SKIM DEEP by Max Allan Collins

Skim Deep
(Frank Nolan Series #9; Hard Case Crime Series #146)
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime — December 2020
ISBN: 9781789091397
— Paperback — 256 pp.


I’ve been a fan of the Hard Case Crime series for awhile now, and like the media-tie-in series that I follow, I’ve been trying to keep up with reading each of the new releases under its banner. On occasion there is one that I really don’t care for, but the majority I find wonderfully entertaining, in that light reading kind of way. They span a variety of the mystery/crime/thriller genre with both classic reprints, new additions to series, and completely new creations from modern-day noir writers. They all have that tinge of noir pulp that I adore, even when it comes across as dated.

Shamus-award winning and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Max Allan Collins is probably a name familiar to anyone who reads the genre. Some bit of his prolific output in prose and graphic novels is likely familiar to an even broader swatch of the pop culture population. His Road to Perdition comic series was made into a film with Tom Hanks, and his Quarry novel series more recently appeared as a Cinemax TV series. I’ve read most all – if not all – of the Quarry novels from Hard Case Crime, and reviewed one here awhile back. I remember enjoying these to varying degrees, so the news of a new Collins novel was something to celebrate and anticipate.

Now, I’m less familiar with Collins’ Nolan series, featuring the Lee van Cleef lookalike professional thief Frank Nolan. I may have read Two for the Money, put out by Hard Case Crime in its early days (#5), but it’s too long to remember. The good thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you know anything about Nolan. or if you have read any of the previous eight books featuring him, to enjoy Skim Deep. At this stage the thief has gone straight, running a restaurant/nightclub in the midwest with his lover Sherry, a former showgirl. He’s made peace with mafia powers that he formerly clashed with, and has been allowed to step aside to settle into a civilian’s life away from crime. Deciding to take things one step further and marry Sherry, the couple leaves on a whim for a Vegas ceremony. There they stay at the French Quarter Hotel (a thinly veiled Orleans), where Nolan’s friend and former accomplice Jon now works, also having gone straight, in the dreams of opening his own comic shop. Unfortunately, Nolan’s former reputation gains unsolicited notice from some in Vegas, including an acquaintance who decides to use Nolan’s surprise appearance to further his own criminal plans. In the meantime, the matriarch of a criminal family sets her youngest son with a mission to kill Nolan and bring her his head, in retribution for Nolan’s prior role in her eldest son’s death. Even if Nolan and Sherry manage to make it out of Vegas alive, an assassin awaits the new husband and wife at their doorway.

Skim Deep suffers most from the execution of its plot. The set up is a good one, but it proceeds predictably. This might not be a real terrible thing for this kind of pulp read, if the plot could have included more twists toward those predictable conclusions, or if the antagonists of the novel showed any modicum of competence as threats to Nolan, Sherry, or Jon. Two separate threats emerge in the novel against Nolan, but the perpetrators of each are almost comically inept. They also both are unwilling antagonists, acting not out of any particular dislike of Nolan, but feeling forced into the situation for want of money – and ultimately for want of keeping a hot wife. The stakes never seem particularly high for the ‘good guys’ of the novel, and each threat becomes dispatched with little fanfare. Sherry does serve a role in the novel, albeit with dated pulp tones of misogyny (e.g. honor and obey the husband); she’s a cheerleader and emotional support for Nolan as well as representation of the one thing he loves, a person who only chose to be associated with crime indirectly through a relationship with him. On the other hand, Jon seems largely dispensable to what occurs in the novel. I gather he is a larger part of previous novels in the series, serving as a young, nerdy and loyal foil to the classic principled and noble tough guy that is Nolan. There’s unfortunately little in Skim Deep featuring that, or to give Jon purpose and import in events.

Despite these flaws, Skim Deep works with the simple fact that Collins can write. The noir tone and Nolan’s personality shine in the dialogue and descriptions from the former thief’s point of view. Further, even if the survival of the hero is certain or they never really feel in danger, the story still flows in the enjoyment of the righteous justice against those who dared think they could hurt the noble Nolan or the innocent Sherry.

Like any criminal protagonist that writers ask audiences to get behind (your Boba Fetts), Nolan may be a thief, but he has a code of honor and respect. He is not evil, nor does he compromise on principals to take the easier path or gain reward. The antagonists of Skim Deep may not be evil either, but they have weak resolves and lack self confidence. They fear losing things they don’t think they necessarily even deserved in the first place. They don’t want to accept what might come, and they will hurt others to selfishly benefit. Nolan may not deserve Sherry. But he knows that he has her love and respect. And she knows she has the same from him. If he did something of his own fault to change that, he would not destroy more lives for his shortcomings. The contrast between these character traits between the protagonists and antagonists is at least interesting in Skim Deep, even if it does then contribute to the sheer lack of potency in those villains as credible threats.

After all this I feel kind of silly trying to analyze the novel. Even with shortcomings, it is a fine entertaining crime read, exactly what I’m looking for when I crack open a Hard Case Crime, and as usual Collins makes even the predictable fun. If you are already a Collins or Hard Case Crime fan, you’re sure to love this too. Fans of the genre who don’t know Collins or the Nolan novels would still find this worth checking out. The opportunity to discover more of the Nolan novels is also coming soon, as Hard Case Crime will be rereleasing the earlier books in the series in the coming month; you could always wait to start with those too. I’m intrigued to meet the Nolan of his more wild days that brought him here to Skim Deep.


THE ECHO WIFE by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.

Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.

Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:

The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.

Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.

If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.

And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.

If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:

SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE

SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)

SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE

So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.

Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.

What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.

After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.

Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.

Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?

With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.

I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.


THE HUNT FOR FOXP5: A GENOMIC MYSTERY NOVEL by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer

The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel
By Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer
Springer Publishing — May 2016
ISBN: 9783319289601
— Paperback — 251 pp.


Writing balanced science fiction can be a real challenge, particularly if an author is trying to keep the science 100% accurate and the speculation 100% plausible. At least, it’s hard for me to find ‘hard SF’ that I enjoy. Some may be fine with a work from the sub-genre even if it has little literary merit going for it, or a lack of thematic depth beyond the scientific concepts. The science alone isn’t entertaining and interesting enough for me – especially when it is the fields of science that seem to dominate that label ‘hard’: technology, physics, and astronomy.

“Hard” SF featuring biology definitely exists, though it is more rare, I feel, to find stories where the amount of biological science/speculation in the story equals other elements like plot and character. When I have seen it (for example with Peter Watts) I still don’t end up enjoying the work as much as other books that put less emphasis on the science. I guess I just always want more of the literary or entertainment than the science fact and education in my fiction.

I still look for potential reads in the sub-genre though, especially when it falls in my field of biology, and I was intrigued when I found biology-related titles in the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, which publishes novels written by scientists about their field. One of these, The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer turned out to be one of the most successful merging of science and fiction that I’ve read, a story that could easily have been serialized to acclaim in Analog Magazine. The creation of the novel comes through the combination of Kaufman (a writer and translator) and Deamer (a research professor in Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz)

After the mysterious death of her husband, genetics researcher Dr. Michelle Murphy is left to raise her adoptive daughter Avalon, a brilliant eight-year-old they had adopted from Kazakhstan. Dr. Murphy receives an invitation from a prestigious Kazakh scientist Dr. Akenov to attend and present her research at a genetics conference in Kazakhstan, and invites her to bring along her adoptive daughter as an opportunity for Avalon to learn more about her proud homeland, so unlike what the film Borat portrays. Dr. Murphy’s skepticism regarding the timing and motivation of the invitation become confirmed with a visit from the CIA. They inform Dr. Murphy that Dr. Akenov is on their radar as potentially being involved in the development of a biological weapon. While they warn Dr. Murphy and express fear for both her safety and Avalon’s, they also hope that Dr. Murphy’s attendance to the conference will give them an opportunity to use her as an information-gathering spy.

Agreeing, and still taking Avalon with despite the risks, Dr. Murphy and her daughter arrive in Kazakhstan. There, they gradually unravel links between Dr. Murphy’s research into the FOX family of genes, the death of her husband, Avalon’s heritage, and Akenov’s plans. The story combines anthropology, biology, politics, and national identity into what could be best called a scientific thriller, despite the use of the term ‘mystery’ in the novel’s subtitle.

The FOXP5 of the title refers to a fictional allele (flavor of gene) in the very real family of FOX genes. The FOX family of genes encode proteins that bind to DNA and act as transcription factors, that is to say they regulate when and how genes are expressed. First discovered and researched in the model fruit fly organism (Drosophila), these genes are conserved throughout vertebrates, including humans. One member of the family, FOXP2, is responsible in bird species for controlling the development of call mimicry, and in humans that same gene plays a role in the development of speech and language. As I understand it, scientists believe that mutations in FOXP2 may have contributed to the evolution of modern H. sapiens from ancestral populations through additional abilities of language, and thereby culture, that these mutant alleles permitted. The Hunt for FOXP5 speculates additional FOX mutant alleles occurring and what the implications of that could be if selected for in the human population. A section in the back of the book following the story highlights the science behind the fiction of this novel, presumably primarily by Deamer.

Some might find it surprising that Dr. Murphy agrees to go to the conference despite the dangers admitted by the CIA. Even moreover, how could she possibly also still take her daughter? I actually didn’t find this too implausible. Scientists can be stubborn, and everything about Dr. Murphy and Avalon point to them as not backing away from threats, responsibilities, or opportunities to do good. Showing maturity well behind her age (for reasons we eventually see) Avalon is likewise someone that Dr. Murphy is not going to shelter away, though she will take all precautions she can.

The plot and action of the novel stay engaging throughout, as one would expect from a thriller. The writing is by no means fancy or awe inspiring, rather by-the-book and generally unadorned. I would have loved it to be a little deeper and more interesting in its language (especially given the scientific concepts of language featured here), but I see this as no different from best-selling thriller novels. Similarly, Akenov and his grand plot reveal to be cartoonish and silly from the perspective of scientific speculation realism – but again, this seems to me no different than what large selling thrillers typically are.

Meaning, if you like political thrillers with a good dose of science and aren’t particular about them being works of art, this is a book you might find very entertaining and worth a read. That kind of thriller can go either way for me, sometimes I find them too silly, or too badly written in language. For me this kept those at an acceptable/adequate level. What really brought the novel slightly higher for me to enjoy more than, say, the average thriller are two factors: the protagonists and the setting.

Kazakhstan provides an excellent unique element to The Hunt for FOXP5 to set it apart from competing thrillers that may stick with the usual US – enemy relations. (To clarify, while Akenov, a Kazakh is the villain, he’s not really acting on behalf of his government per se.) Kaufman, who has previously worked in Kazakhstan contributed this aspect, I would assume, and it allows for details for readers to discover that decorate and enrich the plot and science backbone of the novel.

Dr. Michelle Murphy and Avalon also make fantastic protagonists. It is nice having two female stars being both heroes in a political action thriller AND brilliant scientific minds at the same time. Young women who might think that science or global affairs isn’t something they could be involved in would find inspiration in this.

This review comes long after the initial publication of the novel, which I regret. I didn’t like a previous novel from this Science and Fiction series, so I didn’t rush to read this one as quickly as otherwise. But now finally the review. I hope it encourages some who have an interest in genetics and/or thrillers to find a copy of this.


FIRST GEAR by Patricia C. Lee

First Gear
(Sadie Hawkins Mystery Book 1)
By Patricia C. Lee
Phoenix Literary Publishing — August 2020
ASIN: B08CCDKDMN
— eBook


If you are looking for one last relaxing ‘beach read’ as the summer winds down, an enjoyable mystery/thriller I’d recommend would be First Gear, a quick escape from pandemic-driven anxiety with a plucky protagonist and compelling supporting supporting characters. Previous author of a paranormal romance series, Patricia C. Lee here turns to a mystery series featuring Sadie Hawkins, a recently divorced Texan who has inherited her uncle’s logistics company. In contrast to her short stature, Sadie exudes an air of fierce power. Moving on in her personal life while trying to make a success of her business, she meets challenges with her enterprising and tenacious nature.

Desperate to develop her business, Sadie accepts a job moving a collection of antiquities, including a mummy, despite the suspicious details of the job. The client needs the transfer done immediately, and is willing to pay extra. With the documentation looking legit, Sadie accepts. However, arriving at the delivery destination at night, she finds no one there to accept delivery. As she waits, an assailant attacks her, and she later awakens to find the cargo stolen and a fresh corpse replacing the mummy. With the police suspecting her of theft and murder, and her client mysteriously vanished, Sadie begins investigating what has occurred to save herself and her business.

I’m unclear why Lee would name her series protagonist Sadie Hawkins. Its familiarity feels distracting, and it gives the present-day story a clashingly archaic feel. I knew the name in context of a dance, but had no concept of what it was, or why it was so named. Wikipedia helped, but I still don’t see how the reference even symbolically relates to the character. Beyond her name, I adored everything else about Sadie. She isn’t trained in investigation or law, but finds herself in a situation where she must solve a crime through her inherent skills and drive. Though tough and independent, she is hardly perfect. She makes some questionable choices and errors, and at times she needs help from her friend Tanya, her ex-husband (who she doest still speak with), or new acquaintances she meets.

There are a few points in the novel where Lee writes something that is inaccurate. The first I noticed is when a line confuses The Munsters and The Addams Family. At another point an idiom incorrectly uses the wrong homonym. The thing is, being written from Sadie’s point of view, I don’t know if these are authorial errors, or an indication of Sadie’s character. Even if the former, it ends up working splendidly well, because it makes Sadie seem so lovably sincere and passionate about her observations, even if they aren’t technically precise. That sums up Sadie so well.

The mystery aspect of the plot takes several chapters to really get set up, and even after the crime, the mystery and action doesn’t take up the fore quite as much as Sadie’s character development and the introduction of other characters. The crime is more of a backdrop for getting to know protagonist and cast. This may be an issue for those that care more about figuring out plot clues and details in the mystery genre, but those that accept the crime element as a simple backdrop shouldn’t be bothered.

Lee clearly introduces the reader to a host of secondary characters as a way of establishing relationships and plot points for future entries in the series. I thought that decision works fine here, it makes me want to read more about them, such as a radio host (potential love interest?) that Sadie calls into for contact/comfort as she sits alone at the delivery spot with a no-show client. However, the use of all these secondary characters in each volume of the series would be excessive, and Lee could consider both abandoning some, or more slowly adding others in the future.

Very often mystery series will succeed based on some ineffable quality of just ‘clicking’ with a reader, while another – perhaps just as competently written – will fail. I think there are ways that Lee can still greatly improve her Sadie Hawkins series to make it stand out more and be balanced between all elements one might look for in a mystery novel. Yet, First Gear represents an ideal novel to test out if you are looking for this genre of light read. You can get through it in a couple/few sittings, and can determine even sooner if it is a series you want to get into, right from its beginning.

I received this not expecting anything special, even potentially finding it poor. Instead, I enjoyed two evenings of pleasant reading while at a lake cottage on vacation, and would look forward to reading more of the series.


THE DARK ABOVE by Jeremy Finley

The Dark Above
(William Chance & Lynn Roseworth Book 2)
By Jeremy Finley
St. Martin’s Press — July 2019
ISBN: 9781250147288
324 Pages — Hardcover


Sequel to “The Darkest Time of Night”, “The Dark Above” continues to answer questions from the first book while expanding the cast of characters and venturing further into the SF/paranormal. I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you haven’t read Finley’s debut novel. However, the two novels make for a satisfying whole and quick enough read, so starting now wouldn’t require much commitment beyond the norm.

For those who haven’t read “The Darkest Time of Night”, it begins with the disappearance of William, the seven-year-old grandson of a US Senator and his wife Lynn. With William at the time of his disappearance is his brother, who now in shock only speaks four words of what occurred in the woods between their house and their grandparent’s: “The lights took him.”

These words, along with circumstances and location of William’s vanishing lead Lynn to bittersweet and fearful memories from her past – taboos from her childhood growing up beside the woods, and work she did as a young wife as secretary for a secretive professor in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois. A past where she became involved with a group investigating reports of UFOs and alien abductions, stories that time and again spoke of beams of light.

Starting much like a conventional crime mystery / political thriller, “The Darkest Time of Night” soon reveals conspiracies and sci-fi elements strongly reminiscent of the The X-Files, a relation that the novel even references. “The Dark Above” continues that trend, with development of the SF themes into a further paranormal realm. In publicity and reviews, some have also referenced Stranger Things for comparison to this series. Yet, similarities to that more recent show go no further than use of ‘government conspiracy’ and characters with powers. Both also were in The X-Files though, and the tone of these novels remain closer to that than any of the real themes/setting of Stranger Things.

“The Dark Above” begins years following William’s recovery by his grandmother Lynn and her friend Roxy at the close of the first book. Now grown up, William still struggles to come to grips with his experiences, the missing memories, and the guarded, public revelations his grandmother has made amid remaining secrets and uncertainties. Failing to return to college, William has run off to escape media attention and find some distance from his family. But, he finds himself unable to run from nightmares, and knowing the dangers he represents according to what Lynn has learned.

Events soon expose William back to the world and into the sights of media, hostile government agents, UFO/alien conspiracy believers, and the clandestine group that his grandmother once worked for long ago. Other select individuals returned by the aliens begin to show signs of activation, unleashing global calamities. As William flees danger and tries to discern who he can trust, his connections to the others who have been changed by the aliens grows stronger, leading them together.

In the meantime, Lynn and Roxy want to find and help William, but Lynn’s daugher (William’s aunt), who has taken her father’s seat in the Senate places her in uneasy alliance with the government agencies who want to control William at any cost.

“The Dark Above” thus ends up reading like a Koontz-like thriller with fast moving action and intrigue alternating between the points-of-view of William, his grandmother, and his aunt. A key strength of the first novel was featuring a pair of elderly women as the main protagonists. While they are not lost here, the dominance of William in this half of the story removes that. Nonetheless, change can be nice, and the switch to a grown up William helps keep the schtick of Lynn/Roxy from getting worn.

The twists and turns as multiple groups hunt William works well, with him not clear if any of them are telling him the truth, lies, or somewhere in between. Things begin to slow, however, as William discovers the group that controlled Lynn’s work in the past. In one chapter, through a series of letters in the group’s possession, both William and the reader learn the facts behind the past, going back to his great-grandparents and Lynn’s childhood that briefly appeared in the prologue to the first book.

“The Dark Above” thus fills all the unresolved questions set up from the start of the book, and while it’s ending implies that more books could follow, it still nicely wraps the series up to satisfaction as a cohesive pair. I enjoyed, but didn’t particularly love “The Darkest Time of Night”. With the expanded cast and increased action/pace of “The Dark Above”, I actually prefer the sequel a little more. However, these novels really sit best together as a sum greater than their isolated parts.

The science part of the SF in the second novel becomes utterly ridiculous, so much that it might be better to call this fantasy with aliens. I was able to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the silliness of the plot and the attempts to ‘explain’ things paranormal by throwing in nonsensical statements about DNA and genetics. Partially this is because I’m used to doing this already as a fan of The X-Files. It’s also because there are other aspects to the novel I appreciate, such as its turn toward the apocalyptic genre, where the key people returned by the aliens serve as symbolic Four Horsemen.

Together, “The Darkest Time of Night” and “The Dark Above” end up being an amalgam of popcorn genres, from drive-in ’50’s UFO flicks to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Fans of these kinds of genre elements looking for a thriller with some engaging characters and surprises – even amid the very cliched realm of UFO/alien lit – should enjoy these.


THE MURDER BOOK by Lissa Marie Redmond

The Murder Book
(Cold Case Investigation #2)
By Lissa Marie Redmond
Midnight Ink — February 2019
ISBN: 9780738754277
304 Pages — Paperback


An unknown assailant stabs cold-case detective Lauren Riley at her desk late one night as she works alone in a Buffalo, NY Police Department. Barely surviving, and awakening in the hospital, she remembers only one clear detail of the man who attacked: he wore department issued uniform boots. Lauren soon learns the motive for the attempted murder by one of the department’s own. The cold-case murder book, the paper and photographic trails of outstanding murder investigations, is gone. Though her partner Shane Reese tries to ensure she recovers from near death, Riley instead becomes intent on discovering who assaulted her, and why they needed the murder book so badly. Discovery of a recent anonymous phone call to a now-defunct police hotline leads Riley to retired detective Charlie Daley to help track down a frightened witness who may have reawakened secrets thought covered up long ago.

I discovered The Murder Book, second in Lissa Marie Redmond’s Cold Case Investigation series, after happening upon the author at a signing at Barnes & Nobel. I’m always hesitant to start a new series, but I’m also one to welcome kismet and give support to a local author when it seems like a book I might enjoy. Often it ends up being mediocre, but I happily tore through The Murder Book and have now ordered the first novel in the series. 

There’s no shortage of mystery series out there, so the successful ones need to have something unique to set themselves apart, some sort of charm to endear themselves to readers. Most often authors accomplish this with iconic characters or setting, building a recipe that offers the familiarity of routine, spiced with something quirky or exotic. They also must offer entertaining stand-alone stories that still propel longer character arcs and an expansion of the cast and scenery. During this the writer needs to somehow pull off the trick of allowing their heroes and villains to develop, but without the essential nature of those characters to be altered.

Redmond’s professional background imparts the first special quality to her series. As a retired cold-case-homicide detective, Redmond has the expertise to infuse her plot and dialogue with details of authenticity. Set in Buffalo, the series contains local references that some readers might also appreciate. This aspect initially attracted me to wanting to read it, but I soon realized most of the references fall in the Southtowns. It might as well have been set in Boston, like a Spenser novel, for the lack of the familiarity I have with anything down there. Nevertheless, these details still provide a lived-in atmosphere to the setting that mystery series are known for.

Though it may be simplest to categorize the novel in the ‘mystery’ genre, The Murder Book isn’t the kind of story where the reader should search for clues to figure out ‘who done it’. Instead it could be more precisely characterized as a police procedural, about the investigative steps taken by Riley and her associates to bring her attacker to justice and resolve the old case that instigated the theft and her attack.

Like a procedure, Redmond writes with an instinctive, logical style that forms a well-crafted linear plot built from strings of revealed facts. While the identity of her attacker is at first unknown, Riley discovers his identity, and the gist of his motive, with relative ease. Rather than through the thrill of following that mystery, reader captivation arises through the intricacies of what Riley does once armed with her knowledge, the answer to those mysteries. Riley and her associates may know the truth, but that is far from sufficient to bring charges, close a case, or deliver justice to victims. The focus of this story is on how Riley and her associates can find a way to get the evidence they needed to prove who has stabbed her, and why it was done. One might think that the details of closing a case could get boring, but Redmond keeps the procedural aspects engaging by keeping the dangers to Riley ever-present. Knowing the identity of the person who stabbed her doesn’t help her much if they remain free and a threat to her. If anything, the tension gets worse as Riley knows more, but still feels vulnerable. Seeing how she overcomes that to outsmart the criminals and overturn power differentials fueled my enjoyment of The Murder Book

Starting with Riley, a cast of complex, fleshed-out characters makes Redmond’s job of holding reader interest easier too. On top of being at physical risk from her job, Riley also has a history of dealing with troubles in her personal relationships. Frustrated with herself over her attraction to the wrong men, Riley has an ex-husband who still induces sexual tension, and an abusive ex-fiancé. Yet, with the support of her daughter and other family members, Riley keeps finding an inner strength and stubbornness to keep going, unapologetically, to meet her challenges and surpass them. A good male support in her life is her devoted partner Reese, and the natural banter that flows between them makes their platonic relationship a big strength of the series. You actually get the sense that Reese has his own personal faults, and isn’t an ideal guy for a romantic relationship either, consistent with Riley’s attraction to, or connection with, a certain kind of guy – even if just in friendship.

Daley, the retired detective also provides a nice addition to The Murder Book, a voice of age and experience who is able to connect Riley and Reese to parts of Buffalo that normally keep distance from the police. I’m hoping we’ll see more of this character in the future, his maturity and realism allow a great perspective, connecting the detectives to not just elements of the criminal underbelly of the city, but also to economically marginalized communities who may fear police for very good reason. This latter theme ends up being a major component of the plot, and Redmond deals with it extremely effectively.   

However, the most fascinating character for me is David Spencer, a client of Lauren Riley’s side-job, whose story picks up from the main plot thread of the first book of the series. Though she began defending him, Riley is now convinced that Spencer has gotten away from murder. Though she has parted ways from her former client, he continues to appear in her life, as if taunting the truth about him that she knows. Dangerous and intelligent, Spencer represents something Riley shouldn’t want anything more to do with. But, his put-on charm and his perseverance at playing a sick game nonetheless draws her attention back in, holding hope that she might get proof of crimes that can put him away.

Even though I haven’t yet read the first novel of the series (A Cold Day in Hell) that unfolds this history between Riley and Spencer, I had no problem picking up on its highlights in relation to the main and sub-plots of The Murder Book. Moreover, it hasn’t detracted me from wanting to still read the first book, even knowing where it goes. Spencer represents a perfect series-long antagonist who will continue to plague Riley & Reese (and please readers) through future installments with his wicked genius. A Means to an End, the third book in Redmond’s Cold Case Investigations series comes out in September, but there is still plenty of time to dig into either of the other two meanwhile.

TARGET IN THE NIGHT by Ricardo Piglia (Translated by Sergio Waisman)

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Target in the Night
(Emilio Renzi #2)
By Ricardo Piglia
(Translated from Blanco nocturno by Sergio Waisman)
Deep Vellum Publishing — October 2015
ISBN 9781941920169 — 288 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


As unique a piece of crime/detective fiction that one will likely come across, Target in the Night is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, winner of the 2011 Premio internacional de novela Rómulo Gallegos and other prestigious prizes for Spanish language literature. In the few years since its translation into English by Deep Vellum Press, it has gotten even further positive reviews in multiple outlets. However, I found the novel to be a nigh impenetrable puzzle that I could never quite capture in the cross-hairs of my focus or enjoyment.
Set in a small, insular Argentinian town, the novel begins when Puerto Rican visitor Tony Durán is found murdered in his hotel room after flamboyantly arriving in town and sleeping with the twin Belladonna sisters, members of a powerful family that gained its wealth in the crooked industry of horse racing. Authorities make an arrest, but Police Inspector Croce remains unsatisfied, convinced there is something buried and committed to discover the truth behind Durán’s murder, no matter the cost. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who appears as a character in other novels by Piglia joins Croce in the investigation, and in this way Renzi serves as the point-of-view narrator of events, recounting them years after their completion in a nonlinear pattern.
While the plot of Target in the Night seems rather straight-forward and conventional for a crime thriller, it’s style is decidedly the opposite, from the aforementioned nonlinear structure to an unconventional focus away from details of the crime, or its resolution, themselves to a postmodern meditation on the politics of an intricate web of characters, on seeking interpretations of truth in a corrupt society where nebulous, authoritarian forces spin individuals into intractable realities.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this unconventional approach. Were I to have read up a bit more on the novel prior to my starting reading, it may have lessened my frustrations with finding its rhythm, because all my expectations of a ‘detective novel’ would have been shed. But even so there remain some significant potential impediments for readers. One is an ignorance of its historical context. Target in the Night is rife with not just abstract philosophical strains, but also with specific metaphor and commentary on Argentinian political unrest. The Spanish language here may be translated with fidelity, but I have no basis for making the full cultural connections the novel paints. The slow paced building of Piglia’s ideas through novel combined with a cold, almost emotionally distant personality of his characters exacerbates this inability to connect. Given the large number of eccentricities that Piglia gives his characters, I was surprised how hard it became for me to get into them, and the text.

Piglia, who sadly passed away in January of last year achieves some staggeringly impressive writing, that while not easily approachable is evocative and at times poetic. Despite that, this particular novel simply did not work for me. Readers who appreciate intellectual literature still might want to check Target in the Night out, particularly if more familiar with the history of Argentina than I. The mystery and detective aspects of the novel provide an adequate backdrop of plot for Piglia’s craft, just don’t expect that plot to become more than a means to an end.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER by Carla Norton

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What Doesn’t Kill Her
(Reeve LeClaire Series #2)
By Carla Norton
Minotaur Books – June 2015
ISBN 9781250032805 – 313 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Publisher


A sequel to Norton’s debut novel The Edge of Normal, this continuation of Reeve LeClaire’s story can still be picked up and enjoyed by any who haven’t read its predecessor. I reviewed the first novel here last year, and was impressed with how well Norton handled an intense, traumatic subject matter in a responsible way while also keeping the book honest, well paced, and suspenseful. For better or for worse, What Doesn’t Kill Her consistently matches all the notes of that first novel. The writing, plot, and characters are just as engaging as in the first book. What Doesn’t Kill Her continues the storyline of its predecessor, and Reeve LeClaire evolves in significant ways from her past and the events of book one.
However, themes of the first novel reappear in the sequel and the threats that face Reeve are at least partially a rehash of the conflicts in The Edge of Normal. For new readers getting introduced to the character – the scars of her past and the brave steps she takes to move on – this sequel will be approachable and a complete discovery. Fans of the first book will certainly enjoy it, but perhaps find it a bit familiar in terms of what the plot is throwing at its protagonist.
The Edge of Normal introduced Reeve LeClaire, a young woman in her early twenties who a decade prior was the victim of kidnapping and captivity by a sexual predator. Living with memories of this traumatic past, Reeve hesitantly answers a call from her psychiatrist and her own conscience to help a young girl just saved from similar captivity, whose kidnapper remains at large, watching the escaped girl and Reeve from the shadows. In What Doesn’t Kill Her, Flint, the man who abducted Reeve, has managed to escape from prison. With her former tormentor evading capture and targeting her anew, Reeve feels that she must bear the responsibility of stopping Flint.
This plot depends on Reeve believably going after an escaped criminal and killer who she has a personal, horrible, history with. A bit of a stretch, Norton makes it work based on the insights that Reeve has on Flint’s psychology and life, based on what she overheard and experienced during her captivity. The authorities involved in Flint’s capture don’t have this insight, so to force Reeve into action Norton has to make the police somewhat unresponsive to following up on Reeve’s memories and feelings. This does provide a nice impetus for Reeve’s growth as a character, as she begins to have bad memories return and is forced to face and overcome them. It also continues Reeve’s independence, of not being reliant on others, particularly male authority figures, to simply step in and protect/save her.
This plot also returns to putting Reeve in physical danger, kidnapping situations where she is again faced with an evil captor. It ends up feeling like a retread of the climax of the first book, and now the cat-and-mouse game leading up to confrontation doesn’t have that element of the first book where Reeve is primarily acting to protect another young girl. Now it is completely about her, her past, her safety and future. I do look forward to future books in this series, and despite some familiar situations that brought me some disappointment from this novel relative to the first, it overall is still an excellent read.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN by Elsa Hart

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Jade Dragon Mountain
By Elsa Hart
Minotaur Books – September 2015
ISBN 9781250072320 – 336 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


This debut novel by Elsa Hart was a real pleasant surprise, a book with a captivating story, characters, and prose. The second of two mystery/crime novels that I recently read to feature a non-Western setting and Jesuit characters, Jade Dragon Mountain stood out as giving a strong sense of historical setting and avoiding genre clichés while keeping a traditional murder mystery structure. The sequel comes out this September, so now would be a perfect time for mystery fans to discover this notable new series.
It is the early 1700s on the border of China and Tibet, a little over half a century since the founding of the Qing dynasty. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du arrives at a remote Chinese border town among a diverse host of citizens and travelers gathered for an extraordinary ceremony: a solar eclipse commanded by the authority of the Emperor himself. When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in an official’s home the authorities are quick to point fingers at bandits, but Li Du suspects the murder is far from random. Surrounded by strangers who hide secrets and divulge lies, Li Du struggles between the choices of departing his homeland in acceptance of his exile, or following his instincts and conscious through an enquiry that could lead to repercussions both personal and imperial.
The pacing of Hart’s writing for this historical Chinese murder mystery is spot on. Her plots, character developments, and sentences neither rush nor needlessly delay.
“He imagined then that the shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of its past and its future, existed at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud? An eerie suggestion of his own insubstantiality pulled at him. He, too, was inside the void.”
Measured, flowing prose such as this make much of Jade Dragon Mountain a story to savor, without sacrificing readability or the entertainment of the plot’s twisting surprises. Hart’s style also manages to successfully merge disparate elements – historical realism, an ‘exotic’ locale, folklore, romance, comedy, politics, social commentary, and of course mystery – into one cohesive whole.
I’ve mentioned the good character development in Hart’s debut novel, and this is certainly true for its protagonist Li Du. The other novel I recently read with surface similarities to this one had a Jesuit scientist in the role of detective, a ‘casting’ that echoes with familiarity for the crime genre. Aside from giving that Jesuit protagonist background training to make him of use for catching a killer, his existence as a Jesuit within the setting of that novel wasn’t much explored. With Jade Dragon Mountain the Occident-styled Jesuit is the victim, and the detective is a man solely immersed in Chinese culture, a man of high intellect – but not one you would immediately pick to fill the role of investigator. Hart augments that unlikelihood by making Li Du an imperial exile, a Chinese man now separated from a huge part of his culture while still being emotionally and spiritually linked with it. And that makes Li Du very fascinating. Seeing his further development through events and interactions keeps holding the reader’s interest.
The weakest aspect of Hart’s debut novel though stems from her inclusion of so many characters. It is important for upping the level of unknowns the story needs as a mystery and it allows for a diversity of character points of views and interactions across cultures. However on the more individual scale these secondary characters often lose resolution. Aside from Li Du, a story-teller named Hamza is the character who stands out in memory; the other supporting cast intermesh, and keeping track of may could take some effort in the early parts of the novel. I do also wish the female characters had greater presence, though by the final portion of the novel Li Du does interact with one more – and therefore so does the reader. Hamza is just delightful. He lends a light comic relief to the story and spins secondary tales that are just as fun to experience as the novel as a whole. I hope he appears in future stories featuring Li Du.
The White Mirror, the second book of this ‘Li Du mystery series’ comes out on 6th September 2016; I wish I hadn’t gotten behind in reviewing because I would have eagerly jumped on an early copy of it. This is a series I definitely plan to continue with and I will be purchasing a hard copy of this first novel. Hart’s novel offers a fresh setting and a variety of cultures to explore from multiple perspectives, so I don’t predict it is the kind of mystery series that would easily slip into tired formula.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES by F.H. Batacan

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Smaller and Smaller Circles
By F.H. Batacan
Soho Press – August 2015
ISBN 9781616953980 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads First Reads


 Set in the slums of Payatas, just outside Quezon City of the Manila metro area, Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles is a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand it is rather unique: a crime procedural novel written by a Filipino author with a plot steeped in local politics and culture, and featuring two Jesuit priests committed to identifying a serial killer preying on the indigent tween boys living amid the neighborhood trash warrens. However on the other hand the novel is exceptionally ordinary: routine in its text and familiar in its protagonists, antagonist, and suspense despite the unique setting and perspective.
 As a respected forensic anthropologist, Father Gus Saenz serves as an asset for the National Bureau of Investigations, particularly surrounded by the corruption of local police and his personal connection as priest to a flock living in abject squalor. Together with his psychologist protégé, Father Jerome Lucero, Father Saenz begins to investigate the appearance of eviscerated young local boys, seeking an end to the horrible crimes of an apparent serial killer and justice for the victims, vulnerable members of humanity that their society would rather ignore.
 Most significantly, I found descriptions of local atmosphere lacking in Batacan’s writing. Though descriptive passages are present, the large chunk of Smaller and Smaller Circles consists of dialogue and stage direction. This is typical in crime novels, but unlike something like Hammett, Batacan’s dialogue and focus on the mundane seems remarkably tedious. To be fair, other readers may see this type of realism to be refreshing, and it may draw them into the story more than it did in my case. Given the expectations I had in viewing this book as a rare Filipino literary take on the crime genre, I was left wanting much more.
 More about the procedure of investigation, the novel can’t really be described as a mystery, as the identity of the killer is not something the reader could arrive at. Yet, there is the element of discovering the killer’s motivations behind the gruesome murders. Again, as with the sociopolitical commentary provided by the setting, the psychology and past of the killer is an aspect to Smaller and Smaller Circles that holds so much untapped potential. Just as Batacan doesn’t pursue the politics of her novel to much depth, so too is the serial killer’s psyche not fully explored. Moreover the ‘reasons’ for the killer’s impulse never believably syncs (in my mind) with the details of the murderous acts.

Identification of the serial killer and the ultimate conclusion to capture them proceed with little twist or surprise, and the reader will likely realize how the killer gains access to victims before the Jesuit pair. This slow predictable plod to resolution, coupled with the unremarkable dialogue, made this hard to get into. Certainly not badly written, fans of police procedurals may still find something to enjoy in this novel, particularly if they appreciate the genre familiarity within a slightly unfamiliar setting. Plenty of readers have connected with Smaller and Smaller Circles, and depending on your interests/expectations you might too. But my expectations for something really new and different were unfulfilled.

In an odd convergence this is actually one of two crime novels I’ve just read featuring Jesuits and an ‘exotic’ locale (compared to those in typical crime novels published in the US). The other succeeds far stronger, so look for its review coming soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for an honest review.