Last Update 7/1/13

Sugar Pop Moon by John Florio, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-795-2   

This crime novel/mystery has an unusual protagonist. He’s an albino bartender in Prohibition era New York, working for organized crime despised the objections of his ex-boxer father. When he gets swindled out of a considerable amount of money that belongs to the mob, he’s understandably anxious to get it back before his little misdeed gets back to his bosses. His investigation takes an unexpected turn – actually more than one – and he ends up being on the run from the police as well. It’s a comparatively short novel and it goes by even faster because of the very rapidly paced plot. It appears to be the first in a series and it’s one I will follow. 6/26/13

Ceremony by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1982  

Spenser tracks down a teenage girl who has dropped out of school and become a prostitute. Although he removes her from the brothel where she is held captive, she disappears rather than go back to her parents. Spenser does a little house breaking to find clues and discovers an underage pornography racket tied into the Department of Education. His goal then is not only to rescue the girl but to break up the ring, which he does. He is less successful with the girl, who apparently likes prostitution, so instead he arranges for her to be a high class call girl, which is less dangerous and pays better. The somewhat murky ethical solution will dissatisfy some, but it was probably the best way he could have handled the situation – although he violated the Mann Act and other laws to get it done. 6/18/13

Silken Prey by John Sandford, Putnam, 2013, 27.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15931-2 

Lucas Davenport gets caught up in politics as well as crime when someone plants kiddie porn the computer of a senatorial candidate. We know right from the outset that the man’s opponent and her two hired thugs are responsible for this, as well as the murder of the man who carried out the dirty trick, and Davenport is pretty sure by the halfway mark. There are more murders to cover the trail, a falling out among the bad guys, office politics, but very little physical action compared to most of the earlier books in this series. Sandford has gotten increasingly cynical in recent years and the ending of this one reflects that fact. Very fast moving for such a long book, and unfortunately all too plausible. 6/15/13

A Savage Place by Robert B.  Parker, Delacorte, 1981  

This time around Spenser is off to California to protect an investigative reporter looking into payoffs in the film industry.  There’s not much mystery in this one. We know almost immediately who is crooked and why and how the racket is being conducted. There are the usual heavies, whom Spenser has to outwit and/or outmuscle. His client seemed to me less interesting as a character – superficial and not really convincing as an ace investigative reporter – than usual and I had less of a sense of place while I was reading it. I also found the reaction of the various executives to her questions unconvincing.  Although it’s not his fault, Spenser  is unable to save the day this time, although he gets even later.  I’d say this is one of the lesser novels, though still reasonably good.  6/11/13

Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1981    

Spenser is hired to retrieve a teenage boy stolen by his father after a divorce. He does so fairly easily but it’s evident that neither parent really cares about him and the boy himself is suffering from depression. When the sniping gets physically dangerous, Spenser takes the boy to a cabin in Maine and sets about building a larger cabin, with the boy as his involuntary apprentice. The boy’s transformation is nicely done, if somewhat sketchily. Since we never see any of the boy’s thinking, there’s a distance that doesn’t make it completely convincing. I was also surprised to see the fairly negative portrayal of Spenser’s love interest, Susan Silverman, who is actively hostile about the boy. 6/9/13

Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1980  

Spenser hires on as bodyguard for a prickly feminist lesbian whose latest book has resulted in death threats.  Given current events, the tenor of the anti-gay sentiments is rather outdated though the underlying emotions are much the same. I was a bit puzzled when Spenser didn’t report an early attempt to the police, despite having gotten the assailant’s license plate number. Since Spenser is also prickly, they have a falling out and she fires him. A short while later she is kidnapped and he sets out to find her.  The book deals with some complex psychological issues thoughtfully and convincingly. Best in the series so far. 6/5/13

Wilderness by Robert B. Parker, Dell, 1979  

This isn’t a Spenser story. The protagonist, who witnesses a murder, bears considerable resemblance to Spenser in superficial ways. But he’s married and not particularly brave or competent, and the killer and his minions have threatened him and his family to keep him from testifying.  Initially he caves, which Spenser would not have done, with his wife’s approval, but she’s no prize either, something of a control freak and it’s obvious that there isn’t much affection between them. Even so he and his wife and a friend decide that they need to kill the people threatening them. I found this entire sequence completely unconvincing. Eventually they follow the killer and his thugs to Maine, hoping to kill them somewhere in the woods.  Ultimately he succeeds and the bad guys all die, but I ended up feeling very dissatisfied. Fortunately the next one up is another Spenser. 6/3/13

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido, Amazon Crossing, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1612184364

As a rule, I don't care for historical mystery novels set earlier than the 19th Century. There have been a few exceptions but even the famous Judge Dee mysteries failed to hold my interest. This one is set in 13th Century China and fortunately is more of an adventure story than a mystery. The protagonist is a young man who becomes a fugitive after events for which he is not responsible. In a new environment, he accepts employment as a gravedigger where he discovers that he has an unusual ability to analyze the condition of a corpse and determine whether or not the deceased was murdered. This comes in handy when a serial killer begins striking around the capital city and he finds himself drafted as a kind of consulting detective. But taking this role also places him in considerable jeopardy because the killer recognizes him as a potential threat. The detecting is interesting but minor, the mystery is acceptably contrived, and the resolution exciting. I would have preferred a stronger element of suspense but otherwise I liked this much better than I expected. 5/21/13

The Judas Goat by Robert B. Parker, Berkley, 1978    

Spenser is hired by a bitter man who wants him to track down nine terrorists who murdered his family and left him crippled. Since the bombing happened in London, Spenser is off to Europe to investigate.  Before he’s done, there are bodies scattered over England, Denmark, and Holland, before a big climax at the Montreal Olympics. This is the first time Hawk is overtly his ally. It has a slightly different feel than the previous novels, but plenty of action, some quite credible detective work, and some interesting villains. 5/27/13

Corrupt Practices by Robert Rotstein, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-791-4   

This looked like a legal thriller, which is not usually something I’m interested in, but the lawyer sleuth becomes psychological incapable of handling a court case following the suicide of a close friend so it becomes a somewhat more conventional detective story. This gives him leisure time to investigate when a friend asks for his help. The friend is accused of large scale embezzlement from a religious cult, and since our hero despise the cult he is moved to intervene. Not surprisingly given the structure of such novels, the suicide turns out to be linked to the same group and another death follows in short order. Despite some mildly contrived coincidences in the set up, this quickly becomes an engaging mystery with some genuine suspense as well as a nicely constructed trip through the intricacies of the law. This is a Parker Stern novel, which presumably means there will be others. 5/26/13

Escape from Paris by Carolyn Hart, Seventh Street, 2013, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-793-8   

This reprint restores 40,000 words cut from the original version, so it is effectively an entirely new book.  This is war time suspense rather than a detective story. Two American women in occupied France risk everything in order to get a captured British airman out of German custody and eventually out of France. Their story is interspersed with brief switches to other points of view, including historical characters on both sides of the conflict. Although there are a few places where this somewhat blurs the focus of the story, the intrusions are invariably brief and no fatal damage is done. This is the most ambitious book I’ve ready by Hart and for the most part it succeeds quite well. 5/21/13

The Trojan Colt by Mike Resnick, Seventh Street, 2013, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-793-9 

Eli Paxton is back for his second case. This time he’s hired to watch over a valuable horse recently put up for sale. Although the horse seems fine, the young handler assigned to it disappears one night after expressing some mysterious concern. Paxton is hired by the young man’s parents to find out what happened to him. He discovers that the missing boy’s predecessor also disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Then someone tries to run him off the road and the reader, if not Paxton, knows that he’s getting too close. Although I figured out the killer, the motive, and most of what actually happened by page fifty, it was still fun watching Paxton work things out step by step. The story rushes by so quickly that you'll be surprised when you reach the end. 5/19/13

You Cannoli Die Once by Shelley Costa, Pocket, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4767-0935-2

I overdosed a while back on themed murder mystery series - cooking, beading, scrapbooking, etc. - but it had been long enough that I was willing to look at another. The cute title suggests that this one isn't to be taken entirely seriously and in part that's the case. The setting is a restaurant whose chef has a prejudice against cannoli and won't  serve it. It's a harmless quirk, but when a dead man turns up in the kitchen, the police suggest that this is considerably more significant and they arrest the elderly owner as their prime suspect. The chef, along with the inevitable charming boyfriend, and a few hangers on unite to track down the real killer. Although lightweight, there is actually some detecting in this one rather than simply happenstance leading to the solution, which in itself makes it more interesting than most similar efforts. It's not Agatha Christie, but it'll brighten up a rainy day. 5/18/13

Promised Land by Robert B. Parker, Houghton Mifflin, 1976    

Spenser is hired to track down a runaway wife in this one, but he suspects there is more to the story when he sees his client talking to a mob enforcer.  He finds the wife without much difficulty but doesn’t tell the husband where she is because she has left voluntarily, is with friends, and appears to have issues to work out by herself. Unfortunately the friends decide to rob a bank, the wife goes with them, and a bank guard is killed.  Spenser has to figure out how to extricate her from the situation – a questionable decision given her complicity – as well as freeing the husband from the clutches of a predatory loanshark not averse to having people killed. The two problems eventually solve one another. Pretty good, but I wasn’t comfortable with some of Spenser’s decisions this time. 5/17/13

Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley, Bourbon Street Books, 2013, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-06-222162-0 

The fourth Inspector Kubu mystery, set in Botswana. The story this time has multiple levels. First, someone is abducting young girls who are never seen again, at least alive, and the police suspect it may be one or more witch doctors performing human sacrifices. Second, an upstart political leader may or may not have received threats, but he is very definitely stabbed to death the day after the election. Here we know more than the police. The father of one of the missing girls, apparently made unstable by grief, decides that the politician is the mysterious abductor and kills him impulsively. There are subplots involving a missing briefcase, Kubu’s father’s dementia, an HIV positive orphan, and an ambitious but unscrupulous politician. All of the loose ends are tied together and disposed of nicely. As good as the previous books, and they’ve all been winners. 5/16/13

Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker, Berkley, 1975  

Spenser is hired to look into the possible payoff of a popular Red Sox pitcher. By the end of the first day, he has encountered a sports caster with a martial arts trained chauffeur, heard rumors confirming that the pitcher is bent, discovered that the pitcher’s wife is not who she says she is, and has a visit from a mob figure whose arrival means that Spenser’s cover story as a writer has already been blown. In due course he uncovers a black mail plot involving all of the relevant parties in one way or another, and he decides to protect the blackmailees even though there is no obvious way to do it. Ultimately he is faced with a problem that has no clear resolution so he has to find one that is ethically murky and not entirely satisfactory for anyone concerned. Pretty good and a bit more depth than the first two. 5/13/13

God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker, Berkley, 1974  

Spenser’s on the trail of another missing person in his second outing, this time the son of a pair of rather dysfunctional adults.  A ransom note turns up shortly, but it is clearly amateurish and my immediate suspicion was that it was faked by the boy himself and/or some friends.  The ransom is paid but there’s no sign of the kid, and then the mother receives a death threat by telephone. Parker is mildly suspicious of a kind of commune for young adults run by a body builder, but he has nothing concrete to go on. It could all be some kind of sick joke until the family lawyer gets his neck broken – which points toward the body builder.  This was one of those mysteries where the reader is almost certainly well ahead of the detective, although there are a few surprises at the end. 5/9/13

The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker, Houghton Mifflin, 1973   

I decided it was time to read the Spenser novels, starting with the very first one. Spenser is a private detective hired to investigate the theft of a rare manuscript from a university library. He is pointed in the direction of a student activist group, but hours after speaking to them he is called by one who has been drugged in an effort to frame her for the murder for another. Another murder follows, plus an encounter with a mob boss, an obviously crooked professor, and other characters before we – and Spenser – finally discover what has been happening.  I think Parker tried a bit too hard here to make his detective “tough” and witty, but it was after all a first novel and a pretty good one at that. 5/7/13

The Raggedy Man by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1995  

Gwen Ramadge hires a young woman whose accusations of corruption against her partner resulted in her being effectively booted from the police force. A short time later, the woman is found dead and the authorities believe it to be suicide, but Gwen suspects otherwise, so she sets out to discover the truth. This is one of the author’s longest mystery novels and it’s actually one of her better efforts. There are no egregious errors although the dialogue and human interactions sometimes come across as clunky.   5/5/13

The Goddess Affair by Lillian O’Donnell, Crest, 1996  

The last of O’Donnell’s novels features Gwen Ramadge again, and it’s more of a classic detective story than any of her previous ones. A prominent woman dies leaving her husband and three daughters, who are about as unlike one another as it is possible to be. Following a disastrous memorial service, the three daughters set out on a cruise together and the tensions among them become manifest. When one of them dies, our protagonist is called upon to investigate the death, which she does with reasonable competence. This is actually one of the better O’Donnell mysteries but she died soon after it was published. 5/5/13

Lockout by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1994 

Nora Mulcahaney is investigating the murder of a famous singer’s brother at a recording studio when her life becomes complicated by an encounter with a mugger. She kills the mugger, who was unarmed, which results in a cloud over her name, already murky because she identified a police officer carrying a racist sign at a protest rally. The subplot about a shooting at a stationery store is so outrageously bogus that I had to force myself to read to the end of this one, probably O’Donnell’s worst book.  There was one more Mulcahaney novel before the author died but I don’t plan to look for it very hard. 5/1/13

A Case of Redemption by Adam Mitzner, Gallery, 2013, $26, ISBN 978-1-4516-7479-8

Second in a series about Dan Sorenson, a hot shot lawyer whose personal guilt issues have led to the near destruction of his career. In an attempt to escape the spiral of  doom, he takes a high profile case defending a popular rapper who is accused of killing his girlfriend and then bragging about it. Sorenson believes he's innocent but proving it is another matter entirely. It's part court room drama and part detective story. The protagonist is a believable character although at times I found him quite irritating. The mystery case is nicely done and everything is resolved well. I'm not a fan of Grisham and other writers of legal thrillers as a rule but I can enjoy one if it's as well handled as this one. 4/30/13

Used to Kill by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1993   

A Gwen Ramadge mystery. Emma Trent is suspected of having murdered two husbands and the latter has the police convinced that this time she can be convicted.  The dead man’s son has an obvious vendetta against the widow but the police have to look into his charges of infidelity. This starts well despite a couple of minor bumps – like the police refusing to tell the private detective agency how they know that the dead man was at one time their client. Since it’s no particularly secret, there’s no reason not to tell, particularly since they want Ramadge’s cooperation in digging through the company records. Other conversational passages are similarly opaque.  There are some nice twists toward the end though and despite the occasional problems, this is still the best of her work that I’ve read. 4/28/13

I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-787-7

Middle volume of a trilogy - unusual in suspense fiction - set during the 1980s troubles in Northern Ireland. The protagonist is a police detective who is currently trying to figure out why the torso of an American ex-military man is found in a trunk in Northern Ireland. The bulk of the novel is a police procedural as the protagonist tracks down connections to the IRA, a tantalizing widow, and highly placed government officials whose agendas might not be quite what they are supposed to be. He also has problems with his personal life to distract him. Most of the novel moves forward steadily but without haste as the details of the mystery are revealed, although they lead to even greater problems. The climax is violent and quite effective. I haven't seen the first in this series but I'll be on the lookout for it and the final one yet to come. 4/25/13

The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-785-3

Second in the Hugo Marston series and a definite step up from the first. For one thing, it sets up a fascinating mystery. Two people, one of them with terrorist connections, are found murdered in a French cemetery. The killer apparently also stole part of a skeleton of a dead cancan dancer. The police cordon off the cemetery as a crime scene but the killer manages to return and steal more dancing related body parts. Since one of the victims is American, Marston is sent from the embassy to help with the investigation, but in the process he makes himself a potential target for the decidedly unusual killer. The mystery is well constructed and unraveled, Marston appealed to me more as a character than he did the first time around, and in general this was a much better novel. Will watch for his next. 4/24/13

Pushover by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1992  

A young woman is clandestinely pushed in front of a subway train. The grandson of a famous actress is targeted for kidnapping. Unfortunately the kidnapper inadvertently kills the woman he hoped to extort the money from, although the police conceal this information from him in order to protect the boy. Two more women are pushed in front of a subway train in what appears to be an unrelated incident and evidence mounts that the missing boy escaped the kidnapper and may have gone into hiding. O’Donnell engages in her usual flummery. Mulcahaney makes obvious observations about the subway killings and the seasoned investigator is impressed with her perspicacity, even though her comments would be obvious to a ten year old. The two cases turn out not to be related, which is out of the author’s usual pattern. This could have been much better if there had been more thought put into the details. 4/22/13

A Private Crime by Lillian O’Donnell, Crest, 1991  

A woman and her baby are killed by a man with an automatic rifle in what at first appears to be a random shooting spree even though no one else in the crowd is even wounded.  Norah Mulcahaney questions the dead woman’s sister and brother in law, the latter of whom is rather uncooperative, but once again O’Donnell has her protagonist tells us that there is something wrong with their statements even though there actually isn’t; it’s just a device to keep the investigator justified in being suspicious. Norah’s journalist boyfriend drops hints that the shooting was drug related – at least that’s what the author tells us. In fact all he does is suggest the possibility. It’s another small plot leap, typical of a lazy writer. I also find it difficult to believe that apartment managers research the mental health of prospective buyers before letting them make a purchase. Nor would the police be able to get a search warrant simply because a man in the area answered the general description of the shooter, particularly since he had no criminal record whatsoever.  One of her subordinates is framed when evidence goes missing and the journalist disappears. Traces of drugs are found in the baby carriage and there appears to have been an affair between the victim and her sister’s husband.  The mystery is actually well constructed even though the detection is pretty bogus. When the journalist turns up dead of a drug overdose, Norah recognizes that the needle tracks on his arm are all recent, not evidence of habitual drug use, which the experienced medical examiner DID NOT NOTICE! It’s all downhill from there. O’Donnell is apparently unaware of the fact that airlines have passenger lists. Norah uses her psychic ability to see something wrong even when it’s not there to solve the crime. Far and away the least interesting of the author’s novels I’ve read. 4/19/13

A Wreath for the Bride by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1990   

This was the first in what was planned as a new series featuring a female private eye. It gets off to a bang – literally – when the car waiting for a pair of newlyweds explodes and kills one of the bridesmaids. This, alas, was also the first indication that the book wasn’t going to be very plausible. Although the police are naturally suspicious, the incident is blamed as a problem with the ignition. There is no problem with the ignition that could make a car explode, particularly when the car is sitting idle.  And later the police interview one witness in the presence of the other, which just would not happen. A grand jury that fails to bring charges because of a “lack of evidence” has not “exonerated” the suspect. The husband is believed to have married for his wife’s money and when she dies in an apparent accident a week after the wedding, his mother-in-law hires Gwenn Ramadge to discover the truth. Coincidentally, Ramadge once dated the widower and doesn’t like him. Then the new wife in another unhappy marriage is found stabbed to death, her husband lying in a drunken stupor in the adjoining room. As is common with this author, the solution hinges on a leap of intuition that is frankly unbelievable. She connects the two murders despite almost no similarities, and then to the disappearance of another woman who wasn’t even married. The solution to this one is so wildly improbable that I’m surprised her editor let her get away with it. 4/15/13

A Good Night to Kill by Lillian O’Donnell, Crest, 1989   

Two separate cases open this Norah Mulcahaney detective story. A young woman is accosted by three muggers and fatally shoots one with an unlicensed handgun, but was there more involved than is apparent? The young wife of a prominent mobster is found lying drowned in her penthouse swimming pool. Was it murder or some kind of accident? There are several instances here of a problem I’ve noticed in a lot of the author’s work. The detective asks a question and gets a perfectly reasonable answer. But the author tells us that the answer was suspicious at best and possibly incriminating. A young woman calls Norah to set up a meeting, claiming she has information on the swimming pool murder, but she is killed herself before the meeting can take place. It appears that the dead woman may have been having an affair. The police also make a big deal out of the fact that the mugger was known to the woman he terrorized and that she must have recognized him, but they and we both know that he was wearing a ski mask at the time. Then a witness leaves town unexpectedly and right after we are told that there is no way that she could have been prevented from leaving, Norah receives a mild reprimand for having allowed her to leave town. Clearly O’Donnell doesn’t really think about what she had already written before writing some more. She also has a pretty confused legal sense. The muggee also shot a second man who had not menaced her and is charged with reckless endangerment. Norah considers this a miscarriage of justice – but it’s just the opposite. A nice set up, but with many of the author’s books, the resolution comes as much by chance as by any perceptiveness of the detective. 4/13/13

The Other Side of the Door by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1987   

Nora Mulcahaney’s one time suitor brings her a difficult case in this one, but she plays only a very minor part. A young woman was nearly murdered by an unknown assailant, who then calls her multiple times identifying himself as an ex-convict whom she helped put in prison. She tells the police about the calls, but they can do little about it, particularly since the man in question has an alibi. The harassment escalates and the reader naturally suspects that someone else is involved, attempting to pin the blame on the convicted man, but the only potential candidate is the boyfriend, who is supposedly out of town and who has no obvious motive. When a boy delivers one of the messages, he says he can identify the man who gave it to him, but it never occurs to anyone to show him a picture of the suspect.  Eventually the victim is found shot to death and the assumption is pretty obvious – although apparently the police forgot that he had an alibi for the first attack.  The police think it’s an open and shut case, and they aren’t dissuaded even when their suspect turns up dead. But our hero thinks differently and he’s right, of course. Not as bad as the last couple I read by O’Donnell, but she solution is telegraphed. 4/8/13

Casual Affairs by Lillian O’Donnell, Crest, 1987 

This Nora Mulcahaney novel has an interesting premise but it is undermined by bad writing. A rich heiress accuses her husband of infidelity, justly, and promptly falls into a drug induced coma. Did she administer the drugs herself or were her drinks doctored? The sister thinks the latter and demands a police investigation. Mulcahaney immediately discovers some suggestive facts but no proof. It’s a nice set up but O’Donnell’s characters frequently make unjustified leaps of insight and just generally interact with an artificiality I find offputting.  Previously she had demonstrated she does not understand police procedure. This time she fails to understand how hospitals work. If a patient dies, particularly under suspicious circumstances, they would not just casually call the widow and say, by the way, your husband died. I very much doubt that a nurse with a contagious virus would spend twelve hours with a critically ill patient, but even if she did, why would Mulcahaney condone it and in fact say nothing about it so that the close contact continues for another four hours? And when there is an obvious attempt to kill the comatose woman in the hospital, the police indicate they can do nothing to prevent her from being released – still comatose – into the custody of her husband, the primary suspect. Ridiculous. It’s particularly disappointing because this could have been a very good mystery with insanity, murder, and suicide all intermixed, with more than a touch of coincidence. 4/6/12

Encounters of Sherlock Holmes edited by George Mann, Titan, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 9781781160039  

A collection of original Sherlock Holmes stories, opening by a reasonably good one by Mark Hodder which actually portrays Holmes as more than mildly obnoxious. Well written but rather obvious. The second, by Mags Halliday, is more conventional and more interesting, involving a scheme to help men disappear from public view.  Most of the other stories are okay to good, although I found the one by Nick Kyme unreadable and the Paul Magrs quite good. Editor Mann’s contribution is also nicely done.  But the best is the final story by James Lovegrove and I almost could have predicted that from the outset. No classics, one clunker, and generally quite solid.4/5/13

Ladykiller by Lillian O’Donnell, Crest, 1985   

This is a fair police procedural although it cheats rather outrageously at the end. Someone has been killing young women, apparently chosen at random, although eventually Norah Mulcahaney figures out that they are connected to a major theft. The revelation of the killer’s identity raised my eyebrows since it was a minor character whom we had no reason to believe could possibly be involved and we aren’t given any reason at the end except that he decided to commit the crimes. I also have a recurring problem with the author’s cynicism about society (and young people in particular) and the odd ways she has her characters interact. Sometimes they draw a conclusion that has no basis in logic and sometimes her characters act in ways totally alien to their characters, for no discernible reason. The protagonist, for example, concludes that her niece’s art instructor is a lecher based on less than a minute’s acquaintance during which he does nothing to suggest such a thing. Either O’Donnell was just into shortcuts when they suited her or she had chains of reasoning behind her plot that she didn’t deign to translate to the written page. 4/2/13

Cop Without a Shield by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1983   

Another Norah Mulcahaney mystery, this one opening with the murder of her husband.  Norah decides to quit the force and goes on leave to a remote farming community where she becomes involved with the murder of an illegal immigrant who was held as a virtual slave at a local garment factory. There’s a big blunder. One of the key elements in the solution is the increase in electricity use at the factory, but it’s based on O’Donnell’s mathematical error. Switching from 40 units to 60 units is NOT an increase of one third, it’s an increase of one half. After leaping that gap, the story isn’t bad although I had trouble believing that the killer could keep her husband convinced that she was an invalid for more than a year, and for no particular reason. 3/31/14

The Children’s Zoo by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1981 

Norah Mulcahaney is investigating the murder of a groundskeeper during a massacre of animals at the Children’s Zoo when her niece is assaulted by five girls at school. Other crimes involving gangs of teenagers are also occurring, sometimes behind the scenes.  Then two sets of murders in the same posh apartment building ratchet up the tension, although the police other than Norah don’t think they’re connected. It’s hard to quantify just what was wrong with this entire sequence but Norah’s resentment of the task force and the willingness of the authorities to dismiss the murders as coincidence and to forbid her to ask routine questions of the residents just doesn’t ring true. Norah also questions a minor with no counsel and no adult present, which would have compromised her entire case. Later her partner characterizes the massacre of the zoo as a misdemeanor, apparently forgetting that a man was shot in the face. I very much doubt that the law in New York in 1979 said that any juvenile charged with a violent crime was to be tried as an adult. The investigation is sloppy and the characters aren’t credible.  When assaulted by one of the killer kids, she shoots him in the thigh, but doesn’t even bother to account for his weapon, which subsequently disappears, and this is only one of several really stupid mistakes that should have gotten her suspended.  She believes that there is potentially crucial evidence in one boy’s bedroom and that she could get a search warrant, but fails to do so, and a while later she loses her own weapon in an encounter with a presumed mugger. And an officer who shoots someone, particularly a juvenile, would be on restricted duty at best, not allowed to remain on the case. This is a really terrible book. Even the packaging is sloppy. The protagonist’s name is misspelled on the cover. 3/26/13

Too Late! Too Late! The Maiden Cried by Joan Fleming, Sphere, 1975   

In 1841, a retired British officer is living happily with his second wife and their eleven year old daughter when he discovers that his long lost mother, who ran away to America thirty years earlier, has died and left him a valuable piece of jewelry from India. Unfortunately, she has also made him the ward of her paramour’s granddaughter, who is half Native American and who shows up in England, acting quite properly but with a disconcerting undertone.  We also learn that there are persistent rumors that the officer murdered his first wife, although he insists she died of cholera. The breech becomes open. The young woman is unscrupulous – plotting to marry a gullible bachelor, demanding that the jewels left to the officer be given to her, assaulting a lawyer, running away, abandoning her job, and employing threats and blackmail in an effort to get her way. The story wends its way toward a minor tragedy. The mystery element is minor as is the suggestion of the supernatural in the form of a poltergeist. 3/22/13

Falling Star by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1979

An actress whose career is failing and who is succumbing to alcoholism tries to blackmail her ex-husband, and is promptly found stabbed to death. He’s the obvious suspect but Mici Anhalt, who knew both of them personally, doesn’t believe it. The police aren’t making much progress so Mici does a little checking herself and discovers that the dead woman’s income was a lot higher than it appeared. But where was it going?  A day or two later an intruder tries to assault her in her apartment, but she wounds him with a pair of scissors and he runs off. But she doesn’t notify the police until the next day? Nor does she try to figure out how he got in? I’m afraid the author lost me at this point. There’s a secondary case that appears related but turns out to be independent. I guessed that one but missed on the main murder. Should have been better than it is. 3/17/13

No Business Being a Cop by Lillian O’Donnell, Putnam, 1978   

Someone is targeting female police officers in New York City, murdering them in inventive and disparate ways. At first no one connects the cases, but eventually, Norah Mulcahaney, a homicide detective, suspects that they are linked.  The first two thirds of this police procedural are nicely done and I didn’t guess the right killer, although it’s obvious early on that he has to be a police officer himself. The red herring is that he is angry about the reinstatement of female officers in preference to males, although this doesn’t stand up to close observation. The true reason is to mask one specific murder, for which the motivation is so tenuous that I had trouble believing the solution. One of the villains gets off without so much as an angry look, which I also found disappointing. This was the first book I’ve read by this author, though not the first in this series. Good enough to try some more, but not great. 3/16/13

False Witness by Helen Nielsen, Ballantine, 1959   

The protagonist of this suspenseful but horribly flawed thriller is an editor for a book publisher who arrives in Norway to sign up a new author. During a stopover before his final destination, he and another tourist take the cable car and while en route he sees a man strangle a woman in the descending train as it passes. No one believes him because there was no dead body found when the train unloaded at the bottom of the mountain, and he begins to doubt his own senses. They have missed their boat so they team up with another stranded tourist to travel overland, with a stop at the house of the latter’s niece who was widowed during the war. To our hero’s shock, his hostess seems to be the woman he earlier saw murdered. Despite his own marriage, he falls in love with her – not particularly convincingly – within hours of meeting her, and eventually decides that he did not see her murder, he saw the future.  It’s all part of a very elaborate murder plot aimed at the prospective author, who might have revealed embarrassing things about some of his countrymen, with the protagonist to be the fall guy. The explanation is that he was being hypnotized and conditioned to fall in love, commit murder, and visit various sites. The first problem is that hypnosis just doesn’t work the way it is described here, but second, even if it did, the plot is unnecessarily complex and nonsensical. 3/10/13

Seven Days Before Dying by Helen Nielsen, Dell, 1956 

This is the paperback retitle of Borrow the Night. The officer who arrested a condemned murderer and the judge who sentenced him have been receiving letters announcing that they will die on the same day that the convicted man is executed. The judge has been concealing the threats because of his wife’s delicate health but the policeman, who finds the letters all at once because he has been away, speaks immediately to the prosecuting attorney. The two team up, somewhat shakily, to track down the person responsible in the last 24 hours before the deadline, uncovering doubts about whether or not the condemned man is guilty. There are some interesting twists although I guessed the main mystery very early and the secondary one about two thirds of the way through. 3/8/13

The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen, Dell, 1954 

A blonde of doubtful reputation is found dead in her bathtub, apparently an accidental death. One of the neighbors is a mentally disturbed woman who could see the body from her room but never reported it to the police because she was afraid of getting into trouble. The detective in charge of the case has a nagging suspicion that something is wrong and traces connections to the landlord, brother of the disturbed woman, a nearby doctor and his nurse, a mysterious groundskeeper, and some of the other tenants. Then a second murder occurs and everyone but him thinks that the “crazy” woman is responsible. This is an above average murder mystery whose only real flaw is that several of the characters tend to blur into one another, making it difficult to keep them straight. 3/5/13

Obit Delayed by Helen Nielsen, Dell, 1952 

Mitch Gorman is editor of a small town newspaper, but maybe not for much longer. He hates his job and an ambitious underling seems destined to ease him out. Then a local woman is murdered and the underling uncovers what appears to be evidence that her ex-husband is responsible. But something doesn’t feel right to Gorman and his curiosity gets the better of his lethargy. Almost immediately he discovers that a local thug was interested in the dead woman, and virulent in his insistence that he never met her. Then the thug’s girlfriend turns up dead and the thug himself is seen searching the place where the first victim worked as a waitress. Although nothing out of the ordinary, this is a pretty solid crime novel, although I guessed the killer very early. 2/28/13

The Chinese Agent by Michael Moorcock, Ace, 1970  

Moorcock’s semi-spoof of the spy story genre has several references to his other books – the British agent is Jerry Cornell and a prostitute is named Mavis Ming, among other things. The story involves the consequences of mistaken identity. An underling hands off some confidential data to what he thinks is another agent at the Tower of London. The recipient, however, is a Chinese American jewel thief who accidentally provided the countersign. Senior Chinese agents want the package back, as do the British, who put their most eccentrically successful agent onto the case. Frivolity and merriment ensue, most of it very restrained, before the various subplots work themselves out. Amusing but slight. 2/24/13

The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Ted Riccardi, Random House, 2003   

The second volume of Holmes adventures by Riccardi was good enough that I ordered this one, although the individual stories were of uneven quality. The same is true this time as well. The opening story is a fair thriller, for example, but Holmes solves the various mysteries as much by happenstance and by detection.  The rest of the stories generally follow the same pattern, espionage with only minor diversions into deduction, and of course Watson was not present for any of these adventures since they take place during the years when Holmes was presumed dead. There’s a rather disappointing version of  “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” as well. Nothing to write home about. 2/19/13

Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb, Dutton, 2003 

This is more fantasy than mystery, and more historical than contemporary, following the pattern of McCrumb’s recent books. The main conflict results from the appearances of Civil War ghosts in the mountains of Tennessee, and the potential for problems when they interact with the living. One of McCrumb’s recurring characters, who has psychic abilities, is involved in soothing the problem. Her story alternates with that of three people from the Civil War era, a brother and sister who fought against the Confederates and a prominent member of the latter who was more interested in protecting regional interests than in the future of the Confederacy. Naturally McCrumb draws this altogether into a well blended mix filled with fascinating vignettes and a good sense of how great historic events affect ordinary people. 2/8/13

The PMS Outlaws by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 2000   

Elizabeth MacPherson returns in this humorous outing which has just the slightest hint of mystery in it. She’s in a rest home dealing with depression following the death of her husband. Her brother the lawyer has just bought a mansion as a business office, and the mansion comes with an elderly man who might or might not be who he claims to be, a one time bootlegger. The brother’s law partner also has a problem; a college acquaintance has gone on a multi-state spree of abducting obnoxious men and handcuffing them naked to pipes while she robs them. All of these plots gradually converge. Some of the surprises I saw coming, others took me completely off guard. It’s funny and at times suspenseful and entertaining from beginning to end. If I hadn’t started reading it late at night, I would have finished it in a single sitting. 2/5/13

Heart of Ice by P.J. Parrish, Pocket, 2013, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-8937-5  

A Louis Kincaid novel.  I haven’t read anything by this author before but the blurb made this one look interesting. The protagonist is on vacation at a remote site with the ten year old daughter he just discovered existed when she stumbles onto bones suggesting murder. The local police solicit his help but he is struggling not only with his new relationship with the child but with the arrival of his quasi-romantic interest, who also has a history with the local law enforcement people. The prose is sparse but crisp and the story moves right along. I found some of the subplots distracting at times but the mystery isn’t bad and the smooth writing covered over the occasional bump in the story. There are several previous volumes that I may well track down on my next visit to a used book store. 2/2/13

The Devereaux Legacy by Carolyn Hart, Seventh Street, 2012, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-704-4 

This is a woman in jeopardy novel first published in 1986. Leah Devereaux knew that her parents died at sea when she was two years old, but she is 21 when she discovers that her name is also on the grave marker and that she has been presumed dead by relatives she didn’t know existed. Some of her cousins seem glad to see her, others decidedly do not. There are rumors that the family ghost has been seen, a harbinger of death, and a mild romance rears its head as well. There are family secrets to be unraveled, possible murder attempts and maybe even a couple of successes, and who has title to the estate, the protagonist or her cousins, all of whom were adopted?  The resolution of this one isn’t entirely convincing; the killer’s motives seem pretty farfetched, but the prelude is gripping. The story follows the pattern of the pseudo-gothics that were so popular during the 1980s but with a couple of interesting twists. 1/20/13

The Ballad of Frankie Silver by Sharyn McCrumb, Dutton, 1999  

This multi layered mystery novel deals with three separate cases, the primary one being the actual murder referred to in the title for which a young woman was hanged, probably unjustly. Sheriff Arrowood, recovering from a wound, decides to look into the historical case while also being troubled by the imminent execution of a man in a twenty year old case, a conviction about which he has doubts. Unbeknownst to him, at least initially, there has been another murder during his convalescence that has parallels to the earlier cases. All three get solved, more or less, but mostly offstage, and the ending is downbeat and rather unsatisfying – most of the similarities are just coincidence. I was rather disappointed in this one, which barely held my interest, probably because I didn’t find the historical case particularly gripping. 1/16/13

Fear of Beauty by Susan Froetschel, Seventh Street, 2012, $15.95, ISBN 976-1-61614-702-0   

Although there is a murder in this one, it’s less of a mystery than a novel in which someone is killed. A young boy is found dead in Afghanistan and it is unclear whether he died accidentally, was killed by American soldiers, or met his death in some other fashion. His mother wants to know the truth, but the arrival of Taliban fighters complicates her attempt to investigate. Her story then alternates with that of an Americans soldier as she enlists the aid of an aid worker and they slowly ferret out the truth. The novel is really about religious prejudice and the damage that fundamentalism of any nature does to those upon whom it is imprinted. The prose is smooth and clear but the mystery is almost an afterthought. 1/8/13

Two Graves by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2012, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-446-55499-2  s308 

I have been a very loyal fan of this writing duo ever since Relic, but I have to confess that I have found the last few novels less interesting than their early work. In large part I suspect this is because they have become more conventional and less imaginative – more thugs and neo-Nazis, fewer inhuman creatures or bizarre incidents. This one, which ends a trilogy within the Pendergast series, opens with an extended chase scene that felt more like Clive Cussler. This segues into the account of an unusual serial killer who leaves his own body parts at crime scenes and who may be connected to the Nazis who killed Pendergast’s wife, but there isn’t much momentum to the story for quite a while and Pendergast’s self absorbed death wish became really irritating after a while. It also seemed to me to contradict his personality but obviously the authors thought otherwise. The motivations of the other characters are similarly opaque, the two subplots are distracting and don’t contribute to the story, and the comic book villains are totally unconvincing. I think it’s time for the authors to retire Pendergast and move on. There's also a very slight nod to the fantastic - one of the characters can apparently get glimpses of the very near future. 1/3/13

Dante’s Wood by Lynne Raimondo, Seventh Street, 2012, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-718-1 

First in a series about Mark Angelotti, a psychiatrist who presumably will solve crimes from that perspective. One of his patients is a teenager who has mental problems as well as a dysfunction between himself and his mother. When the patient confesses to a murder, and the victim turns out to be carrying his child, the case seems open and shut. Unconvinced, he launches an investigation of his own and discovers that the dead woman was involved with another man, whom Angelotti eventually decides is a cold blooded killer. But how can he prove it to the police and save his patient?  Pretty well done but there’s not much suspense or mystery since we know from the outset that the patient is innocent and the guilty party is fairly obvious as soon as he makes an appearance. 1/1/13

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