CASTLE IN THE AIR by Donald E. Westlake

Castle in the Air
(Hard Case Crime Series #148)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 30th March 2021
ISBN: 9781785657221
— Paperback — 208 pp.


A beautiful woman named Lida from the (fictitious) South African nation of Yerbadoro has come to ‘master criminal’ Eustache Dent with a proposition. Escobar Lynch, the president of her nation has been ousted in a coup. The former dictator faces exile to keep his life, but cannot bring any of the tremendous fortune he has amassed off exploitation of the masses.

Lida has inside information that Escobar has a cunning plan to get his riches outside of the country: smuggling the fortune hidden in the bricks of his castle, an architectural attraction that is being disassembled and shipped to Paris to be reassembled for a special international exposition. Lida wants her people’s money returned to the people, but is willing to split the treasure with Dent, the nefarious thief who might just be able to pull such a heist off: taking a whole castle.

The novel begins with Dent starting to assemble his international group of thieves needed to coordinate such a complicated caper. He enlists a top thief from England, France, Germany, and Italy and instructs them each to recruit goons to help them. Each team is to simultaneously steal the castle blocks (edifices) as they are transported en route to Paris. None of the criminals are too happy about half the spoils going to Lida and back to to Yerbadoro, but Dent assures the team leaders that they will be cheating her out of any money as soon as they are able.

There are a couple problems. First, none of the thieves share a common language, so coordinating proves to be quite a challenging task! A bigger issue is that no one knows with part of the disassembled castle will hold the loot until after all are separately stolen and searched. Once one team discovers their pieces of the structure hold the valuables, what’s stopping them from taking it all and running? Is there any trust among criminals? Or will the fear of being chased by their fellow colleagues be a deterrent against greed? When there’s so much money involved, none of them can manage to say no, and all simply push doubts aside.

As I started reading Castle in the Air I became reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s The Black Adder, particularly a first series episode where the Prince Edmund goes throughout England to enlist the most ruthless bandits and criminals for help in seizing the throne. Things don’t go as planned. After all, you can’t really expect criminals to play well together.

The novel proceeds similarly, with farcical takes on each nation’s thieves that includes silly sounding names and clichéd eccentricities, all for comedic effect. With a fast moving pace the story proceeds through all the introductions and then spends a chapter on the actual theft. Then the really zany aspects of the caper begin, the double, triple, and quadruple crosses between each of the international teams. The humor of idiots trying to deal with the language barriers gets amped up through this all, until things finally settle with the loot ‘won’ by one and the others discovering themselves with unexpected successes of a different kind.

Castle in the Air is a much lighter sort of fare from Hard Case Crime than normal, but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. Just in a different way. There is very little violence, more just inept bumbling. No one dies, they are just humiliated. There is also very little sex or femme fatale type interaction, and brief bits that are present are also mostly played for comedy by poking fun at the stereotypes, and making the playfully seductive language extremely corny.

The success of the novel then is really going to depend on the reader’s potential enjoyment of a silly caper romp. It’s a pulp crime version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It may not be as laugh out loud funny, but some chuckles may come. The other potential interest for Castle in the Air may come for fans of the author. The prolific Westlake first had this novel published in 1980 and it’s pretty much disappeared since then. Hard Case Crime does a great job reissuing forgotten works such as this. It’s certainly not Westlake’s best, or usual kind of offering, but it is a worthwhile quick read, a curiosity worth a rediscover by genre fans.


LATER by Stephen King

Later
(Hard Case Crime Series #147)
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789096491
— Paperback — 248 pp.


Does Stephen King need his new novels covered or advertised by book reviews? Probably not. Are there potential readers out there who are undecided if his writing is something they’d be interested in? Probably few. But then again, there’s likely a fair number of people out there who’ve read something by King, and would read another, just not anything. Some may have read another Hard Case Crime by him and been disappointed, and now are hesitant to go for another. So, a review still seems worthwhile to me, and hopefully will be beneficial for some.

Though he’s written three novels for the Hard Case Crime label, this is the first of them that I’ve read. From what I’ve gathered, there weren’t many big fans of the first one, The Colorado Kid. The second, Joyland, fared with better word of mouth. In my opinion, King’s newest, Later, stands as a great success: a quick, entertaining read that should appeal to King and Hard Case Crime fans alike.

As a young boy, Jamie realizes that he can see people that no others can. He sees dead people. (Though as he points out to readers, not quite like the boy in that famous M. Night Shyamalan picture.) Jamie can see and talk to the recently deceased, but only for a short period of days before their voices and form dissipate and move on to whatever comes later for these souls. During their brief existence as a remnant these ghosts seem -usually – more emotionally detached from that which interested them before. But Jamie discovers that if he poses these ghosts questions, they are compelled to respond with the truth alone. This remains inexplicable to Jamie (and convenient for the plot, though I don’t complain too strongly over that.). But this fact makes Jamie’s ability potentially very useful to someone who might want to get secrets that people attempt to take with them to the grave.

Jamie’s mother struggles to stay financially afloat as a single parent in New York City through turbulent years in her profession as a literary agent/editor. As she tries to raise Jamie and come to terms with his abilities, she also tries to keep her fastidious and eccentric writer clients appeased and productive (profitable for her as well.) Aside from Jamie and her professional client relationships, she has a NYPD cop girlfriend who is a big fan of her most famous client. The problem is, her girlfriend is also a crooked cop, looking to profit off drug distribution.

As Jamie grows up he begins to appreciate just who his mother’s ‘good friend’ Liz actually is, and feels increasing responsibility to support his mother as she has so long supported him. He also gets to know his ability and overcome the trauma of seeing ghosts of people who have just died in terrible disfiguring accidents. But, Liz’s illegal activities and a serial bomber who is terrorizing the city are about to make Jamie’s supernatural talents into a greater vulnerability than he’s experienced or appreciated.

At various points in the book Jamie reminds readers that this is a horror story. As is typical for King (and lots of the horror genre in general) the worst monsters in Later are the humans, not the supernatural boogies. Jamie wants to be normal, unencumbered by the difficulty of looking at dead people. However as the first years pass from his youngest memories, his supernatural ability becomes something completely mundane. Most of the dead people look indistinguishable from those alive. The rare grotesque cases born from a violent demise get somewhat easier to deal with as Jamie knows what to expect and can prepare himself. He has even faced the threat of an evil demonic force and come out on top. The real danger of his abilities lie in how others will exploit him.

His mother understands this when she first realizes the reality of his abilities, and quickly teaches him to conceal his talents from all but herself, until she opens the ‘circle of trust’ up to include her girlfriend Liz, a woman of far greater moral weakness and desperation. Liz’s takes the King character role of the severely flawed person who makes the protagonist’s bad situation go too far, far worse. She also takes what works well as a horror novel and puts a justice/crime spin to it through a plot that reads familiar in the noir pages of Hard Case Crime. Some readers may feel that this horror/crime hybrid has a plot that really unfurls too late, at ~ three quarters of the way in. I didn’t mind one bit, because leading up to all of that hybrid action were pages and pages of great characterization.

It’s no secret that King writes children characters really well, particularly capturing that adolescent age of males going into their teens. With the voice of Jamie, King sticks with what works well. I did not want to put the novel down at any moment, I just wanted to keep learning about what Jamie would do with his ability – or how he would be used; what he would discover about himself; how his small family of he and his mother would make it out of the challenges that faced them. Just as King sticks in his wheelhouse with Jamie, he likewise stays with the familiar with the occupation of Jamie’s literary agent/editor mother. Being a lover of books and the publishing industry myself, I enjoyed this aspect and its nice references, particularly a sample NYT Dwight Garner review that made me emit a loud ‘hah!”

Other secondary characters King pens equally strongly. The elderly professor neighbor was another favorite of mine, most particularly for the role the amiable man plays in preparing Jamie for facing a particularly malevolent spirit of a serial bomber/killer. It may not have been King’s intention, but the scenes of this subject and interactions between the professor and the young boy reminded me of the beloved gothic plots and characters of John Bellairs: Professor Childermass and Johnny Dixon. In many regards the novel ended up taking on the flavor of a Bellairs YA novel – just with more foul language and drugs involved. Going along with these associations, the novel also references/plays with the classic ghost story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M.R. James. James was a major influence on Bellairs, so even if King is just directly alluding to James with Later, he equally indirectly alludes to Bellairs.

If you have liked things by King, and like classic ghost stories, this should be quick and enjoyable read. Likewise, if you’re just a fan of the general Hard Case Crime label noir, there is enough intersection with the classic motifs of that genre (crooked cops, drug running, monstrous crime bosses with perverse sexual proclivities, etc) to make it familiar and sate the appetite.

From page one Jamie – and I guess King – makes note of the frequent use of the title word ‘later’. I kind of hope that we will see more of Jamie later in future books. The character and tone just work too well to be finished with. Later on one day I may whistle for that, and see what comes.


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.


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 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.

WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER by Carla Norton

23014597
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.

THE INSECT FARM, by Stuart Prebble

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The Insect Farm
By Stuart Prebble
Mulholland Books – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780316337366 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


A foul odor is noticeably growing, emanating from a shed and attracting the attention and concern of neighbors. The police are called in. Within they discover an elaborate insect farm and the remains of two people, picked to the bones.
So begins Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm, the English author’s first novel published in the US. After the grisly discoveries of the novel’s prologue, the story begins from the point of view of elderly Jonathan Maguire: an everyday, normal kind of fellow who is writing down past recollections of his family and life. Jonathan hints at some significant event compelling him to relate this past, an event – figures the reader – related to the mysterious bodies discovered in the prologue.
 For all his his life, Jonathan has been close to his older brother Roger. Loving and protective of one another, the Maguire brothers have a normal childhood. But as Jonathan begins to grow into young adulthood, he begins to notice that Roger’s mind has remained in adolescence. Roger’s mental disabilities and related social insufficiencies leave him in a relatively simple, but happy, life of reliance on his brother and their parents. While Jonathan starts to get an interest in girls, Roger develops an interest in insects, starting an insect farm in the yard shed as a hobby.
As Jonathan begins to focus more on his studies and a relationship with his attractive girlfriend Harriet, circumstances force him into greater responsibility for caring for Roger, whose insect farm has grown into a beloved obsession. But Jonathan’s commitment to caring for Roger limits the time he has with his now-wife Harriet, the only woman in a small musical ensemble that works long-distance. Only seeing Harriet during the weekends, Jonathan lives in constant jealousy that his stunning bride is away with a bunch of other men, one of whom makes no secret of his desires for Harriet.
Two brothers with different sorts of obsessions and dependencies: one with mental/social defects and eccentricities the other with near-stifling responsibility and pangs of resentment. A wife away with a man who fancies her. One can imagine that things can go wrong with such tension. But what will happen exactly? And which of these characters correspond to the two skeletons that end up with the insects in the shed?
There lies the mystery and suspense of The Insect Farm. It’s important to stress to potential readers that these genre tensions do not form the bulk of the story. Prebble’s novel is somewhat hard to characterize and it is easy to go into this expecting one type of story only to be disappointed that you’re getting something else. This isn’t a thriller with some cat-and-mouse chase toward discovery of identities. It isn’t about fulfillment of justice for a crime. The resolution to the prologue of The Insect Farm will not be revealed until the reader completes the last page, and there will be some surprise twists right before the final, appropriately subtle, one.
But it takes a lot of text to get to this point of revelation. The majority of that text (3/4 of the novel roughly) is taken up with the rather everyday family drama of the characters. It thus more closely resembles a contemporary ‘literary’ piece of fiction than something from the mystery or thriller genre. At it’s heart, it may be more aptly described as psychological suspense, heavy on the psychology. The psychology of the Maguire brothers is the meat of The Insect Farm, most particularly that of the point-of-view narrator Jonathan. And Jonathan is not a particularly likable person. I have no issues with needing characters in fiction to be likable, but I know some readers do. For me, this is what makes The Insect Farm an actually interesting piece of fiction.  To what degree is Jonathan selfish? How honest is his devotion to his brother? How alike are these two brothers? Does Roger have greater understanding and capability than one might at first think? What moral culpability does Roger have for social transgressions given his mental development?
The characters here – including Harriet – may not be likable, but they are interesting. They are people whose motivations aren’t always clear-cut, but they do have them. These complex motivations, and the psychology of characters’ decisions are the elements a reader can focus on here, forming questions and opinions that can be debated with other readers. People who appreciate this type of thing will find a lot to love in Prebble’s novel. But if you don’t want to get into the character’s minds – or don’t care to – then you will likely get rapidly bored as a seemingly normal mix of human dysfunction ‘drags on’ until finally turning to crisis and fall-out management in the last quarter of the book. For me, the character details that lead up to that end point were largely worth reading.

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

THE EUTHANIST, by Alex Dolan

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The Euthanist
By Alex Dolan
Diversion Books – 2nd June 2015
ISBN 9781626815490 – 315 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Do people have the right to die when their lives approach their end filled with unbearable pain? Is it murder to assist them? Conversely, do remorseless, monstrous criminals deserve death? Should they be inflicted with pain as punishment for the worst of human crimes? Is torture justified to gain answers to save the innocent?
These are the kinds of questions at the heart of Dolan’s debut novel, The Euthanist. Kali is the pseudonym chosen by an EMT who has taken up the off-hours job of assisted suicide under the umbrella of a clandestine right-to-die movement. She meets the illegality and moral grayness of her occupation by adhering to a strict code that includes a long process of meeting with clients, ensuring this is a well-considered decision and that their terminal disease is indeed certain and without hope.
Slight laxness in her process traps Kali in a situation gone horribly awry when a supposed client slaps her in cuffs and announces that he is an undercover FBI agent. Kali finds this hard to believe with his odd behavior as rather than arresting and bringing her in, he holds her captive and begins probing into her identity and psychological rationalizations for her actions. Kali soon learns that this FBI agent is not just looking to capture her, but to blackmail her into helping in his own mysterious goals towards revenge against the people responsible for kidnapping his son.
As a thriller and mystery, The Euthanist stands fairly well. The plot takes several twists and turns, and if you don’t know much of the plot going into it things will likely proceed in many ways you didn’t expect. Those big moral questions at the heart of the plot are also fascinating, making the premise of Dolan’s novel at first very captivating.
Unfortunately I felt that Dolan didn’t explore the various moral quandaries fully as the novel progressed and the action of the plot began to thicken. The debates over these questions don’t necessarily have a clear-cut answer, and the characters themselves don’t even need to come to any firm conclusions. But within the overall arc of the story, their are firm beliefs at the start, a lot of complexity enters in, and that complexity doesn’t really go. I never got the sense of the characters coming to any sort of solid ground by the end, particularly problematic with Kali, who in general comes across as a very indecisive person.
That characterization by far though was my greatest difficulty with The Euthanist. I had an incredibly hard time buying the things that the FBI agent put Kali through, particularly given the similarities to what the agent’s son went through. His vision seems incredibly narrowed, and that vision primarily is simply allowing the author’s plot to unfold. It thus ends up feeling unnatural, authorial design. Meanwhile Kali, a supposedly strong-willed protagonist battling her own demons of the past, comes across as remarkably ineffective in most situations at asserting herself, at maintaining control over her decisions. She allows the FBI agent to control her actions, and eventually begin to guide her thoughts, in ways that I found hard to swallow.
These problems with The Euthanist made it ultimately a disappointing read for me, but it still clearly has its merits. Other aspects of writing Dolan has down very well, from atmosphere and tone, to sharp dialogue, and a thrilling plot based on great moral questions. Thriller fans may still consider it worth a look, particularly if passionate about euthanasia or punishment against perpetrators of crimes against children. Reading the first handfuls of chapters of the novel should give a reader a fair sense of whether they will enjoy the remainder.

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