Thursday, October 27, 2022

Back to the Garden by Laurie R. King: Reading Room Review


“And all the while, Michael Johnston lay in his hospital bed, gloating and festering his way toward the darkness, carrying with him all those unshed secrets. Somehow, he had turned their investigation into a game, a twisted monster’s final amusement.”

Laurie R. King has given us such thrilling stories in her Russell and Holmes series, her Kate Martinelli series, her Stuyvesant & Grey books, and her stand-alones. Now she has a new series starting that features a new lead character, Raquel Laing, and she looks to be another whom readers will want to follow. Back to the Garden is a book that deals with two timelines fifty years apart, going back to the 1970s in California where free lovers and free spirits also became targets for serial killers.

Raquel Laing is an Inspector for the San Franciso Police, currently working in the Cold Cases Unit. She had only been a patrol police-person for six years when she landed a desk in homicide, which many of her co-workers resented. They refer to her a Sherlock, which Raquel hates. But there’s no denying how good she is at her job, and her mentor, Al Hawkin (of Kate Martinelli series fame), has brought her onto his Cold Cases team. She has great intuitive skills; she can read people and tell if they’re truthful or not. It’s not magic, just good detecting. Although her social skills are lacking, sometimes sidestepping the leading up to and finishing touches of a conversation, Raquel can cut through the deception of a suspect or criminal and get results.

And, it’s Raquel’s detecting skills that her boss Al Hawkin is sorely in need of in finding a serial killer. When the killer is revealed through Raquel’s acute observational skills (a fascinating observation), a new urgency arises. The Highwayman, the name given to this particular serial killer, is currently in a hospital bed near death, and Al’s cold case department is working hard to get locations and names of at least nineteen victims. Despite her lack of social graces, or maybe because of it, Raquel is the only one who can communicate with him effectively at all. The killer thrills at remembering how he snuffed out the life of the young women and shows no remorse even as he’s dying.

The Gardener Estate and its mansion has long been a source of curiosity for people. Its history includes a struggle between the older generation and the younger of what its legacy should be. The Gardener brothers Rob and Fort were raised by their grandfather and their great-grandmother on the estate to be the suitable heirs. The problem was that neither brother wanted to carry on a legacy or be like their grandfather in any way. So, Rob went off to fight in Viet Nam in the early 1970s and Fort went to India to learn a new way of life.

Back from Vietnam, Rob was at a commune in Oregon when he heard his grandfather had died and left him the estate. So, in what must have had his grandfather spinning in his grave, Rob takes the commune he’s in from Oregon to California to make the Gardener mansion their new home. Fort even joins him after a bit, as it is part of Fort’s spiritual journey. The commune called The Commons is successful for four years, and artists, such as famous singers and sculptors visit at times. One sculptor who was particularly interested in putting her mark on the estate was Gaddo, famous enough to just have one name.

Returning to present day, the Gardener Estate is open to the public, with an estate manager and archivist, and people take tours to see both the glamorous parts of its beginnings and the transformational parts of the commune years. One point of pride for the manager of the estate, Jen Bachus, is the restoration of the gardens. It’s in the upkeep of the gardens where a problem appears in a Gaddo statue. It’s in danger of toppling over, so it will have to be removed, concrete base and all, to have work done. Its removal reveals a secret from 50 years ago, when the statue of three Eves was erected on that spot. Under the concrete is a skull with blonde hair attached. The skeleton under concrete fits the pattern of the Highwayman serial killer, so Raquel is sent to investigate.

The story is divided into “Then” and “Now” chapters, and both timelines are engaging. As the 70s saw me graduate from high school, graduate from college, and get married. I relished the visit to my younger days, connecting to the many references and allusions of the “then” chapters. Early seventies, it was still a time of hippies and communes and free love. By the end of the seventies those were fading out some. But, the Gardener Estate saw four years of this testing of a different way of life, and readers of this book will get a taste of it, learning that even in a free spirit type of existence there were leaders, certain people/characters who kept things running. In getting to know the characters who, along with Rob and his partner Meadow, kept the commune going, readers will start to dread who of them, if any, might be the skeleton found.

The “Now” timeline is a more tense one, as time itself is running out for the victims and their families to find closure from the tragic deaths of the young women. Raquel Laing is indefatigable in her pursuit for justice, and her scenes with the serial killer, Michael Johnston, haunt her, as well as the reader. While she’s trying to get locations and names from the monster who controls the information, she is majorly involved in trying to determine if the Gardener Estate skeleton is one of the Highwayman’s and who it is.

There is a large cast of characters in this story, from both the “then” and the “now”.  The reader is privy to multiple points of view and as Detective Laing is gathering information in her interviews with different people, the reader will be gathering clues and revelations for an explanation and resolution of events, too. One of the characters who gives a birds-eye view of the commune days is the estate lawyer, Jerry Rathford. Through the early days of him delivering the news to Rob of his grandfather’s death and Rob’s inheritance, Jerry is a reliable part of the timeline from the transformation of the Gardener Estate from palatial mansion to commune to a landmark historical spot. Jerry’s recollections of his visits to the commune introduces readers to many of the commune members.

The character of Raquel Laing remains a rather enigmatic one throughout the book, and in a recent discussion of the book by the author, she said that’s how she intended it. It’s interesting to hear authors talk about their characters, as so many authors say they listen to their characters, waiting for them to reveal their personality and thoughts. According to Laurie King, Raquel played things very close to the vest, not even revealing how her leg got injured, which has caused her to use a cane. And yet, readers will be able to ascertain much about Raquel by her actions. We know for certain that she cares deeply about obtaining justice for the victims and closure for families. She even shows some personal information in connection with her slow-burning attraction to someone in the story. But, she is a deliberate, thinking person who is not prone to impulsive behavior. Her physical appearance suggests a no-nonsense, no-frills person—"Small, tough looking, but with the most extraordinary eyes, a sort of translucent amber color… the rest of her was the very opposite of showy: cropped hair, no makeup, “a teal shirt with rolled-up sleeves, khaki pants, sturdy walking shoes, and a cane.”

Back to the Garden is a chilling tale, a time of change in what had always been and the aftermath of how it wasn’t all flowers in your hair love. It’s a police procedural that takes some turns away from what’s legal, but the process is fascinating. Laurie King has taken me on so many amazing adventures and down so many dark roads of twisted suspense, and this book can take its place proudly in her repertoire. I’m delighted with the new character of Raquel Laing, and I am looking forward to learning more about her. King has stated that she hopes to keep the “then” and “now” format to this series, and that suits me fine. There are lots of interesting threads to the world of Raquel, and there’s no one better to explore those than Laurie King.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review


When I started reading Elly Griffiths’ novels, she was writing the Ruth Galloway series, and I fell completely, happily in love with the character of Ruth. Of course, I still love her, but another female character from Griffiths has slipped into my heart, and I dare say that Harbinder Kaur is quickly becoming a new favorite for other Elly Griffiths’ fans. Harbinder first made an appearance in The Stranger Diaries, where she was just beginning to take shape, and where readers saw what a clever, skilled detective she was. In The Postscript Murders, Harbinder has some help from a quirky set of friends, whom I’m hoping to see again in a future novel.  And, now with Bleeding Heart Yard, readers have a thrilling third novel where this British Sikh detective shines.

Harbinder’s job promotion has taken her to London, where she is serving as a detective inspector (DI) in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Metropolitan Police (Homicide and Serious Crimes Unit). More specifically, DI Kaur is in charge of a Murder Investigation Team (MIT) based in West Kensington in an area referred to as Delgano. Her first big case presents itself in the form of a murder at the 21st year reunion at a posh high school, Manor Park School. The victim is a conservative PM, Garfield (Gary) Rice, who 21 years ago was a liberal, like his friends. With Harbinder still getting her bearings both in London and at her new job, it’s good that she’s a quick study. A murder that’s a high-profile case involving an MP is one Harbinder’s superiors will want solved quickly. 

After interviewing all the classmates at the reunion, Gary Rice's close group of high school friends become the focus of the investigation. “The Group”, as they were called in high school, have some secrets they want to keep buried and a history of messy relationships. The Group consists of the deceased Gary, highly successful pop star Chris/Kris Foster, famous actress Isabelle Istar, Labour MP Henry Steep, teacher (of English in Italy) Anna Vance, headmaster of Manor Park Sonoma Davies, and Harbinder’s DS Cassie Fitzherbert. The class of ’98 was quite the accomplished lot and have much on the line. The first thing Harbinder must do is to take Cassie off the investigation, as she is a person of interest from the reunion. The only one of The Group who wasn’t there was Sonoma, who had a family commitment, although she’s got some explaining to do, too. 

The chapters of the book are divided into the narratives of three characters—Harbinder, Anna, and Cassie. It’s through Harbinder readers follow the police investigation, and we start to know her new team she works with. Her dealings with the different members of the team show what a diplomat Harbinder can be, not to mention how smart she is in handling people. Flashes of humor once again round out Harbinder’s character, with her unspoken thoughts about some of the team’s members giving me a good chuckle. Cassie’s narration is fraught with her concern that the death of a classmate on the last day of school before graduation will be revisited. For twenty-one years Cassie has lived with the memory of that death, which was ruled accidental but was actually a murder she committed. Anna fled to Italy after college, with a broken heart and a desire to get far away from her past. She happened to be in town when the reunion was held and was talked into attending. Anna is concerned that her lapses of memory are hiding something bad she’s done.

The investigation takes readers into the lives of these friends, with one friend saying something that will lead Harbinder in one direction and another saying something to lead another way. Of course, Cassie is always trying to lead away from any connection to the boy who died on the last day of school. But, Harbinder is an excellent detective, so she doesn’t get lost in the confusion of information. When another member of The Group is murdered, Harbinder is sure that both murders are connected to the friends’ time during the last days of their high school. 

In the past two books, readers have started to learn more about Harbinder’s personal life. The last book, Postscript Murders, delighted me in highlighting Harbinder’s relationship with her parents and brothers. It’s easy to see why Harbinder is so well grounded. But, in this book, Harbinder is moved away from Shoreham, West Sussex, and settling into a flat with two other women. Now we get to see into Harbinder’s romantic side a bit, as one of her flat mates, a tall blonde Scandinavian architect named Mette, has gotten her attention. I admit to being somewhat concerned that Harbinder, who was so successful in her career, didn’t seem to have much luck on the dating front. Of course, I could have lived with her being solely focused on her career, but I think the connection to another person in this way will bring her the contentment she has felt growing up with a loving family. But, not to worry, Bleeding Heart Yard is no romance story. Harbinder Kaur is dedicated to her job, and this story is a police procedural in its finest form.

One of the aspects of Elly Griffith’s writing I admire the most is her always pushing herself to not grow complacent in the success of the tried and true. I’ve learned to trust her forays into new story worlds. I am an unabashedly enthusiastic, full-blown fan girl of her Ruth Galloway series, which is where Elly Griffiths began her crime/mystery success. It will always be one of my favorite series. But, this author dared to step away from that comfort zone and create the fascinating Brighton series and now the outstanding stand-alone/ Harbinder Kaur novels. Amazing, right? Well, let me note that Elly Griffiths also writes a children’s mystery series, A Girl Called Justice (Jones). There are four Justice Jones books out, and they are not just for children. I am absolutely enthralled with them. You know the old question about what you would take with you on a desert island if you were to be stranded there, or among readers the question would be what books you would take. You can be sure that I would take everything Elly Griffiths has written and tell the coast guard to take their time finding me. So, yes, Bleeding Heart Yard continues the brilliance and is a smashing read.

I was fortunate to receive an advanced copy of Bleeding Heart Yard from the author, which didn’t influence my review but made me a most happy reader.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

No Deal (#6 Sin City Investigations) by J.D. Allen: Reading Room Review


No Deal is the sixth book in the Sin City Investigations series by J.D. Allen, or as I refer to it, the Jim Bean series. Jim Bean is a Las Vegas private investigator and the star of the series, a likeable character who always starts off with what seems a simple case that turns into a complex one requiring all hands-on deck. Those supporting hands/characters of Sandy, Eli, and Oscar/O bring skills to the task that work successfully with Jim’s. J.D. Allen is a master at developing interesting characters, both those recurring ones we love and those villainous ones for each different story. And, each story is a thrilling, suspense-filled ride. 

Jim Bean has accepted a last-minute job to protect the teenage heiress of a businessman from India, Manish Rellan. The girl, Zevah, lives in Las Vegas with her American mother, who has been divorced from Manish for some time. The father is in town on business and has told Zevah that he will take her shopping for her birthday. When an unscheduled meeting comes up for Rellan, he passes that outing on to Jim Bean, her bodyguard for the day. Once again, Jim is looking at an uncomplicated assignment, and once again it all goes to hell. He and Zevah are kidnapped right as they are leaving the parking garage of the casino hotel where her father is staying. The kidnappers are actually there to snatch Zevah, but Jim, in all his devotion to duty, handcuffs himself to Zevah before she’s pushed into a waiting vehicle. Hours later the pair wake up from being doped in what appears to be a cell of sorts, definitely with a door like prisons would have. There is no means of escape, and Jim is still handcuffed to his charge. She informs him that there’s no way her father will pay any ransom, that he has made it clear to all who know him that it will not happen. Of course, Jim isn’t happy to hear that bit of news, as that makes the two of them vulnerable to being readily disposed of. 

Sandy, Jim’s assistant, has been working hard on the requirements she must meet to become a licensed private investigator. She wants to be official and not just an office assistant who also helps some with investigations. Jim knows that Sandy is a major asset and is happy for the path she’s taking. He will be even happier when it’s Sandy who realizes that Jim and Zevah have been kidnapped and sets in motion the discovery of their location. The discovery of that location prompts Sandy to call on Oscar, a bail bondsman who is one of Jim’s best friends. O has contacts all over, in law enforcement and other places best not mentioned. Eli, who is master of the computers is on a well-earned vacation, so Sandy must dig in deeper than ever to open computer files that aren’t supposed to be opened. O is able to call in a big favor that will help the search for Jim. Eli gets back in time to help, and the Las Vegas Police and the FBI are involved. This is not the first such kidnapping by organized groups in the area, so the FBI is keen to find and interrogate the kidnappers. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or the cabin in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by mountains of forests, Jim is trying to come up with a plan to escape. It will have to be a plan that involves his teenage client, as they are still blissfully handcuffed together. Time is of the essence since it won’t be long before the kidnappers realize that there’s no ransom money coming. The two points of action, Sandy and crew trying to get to Jim, and Jim orchestrating an escape from armed men, are on a collision course of high-octane action that will leave you gasping. But, the twists that are to follow will knock the wind right out of you. 

It's possible to read No Deal without reading the previous five books, but those of us who have started at the beginning would advise other readers to do the same. J.D. Allen is one of those writers who a reader recognizes right away is a major talent. Put simply, this author can write. She does it all well—characters, setting, plot, action scenes, self-awareness moments, suspense. Thrilling seems to be overused these days, but J.D. Allen’s writing is the very definition of that. You could substitute riveting or electrifying, but it all comes back to thrilling. And, even beyond that, her books are thrilling with heart and soul in them. The Sin City Investigations series never disappoints. It remains one of my favorite contemporary crime fiction series.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Murder at the Jubilee Rally (Samuel Craddock #9) by Terry Shames: Reading Room Review


Oh how I have needed a new Samuel Craddock book to read the last few years. Samuel Craddock is a balm for my soul. Yes, there’s murder and mayhem, but Samuel brings a cool, calm center to it all, and to me, as well. This small-town Chief of Police is a fountain of common sense combined with intelligent investigating, and it results in a somewhat folksy police procedural that is irresistibly original.  Murder at the Jubilee Rally by Terry Shames is a much welcomed return to one of my favorite series and favorite characters.

Jarrett Creek, Texas is a small town where people pretty much know how others stand on an issue. The issue currently at hand is the Jubilee Rally coming to town, or to the lake outside of town. The town hall meeting is a chance for those for and against the motorcycle rally to speak their minds. Chief of Police Samuel Craddock is on hand to listen to the arguments. Amber Johnson speaks for the merchants of the town, who stand to gain some added revenue for their independent businesses with the rally attendees coming into Jarrett Creek to buy supplies and visit the bar or eating establishments. Lily Deverell leads the citizens who want the whole town to shut down for a week for just those reasons, that the rally attendees come into town with their raucous behavior. The visitors would then be forced to go to neighboring Bobtail with their noise. Samuel, being the consistent voice of reason in Jarrett Creek suggests a compromise of a town curfew, where the shops would close a bit earlier than normal to discourage any disturbances at night. 

So, the rally begins with Samuel’s compromise in place, and no reason to believe there will be any trouble. Unfortunately, big trouble finds its way to the rally in the form of murder. Amber Johnson is found stabbed to death at the rally behind the music tent after the event had barely gotten underway. For Samuel, it’s especially bad timing, as his great-niece Hailey, who is sixteen and troubled, is due the next day to spend some time with her Great-Uncle Samuel. Hailey’s father, Tom, was raised by Samuel and his late wife Jeanne, and Hailey had always been a good kid. However, Samuel is letting her visit now because Hailey has become a rebellious teenager and is causing her parents no end of worry. A murder to solve and an unhappy teenager are going to be a major juggling act.

The murder investigation actually falls under the jurisdiction of the state police, but they are slow to start investigating. It seems that they may be purposefully dragging their feet and allowing Chief of Police Craddock to do the digging, since he knows the local people, and it’s uncertain whether it’s rally related or a locally sourced murder. Like any small town, Jarrett Creek has its secrets, and Amber Johnson has a whopper of one that will be revealed. Who better to uncover that than someone who can talk to Amber’s family and people who know her on a more personal level. Finding clues is easier if you know where to look. 

Police Chief Samuel Craddock will be run ragged as he tries to understand why Amber Johnson was murdered and why sixteen-year-old Hailey has gone off the rails. He does have some help, and that help comes in the form of two women. His female officer Maria Trevino is back as his best investigative officer, both intuitive and indefatigable in her pursuit of justice. I’m glad author Terry Shames is making this character a major asset in the series, extending Maria’s original temporary status. And, on a personal level, Samuel has his girlfriend Wendy who has raised two girls of her own, one who gave her lots of headaches. Wendy also has a teenage niece who is undergoing her own attitude angst. Luckily, Wendy is also a level-headed, calm personality, so she and Samuel are able to keep their cool in all the teenage drama. Neither one of them is any push-over, but they approach problems with great civility and patience. 

Murder at the Jubilee Rally is another hit out of the park for Terry Shames. Every book in this series is consistently well-written, with characters readers can’t wait to get back to (yes, Loretta and her baked goods and advice are in this book, too) and story lines that keep readers engaged from start to finish. I always enjoy following Samuel’s investigations, how he goes about the business of revealing a murderer, putting the evidence and clues together with careful consideration. You can read Murder at the Jubilee Rally without reading the previous eight titles, but I guarantee that once you’ve gotten a taste of this series and an introduction to Samuel Craddock, you will want as much of him as you can get.

Thanks to the author and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book from Severn Publishers.