The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





2 Cold Call by Dean Wesley Smith

I absolutely loved the first book in this series—so much so that I was nervous about trying book number two because it would be so difficult for Smith to write a sequel worthy of the original. And yet he comes very close to pulling it off by having the wisdom to write a different kind of story. Instead of presenting his retired detectives with an old-fashioned mystery, he gives them a problem they resolve in a manner that is reminiscent of the old movie The Sting. I’m not saying that they create a con, but they do lay a trap that is designed to bring a very clever serial murder out into the light of day.

The bulk of the book is almost a police procedural. They find a body that they have reason to believe might be the victim of the serial murderer and that body almost immediately leads them to a ghastly treasure trove of other victims. Realizing the opportunity this creates for them, they set apart laying a trap that they hope will provide justice for a startlingly high number of victims. It’s no Kill Game, but it is a very good story.

When Christmas Comes by Andrew Klaven

This is a slow moving but ultimately rewarding Christmas mystery about a horrific murder in a small town. Strangely, while everyone is properly horrified by the crime, no one seems particularly angry at the killer despite the fact that his victim—his girlfriend—was beloved in the community.

The plot revolves around an English teacher who is asked by the defense attorney to try and find evidence that her client didn’t commit the crime he has confessed to committing. The teacher had solved a bizarre crime in the past, so even though asking for his help is an act of desperation, it is not a completely unreasonable act.

The bulk of the novel is a bit slow moving, even when someone tries to kill the teacher to stop him from investigating. Strangely, that attack helps give the English teacher the clue he needs to solve a very unusual mystery.

Cold Poker Gang

1 Kill Game by Dean Wesley Smith

I’ve had the pleasure of reading several Dean Wesley Smith novels over the past twenty or more years. He’s written some SF, some Spiderman, and some Star Trek—always providing a good yarn. But after reading Kill Game, I realized that his true vocation as an author is writing excellent mysteries filled with surprises and interesting characters.

Kill Game is gripping from the first pages. The Cold Poker Gang, a group of retired police detectives, picks up cold cases and tries to resolve them. This time they’re looking into the long-ago murder of the husband of one of their members. I don’t want to want to give away any of the wonderful surprises, but every time you turn around in this story, Smith throws you for another loop in this simply wonderful tale.

I’m so glad he’s written more of them.

Stone Barrington

Stone Barrington 1 New York Dead by Stuart Woods

A couple of decades ago I read Stuart Woods’ novel, Dead in the Water, and loved it. I went on to read four or five more of his books and then for no reason in particular stopped picking up more of them. The other day I came across Dead in the Water again and was going to reread it when I noticed it was third in his Stone Barrington series and decided to start with book 1, New York Dead.

Stone is an injured NYC police detective who witnesses what may be a suicide attempt, or may be attempted murder, when a famous news personality falls to her near death. Then she disappears from the ambulance that picks her up leading to an intriguing mystery in which, for reasons that I didn’t think quite worked, the police department decides to move on from the abduction and possible murder without finding the body. Stone gets pushed off the force.

All of that was interesting, but the best part of the novel comes as he picks up his life as a lawyer / investigator / problem solver. He handles several mini cases that were awesome little short stories in the novel that I really enjoyed. And as the reader expects, as Stone’s life goes on he keeps stumbling across little pieces of evidence on the case that wrecked his career. He doesn’t want his career back, but he’s intrigued. And I must say that I figured out the villain from the beginning and that always makes me happy. I will also say that the abduction twist added a lot of punch to this novel. I really enjoyed the book.

Sugar Grove

Sugar Grove Mysteries 1 Drizzled with Death by Jessie Crockett

I first stumbled across this book back in 2014 shortly after it came out and happily read it’s two sequels as they arrived. The setting is charming—a small New England town where not too much happens. The heroine is a member of a clearly wealthy family who—except for the fact that she’s the only one who works—doesn’t actually appear to live that high on the hog. Instead, the family seems to spend most of its time worrying that our heroine, Dani, a very diminutive 27-year-old, hasn’t gotten married yet. The rest of the time they spend worrying about whether grandpa can win the next pancake eating contest. In other words, it’s a very quiet little town which is about to be upset by the murder—at the pancake eating contest—of the town’s most hated citizen. The reason this affects our heroine is that the killer’s chosen murder weapon was a poisoned bottle of Dani’s maple syrup—her new business.

That maple syrup, by the way, is the reason I chose to read the book. I’ve been fascinated by the industry since reading John Ringo’s Live Free or Die (which is also the title of one of Jessie Crockett’s novels and how I accidentally discovered her) and I was happy to read a book that told me a bit about how the business works. So to clear her company of any suspicion that bad production methods led to the poisoning, Dani starts investigating the murder and learns that even more people hated the dead woman than she had first suspected.

Now, as mysteries go, this is a pretty good one. First the suspects are all identified and slowly we learn enough about them to figure out who did it. There are a couple of red herrings along the way, one of whom caught my interest, before everything is exposed in a very exciting ending. But that’s not all this book has to offer. There’s also a lot of family issues that seemed very realistic to me (including a miserably nasty sister). But the plot element that really makes this book stand out is an occurrence that releases a lot of exotic animals into the New England woods and gives Crockett a chance to show her sense of humor.

So this is a good novel which I enjoyed rereading, but there is one element that jars me throughout the story and that’s Crockett’s dialogue. It never quite feels natural and it’s just awkward enough to pull me out of the story occasionally and make me wonder if anyone (much less a whole town) could really speak this way. Now if this is actually an accurate rendition of speech in a small New England town, I offer my apologies. But it doesn’t feel authentic to me.

Sugar Grove Mysteries 2 Maple Mayhem by Jessie Crockett

Dani Greene is back for another mystery together with her cast of zany neighbors and crazy family members (or is that zany family members and crazy neighbors). This time, she’s trying to set up a syrup cooperative so that she and her syrup producing neighbors can buy their supplies at a discount, but someone is out to stop them.

For the first half of the novel, the villain restricts him or herself to simple vandalism and warnings, but things take a turn for the far more serious when Dani’s number one suspect is murdered. Dani, naturally, is one of the acting police chief’s top suspects, but the reader never has to take this too seriously. After all, this is the same ex-boyfriend who ticketed Dani for broken taillights when he discovered her car with the tires slashed, the paint keyed, the lights broken out, and a warning to stop the cooperative scratched into the paint.

Overall, this is another solid mystery in the delightful New England setting of Sugar Grove.

Sugar Grove Mysteries 3 A Sticky Situation by Jessie Crockett

Dani Greene is back for a third mystery set in Maple Syrup country. With her is the whole zany cast of the town—which is a strong benefit to readers of the series because many of these residents have been suspects in earlier novels and they will feel familiar to the reader.

This time the crime is thirty years old when the bones of a man who for three decades was suspected of stealing the profits of a local festival are discovered during the renovations of a town building. It turns out that this man, “Spooner”, was a lady’s man loved by women even as they fought over him and hated by their fathers and husbands. (Who would have thought that the ability to make music from two spoons would make a man sexy?) Just about everyone had something to say about Spooner and something to coverup from the past.

To complicate matters further, Dani’s annoying aunt and cousin have returned to Sugar Grove to live and they are so bad that Dani and her (up until now) rotten sister, Celedon, become partners in trying to keep away from them. The only thing “wrong” in this book is that Dani’s reason for poking her nose into the police investigation is very weak, but then, being nosy is often the excuse to investigate in this sort of novel. Overall, this was another enjoyable book in the series and I’m very sorry that Jessie Crockett apparently stopped writing them after this book.

In Alpha Order by Author

The Headmaster’s Cave by D.S. Allen

At its core, The Headmaster’s Cave is less a mystery and more of an adventure story about two children and their dog trying to get a friend out of trouble at the infamous Headmaster’s Cave. On this level, it’s an enjoyable tale. The friends have a series of adventures on their way to the cave and eventually find their friend and have even more adventures before they are able to get home again. Unfortunately, the mystery elements are not as strong as the adventure elements.

The Headmaster’s Cave is an infamous location because one hundred years ago the headmaster of a local school and seven students disappeared there. For ten decades the entire town has condemned the headmaster as a sick murderer on the basis that he and the students disappeared. The cave is now blocked off because other people going to the cave have been trapped by the rising tide and drowned, but apparently the idea that the headmaster and the students might also have been trapped and washed out to sea has never occurred to anyone. He must be a brutal murderer because…well there isn’t actually any reason to think this.

Now if only the schoolmates of our hero George (descended from the allegedly murderous headmaster) had believed this legend it wouldn’t in any way detract from the story. Kids can be cruel and they don’t always think things through. But all the adults also believe the accusation and despite the one hundred years that have passed, their anger is sufficient to still cause trouble for George’s family. Had it been thirty years ago, or even fifty years ago, I might have understood this, but one hundred years feels like ancient history.

The children are lured to the Headmaster’s Cave (which requires them to hike all day and camp out at night to reach) under the promise that they will learn the truth of what really happened there a century ago. I found it believable the kids would have tried to go, but wish that the story was not set in the modern day with cell phones so it would be a little more believable that their parents would buy their stories about staying at each others’ houses. In any event, reaching the proximity of the cave is when the story transforms from being an okay adventure to an exciting action-packed drama. The villain is wonderfully crazy and the kids have to be both very brave and very smart. In addition, elements dropped earlier in the story come back into play here in a most rewarding fashion. And of course, the mystery is resolved and it’s both moving and satisfying.

I think this series has a lot of potential. It’s difficult to write convincing stories about children and Allen has compiled an endearing cast here. I’d like to see more.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Unfinished Business by D. L. Ashmore

This is a clever little story about two murders—one that happened before the book starts and one scheduled to occur a few days into the novel. Like in the Colombo television series, you know who committed the crime from the first page, but—and this is the hook that makes this book so interesting—the more you learn about the murderers and their victims, the less you want them to be caught for the crime. So this isn’t so much a “who dunnit” as a “can they get away with it?” story. As a result, Unfinished Business is a truly pleasant way to while away a few hours of your day and author D. L. Ashmore keeps you guessing as to how things will turn out right up to the last page.

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

Camp Lenape by Timothy R. Baldwin

The adults at Camp Lenape are hiding something, but they can’t get their lies straight. Now a little girl’s life just might depend on four young junior counselors having the brains and the courage to get to the bottom of what’s going on at Camp Lenape.

This is a short, fast moving, story, with a cast of credible teenagers doing believable things. The mystery is solid and the detection process worked for me. Baldwin also spends a lot of time establishing the teens, their relationships to each other and the adults, and the camp setting. Early on, I felt that there was a little too much of this, but by the end of the story, I realized how important the early chapters were to the climax of the tale. If you like a quick mystery, you’ll enjoy Camp Lenape.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Shadows of Doubt by Timothy R. Baldwin

It’s really difficult to write an authentic mystery featuring teenaged detectives, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Timothy R. Baldwin’s new novel, Shadows of Doubt. In the tradition of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, his four heroes catch the scent of some wrongdoing at their high school and nothing will stop them from ferreting out the truth and catching the criminals. The fact that at the same time they are acting to save the job of one of their fathers just adds urgency and helps us empathize even more with the teens.

The camaraderie and touch of romance in the group felt real, but what I really liked was that this did not devolve into a shoot-em-up style climax. Baldwin has thought through each step of the problem, and every element of both the teen-detectives’ investigation and their efforts to expose the truth felt credible to me. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

The Stranger in the Lake by Kimberly Belle

What do you do when you find a dead woman in the water beneath your dock and your new husband lies to police about ever having met the woman before? Well, if your Charlotte, the heroine of The Stranger in the Lake, you lie to the police to cover for your husband and then start digging through the past to find out what was really going on. What you’re going to discover is that your husband has an old secret that he’s hidden from you and—strangely—that lie-by-omission is going to bother you much more than the long-ago crime he and his friends have spent years covering up.

And I guess that’s the heart of what I didn’t like about this novel—Charlotte’s reaction to the truth. The mystery itself is functional, but I found myself increasingly intensely disliking the heroine for standing by his then-teenaged friends and helping to cover an accidental crime that he himself really had no other part in. Yes, there has been fallout from that crime over the years, but again, that didn’t seem to me to be what bothered Charlotte. It was not fully sharing with her everything that happened, even though the only time he had done that in the past resulted in another death. There were other motivations that could have been cultivated to explain her actions that would have sat better with me.

Still, the mystery itself was interesting.

Serial Date by D. V. Berkom

I love the setting of this book—a reality TV show called Serial Date that purports to match serial-murderer-ex-cons with young wannabe actresses to see who can have the most popular romance. It’s an idea just crazy enough that we can believe some cable channel would give it a try. Then one of the actresses actually is murdered and the show goes into crisis.

Enter former contract killer Leine Basso. Her life’s a mess. She’s given up killing people for pay for an unnamed government agency and is trying to go straight (as it were) and she takes a job as added security for Serial Date when it’s offered to her by a contact from her old days who is now working as head of security on the show.

If the plot had continued to revolve around a killer on Serial Date, I think I would have liked this book a lot more. Instead, the story takes a left turn. Leine’s estranged daughter arrives and is promptly kidnapped by the man killing Serial Date actresses and all he’s really interested in is Leine with whom he has a sick obsession.

That’s not a bad storyline. Leine’s an interesting character and I enjoyed her adventure. But I felt like Berkom had this great setting that wasn’t properly taken advantage of. The big diversion away from the reality TV show made me impatient with the rest of the plot.

The Long Silent Night by Shane Berryhill

What happens when you bring the detective noir genre to the land of holiday characters like Santa Clause, Father Time, and the Easter Bunny? You get Private Investigator Jack Frost. When Santa Clause is kidnapped right after he casts the spell that keeps it Christmas Eve until all the presents are delivered to the children of the world, Jack Frost gets the task of finding him. The mystery wasn’t hard to solve—you’ll figure it out very quickly—but the romp through various fairytale lands is certainly fun.

I received this book from Free Audio Book Codes in exchange for an honest review.

Hold Back the Night by Axel Blackwell

This is a great police procedural with one significant problem—Blackwell shows us the answer to half of the mystery in the first chapter of the book wherein a very young girl manages to escape a horrific pedophile before dying of exposure and hypothermia just before she reaches help. This first chapter is extremely well written, but it gives the reader way too much information when you consider that the police procedural encompasses the rest of the novel and the first third of those pages are dedicated to the detective discovering things we already know. The repetition almost caused me to abandon the book, but I’m glad I held on because when we move from locating where the girl came from to who her abuser is the novel becomes everything you would expect from this sort of mystery.

Blackwell is clearly a talented author who has created a cast of engaging characters. I just wish he hadn’t written he first chapter.

Random Act by Gerry Boyle

This novel is two mysteries in one. The first has to do with the intentions of Marta, the new girlfriend of the hero’s close friend, Louis. The second has to do with his attempt to make sense of a horrific random act of violence. The two stories are linked only through the fact that Jack McMorrow is investigating them at the same time.

Jack is a newspaper reporter with what I gathered to be a violent past. He’s comfortable with guns and he and his friends are quite capable of taking care of themselves. While going to visit his friend Louis, he is accosted with a gun by Louis’ new girlfriend, Marta. She has a difficult past. Her very wealthy and abusive boyfriend has just been tortured, killed, and robbed by Russian mobsters and there is a great deal of concern that they will come after her next. She is a very cold and disturbing individual. She clearly came to Louis for protection and she has no concern at all that her presence might endanger Jack’s family. She expects Jack to protect her because he’s Louis’ friend. The longer the novel proceeds, the more disturbing Marta gets, especially when Jack starts poking holes in her story.

The random act of violence of the title is the better mystery, especially as Jack become the target of hostile acts as he investigates the story. A homeless and clearly unstable man murders a woman with a hatchet as she enters a store. Jack almost sees it happen and he can’t stop trying to make some sense of this seemingly arbitrary murder. I figured out what had actually happened very early in the tale and was disappointed that it took until the end of the book for Jack to even consider my theory, but that didn’t mean the mystery wasn’t a good one or that the tension didn’t rise considerably as Jack gets closer and closer to the truth.

Boyle thought through his mystery very well. His characters are well drawn and I liked Jack very much. It helped considerably that narrator, Michael A. Smith, did such a great job bringing the novel to life.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I find it strange that the first word I think of to describe this hardboiled detective novel is “beautiful”. The heroes of these sorts of novels are rough and ready and I expect the prose to be the same. Yet that isn’t the case in The Big Sleep. From the very first page, Chandler’s writing is elegant, smooth and even breath-taking. His novel is so superbly crafted that when the movie starring Bogart and Bacall was made in 1946 they lifted much of the movie dialogue directly from the pages of Chandler’s book. It’s that good.

His characters are also superb from Marlowe himself with his tough exterior and uncompromising sense of honor, to General Sternwood who becomes sympathetic only because he’s dying, to his two daughters who are both a mess but in such fascinatingly distinctive ways, to Joe Brodie who wants to be tough but proves he isn’t whenever he’s pushed. I could go on, but I’ll settle for adding one more—Harry Jones, a man who is physically small and slight of build but proves to have more backbone and loyalty than anyone else in the novel but Marlowe himself.

I also loved the movie. I saw it several times with my roommates in college, but there were several small problems with it that do not exist in the novel. The biggest of those problems is that at the end of the movie we never really understood how Eddie Mars got the goods on the Sternwood family or how Marlowe figured out who murdered Regan. I think that might have been due to the movie standards of the time because the pivotal scene in the novel only halfway happens in the movie. Marlowe comes home in the book to find Carmen Sternwood naked in his bed (she kept her clothes on in the movie) and when he throws her out she loses all of her cuteness and much of her appearance of humanity and begins hissing at him. (Again, in the movie she just gets thrown out.) Chandler builds this scene with extraordinary care. It shows us there is a lot more going on in Carmen’s head than the doped up sweet and giggly mess that she shows the world most of the time. Without this scene the ending of the book makes no sense whatsoever—which may in part explain why the movie created its own ending rather than stick with Chandler’s better (but less romantic) one.

If you’re ever wondering why Raymond Chandler is held in such high esteem as an author of detective novels, The Big Sleep is a great place to start.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Chandler presents the reader with two apparently separate crimes, both murders, and the fun of the novel is figuring out how they both come together. Getting there is quite a ride as Philip Marlowe stumbles from scene to scene getting cracked over the head so frequently that it feels like every other chapter. Yet Marlowe remains the quintessential hard-boiled detective. He’s tough and undeterrable even when he isn’t getting paid for the job. But there is also a genuine mystery at the root of this and I felt very bad for one of the murderers—as I’m certain Chandler intended me to. All in all, there aren’t actually many nice or even good people in this book—except, of course, for Marlowe.

Deep Storm by Lincoln Child

I have always been fascinated by the idea of humans exploring the great depths of the oceans, so I am a sucker for a book or movie that takes place in a habitat deep beneath the sea. Deep Storm fits that bill perfectly—twelve thousand feet below the Atlantic. Add to that a mystery involving a secret government project and an inexplicable set of illnesses afflicting the people working on the station and you have the makings for a very good story. Unfortunately, while Child’s tale is enjoyable, it doesn’t hit a home run.

On the positive side, the mystery is fascinating and complicated by intrigues caused by geopolitics and mental illness. The tension is palpable and the pacing is great. It was easy to like and hate the appropriate characters and, most importantly, the ending worked. The ultimate threat lived up to all the hype we were exposed to getting there.

On the negative side, there was very little about the undersea research facility that impacted the story other than to isolate the cast from the rest of the world. The atmosphere in the deep-sea station was the same as on the surface and other than a couple of mandatory—the ocean is going to flood us and kill everyone—moments, the location had nothing to contribute to the story.

To make matters worse, the paranoid military guys fell on the wrong side of the argument about the aliens. Why would every person in Washington and all military personnel on the station be convinced that aliens had left a packet of helpful gifts for the unsophisticated peoples of earth? Not one of these paranoid individuals was willing to consider the idea that the aliens might not have our best interests at heart. At first, I thought this obviously ridiculous position was caused by the aliens, but as things turned out, that clearly wasn’t the case. And really—this needlessly strained credibility. The U.S. would still have gone after the alien tech even if it feared the interstellar visitors’ malevolent intentions.

Finally, I figured out what was causing the mental illness about half a book sooner than the hero did. Seeing as he is supposed to be a genius and I lack a medical degree, I would have liked to have seen him pick up my idea and run with it a lot sooner than he did.

Weighing the good and the bad, I’m still glad I read the book. It’s a fun novel, just not one that I ever expect to want to reread.

Wedding Woes by J.J. Chow

This delightful story charts the efforts of Winston Wong to marry the woman of his dreams while navigating a host of wedding-related crises and trying to discover whether or not a murderer is among his guests. Chow skillfully builds a sympathetic connection between Winston and the reader right in the first chapter of the story when Winston has his reception hall ripped away from him due to an unfortunate double booking. Things quickly go downhill from there. As he scrambles to make other arrangements, his best man loses the rings, decorations are destroyed, and well…lots of challenges confront him. The most significant of these challenges are the large Chan family who stumble upon the rehearsal shortly before their patriarch dies in a bizarre accident. Winston’s kind-hearted fiancé invites the bereaved family (and another suitor) to the rehearsal dinner where events suggest that perhaps the death of Mr. Chan was not as accidental as it first appeared.

The mystery is well-developed, but I must admit it was the personal interactions between Winston and the delightful cast that I most enjoyed in this tale. This book is filled with quirky but thoroughly likable individuals. And the ending has me wondering what new troubles await Winston and his bride.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

This is quite probably the bestselling mystery novel of all time. It’s a psychological thriller. Ten people have been brought together on an island under mysterious circumstances, anonymously accused of horrific crimes, and are being killed off one by one. Figuring out who is killing them (and whether or not that person is one of the guests) forms the basis of a gripping tale. As the number of guests dwindle, the pressure goes up, You start to like a couple of the guests. You wonder who the killer is and you feel the sense of horror grow page by page.

That being said, the solution of the problem while satisfying, does require a strong suspension of disbelief. Bullets are messier than Christie would have us believe and I for one do not believe that you could carry a “dead body” about and not realize it is not dead. That being said, Christie takes some real gambles and is willing to risk making the audience unhappy. The play did not have her courage and changed the ending. In many ways I like the play’s ending better, but I don’t want that to detract from Christie’s great novel which has inspired so many imitations.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

This is generally considered to be one of Agatha Christie’s ten best novels. It’s a story in which you wait nearly half the book for the murder to happen, all the while meeting a cast of people with little things to hide. When the crime is finally committed, the pace steps up a bit as everyone’s favorite Belgian detective begins to sort out the various aspects of the case. Without giving anything away, I think it’s fair to say that this is a mystery about assumptions. Make the wrong assumptions and you have no chance of solving the case.

I may be biased in favor of this mystery because I figured out who the culprit was well in advance of Poirot explaining the case. I didn’t get all of the details on how the crime was committed, but I still feel pretty good about my success. Poirot’s final recap of how the crime was committed and who was responsible was Christie at her best. I also appreciated that she recognized that Poirot’s reconstruction would have never satisfied a jury beyond a reasonable doubt—and then accounted for that problem in the resolution of the story.

Run Away by Harlan Coben

I’ve been wanting to read a book by Harlan Coben for some time now, but Run Away may not have been the one to start with. The premise is excellent—how far would a father go to save his drug addicted daughter? But unfortunately the actual story just didn’t work for me. The more I read the more impatient I got to finish the novel. It’s a very bad sign when finishing the book is more important than learning how the plot develops.

By the conclusion of the book, there were way too many coincidences for me to believe in the story. As just one example an obscure religious cult has three unique connections—none of which depends on the other—to the principle family in the story—none of which the hero knows about at the beginning of the story. And that’s not the worst of it. It breaks the suspension of disbelief.

Jungle Green by Richard Dee

In Jungle Green, Richard Dee gives us another stellar mystery. Layla Balcom, who won control of her father’s company from those trying to steal it in Ribbon World, now has to keep it profitable. To that end, she is investigating some problems at the secret manufacturing facility of the wonder drug TC, trying to sort out the infighting among the executives. Then people start dying from her wonder drug and she has even bigger problems to resolve.

This is a classic Dee mystery with an intricately constructed plot with just enough clues as to what’s really going on. The characters have matured since their appearance in Ribbon World and I really enjoyed watching them operate at the top of their games—not that being at their best makes anything that happens here easy.

This one’s a nail biter.

Ribbonworld by Richard Dee

This book opens like a scene from Dashiell Hammett, and while hero Miles Goram is not a hard-boiled detective, the novel keeps that Hammett-like feel as it builds a mystery around themes that legendary author often wrote about. The opening scene sets the groundwork for the whole novel. Goram has arrived late in the domed city of Reevis and when he checks into his cheap hotel room, he finds a body in the bathroom—the body of the man he had traveled here to meet. Goram thought he had come to Reevis to review a new hotel, but his now-dead contact had a much bigger story in mind and Goram has to get to the truth behind it before someone kills him. The problem—absolutely no one seems to want him around—not the workers, not the local government, not the Balcom corporation—and it’s not easy to solve a mystery when no one wants to talk to you.

Yet Goram can’t help but dig and what he finds is…well I don’t want to spoil the novel for you. Suffice it to say that Dee has created a hero that it’s easy to get behind, and he puts enough clues out there that you have a legitimate chance not only to piece together what’s happening but to figure out the big surprises. So I think it’s fair to say Ribbonworld gives you a bit of Ellery Queen in a Dashiell Hammett plot set out in a realistic science fiction setting.

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

Nut Jobs by Marc Fennell

If you like mysteries, this is an account of a real-life crime that will shock and delight you for its pure cleverness. A group of criminals figured out how to steal almonds by the truckload before they were packaged. This meant that these almonds were basically untrackable and each stolen shipment was worth about half a million dollars.

From that fascinating start, Fennell quickly brings us into the world of shipping by independent trucking contractor—something everyone probably thinks they know something about but which turned out to be nothing like what I expected. Detectives and criminals are interviewed, as are security and industry experts. He even makes a side excursion into the health benefits of nuts and why the industry is enjoying such a boom in today’s economy.

If you’re interested in an engaging lesson in an industry you probably know nothing about—all wrapped around a very intriguing mystery—give Nut Jobs a try.

Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster

Josie Bates was a hotshot defense attorney who won a difficult case only to have the defendant prove later to have been guilty at the cost of new lives. Shaken by her role in enabling the new tragedy, Bates has withdrawn from criminal defense work, but gets pulled back in when her old college roommate begs her to defend her daughter who is being prosecuted for setting a fire that killed a popular California judge who happens to be the father of the girl’s stepfather. No one seems to want to help Josie defend the girl and the stepfather is actually a prosecution witness against the girl.

The setting is bleak, and as you would expect from a novel in this genre, the actual circumstances of the crime are much more complicated and twisted than anyone realizes. This is a mystery about family relationships and the secrets within the family. But what’s not clear as the case advances is whether or not the weird family dynamics will justify the fire and the death, or prove the girl innocent.

Complicating the whole novel is that the governor of California wants to appoint the stepfather to fill the dead man’s seat on the judicial bench. Forster obviously wanted this to add tension to the trial but it was not realistic. There is no way the trial would have started before the decision of whether to confirm the stepfather as a judge was made or not and I thought that rushing the trial so that it was an issue damaged the credibility of the story.

Thin Air by Lisa Gray

I should start with a confession. I bought this book purely because of its title. Thin Air—as in, “disappeared into thin air,”—has always struck me as a near perfect title for a missing person mystery. So when I finally started to read it, I wasn’t actually expecting a lot from the title and for the first few chapters I flew through the pages very rapidly. By then the story had caught me and I slowed down and started reading much more carefully.

The missing person in question is the detective from whose point of view the novel is narrated. Much to her surprise, she learns that she went missing as a three-year-old and that everything she thinks she knows about her life is a lie. This novel is her attempt to find out who her mother really was and if the man she grew up knowing as her father had murdered that woman. Not your typical missing persons mystery…

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and only have one significant complaint—a totally unexpected kiss outside a sleezy strip club which we the reader were supposed to think led to genuine romantic tension. I didn’t buy it, but I’m a guy. I suppose it’s possible women dream about guys coming on to them with an aggressive kiss right after they leave off questioning a source at a strip club, although I’m fairly certain I never met any of them.

I’ll close on a positive note. I didn’t figure out the murderer. The clues were there, I just missed them. Yet the culprit was completely believable and there’s a nice surprise ending in the epilogue.

Muted Veil by Elizabeth Hamilton-Smyth

Hamilton Smyth takes what might have been a routine mystery story and turns it into an extremely tense adventure by creating a heroine with an unusual personality disorder. Frances is obsessed with her personal privacy—so much so that she takes medication to help her control the anxiety her disorder causes her. Unfortunately for her, the modern world is not kind to people who don’t want others knowing what they are doing. Google and its corporate pals spy on everything. The government keeps humongous volumes of information on all of us. Cameras mark our cars’ comings and goings in the streets. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when you start thinking about shopping, banking, and everything else we do.

Frances decides to leave England and resettle in a small town in southern France to escape everyone’s prying eyes and live quietly with her four cats. She plans her escape in meticulous detail and carefully settles into her new property where she hires (for cash) a handyman to fix up the house and put a fence around her land. Then things go crazy. A new boisterous neighbor buys the house next door and immediately starts intruding on her property. He claims the fence is on his land and his building plans would steal from Frances her sense of safety from prying eyes. She reluctantly engages a lawyer to fight his plans and he physically threatens her.

Now this is the part of the tale where a normal person would go to the police and lodge a complaint—but Frances can’t do that. Police keep records and her disorder doesn’t permit her to get help in the normal fashion, so she has to figure out what is going on and find a solution to her problem on her own.

All of that (Part I of the novel) is great! It’s fast moving, engaging, and suspenseful. I was particularly pleased that I solved the mystery on my own (I don’t always do that) and was shocked by the eventual solution to the problem. Unfortunately, Hamilton-Smyth then spends the next two-thirds of the novel giving details on how the problem that caused the land dispute occurred. I thought all of this was implicit in what Frances discovered in her investigation. I would have much preferred the author to show how Frances—with her peculiar disability—handled the aftermath to the solution to her problem with her neighbor. I see no way for her to keep the authorities from becoming involved and the stress this would have caused her would both further stoke the reader’s sympathy and create a different kind of drama. Perhaps Hamilton-Smyth will show us that in a later book.

That being said, the basic mystery is a very good one and the decision to go with a heroine suffering from Frances’ disability was ingenious. This one is well worth reading.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

There is something about this mystery that is just fun. Forget for a moment that this novel transformed the mystery genre by mixing the hardboiled detective with romance and a little comedy. And forget that it is one of the all-time greats of detective fiction. Nick and Nora are two of the most enjoyable protagonists in any detective novel. He’s a retired private investigator who has seen a little bit of everything and was very happy to leave it behind. She’s his young, very wealthy, wife who wants excitement in her life and finds Nick’s past as a detective to be glamorous and enthralling. When a mystery starts to develop near them, Nick tries his best to stay out of its way while Nora tries to drag the two of them directly into the center of the mess.

The supporting cast centers on an eccentric inventor, his murdered secretary, his ex-wife, their two children and her new husband. All of these people are brilliantly brought to life in totally believable detail. But most of all they are fun to encounter as they swirl around Nick and Nora, each trying to use them to get something they want from the eccentric inventor—the Thin Man of the title. Throw in the police, mobsters, a lawyer and a cast of hard drinking socialites and you have all the ingredients to give Nora all the excitement she could want while keeping Nick from escaping his old profession.

My Boss is a Serial Killer by Christina Harlin

I like the concept behind this book, the slow realization that your boss is not the person he or she appears. The moment I realized I was in for the long haul was in chapter four when Harlin brilliantly brought the very sweet relationship between her heroine and the boss to life and made me really like both of them. Now let’s face it, in a book in which the title tells us that the boss is a serial murderer, you don’t expect to like the boss and yet I honestly did. Bill Nestor is an obsessive compulsive with maybe a touch of autism who doesn’t handle stress very well and our heroine is the legal secretary who can calm him down and refocus him when he has an episode. They are a such delightful team that I immediately began to look for someone else who could fit the serial killer label and I came up with a great theory—but you will have to read the book to see if I was right because, let’s face it, it’s actually easy to imagine Bill slipping over to the dark side.

In addition to the mystery, there is also what I think of as a “cutesy romance” between the heroine and the detective on the case. This is necessary for plot purposes, but I wish it had taken up less of the book. I was far more interested in the heroine’s fascination with television series. Again, this was a quirk that just made her a delight to read about. She is constantly referencing an old TV series and I loved searching my brain to see if I remembered it, or better yet, had watched it for a time. It was a fantastic tool for getting me, the reader, to connect with the heroine.

So—good mystery, good characters, good book!

The Case of the Damaged Detective by Drew Hayes

It seems like everyone wants to write about Sherlock Holmes these days, but no one has found as unique a way to do so as Drew Hayes. Sherman Holmes is the sole survivor of a mass killing by a drug that has driven him quite mad—except that for brief periods of time his mind can go into a hyper-capable state that makes him an ultra genius capable of remarkable feats of deduction.

Holmes has many problems. The government wants to move him to a more secure facility but his claustrophobia prevents him from being transported by plane. Enter Agent Watson—a man damaged by a personal betrayal whose paranoia is now getting in the way of his ability to do the job. This theoretically simple bodyguard opportunity is his chance to rehabilitate his career. But it’s not simple. His agency has been compromised and the bad guys are moving in force to get to snatch Holmes. Can two such bizarre personalities learn to work together?

Unlike most Sherlock Holmes stories, this novel is not about the mystery—it’s about Holmes and Watson. But discovering this new interpretation of two of the most beloved characters in literature is an immense delight and their adventure is definitely exciting. Not only did I not want to stop reading, I was sad when I came to the end of the book.

The Case of the Haunted Haunted House by Drew Hayes

It was an utter delight to see Sherman Holmes and Watson back in the pages of another novel. Watson is still trying to help Holmes learn to process the world after his exposure (detailed in the first novel) to a mysterious drug that turned him into a genius—for five minutes at a time. Sherman, trying to follow in the fictional Sherlock’s footsteps, has opened a consulting detective practice and he and Watson are hired to find out who is messing with a “haunted” house. The building in question was the home of a genius, but paranoid, inventor and is rumored to have a great treasure hidden somewhere within it. Unfortunately, it’s also filled to the gills with deathtraps. The current owner has disabled many of the traps and is trying to turn it into a tourist attraction, but things are not going smoothly.

There’s no question that this is a fun novel with great puzzles and fabulous banter between Sherman and Watson (and Sherman and the world, for that matter). Unfortunately, I also felt that it dragged at times. There is a lot going on, but the pacing wasn’t always quick enough to keep me satisfied. That being said, I’m still looking forward to the next book.

Never Say Spy by Diane Henders

This accidental spy novel has a lot going for it. The heroine is a feisty woman in her late forties with an unusual array of skills and habits that are very helpful for the amateur spy. She can shoot a gun, she’s unusually aware of the space about her checking automatically for threats, and she’s decisively aggressive when the situation demands it—no paralyzing hesitations that most of us might suffer from when being attacked unexpectedly.

The mystery—especially the piece of technology that it’s develops around—was quite intriguing and I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on. I also believe that the author was completely fair in laying out the critical pieces of this mystery. There are a lot of coincidences, but they never felt like a deus ex machina sort of situation.

I do have two complaints, however, one minor and one major. The minor complaint is that there were many times when I thought the story was rather slow moving. A lot of time is spent in developing—let’s call it the social or non-spy life of the heroine—that I thought could have been seriously cut down upon. The major complaint is that the novel should have stopped nine or ten chapters earlier than it did. In order to give us one more totally unnecessary twist, the author had to make her up-until-then smart heroine have a lobotomy that dropped her IQ a solid one hundred points so that she acts in an absolutely stupid fashion that just wasn’t believable at all. The sad part is, it was totally unnecessary. She’d already given us a great and totally satisfying ending. Too bad she didn’t realize it.

If She Wakes by Michael Koryta

Let’s start with the greatest strengths of this novel—it is intricately plotted from the opening page to the closing page with bizarre details introduced early on become absolutely critical to the resolution of the mystery. There’s also significant tension built over the course of the story and there are many times when it’s really difficult to see how the good guys are going to survive until the end of the book. And perhaps most amazingly, Koryta found a way to make a woman who can do no more than slightly move her eyes become the key to the entire tale. It’s absolutely amazing and I’m very glad I read the book to experience these strengths. My only complaint is that I felt that over all the novel was rather slow moving and I would have very much appreciated a more tightly edited storyline. There are great things in this book but I got tired of wading through the pages in between those moments.

The Blight Way by Patrick McManus

Patrick McManus doesn’t just write funny essays, he’s a novelist as well and this one is a doozy wrapping all of his wit, charm and insight into a fascinating murder mystery. While I didn’t figure out any of the pieces of the crime on my own, I felt a thrill at each new revelation. But it’s not really the mystery that made me love this book, it’s McManus’ way of revealing people and the zany cast of supporting characters that his sheriff attracts to him.

The Roommate by Dervla McTiernan

A young woman is awakened by the police in the middle of the night only to learn that her roommate has been murdered. She did not know the roommate well, but obviously, having death strike so close to her is unnerving. Her efforts to put her life back on course afterward is complicated by a nasty principal. When someone begins messing with her bank account and sending photoshopped images of herself to her employer, the woman’s sense of security rapidly declines even further in this increasingly tense novella. The ending feels a bit rushed, but it’s an enjoyable story.

The Joy of Murder by Gloria Oliver

This novel promises something I’d never encountered in a mystery before. The detective is blind. Think about that for a moment. The detective is blind. She’s also Chinese living in Dallas, Texas in 1930. That’s a very unusual lead character and I wanted to see what Oliver did with her.

The mystery itself is quite good. A wealthy bigoted socialite is accused of murdering a Hispanic woman in an area of town it’s difficult to imagine her going to and with evidence of her involvement that even the most dense individual has to believe screams “set up”.

Dai, the blind detective, gets involved because the son of the socialite, who is clearly interested in her, comes and asks for her help. He’s desperate. His father is afraid that the charges against his wife will screw up a business deal he is trying to finalize and so he’s not racing to the woman’s defense with high priced attorneys and the like. That leaves Dai and her brother Jacques to save the day.

Dai’s family is also quite wealthy having built a highly successful laundry business. She appears well educated and is, of course, incredibly smart. She follows the clues with the help of Jacques and brings the mystery to a successful conclusion by the last page of the novel.

My complaint with the story is one of point-of-view. Having created a fascinating detective that could make her mysteries totally unique, Oliver doesn’t take advantage of this. Instead of telling the story through Dai’s “eyes”, she tells everything through Jacques’ point-of-view and this, in my opinion, is a terrible lost opportunity. This novel had the potential to be a fantastically unique experience. Instead it’s just another mystery.

I hope that Oliver fixes this problem in the next book.

Who She Was by Braylee Parkinson

Raymond Chandler liked to write novels where the solution to the current crime lay in an event in the past that had been hidden for decades. No one wants to talk about the ancient tragedy. No one wants to believe that it could be important to understanding the current catastrophe. And yet it is.

Braylee Parkinson has picked up Chandler’s mantle in her excellent mystery, Who She Was? A woman is murdered for no apparent reason. The only “interesting” feature of the crime is that she is in a Detroit neighborhood where no wealthy woman had any legitimate business being. The police have decided—completely without evidence—that she was having an affair with a drug dealer who killed her. Her husband can’t accept that answer and hires Sylvia Wilcox to figure out what really happens.

While the resulting investigation takes months to resolve, the novel never feels like it is moving slowly. There’s a lot to unpack in this book and if you enjoy a good mystery, you’ll enjoy the process.

The First Lady by James Patterson and Brendan DuBois

You know the president is up to no good when he’s described as being in bed with the love of his life. Shortly thereafter, the president and his mistress are ambushed by the press. When the president’s wife learns what happened, she departs the White House and manages to lose her secret service detail. With an election weeks away, the president and his staff have to find the First Lady before the press realizes she’s gone. That means they need to keep her disappearance completely quiet which means this can’t be handled like a typical missing persons case. They blackmail the head of the secret service to handle the investigation herself and then things get complicated.

This is a fast moving, really fun, thriller with just about no one playing it straight. If you’re cynical about politics you’ll love all the politicians in this novel—they’re always willing to surprise you with a new low. I’m not sure that I found all the parts of this novel believable, I’m certainly glad I read it.

Slip by Michael Pogach

This is an interesting mystery about a young woman (Byron) who returns home to claim her estate when her estranged father dies. Right from moment one, things in her hometown are odd. Her father’s best friend and executor is a special kind of jerk who appears to enjoy needling (in an unkind way) his friend’s daughter. He also appears to be the major beneficiary of the will and even though much that is left in the house is Byron’s, he insists on having her visits chaperoned.

Byron, however, is not interested in her inheritance so much as she’s interested in trying to learn more about her dead mother. Except…she begins to uncover evidence that her mother didn’t die when her father says she did and appears to have committed herself to an insane asylum. What’s more, she finally figures out that her best friend growing up (the only person in town she stayed in touch with) is missing. She tries to investigate her friend’s disappearance on top of trying to figure out what happened to her mom and (unsurprisingly for a mystery of this nature) the two things might be connected despite being some 25 or so years separated in time.

The actual mystery is frankly very good. The big weakness in the novel is Byron, herself. While it is easy to sympathize with her frustrations and her desire to learn what happened, she herself is not very likable. Her bitterness over her past is understandable, but coupled with her utter stupidity, I never warmed to her as a heroine. The huge chip on her shoulder is too big an obstacle to overcome.

I should also mention that Byron has a minor psychic power to occasionally catch glimpses of the past or future. It’s not enough to make this feel like a genuinely paranormal book, but it is enough to let the author fill in some details of the past that he probably couldn’t have told us any other way.

We, the Jury by Robert Rotstein

When I picked up this book, I expected to find a Twelve Angry Men style story, and it is that, sort of, but it’s also much, much more. Rotstein gets you deep into the courthouse as the jury sits down to deliberate so that you get a real view of life outside of the courtroom.

There’s no doubt that David Sullinger killed his wife. He split her head open with an axe. But does a battered husband defense justify the killing? His two children have split on the issue, one supporting him and one condemning him. And the history of his relationship with his now dead wife further complicates the issue—he was her high school student who had an affair with her while in her class. His high-powered defense attorney sees an open and shut case for acquittal and apparently ran rings around the small-town prosecutor during the trail. The prosecutor is equally certain it’s a simple case of premeditated murder—but with far smaller resources than the defense, did he prove his case?

Rotstein makes the book far more interesting by jumping the point of view around between well over a dozen people. Inside their own minds, most of these people prove to be very petty with their unique insecurities, idiosyncrasies, pathologies, and secrets. It’s a delight to see their deliberations unfold as the reader tries to figure out how the jury will decide the case.

1 Whose Body? By Dorothy l. Sayers

This is the first book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I admit freely that I went into it with a bias in favor of the novel because many years ago I had watched Peter Davison (fifth Dr. Who) play Lord Peter in this series on Mystery. I can still hear the theme music in my head.

Overall, this is a fine mystery with an unusual beginning. A man discovers a body in his bath opening a peculiar case. No one knows whose body it is (thus the title) but fairly quickly there are some ideas based upon missing people. Lord Peter is an amateur sleuth who sees the investigation as a chance to indulge in a hobby. He’s likeable enough and extremely well connected.

Most of the fine details of the crime are provided in a confession at the end—which Sayers makes bizarrely credible. I will definitely read the next book in the series.

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction by David Schmid

I’ve been putting off reading this book because I thought it was going to be mainly a “how to write a mystery” guide, but it’s much better than that. In 36 lectures, Schmid takes the reader through the history and development of mystery and suspense stories—a truly herculean task which he handles masterfully. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe, he explores many (I hesitate to say “all” in such a broad field) of the most important developments in the genre, trying to explain why these developments were important and how they came to change the mystery story.

I suspect that the vast majority of the authors writing in this field don’t consciously pay attention to the “whys” that Schmid is so interested in. They set their stories in cities, or use a femme fatale, because it’s something they enjoy in mysteries. But that doesn’t mean that Schmid isn’t identifying the aspects these stories have in common and explaining why they work for so many readers.

Over the course of this book I added 16 novels to my “to read” list and 9 to my “reread” list. That in itself should convince anyone who likes this genre to read this book. If I listened to the lectures again, I have no doubt that I would find even more titles to sample. Schmid introduces scores of books and series and makes each one sound interesting. He not only looks at the big trends in England and the U.S. (the cozy, the hardboiled detective, women detectives, the criminal, the sidekick, the importance of clues, the locked room, the dime novel, etc.), he also spends several lectures looking at interesting uses of the detective novel in other parts of the world and as an opportunity to make political and social statements. I could go on and on.

I think, in the final analysis, I was also pleased by how many of these authors that he refers to that I had read and enjoyed. Now don’t get me wrong. I probably haven’t read a quarter of the books Schmid refers to here, but there is still something tremendously satisfying about having a scholar tell you what’s great about a book you’ve loved. Next time I listen to it, I’ll be able to compare my experience with even more books, to Schmid’s insights.

Oh, and if you do want to write mysteries, this book will give you a lot to think about as you craft your tale—even if that isn’t Schmid’s primary purpose in writing it.

Into the Woods by Josh Soule

You’ll figure out what the beast is that threatens the village of Carn very quickly, but the truly intriguing question is “who is the beast?” Josh Soule lays out his mystery quite well. Three old friends are reunited when John returns to Carn from Paris in the late sixteenth century. He has a secret that is greatly disturbing him. His friends Henry and Thomas are arguing with each other. Thomas has lost a cow to the beast and wants to hunt it down while Henry is more concerned with keeping the villagers from panicking. It’s an awkward situation made worse by Henry’s monstrous temper, but the novel sees the three men struggling to restore their friendship while they try to find the monster. The reader will spend all of that time looking for clues as to which of them is secretly the beast.

Soule plays fair with the reader giving out clues, but there were a couple of things that struck me as odd about the story. At one point, several corpses—victims of the beast—are discovered and again “not to panic” the villagers, the decision is made not to tell anyone what was found. In fact, by the end of the novel it is clear that a couple of villagers have known what was going on and who was responsible from the beginning, but didn’t share their knowledge even though doing so would have completely averted all the tragedies in the tale. There are also some minor issues with the setting of the story. For example, Soule uses the term rifle and musket interchangeably—they are not interchangeable and rifles weren’t invented yet. But these are ultimately small issues which do not harm the overall story.

In the final analysis, this is a novel about four people (I include the old priest who helped raise two of the boys) who care deeply about each other and there’s a definite sense of growing tragedy as they try to figure out how to protect the town. If you like a historical mystery that is strongly grounded in the characters, you’ll like Into the Woods.

I received this book for free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

ICE by Kevin Tinto

What happened to the Anasazi is an enduring mystery of the pre-Columbus North American Southwest and author Kevin Tinto offers a unique explanation in his thriller, ICE—it’s an explanation that threatens to launch World War III.

Tinto builds his novel on the backs of rogue archaeologist, Leah Andrews, and celebrity mountain climber, Jack Hobson—an estranged married couple who Tinto clearly intends to keep together. They bring a complimentary set of skills to the problem of chasing down the solution to the Anasazi mystery which ends up taking them into the heart of Antarctica.

Frankly the mystery and its solution is a little weak, but the villains more than make up for it. There is something utterly delightful about watching dumb, corrupt, politicians operate and ultimately get out maneuvered. The various maneuvers and counter maneuvers weren’t necessarily believable—pointing out specific examples would spoil the book—but the melodrama they created was a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a thriller you don’t have to take too seriously, you’ll probably enjoy ICE.

Trail of the Hana K’ilo by Channing Whitaker

The second book in Whitaker’s Skeptic Detective series takes a very different tone than the first, but still offers the reader an excellent mystery that will have them flirting with possible supernatural explanations for events. Where the first book revolved around a haunted house, this one goes into the remote regions of Alaska as Harlan Holt reluctantly agrees to look into the disappearance of a colleague whose “academic” specialty he despised. The missing man was obsessed with proving that cryptids exist and goes missing in Alaska while trying to find a water beast known in legend as the Hana K’ilo. A local blog insists that several disappearances in the region are the result of the Hana K’ilo hunting. Harlan doesn’t want to be involved, but can’t turn away from the mystery. So he changes his plans to take his girlfriend to Hawaii over the winter break and instead brings her to remote Alaska without telling her why they are really going there.

There are tons of good elements to this story. One of the things Whitaker does best is introduce many legends (all with different names) that could be inspired by the same cryptid—the Hana K’ilo—but could also just be simple “scare kids away from the water” style tales. He also had a group of tourists and staff at this lodge who all make you wonder what’s really going on with them. Finally, he is very convincing in his details of the danger of winter in Alaska, and it is easy to imagine that this rough and freezing terrain is going to be very important to the conclusion of the story.

At the heart of the novel are a series of very complex secrets and relationships that Harlan has to navigate—including the one with his girlfriend. I have to admit that the clues were all there, but I was shocked by how they all fit together. It was a very satisfying—if sometimes slow moving—mystery. I’m looking forward to the next book.

In the Barren Ground by Loreth Anne White

What I like best about this novel was the sense White conveyed of the wide open and very dangerous wilderness in northern Canada. It’s a vivid and threatening backdrop that is critical to all the events that occur in the novel. The main character, a pregnant police officer stuck by herself with the responsibility for thousands of square miles of mostly uninhabited terrain, is also a sympathetic and likeable figure.

The crime isn’t an obvious one at first. Wolves have eaten two biologists out in the wild, but the heroine starts to notice some unusual characteristics to the kills, and more importantly, strange similarities to past deaths which lead her to question whether these were animal kills at all.

The mystery is quite a good one, although it ran a little long for the material. My biggest problem with the book is that I never really believed in the central romance. White goes to great pains in the beginning to make the destined lovers dislike each other and that worked for me. Somewhere along the way they predictably fall in love and while I accepted it as inevitable, I never really believed in it.

The Maw by Taylor Zajonc

Having enjoyed a bit of caving in my high school years, I have always appreciated a good thriller set in an underground environment. The Maw is that and more. Milo is an historian who has all but killed his career by pushing a theory about how explorer Lord Riley DeWar met his end and getting involved in a romantic relationship with one of his students. Now he has a bizarre chance to fix both of these errors by joining a top secret expedition exploring a super cave in Tanzania. The expedition’s billionaire funder has a theory that, contrary to popular belief, DeWar met his end in this cave. More important to Milo, the student he had the relationship, now a well-respect physician, is also going on the expedition.

So Milo, with no experience in caving, joins a trip that is figuratively going to the center of the earth and everything goes wrong right from the beginning. The billionaire has not shared all of his information with his team. Another expedition between DeWar’s and their own has found the cave and tried to seal it with explosives. There is also evidence that native peoples with stone-age level technology have impossibly found their way thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface millennia before the current expedition. Something unusual exists in this cave and it is changing the explorers in ways that are both exciting and terrifying. Cut off from the surface both by a hemorrhagic disease infecting the camp and a huge storm, the explorers find themselves seeking to understand a mystery that dates back to the beginning of the human species while surviving tremendous challenges thousands of feet below the surface in utter darkness.

This sort of novel usually promises more than it can provide, but not in this case. Zajonc has put together a remarkable mystery that truly does explain why humans are different than all the other species on this planet. And he accomplishes this while conveying the claustrophobic terror of trying to survive without support deep in the bowels of the earth. It’s a truly remarkable accomplishment.