Mystery

“Murder Inside the Beltway” by Margaret Truman

 

Book Cover - Murder Inside the Beltway

 

Walt Hatcher is a bigoted veteran detective who constantly insults his co-workers. He lies to his wife, leans on witnesses and shouts so-called apologies. Hatch is a misfit in a modern police department and is in dire need of a crash course in sensitivity, but he gets the job done.

 

He is assigned to investigate the murder of a DC call girl, and during the crime scene search, one of his team discovers a video camera hidden in a bookcase. The client list discovered on the tapes becomes the focus of the inquiries, made all the more intriguing because a bloody presidential campaign is underway.

 

When the daughter of a campaign strategist is kidnapped before the murder case is solved, political machinations move into high gear. It’s hard to tell who wins the prize for ‘slimebag of the year’ after a connection is made between the kidnapping and the murder.

 

Other characters predominate the second half of the book, but Hatcher’s actions play heavily in the outcome of both cases. Readers anticipating Truman’s famous surprise endings will not be disappointed.

 

Throughout the ‘Capital Crimes’ series, Truman brought her main characters to life by sharing the thoughts of each one. Realistic dialogue that followed the internal processing made her books flow effortlessly, as if we were in the rooms living the scenes. We cheered for the nice guys, however lightly flawed, and hissed at the bad guys as they were quite cleverly dispatched. The novels became grittier with time, but never reached ‘Adults Only’ status.

 

When Margaret Truman was a junior in college, her father, Harry, became the President of the U.S. Years later, she began writing the Capital Crimes series, all set in DC. Truman had a love-hate relationship with her experiences at the White House, but she captivated readers with the details of the Washington that she knew so well. The Adams-Morgan residential section of the city and the Mall (a tourist favorite, with museums surrounding a park setting) are featured in “Murder Inside the Beltway,” the 24th and final title of the bestselling series.

 

Memorable titles in the series include:

 

“Murder at the National Gallery” – M. Scott Pims is a scheming art curator with a masterful plan involving the Gallery.

 

“Murder at the National Cathedral” – Mac and Annabel Smith are a husband and wife team sleuthing among the stained glass and pillars of the National Cathedral.

 

“Murder at the Smithsonian” – a showdown with a surprise murderer occurs in The Museum of American History.

 

Margaret Truman passed away in 2008, but her legacy lives on in her work. Having visited and enjoyed Washington, D.C. dozens of times myself, it was great fun to be able to revisit the famous places she mentioned and imagine the mayhem among the corridors and columns of our nation’s capital.

 

 

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“The Cold Dish” by Craig Johnson

 

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When a novel begins with, “Bob Barnes says they got a dead body out on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land,” you’d be sure that murder was afoot. But in "The Cold Dish," Walt Longmire, Sheriff of Absaroka County, thinks the drunken hunters merely saw a dead sheep. The Sheriff is told to bring beer when he goes out to investigate. So, he does what any seasoned Sheriff would do – he manipulates his bored, testy, always swearing, deputy Vic (short for Victoria) to head out to the sheep in question, heads home early and keeps the six-pack.

 

But, his thoughts as he sits in his ‘under construction’ house, are never far from the job, even as he polishes off the Rainier by himself. He doesn’t need a file in front of him to remember the details of one horrific event when justice was not served. The racially charged case that troubles him involves a young Indian girl with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who had been raped three years before, but her case had only recently come to trial. He muses over injustice in the world, and what he, as the investigating officer on the case, might have done differently. Then Vic reports that the dead body found among the sheep is one of the alleged rapists.

 

Melissa Little Bird’s attackers received a slap on the wrist, but is someone making up for the lapse in the law? When the second of Little Bird’s attackers is killed, Longmire and his lifelong friend, Henry Standing Bear, owner of the local watering hole and Walt’s occasional liaison with the Reservation, must choose whom to protect.

 

What follows is an extremely well written modern Western mystery, with honest dialogue, and complex, realistic characters dealing with serious issues in a harsh world. Friend and foe alike are under suspicion as the cases develop and overlap next to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, in sight of the breathtaking Bighorn Mountains. A century of distrust among the area residents is not helped by the deaths or the investigations.

 

Johnson has accurately portrayed the hollowness of being a widower, the severity of an unforgiving winter that impedes pursuits, the challenge of forensic analysis without a lab close by, the search for a 125 year old .45-70 Sharpe’s Buffalo rifle, the emptiness of having an estranged daughter, and the issue of an upcoming election for Sheriff. This multi-dimensional background to the central story creates an absorbing introduction to the Longmire series of novels.

 

Homage is paid to Cheyenne culture throughout “The Cold Dish,” but a haunting scene late in the book will stay with me forever. Imagine echoes of braves singing, whispering to Longmire, and playing drums alongside him during a blizzard on a mountainside, as he fights the pull to the Camp of the Dead. One voice among many says, “Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.”

 

Johnson now lives on a ranch in Wyoming and was a law enforcement officer for a few years, although in a large eastern city. In order to get the feel of a Western County Sheriff’s job right for his books, he shadowed a Sheriff friend of his back in Wyoming.

 

If you have watched “Longmire,” the TV show on A & E, you have met the Sheriff in the persona of Robert Taylor, the Australian actor who has captured the depth and pain of Longmire perfectly. The other actors in the show, most notably Lou Diamond Phillips, Katee Sackhoff, and Bailey Chase, are marvelous in their roles.

 

Please visit www.craigallenjohnson.com to learn more about Craig Johnson and his NYT bestselling, award-winning novels.

 

 

 

 

 

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“The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith

 

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Smith has written a series of much-admired bestsellers based in Gaborone, Botswana, where life is enjoyed most when sitting on a porch sipping red bush tea, enjoying the view of acacia trees, listening to Go-Away birds calling, and watching people from the village stroll past. The ‘No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ in the fourteen books, is run by Mma Precious Ramotswe, a sensible woman of traditional size (translation – big woman), so no slinky, svelte types will be found between the pages, unless they happen to be up to no good. Makeup is more or less dismissed as unnecessary (or mostly for those women who are up to no good).

 

Ramotswe guarantees satisfaction for all parties, and as the clever owner of the first detective agency in Botswana run by a woman, that’s a standard she is happy to apply as a matter of personal principle. In “The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” she must find a missing husband, follow an errant teenager, and search for a missing child, while keeping her clients happy and herself safe – not easy when witch doctors and cobras might be involved.

 

The feel-good mystery series has been a worldwide phenomenon and has inspired a BBC TV series as well as a movie. Smith writes from his experience of living and working in Botswana. His descriptions of the countryside make the reader feel that looking for the hippos around the next bend of the river is the natural order of things, where going to the next town is a really big deal and making a 97 on a final exam is cause for endless celebration. Smith has successfully conveyed his love of Africa through Ramotswe’s unabashed pride in her beloved Botswana, whether speaking of snakes or diamonds or witch doctors or the cattle used to buy her business.

 

Happily, the main supporting characters are well drawn and we as readers are pulled into the relationships as Ramotswe makes her decisions. I was angered, dismayed, touched, and ultimately quite pleased by the behavior of the men in her life.

 

A later book in the series (from 2010) “The Double Comfort Safari Club,” is not quite as successful as the earlier titles because of one case involving an inheritance to be delivered to the correct person. The resolution seemed to be an odd stretch and made me question whether I could trust Mma Ramotswe’s usually sound judgment. Perhaps it’s a cultural disconnect, but I kept re-reading that section of the book to see if I had somehow misunderstood the issues surrounding the choices.

 

With that exception, “Double Comfort…” is pleasant, and often demonstrates Mma Ramotswe’s loyalty to the people in her circle. Having been in difficult situations herself, she helps and encourages those in need. Another case, involving a trusted employee whose fiancé has a tragic accident and afterward becomes virtually imprisoned by an aunt, is resolved rather deliciously, underlining Ramotswe’s basic decency. She isn’t always correct in her assessment of the clients, but she is fiercely protective of the ones who need her the most.

 

No shoot-outs, no car chases, no bloody murders, just enjoyable reads about a woman with common sense born out of an abusive early marriage and a knack for understanding the quirky bits of human nature – important characteristics for the head detective in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

 

For more information about Alexander McCall Smith and his other famous series, please visit www.alexandermccallsmith.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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“Speaking of Murder” by Tace Baker

Book Cover - Speaking of Murder

 

A college professor has an affair with her student, keeps it a secret to protect both of them, and finds that student dead on campus one evening after class. His killing has protected someone’s secret, and Lauren Rousseau is afraid that the murder investigation will uncover her own indiscretion. But, she’s not the only one with a secret, as the lives of those around her are revealed, layer by troubling layer.

 

Rousseau is an interestingly flawed character, with fits and starts of conscience as it applies to her love life. And, her love life is further complicated by her relationship with a man to whom she cannot commit. He wants more, she doesn’t, as evidenced by the affair. Their off and on relationship rings true as Rousseau sorts out her feelings and he can’t understand what’s wrong. He’s a good man and Rousseau is screwing it up. She almost recognizes that fact and the reader sees the changes in the independent Rousseau as she deals with her fluctuating heart.

 

A mentally unsteady friend mysteriously goes missing from rehab. Basically dismissed by the police, Rousseau is unwilling to leave the case alone. She hopes someone will care enough to rescue her if she ever gets into trouble and wonders if her friend’s disappearance is somehow related to the murder.

 

The murder and the disappearance are set against the crucial backdrop of college interdepartmental politics, with a masterful inside look at the life of a college professor – the power plays inherent in the tenure track and staying published in order to appease department heads. Having visited a few college profs’ offices over the years, I chuckled at the plot point that a missing thesis might be the key to everything. Trust me, those offices are stacked with hundreds of papers near exam time and it’s nearly impossible to find anything unless you know the professor’s filing system. Perfect!

 

I was struck by the rich texture of the heroine’s life, the fascinating people she meets and the intelligent way she approaches her investigations. The chats about other parts of the world, foreign language phrases sprinkled appropriately during conversations with other travelers, as well as the cooking references, make this a literate mystery, as it should be when a cultured linguistics professor is involved at the core. We discover that Rousseau is a Quaker and while it is an interesting aspect of her persona, the book is not a religious one.

 

Side characters play against each other satisfactorily and the family holiday dinners reminded me of cringe-worthy relatives I have known. There are some wicked bad guys, a surprise twist or two, and even arson tossed into the mix. I would never have guessed where the story would end up when I began and was extremely satisfied at the way Rousseau uncovered the awful truths that got her student killed.

 

I would bet that there are lots of mysteries to be solved on a college campus and many more food insights to be shared by Lauren Rousseau, in future books penned by Tace Baker.

 

A winning debut mystery.

 

Tace Baker is a pseudonym for Edith Maxwell, an author who will soon publish “A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die,” under her own name.

 

For more information about Maxwell/Baker and her upcoming projects, please visit www.edithmaxwell.com

 

 

 

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“T is for Trespass” by Sue Grafton

 

Book Cover - T is for Trespass

 

Kinsey Millhone, the prickly star of Sue Grafton’s California based alphabet series, is no slouch detective. She follows the details, writes notes on 3×5 cards as she gathers information, and is great at ferreting out the facts. In “T is for Trespass,” she still eats way too much fast food, cuts her own hair, takes morning runs near the beach when she’s in the mood, but now drives a ’70 Mustang instead of the beat up ‘74 VW that was totaled in the last book.

 

Along with other legal detail work, Kinsey is a process server to take care of the bills in between the big cases, and is conscientious about everything she does in her professional life. So, when Kinsey does a cursory background check on a home health aide as a favor, and unwittingly places an elderly neighbor in harm’s way, she feels obligated to undo the damage. The problem is that no one, especially not the neighbor’s reluctant niece who hired Kinsey, wants to be bothered with the inconvenient truth.

 

The villain in “T is for Trespass,” an evil psychopath, is one of the best that Grafton has written. Grafton has placed us inside the mind of the twisted caregiver and created a chilling character study. I was alarmed, gripping the pages and worried that Kinsey might not survive this one – and we were only up to “T.”

 

The search for a missing witness to a car accident (with surprising results) unexpectedly overlaps the search for the primary villain. Grafton has set the scenes in the two stories in such a way as to make the overlap seamless and absolutely believable.

 

Grafton has taken on two issues that affect enormous segments of the 2013 American population – identity theft and health care for senior citizens. She handles the senior care concerns with ripped-from-the-headlines accuracy as she reveals the stark reality of what can happen when our parents/relatives become the victims of elder abuse. Sobering – and it reads like fact, not fiction.

 

Not too much changes in Kinsey’s personal behavior through the series – the twenty books take place over a five year span in the ‘80s, before cellphones. This way, Kinsey gets shot at, arrested, threatened and harassed, all without backup coming anytime soon.

 

What a life just to avoid a 9 to 5 schedule. What a ride!

 

Grafton received the Ross Macdonald Literary Award in 2004 and was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2009.

 

For more about Sue Grafton and her most recent work, please visit www.suegrafton.com

 

 

 

 

 

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“Innocent” By Scott Turow

Book cover - Innocent

 

When a bestselling author returns to a book he wrote twenty years ago (“Presumed Innocent”) and writes a sequel to it (“Innocent”), we wonder whether he might just have run out of new ideas. In Scott Turow’s case, that wondering would be dead wrong.  What Turow has done is lift the art of the sequel to new heights.

 

Rusty Sabich, now a sitting appellate court chief judge, has been accused of murdering a second woman in his life and Tommy Molto, prosecuting attorney, is out to get him again, this time with a bigger grudge and bigger stakes.

 

Both men are at the top of their careers and neither wants to lose the case, because the loser’s life achievements would be forgotten in the media bloodbath that follows. But, Molto knows in his heart that Sabich was guilty the first time and got away with it. Sabich has secrets to hide and Sandy Stern is back as Rusty’s lawyer, trying to keep his client from tossing away everything.

 

Nat, Rusty’s son, plays a pivotal role in this courtroom drama – no plot spoiler here, but it’s a good one! Can a family ever recover from the fallout of a criminal case? Do the rifts caused by affairs ever heal? Do the children caught in the middle ever forget? Are people doomed to hold onto their flaws throughout life?

 

As I lay awake through the night reading “Innocent,” I was gripped with the questions: Did Sabich do it this time or didn’t he? And…my mind began to doubt whether he really did do it in “Presumed Innocent” after all.

 

Enough information is given about the case in “Presumed Innocent” to inform the reader, so "Innocent" can be a stand alone, but don’t let it be. The first book was a genre breaker and a great read as well. If you can’t find “Presumed Innocent” on the shelves anywhere, pick up a DVD of the Harrison Ford movie of the same name to catch the dynamics that drove the old rivalry between the major players.

 

For more information about Scott Turow and his body of work, visit www.scottturow.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Pictures of You” by Caroline Leavitt

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We all have certain expectations of our spouses. In the best scenarios, we picture loving each other robustly, tenderly and forever. In those pictures we raise marvelous children, and journey through life’s adventures with our best friends. ‘When we are not so busy’ or ‘when the children are grown’ we’ll have time to sort out all the nagging relationship issues. Unless the sand in the hourglass runs out before we get that chance.

 

In “Pictures of You,” two women’s lives intersect in a tragic auto accident. April dies when Isabelle swerves into her on an unfamiliar road in the fog. Isabelle, a photographer, is haunted by what she has done, even though she is cleared of any wrongdoing. She can’t forgive herself, so she doesn’t really blame anyone else in the community for ostracizing her; even welcomes being left alone. The fact of her husband’s infidelity has taken a back seat to her guilt.

 

The little boy, Sam, who survived the accident, has lost his mother and a grieving husband, Charlie, doesn’t understand why his wife, April, would have been on that road with their son at that time of day. Secrets are revealed about April that astound her husband. He no longer knows the woman with whom he shared his life. Charlie is helpless to comfort his son, ineffective in dealing with so many ‘after death’ issues. How many of us would be any better at it?

 

What follows is the tragic tale of three people aching for love; raw emotions and devastating truths revealed as they find a way to heal. No plot spoiler here, but photography plays an important role in the storyline.

 

Sam is so well written, with always age appropriate vocabulary, that the reader completely understands when he feels responsible for his mother’s death. Sam mistakes Isabelle for an angel and with his nine-year-old logic, mixes reality with his desperate wish to see his mother again. Leavitt creates a world in which the reader wants to hold this little boy, take away his heartache.

 

In an effective subplot, Isabelle suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which Leavitt depicts with insightful clarity. Isabelle shakes uncontrollably, sweats and feels nauseous when she sets foot in a car after the accident and for months afterward, must walk or ride a bike to go anywhere. Having been in a terrible car accident myself many years ago, I sympathized with the realistically intense stress the woman was going through, cringed at the nightmares she experienced. Leavitt herself, has an acute fear of being in cars, so brings considerable, painful  authenticity to the reading experience.

 

We tend to dismiss the importance of the small choices we make in life – not kissing a loved one goodbye or taking the time to listen when we’re running behind schedule – until it’s too late to get a do-over. We look back after a disaster and think: if only I had been a better dad, a better son, a better wife. If only I had stayed, or been there, or did what she/he asked. Everything would have been different. If only.

 

Beautifully written, exquisitely shared.

 

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, “Is This Tomorrow?” was published in May, 2013. Read the review here.

For more information about Ms. Leavitt and her books, visit www.carolineleavitt.com

 

 

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