Monday, October 31, 2016

Say No More by Hank Phillippi Ryan: My Review

The fifth entry in the Jane Ryland mystery/crime series checks so many boxes on the exceptional novel check-list that Hank Phillippi Ryan might want to make room in her already jam-packed award cabinet. Every novel in this series imparts unsurpassed plotting and a timely theme threaded with reliability and consistency. Say No More starts its theme with its very title and infuses into every pivotal action the paralyzing effects of keeping quiet about a crime, even when it is a crime committed against oneself. But, of course, it is all much more complex than that, and nobody delves into the complex and unravels it better than Hank.

The characters, both major and minor, are the embodiment of authenticity, and readers will appreciate the attention to detail the author exerts. I found the clothes descriptions quite telling about the characters’ personalities, with traits such as greed and timidity easily recognizable. Further insight can be gained from Ryan’s use of multiple points-of-view, too, with the major players each having their own turn speaking and moving the action along. Jane and Jake still take stage front and center, but the additional POVs provide a complete and most satisfying immersion.

One of the most distressing topics concerning college campuses today is that of sexual assault, rape, mostly involving young women attacked by fellow male students, and too many times with the excuse of alcohol or other drugs. Jane Ryland has left the breaking news department of Channel 2 News and is working on a special project, a documentary on that very issue, sexual assaults on college campuses. Hoping to get hits from a FB page set up asking for students wanting to tell their stories to contact her or her producer, Jane has heard from a rape victim who is willing to meet with Jane about her nightmarish experience as a college student at a party. Jane has just come forward herself with information about a crime, a hit-and-run she witnessed and a description of the driver. Reporting the accident just seems like the right thing to do to Jane, but she will face her own dilemma about speaking out, especially after receiving a note warning her to SAY NO MORE.

Meanwhile, Jake Brogan, Boston Police Department detective and Jane’s boyfriend, is investigating a drowning that might be a homicide. The victim is associated with a local college as an adjunct professor in the drama department. Avery Morgan was on loan from her screen-writing in Hollywood and living in a house furnished by the college. Jake and his partner Paul DeLuca are met with a wall of silence in the residential neighborhood called The Reserve, with no one admitting to having seen anything. And, there’s Jake’s snitch who is having problems with the Boston gangster family he has been snitching on, afraid he’s said too much. All have connections to the same college as Jane’s rape victim.

And, Jane and Jake have their own secrets and struggles with just how much to say concerning their relationship. It’s always been a conflict of interests, with Jake’s police work and Jane’s reporting, but they are trying to strike a happy balance with Jane leaving the breaking news part of reporting. How much do they reveal about their personal lives to others and how much do they reveal to each other if their work intersects? With a private engagement now cementing their feelings, much more is on the line. How much and what are they willing to sacrifice to achieve the right balance?

I was most fortunate to receive an advanced reader’s copy of Say No More from the author. I thank Hank Phillippi Ryan for that and for providing another riveting tale that is now one of my favorite reads of 2016.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Murder in Containment by Anne Cleeland: My Review

I tend to take a page from Lord Acton when I read a book in this outstanding series by Anne Cleeland. Obsession starts from the first word and hardly ends with the last. I usually must pull out the previous books and revisit those in part, too. And, there is the knowing that the book is ending and trying to read the last few chapters slowly or delay them, because I know that while I will be completely satisfied when I close the book, I will be entering withdrawal from my addiction. Of course, the addiction never goes away; it is only abated until the next book. Book #4, Murder in Containment, in the Acton/Doyle series is as unputdownable as the previous three, which is great news for fans and maybe not such good news for a husband with whom I was spending an anniversary weekend. Ah, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and as Kathleen Doyle would say, “It was a crackin’ good read.”

Murder in Containment is one of the most deliciously complicated plots yet in the series. Detective Sergeant Kathleen Doyle is pregnant, as was revealed in the previous book, Murder in Hindsight, and she is having a wretched time of it, with morning sickness that won’t confine itself to morning. DCI Michael Sinclair/Lord Acton, Doyle’s husband, is on a high-profile case with connections that could prove irreparably scandalous for Scotland Yard’s CID. Doyle’s prescience is becoming more fine-tuned as she allows herself to give credence to its veracity, but she keeps her gifts under wraps. She already presents a target for those who would harm Acton, and knowledge of her abilities could prove fatal.

As usual, Detective Sergeant Doyle’s case, a carry-over from last novel finds itself crossing into the territory of Acton’s web of tangled troubles. The journalist-turned-vigilante, who Doyle knew as a friend before his nefarious activity, has one more murder to commit, and DS Doyle is on hand to thwart his final attempt. The intended victim is DCI Drake, and Doyle is puzzled about Drake’s fitting the killer’s profile for his marks. Kevin Maguire, the killer/journalist had as his fixed motive trying to right previous miscarries of justice. While Doyle struggles to understand the motive, Maguire starts appearing in Doyle’s dreams as a sort of guide to danger ahead. Acton’s case involves corruption at Wexton Prison, and he cautiously uses Doyle’s gifts to ferret out the lies.

The murder focus in on that of containment murders, those committed to prevent the victim from leading Acton, either deliberately or accidentally, to the masterminds in the prison corruption. Doyle is well aware that her husband, no stranger to vigilante justice, may be involved in some containment activity, including murder, of his own. Acton has always played his own game in law enforcement, but it has its own twisted form of what’s right and just. Doyle is more by the book, except where her special gifts are an advantage. Together Doyle and Acton make a formidable team, both professionally and personally. Their conversations are such great dialogue, with Doyle’s use of her Irish roots and self-deprecating quips and Acton’s dry sense of humor. The Lord of the realm and the Irish lass are never boring.

The story is told from the point of view of Doyle, but there is a nice surprise deep into the novel when Detective Inspector Thomas Williams has a short chapter of his own. Williams is such a likeable character, his heart still beating for Doyle, but his loyalty to Acton never in question. It’s a tough line he must walk, and he walks it admirably. He has a few surprises of his own in this story, and I’m delighted to see his role deepened.

This book could well be read by itself and enjoyed, but the previous three books build on each other so much, especially the brilliant character development (both major and minor characters), that the reader would be cheating her/himself by not reading the first three. And, you don’t want to miss a minute of the story of Kathleen Doyle and Michael Sinclair, Lord Acton. The other characters, too, grow so much, and Lord Acton’s peerage and his estate at Trestles is explained a little more each book. Of course, there are the amazing police procedural stories, crimes and murder mysteries, that just can’t be missed. So, if you haven’t read any of the series yet, give yourself a Christmas gift by buying all four and shutting yourself away during the holidays for non-stop reading. If you’ve read the previous novels, it’s rather certain you are already champing at the bit to read Murder in Containment.  So, treat yourself to one of the best reads of 2016 as soon as you can.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths: My Review

Smoke and Mirrors is the second book in the Magic Men Mysteries, following the successful The Zig Zag Girl. This second entry seals the deal for me that Elly’s new series is another favorite. As an ardent fan of the Ruth Galloway series, I started this new series with a bit of trepidation. Could I really love another series by this favorite author as much as the first? Well, apparently, the answer is an unqualified yes. The smooth writing, the great plotting, and the fascinating characters whose depths are ever growing. It’s all there in the Magic Men series, also known as the Max Mephisto/Edgar Stephens series.

The setting is Brighton, England in 1951, and the Christmas season has begun. But, there is little to be jolly about after two children disappear on their way to a sweet shop and are found dead in a fresh snow two days later, a trail of candies/sweets leading to their bodies. Mark and Annie, ages 12 and 13, had been best friends, growing up on the same street, and both having an interest in writing plays and the theater. Annie’s writing leaned toward a dark, twisted style, with a startling retelling of Hansel and Gretel and an original, though steeped in folktale traditions, script entitled The Stolen Children. It falls to Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and his team of DS Emma Holmes and Sergeant Bob Willis to determine who would have motive to kill these bright, creative kids just beginning their lives. There seems to be no shortage of leads to follow up and people to investigate and more than a few red herrings, but with a crime of this magnitude and brutality, no stone can be left unturned, and Griffiths leaves no loose threads when the resolution is revealed.

And, there is the theater connection, which leads Edgar to the pantomime performance of Aladdin at the Palace Pier Theater starring his friend and fellow WWII veteran, Max Mephisto. The current murders have eerie similarities to a 1912 pantomime performed in Hastings where a fifteen-year-old girl was killed right before she took the stage in Babes in the Wood play. One of the performers in the current pantomime had been one of two who discovered the body of that girl in 1912. Max gives Edgar insight and access to the theater world that would have been a closed community otherwise, and Edgar needs all the edge he can get in a case where make-believe is all too real.

The 1950s is an interesting, but challenging era to write about, but Elly Griffiths uses her resources well to recreate Brighton after the horrors of WWII, but still showing its effects in rationing and the all too fresh memories with which Edgar must deal. Edgar and Max have the bond of serving together in the Magic Men assignment during the war, and it has given them both a basis for a friendship and a way to cope with their past. The boundaries of what are socially and legally acceptable sexual relationships in Brighton and England in this pre-war decade surface, too, within the theater cast. And, there is still a matter of class divisions long after WWI started to change those. But, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the peek into the world of the English pantomime play of the 50s, with its double entendre and the fluidity of gender in roles.

Characters are one of the outstanding features of Griffiths’ writing that give it depth and provide the reader with exceptional enjoyment. Major characters, such as Edgar and Max, are expected to be well developed, with each book adding to their background and connection. But, Elly Griffiths, as she does in her Ruth Galloway series, gives incredible attention to detail in her minor characters, too. Emma Holmes is a sign of times to come with her smart, dedicated police work and her ability to succeed in what is still very much a man’s world. The Great Diablo brings his larger than life personality to the cast of the play and the cast of the book. Ruby, Max’s daughter and Edgar’s love interest is becoming a more clearly recognizable player, as her ambition becomes more apparent. Even the dead children are characters we feel we know and, thus, lament their deaths even more.

Elly Griffiths just received the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library for 2016, a prestigious award for her whole body of work thus far. It comes as no surprise to those of us who have read her books for years and enjoyed the consistency of excellence she always produces. Her stories continue to be one of the best highlights of my reading year.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Coffin Road by Peter May: My Review

I first fell in love with the wild and wooly Outer Hebrides of Scotland in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, three outstanding novels that captured the beauty of that isolated wildness. I also have the companion book by May and photographer David Wilson that is a testament to just how on target the written descriptions from the Lewis Trilogy are. Now, Peter May returns to the setting of the Hebridean archipelago in his latest book, a standalone, Coffin Road. This time, it is the Isle of Harris that is the featured spot in the Outer Hebrides, and it is once again a tale of depth as only Peter May can pull from these islands. Three stories that need to be resolved. Three stories that are dependent upon one another to fill in the blanks.

And, the book begins with just that. A blank. A man is washed up on the beach at a sparsely populated area of the Isle of Harris and doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there. All he knows is that something bad has happened and he might be involved. He’s wearing a life jacket, but there’s no boat or other means of explaining his arrival. Struggling up the beach, he encounters an elderly woman who just happens to be his neighbor and calls him Mr. Maclean. The woman realizes Maclean is not well and leads him to his cottage. He is able to add the first name of Neal and a profession of writer after other neighbors, apparently friends, drop by. Neal makes a decision not to reveal his amnesia due to his uneasy feeling on the beach, and thus begins a frustrated effort to regain his identity and memory. A map with Coffin Road designated on it surfaces, but with no memory of it or its significance. He was supposedly writing a book about Eilean Mor and the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on that island in 1900, but he can’t find a manuscript or any related work.

Another man lies dead from a head bashing in a small chapel at a lighthouse on Eilean Mor. Detective Sergeant George Gunn is sent from Stornoway on Isle of Lewis to investigate who the dead man is and what he was doing on the uninhabited island and who would want him dead. No small task with no ID on the murder victim. His only lead is the identification of a man seen fleeing the island by a tourist boat captain.

With the action going on in the Outer Hebrides, there is a third mystery forming in Edinburg, where a teenage girl is making discoveries that turn her world upside down. It’s been two years since her father’s disappearance was ruled a suicide, and Karen’s mother has just moved her boyfriend into the house with them. Karen’s transformation from a young teen at the time of her father’s death to a bitter, rebellious young woman with multiple tattoos and body piercings two years later has brought her to the point of breaking with her mother. Desperate for an anchor, Karen Fleming turns to her godfather, who worked with her father, for information about her father, something to help her find closure. She finds anything but closure, and lives are in danger as a result.

Peter May is a genius at many things in his writing, but two of the most brilliant are the aforementioned setting descriptions and the skill that must bring these layers of story together to fit seamlessly into a complete picture of who, what, when, where, how, and why. Is the murder of a lone man at an isolated lighthouse connected to a girl’s quest to find answers about her father? Is a man’s loss of identity authentic or a convenience? There are secrets hiding in every crook and cranny of this book, and May orchestrates their revelations into a perfect flow of need to know.

Peter May also is adept at turning out interesting characters, and his movement of them reminds me of chess pieces that are strategically and expertly placed. The main character of the novel is that of the amnesia sufferer, Neal Maclean, so readers must deal with an unreliable narrator much of the time, but one on a fascinating path. There are alternating narrators, with George Gunn and Karen Fleming taking their minor turns, but it is through Neal that readers must try to make sense of most of the twists and turns. Being a fan of the unreliable narrator when done well, I think May pulls it off quite well with the amnesia being the vehicle of unreliability. With every move towards regaining identity and memory, Neal Maclean edges towards reliability, and the story moves towards resolution.

And, with all the substance Coffin Road has with the characters and the setting and the layers of story, there is a cause. The reason for the secrets and the isolation and murder, a world issue that is woven into the story elements that will leave the reader with lingering fears of an all too real terror. I am pleased to say that with Coffin Road, readers will be treated to one of Peter May’s best and most thrilling tales yet.

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