It’s a Mystery: Holy Terror in the Hebrides, by Jeanne M. Dams

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sixty- something widow Dorothy Martin is an American ex-pat living in England.  Offered the chance to vacation on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, she gladly accepts. But Dorothy has the bad luck to arrive with an American church tour, whose seven members don’t permit their religious convictions to prevent them from squabbling and backbiting. On a group excursion to Staffa, a geological wonder, Dorothy is horrified to observe Bob, the most despised member of the tour, slip on a wet rock and tumble into the churning sea. Shocked at first, she soon recalls that conditions were dry all over the island: could someone have set Bob up for the fall by pouring water on that rock? Perhaps her suspicious would have developed no further, but the next day, huddling uneasily together in the hotel during a fierce rain and wind storm, Dorothy has the perfect opportunity to study each member for motive,  and piece her scanty evidence together. What she concludes shakes her deeply.

Holy Terror in the Hebrides qualifies as a classic English village mystery, but its author is no Brit. Jeanne Dams hails from Indiana, and describes her protagonist as her alter ego. Dorothy is a strong central character, propelling the rather simple plot via her observations, thoughts, and reactions. The actions of all other characters are filtered and interpreted through her. The novel is devoid of violence, with the terror promised by its title occurs in passages late in the narrative, and the denouement  is curiously lacking in suspense.  But Iona is a fascinating setting, and the story’s shortcomings are balanced by personality and atmosphere.

 

It’s a Mystery: Girl Missing, by Tess Gerritsen

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my rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the 1990′s, before switching to the medical thrillers she is famous for, Tess Gerritsen published a number of romantic thrillers. Girl Missing, published  in 1996 under the title Peggy Sue Got Murdered, foreshadows the currently popular Rizzoli and Isles series.

Kat Novak is a pathologist working for the greater Boston medical examiner. She’s tough, self-reliant, and something of a maverick, having grown up in the projects, and is not one to let go of suspicions easily. When three corpses turn up in her lab, each having OD’d on an unidentifiable substance, she sets out to find out what that substance is and who is distributing it. And someone among society’s elite wants to prevent her from finding out.

Girl Missing  does center upon a criminal investigation, one that the police somehow have little interest in, so the pathologist does it for them.  But sharing the stage is the romantic involvement that develops between Kat and Adam Quantrell, who owns a giant pharmaceutical  company and fears that his stepdaughter may be the next to OD.   Not particularly suspenseful, except at the end, there is little here to entice readers other than those  who enjoy a lot of romance in their mysteries.

It’s a Mystery: More Than Meets the Eye, By J.M. Gregson

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My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Sissinghurst,  one of the greatest of English gardens,  is the inspiration for Westbourne, the very interesting setting of  More Than Meets the Eye. Westbourne’s director, Dennis Cooper, loves his job, but possesses many irritating habits, such as collecting dirt on his employees,  that make him less than a favorite among the staff. When Cooper’s lifeless body is found on the grounds, Inspectors Lambert and Hook encounter many likely suspects. Author Gregson provides each of them with chapters of their own, and the mystery unfolds as the chapters alternate.  Rather than planting red herrings, he provides each character with very good reasons for wanting Cooper dead.  The reader never becomes certain about who really did it. So, More Than Meets the Eye works well  as a bona fide whodunnit, but, in this episode at least, the investigators, DSI Lambert and DI Hook, come across as rather flat. I found myself rooting more for the suspects than for the cops, and, no doubt as the author intended, felt considerable sympathy for the murderer. Let’s hope he/she is only charged with manslaughter!

Ghost Story: The Fate of Mercy Alban, by Wendy Webb

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grace Alban left her childhood home for college more than twenty years ago, and has never looked back. Alban House, a grand Victorian estate on the shore of Lake Superior, holds too many melancholy memories for her, stemming from  the drowning deaths of her younger twin brothers and her father.  When her mother Adele dies, Grace has little choice but to return to make funeral arrangements, bringing along her teenaged daughter.  From the moment she sets foot in the mansion, she’s struck by the sense of being surrounded by spirits. Little does she know……

The Fate of Mercy Alban is a gothic ghost story, which only just misses  categorization as romance. The Alban family has buried some very macabre secrets over the generations, and poor Grace, kept in the dark about them until now, must learn all about them the hard way. The novel is populated by some obvious types, such as the loyal family retainers, the elderly aunt who was ensconced in a private institution for the criminally insane, and an understanding and very dishy vicar.  Its plot revolves around a manuscript that Grace discovers, which tells the thinly veiled story of whatever happened to Aunt Fate, the twin sister of the evil aunt. Is it fact or fiction?  Grace is soon to know the whole truth.

This is a mildly creepy story, one that would probably make a scarier movie than book. It’s fun to read, and holds back one last secret till the very last page, which will leave you with food for thought and speculation.  And possibly a sequel?

It’s a Mystery: The Deliverance of Evil, by Roberto Costantini

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Deliverance of Evil is the debut novel of Italian writer Roberto Costantini. It opens in 1982, when Italy is celebrating the winning of the World Cup, thus taking little notice of a young woman’s murder on the streets of Rome. Detective Michele Balistreri doesn’t have the luxury of  ignoring the crime, but the heavy drinking, chain smoking womanizer is arrogantly certain that he’ll solve this murder. The case goes cold, however,  and the next 100 pages of this book are dedicated to demonstrating what a pretentious, hollow lowlife Balistreri is.

Though not exactly  on fast-forward, the story eventually takes its readers to 2006, and Italy is again on the verge of  another World Cup. Balistreri has finally hit rock bottom, where he lingers until pulled out of his self destructive funk by the death of his mother. When his clears, he remembers his failure to solve the long ago murder, and, feeling a modicum of guilt, sets out to rectify the situation.   Don’t look for the emergence of a Columbo, but Belistreri stumbles upon a deadly Eastern European prostitution ring,  and, when more murders occur, begins to piece together some links between past and present.

The Deliverance of Evil is full of extraneous detail, sketchily drawn characters, and a wordy rather than action based plot.  But buried among the extraneous clutter are some valuable insights in Italy’s social problems, which include widespread political corruption, a flood of immigrants, and constant conflict between church and state.  Rather than repeatedly demonstrating Balistreri’s moral ambiguity, some exploration of his own conflicts would add interest (ala Kurt Wallander.)  This novel is too long by at least a hundred pages, and tighter editing might shape it into a tauter, more appealing work.

It’s a Mystery: Firefly Beach, by Meira Pentermann

Firefly Beach

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Newly divorced accountant Beth leaves the world of stress and numbers behind, moving to Maine to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. As she settles into her rented cottage, she begins to become acquainted with the colorful residents of Virginia Point Cove, each with his or her own set of eccentricities and foibles. No sooner does she move in than Beth finds herself with a strange new “friend”, which she at first takes to be a firefly but then realizes it’s a strange little orb of light that can zip around a great speed and travel through solid windows and walls. The orb leads her to a secluded beach, where she discovers a diary hidden away amongst the rocks of the cliff face. Soon Beth is intent upon finding the girl, a woman now, who hid the book away before she disappeared from town. She will not be able to settle comfortably into her new life until that happens. It seems likely that there will be a sequel, since when Beth and the handsome craftsman living in town team up to solve the mystery together, a deeper relationship seems afoot.

Firefly Beach is perhaps most suited in its simplicity to a young adult audience.

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Thriller: The Cold Calling, by Will Kingdom

The Cold Calling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For DI Bobby Maiden, life after death is hell. Resuscitated after a hit and run, he’s haunted by dark, eerie dreams of being buried alive. Before the accident, he knew he was being fitted up by his supervisor, a crooked administrator who works hand in glove with the local hoods. When the supervisor visits him in the hospital, Bobby knows he’d better disappear before he’s forced to die another death.

The nurse who brought Bobby back to life is an alternative healer, and she hides him out with a friend, Marcus, who lives in the ruin of an ancient castle across the Welsh border. Marcus’s elderly housekeeper experienced, during childhood, a vision of the Virgin Mary at Black Knoll, the prehistoric burial mound above his home. Enter Cindy Mars-Lewis, a cross dressing entertainer who believes he has shamanic powers, and American journalist Grayle Underhill, looking for the sister who has disappeared somewhere among these ancient hills. When it appears that a serial killer is marauding, all hell breaks loose.

Will Kingdom is a pen name of Phil Rickman, the British novelist better known for his Merrilee Watkins series. There is no one writing today who is better at unrolling stories atmospheric with history and folklore, populated by magnetic characters, both good and bad, and topped with a credible dollop of the paranormal. Cold Calling has a multi-layered plot written tightly enough that the reader discovers the identity of the killer only when those in the story do. Green men, stone circles, and ley lines all play prominent roles, drawing the reader into the mystery.

I’ve said this in others of my Rickman reviews and it bears repeating: Phil Rickman is an author who deserves a wider audience in America. He’s outstanding. Check him out.

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Thriller: The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler

The Hypnotist (Joona Linna, #1)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Swedish crime thrillers are hot these days, following the success of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” et al. Now a married couple, writing under the pen name of Lars Kepler, adds a new title to the mix with The Hypnotist. The novel opens with the harrowing scene of the murder of a Stockholm family. Investigator Joona (pronounced Yona) Linna prevails upon psychiatrist Erik Maria Bark to hypnotize the lone survivor, the fifteen year old son who’s clinging to life in the hospital. Erik is reluctant, for the last time he used hypnosis on a patient, years back, the outcome was disastrous. He agrees, however, hoping the boy’s testimony will help police save the life of the sister who was away from home during the murder. It does, but in the process, a Pandora’s box of horrors is released when Erik’s own teenaged son, who has a life threatening blood disorder, is kidnapped.

The Hypnotist is a dark, chilling tale of desperation and madness, like most of its genre, and the labyrinth through which Erik and his wife must search is nightmarish, putting their already shaky marriage even closer to the edge of failure. There is an abundance of possible perpetrators, ranging from the boy in the hospital to Erik’s former patients, all of whom suffer from serious psychoses. As the story unfolds, the authors take readers from past to present and back again in series, switching from first to third person narration in the process. Commendably, they handle the flashbacks well, avoiding confusion and allowing readers to experience Erik’s terror as he desperately tries to locate his son. While some crime novels rely upon a host of red herrings, there are none here, as each of the possible suspects could readily have committed this crime.

Skillfully translated by Marlaine Delargy, The Hypnotist is worthy addition to the growing library of compelling Swedish thrillers.

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Thriller: Inferno, by Dan Brown

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of how or why he came to be there. No sooner does he regain consciousness than a mysterious, spiky haired woman in leather bursts into his room with her gun blazing. She misses Langdon, but, sad to say, kills his doctor instantly. Once again, Langdon goes on the run, accompanied by the beautiful Sienna Brooks, who is also on his medical team. Bit by bit, she informs him of a plot by a mad geneticist, who will shortly release a virus upon the world, one that promises to curtail population growth just as the Black Plague used to do naturally. Clues left by the geneticist are excerpted from one of the most famous poems ever written, Dante’s Inferno. It’s up to Langdon to decipher them and save humanity from disaster. His quest will take them to Venice and Istanbul, where he’ll be required to search within the holiest shrines of the Christian and Muslim cultures.

OK, as usual, the exploits, close escapes, and intellectual feats of hero Langdon are over the top, incredibly so. But that’s what makes Brown’s series so much fun. With Inferno, Brown has tightened up his writing style, producing a novel with less unnecessary window dressing and more substance. The fate from which the madman is trying to save the world is a true one, which most realistic scientists agree will probably begin wreaking havoc very soon. Brown weaves in information about architecture, literature, medicine, genetics, and population growth while managing to keep the action speeding right along. And, darn it, Langdon’s such an appealing kind of guy. So pack away your common sense and literary pretensions, and enjoy another wild ride with Robert Langdon. Great literature? Nope. Great entertainment? You bet. And the movie is already in production.

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It’s a Mystery: I’ll Be Watching You, by Andrea Kane

I'll Be Watching You

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It hasn’t been a good year for psychologist Taylor Halstead. Her story opens with an attempted sexual assault by her cousin Steph’s boyfriend, Gordon, fortunately averted when Steph arrives on the scene unexpectedly. Within hours, Gordon and Steph are dead, killed when his yacht explodes. Taylor can’t forget Gordon’s final words to her: he’ll be back to finish what he started, and until then, “I’ll be watching you.” His death comes as a relief, and she tries to put the horrific experience behind her. But four months later, two sinister emails, written in much the same vein, plunge her into another nightmare, one in which she is relentlessly and terrifyingly stalked. Support comes in the handsome form Reed Weston, the attorney who’s helping to probate Gordon and Steph’s estates. Romance is quick to bloom, but when Reed’s called upon the defend Gordon’s twin brother on charges of murder, Taylor is stunned. How could Reed defend the very man she suspects is her stalker?

I’ll Be Watching You falls solidly within the romantic suspense genre. As a mystery, the plot is somewhat contrived but has the requisite twists and turns. It isn’t very difficult to ID the stalker, but it’s more a matter of how than who. It also has the requisite sex scenes, in which the earth moves for both Taylor and Reed, but the relationship manages not to be too cloying. This is a fast paced book that should appeal to fans of Heather Graham and Kay Hooper.

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