Last Update 12/30/13 

The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-871-3

Second in a series set in a small town in Texas. This one opens with a romantic triangle of sorts. Two men wooed the same woman but one went off to fight in the Gulf War while the other was rejected by the army but accepted by the woman. The soldier returns eventually, physically and mentally altered by his experiences, and the two former friends have avoided each other for a long time. Now, just as they seem about to put aside their differences, the returned soldier is murdered. Is the old rivalry the root cause or is there some other, more hidden motive lurking in the background? I liked the character development and setting in the first novel in the series, and there is more of both here to like, but the present tense narration was so unsuited for this particular story that I had trouble finishing it. 12/30/13

Back Story by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2003  

Spenser agrees to look into a thirty year old murder in which a woman was killed during a bank robbery apparently staged by a radical group. The first thing he discovers is that his client has been lying about her past. Then he traces a path through a group of well meaning but not very bright former radicals, crosses paths with yet another criminal kingpin, and ends up shooting a number of people to protect himself. The solution involves some surprise revelations, although they aren't particularly earth shaking, and once more it ends with the murderer walking away. The story is solid although sprinkled with rehashes of scenes from earlier books, but the ending is flat and disappointing. 12/28/13

Shrink Wrap by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2002  

Sunny Randall is hired to act as bodyguard for a bestselling romance novelist who is being stalked by her ex-husband, a nasty psychiatrist. Sunny investigates and discovers that he has been systematically drugging and molesting his patients, with the assistance of two friends. One of them threatens her and then an attempt is made on her life. At the same time two of his patients die, both apparently of drug overdoses. Sunny goes to see him in disguise and eventually makes herself the bait in a plan to catch them in the act. I wasnít entirely convinced that the disguise would work, but itís a minor point. Other than a less satisfying comeuppance at the end than I had hoped for, this was one of the better Parkers. 12/27/13

Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen, Warner, 1991   

A ruthless little old lady hires two not very bright thugs to steal two endangered animals from a wildlife preserve/amusement park run by a land developer/crook. They manage to get the animals killed, but she decides to make further use of them anyway. The publicity writer for the amusement park is suspicious that two suicides connected to the park were actually disguised murders, and promptly gets himself assaulted by parties unknown. Enter the Mafia, an ex-governor, and several other people and you have a multi-partied battle that ends with some predictable but still funny hijinx. The best of the four novels Iíve read by Hiaasen, although perhaps a bit too close in some details to the earlier ones.. 12/26/13

Widowís Walk by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2002   

Spenser is hired to help a lawyer prove that her terminally stupid client did not in fact kill her husband. Since the dead man was rich, Spenser starts looking into his finances, but everyone he talks to turns up dead shortly thereafter. An attempt is made on his own life as well, adding to the body count. With six dead, the police are very interested but no one can prove anything, although Spenser suspects a connection between the first victimís mysterious business partner, who is sleeping with the lawyer whose unsavory client Ė now dead Ė implicated the wife in a murder for hire scheme. This felt more like the early Spenser novels, which is a good thing, although the chief  villainís death was a bit perfunctory. 12/25/13

Potshot by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2001  

Spenser is hired by a young widow to travel to a small western town named Potshot to discover who killed her husband. She believes it was a member of a gang of squatters who have been extorting money from the locals for some time, but the leader of the group tells Spenser it wasnít one of his people and some of the other locals suggest that the widow was sleeping around. The murder heís investigating looks fishy and in the middle of it the town council hires him to clean out the squatters. This is an excuse for Parker to bring in various tough guys from previous books so that Spenser ends up with his own gang.  This might have been a pretty good book except that Parker once again letís the killer walk away unscathed. By now itís not just frustrating, itís irritating. 12/23/13

XYZ by Anna Katharine Green 

I had expected this to be a novel but itís actually a short story printed as a chapbook without even a publisher name or date, obviously taking advantage of the fact that the copyright has expired on all of her work. A nameless detective is investigating a counterfeiting ring when he finds a connection to a wealthy but reclusive family who are uncharacteristically about to host a masquerade party. He also finds evidence that a local man is conspiring to sneak in and discovers that the two adult children of the household are part of the conspiracy to allow an uninvited guest into the party. He even ascertains the man's description through subterfuge. He ends up impersonating the disinherited younger son, accused unfairly of having stolen from his father. A bit predictable but holds up pretty well. 12/21/13

Death in Paradise by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2001    

Jesse Stone investigates when the body of a teenage girl washes up with a bullet hole in her head. He discovers that her family threw her out because of her sexual escapades, traces her to a shelter, and then to the office of a prominent Boston mobster. It seems like too minor an issue to occupy such a powerful man, and in fact things are not as they initially seem. Eventually the truth comes out but itís not much of a surprise when we find out who the murderer is. Thereís a parallel story about a wife beater to flesh out a rather short mystery, plus a lot of short chapters about Stoneís love affairs and his attempt to stop drinking. I know this is supposed to help with character development, but itís repetitious and frankly feels like filler. 12/19/13

Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen, Warner, 1989  

Stranahan used to work in law enforcement, but he retired on disability while still very young. Someone from his past wants him dead and is willing to pay professional hitmen to accomplish this. Stranahan discovers a mysterious connection to an old case where a woman disappeared, in which he made no progress toward a solution, and learns that another woman might have vanished more recently. The comedy is pretty effective this time, nicely balanced with the serious stuff. Thereís a seven foot tall deformed amateur hitman who provides some of the funnier moments. 12/17/13

Hugger Mugger by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2000 

Parker seems to have wanted to piss off his readers during this period because this is the second in a row where he creates a really obnoxious villain and then lets them get away with murder without even a slap on the wrist. This time it involves the possibly insane daughter of a racing magnate who kills her father and imprisons her sisters after a misleading series of horse shootings that were designed to divert suspicion. Parker uncovers the plot and the villainís henchman gets caught, but the ending this time is so infuriating that I wanted to throw the book across the room.

Perish Twice by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 2000  

Sunny Randall returns, this time to deal not only with her sisterís dysfunctional marriage and straying husband but also a feminist activist who wants to be protected but doesnít want Randall to know who is stalking her. When Randall finds out anyway, she is promptly fired, after which a woman is murdered in the feministís office and the stalker turns up dead, apparently a suicide.  This one develops pretty well but ultimately we not only discover that there are two different killers, but both of them get away with it. I canít imagine how Parker thought this could be a satisfactory ending to what had been until then a pretty good mystery story. 12/14/13

Family Honor by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1999  

The first Sunny Randall novel has a somewhat different viewpoint from Parkerís other detective fiction since the protagonist is a woman. Nevertheless, this plot is lifted straight from an early Spenser story when she is hired to track down a runaway teenager who has probably disappeared into a prostitution ring operated in Boston. There are even common characters between the two series since Tony Marcus, Spenserís some time adversary, is the head of the criminal organization. Randall uncovers a murder, stands up to some thugs, gets the runawayís mother to reform, and covers up the latterís involvement in the murder, which I found ethically dubious. Worse from a literary point of  view is that in order to convince the police that her version of what happened is true, Randall would have to have implicated the mother. But she doesnít, because they donít arrest her, in which case the story wouldnít have worked. Terrible plotting. 12/12/13

Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years by Jamyang Norbu, 1999    

This account of Sherlock Holmesí two years traveling incognito in Tibet and India was written by an expatriate Tibetan, which has a definitely discernible difference of perception. Disguised as a Norwegian, Holmes survives a murder attempt almost immediately upon arriving and, accompanied by a Bengali undercover agent, has various adventures related to the Great Game, the battle between England and Russia for dominance in that region. The story itself isnít bad but the prose is sometimes stilted, the great detectiveís observations are sometimes wild guesses rather than deductions despite his stated aversion to guessing.  Thereís one minor but nagging plot problem as well. Holmes says that he is traveling incognito so that Moriartyís lieutenants will think he is dead. But then he tells us later that one of these same men witnessed his escape from Reichenbach Falls, which makes the whole strategy of concealing his identity meaningless. Interesting, but not one of the better pastiches despite the air of authenticity about Tibet and its neighbors. 12/10/13

Hush Money by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1999    

Spenser has two cases this time around. First, a professor is denied tenure after a man rumored to be his gay lover commits suicide. Except that the professor is straight and the suicide was probably murder. Second, a woman is being troubled by a stalker, but a clever one whom she never actually sees. The first leads to blackmail, a white supremacist group, and other complications. The second passes through rape to Spenser having his own stalker. Both cases work out, obviously, the first a little shakily in terms of logic, the second better done. This was actually one of the best Parkers from this period. 12/8/13

Sudden Mischief by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1998  

Spenser agrees to help his girlfriendís ex-husband, who is being sued for sexual harassment, although the case looks shaky from the outset. The accused is also linked to an apparently failed charity event which nevertheless channeled a good deal of money to one charity, which turns out to be simply a mail drop. There are mobsters involved and Spenser shakes off death threats and physical assaults, but two murders are committed and his client has disappeared. I had a pretty good idea what was going on very early but the story moves fast and reasonably entertaining, though not up to the quality of his earlier books. And my already low opinion of Spenserís ladyfriend plummeted to greater depths. On the other hand, Jesse Stoneís ex-wife current sometimes lover in that series is even worse. 12/6/13

Deadly Catch by E. Michael Helms, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-867-6    

The ex-marine hero of this thriller finds a dead body and a stash of drugs which appear designed to frame him for murder and drug dealing. Naturally he has to clear his name by finding out who the real villains are, and not surprisingly he teams up with a local woman who doesnít stand for any nonsense. He has to accomplish all this without getting arrested, killed by the minions of the people responsible for his predicament, and deal with some political machinations as well. Thereís a fair amount of detection although this is much an action thriller as a mystery story. Entertaining but unexceptional. 12/3/13

Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen, Warner, 1987 

Private detective R.J. Decker is hired to prove that a competitive bass fisherman and television personality is actually cheating. Early on he hears of another fishermanís supposed accidental death which is pretty clearly murder, and a friend of his is murdered investigating that death. Then the supposed cheater is murdered and Decker is framed for the crime. He has to go undercover along with an ex-governor who has changed his name and become a counterculture rebel, with the assistance of Al Garcia, a police detective who shows up in other Hiaasen novels. Wackiness abounds, mostly controlled, but while this was a step up from his first novel, it still robs the story of any suspense or mystery. 12/2/13

Trouble in Paradise by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1998  

The second Jesse Stone novel. A hardened criminal has his eyes on the gated community isolated on an island in Paradise, Massachusetts, where Stone is now Chief of Police.  He plans to isolate it and literally take everyone prisoner while he loots the bank and their homes. This is probably the weakest Parker novel Iíve read. There is no possible way they could get everything done as quickly as they do, theyíre escape plan from the island is unrealistic, and the structure of the island itself makes no sense. If there are so few residents, then no matter how rich they are they would not be able to support a separate shopping district. I intensely dislike Stoneís ex-wife whose shenanigans are repetitively stupid. The ending is atrocious. The bad guy gets away with the money, Stone lets one of the prisoners go for sentimental reasons that make no sense, the final confrontation is anticlimactic, and the potentially interesting subplot about the effort to remove him from office is dismissed rather than resolved. 11/30/13

Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs, Scribner, 2013, $26.99, ISBN 978-1-4391-245-9  

Temperance Brennan has a new case. A teenage girl is found run down on the side of a road. In her purse is the membership card of a man who supposedly died six months before in a fire. That man is linked to an importer suspected of smuggling prohibited artifacts into the country. In the middle of this case, she gets flown off to Afghanistan as a technical expert in a case involving the possible murder of Afghan civilians. Back to the main story, we have another of those instances when Brennan decides itís not important to tell the police that sheís had death threats. Reichs has done this before and itís very irritating. Even worse, Brennan figures out where a bunch of sex slaves are being held captive, and when she canít reach the officer investigating the case, she decides to go there herself Ė alone and doesnít even take her cell phone. The solution involves a coincidence so incredible that itís insulting. At least for once she didnít need to be rescued by a man at the climax. Below average. 11/28/13

Victorian Tales of Mystery & Detection edited by Michael Cox, Oxford, 1992 

This is a nice fat collection of Victorian era mystery stories, starting off appropriately enough with Poeís ďThe Purloined Letter.Ē  Next is a longish piece by Sheridan Le Fanu, and one of the best things Iíve read by him. A young woman is orphaned and goes to live with her uncle, who is rumored to have been responsible for a man found dead in a locked, inaccessible room. The following one by Charles Dickens, which concerns murder and insurance fraud, is one of his minor works. The next two, by Mary Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood, are both okay but their mysteries are slight and easily guessed. Richard Dowlingís story is awkward, confusing, predictable, and badly written. Thereís a good Wilkie Collins, a clever but ultimately disappointing one by R.E. Francillon, more good ones from Grant Allen and Sir Gilbert Campbell, plus the inevitable but minor Sherlock Holmes story by Doyle. Thereís a bad story by Fergus Hume and a pretty good one by Harry Blyth.  The remaining stories are generally okay with only a couple that really stood out, those by Sax Rohmer and Guy Boothby. Still a very good collection. 11/26/13

White Fire by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Grand Central, 2013, $27, ISBN 978-1-4555-2583-6 

Pendergast returns for another case, although he is mostly off stage in the first half of his book, which involves his young protťgťís research into the bones of a group of miners supposedly devoured by a rogue grizzley bear during the 19th Century. For some reason, a powerful local resident blocks her efforts to gain access to the skeletons, and when she breaks into the warehouse where they are stored, she is arrested and charged with desecrating a body. Pengergast shows up then to get her out of jail and grease the wheels for her research. Unfortunately, an arsonist also shows up, who disables the residents of each house he invades so that he can burn them alive. There is only a minor connection between the two cases, but thereís also a link to a ďmissingĒ Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and when itís found we get to read the entire text, which is in some ways the high point of the novel. The rest is a decent thriller but I grew so irritated with the protťgť Ė who makes one mistake after another and never seems to learn anything Ė that it seriously interfered with my enjoyment of the story. There also seem to be a lot of coincidences and authorial shortcuts.  Not one of the better Pendergast adventures. 11/23/13

Night Passage by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1997  

The first Jesse Stone novel. Stone is fired from the Los Angeles police force for drinking after a messy divorce and takes a job as chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts, a small town dominated by a man running a local militia as well as a money laundering scheme. It doesnít take long before Stone is presented with two murders, including that of his predecessor, and smells a rat. Much of the story follows the Spenser pattern Ė Stone is a tough man with an unusual relationship to the woman he loves and is stubborn about finding out the truth. The militia subplot is rather hard to take seriously. Itís only a small change of pace and I found the ending a bit flat but itís not bad overall. 11/20/13

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen, Warner, 1986 

There have been more than a few attempts to combine mystery novels with humor, and a few like The Blind Barber by John Dickson Carr, even succeed. I had mixed feelings about this, Hiaasenís first solo novel. An unknown terrorist group is killing tourists in Florida in bizarre Ė if not actually funny ways. A popular newspaper columnist has gone missing. An innocent man is convinced by his lawyer that his case is hopeless and commits suicide. A private detective and former reporter tries to make sense of all this. The problem with this one in particular is that since none of the characters act logically or realistically, there is no tension to the plot, no suspense or mystery, and the humor might curl your lip but it isnít going to make you laugh. The plot is straightforward and unsurprising, the climax reasonably good but not exceptional. 11/14/13

Small Vices by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1997  

Spenser is hired by a lawyer who believes that one of her past clients should not have been convicted for the murder of a college student. The investigation points toward police misconduct, bribes, a railroaded suspect, perjury, and manipulation by people with money to cover their sonís involvement with the deceased. Then a professional assassin nearly kills Spenser, leading to almost a year of convalescence before he can take up the case again, track down the assassin, uncover the truth, and get the innocent man out of prison. About average for the series but I thought the solution this time was too obvious and that Spenserís efforts to solve the crime late in the book are too easily satisfied. 11/11/13

Chance by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1996    

One of the better Spensers, even though the formula had become pretty standard by now. The son-in-law of a mobster has disappeared and the wife wants him back. That seems straightforward enough but then we learn that the missing man might also have been skimming money, that there is a power struggle underway among various criminal organizations for control of Boston, and that the missing man is accompanied by the wife of one of the rival kingpins. Then thereís a murder and even though itís pretty obvious who did it, the reasons and the circumstances surrounding that crime grow murkier with each new revelation. A more complex plot than usual, and actually a lot more effort on characterization.  11/9/13

The Hidden by Jo Chumas, Thomas & Mercer, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-477-84819-7

This is a murder mystery mixed with international intrigue set alternately in 1940s Egypt and a generation earlier. The protagonist is a young woman whose husband is murdered. While going through his effects, she finds the diary of her mother, who turns out to have been a member of the Egyptian royal family. The diary and the protagonist's own story alternate and overlap. The story - both in fact - are quite intricate and are tied into the various forces at work in shaping the Egyptian culture and government, not all of which are going to be known to many readers. I had to check a couple of references along the way to fully understand what was going on. That's probably the closest to a real flaw in the book, which is as much an historical novel as a thriller. I believe this is a debut novel, and it's a good one.  11/6/13

Thin Air by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1995    

Spenserís friend Belton is devastated when his wife disappears Ė we know sheís kidnapped by her former lover but no one else does Ė and when he is nearly killed by an unknown shooter, Spenser decides to track the woman down. In due course Spenser discovers that the woman is being held against her will in a virtual fortress in the middle of a city, a gang at odds with the other and theoretically more powerful crimelords in the area, although Luis is almost certainly insane. The only solution is for Spenser and a borrowed thug from the West Coast to infiltrate and rescue her, with the usual accompanying carnage.  Slightly above average for Parker even though the plot holds no surprises whatsoever. 11/5/13

Death Overdue by Mary Lou Kirwin, Gallery, 2013, $15, ISBN 978-1-4516-8466-7

I had mixed feelings about the first in this series, but the second volume seems to me far better written and with a better plot as well. The protagonist/detective is a librarian and the murder is a kind of death by library, that is, the victim is crushed under a toppled bookcase. The dead woman is also the ex-girlfriend of the protagonist's love interest, which obviously makes both of them persons of interest. It turns out he has a good motive. The woman had disappeared for years but still had a financial claim which could jeopardize his current business venture. Naturally an amateur investigation follows which turns up more than the official one, including various other people with grudges against the deceased. This is all sorted out pretty well and the prose seems much more polished than in the first. 11/2/13

After Midnight by Helen Nielsen, 1966 

Simon Drake is a lawyer who impulsively decides to defend a young woman accused of stabbing her husband to death. All the evidence suggests sheís guilty. They were home alone, had been fighting viciously, she admits having touched the knife and has blood under her fingernails, and she claims not to remember anything that happened. Drake thinks it odd that the murder weapon was lying on the pillow beside the accused woman in the morning, but then he is rocked when a woman claims to have been walking past the house at the exact time to see the murder committed and positively identifies his client. This was one of the best of Nielsenís novels, with a couple of clever red herrings. 11/1/13

All Our Yesterdays by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1994   

Parker set aside Spenser for this novel of an Irish revolutionary who is forced to emigrate and becomes a police officer in the US after becoming romantically involved with the life of an American. This has repercussions for his descendants as well. He, his son, and his grandson all get caught up in a chain of violence when the patriarchís mistress learns that her son has committed murder and he agrees to cover it up. Parts of the novel work, but only sporadically, and I was thorough tired of and pretty much disgusted with almost all of the characters by the time it came to an end. Nice to see him try something new but this was the wrong direction. 10/30/13

Walking Shadow by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1994   

This Spenser novel opens with an actor being shot on stage by someone in the audience while Spenser watches. The subsequent investigation centers on a woman on the board of directors of the theater, who is married to a prominent Chinese mobster. Two other people connected to the theater report that they are being followed by a mysterious figure. Thereís more murder, an apparent kidnapping, threats by the Chinese mob, corrupt police, and most of the other usual aspects of a Spenser novel. About average for the series although some of the red herrings are above average. 10/28/13

Paper Doll by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1993  

Spenser is hired by a man who wants to find the person who murdered his wife with a hammer. The police officially believe it was a random madman but Spenserís contacts hint at pressure to drop the investigation. He then embarks on an investigation that has vague memories of The Long Goodbye, turning up secrets that make him the target of private security people with connections in Washington. Justice doesnít play out per normal when he discovers the identity of the killer and a powerful man makes a misstep that could cost him his career and his freedom. About average for the series which means it was quite enjoyable. 10/23/13

She Walks in Darkness by Evangeline Walton, Tachyon, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-61696-133-6

Evangeline Walton wrote some excellent fantasy and historical fiction and when she died she left a large number of unpublished manuscripts. This one is a kind of gothic murder mystery with fantastic overtones but nothing overt. A young woman and her husband travel to a remote villa in southern Europe to investigate rumors of a forgotten archaeological find of considerable significance. They have heard that the former owner died while institutionalized for homicidal insanity, that he may have killed a fugitive from the Nazis during the war, and that he died childless. They also hear that a prisoner has escaped from a local prison. Shortly after arriving, the husband is involved in an accident that renders him unconscious. There is no phone and the village is too far to walk conveniently. The wife might have done so anyway except that she finds the body of a servant who was clearly murdered, although the body disappears a short while later. Then a man from the village arrives, supposedly offering help, but nothing is as it seems as danger and mystery close in on every side. A bit old fashioned - this was written during the gothic fad of the 1960s - but still impressively done. 10/22/13

Double Deuce by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1992  

Spenserís friend Hawk asks him to help clean up gang problems at a local housing project, hopefully discovering who murdered a fourteen year old mother and her baby in the process. This oneís slightly more introspective than the previous installments; thereís an experiment in which Spenser and his girlfriend try living together which is obviously destined to fail. An old enemy makes an appearance as the twosome explore the world of ghetto violence and Hawk even has as close to an emotional involvement with a woman as he is ever likely to. Iíd rate this one as well above average for the series although some of the tropes are becoming repetitious. 10/18/13

Death by Surprise by Carolyn Heart, 7th Street, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-860-0(originally published in 1983)   

Carolyn Hart general writes crime and suspense novels rather than detective stories, but this one comes pretty close. K.C. Carlisle comes from a rich but contentious family, each of whom is being blackmailed by an investigative reporter for some secret in his or her past. K.C. tries to turn the tables on their tormentor but instead finds the womanís dead body, and one of her cousins is promptly arrested when it turns out he was there earlier and removed the murder weapon, which would have incriminated him. Some elements in the resolution didnít work for me, like a secretary talked into stealing her employerís scarf by a stranger, the ineptness of the police investigating an accidental death years earlier, and the reporterís ability to find scandals almost by waving her wand. The killer is obvious about half way through. Still enjoyable, but not very mysterious. 10/14/13

Fixed by L.A. Kornetsky, Gallery, 2013, $15, ISBN 978-1-4516-7165-0

Second in the series following Collared, by Laura Anne Gilman under a pseudonym. There's an interesting set up in that the private investigators are a bartender and a female acquaintance, one of whom has a cat and the other a dog, hence the titles. Their latest case starts small when they begin looking into a series of thefts at the local animal shelter. But all is not as it seems and when the inevitable body turns out, the thefts take on a new level of significance. This has, so far, been a very laid back series and while I'm a bit overdosed on cozies just at the moment, this had a novel enough approach to keep me interested. Watching for the next in the series. 10/7/13

White Ginger by Thatcher Robinson, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-818-8   

Hereís one of the more unusual mysteries Iíve read recently. The protagonist/detective is a Buddhist and a pacifist and she is believed to be capable of finding lost people through some vaguely magical means. Her latest assignment is to find a missing teenager, and predictably this leads her into a mixture of pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, and professional criminals. Her partners in all this are a gay male and a professional enforcer who help her on a cross country journey of discovery. The conflict between her survival instincts and her pacifism are major plot elements and thereís even a touch of humor, though itís pretty dark. This is, I believe, a first novel and there were a couple of awkward spots, but they were minor problems and overall itís readable and certainly not a retread of anything else Iíve read recently. 10/4/13

Styx & Stone by James W. Ziskin, Seventh Street, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-820-1  

This is the first in the Ellie Stone mystery series. Stone is a female reporter working during the 1960s, determined to make her own way and overcome the stereotypes usually applied to women. When an attempt is made on her fatherís life, she turns her investigative skills there, increasing her concern when it is repeated. Then one of his colleagues as the university is in fact murdered and it becomes urgent that she determine who is responsible before it is too late. This was quite well written and held my interest, but I was a little disappointed by the ending because thereís really not much detection going on. It reads almost like a woman in peril thriller and that seems to contradict the mildly feminist theme. 10/3/13

Perchance to Dream by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1991  

I didnít much care for this sequel to Raymond Chandlerís The Big Sleep. It starts out all right. The homicidal Carmen Sternwood is missing from the asylum where she was living and no one seems to want to admit that fact. The family butler hires Marlowe to locate her and the trail leads past a decidedly crooked but influential psychiatrist Ė who has no history of medical education Ė to a reclusive millionaire with twisted tastes and lots of money. During the course of the investigation he turns up a shady land deal and gets conked on the head a lot. All of that is okay but the second half deteriorates dramatically. The villains are just too easily thwarted, the millionaire is too weird to be believable Ė and throwing a kitten through a porthole to drown seemed silly rather than evil Ė and the faux doctor escapes, with a warning that he will get his revenge. But since Parker never wrote another Marlowe novel, he never does.  Very disappointing. 9/30/13

Heirs and Graces by Rhys Bowen, Berkley, 2013, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-425-26002-9

The latest Lady Georgianna book is one on the best. She is sent with an elderly aristocrat to help train her grandson, recently discovered living in Australia with no knowledge of his heritage, even though he is heir apparent to a very wealthy family fortune. The current Duke is not interested and women and not a very nice person, so it's no surprise when he turns up with a knife in his back. The new Duke is not only uncomfortable with his position, but apparently is the prime suspect. There are, of course, a number of other people with reasons to want the man dead, and there also appears to have been an attempt on the life of another member of the family, although some suspect it was a suicide attempt. I did guess most of the solution, which is reasonably complex without being implausible. There has been talk of a movie based on this series and I would be very interested to see it, a sort of Downton Abbey with murder. 9/27/13

Pastime by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1991  

The young boy that Parker rescued from negligent parents in Early Autumn returns to ask Spenser to help find his mother, who has gone missing. She has been having an affair with a man whom we soon discover was working for the local mob until he absconded with their money, putting himself and presumably his girlfriend in jeopardy. Spenser has to work out some kind of dťtente with the mob since he doesnít care about the boyfriend and they donít care about the girlfriend, but there are hotheads involved and things could go very bad very quickly. Somewhat above average for the series. Itís interesting that Parker/Spenser frequently has genuine sympathy for the bad guys, three of them this time, all recurring. 9/22/13 characters.

Stardust by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1990  

Spenser is hired to protect an obnoxious starlet and find out who is harassing her, which proves difficult because she wonít tell him anything about the calls and threats she claims she has received. In due course he discovers that she married young and never got divorced, although her husband is a mentally ill man living on welfare, and then that she actually has a daughter, thanks to a liaison with a man now highly placed in the West Coast crime world. But neither of these men appears to have any reason to bother her. Then she goes missing and everything starts to move very quickly. A quick read and a pretty good story although the mystery element is a bit of a cheat Ė we donít even meet the man who is responsible for the murder of the starletís stunt double until shortly before he is revealed as the killer. About average for the series. 9/21/13

Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1989    

The first four chapters of this were written by Chandler before his death. Philip Marlowe has married a very rich woman but he still intends to make his own money in his own way. He takes a new client, a man running an illegal gambling establishment trying to track down a man who welshed and owes him a lot of money. The case quickly grows contemplated. The missing man lives a secret life concealed even from his wife, and the irate gambler works for the same manís father in law. Then the bodies start piling up. This reads more like a Spenser novel than a Chandler but itís pretty good either way. 9/16/13

Divinity and the Python by Bonnie Randall, Panverse, 2013, $, ISBN 978-0-9837313-7-5   

This is a fast paced suspense novel that throws a lot of different elements together including tarot, murder, a mysterious stalker, life in a nightclub, kinky love affairs, drugs, sports, blackmail, and a morgue thatís being converted for commercial use. The protagonist is a bartender/tarot reader/entrepreneur who gets caught up in the tangle only to eventually become a murder suspect herself. Thereís even a hint of the supernatural. The story is good but I think it was a strategic error to use a style reminiscent of rock videos for what is essentially a mystery novel. Itís occasionally hard to absorb whatís happening before the scene changes, and sometimes things moved so fast that I got lost and had to backtrack. Worth the effort but it requires some concentration. 9/14/13

Circle of Bones by Christine Kling, Thomas & Mercer, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-1611097856   

A few years ago I read the first four mystery novels by Christine Kling, and was overjoyed to find someone new who was that good. Alas, no new titles appeared for a long time after that except for one ebook and now this, which is more of an international thriller. But itís a very good thriller. Riley is an ex-marine who sails her own boat down to the Caribbean where she encounters Cole Thatcher, a treasure hunter searching for a French World War II submarine which supposedly sank in the area while carrying a shipment of gold. She also runs into Diggory Priest, a government agent who is actually a member of the Skull & Bones, an international cabal reminiscent of the Illuminati. The cabal does not want the submarine found because it contains documents which might reveal its existence. Complicating matters further is Priestís personal agenda. He hopes to acquire those documents and use them as leverage against his own allies. This results in an elaborate multi-sided cat and mouse game at sea and on land.  The Dan Brown style secret code puzzles are the only real flaw. Theyíre artificial, unnecessary, and the solutions unlikely. I also balked a bit when Riley accepts Priestís story that her father has had a stroke. The plot does have an unexpected twist in the second half that took me by surprise. Although itís pretty good, itís not exceptional of its type. Klingís four book mystery series, on the other hand, was quite exceptional. 9/13/13

Crimson Joy by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1988    

Thereís a serial killer targeting black women in Boston and the police have quietly asked Spenser if he can help find them. The issue is complicated by the fact that they suspect the killer is not only a policeman himself but also a patient of Spenserís long time girlfriend.  When she starts to receive veiled threats, Spenser and company take turns watching her but she refuses to reveal the names of her clients. The girlfriend, whom I have by now come to cordially despise, is even more obtuse than usual. Even when she knows which of her patients is the killer, and plans to let him know that she knows, she wonít allow Spenser to be nearby to protect her. This is absurd, given that he has already killed four people and is likely on the verge of choosing his fifth victim. Despite that I liked this one better than the last couple. 9/11/13

Detour by Helen Nielsen, Black Lizard, 1981 (originally published in 1953)  

A hitchhiker is picked up by a doctor, who stops at a remote service station. There the doctor is murdered and the boy is the chief suspect, even though he insists he saw a man in a raincoat and later a car driving away. Coincidentally, the boy has just about the right amount of cash if he had robbed the doctor and the circumstantial evidence seems enough to convince the local sheriff. Fortunately not everyone in town believes heís guilty and at least one of them is willing to take steps to find out if the boyís story is true. Not one of my favorite Nielsen novels. The pacing is okay but I never really liked any of the characters. 9/8/13

Playmates by Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 1989  

Spenser gets involved with cheating in sports again, this time a college basketball player who has been shaving points to beat the spread and who is now firmly in the grasp of organized crime. Rather than turn him in, Spenser feels sympathetic Ė the player is a college senior and cannot read Ė but puzzled about how to extricate the player and himself from a potentially dangerous situation. He isnít bothered much by his obligation to his employer, the university, even though it is trying to do the right thing. The heavies apply pressure and we know how little good thatís going to do. 9/5/13

Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1987

Spenser is hired to look into the murder of a newspaper reporter who may have gotten too close to a drug smuggling operation in a small town in Massachusetts.  Spenser stays at a hotel with is more than fifty miles from any other motel, which I think is impossible anywhere in Massachusetts. Predictably the police resent his presence, the head of the drug distribution ring resents his presence, and almost no one in town is willing to speak to him. Then the chief of police is murdered, following an attempt to ambush Spenser on the road, and itís clear that someone is trying to cover up something, but not so clear whether the first murder was drug related, the result of a dangerous extramarital affair, or something else entirely. Thereís nothing new or surprising in this one but itís a well constructed and reasonably entertaining outing. 9/1/13

Quieter Than Sleep by Joanne Dobson, Doubleday, 1997   

Karen Pelletier is a professor at an exclusive New England college specializing in Emily Dickinson. While attending a faculty party, she opens a closet only to have a body fall into her arms, the body of another faculty member who has been sexually harassing her. Although she is never really a suspect, she becomes increasingly involved in the case when one of her students is also murdered and evidence suggests that the motive was linked to the dead manís academic studies rather than his sexual peccadilloes. Eventually, and rather predictably, she becomes a target herself. Although this was pretty good, itís one of those when the crime is solved only when the killer reveals his/her identity by attacking the protagonist. I wasnít entirely thrilled with Pelletier either, who vacillates between being catty and unreasonable and thoughtful and generous. First in a series, the rest of which I will probably read. 8/27/13

Beyond Rue Morgue edited by Paul Kane & Charles Prepolec, Titan, 2013, $14.95, ISBN 978-178161753   

This is a collection of original short stories chronicling further adventures of Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe's detective from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", which is the first story in the collection. It is followed by Mike Carey's very nice story about Dupin's intervention in an actual historical tragedy, the death of a team of men building the Brooklyn Bridge, which in the story was murder rather than an accident. Simon Clark's story of murder by a mad balloonist is pretty minor. Weston Ochse & Yvonne Navarro pit the grandson of Dupin against a bunch of occultists in the Old West. Jonathan Maberry has a very good Holmes type mystery although he makes a small error. A witness judges the passage of time by his watch, which turns out to be one minute off. Dupin then adds a minute to the time which passed, but actually since both readings were from the same incorrect watch, the time passed would be as originally reported. Joe Lansdale mixes Dupin with Lovecraft and Lisa Tuttle suggests that Dupin may have turned to crime himself. Overall a very good collection with some interesting twists. 8/26/13

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, Mulholland, 2013, $26, ISBN 978-3-316-20684-6 

J.K. Rowling's first detective novel features Cormoran Strike, a nearly bankrupt private detective in London who is hired to investigate the supposed suicide of a famous model who fell, or was pushed, from the balcony of her apartment.  The witness statements are contradictory and the woman most likely to know more about what happened is clearly lying. Although initially skeptical that there was actually a crime, Strike becomes more convinced as he proceeds that some evidence was withheld that might have made the police look more closely. His investigation is intertwined with his own romantic and family problems, plus his new temporary secretary, but the diversions are well paced and don't interfere with the main plot. I liked this as much or better than the Harry Potter books despite a mild cheat in the solution. 8/24/13

Sing Me a Murder by Helen Nielsen, Black Lizard, 1988 (originally published in 1961)   

Ty Leanderís wife dies when a fire destroys their home but he refuses to accept that she is dead, insists that the unidentifiable body was someone else. At the same time he feels guilty about not being there and tells one of his friends that he is going to frame himself for a recent celebrated murder to thwart the bloodlust of the public for the man currently charged with the crime. The friend and three others decide that they need to watch over Leander, whom they believe is having a nervous breakdown after a staged attempt at suicide and other apparently irrational behavior. But Leander has found disturbing letters among his wifeís effects and he asks pertinent and probing questions about the murdered woman. The style is a bit odd in this one. We see much of the action through the viewpoint of Leander, but we rarely see his thoughts so we canít tell if heís sane or not. The murder itself is cleverly done although I had pretty much figured everything out before the revelation. 8/20/13

Taming a Seahorse by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1986    

The young prostitute Spenser rescued in Ceremony is in trouble again.  Sheís been lured away from her plush job as a prostitute by a devious pimp who has connections to organized crime. Spenser annoys a lot of powerful people this time around after talking to another prostitute, which leads eventually to a pair of murders. The plot is slightly unfocused and covers a lot of territory rather quickly Ė I think this is the shortest of the Spenser novels Ė before coming to a negotiated end. Less violence than usual, at least on stage. Fun but relatively minor. 8/19/13

A Catskill Eagle by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1985  

Parker doesnít waste any time in this Spenser novel. Within the first dozen pages we know that Hawk is in jail for murder and that Spenserís love interest is also in trouble.  I was a bit troubled by this one. The woman has apparently been kidnapped by a super rich villain. Spenser breaks Hawk out and the two of them beat up some security guards, killing one, even though thereís no evidence that theyíre bad guys.  I had another problem with Susan Silvermanís affair with the bad guyís son. Said son is also an obviously awful person, capable of murder if itís convenient and manifold other crimes, yet she insists that her relationship with him is real. Sorry, I donít buy it at all. The entire love triangle was completely unbelievable and my interest in her character, already flagging, is now pretty much dead.  The story is otherwise about average but as a whole itís fatally flawed. 8/14/13

Buffet for Unwelcome Guests by Christiana Brand, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983 

This is a collection of the ďbestĒ short crime fiction by the author of Green for Danger and other novels, and itís a uniformly high quality selection. The opening story deals with a clever method of concealing the identity of a murderer concocted by a family of actors acting in consort. The second involves two brothers, each of whom manages to implicate the other in a crime he did not commit. The third involves death by poison and the mystery is in how, and when, the poison was administered.  A woman infatuated with a married man is poisoned in the next, and we know who did it Ė the troubled manís wife.  She gets caught up by a very subtle mistake. A convoluted locked room mystery follows, which I didnít care for. The next three involve a poisoning complicated by the complicity of four different people, which is rather cheating, a crime solved retroactively but not very believably, and an uninteresting story about murder among a group of hippies. A very nice caper story follows, with not only a reversal but a double reversal. Then another strong story about a murder plan that goes badly awry. The remaining stories tend to be shorter, are mostly puzzles, and are entertaining but not up to the quality of the opening few. 8/12/14

Valediction by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1987 

Separated from the woman he loves, Spenser is in rather a funk when he agrees to look for a missing dancer. That case turns out to be a bum steer Ė the dancer has disappeared voluntarily Ė but during his investigation he discovers a strange cash flow arrangement between a small but militant church group and a construction company which turns out to be the front for a heroin ring. For complicated reasons, a local mob boss would be perfectly happy to have the organization shut down so it provides some clandestine help to Spenser. This is one of the more violent books in the series Ė a pretty hefty body count Ė but itís pretty good up until the final scenes. I couldnít buy the identity of the killer this time; the psychology just didnít work. 7/30/13

Brave Hearts by Carolyn Hart, 7th Street, 2013, $13.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-797-6   

This suspense thriller is set in World War II and starts with an adulterous affair between the wife of a British diplomat and a war correspondent. The diplomat is sent to the Phillipines in a mission involving a stock of gold and his wife goes with him, followed in due course by her lover. Shortly after arriving, the Japanese attack the islands and they become refugees struggling to survive, with the added poignancy of the romantic triangle. Everything works out eventually, of course. True love triumphs, the gold is saved, and so forth and so on.  As much as I usually enjoy this authorís work, this strikes me as the weakest book Iíve read by her. The story is predictable and I wasnít particularly fond of any of the protagonists. This was originally published in 1987.  7/22/13

Death on a Pale Horse by Donald Thomas, Pegasus, 2013, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-60598-394-3 

This is a three part Sherlock Holmes novel in which the first section deals with the infamous Colonel Moranís nefarious activities during the Zulu Wars. That sets the stage for a wide ranging adventure in which Moran leads a plot to seriously damage the British Empire. Holmes and Watson, with Mycroftís help, uncover the conspiracy and save the day. Some high adventure mixed with the usual clever detection. Thomas has written some good Holmes pastiches in the past, and this one is certainly creditable, but his prose is occasionally too ethereal for the subject matter and the sense of immediacy one expects from a thriller is often missing. 7/20/13

Catís Claw by Susan Wittig Albert, Berkley, 2012, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-425-24527-9 

Iíve continued reading this series out of loyalty despite the fact that I havenít enjoyed the last several. The author regularly spends too much time retelling events that happened in the earlier books, or reintroducing all of the man subordinate characters, and the plots are frequently now solved by happenstance rather than by actual detective work. This one follows that unfortunate pattern with the apparent suicide of a man whose divorce was pending, who had hinted that he had a stalker, and whose business was burglarized by another man now missing but known to the police. I actually skipped about thirty pages in fact. That said, the story itself is pretty good, a police procedural concentrating on Chief Sheila Dawson rather than China Bayles. 7/13/13

The Widening Gyre by Robert B. Parker, Delacorte, 1983    

Spenser hires on to protect a conservative politician running for the Senate from Massachusetts Ė he has no serious chance Ė but the opposition is taking no chances. His opponent is in the pocket of organized crime and someone within that group has a compromising video tape of the candidateís wife. Spenser tracks it down Ė thanks in part to some coincidences Ė and earns the wrath of a top mobster, although not for the reasons you might think. Heís also having trouble adjusting to the career aspirations of his love interest, although he admits that they are his problems and not hers. A solid but unremarkable adventure in which the only major violent episode almost seems to be an afterthought. I also suspect that the Spenser universe has more criminals who value their word than is the case in real life. 7/7/13

Sutherland's Rules by Dario Ciriello, Panverse, 2013, $12.95, ISBN 978-0-9837313-4-4

Two aging friends reunite to collect an old debt, a large load of high grade hashish which has to be moved from Afghanistan to England. They have no intention of selling it - they just want to smoke it themselves - but the real attraction is that it will probably be their last chance for an adventure together given their age. They arrive in Afghanistan, which understandably provides some ongoing difficulties and dangers, but they also attract the attention of two English customs officers who don't believe that the get together is innocuous. Various adventures follow and I really wasn't sure whether or not they were going to get away with the caper, although I found myself cheering them on. Nicely constructed, fast moving, and given that I'm in that same age group, it was very easy to identify with the protagonists. 7/2/13

A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames, Pyr, 2013, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-61614-799-0   

A mix of a detective story crossed with a police procedural does pretty well in this debut novel, set in Texas. A retired police officer decides to take a hand when an old friend is murdered, and he quickly discovers a whole crowd of people who may have had sufficient motive. Although the mystery itself is about average, Shames does a very good job of evoking a small town atmosphere and his characters are nicely fleshed out.  The prose is quite readable and events proceed in a logical and lively fashion. One of the more promising first mystery novels Iíve read in a while. 7/1/13

 

    MORE REVIEWS