mystery

“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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“Lowcountry Bribe” by C. Hope Clark

 

Book Cover - LowCountry Bribe

 

Seeing blood splattered all over the office is not the way I’d like to start the business day, but that’s exactly what Carolina Slade, Federal Agent for the Department of Agriculture near Charleston, South Carolina, encounters one morning. A co-worker, Lucas Sherwood, has committed suicide and Slade’s life is about to take a drastic turn for the worse as well.

 

Just when the business of giving loans to the local farmers seems to fall back into the normal routine, a hog farmer, Jesse Rawlings, arrives with a truckload of smelly, dead hogs, and attempts to bribe Ms. Slade into helping him get title to a farm in the area. In exchange for $10,000 and maybe a little action on the side. She’s not interested in either and it doesn’t take too long for her to report the attempted bribe to her boss. Her husband disagrees with her decision, is anything but supportive and constantly demonstrates why their marriage is on the rocks.

 

Enter Wayne Largo, Senior Special Agent, who arrives to investigate the incident. Mr. Largo and his partner, Eddie, feel that Slade needs to go undercover in order to nail Jesse for what he has done.

 

Slade never hesitates about reporting the bribe, but is surprised by the fallout. She is implicated as complicit in the very charges she has reported, and nobody is happy about the charges except the investigators. Even they seem to stop believing her version of the events. And the hog farmer knows where she lives.

 

C. Hope Clark delivers a story that includes corruption and greed, a scheme much broader in scope than a mere bribery attempt, kidnapping, tacky affairs, real estate fraud, and renewed interest in the case of Mickey Wilder, another co-worker who had disappeared the year before. Supposed friends turn out to be foes and the office is a hostile environment. Yup, Ms. Slade’s life is rapidly unraveling.

 

Slade’s bad marriage plays a twisty role in the story, not just as background for the character, but along the way brings a serious ring of truth to her inner thoughts. We see Slade shift realistically between hate, anger, disappointment, and frustration over the love that faded long before. We feel her pain at having/needing to end the marriage in order to move into happier/healthier direction. In one of the many moments of clarity about divorce she says, “Nobody wins.”

 

Carolina Slade is a bright, feisty, strong character who is up to everything thrown at her, and C. Hope Clark has wisely written Slade with a bit of vulnerability to soften the snarky retorts that slip out. At one point, her car is rear-ended twice by someone, but she has no proof, did not see the license and she dismisses the federal agents concern with, “Murder? We shared paint. Cut the dramatics.” And yet, her hand is shaking when she tries to use her key.

 

There are several great supporting characters. The bad guys are slimy, nasty and cold to the bone, but we also know that her dad and her best friend will always be there for her. The relationship that develops between Slade and Largo is an interesting one and fun to read as the two people grapple with their emotions.

 

The area of South Carolina in “Lowcountry Bribe” appears desolate, maybe even a bit creepy, at times. What came to mind was how easily somebody could get lost forever, without ever a possibility of being found. Terrific setting for this story.

 

The book is based in part on an actual bribery case in the author’s personal experience, although Ms. Clark has insisted the murders in the novel are fictional.

 

“Lowcountry Bribe” won the Silver Falchion Award at Killer Nashville in 2012 as well as the EPIC award for best mystery.

To read my review of the third book in the Carolina Slade series, "Palmetto Poison," go here.

For more information about C. Hope Clark, her books, and her marvelous Funds for Writers, please visit www.chopeclark.com

 

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“Running from the Devil” by Jamie Freveletti

 

Book Cover - Running from the Devil

 

“Running from the Devil” was Jamie Freveletti’s bestselling debut novel, the first of four (so far) with Emma Caldridge as the terrific lead character.

 

Emma Caldridge, American biochemist and endurance marathon runner, falls asleep on a plane to Bogota, but is rudely awakened when the pilot announces that they should assume crash positions. The plane has been hijacked and it has been ordered toward an airstrip that is too small for the commercial airliner. When the plane crashes, it breaks apart and Emma’s seat lands outside the airliner, away from the others.

 

The survivors are herded together by a poorly trained, badly funded, dangerous group of guerilla fighters, more interested in a quick cash return than in protecting the passengers. The infighting is barely controlled by the leaders, and may be even more hazardous to the hostages than their forced march through the mine-filled jungle.

 

Emma helps a young prisoner escape while attempting to grab some apples and she is helped in turn by an injured passenger, a secret government agent named Cameron Sumner, who distracts the thugs while she runs into the tree line to safety. After the plane is blown up, Emma is forced to follow the survivors through the jungle, rather than waiting to be rescued.

 

What follows is a pulse-pounding page-turner with near misses, communication mishaps, captors turning on each other, land mines exploding and passengers being murdered because they are too weak to keep up. Complicating the plot? Neither Sumner nor Caldridge has revealed the truth about their motives for being in the country. The on again/off again rescue operations by the government agencies as well as the international politics of drugs and oil add to the tension.

 

Caldridge and Sumner are well-drawn, sympathetic, intelligent characters, each up to the physically challenging situations, but forced to rely on each other to make it out alive. Freveletti has woven the positive and negative uses of plants into the storyline, giving us a how-to survival manual along the way – just in case we ever get stuck in the jungle with maniacs.

 

One of the scenes that sticks with me is the early one with Emma crab walking across open ground near the downed jet, then scrambling over truck beds in order to steal apples and a phone. I rooted for Emma through her harrowing, high-risk attempt to grab some kind of food for the trek ahead. The tension was palpable and the reader is made aware just how desperate Emma’s journey will be.

 

A top-flight thriller, a strong female character. While I can’t possibly run 100 miles in the heat, or do some of the other interesting bits I can’t reveal (plot spoiler info), all of what Emma Caldridge pulled off is possible. Whether anyone would ever be asked to do them in the time span that EC had? Well, that’s half the fun of reading a thriller. Pretending that they would.

 

The most recent Emma Caldridge book, “Dead Asleep,” has reached #1 on the Kindle list.

 

In addition to her Emma Caldridge series, Ms. Freveletti has written a novel for the Robert Ludlum books, “Janus Reprisal.”

 

For more information about Ms. Freveletti and her work, please visit www.jamiefreveletti.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Hearse and Buggy” by Laura Bradford

 

Book Cover - Hearse and Buggy

Claire Weatherly has left a fast-paced New York life and a wealthy, absentee husband, to live in a quiet Pennsylvania town in Amish country with her aunt. Aunt Diane runs a bed and breakfast for tourists curious about the Amish and she always knows what’s going on in both English and Amish communities. As Claire settles in to her new, simpler lifestyle, she opens Heavenly Treasures (a gift shop featuring Amish creations), employs Esther (a local Amish girl) and earns the respect of both business owners and Amish alike. After just a few months, Claire is happily rediscovering who she is.

 

A new police detective, Jakob Fisher, comes to town (a detective who is a former member of the Amish community) and heartbreaking secrets are revealed. When Amish friends are cheated, misunderstood, denounced as something other than they seem, accused of murdering the man who cheated them, Jakob is at a loss to investigate, since he has been shunned and the Amish are not allowed to speak to him directly.

 

How will fairness and justice be served? Claire becomes a liaison between Jakob and her Amish friends and is soon actively involved in the pursuit of the truth. What’s at stake is more than catching a killer – trust must be restored between the two communities.

 

Bradford weaves an absorbing look at the Amish culture and value system into the murder investigation. We learn about Ordnung and Rumspringa, about clothing and transportation, as well as the misconceptions outsiders might have. Bradford presents a balanced view, including both defense and criticisms of this way of life, making “Hearse and Buggy” a fascinating read.

 

There are several love stories and family conflicts and surprises in this well-written, character driven cozy. Relationships do not go smoothly for anyone, but resolutions are realistic and satisfying, even when the pairings don’t work out.

 

“Hearse and Buggy” is the first book in the Amish Mystery series, followed by “Assaulted Pretzel.”

 

Visit www.laurabradford.com for more information about Bradford and the Amish Mystery series, as well as other books she writes under a pseudonym.

 

 

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“The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro

 

Book Cover - The Art Forger

Talented artist Claire Roth, makes her living painting copies of old Masters and Impressionists for Reproductions.com. This is a completely legitimate occupation, requiring only that the buyer be made aware that the painting is a reproduction. Starving artists need to pay the rent, so if people want the copies hanging in their homes, Roth is happy to oblige and talented enough to recreate the best.

 

While in grad school, Roth worked with a well-known Boston area artist who took credit for a large piece she painted under his direction. When the canvas was chosen to hang in MoMA, Roth was horrified at his duplicity, publically claimed the work as her own, but was disgraced when she could not prove it. For the next three years, she was a pariah in the art world, barely keeping her head above water, needing the Repro jobs to survive.

 

A Boston gallery owner, Aiden Markel, knows of Roth’s talent despite the scandal, is curious about her status, and sees a Degas copy she is working on. He asks Roth to copy one of the paintings from the Gardner Museum theft. Illegality is discussed, but “there is illegal and there is illegal,” and Markel promises that the Gardner painting will finally be returned to the Museum. It’s all for the greater good.

 

Markel bribes Roth, not with money (although there will be $50K when she completes the painting) but with the chance to work with a genuine Degas, and most importantly, with fame via her own one-woman show that would legitimize her work to the world.

 

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Markel and Roth discuss the feasibility of getting caught with the Degas in their possession, but the very phrase “What’s a promise among thieves?” hints at the heist/con feeling of the book, the danger inherent in every choice that is made to keep the original painting secret.

 

Roth’s talent and training are both her gift and her undoing in this suspenseful mystery. The authentication process of the pieces in “The Art Forger,” both condemns and exonerates her as the story unfolds. We are privy to a fascinating look at how the rarefied art world works and when we read, “People see what they expect to see. Including the experts,” we believe it.

 

Shapiro has the inspired sense to ground the lofty merits of the scheme with the most human of thoughts in Roth’s internal struggle – this down-on-her-luck artist needs a new cellphone and a real bed and wants the red couch that is 70% off down the street. It’s the dream of a lifetime, but after all, Roth eats mac and cheese to subsist, despite the promise of more.

 

Art and museum lovers will revel in the marvelous descriptions of the methods used to create an oil painting, whether Modern or Impressionist or forgery. The techniques, the brush strokes, the materiel, the entire process – all accurately depicted as a result of Shapiro’s extensive research. We feel Roth’s excitement, her aching back, her sweat, while she paints and is swept into the passion of her creations.

 

The real-life theft of the paintings at the Isabelle Gardner museum in Boston (still unresolved over twenty years after the fact) is the underpinning for “The Art Forger” plot. Shapiro has embellished the actual robbery with extra players and weaves a terrific story that kept me spellbound throughout. The FBI, paintings that are not as authentic as they appear, the courts, jail-time, back-stabbing colleagues, a love interest, the remaining descendant of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Museum itself – are masterfully intertwined in this superb New York Times best-seller.

 

One theory posited in the book for the reason that the paintings are still missing is that some were used like ‘blood paintings’ (a la ‘blood diamonds’) as barter for guns or drugs or a hedge against some other deal. In real life, it is thought that some of the paintings may be lost or damaged, gone forever. In any case, despite the statue of limitations having run out, and a $5 million reward, nothing has been found.

 

Click on the link to read about the actual heist:

 

http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2013/march/reward-offered-for-return-of-stolen-gardner-museum-artwork

 

 

Please visit www.bashapirobooks.com for more information about Barbara Shapiro and her work.

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Memory Collector” by Meg Gardiner

 

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Jo Beckett is a forensic psychiatrist who works as a consultant with the San Francisco Police Department to determine the ‘why’ of a crime. In “The Memory Collector,” Beckett is called in to do a psych evaluation when a plane from London lands and one of the passengers will not get off. The crew thinks that Ian Kanan is full-on crazy because one minute he calmly wonders where he is and the next, is completely belligerent.

 

Beckett realizes that Kanan has anterograde amnesia (an actual condition), which keeps him from making new memories. He recalls everything that happened before he got on the plane, knows his trip started in Africa, and believes he might have been poisoned. But, every five minutes his brain resets, he loses his present, and has to be reminded of recent events.

 

Beckett needs to figure it all out before something disastrous happens. Tests reveal that Kanan has something wrong with his brain, but did a virus cause it? Other people who came in contact with him on the plane are behaving erratically as well, but Kanan has an agenda of his own and no interest in helping the police.

 

Corporate greed, a missing family, bio-warfare, and people who are not what they seem, complicate a pulse-pounding race against time. The bad guys become all the more sinister as they coldly discard inconvenient people along the way. There is a lot at stake for all parties concerned, and good or bad, everyone is working hard to reach their goals.

 

Fans of bestselling Meg Gardiner’s strong female leads will enjoy the fully realized Jo Beckett: smart, recently widowed, immersed in her work and good at what she does, a dedicated rock climber, in the beginning stages of moving on as she connects more deeply with Gabe (a search and rescue friend who had informed her of her husband’s death in an earlier book).

 

The supporting cast in “The Memory Collector” – a sister, a hunky almost boyfriend, a truly wacky neighbor, and a testy police investigator – is a group of complex characters that play nicely against Beckett. All can be counted on when she needs their help.

 

I discovered Meg Gardiner during a crime writers’ webinar, where she introduced herself by saying, “I lie for a living.” She is thoroughly charming, funny, and a former California lawyer, now living in London and Texas. The first Gardiner book I picked up was “China Lake,” a chilling tale with Evan Delaney as another convincing  protagonist with her own series, but with a military background. “China Lake” was an Edgar Award winner.

 

Ms. Gardiner can lie to me anytime she likes.

 

Read my review of Ms. Gardiner's "Ransom River" here.

Visit www.meggardiner.com for information about Ms. Gardiner, her various series and stand-alone novels.

 

 

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“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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