Tag Archives: police procedural

Quick Review: Mina’s Blood, Salt, Water

Denise Mina

Denise Mina

Denise Mina writes crime novels, suspenseful ones, full of complicated characters and often tinged with a kind of sorrow.  Her latest is Blood, Salt, Water, featuring Glasgow’s DI Alex Morrow, and it’s not to be missed.

The book  starts with a woman’s murder.  It’s premeditated and it’s brutal.  The murderer is a low-life, he’s done time, and he’s none too bright.  But in Mina’s hands, we learn he is much more.  The killer, Iain Fraser, is trapped in a small town that’s run by a hard man and everybody knows what’s what, but nobody’s saying.  Iain’s a loyal man who’s trying to save the friend who’s like a brother to him, desperate to pay off his friend’s debt and save his life.  And so Iain bludgeons a woman to death with the help of another small-time criminal.

But that single crime ties into a bigger criminal conspiracy, and bad guys being what they are, various tangents.  Morrow and her team must untangle them all.   The book ends with some justice done, but not all.  Because that’s how life is, in Mina’s Scotland.  And real life, too.

bloodBlood, Sweat, Water is the fifth in the Alex Morrow series and a great all-around read. It’s a police procedural with a female protagonist who is truly three dimensional.  While each book can easily stand alone, you are best served by reading them in order, as the as there is plot progress and character growth through the series.

Want more Mina?  She has two other series to check out, so visit her website.

Keep the pages turning with You are Dead

you are deadBest-selling novelist Peter James has a winning formula in his Roy Grace series:  classic British police procedural crossed with suspenseful thriller.  You are Dead is #11 in the series.

It starts out with the abduction of a young woman while her horrified fiancé listens by cell phone to her scream, then the silence.  The tension ratchets up on the next page; it’s first line is “Felix is fine with the fact that I kill people.”  (A murdering trio and they’ve taken the woman.)  Then a short side trip to a construction site, where a skeleton is being unearthed.  (What the???)  Then back to the fiancé, who is careening down the highway, frantically dialing her cell and finally 999 (Britain’s version of 911).  Then to the police station where his call come in.

You’re only 15 pages in to the book, Roy Grace hasn’t even made his entrance yet, and you’re already through six chapters.  And James doesn’t let up until the very last page… it’s soon apparent that there’s a very twisted mind at work.  The good news is that the victim is still alive.  And the bad news is – she’s still alive.  Every few chapters, we get one from her perspective.  As her circumstances get more dire, the reader’s tension climbs.

Meanwhile, Grace and his team are working frantically to solve the crime.   When he does, the key to the solution lies deep in the past, but from a source that is very close at hand.

Regular readers of the Grace series will attest that the clever and caring Grace has a complicated personal life.   He’s finally ready to leave the memory of Sandy, his missing wife, behind and make a new life with a new love.  That personal situation promises to be only more confusing in the books to come.

Recommendation:  Although You are Dead easily stands alone, if you are new to the series, I strongly recommend reading them in order – especially if you love character development as much as I do!  Definite thumbs up.   New this year, so a great last-minute Christmas gift.




Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths series a wow

talkingEver hear of Cotard’s Syndrome?   Nope?  Me neither.  But it’s a real medical condition, and D.C. Fiona Griffths has it.   I’m not going to go into details, and don’t you go Googling it.  Let author Harry Bingham reveal it to you in his own time in this series debut.

Let’s just say that D.C. Griffiths has a level of comfort with dead bodies that most don’t have – and it serves her well.   In Talking to the Dead, it’s her responsibility to unravel the murder of a prostitute and her six-year-old daughter.  The dead daughter seems to have something to say.  Under pressure to close the case with the obvious, Griffiths uses the discovery of a link to a long-dead wealthy business man to keep digging.   What she uncovers is even twister than expected, and the resolution reveals the lengths that the detective constable will go to for justice.

Harry Bingham brings the best of the gritty police procedural and pairs it with a compelling and evolving protagonist in this series.  Click here to read what Bingham has to say about Fiona Griffiths.  It’s okay, he’s not going to give it away either.  Especially good news for me is that there’s a second one in the series on the way.

Buried on Avenue B’s a pleasure to read

avenue BAging and stricken with Alzheimer’s, Gus Henderson’s pretty convincing when he tells his home health aide that he killed a man many years ago – a big man – and buried him under a tree in a nearby park.  It’s even more convincing when Detective Darlene O’Hara looks into it:  Gus Henderson had been a criminal, and his former partner hasn’t been heard from in recent years.   But the excavation uncovers the body of a ten-year-old boy, buried with care with some unusual items.  Peter De Jonge’s Buried on Avenue B  takes the tenacious O’Hara on a complicated path to the ultimate resolution.

Modern with a noir edge, Avenue B’s O’Hara is a flawed (of course!) but female protagonist with an interesting backstory.  She’s in her mid-30s and has a 19-year old son (Axl Rose O’Hara – just his name says a lot!).  She also has an 8 a.m. vodka habit and a streak of compassion a mile wide.  The plot’s interesting and there is a  surprising twist related to the boy’s death, but the best thing about the book is the characterization:  all the characters, to the smallest walk-on parts, feel real.  No cardboard here.  It’s not a pulse-pounding page-turner, but still, a pleasure to read.

Very Bad Men Very Good Book.

“My name is David Loogan.  Most of the manuscripts that come to me are awful, but some of them have promise.  I find the best ones and polish them up and publish them in a mystery magazine called Gray Streets. Maybe it’s not surprising then, that my part in this story begins with a manuscript.  The facts are simple enough.  I found it on a Wednesday evening in mid-July, in the hallway outside my office.  That’s not unusual.  Local authors leave manuscripts out there more often than you’d think.  This one was different, though.  It came in a plain, unmarked envelope and amounted to fewer than ten pages.  It was the story of three murders, two already committed, one yet to come.  And it wasn’t fiction.”

And so Harry Dolan introduces the reader to the crime we are about to examine.  Those aren’t the first lines of Very Bad Men; the author first tells us how Loogan’s relationship with Detective Elizabeth Waishkey – a good cop with smarts and heart – turned to love.  For those who read his debut novel, Bad Things Happen it’s a great way to show what what happened “between books”  in the series. And for any reader, it sets up what Loogan has to lose.

I gave a rave review to the first book.  In fact, I was disappointed that Bad Things Happen wasn’t an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel!  Now Loogan’s back in Very Bad Men, and once again the plot involves the magazine as well as his now-live-in-love, Detective Elizabeth Waishkey and her daughter Sarah.

The story progresses through two points of view:  Loogan’s first person narrative, sharing his thoughts and actions related to the pursuit of the killer, and Anthony Lark’s, the killer himself, which unfolds in third person.

Lark has a list of names:  Terry Dawtry, Harry Kormoran, and Sutton Bell.  These three men, along with Floyd Lambeau and the unknown driver of the getaway car, robbed the Great Lakes Bank 17 years ago.  The robbery went bad, Lambeau was killed and Sheriff Harlan Spencer was shot and paralyzed.   Lark’s out for retribution on behalf of Spencer’s daughter Callie, but we don’t know why. He’ll stop at nothing – including killing innocent people – to accomplish his goal, despite debilitating headaches.  He hears his doctor’s voice in his head, helping him keep it all together.

As in Dolan’s first book, the plot is complex but not convoluted, and the author achieves the miracle of making you care about each and every person in the book – including Anthony Lark.   Bad Things Happen is not a who-done-it but a fascinating why-done-it.  How is the murderer connected to the robbery?  What’s the connection to Callie Spencer’s race for the U.S. Senate?  And who has intrepid tabloid reporter Lucy Navarro?

You won’t see the plot twists coming, but they all hang together, and the ending feels just right.  Nobody’s completely bad, not even the most evil character. You’ll have a hard time putting this one down, because Very Bad Men is a very good book.

In the Shadow of Gotham takes the lead!

In the race to the finish, In the Shadow of Gotham takes the lead for the MWA Edgar award for Best First Novel by an American Author!   It’s not terrifically surprising – Stefanie Pintoff’s debut was the winner of the Minotaur First Crime Novel Award Winner for 2010, and whether she takes the Edgar or not, this book will be honored at the Edgars awards ceremony in NYC on April 29.

Set in 1905, this mystery takes place in New York and features a well-educated and sensitive police detective, Simon Ziele, chasing a serial killer.  Backstory:  his fiance was killed in the General Slocum ferry disaster the previous year; as a policeman, Ziele was on hand to help with the rescue but was not able to save her.   Now he’s been called to partner with an old-style police detective north of the city to solve a brutal murder.  Victim Sarah Wingate is well-born, lovely, and an exceptionally insightful graduate student in mathematics at Columbia University, and she’s been slaughtered in her family home.   Complicating the situation: one of the family servants has disappeared.   Another victim?  A witness? An accomplice?

Even more interesting is Ziele’s opportunity to collaborate with the rich and brilliant criminologist Alistair Sinclair, who has been conducting an in-depth personal study of a serial killer in the making – Michael Fromley – whom he believes he caught before he crossed the line from fascination to murder.  He believes that Fromley killed Sarah Wingate, and he’s successful in convincing Ziele to look at the psychopathology in addition to investigating in his usual way.

The characterization is strong, the writing is smooth and self-assured, and the book has just the right amount of twists and turns.  I was about to take off points for obvious tipping to the actual bad guy… but then, surprise!  I was right, but not completely right.   The hint of Ziele’s romantic interest in Sinclair’s daughter-in-law Isabella (widow of Sinclair’s son, who was murdered in a robbery in Greece – something the reader may think has a bearing on the case… but nope) gives a little sweetness to the story.

As a brief sample of Stefanie Pintoff’s style, here’s Simon Ziele’s description of the day his fiancee died:

Hannah had worn red that day – a new dress that warmed her skin and lit up her auburn hair.  I had barely been able to breathe through thick, smoke-laden air as our boat came closer and closer, pulling up more survivors on the way.  I helped them all, barely noticing, for I as vainly searching the waters for Hannah.  Closer, closer, I had urged the helmsman, directing him toward the front bow of the ship where a young woman in red stood pressed against the ship’s rail.  I couldn’t make out her face … couldn’t tell whether or not it was indeed her… and as we came close, all went black in a wall of fire.

So, with five of the six books read, here’s the line-up!  Only David Cristofano’s The Girl She Used to Be left to go.

  1. In the Shadow of Gotham – Stefanie Pintoff
  2. Starvation Lake – Bryan Gruley
  3. A Bad Day for Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
  4. Blackwater Rising – Attica Locke
  5. The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

Edgars: Best First Novel by an American Author

Oh, how I long to be eligible!  The Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees are out, and there are six in contention for Best First Novel by an American Author.  As I did for Best Novel, I plan to read all six, give a review of each, and provide a ranking.  Top slot will go to the book that would receive the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for best first novel.  And the nominees are:

I started with A Bad Day for Sorry and followed it up with The Weight of Silence, mostly because I was struck by the similarities in the books’ covers.   The first novel features a headless woman in a dress and pink apron holding a big gun.  (To clarify, she’s not a crime victim, the photo is just taken showing from knees to neck.)  The second also features a pink-clad female figure in a knees-to-neck shot, but this time they’re showing a girl from the back.  She’s holding a necklace with a musical note charm.

Important to compare and contrast more than the covers, though!  Sophie Littlefield, in her debut novel, has created a protagonist with a compelling voice and clearly defined character.  Stella Hardesty is now 50, dyes her hair, and packs a solid 180 lbs onto a surprisingly fit and muscular body.  That’s good, because in addition to running a sewing/fabric/notions business in her rural Missouri home town, she has a “side business” as a do-it-yourself parole officer.  Only Stella’s not only the parole officer, she’s the arresting officer and the judge as well, when it comes to men who beat (or otherwise abuse) their wives or girlfriends.  She comes by this inclination honestly, having killed her own abusive husband with his own wrench a few years previously.  Rumors have spread and the women of the county know where they can go for help and the men feel uneasy when she’s around.

A Bad Day for Sorry‘s plot revolves around a frantic young mother, a missing four year old, the Missouri version of La Cosa Nostra, and some red herrings, plus a kind-and-hunky sheriff who is age-appropriate for Stella.  The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging, and the writing is witty and, though done in third person, strongly reflects Stella’s personality and perspective.  Here’s a sample, as she ponders her years with Ollie (the dead husband):

It was simply because he’d been such an incredibly worthless lay.  All those years… all that bad sex.  That wasn’t even in the top five reasons why he’d deserved what he got, but still, Stella found herself immensely sad to think of how many times she’d lain in this bed with Ollie laboring over her like a man stuffing fiberglass insulation between roof joints on a sweltering day.

Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence is told from several different perspectives, including that of Calli, a 7 year old girl who is mute by choice; her older brother, Ben; her mother, Antonia; her best friend, Petra; Petra’s father, Martin; and the deputy sheriff, Louis, who has carried a torch for Toni since their high school romance.  All are in the first person, except for Calli’s chapters – as she does not speak, it seems natural for her chapters to be in third person.  (An epilogue from Calli’s POV is in first person – after she regains her voice.)

Things are not healthy in this small town.   Calli chooses not to speak and therapy isn’t helping; her mother is full of regrets and lives to protect her kids from the rough and alcoholic man she married; her father suspects that he did not father his own children, beats his wife and berates both Ben and Calli; Louis stands by, hopeless to help Toni, even as his own marriage falls apart; there’s an unsolved rape and murder of a child in the recent past; and more undercurrents come to light as the mystery unfolds.

One night when he’s supposed to go fishing with a buddy, Calli’s dad Griff instead drunkenly drags her in the middle of the night into the woods, heading for the home of her “real daddy,” Louis.  They get separated, she is lost, where is he? What is he doing?  This question takes on some urgency when the morning comes and Petra is also not home.  While the adults assume that Griff is fishing and Calli and Petra are together, a search begins.  The suspense ratchets when the fishing buddy returns sans Griff, and Toni begins to suspect her husband of more than mere loutishness.  There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing while the reader worries what’s happening to Petra? Will Calli stay safe?  Can Ben find and protect his sister?  Is Griff a murdering pedophile?  (Spoiler alert  – no.)  The switching perspectives is done smoothly, with each chapter helpfully labelled, but the first person voices are not distinctive.  Heres a sample from a Calli chapter:

Calli placed a dirty hand on Petra’s forehead, nodded to her and patted her arm.  She turned in every direction, looking for him.  He was gone, but she had seen him before, she knew him, he had a funny name an a dog.  He was out there, maybe watching her.  She scuttled backward into the brush and hid.

With two of the six nominees read, I’m ranking them A Bad Day for Sorry first (for excellent characterization, fast-moving plot, and strong writing) and The Weight of Silence second (suspenseful and well-plotted, but choppy).