Mystery

“Guilt by Association” by Marcia Clark

 

Book Cover - Guilt by Association

Rachel Knight is an L.A. prosecutor in the Special Trials unit of the D.A.s office. She handles hi-pressure, complex, high-profile situations, a job that never seems to have down time. She’s top in her unit, winning tough cases because of her ability to outsmart the defense attorneys and to see that justice is done. She’s a workaholic and she loves every minute.

 

When one of her closest colleagues, Jake Pahlmeyer, is found dead in a rat-hole of a motel, next to a teen whose nude photo Jake had in his pocket, Knight is profoundly shaken. She doesn’t believe any of the rumors flying around and seeks to find a reasonable explanation for Jake’s presence at the grim crime scene. She has little support – she’s even told to stay out of the inquiry more than once. But, of course, she can’t.

 

Jake’s cases are divided up and Knight is given one of his toughest – the rape of the daughter of a politically connected doctor. The doctor points the finger at a gang member the daughter was tutoring, but Knight, ever the skeptic, feels the facts don’t support the ‘too-easy’ theory. The family lives in a gated community, so access is limited and checked. It’s a mystery that needs to be solved before an innocent young man, however gang-connected, is railroaded.

 

As we get to know the quick-tongued, extremely bright Rachel Knight, we realize that she will never let the opinions of others slow her down, that she will protect the victims, that she is tough-skinned, but soft-hearted when it comes to the children and underdogs in the cases before her. She is shot at, threatened, bruised, finds her car vandalized, is compelled to wear a bulletproof vest, and yet still keeps after the truth in the two puzzling investigations. 

 

Yes, THAT Marcia Clark, has written a taut, complex legal thriller in “Guilt by Association” that never sets foot in the courtroom. Clark brings her prosecuting experience into play as we follow Knight through the gang areas of L.A. and in and out of jails, as Knight plays ‘bend-the-rules’ to her advantage even with the threat of suspension hanging over her head, as she interacts with her co-workers, as she navigates the surprising twists and turns of the sometimes ugly story of life on the street.

 

The supporting cast in “Guilt by Association” is fully developed and as interesting as Rachel Knight. The beautiful, commitment-phobic Special Trials lawyer Toni, the tough-as-nails, savvy Detective Bailey Keller, the hunky cop Graden Hales, and the compelling victims – all have distinct voices and realistic parts to play in this well-written novel. As we read the banter between the friends, we see people we’d want as colleagues, people who roll their eyes at each other’s gaffes, people we’d like to see in a sequel.

 

Marcia Clark spoke at a Crimewriters’ conference I attended and I now have an autographed copy of “Guilt by Association.” Please visit www.marciaclarkbooks.com to find out more about her other Rachel Knight books, as well as the non-fiction title that explores Clark’s role in the O.J. Simpson trial.

 

 

 

 

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“The Stephanie Plum Series” by Janet Evanovich

 

Book Cover - Sizzling Sixteen

Janet Evanovich and her bounty hunter heroine, Stephanie Plum, have been linked for all time since the first Plum treat, “One for the Money,” was published twenty books ago.

 

Fans can’t get enough of the odd-ball characters, wacky adult plotlines and fab romantic triangle that inhabit every book. Ranger is a bounty hunter extraordinaire (among other talents) is always dressed in black, has a fleet of black cars and a small army of elite back-up guys at his disposal, and makes it his business to follow and protect Stephanie wherever she goes. Joe Morelli, Stephanie’s hunky former high school flame, is a Trenton detective who frequently works the other side of the law from Ranger. And Stephanie likes them both. A lot.

 

Stephanie works for her slimy cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman with questionable associations. The plus side? He can't fire her, no matter how bad she is at her job. They're family.

 

Over the years, Stephanie has become a little more skilled at taking down the skips (meaning she sometimes actually takes her not-always-loaded gun along) but she still needs help from Lula and Ranger to get the job done. With a side-kick like Lula (gun-happy and indulging in the worst diets on the planet) Stephanie faces down pimps and killers, armed with her need to pay the bills. She gets shot at, loses more cars than any insurance company would tolerate, and never seems to catch the perps on the first try. Steph still can’t commit in her relationships, but if she ever did, we might lose the duo of smoldering men.

 

Our gal Stephanie has the nuttiest family ever to sit down to 6:00 dinner. Grandma Mazur has been known to shoot at the dinner (with a gun, not a camera) and never misses a viewing at a funeral home. Dad keeps his fork buried in the roast beef and mashed potatoes and mumbles to get through the meals. Mom is the best cook in the Burg, but nips a little (okay – a lot) in the kitchen to help her cope with Stephanie’s still unmarried status and embarrassing occupation.  

 

“Sizzling Sixteen” was quick, funny and raunchy as always, with Stephanie, Lula and Connie (Vinnie's secretary) out to raise a million dollars to save Vinnie from the bookies who want to blow up the bail bonds office. This time, the most inept bounty hunters in the business have a lucky bottle to help them. Let’s face it, the fans don’t read the Plum books for the deep, insightful plots. We’re looking for quirky and we want to know what’s going to happen with Stephanie and the two handsome guys. Stephanie and Joe have broken up (or have they?) and she daydreams (and more) about Ranger. I wonder if sales of Bulgari Green have risen since the series began…

 

In “Smokin’ Seventeen,” Stephanie Plum still can’t decide who grabs her heart…Ranger or Joe. If you want to declare your choice publicly to the world, stickers you can attach to your clothing are included in the book. The bounty hunting part of this seventeenth installment in the series includes vampires (you have to read this one to believe it), dancing bears and guys trying to kill our cash challenged heroine. And this time Ranger’s crew has a pool to see how long it takes for Stephanie to blow up one of his sleek black cars. As always, a fun read for Evanovich fans. 

Book Cover - Takedown Twenty

 

 

I haven’t read my copy of “Takedown Twenty” yet, but once I start, phones, computer and all communication with the outside world will stop until I finish the last hilarious page. I hear that a giraffe named Kevin is running around the streets of Trenton, a mob boss is on the loose and Stephanie is playing Bingo at a senior center with Grandma Mazur in order to solve a murder. What could go wrong?
 

Please visit www.evanovich.com to see the latest news about her books, read about her recent collaboration with Lee Goldberg, and look at all the Ranger/Morelli/Plum goodies available.

 

 

 

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“Violet Dawn” by Brandilyn Collins

 

Book Cover - Violet Dawn

Don’t read the first chapter of “Violet Dawn” if you plan on stepping into your hot-tub in the middle of the night. You might not ever get into it again unless there are floodlights blazing on the deck.

 

Imagine:  a touch, a brush aside of something annoying and ALL OF A SUDDEN YOU REALIZE YOU’RE IN A HOT TUB WITH…” Shriek!!!!! – The scene Collins has written would be a delicious opening for a movie.  (Play ‘Psycho’ music here)

 

Collins’ loyal following has put her on the bestseller list with several faith-based series. “Violet Dawn” is the first in her Kanner Lake group, featuring a small town reminiscent of TVs Cabot Cove – where everyone knows everyone else’s business, but whose residents also stand ready to help when life takes a downturn. The Kanner Lake population seems unfriendly at first, but then we get to know the quirky regulars at the Java Joint and realize that our initial impressions have been filtered through Paige Williams’ eyes, a young woman with a complex past. Paige’s background drives her distinctly odd behavior at the beginning of the book, and Collins keeps the readers’ interest as that past is revealed, a bit at a time, against the backdrop of a missing persons search and then, murder investigation.

 

Although new in town, Paige has the support of both her boss and the owner of the Java Joint when the murder investigation points to her. A fame-seeking reporter finds her humanity and plays a pivotal role in “Violet Dawn.” An honest Chief of Police keeps digging until the truth is revealed. Each of the characters has a story of his/her own to tell and it seems clear that they will be more fully developed as the series continues.

 

The main villain, Black Mamba, slithered through his scenes in a satisfyingly sinister way. The character was a bit over the top at times in comparison with the rest of Kanner Lake people, but he works as a stark contrast between decent townspeople and the creeps who would do us harm.

 

By the way, if I ever buy a hot tub, it’s going to have a transparent cover!

 

Titles from the Kanner Lake series: “Coral Moon,” “Crimson Eve,” and “Amber Moon.”

Collins’ work is sometimes grouped with Christian fiction; other times with cozies.

 

For more about Collins and “Seatbelt Suspense,” visit www.brandilyncollins.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Buried by the Roan” by Mark Stevens

 

Book Cover - Buried by the Roan

Big game hunting guide, Allison Coil, loves the mountains of Colorado and their utter serenity, “the sensation of nature, of horse, of lakes and woods.” It is her “addiction.” Her music is the mournful howl of a coyote. Her job allows her the freedom to enjoy it all.

 

The problem is, the Roan Plateau, west of her hunting campsite in the Flat Tops, is the target of natural gas developers, of a corporation that plans to start ‘fracking’ to access the gas. If ranch owners sell their mineral rights, they stand to make millions. But, in the process, the woods might disappear and so would the game.

 

The death of one of her clients, Josh Keating, appears to be an accident, but Coil isn’t buying it. Keating was too experienced to have been as stupid as the so-called drunken ‘accident’ made him appear. And, then there is the fact that now that he’s dead, Keating’s wife gets to make decisions about their gas-rich land that he might not have approved.

 

Add in dead buffalo on Keating’s property, pristine mountain water being poisoned, scheming relatives, businessmen determined to get their piece of the financial windfall, militant environmentalists, a media frenzy as federal officials make decisions, a devolutionist who reports his back-to-nature experience on YouTube, and we have a multi-layered story in “Buried by the Roan” that was a finalist for the 2012 Colorado Book Awards and the Colorado Authors League.

 

Author Mark Stevens successfully presents both sides of the environmental fight, allowing his characters to become as passionate as the real-life residents of the high country. Big money aside, several locals care deeply about retaining the look and feel of the mountains, even bashing the impact of the ski resorts on their beloved state. 

 

One faction in “Buried by the Roan” is in favor of slow-food, produce and other goods grown and sold locally so as to have less impact on the ecosystem. Herbalist Trudy Heath, Allison Coil’s close friend, sells homemade pesto, cooks mouth-watering organic food, and is reluctantly drawn into the politics of the slow-food cause. That involvement and Allison’s murder investigation cross paths in a believable way as Allison’s life is threatened.

 

Stevens weaves two romances into the novel, for Allison as well as Trudy, both realistic, but quite different. Allison’s daydreaming about younger Colin is amusing and we root for the relationship to blossom into something more.

 

Robin Cook, a bestselling author of 31 thrillers, famously said that mysteries should be about something beyond the puzzle in the mystery itself. “Buried by the Roan” has plenty of hot topics to occupy book club (and other) discussions without hitting us over the head with the very real issues at its core.

 

Please visit www.writermarkstevens.com for more info about the Allison Coil series. Happily, "Trapline" was published in 2014.  See the review here.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Kneading to Die” by Liz Mugavero

 

Book Cover - Kneading To Die copy

‘Stan’ (short for Kristan) Connor leaves Hartford, Connecticut after being unfairly downsized from her high paying, high pressure PR job. It’s time to take a breather from the fast lane and move her life in a different direction. When she arrives at her newly purchased Victorian in Frog Ledge, a town so small that everybody knows your business before you say hello for the first time, she knows she is home.

 

Her boyfriend doesn’t agree, and pressures her to get another job ASAP before she regrets her decision. Plus, he’s not happy about the commute to see her. He keeps trying to arrange job interviews for her, despite her protests. Not needed, not wanted. She has two years severance pay, after all. This pair is definitely not on the same page.

 

Stan soon finds herself in a fix when she visits the obnoxious town vet with her Maine coon, Nutty. The vet is dead; kibble sprinkled over her body, and hardly anybody misses her. Stan is a suspect in the murder, just because she found the body. Well, small town people do have to blame the outsiders, don’t they?  😉

 

As Kristan seeks to clear herself in “Kneading to Die,” she finds it hard to know whom to trust. Even her childhood friend, an animal rescuer and now the owner of Pet’s Last Chance, Nikki Manning, comes under suspicion as the case unfolds. But, then Nikki delivers some inside info about the deceased and a possible motive for the vet’s death.

 

Colorful characters (and suspects) abound, including alpaca farmers/bed & breakfast owners, a sweetshop owner, dairy farmers, gossipy townspeople, long-lost relatives, a homeopathic vet, and more.

 

Kristan bakes healthy treats for pets, made from scratch like people cookies, but without the additives usually found in commercial cat and dog food. One of my mother’s cats suffered with clumps of hair falling out, traced back to his completely canned diet. As soon as mom put him on a diet of home cooked fish and other fresh goodies, the condition cleared up. Mugavero is definitely onto something with this aspect of “Kneading to Die,” and has generously included recipes for dog and kitty treats at end of the book.

 

The hunky potential love interest, Jake McGee, owns a seemingly untrainable, sloppy, big dog that loves Stan’s treats and shows up on her doorstep at odd hours, waiting to get fed. The dog keeps throwing Kristan and Jake together, at times embarrassing them both.

 

The underlying theme of this dog-and-cat-filled cozy is advocacy for animals. Mugavero weaves the nasty side of pet sales, abandoned animals, questionable veterinarian policies, badly prepared pet food, etc. into the murder plotline and raises awareness of the real-life issues involved. Fortunately, the unpleasant side of the pet industry is balanced with the warm, caring behavior of the assorted animal lovers in “Kneading to Die.”

 

P.S. If you’ve ever owned a cat or a dog, you’ll find the descriptions of the animals in “Kneading to Die” hilarious and spot-on. I was checking a detail at the beginning of the book and reread about Nutty’s tail delivering opinions – still sooo funny. Mugavero clearly knows her animals.

 

“Kneading to Die” is the first book in Pawsitively Organic series, and happily, Kristan Connor will be back in the next.

 

Please visit www.lizmugavero.com for information about this debut author.

 

 

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“Misery Bay” by Steve Hamilton

 

Book Cover - Misery Bay

 

The best mysteries are great puzzles, giving us bits and pieces of the storyline, one by one until the killer is revealed and the reason for the crime becomes apparent. The lead character is compelling, likable even though flawed, and when faced with a challenge? Never walks away until the case is closed, despite the heavy toll that case may exact upon his/her soul.

 

Alex McKnight, a former cop from Detroit, sometime Private Investigator, now spends his time working on one of his rental cabins. He avoids any real contact with the world except for meals and imported Canadian beer at the Glasgow Inn. He doesn’t even own a TV. When a cold wind blows in through the pub’s doorway and a former hated colleague, Chief Roy Maven, walks in, McKnight is pretty sure nothing good will come of the visit. And it doesn’t.

 

The Chief has a friend, Raz, whose son has just committed suicide. The man wants to know why. An impossible question to answer, but McKnight is being asked to spend some time looking into it in order to ease the father’s mind. McKnight connects with Raz because of a shared need to do something about a death that could not be explained, and because the case is a reminder of his own past that troubles him.

 

McKnight conducts some light inquiries, chats with the son’s former classmates, and then heads back to report his findings, however slim. Except that Raz is dead. And his death is no suicide.

 

McKnight and Chief Maven have never liked each other and that dynamic is perfect as they work together to convince the FBI investigators that there is a killer on the loose and that the case is not closed. They bully each other as they search for answers, defying the FBI orders in the process, but more effective in their tenacity. The body count rises and connections and motivation must be found before the next victim dies. Even they are at risk.

 

No plot spoiler here, but clues to the ’why’ begin early on. There’s nothing to tie them to the story, so we wonder why they’re there, dangling, causing us to twitch with curiosity. Patience, dear reader.  😉

 

The Michigan Upper Peninsula winter is a character in the book; as the backdrop in the first paragraph, and a recurring theme. The landscape and the weather each play a part in the initial case and the dramatic climax to “Misery Bay.” I’ve never been so cold while reading a book. I reached for sweaters as the six or eight inches of snow fell every day and the wind blew and ice formed everywhere. When Hamilton wrote, “By the time the end of March rolls around, everyone’s just a few degrees past crazy,” I believed him.

 

There is a haunting scene when McKnight sees the spot where the first body was found overlooking Lake Superior. What a bleak, cold, lonely way to die, hanging by a rope from a tree next to a frozen lake, alone. But, there are many haunting scenes. The “I am bleeding” passage is riveting, harrowing, masterful.

 

This is a dark book, touching upon past crimes against McKnight and those close to him, old injuries, old demons. There is little that is cheery about it, few soft edges. Even the ‘thought about’ romance is sad, tinged with regret and what McKnight isn’t ready for right now. Maybe later, but not now. The man is suffering, in a dark place, and still can’t go into the cabin where a tragedy occurred in his own life months before. His friends try to help, but he can’t quite turn the page on his sadness, can’t quite release his guilt. Yet, the man has a sense of humor that relieves the tension periodically, and a warm, caring, dedicated strength that generates loyalty and respect from even those who dislike his rule bending actions.

 

“Misery Bay” is the eighth in the Alex McKnight series and the first I have read. It can be read as a stand-alone, but the references to past cases are so intriguing that it won’t be my last.

 

Bestselling author Steve Hamilton is a two-time recipient of the Edgar award as well as several other very cool crime writing awards. Please visit www.authorstevehamilton.com to learn about the rest of his novels.

 

 

 

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“Baltimore Blues” by Laura Lippman

 

Book Cover - Baltimore Blues

 

Tess Monaghan is an out-of-work investigative reporter who relies on the kindness of relatives to get by. She works a few hours a week at her Aunt Kitty’s bookstore in exchange for a third floor room in her house. Uncle Donald pays Tess out of his own pocket to do paralegal work for him. It’s been two years since she drew a legitimate paycheck, her unemployment benefits have run out, and she gets free meals by winning head to head rowing competitions with her pal, Darryl Paxton, the ‘Rock.’ The ‘Rock’ lets her win. Her friends rarely let her pick up the tab.

 

One day, Darryl says he’ll pay Tess to use her investigative skills to uncover why his fiancée has been acting strangely. Tess doesn’t like Ava, so she’s looking forward to making some cash while digging up some dirt, and find dirt she does. When Tess confronts Ava with the information, life takes a nasty turn for Darryl – he is arrested for murdering Ava’s boss, Abramowitz. Abramowitz, who put accused rapists back out on the street, is nobody’s favorite guy, but Tess is hard-pressed to find anybody else who looks as good as Darryl for the crime.

 

She is willing to break into places to get the answers she needs, and can make the most creative excuses to justify her behavior. She blackmails security guards with exposure of their wrongdoings, while blithely carrying out some criminal capers of her own. She gets away with it because of her former connections to journalism and present loose connection with a lawyer defending her best pal. Taking advantage of romantically inclined friends is not beneath her. At all.

 

The deftly tied together assortment of she said/she said encounters, heart-breaking murder, extortion, fraud, deceit, shattered hopes, and revenge take place in Baltimore, ‘the city that bleeds.’ One storyline allows us a glimpse into the secret life of a wealthy Baltimore family, another reveals the rigors facing a competitive rower, along with wonderful descriptions of old neighborhoods long since abandoned by polite society. This is home to Tess and she loves every raw scent of the ethnic communities that make up the whole. We know that she would never leave, and that Tess’ loyalty to Darryl is based on something more than free blueberry pancakes and races on the Patapsco. He pushes her to do more with her rowing, to be more present in her life.

 

Tess’ complex personality is deliciously likable. Who among us doesn’t attempt to justify our daily misdemeanors? Who wouldn’t try to undo the damage done by a well-meaning slip of the tongue? Tess just does it against the background of murder and other felonies. While quoting poetry and humming patriotic songs.

 

The fabulous cast of characters is as diverse as it is real. Her colorful aunt, the luscious former boyfriend, the serial killer, two VOMA members, and more… The subplots evolve naturally and the nasty types play nicely against Tess, never quite sure what she does and doesn’t know. The sparring matches reveal as much about Tess as they do about both victims and survivors.

 

“Baltimore Blues” is a great beginning to the eleven book (so far) series. I just downloaded the second title, “Charm City.”

 

New York Times bestselling author, Laura Lippman, is the recipient of the Anthony, Edgar, Shamus, and Agatha Awards.

 

Please visit www.Lauralippman.com for more information about Ms. Lippman, the rest of the Tess Monaghan series and her stand-alone books.

 

 

 

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