they believe took Kira
Shanks, a mentally challenged young man named Benny Brudzienski. When word got
out, Benny was badly beaten and has spent the years since in a mental hospital,
unable to speak. In that condition, he will never go to trial.
Alex has tried to forget her life in Reine, and author
Clifford does a good job describing the dismal town. She pretends—to herself,
even—that she’s helping the student with his story and visits Benny in the mental
hospital. Something in his eyes suggests more going on inside his brain than
people believe, though the chapters told from Bennie’s point of view didn’t
ring true to me.
After that insightful look, Alex is determined to find out
what really happened to Kira. Meanwhile, plenty of people want her to leave it
alone. Someone is following her. She’s attacked. Riley resurfaces. Because
their past relationship is never far from the mind of either of them, they
teeter between attraction and hostility.
Clifford plausibly describes Alex’s initial feelings, but
never lets her develop further, replaying the same emotional notes. She’s
unpleasant and hostile in her dealings with people. It’s puzzling her
people-skills are so weak and that anyone would cooperate with her
pseudo-investigation. Yet Alex has caught the eye of one young man determined
to find a soft spot in her shell.
Occasionally, Clifford constructs a too-obvious and
unnecessary cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter, even though what’s coming
follows the predictable plotting of thrillers—the false starts, the red
herrings, the apparent threats that evaporate, the climactic confrontation.
The unwanted role of victim was Alex Salerno’s only and brief claim to fame. You can only hope her most recent experience in her home town will finally let her move on. She’s already come a long way from that dark cellar.
photo: xusenru on pixabay
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you make a purchase through this link on my website, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!
By Judy Penz Sheluk –This is the second in Judy Penz Sheluk’s Marketville Mystery series, set in a small town outside Toronto, and the series establishes a cozy, warm-hearted atmosphere. As in her earlier book, Skeletons in the Attic, the first-person narrator is Calamity (Callie) Barnstable.
Along for the adventure are Callie’s friends Chantelle Marchand and Arabella Carpenter, owner of a nearby antiques shop (the protagonist in Sheluk’s other series, the Glass Dolphin Mysteries).
In this book, Callie and Chantelle team up in a new business called Past & Present Investigations, in which they hope to use Callie’s research acumen and Chantelle’s genealogical knowledge to help people find missing relatives. Arabella will help if someone brings in an old object related to the missing person, and Callie’s retired librarian friend will do the archive searches.
Callie vacillates between loving the business idea and fearing they will find nothing but dead ends, but Sheluk has written nicely three-dimensional characters that are game to try. Callie also faces an ongoing personal challenge. It seems she cannot escape the hostility of her grandfather. He has never forgiven her mother for marrying Callie’s father who was, her grandfather felt, many ladder-rungs beneath her.
Before long, Arabella sends Callie a potential client. Louisa Frankow’s German grandmother, Anneliese, immigrated from England in 1952 on the ship Canberra. A mystery surrounds her grandmother’s death only a few years after that voyage. Family papers and photos and other clues to the grandmother’s past are few, but Callie locates an ephemera dealer with relevant artifacts from voyages of that era—much more glamorous than modern-day trans-Atlantic air travel, that’s for sure!
Callie and Chantelle capitalize on the growing online availability of genealogical databases, newspaper archives, and the like. You may be familiar with these possibilities, if you’ve done some family research of your own, and Sheluk makes the search for Anneliese’s past full of the thrill of discovering how the pieces fit. They learn that Anneliese was murdered, and her husband convicted of manslaughter (on very flimsy evidence, in Callie’s view). He’d been in prison only a few months when he was stabbed to death in the showers. If he was not guilty, as Callie suspects, the real murderer is responsible for two deaths.
Sheluk includes a couple of features that require a bit of a leap of faith. She relies on a long-ago coincidence, which, granted, might have been more likely in the early 1950s when Toronto’s population was a third its current-day size. And, she’s helped by a psychic who interprets objects, and while Callie remains skeptical of the validity of psychic phenomena, the psychic’s revelations help confirm her hypotheses about the crime.
The murder in this book is many years old, but it has consequences for Louisa and Callie too, which makes it significant even without splattering fresh blood all over the pages. It’s fun to watch Callie and her friends in action, and the book ends with the promise of another interesting case to come.
It’s a quick and satisfying read for those who like cozy mysteries or are fascinated by the long tail of the past.
As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I get a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. If you click the photo below to order this book, you’ll help me fill the jar.
By Linwood Barclay – A professor at a small Connecticut college, living with his second wife on the shore of Long Island Sound, Paul Davis has had a rather unremarkable life until late one October night when he recognizes the broken taillight of his colleague Kenneth’s car and follows it.
Kenneth is driving erratically, and Paul worries the older man might be tipsy. When Kenneth stops his car on a lonely road and pops the trunk, Paul stops too and is shocked to see the bodies of two women inside. Wielding a shovel, Kenneth bangs him on the head and would have murdered him, except for the timely appearance of the police, investigating that car with a broken taillight they noticed a few moments before.
Eight months later, Kenneth has pleaded guilty to the murders and is in prison, but Paul hasn’t fully recovered. The blow to the head has mostly resolved, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress, panic attacks. His wife Charlotte and his psychologist Anna encourage him, but he has headaches, he forgets things, he’s haunted by the murders. Paul knew the dead women slightly and it seems Kenneth was carrying on with both at once. Only his wife was unaware of his reputation for womanizing.
Much of the story takes place within the four walls of Paul’s house, making it another one of those claustrophobic, unreliable narrator domestic thrillers which there are a lot of lately. Unfortunately, for me at least, that took the freshness out of Barclay’s story, though he has a nice red herring woven in.
Paul is determined to regain a grip on his life and decides the best way to try to answer his many lingering questions about the murders would be to review everything about the case and the reasons people commit murder. Charlotte and Anna are initially dubious, but persuaded by his determination.
Charlotte even buys him an old-fashioned Underwood typewriter. It’s a talisman of the case, because in one of its more ghoulish aspects, Kenneth made his victims type a note on such a typewriter, apologizing for their “immoral, licentious, whore-like behavior.” When Paul repeatedly hears the typewriter in the middle of the night, he slips downstairs to see who is using it, but the house is empty. He half-believes the dead women are trying to communicate with him.
On a visit to Anna, he loses his keys and Charlotte has to pick him up. Now here, the author lost me, because if he drove to the office and after their session he doesn’t have his keys, why wasn’t a thorough search made before calling for a ride? Then when Paul believes there’s been an intruder at his home, why does it take many pages for the characters to recall the missing keys? Ultimately, they are “found” in one of the two chairs in Anna’s office, but that unlikely discovery is taken at face value, and no one wonders whether they were there all along.
Odd events continue, and to put the ghostly typewriter issue to rest, his friend Bill suggests that he put a piece of paper in it and see what the women want to say. It’s an absurd idea, except that messages begin to appear. Even if you are skeptical of the paranormal, it’s not easy to see how these tricks are being accomplished, and Paul, not fully of sound mind, is increasingly anxious.
Author Barclay keeps the tension and the possibilities going at a brisk clip, and though you may figure out the direction of the plot early on, he has surprises in store.
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Click the photo below to order this book.
photo: Telstar Logistics on Visualhunt, creative commons BY-NC license
By Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Second in Joe Ide’s series about Isaiah Quintabe, a young black man living in tough East Long Beach, California, who’s really good to have around if there’s trouble. Not that he’s a crack shot or a kung-fu warrior. Quintabe gets people out of jams large and small by sheer brainpower.
If you’ve read his earlier book, IQ, you’ll happily see the return of a number of its characters. None is more welcome than Quintabe’s sometime partner Juanell Dodson. The fast-talking, wise-cracking Dodson is forever hoping yet failing to outthink the younger man. Ide writes the Dodson character with much humor and affection and gives him girlfriends with attitude. With impending fatherhood, he’s adopted a veneer of responsibility that crumbles under the slightest pressure.
Quintabe was seventeen in the first book when his adored older brother Marcus, killed in a hit-and-run, left the teenager on his own. This book takes place eight years later, and he’s still a solitary soul, alone except for his dog, and emotionally isolated. His neighbors gladly call on him to help him solve their problems—missing jewelry, a threatening ex-husband—which helps him make ends meet, barely.
He gave up his obsessive search for the car that killed Marcus some years ago, but in a short prologue, he finds the car and with the few clues inside, rethinks the events of that deadly afternoon. His conclusion? Marcus’s death was not a random traffic fatality, it was a hit. But why? And who?
photo: Mariamichelle, creative commons license
In Las Vegas, a young Chinese woman and aspiring DJ Janine Van and her deadbeat boyfriend Benny are gambling away money they don’t have. He’s behind on the vig with some rough characters more than willing to hurt him and Janine too. Benny is a whiner, and not very appealing, though the sassy Janine loves him. As a flavor-enhancer, here’s her exit line after jockeying a club set: “Whassup my people! This is your queen kamikaze, the heat in your wasabi, the gravy train in the food chain, the champagne in the chow mein, I’m DJ Dama, baby, that was my set, and I’m gettin’ up outta heeerre, PEACE!”
Out of the blue, Quintabe is contacted by Marcus’s ex-girlfriend, Sarita, now a lawyer at a high-priced law firm. Quintabe had quite a crush on her, still does, and she wants to meet. His hopes raise (the one illogical thought he pursues), but what she wants is for him to find her younger half-sister, in trouble in Las Vegas where she hangs out with her screw-up boyfriend. You guessed it, Janine and Benny.
What sounds like a simple rescue operation becomes terrifyingly complicated, as Ide deftly sets several crisscrossing plots in motion. Quintabe has a run-in with a Mexican gang, the Sureños Locos 13, and they’re out to get him. Janine and Sarita’s father seems a respectable business man, but somewhere in the background are human trafficking, prostitution, and the murderous Chinese triads. The ethnicities vary but the characters are alike in their mastery of the entertaining verbal insult.
And Quintabe still searches for his brother’s murderer. His prime suspect is Seb Habimana, a dangerous East African man who lost a leg in the Hutu-Tutsi wars. He uses a cane he made from the legbone of the man who maimed him.
As with the previous book, Sullivan Jones’s narration of all these muticultural, crosscultural and anticultural characters is flawless. You get Benny’s whine, Dodson’s jive, his girlfriends’ attitude, and the Chinese black-gangster rifs. Jones hits every comedic and ironic note, making music out of it all, and never missing a beat.
(photo: Heinrich Klaffs, creative commons license)
By RG Belsky – Dick Belsky’s long association with New York City news media—newspapers, magazines, and television—stand him in good stead in his Manhattan-based crime novels. He makes the newsroom politics entertaining, and the city’s bustle and bravado leap off the page. They become places you want to be.
In this book, he offers a new protagonist, Clare Carlson, former superstar newspaper reporter whose employer (like so many) went out of business. Now she’s the news director for Channel 10 News, and while she likes some aspects of the job—“telling other people what to do,” she says—she clearly believes television “news” is a lesser form of journalism, well beneath her talents and skills. She’s probably right.
Yesterday’s News is a title with multiple meanings, referring to the newspaper business, Carlson herself, and the one big story from fifteen years earlier that made her reputation and earned her a Pulitzer Prize—the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin, plucked from her Gramercy Park neighborhood and never found.
The anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance is fast approaching when you feel the first twist of Belsky’s knife. When she was working on the story, Carlson befriended Lucy’s mother Anne, and now Anne is dying of cancer, desperate for closure. She has received an anonymous email claiming that, shortly after her disappearance, Lucy was seen at a motorcycle convention in rural New Hampshire, riding with someone named Elliott. She wants to talk to Carlson.
Like almost everyone else, Carlson assumes Lucy was dead long ago. Can she—should she?—rekindle her relationship with Anne? It’s a “good TV gimmick,” she thinks, though she has reasons to be reluctant.
This is a first-person narrative, and Belsky does a good job portraying Carlson’s mixed feelings about reinserting herself into this story. She thinks she knows it all, but he has surprises in store for her, and you may think you know everything she knows, but she can surprise as well. Plus, Carlson can be hilarious. She expertly plays the two female eye-candy news readers off each other, leaving political correctness in the dust.
Carlson does interview Anne and soon launches into full investigatory mode, rummaging around in people’s fifteen-year-old memories. These include the activities of a sketchy motorcycle gang and, specifically, the past of ex-biker and rising political star Elliott Grayson. Some of the dirt she encounters may not leave Carlson with clean hands either. The tension between Carlson and Grayson and the unexpected directions the investigation takes make for an engrossing, fun read—with a visit to Manhattan as a bonus.