30-Second Book Reviews

****The Death of Mrs. Westaway

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

Magpie photo: AdinaVoicu, creative commons license

***The One That Got Away

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 newspaper.

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

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****Past & Present: A Marketville Mystery

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.

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***A Noise Downstairs

typewriter, writing

Steven Depolo, creative commons license

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.

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*****Righteous

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?

Las Vegas strip

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.

****Yesterday’s News

Ace Atkins, motorcycle

(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.

*****Paper Ghosts

photographer

photo: Chris Dorward, creative commons license

Written by Julia Heaberlin – I just spent a week in Texas, including a family reunion in Waco, where Paper Ghosts begins, and am happy to report that trip was nothing like this story, a creepy and deliciously entertaining battle of wits.

Grace is twenty-four and obsessed with finding out what happened to her only sister Rachel, who disappeared when Grace was twelve. What ignited her search was finding a photograph of two ethereal girls taped to the bottom of their home’s attic stairs.

The photographer, Carl Feldman, was later tried and acquitted in another local woman’s disappearance, although suspicions about him never went away.

Heaberlin masterfully weaves this backstory through the narrative— enlightening, coloring, providing motivation. Diagnosed with dementia, the elderly Carl now lives in a halfway house run by Mrs. T. Grace poses as Carl’s daughter to persuade Mrs. T to let her take him on a “vacation.” In reality, she plans to revisit places where three young women disappeared, hoping to break through the tattered veil of confusion that Carl pulls over himself. He’s just lucid and insightful enough to know what Grace is up to, to go along with the deception, and to toy with her mercilessly.

Grace’s personal safety trainer has readied her to handle the tricks Carl might try. Most important, she’s worked on conquering fear. You see pages from her childhood “survival notebook,” which contained her strategies for conquering various fears, like spiders or ghosts. Charming, but more important, these entries show an organized determination that foreshadows the adult Grace will become.

Mrs. T gives her ten days, at which time she absolutely must return Carl to the halfway house. Ten days in a car with a possible serial killer, in motel rooms at night, in situations where he may say who knows what? Carl is infinitely unpredictable. And sneaky.

Around day four or five, you may wonder whether Heaberlin’s inventiveness will run out, whether the diaristic recitation of their doings will wear thin. It never does. Her writing style is rich with metaphors tied to Carl’s strong identity as a photographer. In his photos, his paper ghosts, much is revealed, and much is hidden.

This risky road trip through a nightmare Texas doesn’t deflect Grace from the fundamental question, what happened to Rachel? And does Carl even know? And if he doesn’t, or if he’s overtaken by dementia, will she ever find out? You keep turning pages to find out.

This is the third missing-sister book I’ve read recently, all strong. The others were Jenny Quintana’s The Missing Girl and Chris Whitaker’s All the Wicked Girls.