Category Archives: mystery

Review: The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams

6th February 2014

pg1*I received this book from the publisher Bourbon Street Books in exchange for an honest review.

Jessica Mayhew’s psychotherapy office is a sanctuary of sorts. She goes in, listens to her patients, and goes home. Her life is routine, and she likes it that way. But her routine is disturbed when her husband admits to sleeping with a younger woman in what he says was a one-night stand. Her teenage daughter Nella has pulled away from her. And at work, a new client, Gwydion Morgan, an actor and the son of famous film director Evan Morgan, unsettles Jessica.

Gwydion has a phobia of buttons and is concerned it may affect his work in a period film. However, as their sessions continue, a recurring dream Gwydion has dominates their sessions. In the dream, he is a child on his father’s boat. He hears a disturbance and then a splash before he wakes up, unnerved. When Jessica makes a house call after Gwydion’s mother calls her, concerned he may be suicidal, she learns Gwydion’s au pair drowned at their cliff side home, and she begins to wonder if Gwydion’s dream is reality. What really happened to the au pair?

The House on the Cliff – beginning with its cover – looked like an absolutely perfect read for the dreary January weather we’ve been having. Set in Wales, the tone and the subject matter are eery and dark. However, the longer I read, the more I had to shake my head. I thoroughly enjoy mysteries whose detecting character isn’t necessarily a detective. That said, the main character should also exhibit a sense of investigation that makes his or her foray into detecting plausible. Instead, Jessica is a bit of a mess. She is certainly curious, but she never seems to pair her curiosity with rational, measured thought. Unable to forgive her husband for the affair, she quickly entangles herself with her patient (!), delves into his family history without authorization, manages to alienate and place her daughter in danger, and make an altogether ridiculously foolish move at the end of the book. Though I enjoyed the writing, The House on the Cliff left me wondering if Jessica Mayhew is capable of leading a mystery series.

If you’re so inclined, add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

14th January 2014

pg1*I received this book from the publisher Little, Brown in exchange for an honest review.
Rebus is back on the force after it increases the retirement age in Saints of the Shadow Bible. Though he had to come back as a lowly DS under his former protege Siobhan, now a DI herself, Rebus is eager to get back to the business of solving crime in a more legitimate capacity, having left Cold Cases by the wayside.
The pair’s newest case involves a car accident with a few fishy details. But Rebus’s attention is derailed by a meeting with his former team. At his first posting 30 years ago, Rebus was inducted into the Saints of the Shadow Bible, a group of men who did what they had to – legal or not – to get a collar. When Malcolm Fox of the Complaints (internal affairs) department comes calling, Rebus isn’t sure where he stands. Did his buddies let a murderer go to cover up another crime? Or is this just a case of new procedure versus old?
Rebus is never one to sit idly by and allow investigations to go smoothly, and this novel is no different. What his superiors fail to understand, however, is Rebus’s intent. He has no will to cover up any crime, past or present. In fact, it is his intense need to uncover the truth that so often gets him into trouble as he blasts past procedure.
In Saints of the Shadow Bible, Rankin pulls his past few novels together. When he first introduced Malcolm Fox, I eyed him warily, but here, Rankin pulls Rebus, Clarke (Siobhan) and Fox together brilliantly. Specifically, Fox, I think, begins to grudgingly respect Rebus and his methods, even if he would never approve them. Siobhan, on the other hand, is both helped and hurt by Rebus. She’s a smart detective in her own right, and much of that is owed to Rebus, but she also knows she must tread the line carefully, particularly as a woman in the department.
In some ways, watching Rebus in Saints of the Shadow Bible is watching a man deftly and determinedly setting a path of self destruction. There are crucial moments when instead of doing something just because he thinks it’s right, Rebus seems to make a misstep to intentionally make his situation worse, doggedly holding on to his old ways. He’s obviously facing his mortality – literally and figuratively – both after seeing his former boss in bad health and seeing his methods and means of policing fall by the wayside. Yet it only makes me more eager to see what Rankin does with his character next. Though part of me is sad that I can feel the end coming, I also love waiting to see how or if Rebus will evolve as the world around him does. Which is, of course, why I love this series so much: Rebus is no static character, doomed by his maker into an eternal pattern of solving crime, and watching him interact with other solid characters continues to be a true pleasure.
Saints of the Shadow Bible is out today; add it to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

5th September 2013

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*I received this book from the publisher Sourcebooks in exchange for an honest review.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives on the island of Manhattan with his wife, Louisa. There for a book tour, the loving couple check into the Britannic Hotel, a building that boasts the thickest walls and an added bonus of soundproof rooms. As their room is prepared, Louisa glimpses a man and young woman arm in arm, noting their happiness.

The next day, the papers arrive, and a gory murder is splashed across the front pages. The victim? The same woman Louisa saw in the lobby of the Britannic the day before. She pens a note to the police, but the victim was the wife of a wealthy man. And the man she was with at the hotel was most certainly not him. In the corruptible Manhattan police force, the case goes away, but Louisa cannot stop thinking about it.

A sprained ankle keeps her from going on tour with Arthur, and she enlists the help of the hotel detective and a determined female reporter to track down the identity of the girl and her killer.

Promising, right? Even though not all that historically accurate, this is the type of book that can help me while away a summer’s day. Except that Cameron’s writing style was…odd. From the opening of the book, Louisa goes on at length about her and Arthur’s sex life. So much so that it stood out and began to be almost funny. But then, Cameron also used vivid sexual imagery in his narration as well:

The island of Manhattan looked in it like a thick penis about to penetrate the New Jersey Bay, which rather tickled Dunne; at the moment, however, he had the map placed vertically so that the penis seemed too flaccid to penetrate anything.

Immediately, at her eye level, somebody had written in indelible pencil, Fitch eats the hairy banana. She thought she knew what “banana” meant but didn’t understand the “hairy” party, although she’d seen only the one and maybe other men had hair on theirs.

These inclusions were…unsettling, but as the book progressed and more murders happen, I was absolutely horrified by Winter at Death’s Hotel. Gratuitous, heinous violence against women is disturbing, and the murders are described so vividly I had to set the book down and take deep breaths. A man is killed in the book (not a spoiler), but the violence is nowhere near as graphic in its depiction, and even more troublesome is the fact that the male character is described as a homosexual. The connection between sex, females and/or effeminate young men, and horrible violence is reinforced throughout the entire book. Most people I know don’t actually enjoy this. Yet we regularly consume books, TV, and movies that seem to glorify in just this type of gore. Disturbingly, these images haven’t lessened even as we are more aware of the “torture porn” industry and its perpetuation.

I did finish the book, though I wanted to pull a Joey from Friends and stick it in the freezer. After I finished reading it, I wanted it as far from me as possible even though the cover art isn’t suggestive of what lies beneath it. Perhaps if Winter at Death’s Hotel had spoken to larger problems of the correlation between women and sexuality and violence or had examined the killer and his tendencies I may have felt more willing to read and at least understand the inclusion of the violence. However, that never seemed to happen, and the closing scenes did nothing to change my opinion. In fact, I wish it had come with a warning, as I do not actively choose to read books like this. So I say, with hesitation, that you may…

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

TLC Tour: Mystery Girl

21st August 2013

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*This book was sent to me by the publisher New Harvest, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in coordination with TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

I became an assistant detective, and solved my first murder, right after my wife left me, when I went a little mad. Never as crazy as the master detective himself, of course; he was completely nuts….And trust me, I know from crazy, being, as I admit right here at the outset, no poster child for emotional health myself.

Sam Kornberg starts his tale thus, in the great tradition of unreliable narrators before him. His wife Lala has left him; he’s unemployed, and his plotless novels are gathering dust. His only friends are MJ, his former employer who owned (and lost) a used bookstore and frequently went on poetry binges, and Milo, a former gay porn film projectionist who rents videos. Lala likes nice things, and novels without plots and failed bookstores certainly don’t provide for her. In an effort to impress her, Sam takes a job as an assistant to Solar Lonsky, a morbidly obese private eye who can’t leave his home.

Sam is tasked with following Ramona Doon, a beautiful young women with whom he becomes more and more intrigued. Yet he’s perplexed by his job. As he asks himself after observing Ramona one evening, “Was this what he sent me to learn? What mystery could it solve, what crime? Where was the victim, and who the criminal, besides me?”

Sam quickly finds the answer to that question, and as he is drawn deeper into Lonsky’s grip and Ramona’s spellbinding nature, Sam’s seemingly simple job becomes absurdly real, and Satanic rituals, porn, and doppelgangers confuse matters further.

Pulpy and raw, David Gordon’s writing is reminiscent of great noir while still retaining the shockingly real voice of a more modern fiction writer. Mystery Girl is an excellent exploration of a bumbling sad sack writer forced to transcend his own mediocrity.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan

5th August 2013

pg1*I received this book from the publisher The Viking Press in exchange for an honest review.

Sometimes, but not often, you open a book, read the first few pages, and know without a doubt that you will thoroughly enjoy a book. A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan was just that sort of book. As is obvious by the title, this is a literary mystery but not one you might expect.

Jo Donovan owns Hamish and Donovan, a literary agency handed down to her by her former boss, mentor, and friend Molly. Though she occasionally doubts the method in which she was chosen to handle the firm – she was married to the famous author Hugo Donovan – Jo knows she’s good at her job. She runs a tight ship, cultivating her loyal staff  – Lorna, Harriet, Jean-Paul, and Chloe – and using their strengths to benefit the authors she represents. Together, they weed through submissions to determine which deserve a chance and which either aren’t good enough or don’t fit the image of Hamish and Donovan.

Those rejections come under scrutiny when an author dressed in a trench and fedora accosts Jo outside her building, telling her ominously, “Mark the time, Jo. Remember this moment. Both our lives are about to change.” Chalking it up to the peculiarities of some writers, Jo entertains others with the tale of the man she dubs Sam Spade until a cruel act of sabotage follows, making Sam Spade seem much more sinister. Another client, Max Messinger, whose loyalty is only matched by a guard dog given to Jo by another author, is a former FBI agent who helps the agency navigate life after the attack, but he’s also a source of support for Jo who is unused to dealing with police and specifically lead detective Tommy Cullen, a former boyfriend.

As Jo watches her agency and her life come under attack, she also has to examine the life she led with her beloved husband Hugo and who she is without him, and though I loved this book in its entirety, I especially loved watching Jo’s painful transformation. She mentions at some point that we craft our own stories of our lives, and I definitely believe that to be true. For Jo, a difficult childhood means that she really equates much of her marriage with her life story as she knows it, and the realization that a. her story must include the bad bits and b. even her marriage may not have been what she thought is both heartbreaking and lovely.

A Dangerous Fiction is also full of perfect readerly moments such as these:

As I ate, I felt stronger. The dark cloud had receded, if only for the moment. Raymond Carver was right, I thought. It is the small, good things that save us.

I have known only one man as vivid and outsized as a proper fictional protagonist, and reader, I married him.

Yet the novel never bargains away story, character, or mystery for its wit.

Add this book to your Goodreads shelf.