Blue Book by Tom Harley Campbell

In the mid-sized, middle-America town of Dayton, Ohio, retired homicide detective John Burke isn’t wildly happy about the reduced pace of his life, but in this quick-moving new thriller by Tom Harley Campbell, unexpected trouble—and a fascinating mystery—are headed straight toward him. They arrive in the form of 18-year-old Alex Johnson, all the way from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Alex’s father was a Mississippi cop whose body was found in Dayton’s Mad River four years earlier. Not solving that case has haunted Burke ever since. Now Alex provides a tantalizing clue.

A news story starts another pot simmering. Al-Jazeera reports that Yasser Arafat died from polonium210 poisoning. Deeply interested in this development is Hattiesburg history professor Charles Robinson. He’s haunted by the mysterious 2004 death of his own father, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, which Charles believes was also a polonium poisoning. Charles’s father had a secret, post-World War II assignment in Dayton, called Project Blue Book (in real life), to investigate reports of UFOs (now called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), and determine whether they threaten national security.

In the post-War era, while the older Robinson was sifting evidence, the Air Force, the military, and the Central Intelligence Agency conducted an unrelenting public information campaign to discredit UFO reports and depict the believers as tin-foil-hat-wearing kooks. (Last week, Enigma Labs released a mobile app in which users can report and record an unexplainable event as it happens, potentially turning random anecdotal information into data.)

Whether you believe UFOs exist or not, you will understand that, in dicey situations, it’s always the cover-up that presents the greatest difficulties. The more extreme the effort to hide something, the more important it’s likely to be. Project Blue Book’s work and conclusions have been secret for fifty years. As John Burke probes the death of these two fathers, the campaign to cover up Project Blue Book seems to threaten all of them.

John Burke is an exceedingly likeable character. He may be retired, but don’t sell him short. There’s a complex plot here, as befits a story with so many deep secrets, housed in an inaccessible area of Dayton’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Author Campbell effectively conveys the intimate feel of Dayton (population less than 140,000), a relatively small dog wagged by the big tail of the defense, aerospace, and aviation industries. A local police department can’t help but feel that a giant hovers over its shoulder. And that giant, Burke learns, isn’t always friendly.

There’s just enough science here to make the story interesting and give it plausibility, without weighing it down. Campbell does an especially good job interleaving actual events with his fictional tale. It’s a wild ride, and a fun one! You can order it here with my affiliate link.

Want more? The multi-episode docuseries, “UFOs: Investigating the Unknown” premieres on the National Geographic TV channel Feb. 13.

Winter Tales

Maybe you think the best books to read in January are set in the South Seas or maybe Australia where it’s high summer.

But if a book which a chilly setting or subject is more your cup of tea, here are a few good ones.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – I just got around to reading this last month and while it probably has lost a bit of its shock value in the sixty-plus years since it was published, it is still full of chills. A group of would-be paranormal investigators plans to spend a week at the notorious, isolated Hill House. It seems, at least to the psychologically vulnerable among them, that the house has other plans, . Most delightful is the lead investigator’s oblivious wife. The link is to the book. I did not see the TV series.

The Surfacing by Cormac James – In 1850, the ship Impetus sailed north of Greenland to rescue men lost while searching for the Northwest Passage. The dangers of the expedition are apparent to the Impetus’s second-in-command, yet the Captain is determined to push on. This literary fiction tale is an adventure story and one, in which every character is tested to the limit. If your personal heroes include Admiral Richard Byrd and Ernest Shackleton, you’ll love this! And you’ll need a sweater.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel – No surprise that a book with this title leads you into an epic snow-filled journey. This award-winner starts out pleasantly enough, in Hawai`i, but, alas it is 1941. The life of Honolulu police detective Joe McGrady is upended when a murder investigation takes him to Hong Kong right at the time Pearl Harbor is attacked. Captured by the Japanese, he must figure out how to survive in extraordinary circumstances. A 2022 best book of the year.

If you’re looking to warm yourself in front of the electronic fire with a good movie, you might like 2017’s Wind River. It tracks the investigation into the strange death of a young woman from Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation (Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes)—the same part of the country as the Longmire series, another favorite. DVD from Amazon.

See You Next Tuesday

In See You Next Tuesday, former US FBI agent Ken Harris has brought back his entertaining private investigator Steve Rockfish and his young assistant—now partner—Jawnie McGee. This is the second of a series, following his debut with The Pine Barrens Stratagem earlier this year. In this novel, Jawnie has passed her PI exam, and the two of them have established a bare-bones office in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, just south of Baltimore.

When this fast-moving story begins, the duo is faced with three separate quandaries. Most puzzling is the yellow Nissan Xterra parked across the street with a woman in it who appears to be spying on their office. Most annoying is their new client, the wealthy Claudia Coyne, who’s convinced her husband Roan is stepping out on her and insists they find out who the floozy is. And, most alarming, Rockfish’s father Mack is rushed to the hospital with a possible heart attack.

With his father in the hospital, Rockfish bequeaths the Coyne case to Jawnie and spends time with his father, whose heart is fine, but he’s stressed out, having lost $17,000 in a phony investment scheme.

Jawnie begins following Roan Coyne on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the nights he regularly arrives home late. At first, his actions seem completely above-board, even admirable. On Tuesday evenings, he buys dozens of McDonald’s meals and distributes them to the homeless; on Thursdays, he staffs a soup kitchen. Following these charitable endeavours, he attends meetings in the basement of Allison’s Adult Super Store. When Jawnie peeks in a window, the gathering looks to her like some kind of self-help or religious session. She suspects something shady.

Jawnie trips over a woman camped out in the alley behind the adult store. Some cash waved around convinces the woman—Lynn—to attend the next meeting. One thing they figure out quickly is the several plays on the phrase “See You Next Tuesday,” a bit of risqué wordplay.

Rockfish is determined to get his father’s money back and follows a sketchy clue to the scammers base of operations. When he and Jawnie both turn up in the parking lot behind Allison’s Adult Super Store, they realize they’re working on different dimensions of the same case.

As in the earlier book, Rockfish and Jawnie’s relationship is a work-in-progress. He admires her skills with the computer and with people, and she admires his ability to keep going, in the face of seemingly impossible odds. I like watching them work.

Lynn definitely adds to the team’s strengths and Rockfish’s long-time friend Raffi, who’s also brought on board, will always be a wild card. Destroy and repair describes Rockfish’s relationship with the authorities, and he’s constantly skating somewhere out there on the thin ice. The humorous elements and overall entertainment value of this sequel suggests author Harris has found a winning formula for his cast of interesting characters, and we can look forward to more.

Unexpected Synchronicities

If you’re a frequent reader, sometimes the parallel threads from several books get all tangled up. Characters with the same/similar names in books by different authors. Intersecting plot lines. Or you read one book that gives you interesting background about something (Daughters of Yalta), and soon you read another dealing with the same events (Gods of Deception). You feel like you turned a corner and ran into a mirror.

Two books I’ve read recently were set in Venice—thankfully at totally different time periods (1612 on one hand and 1928, 1938, and 2002 on the other)—but identical geography and modes of transport, and—OK, this is a stretch—the third, a contemporary mystery about life on a canal in England.

The Gallery of Beauties by Nina Wachsman is a new historical mystery featuring an unlikely pair of protagonists—Belladonna, a famous and wealthy courtesan, and Diana, a rabbi’s daughter who lives in the Jewish ghetto. These beautiful women come to the attention of an artist creating portraits for a “Gallery of Beauties.” Intrigue is high in the city’s Council of Ten, whose mistrustful leaders vie with each other for power and prestige, and leading citizens’ fear of poisoning is so great they employ official tasters. Diana must slip out of the ghetto to pose for the artist, but the chance to wear beautiful clothing and mix with the city’s elite, including her new friend Belladonna, convinces her to ignore the curfew imposed on ghetto residents. Out in the city, she could be challenged at any time. When the subjects of the Gallery of Beauties begin to be murdered, the two women must unravel the mystery for their own survival. An indelible portrait of Venice in the 17th century.

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen, narrated by Barrie Kreinik, is mostly set during the days leading up to World War II, when English schoolteacher and artist Juliet Browning begins a romance with the wealthy and devastatingly handsome son of a leading Venetian family. As the Nazis close in, Juliet delays her return home until it’s no longer possible to leave. Without papers and out in a city patrolled by fascists, she could be challenged at any time. (!) Sixty years later, when Juliet dies, her niece Caroline inherits her Venice sketchbook and keys to she doesn’t know what. It will be up to her to discover Aunt Lettie’s mysterious past. This book was too formulaic for me, in terms of the plot and the relationships. But again, Venice.

Idiot Wind by Michael Broihier is set on the Oxford Canal, which runs some 70 miles between Oxford and Hawkesbury in central England. The protagonist, Mac McGuire, with his 60-foot narrowboat, Idiot Wind, delivers food and fuel to boat owners up and down a central portion of this canal. The countryside is beautiful, the boat dwellers are quirky devotees to an idiosyncratic way of life, and it’s a peaceful one—that is, until dead bodies turn up in the canal waters. There’s a lot of mechanics involved in opening and closing the canal’s many locks, repetitive actions I actually found quite soothing. It gave a certain controlled rhythm to the story. No wild car chases, just going with the flow. For me, Broihier’s portrayal of life on the canal was a memorable one. But then, any story with boats is OK with me, and this was a dandy.

Reading Lesson: Bonnar Spring’s Disappeared

Bonnar Spring’s new thriller, Disappeared, is without doubt an exciting read, a heady combination of romance and menace. Romance, that is, in the “heroic and marvelous deeds” definition, not the “falling in love” one.

American sisters Julie and Fay, both adults and married, are together in Morocco for a girls’ getaway. Fay suggested it, in fact, insisted upon it. In Ouarzazate, she slips away on a mysterious errand. She leaves Julie a note explaining that she’s visiting a distant village, she cannot say why, and will be back in two days. But she doesn’t return. Julie vacillates between anger at Fay for having a hidden agenda for the trip and worrying herself sick. With no help from the US Consulate, and with the barest clues to go on, she sets out to find her sister.

In unraveling the reasons this book appealed to me so (aside from the confident, skillful, and evocative writing, which I don’t for a minute discount), I hit upon several.

First, the setting is somewhere a little mysterious, more exotic than, say, central London. It’s a place where there are unknown possibilities, where the outcome of situations is unpredictable (deftly exploited by the trailers for the new Ralph Fiennes/Jessica Chastain movie, The Forgiven). I’ve visited Morocco twice myself and both times felt my senses overwhelmed by so much—so much strangeness, so much to look at, smell, and taste, so many new sounds. Even in a metaphorically far country, Ouarzazate is even farther, located on the opposite side of the Atlas Mountains from the more cosmopolitan cities of Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Rabat. It’s back of beyond country, the gateway to the Sahara.

The setting teems with inherent dangers. The general ones that face a woman alone in Morocco’s southern and rural areas, where women are typically veiled and isolated. And the specific ones linked to Fay’s strange disappearance, as well as the bad advice Julie sometimes receives. Whom can she trust? The safeguards we take for granted—including social norms, charitable institutions, people we can ask for help—are simply not there. Unease operates at multiple levels.

Another source of the book’s appeal is the search for the sister itself. Looking for a missing sibling is a believable quest, one Julie is totally dedicated to. The story—her story—never loses its strong sense of mission.

Finally, there’s the complete unpredictability that’s part-and-parcel of any standalone thriller. For me, a good bit of a story’s tension is dissipated knowing protagonists will live to see another book. It takes the edge off the dangers they face. I know other readers are drawn to series—especially as they’ve become attached to or self-identified with a protagonist. Perhaps the attraction is partly because the tension is more manageable. In a one-off, anything can happen. And sometimes does.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

Available from Amazon on preorder!

The Runaway

Fans of award-winning author Nick Petrie’s high-octane action adventures won’t be disappointed in his latest, seventh in the series. The Runaway again features knight-errant Peter Ash, a U.S. Marine no longer serving in the military, who, over the course of these thrillers is gradually learning to manage a debilitating case of PTSD. At the same time, Petrie’s writing shows ever-increasing skill and confidence with no sign of flagging.

The sparsely populated countryside of several Great Plains states—Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska—features heavily in this story. The area has its beauties, but it’s remote. A stranger sticks out. Mostly, there’s not much help around if and when you need it. And he will.

Driving across Nebraska, using one of the back roads he prefers, Ash encounters a small white car parked by the side of the road. Out of gas? Mechanical problem? It’s in Ash’s nature to stop and help—part of his atonement for Iraq and Afghanistan—but it seems no one is around. Then a heavily pregnant woman emerges from behind a cottonwood tree.

Helene is terrified and trying to escape her husband, but the car she’s appropriated broke down. Husband Roy is a high-end thief, robbing empty vacation homes. He used to be a Minneapolis police officer and has cultivated connections with cops across multiple states, which makes going to the police a risky option. Yet he’s said he’ll help her, and he’s determined to do it. Though a controlling spouse is a familiar plot idea, Petrie’s skill in developing Helene’s character keeps you caring about her fate.

Roy’s hunt for Peter, Peter’s hunt for Helene, and his strategies to keep them both alive make for a page-turning, stay-up-late adventure. The story’s not just about the difficulty of escaping a wily and determined spouse. It’s about the internal resources you need to actually go through with it. Helene is very young. Can she do what needs to be done? For his part, Peter is not only clever about resolving difficult situations, he displays a strong streak of humanity, as well.

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Guns + Tacos at the Midnight Hour

Gosh, I’ve read a lot of good books lately, as well as some notable short story collections!

I received Volumes 5 and 6 of the Guns + Tacos series, edited by Michael Bracken and Trey R. Barker. These were the “subscriber editions,” and each contained three novella-length stories. (some of the editions are sold for parts on Amazon; since they’re short, order the compilations). The stories in Volume 5 were by Dave Zeltserman, Stacy Woodson, and David H. Hendrickson and in Volume 6 by Hugh Lessig, Neil S. Plakcy, and Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

The underlying conceit is that somewhere in Chicago you can find a taco truck after midnight, where, if you order “the special,” you get a handgun with it. Thus the stories have names like “Refried Beans and a Snub-Nosed .44” or “Chimichangas and a couple of Glocks” or “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises.” In Volume 6, editor Bracken provides dessert with the three entrees, “Christmas Enchiladas and a Gold-Plated Derringer.”

Of course, if all the folks in these stories know about the taco truck, the cops must too, but set that aside. The stories are highly and consistently entertaining, long enough to develop a strong premise, but not so long as to wear it out.

Midnight Hour, edited by Abby L. Vandiver, is a compilation of twenty remarkable stories by authors of color. In a foreword, Stephen Mack Jones says their writing “without preaching or proselytizing, uncovers and reveals the distortions and delusions, fallacies and myths of an American society that has often pushed such voices to the back of the literary bus.” Or, as it may feel to the authors, under the bus. You don’t have to have a political agenda to enjoy these stories, many of which would stand up against many other recent compilations. There’s a lot of great stuff here, and if The Best American Mystery and Suspense series intends to diversify its selection of authors, I’d say, start right here. Highly recommended.

The Last Mona Lisa

Art crimes are an intriguing branch of the international crime tree, and in The Last Mona Lisa Jonathan Santlofer ably fulfills their potential. He begins with a real crime that took place in 1911, when a man named Vincent Peruggia was fired from his job at the Louvre, then hid in the museum overnight and stole the Mona Lisa. The destitute but patriotic Peruggia wanted to return the painting to his native Italy, and doubtless make a little money too. The painting resurfaced two years later in Florence whereupon the Italian police arrested him.

Santlofer’s novel features an American named Luke Perrone, fictional great-grandson of Peruggia. Since childhood, Luke has researched his notorious ancestor and the rumors he kept a diary during his months in prison. Luke is a frustrated painter and college history of art professor, and an upcoming school break gives him a chance to follow up a new lead. Apparently, his great-grandfather’s journal was donated to Florence’s Laurentian Library among the papers of a recently deceased art scholar.

Other people are just as interested in the diary as Luke is. Another library patron, the luscious Alexandra Greene, is just too friendly, except when she’s not. Interpol analyst John Washington Smith suspects the painting in the Louvre may not be authentic. During the Mona Lisa’s two-year disappearance, several copies were made and sold as originals. Perhaps the one hanging in the Louvre is one of these. Smith knows about Luke’s new lead and the trip to Florence, and if it pans out, it could revive his sagging career. A stop-at-nothing collector is also keenly interested and believes Luke can tell him whether “his” Mona Lisa, hidden in a vault, is the real thing.

Maybe I read too many thrillers, but I thought Luke was a bit slow to realize he’s experiencing too many coincidences and too many people dying around him. Chapters about Luke and Smith in the present day are interspersed with Vincenzo’s story, as told in his diary. These atmospheric historical chapters give resonance to Luke’s quest.

Santlofer also grounds the present-day of his tale with reference to the real-life controversy surrounding another Leonardo work, the Salvator Mundi, dubbed “the male Mona Lisa.” In real life, this painting was bought in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 and sold 12 years later for $450,300,000, even though art experts disagree about its authenticity. This saga was subject of a top-rated 2021 documentary by Andreas Koefoed.

Linking the two stories underscores not just the amazing sums involved, but also the tangled motivations of people in the world of stolen and fabricated art. Craziness happens when you are dealing with objects that are, essentially, priceless. If you are fascinated by art world intrigue, this book is for you!

Santlofer is himself an artist of some note. As well as his award-winning mystery novels, he has created more than 200 exhibitions worldwide. His short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, and he was creator and director of the Crime Fiction Academy. He resides in New York.

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Or here from IndieBound.

KGB Banker

This financial thriller by William Burton McCormick and John Christmas was inspired partly by the real-life experiences of whistleblower Christmas, who worked for the corrupt Latvian bank, Parex. (Follow that link for a “truth is stranger than fiction story!) When the bank collapsed, information about its billions in bad assets was suppressed, and the Latvian government (i.e., taxpayers) covered enormous losses.

In KGB Banker, we meet Chicago banking executive Robert Vanags who is fed up with corner-cutting in the financial industry. Recently widowed, he’d like to make a fresh start. An unexpected opportunity to do so arises when a head hunter recruits him for an executive position with the $70 billion Turaida Bank in Riga, Latvia, where his family was from. This new job sounds like the perfect professional and personal fit.

His interviews go well but as he’s leaving the bank he meets an employee named Ēricks Helmanis in the elevator. Helmanis has one word of advice: “Run.” Bob ignores this puzzling admonition, along with a few other signs that all is not as it should be, and takes the job.

Bob doesn’t know that someone’s monitoring his office, apartment, phones, computer, and even his 17-year-old son David. His watchers know about the elevator conversation and that Ēricks is hoping to meet with a young reporter for an obscure newspaper named Santa Ezeriņa.

His fourth day in the new job, Bob and a large bank contingent attend the funeral of Ēricks Helmanis, who apparently committed suicide. There, he meets Agnese Avena, an executive at the International Development Bank, with which Turaida often partners. He also meets Latvian politician Dāvids Osis, a true national hero, member of parliament, and champion of the European Union. Bob named his son after him.

While Bob becomes uneasy about some activity at the bank, he’s also distracted by an affair he’s started with Agnese. He chooses to reveal his misgivings at a meeting that will determine whether the international banking community should regard Turaida as solid. He tells the group that most of the bank’s loans are made to only a dozen shell companies owned by Russian oligarchs prohibited from receiving loans from EU banks.

From here on, Turaida officials are highly suspicious of him. The only insider Bob can trust is his elderly assistant, Evgeny, and on the outside, the legendary David Osis. Before long, not only is his information discredited, it’s apparent his life is on the line. His last hope is to trust that crazy reporter, Santa Ezeriņa, who is never one to swallow the official story.

Bankers and their secrets, oligarchs and their dirty dealing, politicians and their agendas, reporters and their dangerous probing. In a sea of betrayal, it’s all Bob can do to keep himself and David safe. As this intriguing story spools out, that goal seems less and less likely. William Burton McCormick and John Christmas have both lived in Latvia and establish the setting convincingly. Before you think some of the financial shenanigans are a little far-fetched, recall what has actually taken place there in recent decades, and you’ll conclude the set-up for this fictional story is not far afield. Plus it’s a cracking good adventure for both Bob and the journalist Santa, who sees the flashing neon warning signs that Bob tries so hard to ignore.