Blood Like Rain

By Albert Tucher – In Al Tucher’s latest Big Island Mystery, Hawai`i County police detective Errol Coutinho has his hands full from the first page. He’s called out on a homicide case and discovers the victim is his wife’s best friend, Eleanor Swieczak. He wasn’t crazy about the woman, but his wife will be devastated.

Coutinho and his partner, Harlan Kim, have a lead suspect: Eleanor’s new boyfriend, Jerry Wyatt. Not only does he have a murky past, he’s disappeared along with Eleanor’s Mercedes. Coutinho’s wife Lucy is the best crime lab technician the department has, and she really wants to dig into this one. Over the course of the story, her science and her insights about her friend prove invaluable.

Coutinho and Kim suspect a connection to the drug trade. Pakalolo—Hawaiian weed—believed by many to be the world’s finest. At the top of the island’s significant pakalolo enterprise is a well-established drug entrepreneur named Morrison, in his late middle age. If Wyatt’s involved, Morrison will know. But he seems to have cleared out too. Rumor has it that he and another drug lord—the violent but elusive Trondheim—are waging a war off the coast.

These rumors are substantiated when a body washes ashore on the once-lovely Kamilo beach. It’s now caught in the gyre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the area’s unique currents deposit a constant stream of trash there. A volunteer cleanup crew discovered the body atop a pile of plastic garbage.

Author Tucher’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Hawaiian Islands comes constantly into play in these novels. They aren’t stories that could happen just anywhere, and he does a great job weaving the unique settings into his plots. A body on a garbagy beach is just the start. A breakneck trip down the steep and narrow road into Waipi’o Valley is enough to give you vertigo.

Was Eleanor’s death the first indication of a new drug war? Or, was her death a one-off, a car-theft gone wrong? The pieces start to look like they’ll fit together when she’s tangentially linked to the deaths of two reporters investigating the pakalolo business some twenty years earlier. The murders have started up again, and, as their investigation proceeds, Coutinho and Kim have an increasing number of bodies in the morgue that attest to the continuing trail of violence.

So, Coutinho and Kim are trying to figure out an organized crime drug smuggling operation with ties to the mainland, reopening a double homicide everyone had given up on, and, getting back to the original subject, attempting to explain the death of Lucy’s friend Eleanor.

Tucher has a knack for creating interesting characters, and may go a bit overboard here, with several sets of siblings and an improbable number of twins. Even a former wife of Coutinho’s makes an unwelcome appearance. She is, of course, a twin. Family feuds are always the worst and seeing how the several families tangled up in this story treat each other, it will make you grateful if you’re an only child.

You can read Tucher’s novels for their complicated plots or for characters you’ll come to enjoy—Coutinho and Kim are solid partners, you’ll like their boss, Lieutenant Tanaka, and a young female officer, Jenny Freitas, who “had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”

Her Sister’s Shadow

If you’re a fan of books with an unreliable narrator, you’re in luck with Catherine Wimpeney’s debut thriller. She draws on her experiences and insights as a psychotherapist to create a nuanced portrait of a woman with profound and initially unappreciated mental health challenges.

Kay is a Senior Investigating Officer in the Manchester police force, a bit uneasy with her partner, DI Matt Anderson, whom she believes is too ambitious (wants her job), and with their commanding officer, Barbara Dean (may give it to him). Granted, Kay seems more than a bit paranoid when she sees Matt and Barbara talking with each other. But she’s been in a shaky mental state since her older sister Helen’s suicide.

About ten months earlier, Helen jumped to her death from a parking structure. Helen suffered from depression for many years, but Kay never anticipated she’d do this. Kay knows she played a role in Helen’s troubled psychiatric history, which contributes to her grief and guilt over Helen’s death. Kay has missed a number of appointments with the therapist her department hoped would get her back on track. That, combined with Kay’s current somewhat erratic mental state, convinces Barbara to require that she take some time off.

Fate seems to play a cruel trick on Kay when she spots another woman at the top of a parking structure, looking prepared to jump. She rushes to the woman’s aid. If she couldn’t save her sister, perhaps she can save this woman. The woman’s name is Ava, and Kay finally talks her down. Ava’s reveals she’s being tormented by her ex-husband, Adrian McGrath, a wealthy property developer. She is terrified of him and the men he has following her. To Kay’s surprise, she knows McGrath, whom she holds partly responsible for the torture death of a young boy.

Kay planned to pursue her mental health recovery in Scotland at a vacation home that’s been in her family for generations. Quiet. Fabulous views. Now, she invites Ava to join her. No one will have a clue that’s where she’s hiding.

Author Wimpeney delves into a lot of backstory, not just about Kay, but Adrian too, and I’m not sure all of it was necessary. She made a good choice in letting Kay narrate most of the story in first-person. You get a strong sense of her perspective, which makes the book work. A few very short chapters take other points of view, but make the narration feel choppy.

When Kay finds Helen’s journal in the vacation house and begins to read, her mental state is stressed almost beyond endurance. The pressure on Kay continues to mount—protecting Ava, salvaging her career, repairing relationships, dealing with Adrian, heading off a nosy reporter.

Her Sister’s Shadow is unquestionably a psychological thriller, and you may conclude it emphasizes the psychological elements at the expense of the thriller elements. Yet, the unpredictable consequences of Kay’s mental state will keep the pages turning.

Order here from Amazon.

Or here through IndieBound.

One P.I.’s Life

Sheila Wysocki, a death investigator based in Nashville, talked about her work a few weeks ago at the Killer Nashville Conference, and it was full of ideas to start crime fiction writers’ juices flowing.

Although she lives in central Tennessee, she doesn’t work cases based there; for safety reasons, the work she does is all out-of-state (a couple of stories right there).

Her clients are the families of victims. All of the victims are cold cases. Some of the victims died many years before, and some have grown cold because the police have stopped investigating. Sheila apparently believes some of them weren’t very thoroughly investigated from the outset.

No matter how much family members miss them and want a resolution, they can be powerless to make that happen.They are often financially strapped, some because they were poor to begin with, and others because they have been repeatedly taken advantage of by unscrupulous investigators. One of Wysocki’s first tasks is to establish trust.

Several factors influence whether she will take on a specific case. One is whether it’s a case she can take to the public—in other words, will it be effective in ginning up some public sentiment toward reopening the investigation? The families will have already tried to persuade the police to keep up their efforts and have gotten nowhere. Public pressure can’t hurt.

She assesses whether the family includes some strong personalities the police won’t want to tangle with, or whether it has the money to sue the police, which could result in a court order to investigate further. It takes from $300,000 to $500,000 to take a police department to court, she said, which is out of reach for most families. This is where cable tv dollars can help. The popularity of cold case programming means producers are looking for interesting stories, and the network will underwrite the necessary investigation.

These lawsuits enable Wysocki to gain access to official documents and reports, and she reads all of them. She said she often finds that the police haven’t interviewed anyone. She called her approach “crowdsourcing” justice, because she involves families, volunteer investigators, and a variety of other experts in fields like 911 call analysis. She may produce a podcast, which has sometimes proved an effective way to get tips.

She started on this career path after solving the murder of her former college roommate, a case that had gone unsolved for twenty-six years. Thinking about all the pain involved in that murder, she must have pivoted to the 266,000 other unsolved murders in the United States—a number that grows by about 6,000 per year—and found her calling.

Diverse Diversions: 3 Entertaining Crime Stories

Gunslinger: Killer’s Requiem

By AW Hart, pen name of Michael Black. I miss good stories about the Old West, which were such a feature of American life a half-century ago and before. Take a trip back there with this new novel, featuring Hart’s gunslinger character, River Hicks. Hicks is returning to the Oregon home town where he’s wanted for murders he didn’t commit. In tow are teenage twins Connor and Abby, whom he rescued from an abusive situation in Texas. The trio faces a deadly opponent in Hicks’s brother, the town’s wealthiest man, exploiter of lumber-mill workers, and, secretly, father of the twins. A whole corral of colorful and memorable characters head toward a showdown between Hicks and his allies and anti-union hired guns. Amazon link here.

That Darkness

By Lisa Black – I enjoyed her informative presentations at Killer Nashville, but had never read one of her books. Her experiences as a crime scene investigator really comes through in 2016’s That Darkness, as her protagonist, Maggie Gardiner, ekes every bit of information out of the scant clues (look out for those cat hairs!) in a series of unexplained murders of men with impressive violent crime rap sheets. You’ll know from the beginning that the killer she’s pitted herself against is Cleveland detective Jack Renner, fed up with the justice system’s failure to get these violent characters off the streets and taking matters into his own hands. Maggie soon begins to suspect a police vigilante, but who is it? She sets up quite an interesting cat-and-mouse game between herself and Renner, and both are challenged to reconcile the differences between law and justice. Amazon link here.

Queen’s Gambit

By Bradley Harper – No, not the tv movie, but a 2019 thriller set in England in 1897, in which a pair of sleuths try to foil an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. Margaret Harkness is called upon by an old friend—Professor Joseph Bell, who in real life was an inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—to help identify a German anarchist bent upon killing the queen, an act the anarchist deems “propaganda by deed.” The story, set at the colorful time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, offers a prime opportunity for royal pomp and for the anarchist’s dark doings. Can Harkness and Bell outwit the determined killer? Masterfully entertaining and with a helpful map. Amazon link here.

How Crime Scene Investigations Really Work

Author and former U.S. Army forensic pathologist (and professional Santa) Bradley Harper led a fascinating seminar at the recent Killer Nashville conference that provided a bit of “the inside story” (you should pardon the expression) on autopsies and crime scene investigations.

His opening analogy was an interesting digression with a distinguished pedigree. He said Aristotle maintained there are only three arguments: Blame, Values, and Choice. Fixing blame is what forensics tries to do, and blame always relates to events that happened in the past tense. Values, he said, are always argued in the present tense (“we believe in. . .”), and choices are argued in the future tense. When two people are arguing, if one is using the past tense (blame), and the other is using present or future tense, they will never agree. This is a handy trick to remember next time you’re setting up a fictional confrontation!

Forensics is even older than Aristotle. It began in China about 3000 years ago when a murder occurred, with the assailant presumed to be part of a particular guard unit. The magistrate asked each guard member to lay his sword on a table. Then they waited. Before long, one and only one of the swords was covered with flies, attracted by the invisible traces of blood still on the sword.

Fast-forward to 19th century France and the efforts of numerous men of science to bring scientific methods to the analysis and systematization of crime investigations. Advances in photography, fingerprinting, and the standardization of autopsy procedures elevated the field. These pioneers’ accomplishments soon found their way into literature, starting with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin. And then there was Sherlock Holmes. In 1910, a devoted Holmes fan, Frenchman Edmond Locard, set up the world’s first crime lab. You’ll remember Locard as the man who developed the exchange principle: “every contact leaves a trace.”

So what happens with in an autopsy? Harper said the steps include: verify the deceased’s identity (preferably with a thumbprint); take a full-body x-ray; make an external examination; U.S. pathologists use a Y incision and remove the top of the skull to reveal the internal organs and brain, any of which may be taken out for further analysis if necessary; analyze stomach contents, blood, urine, spinal fluid, the vitreous humor of the eye, etc; and take lots of pictures throughout.

Read More:
The Three Basic Issues (from Thank You for Arguing)
The Virtual Autopsy – explore online!
The Exchange Principle
Autopsy: A Screenwriter’s Guide
The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee

Guest Post: Popular Author Marilyn Meredith

After last week, filled with the annual Killer Nashville conference, it’s a pleasure to get back to blogging with a guest post by popular crime author Marilyn Meredith! She is the author of over 40 published books, including the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series and, writing as F. M. Meredith, the Rocky Bluff PD series. 

Despite her long list of successes, marketing her latest book—The Trash Harem—posed new challenges in the era of Covid. Fans of her character, Deputy Tempe Crabtree, would likely be interested in whether she could actually retire from the crime-solving business. But how to get the word out? Here’s what Marilyn says about that:

The Book is Done, What’s Next? 

First the basics: The Trash Harem is published and available on Kindle and as a paperback. But, promoting a new book is very different in the Age of Covid. Two years ago the marketing job was much easier! Pre-Covid, what I would’ve set up would have included:

  • Talks at libraries. Our library (in northern California) burned to the ground and has not been rebuilt. Other nearby libraries are slowly opening but not ready for any events. In the past, several libraries held book fairs, others set up panels for a group of authors. All on hold.
  • Other presentations: For example, I belong to two chapters of Sisters in Crime, but neither has resumed in-person gatherings. I belong to another writers’ group that meets in a library. That’s out too, for now. Other writers’ groups I where I usually would give a presentation about a new book also aren’t doing in-person events yet. 

Overcoming these challenges?

Not having these preferred methods of getting the word out, I’m planning other kinds of book events that involve signings in local communities. In the past I’ve set up book signings in local coffee shops and I may still do that. Our art gallery has remained open through the pandemic and I’ve done two events there. I may see about another signing at the gallery with this latest book. I

I attended the Public Safety Writers Associations annual summer conference—the first one they’ve had since the pandemic. https://policewriter.com/ This has always been my favorite conference for several reasons. It’s small enough to be manageable, and I can meet everyone. Lots of great information is shared, and I often get ideas for new plots. And there is a book store where I can sell my books! 

The small community where I live had an annual two-day Apple Festival until the pandemic hit. This year they are doing a scaled down, one-day version, and I’ve signed up to have my books for sale.

Non-in-person events also make sense right now. I’ve done lots of promotion on the Internet, including a blog tour and this is one of my last stops. I’ve always enjoyed doing these tours. (And we bloggers enjoy having Marilyn as a guest!) 

Feedback? Yours is welcome!

What I’d like to know from readers is, are you ready to attend book signings and book and craft fairs again? And from writers, what kinds of promotion are you doing these days? 

Deputy Tempe Crabtree in a Nutshell

Deputy Tempe Crabtree has retired from her job in Bear Creek in central California. Friends that have moved south ask her to visit them in Temecula, where they are now living in a retirement community. Tempe learns the husband, Jonathan, is a suspect in what might be a murder case. The retirement community includes many interesting characters, any one of whom might have had a better motive for murder than did Jonathan. Still . . . Fans of the detective fiction of  Earle Stanley Gardner as well as the Pechanga Old Oak (look it up!) will find something to like here. Oh, and what’s a trash harem? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Order The Trash Harem here from amazon.

Or here from your local indie bookstore.

Foreign Entanglements

The Foreign Girls

Sergio Olguín’s The Fragility of Bodies was one of my favorite books of 2020 (review here). His new one, The Foreign Girls once again features the sexy trouble-magnet, journalist Verónica Rosenthal. When I refer to the books as “new,” bear in mind that these are books in translation and have been out several years already in Olguín’s home country, Argentina. But neither one has lost any of its freshness in the interim.

Verónica has deserted Buenos Aires for the countryside, hoping to put the traumatic events at the conclusion of Fragility behind her. She hooks up with two young European women and they travel together for a while, and stay at her cousin’s remote vacation home with pool. What should be a sun-drenched idyll becomes a compelling noir adventure.

One night after a party at a rich man’s home, the foreign girls are missing. What happened to them and who is responsible consumes Verónica. Even though she’s supposedly not working, she knows how to dig out a story and does it without regard for her own safety.

Both of Olguín’s Verónica Rosenthal books were expertly translated by Miranda France, and published by Bitter Lemon Press.

Order it here from Amazon or here from your local indie bookstore.

The Basel Killings

Swiss author and playwright Hansjörg Schneider’s first Inspector Hunkeler mystery, translated by Mike Mitchell, has already won the Friedrich Glauser Prize, Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction award. Like Olguín’s story, the book was first published in German a few years ago and is newly available in English.

Peter Hunkeler, a Basel police detective, is feeling old. His prostate bothers him, he’s tired, his girlfriend is on an extended stay in Paris, and he’s past wanting to deal with his superiors in the police department and prosecutor’s office who want him to play according to their rules.

Walking home from a bar one dreary November night, a season as dark as this story, he spots a man he knows sleeping on a park bench, but the man isn’t asleep, he’s been murdered, and the earlobe where he always wore a diamond earring has been slit open, the earring gone.

To Hunkeler, the crime is too similar to a case he’s investigating, the murder of a prostitute, whose ear also was slit open. The pearl that was always there, gone. Coincidence? But when a young girl from the gypsy camp outside town is attacked, strangled, and her ear cut, he realizes he has a serial killer on his hands. What do these three very different victims have in common?

Hunkeler has an interesting low-key approach to investigating, and uses his farmhouse in Alsace as a retreat from the city, a place to think more clearly. Like many books by European authors, Schneider’s writing is barebones and straightforward, more Hemingway than Faulkner. Yet I found the characters he created here eminently believable.

Order it here from Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.

Coming Attractions

Detective Montalbano

Here’s an encomium for one of the most entertaining TV crime series ever—Italy’s Detective Montalbano. Read why it’s so popular, how it was made, and watch clips of the earliest episodes, with a preview for the very last one, coming July 6. We’ve watched all the seasons so far at our house, including the bonus interviews with actors, author, and crew.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays the taciturn Salvo Montalbano is especially interesting. He’s played the role so long, it’s fascinating to hear him display his deep understanding of the role and the values the late author, Andrea Camilleri imbued his creation with.

When the director insisted the show be filmed in Sicily (to the RAI backers’ skepticism), they visited the island’s community and regional theaters to find quintessential Sicilians to play the bit parts—the gossipy landlady of the deceased, the creepy boyfriend, the femme fatale sister—and, believe me, these actors make the most of it!

If you do visit the link above, at the bottom of the story, you’ll see reference to the Young Montalbano series. All the main characters in their younger days, with different actors channeling the later portrayals. A delightful way to feed your obsession! Both series have subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. Honestly, the Italian body language is so transparent, you begin to feel you don’t need them!

When we were in Sicily two years ago, there were Montalbano tours all over the southern region, pointing out places where this or that was filmed, primarily in the charming town of Ragusa (above).

The Unforgotten

Season 4 of the award-winning London-based police procedural about a cold case team returns to PBS, Sunday, July 11. Nicola Walker is brilliant as the lead detective with Sanjeev Bhaskar as her second. There’s a strong and believable relationship between them, and an appreciation of the long-lasting impact murder has on those left behind, handled admirably. Good, solid mysteries too (trailer).

The 21st Century P.I.

Writers who focus on stories about crime are doubtless aware that the job description of today’s private detective has expanded dramatically. Tyler Maroney in his book: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, looks far beyond the old-fashioned gumshoe, sitting in his beater, chain-smoking and sipping from a flask outside a no-tell motel. In fact, several of the books I’ve enjoyed most this year take advantage of investigators’ diverse roles–like New Jersey Noir: Cape May, and The Measure of Time.

Says Maroney, who has his own firm, Quest Research & Investigations, America’s 35,000 private investigators “are everywhere,” working for a long list of clients–large companies, government agencies, A-list movie stars, professional athletes, non-profits, sovereign nations, media organizations, and business tycoons. They work for lawyers preparing cases and politicians running for office. Why are they hired? To uncover wrongdoing, right wrongs (real or perceived), satisfy curiosity, and find someone or something, for revenge or competitive advantage. Sometimes the hiring is in a worthy cause, and sometimes it’s merely to feed paranoia.

The book describe a series of interesting cases, among them, helping a civil rights law firm free a wrongly incarcerated client, using computer forensics to ferret out employee fraud, conducting background checks on company executives before a client invests, recovering assets from American debtors hiding abroad, and negotiating with foreign strongmen. In the chapter on a surveillance assignment, he says (and this will be contrary to every television show you’ve ever seen), investigators cannot lie to a subject, they cannot impersonate or deceive. In many states, they cannot fabricate their identities. Despite the many prohibitions, Maroney says, “about once a month in my job, someone asks me to break the law.”

There are good stories here and no doubt equally good ones buried in some of those illegal requests. Enough story ideas to last the decade!

The sheer variety of the work is fascinating, especially for those who write about crime and what it takes to ensure an investigator’s clients “get the hidden information they need. We are lubricant, bandage, and weapon.”

Find it on Amazon or at your local indie bookstore.

A Galway Epiphany

By Ken Bruen, narrated by Gerry O’Brien–A Galway Epiphany is the latest in award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen’s long-running series involving former (and disgraced) Garda detective Jack Taylor. He’s now a private investigator with a haphazard career since being thrown off the force for excessive drinking and associated poor judgment. At last he’s found some solace, a result of long stays at the farm of his friend, Keefer, once a roadie for the Rolling Stones, and their falcon, Maeve.

Bruen begins with musings on the seven epiphanies identified by a mid-eighteenth century monk who called them ‘blends of blessed curses and cursed blessings.’ Such a pregnant statement was sure to cast its spell over the ensuing story, and indeed it does.

A pair of children from a Galway refugee encampment is seen near Galway’s Irish Famine Memorial. They light a candle, and the girl whispers, “Here’s a trick I learned in Guatemala.” She causes a blue light to shimmer over their heads, and that’s all the public needs to start a frenzy of religious fervor.

Soon thereafter, Jack is in town on business and is hit by a truck. A big one. He’s in a coma for some weeks, but, inexplicably, otherwise unscathed. The children from the blue light were seen bending over him, and his lack of injuries is interpreted as their first miracle.

Various characters wander into the story to complicate Jack’s life. They include: his long-time acquaintance, Father Malachy, vainly hoping for a bishopric. Failing that, and suffering a debilitating illness, he wants Jack to kill him. There’s a spiffily dressed oddball whose calling card is a long matchstick; a California woman starting her own religious sisterhood, a scam for certain. They all want to get their hands on the miracle children. And they want Jack’s help. But are the children innocents or exploiters themselves?

Jack is irreligious in the best of times—hostile would be pretty much on the mark—and is disgusted by the machinations of the miracle-seekers and quashers alike. He just wants to go back to the farm. His drinking is out of control, and he’s not as much help to anyone as he really needs to be.

Bruen is a master of the apt witticism and nicely placed literary quote. Because the story is told by Jack in first person, his prejudices and cynicism and erudition have full rein. Despite the abundant humor, a pall hangs over the tale, like the smoke from one of the match-toting arsonist’s fires, and you may sense events will end badly.

This impression is aided by the sadly ironic reading by superb audiobook narrator Gerry O’Brien, who wrings every drop of Jamieson-soaked humor and regret out of Jack’s thoughts. An audiobook with a skilled narrator is a thing of joy, and O’Brien makes you believe for a few hours, that you too are in Galway, sitting on a barstool next to Jack, puzzling out the Fates.

Order here from Amazon.

Or Shop your local indie bookstore